‘What Happened to Him?’ Reading the Dark Side of Joshua

After helping my four-year-old daughter brush teeth and get into pyjamas, we climbed into bed for storytime. One of the books we read was called ‘Joshua and the Wall.’ An illustration shows three city guards looking down from the top of the wall of Jericho at Joshua. Israelite soldiers are depicted below marching around the city while blowing trumpets. One of the city guards looked angry but the other two looked scared. On the next page, we see the walls tumbling down and the book finishes by saying, ‘God helped his people enter the Promised Land.’ 

But instead of moving on to the next book, my daughter turned back to the page with the guards, pointed to the one of the ones who looked scared and asked, ‘What happened to him?’

Should we be disturbed by a God who judges?

As we go through the book of Joshua, we tend to cling to verses like Joshua 1.9: ‘Be strong and courageous, do not be terrified or discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.’ We praise Joshua for his faith and obedience. We see his example and want to be strong and courageous and do whatever God calls us to do. However, we don’t often linger over verses like Joshua 6.21 which tells us what Israel did to the people of Jericho: ‘Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.’  

It is not just the taking of Jericho where we find this utter destruction of Canaanites. Chapters 10-12 show that Israel conquered and put to the sword more than 31 kings and their peoples. We hear phrases like, ‘He left none remaining,’ ‘he struck with the sword every person in it,’ ‘He devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the LORD God of Israel commanded.’  

As we go through our sermon series on Joshua, many of us will be understandably disturbed by this depiction of God, perhaps all the more so given the recent news reports out of Israel. Ruth Perrin helpfully pointed out in her sermon on Joshua 6 that the Bible called for a code of ethics during warfare long before the Geneva Convention of 1949 (see Deuteronomy 20.1-20).

I confess, however, that, personally, I have never been deeply disturbed by this dark side of the conquest story and yet neither have I had a very satisfying explanation for it. I have read articles written by sharp scholars who have taken much more time than I have to tackle the issue and I have found many points in their work which help to frame the discussion. I will mention some of these points below along with a short list of different approaches people have taken. But while these works have certainly refined my thinking, nothing has made me say, ‘Aha! That’s the answer! Tick, issue resolved.’ 

Why did God pronounce judgment on Canaan?

So is it wrong for me not to be deeply disturbed by all this and yet not to have a very satisfactory explanation for it? I don’t think so. In the first place, neither the Old nor the New Testament is embarrassed by Joshua’s taking of the Promised Land. The rest of the Bible is not rushing to cover it up or explain it away. Secondly, while I recognize that the killing of men, women and children is horrific, I also believe that God is just. In his justice he doomed the people of Canaan to utter destruction. Why?

The Bible provides some explanation. In Genesis 15 God tells Abraham that his descendants would return to the land of Canaan in 400 years when the sin of the Canaanites had reached its full measure. And so, while the people of Israel multiplied in Egypt, the sin of the Canaanites multiplied in the Promised Land. Leviticus and Deuteronomy tell us that the people of Canaan participated in gross sexual immorality and even went so far as to burn their children in the fire as sacrifices to their gods (Leviticus 18; Deuteronomy 9.5; 12.31; 18.10). Though God had borne with the mounting sin of these people for over 400 years, his long-suffering eventually came to an end. I wonder if God ever reached out to them? Did he send them prophets? Give them signs? Warnings? We are not told. That is not part of Israel’s story. 

What we are told is that, having been delivered from slavery in Egypt and having grown in number, the people of Israel are told to return to the Promised Land and to exterminate all the inhabitants, making no covenant with them and showing them no mercy (Deuteronomy 7). Israel is told to take this approach to avoid the possibility of intermarrying with the people of the land, serving their gods and so ultimately being destroyed by God. In Deuteronomy 20, they are given one set of rules for warfare against enemy peoples outside the Promised Land and another set of rules for those living within the Promised Land. For peoples outside the Promised Land, they are to offer terms of peace and if the offer of peace is refused, they are to enter into battle and only kill the men but spare the women and children. However, for peoples inside the Promised Land, no offer of peace is to be issued. Instead, they are directed to ‘save alive nothing that breathes.’ 

Joshua carries out this extermination at Jericho as well as a number of other cities in the Promised Land and this is presented within the first half of the book of Joshua as faithful obedience. However, if we go on to read the second half of the book, we find in Joshua 13-24 that the Israelites did not completely destroy the people of Canaan as they were commanded. Many cities and peoples remained and the Israelites dwelt together with them in the land. As God had warned, the people of Israel ended up intermarrying with the Canaanites and worshiping their gods. For this reason, following the death of Joshua, God determined that he would no longer drive out the Canaanites who had remained in the land (Judges 2.20-21). As we read through the history of Israel, we find that intermarriage with the Canaanites and the worship of Canaanite gods continued generation after generation and this unfaithfulness was borne by God for about 400 years. Nevertheless, his long-suffering eventually came to an end. Though God sent them prophets who performed signs and delivered warnings, they were ultimately destroyed. The land vomited them out, as it did to the Canaanites before them.  

