I Dug Deeper and No Longer Believe Joshua is a Book About Genocide

For the longest time, I struggled with the Book of Joshua. I thought it was a book about genocide mainly because that’s how most people, even many Christians, described it. One of the most complex parts of the book is how violent it is and how this reflects on God’s character. After all, it was in Leviticus (19:18) that God commanded Israel to love their neighbor as themselves. Jesus reiterates this too, so how do we face the rampant violence in the book?

I am wholly unsatisfied with Reformed theology’s explanation of the matter–the sovereignty of God and how we shouldn’t question what he does. Well, even that’s not biblical. People throughout the Old Testament question God, not to challenge his authority, but to understand.

I’ve read that “God so loved the world,” and “God is love.” That doesn’t seem very loving at all. That’s the kind of thing Zeus or Mars would have done. That sounds like a schizophrenic person. The first thing I admitted was that God IS love and that I must be misunderstanding the matter. Rather than laying my emotions on God, I put them on myself and decided I was wrong. That led me to a deeper study.

First, if we consider that Abraham lived around 2100 BC, we can place the mercy and longsuffering of God within a 700-year period. God promised the land to Abraham, but when he did, the sins of the Amorites weren’t complete (Gen. 15:16). God’s judgment/conquest of the land wasn’t something that he just planned at the last minute. He, in his omniscience, knew it would come to this. Yet, 700 years should be enough time for people to get their act together (cf. Deut. 9:5). Sadly, they did not, so God ordered their utter destruction (Deut. 7:1–2; 20:16–18). 

Second, we observe that God would preempt removing people from the land. He didn’t intend those folks’ complete extermination or annihilation, and Scripture states as much. God promised to send pestilence to the land before the conquest to drive them out little by little (Exod. 23:28–30; Deut. 7:22–24). He wanted to drive them out (Deut. 9:4), but if any remained, they would be destroyed. 

Third, archaeology has demonstrated something: cities like Jericho and Ai weren’t civilian centers but military outposts. Archaeology also discloses that the towns and cities in Canaan were nearly uninhabited in the period we believe the conquest occurred—the thirteenth century. Plus, after the “conquest,” we observe Canaanites living among the Israelites. The book of Judges points out how this cohabitation was problematic for Israel.     

Fourth, Israel was commanded to offer peace terms before battle (Deut. 20:10–13). Only the Hivites of Gibeon accepted the peace terms, but everyone else did not (Josh. 11:19). 

Fifth, not everything we read should be taken literally. This is often an error when reading the Bible, but ancient battle narratives were not written like modern books of history. Ancient war narratives contained battle idioms. When someone says, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” we know not to take that literally. The understanding is that the rain is heavy. Another part of ancient battle narratives is an exaggeration. While we expect a level of accuracy that conforms to journalistic standards, ancient writers wrote for literary effect. We might think of it, sometimes, as talking trash. Another example is how Joshua uses language to state that they took all the land, defeated all the kings, and utterly destroyed the Canaanites. The point was that God had exerted complete control over the land. As you read through Joshua, he often says that Canaanites still lived in the land.

Author: Steven

Minister at Glendale Road Church of Christ (Murray, KY)

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