Thoughts on the violence in Joshua

8 August 2020

Pastor Steven Tran


Venturing through Joshua, we have now hit some hard territory. The story has taken some graphic turns and we’ve probably realised that those Sunday School stories we learnt so long ago conveniently glossed over some uncomfortably difficult verses, like the following:

“…and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.” (Deuteronomy 7:2)

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. (Joshua 6:21)

It is verses like these, and other narratives in which the people of Canaan are supposedly wiped out, which have caused a great deal of angst and heaped accusations against the Bible and Christians. The question which constantly resounds: How can a loving, gracious, and merciful God command His people to annihilate not only the men but also the women and children of the land.

The question cuts deeply because as we read the narratives it certainly appears that God did command this and that it did happen. So, how do we tackle the difficulties that these passages present for us?

Before we go any further

It’s worth stating now that this short article is not going to be a perfect knock down satisfying answer to this problem. That is, I don’t think there’s any one particular answer which will completely resolve the tension that is within scripture on this issue. It is similar to the question of suffering in general. The Bible offers us some answers (sometimes satisfying for some) but it is still a work of the Spirit to take those answers within the context of the gospel of Jesus to convince and reassure the heart on big issues like these. Each person will grapple with these issues and the Bible’s answers in different ways and in differing times. My prayer for all of us is that God will keep taking even our good and deeply held questions/concerns, bring them to the cross where we are invited to wrestle with God for answers, and humbly yield to what scripture says.

It is my prayer that the death and resurrection of Jesus will anchor the answers we find and how we might respond to others with similar questions.

And also note, this answer will be geared towards helping Christians understand this topic. There are many good resources (listed at the end) for further reading.

In order to tackle this big topic, I’ll do so using a series of subheadings.

1. Reading the Bible well

The first thing we should tackle is perhaps unhelpful assumptions about how we should read the Bible. The Bible can often be treated as a manual on how to live and Old Testament stories are examples for us to follow. As though the reader is meant to put themselves directly into the shoes of the main character of the moment and follow their example.

The obvious difficulty with assuming the Bible is to be read in this way is when we encounter these passages commanding the annihilation of the Canaanites. We end up ignoring or explaining away how we should interpret and apply those passages and open ourselves up for the right criticism that our interpretation of scripture is relatively arbitrary. I interpret it this way or that based on my feelings towards this part of the Bible.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been reminded that narratives are to be read differently than, say, epistles. When we read narrative, we are first reading something being described rather than something being prescribed. The stories are telling us what happened rather than first telling us what we should do.

2. A restricted command

Coupled with a reading of Joshua in this way is the fact that the commandment to take the land and ‘devote to destruction’ its inhabitants is both a time and location restricted command. This command was not a blank cheque for Israel to march through the world taking whatever land they wished – it was a command restricted to a time and place. Joshua is given this command, but subsequent leaders and kings are never given any similar commands in such sweeping ways to take other land.

This point demonstrates that the taking of the land has more to do with God keeping his Word (to give his people the promised land) rather than a sweeping command for future generations to heed.

3. Purity of Worship, Protection of the People, Promotion of Yahweh

As we consider the particular details of the Joshua conquest, we also note a few other things. For instance, it isn’t just the people who are to be devoted to destruction, but also the idols in the land. False gods and idols, if left, would eventually pollute Israel and cause the Israelites to go astray. The book of Judges, following Joshua, makes this point clear. Israel’s failure to truly get rid of the inhabitants of the land as well as their idols (and ‘high places’) becomes a thorn in the side of Israel, and ultimately a stumbling block.

The conquest of the land is also done in part to protect the people of Israel. Assume for a moment that God sent them in with more modern sensibilities and values, brought them in peacefully and perhaps went about negotiating terms with the inhabitants of the land. Remember that the inhabitants did not follow these rules, nor were they obligated to. In a chaotic time, the Israelites would not have found anywhere to live as each Canaanite tribe would compete among themselves to enslave them. Going in and wiping out the inhabitants would protect the fledgling nation.

In the light of this the conquest also seems to be shaped and presented in a way to demonstrate the superiority of Yahweh. Not only for Israel’s benefit, but also the world watching on. Yahweh was going to lead his people, and the other nations would come to know that Yahweh was ‘God of heaven and of earth’ (cf Joshua 2:11).

4. Canaan’s judgement

But why Canaan? Why were they singled out?

Part of the answer comes in Genesis 15. God reiterates his promise to Abraham that he will indeed be the father of a huge nation, and his offspring will eventually inherit the land presently owned by the Canaanites. However, there is going to be a 400-year gap for this reason:

“And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Genesis 15:16)

The iniquity, or sin, of the Amorites (Canaanites) is not yet complete. God is saying that the Canaanites have 400 years before he will bring judgement upon them. For what? For things like:

  • Idolatry (Exodus 23:24, Deuteronomy 12:30)
  • Incest (Leviticus 18:6)
  • Adultery (Leviticus 18:20)
  • Child sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21,
  • Deuteronomy 12:31)
  • Homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22)
  • Bestiality (Leviticus 18:23)
  • Divination, fortune telling, sorcery, charmers, mediums, necromancers (Deuteronomy 18:10-11)

This is a list of their more well-known and abominable sins. God uses Israel, under Joshua’s leadership, as his arm of justice upon the Canaanites.

5. Seriousness of Sin

The idea that God would use his people as an instrument of his judgement can cause, even within Christians, a strong visceral reaction. We’re not comfortable with that idea.

