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For Culturally Illiterate Science Reporters, Canaanite DNA Yields Occasion to Slap Bible Around

David Klinghoffer | @d_klinghoffer

Canaanite

Obviously, your friends at Evolution News are not here to do Biblical exegesis. However, when science headlines tendentiously try to manipulate readers in order to slam the Bible, well, that’s fair game.

The science story itself is fascinating and to all appearances solid. Human remains dating to some 3,700 year ago from ancient Canaanites yielded DNA revealing a startling overlap with modern-day Lebanese. The latter thus appear to harbor descendants of the long-ago population (“Continuity and Admixture in the Last Five Millennia of Levantine History from Ancient Canaanite and Present-Day Lebanese Genome Sequences,” American Journal of Human Genetics).

Wow, that is interesting. How will they spin it? The headlines tell the tale:

The only problem with this reporting? The Bible is detailed and unambiguous in relating that the Canaanites survived Joshua’s invasion. So it’s no wonder they have living descendants. I’m not here to pass judgment on ancient Canaanites or ancient Israelites, on the Bible, Joshua, or anyone else. But come on, reporters, where’s your elementary cultural literacy, of which knowing a thing or two about the Bible is a key element?

The first chapter in Judges lists all the places in Israel where the Canaanites persisted, “to this day,” “for they did not drive them out,” “he dwelt among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land,” etc. God is not happy with this, for “they shall be as snares to you, and their gods shall be a trap to you” (2:3). From the Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 1 (“Canaan”), “The persistence of Canaanites within Israelite territory was a theological problem variously addressed by biblical writers.”

The ancient DNA evidence comprises the “complete genomes of five Canaanite individuals who lived almost 4,000 years ago in what’s now the modern-day Lebanese city of Sidon” (Science Daily). Interestingly, the Canaanites in that ancient city are among those that the Bible specifically says lived on (Judges 1:31) to cause serious trouble for the Israelites.

Ars Technica never heard of any of this:

The Canaanites are famous as the bad guys of the Book of Joshua in the Tanakh, or the Hebrew Bible. First, God orders the Hebrews to destroy the Canaanites along with several other groups, and later we hear that the Canaanites have actually been wiped out. [Emphasis added.]

Neither did The Telegraph:

The ancient Canaanites were not wiped out, as the Bible suggests, but went on to become modern-day Lebanese, a study has found.

The article in The Independent even manages to work in a famously obnoxious quote from Richard Dawkins:

It is a command that led the leading atheist Richard Dawkins to claim that the God of the Old Testament was “a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser … a genocidal … megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully”.

For God had ordered the Israelites to slaughter the apparently sinful Canaanites, saying: “You shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them.” And, according to the Bible, they did just that.

However, a new genetic study has found that the Canaanites actually managed to survive this purge of their traditional homeland, passing on their DNA over the centuries to their numerous descendants in modern-day Lebanon.

Even the reputable journal Science, in a reporting article, had to backtrack with an editor’s correction, blandly styled as an “update”:

This story and its headline have been updated to reflect that in the Bible, God ordered the destruction of the Canaanites, but that some cities and people may have survived.

Not “may have survived.” In the Bible’s account, they definitely survived, in large numbers. The original headline? “Ancient DNA counters biblical account of the mysterious Canaanites.” It should be, “Ancient DNA confirms biblical account…”

No doubt about it, the war against the Canaanites is among the most politically incorrect narrative elements in the whole of Scripture. That it was incompletely carried out is attested to by the Bible, and now demonstrated by modern genetic analysis. That’s news, whether your interest is religion or science. Who will tell the reporters?

Photo: Remains of an ancient Canaanite from Sidon, by Dr. Claude Doumet-Serhal, via Science Daily.