Four things about Joshua which I’ve been challenged about (Joshua 10)

Joshua base imageWe are getting towards the end our our series from Joshua and on the whole it seems to have been rewarding.  Normally I write something which extends what I have preached and publish it on Sunday morning.  But this week I want to do a little housekeeping; returning again to a couple of the themes which I have neatly sidestepped by making the land/kingdom connection and thus far I have been able to spiritualise the trickiest elements of Joshua.

A couple of our teenagers asked me yesterday, after Joshua 9, how could God be in control of everything and allow, indeed appear to even instigate, such bloody carnage, ethic cleansing and all around extreme violence.  John Bright, the influential biblical archaeologist, once said of Joshua “You simply cannot preach from this book, and you ought not to teach it to children. Shield our gentle ears from violence such as this!”

So here are my four areas of challenge:

1. Both the OT and the NT speak of “evildoers” worthy of divine destruction. For example, Ps 14:6 and 125:5 expect God’s destruction of other nations, and the prophets say the same of Israel (Isa 13:11; Jer 7:12-15). Jesus condemns the Pharisees for being a ‘brood of vipers’ (Matt 23:33). And the scene of the Great White Throne of judgment portrays a final day of reckoning with eternal destruction a certain outcome for some (Rev 20:11-15).

Final judgement helps to resolve the apparent injustice in the world today.  God does in the end give people their just desserts.  Sodom, Gomorrah (Gen 18—19), Jericho and Hazor are acts of God against the depraved and those who initiated hostilities against Israel. Israel’s northern and southern campaigns (Josh 10 and 11) were in response to those hostile initiatives, not pre-emptive strikes. This fact suggests that the people of ancient Canaan were not simply victims of injustice. At least some of them were God’s opponents.

I’m therefore challenged to remember that God is just and does hold each of us accountable, however uncomfortable that seems.

2. The level of violence in Joshua is still a really tough issue.

Certainly the book of Joshua, including its violence, has lots to teach us. After all it is part of biblical canon. However, what is obvious is that we cannot read Joshua just through the lens of Jesus’ ethical teachings and 21st century sensitivities. The world of Joshua shocks modern readers simply because it lies so far away from us. The ancient and our worlds are truly different.  They have a gaping chasm of three thousand years of cultural change. Our shock is a good thing. Our situation today is totally different from Joshua’s day. We are not part of an ethically defined covenant people entering a promised covenant land the inhabitants of which stand under God’s judgment. In short, there is nothing in these stories which can apply literally today.

Neither do Christians have a "Joshua option" of doing violence in Jesus’ name. Christians cannot resort to violence in support of a Christian cause. Some governments may treat Christians within their borders really badly.  This weekend’s International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church reminds us of that.  But Jesus’ teaching sets aside Joshua’s herem, just as the Kingdom sets aside the geographical land. We are to live in a far different way.  Indeed to love our enemies. The book of Joshua shows us what God did then, not what we should do now.  It is not prescriptive.

As we have seen, those who honour God’s greatness and do not teach Israel idolatry do remain in the land (e.g., Rahab, the Gibeonites). This parallels the Old Testa­ments inclusive themes and prepares the way for the ethnic inclusivity of the gospel (Acts 1:8; Rev 5:9; 14:6). Joshua displays the same mercy and compassion that Christians experience through Jesus Christ.

Curiously, the rest of the OT makes little mention of the herem policy or even Joshua himself. Reviews of Israel’s early history by Samuel (1 Sam 12:9-11), God (Mic 6:5, Jer 2:7), the psalmist (Ps. 105:43-45), and Ezekiel’s vision of restoration (Ez 40-48) make no reference to the conquest. The OT rarely recalls the violent conquest, never glories in its gore, and never promotes it as policy for the future. Only God can authorise what happens in Canaan, and he chose to do so in a specific time and place. Joshua is not named in the list of OT great people of faith in Hebrews 11; Rahab is!

I feel a little better!

3. I am reminded again that God is sovereign! God owns everything. As owner, only he has the authority to decide who may enjoy the use of his property and who may not . Herem is a frightening approach but one by which God, for whatever reason, chose then to exercise his sovereignty.

4. The reason for the annihilation of the Canaanites was that God "harden their hearts".   With hard hearts, they attacked Israel and thus were destroyed by God (Josh 11:20). This is the point one of my teenagers was making.  Isn’t God in control and therefore responsible all along for the violence?

Peter Morris commented on my herem post:

I have always thought that God’s words to Abraham in Genesis 15:16 throws a light on what is happening here. Clearly the Amorites were a decadent people in Abraham’s time. I cannot believe that Sodom and Gomorrah were not mirrored to some degree in the rest of the country. However God still gave the rest of the indigenous population [the Amorites] a further 400 years perhaps like Jonah and Nineveh for real repentance. With child sacrifice, every sort of sexual perversion and [else where we read that Sodom and Gomorrah] neglect of the poor, (Ez 16:49-50), so by the time of Joshua the cup of wickedness was overflowing and the Israelites were the means of God’s promised judgment made to Abraham all those years previously.  

I’m sure Peter is right on this. The moral trail is not:

God (hardens hearts) – Amorites (attacks Israel) – God (destroys), but
Amorites (appalling behaviour cf Gen15:16) – God (hardens hearts) – Amorites (attacks Israel) – God (destroys).

But I’m still a little troubled that Joshua 11 suggest that is was the current military aggression (contrasted with the peace-seeking approach of the people of Gibeon (v19; cf Jos 9)), rather than other moral failure which has caused the the Canaanite destruction. And it seems that had other Canaanites taken the Gibeonite approach, they, too, would have sur­vived!

Ultimately, we find ourselves entering the dark, foggy realm of God’s mysterious nature!  In the end, I’ll hang on to the perspective that God’s preference is for life and blessing over death and destruction (Ez 18:23; 33:11). The cross of Christ shows beyond anything else in history how God can use the most appalling injustice, pain and death to bring about life and blessing.

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