But can I ask why? Is it possible that part of our discomfort is owing to the fact that we do not take sin seriously and do not believe that God is as holy as he says he is?

The serious weight of sin cannot be underestimated. It is an absolute affront to God. It is deeply, disgustingly, and profoundly offensive to him.

We have a wickedly remarkable ability to minimise our true sinful nature and the offensiveness of sin to God. If we are uncomfortable with the idea that God would judge Canaan for their sins – and as listed above they are clearly wicked – we must ask if our view of sin and humanity is informed by scripture or if our view of sin and humanity has been shaped more by our world.

6. Canaan’s hardness of heart

The book of Joshua also reminds us of the sinful nature and hardness of hearts of the inhabitants. In Joshua 11:19-20 the destruction comes upon Canaan in part because they have hardened their hearts towards God and Israel.

Remember the following which has already been established. The nations already knew what had happened to Israel before they cross the Red Sea. They had heard of their destruction of Sihon and Og – two formidable and sizeable kings. Jericho had 6 full days to open negotiations with Israel – they chose to hide behind their walls. The other nations and cities were also clearly aware that Israel was on the march.

But instead of bowing before Israel and Yahweh, they chose to fight. Their hardness of heart led them to further sin.

7. But what about the children?

Sin is serious and it must be judged.

That said, it’s often asked why children are caught up in being ‘devoted to the edge of the sword’. As a father of three remarkably beautiful and adorable children I feel the weight of this question deeply as I read these texts.

As a father of three I can also assure you that children are not perfectly innocent. Even at the age of two the direct rebelliousness of a child is self-evident.

But children are unable to protect themselves. So, we feel an appropriate discomfort at this thought.

This is probably one of the most difficult questions to answer about the violence we see in a book like Joshua. There are no easy answers.

Yet the following points are helpful to keep in mind.

8. God is God, and we are not

There is always a danger when it comes to our questions that we can begin to become lord and judge over scripture. However, the Bible reminds us in no uncertain terms where we stand before God.

God is the creator of all. As maker, sustainer, and ruler over all of things God has absolute rights of ownership over all people and places.

God cannot be held to the standards and desires of sinners. He doesn’t owe us anything.

That is a humbling truth.

When it comes to the lives of the Canaanites, and their children, God is the sovereign ruler who is free to choose when to give and take life. As such, we need to be very careful in asking God ‘What are you doing?!’ (cf Job 9:12)

9. Everyone will face judgement one day

That said, the narrative in Joshua remains quite stark. But consider that the narrative was meant to be read that way. I think we are meant to recoil in horror that even children are swept up in the judgement of God.

That is the weighty shock of judgement itself. Consider that Joshua was primarily read by Israel – so these chapters of conquest are not only a confirmation of God’s victory on behalf of his people, but also a warning that judgement is terribly weighty. They serve as a warning that those who are not faithful, those who oppose God, will face the sword of God’s justice (eg Achan in Joshua 7).

As Christians reading this passage today, we also feel the horror of reading passages like this. There may be little that we can do to soften this blow.

As Christians we also know that there is also still something more terrible yet to come. Something of greater horror than death. Eternal judgement from God.

The carnage of these Old Testament passages is horrific, yet as those who have the entire storyline of the Bible revealed to us, we know that the lake of fire and eternal separation from God is infinitely weightier.

May that propel our evangelism and sharing of the good news of Jesus even further.

10. There is always mercy for those who call upon Yahweh

Because only receiving, accepting and trusting the good news of God’s mercy to unbelievers will save them.

And we see this also within Joshua. There is mercy for those who call upon Yahweh. Rahab and her extended family (which probably included children) are saved because she recognised who Yahweh was, recognised that judgement was coming, and ‘switched sides’.

In Joshua 9 we see of another group of people, the Gibeonites who also recognise Yahweh, recognise that judgement is coming, but deceptively switch sides. More will be said about their deception later, but it is enough for our consideration that the Gibeonites did whatever they could to escape the coming judgement.

For us there is no need to use deceptive means to escape judgement. The escape is now given to us in Christ. The good news of which can be preached to and understood by everyone – old and young.

11. Jesus secures our true land of rest, so we don’t need to fight for it

The final point for consideration on this big and lengthy topic is Jesus. Jesus truly makes a world of difference in knowing how to understand the question of how we view the violence in the Old Testament.

The gospel sheds light for us on God’s ultimate solution to keeping his promises. In Joshua violence was required as a judgement and protection of his people. In the gospel God keeps all his good promises by allowing violence to be perpetrated against his Son.

Jesus brings an end to the bloodshed.

Now, this is no comment on whether Christians should or shouldn’t participate in war today. More must be said on positions like Christian pacifism – that is for another day.

But what Jesus helps us understand with respect to the violence in the Old Testament is that God’s promises being fulfilled in Jesus change the way we look at our world.

Christians are God’s people – but our promised land of rest is not a physical land (let alone the country we happen to be living in). The promised land of rest for us in the new heavens and the new earth – a land which is secured by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and a land which will one day appear at Jesus’ second coming.

There is therefore no command or motivation for Christians to ‘fight’ to secure a land. That battle has already been won in Jesus. Instead, Jesus calls us to a radically new action:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:43–45)

For further reading

 ‘Sex and Violence in the Bible’ by Joseph W. Smith III – reviewed by The Gospel Coalition positively:

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