We move away from the Torah and into the collection of books known in the Hebrew Bible as the Former Prophets – Joshua – 2 Kings. These books contain the history of Israel, from entry into the land to exile from the land. They show the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy working out in the life of the people.
They are history, but not as we would tell history. They are a combination of records and stories, stories of the key characters involved, told in a gripping and engaging way.
Joshua is the story of the people’s entry into the land. It tells of victory in conquest, and of promises fulfilled. And yet it is a book that has given readers through the centuries difficulties with its account of God’s command to completely destroy the Canaanites being fulfilled at different points by Israel. Worse still it has even given some readers justification for dispossessing natives of various lands (in North America, South Africa, Ireland, South America and Christian Zionist supporters – although intriguingly I believe it has not been used by Jewish Zionists in the actual history of modern Israel).
Below I’ll give some links to various resources to help think this issue through and to justify the next couple of sentences. I think the first thing to bear in mind is that God’s command to place the Canaanites under ‘herem‘ (the word usually translated ‘devote to God by completely destroying’) is more to do with making sure that Israel stay completely away from Canaanite religion then meaning that every single Canaanite had to be completely destroyed. It is worth noting that in Jeremiah Nebuchadnezzar is described as carrying out herem on Israel and the surrounding nations when he carries Israel into exile.
Also vital to bear in mind when reading Joshua is that the picture of complete and total victory in obedience to Yahweh that we might get at first glimpse is complicated by stories that do not reflect so well on Israel, and that challenge our understanding of who is in, and who is out.
The first Canaanite we meet is Rahab, an ‘inn-keeper/prostitute’ who harbours two Israelite spies. Why does Joshua need spies we wonder, when the last Israelite spy mission did not exactly go well? And why are they at Rahab’s? Whatever the answer to those questions it becomes clear that Rahab has a model understanding of God’s work. She and her family come under the protection of Israel and Israel’s God.
Just before the battle of Jericho, Joshua meets a mysterious warrior figure, who it seems is actually the angel of the LORD, a visible representation of God’s presence. Asked whose side he belongs to the warrior replies ‘no – but as the captain of the LORD’s armies I have come’. The question is not whether God is on our side, but whether we are on his.
After Jericho we have the episode of Achan’s sin, where an Israelite comes under the curse. A Canaanite has effectively become an Israelite, and now an Israelite becomes a Canaanite. Then it is Israel’s protection of the Gibeonites, because of the Gibeonites crafty deception, that triggers more conflicts in the land.
The story of Joshua is not as simple as ‘destroy all the Canaanites’. Rather it is about Israel entering the land God had promised, and seeing that others can be part of that if they act in line with God’s promises – and equally that Israel will forfeit the land if they start to act like Canaanites.
It is about Israel entering the land so that they can show that the land is a taste of what God intends for all creation. After the action of the first 11 chapters or so comes the second half of the book which seems much less interesting as it describes the apportioning of land, and the success or failure of individual tribes. At the heart of this section though comes a key verse:
Then the whole congregation of the people of Israel assembled at Shiloh and set up the tent of meeting there. The land lay subdued before them.Joshua 18:1
The tent of meeting, the tabernacle has somewhere to rest. Then the word ‘subdued’ echoes the command to people given in Genesis 1. One commentator writes these key words:
‘Israel’s possession of Canaan, therefore, together with its presence before God in worship, has a significance far beyond itself, for it stands as a symbol and promise of the human fulfilment of its mandate to “subdue the earth”, namely to bring it to that ordering and completion that God’s creative purposes intended for it.’Gordon McConville – Joshua (Two Horizons)
That promise and mandate is brought to full fulfilment in the NT with the coming of Jesus – whose name is simply the Greek spelling of Joshua. No-where makes this clearer than Hebrews 4. The writer of the Hebrews speaks of a rest that remains for us to enter – the people did not enjoy the rest in the land that Joshua offered in the OT because of their disobedience – but that rest remains on offer for us through the work of Jesus, the second Joshua.
He offers rest for us – a rest from our work that begins now with the work of the Spirit applying Jesus work to us, and will be completed when Jesus returns to bring in the New Creation, of which the land in Joshua is a foretaste.
So as we read Joshua we can read and apply the lessons from Israel’s physical warfare to our spiritual warfare – a battle that as Paul points out is not against flesh and blood:
12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.Ephesians 6:12-13
When we do that Joshua reminds us to keep on trusting God’s promises. To remember what God has done for us, and build memorials to that into our lives (Chapters 3-4). It reminds us to go about God’s work, trusting his instructions, even if that doesn’t make much immediate sense (Joshua 5-6). It reminds us that God is holy, and gives commands for a reason (chapter 7). It offers us a fantastic example of persistent faith to emulate (read about Caleb in Joshua 14), and calls us to wholehearted devotion for ourselves (read chapters 23-24).
My favourite commentary on Joshua is by Gordon McConville and Stephen Williams in the Two Horizons series – it is a good commentary on the text, and has some good discussion of the key issues.
The commentary I would recommend to anyone reading Joshua for the first time is Dale Ralph Davis’ “No falling words” – his commentaries on the historical books of the OT are excellent.
Also useful is Hess in the Tyndale series.
I’ve done some work on Joshua – see here: https://www.bibleforlife.co.uk/book/joshua/
On the whole issue of genocide in Joshua here are some links to look at:
This is a link to the last of a six-part series by Matt Lynch of Westminster Theological Centre. All six are worth reading and pondering for their insights, and they contain useful pointers for thinking further.
For a review of John Walton’s The Lost World of The Conquest see this series here:
This is a really thorough summary and review of John Walton’s book – which looks well worth a read (although it isn’t an easy read by all accounts) in itself.
God behaving Badly – David Lamb – a nice introduction to some of the tricky issues people often have with the Old Testament: God’s attitude to violence, women and the way God seems to change his mind. He is really good at pointing us back to what the text actually says. He helps to show how we can make sense of these stories.
The God I don’t understand – Chris Wright – two chapters of the book deal with violence and the Old Testament in again a very helpful and pastoral way.
Another useful article is here (I’d like to change the order of it around somewhat, but the content is helpful, especially if you keep reading through the article).