When I consider this broader Old Testament narrative, I hear two primary reasons why the Canaanites were meant to be utterly destroyed. In the first, their sin had reached a tipping point. God determined that their judgment would be utter destruction. Secondly, they were meant to be utterly destroyed because if they were not, they would seduce God’s people to go after other gods, which is exactly what happens as the broader narrative plays out. 

Justifiable explanations?

How ‘satisfying’ are these reasons for God’s judgment to you? Do you feel that they provide adequate justification for the killing of men, women and children in Jericho? Or are you left unsettled? Many who read the book of Joshua and are aware of the scriptural and theological explanations but nevertheless remained unsettled for a number of reasons. I will mention two. 

Firstly, some feel unsettled because the account of the conquest of Canaan has been used to justify genocide today. All commentators that I have read admit this is a danger but view it as a misreading and misappropriation of the text. Some explain this by pointing to the fact that Israel did not use extermination as an ongoing practice. It was only sanctioned by God in the period associated with Moses and Joshua (and then in the time of Saul in connection with the Amalekites, as a piece of unfinished business.) In other words, it was context-specific and limited to that particular moment in history. Others argue that it is a misunderstanding to use the text to justify genocide today because it never really happened. The tale of the conquest is understood as something of a historical parable meant to teach Israel the importance of holiness and separation from idolatry. While I would agree that it surely teaches that, I am not persuaded that Joshua should be taken as a parable. 

Secondly, others feel unsettled because they seem to have a no-win choice. In his commentary on Joshua, Gordon McConville suggests that readers often feel that they must choose between the authority of Scripture and the character of God. Some choose to protect the authority of Scripture by saying that God did command the slaughter of the Canaanites and so put God’s reputation under a black cloud. Others insist that no such black cloud should pass over his character and so reject the scripture that says it. Of course, as Christians we want to uphold both. Some will seek to do this by taking the literary approach discussed above, viewing the conquest narrative as something of a historical parable. Because a parable is meant to teach a point and not primarily to describe events that happened in the past, some argue it is not a rejection of Scripture to deny that God commanded the slaughter of the Canaanites. Approached from this angle, one could retain the important message of holiness and separation from idolatry without endangering God’s character or rejecting Scripture. However, as I have said above, I am not persuaded that the conquest narrative should be read as a parable. 

God’s heart: just… but also heavied and torn

McConville himself says that God really did command the slaughter of the Canaanites but adds that too often those who uphold the authority of Scripture in this way do so simply with a cold affirmation of the right of God to bring judgment. Without denying this, he argues that God’s heart in the matter must be understood. Following the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, the earth descended into bloodshed until the violence and wickedness of humanity reached epic proportions and grieved God’s heart so deeply that he was sorry that he had made them on the earth. In deeply pained reaction, God brought the waters of the flood and wiped out men, women and children. Nevertheless, the prophets looked forward to a time when swords would be beaten into ploughshares. In short, God abhors violence and is ultimately committed to bringing in a time of everlasting peace. But ‘if and where God ever commands what he abhors, we may be sure that he does so with a heavy heart and as the alternative to wiping out evil and suffering at a stroke, on the one hand, and turning his back on it so that it follows its own godless course, on the other.’ Therefore, the annihilation of the people of Canaan must be understood as ‘part of a whole concessionary scheme of operation, an accommodation to the fact of rampant evil which he detests but has not abolished.’

I find McConville’s point to be helpful. I believe God did command the destruction of the Canaanites. My primary reason for feeling that I don’t put the reputation of God under a dark cloud in affirming this is because I believe that God has the right to mete out judgment as he determines. Whether I can explain or defend his justice is not as important as my belief that he has the right to do it. However, even as I affirm the point, I am aware that it is difficult to accept and digest. It is justice but it feels painfully lofty and cold. But McConville’s point that God may have done it as a concession to reckless evil and with a heavy heart, does help my unease. 

More than that, it points me to the cross, where God ultimately poured out his judgment and wrath upon his only son, Jesus, Yeshua… ‘Joshua.’ This divine Joshua is committed to justice and as a warrior, he will ultimately crush evil. But he is also long-suffering and his ultimate conquest involves  sending his son, born of a woman, to take the judgment upon himself. 

Tom Judge is Chaplain to Postgraduates and Internationals at King’s.  He also teaches Hebrew at Durham University, where he received his doctorate in Old Testament for his study of the relationship between the worship of other gods and the worship of idols.  He and his wife Catherine have two beautiful daughters.  

Image from Wikimedia Commons