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The Problem of Warfare in the Book of Joshua

This post is excerpted from Lissa Wray Beal’s commentary on Joshua in The Story of God Bible Commentary and her video lectures on Joshua.

Warfare in Joshua, the call for total destruction of the inhabitants, and the dispossession of the inhabitants makes this a reprehensible book for many. It is in these aspects of Joshua that the cultural distance between the ancient and modern world is especially felt.

The pattern of warfare in Joshua is intimately connected to its religious life, as is the case for warfare throughout the ancient Near East. War was undertaken by peoples on the understanding that their god fought on their behalf and in this respect, ancient Near Eastern warfare was considered holy or religious war. This orientation is apparent in three aspects of Israel’s battles: its preparation for war, its conduct of war, and its rituals and requirements following war.

  • In preparation for warfare, Israel’s engagement was to be by God’s direction, for he was the leader of Israel’s army. God could fight as a warrior on Israel’s behalf (Exod 14:14), but he could also command Israel to not fight (1 Kgs 12:22–24). Engagement with the inhabitants of Canaan came under God’s decree (Deut 7:1–2) and God’s oversight, and direction in battle is clearly seen before the engagement at Jericho (5:13–6:5), Ai (8:1–2), and the northern coalition (11:6). Israel might also prepare for war through oracular discernment (Judg 20:18–28; 1 Kgs 20:13–14). Because ancient warfare involved the gods and was conceived as a holy activity, it required consecration and purity of the participants (Deut 23:9–14; Josh 3:5; 2 Sam 11:8–13) and observance of covenantal requirements such as circumcision (Josh 5:2–9) and sacrifice (1 Sam 13:7–12; 2 Kgs 3:26–27).
  • In divinely sanctioned battle, God fought on Israel’s behalf. Therefore, Israel’s trust was not to be in horses or chariots but in God’s name (Ps 20:7). Repeatedly, Israel won battles against great odds (Josh 11:4; Judg 7:1–8, 12; 1 Kgs 20:26–28) and through weakness (Judg 6:14–16). Israel would march into battle singing praise (2 Chr 20:20–23) and carrying the ark, the symbol of God’s presence in their midst (Num 10:3–56; Josh 6:3–5; 2 Sam 11:11). The battle involved not only earthly combatants but heavenly armies (Josh 5:13–15; 2 Kgs 6:17), and nature itself fought on behalf of God’s people (Josh 10:11–14; Judg 5:20–21).
  • After the battle, Israel praised God, acknowledging victory belonged to him (Exod 15:1–18; Judg 5:1–31). Further acknowledgement of God’s victory was evident in the disposition of the plunder. Plunder could be divided among the Israelites (Deut 20:14; Josh 8:27; Judg 5:30; 1 Sam 27:9), but it could also be dedicated to God for holy use. This was known as the herem, the total dedication to God of plunder, people, or livestock (Deut 20:17; Josh 6:24). When plunder was involved, it was dedicated to the Lord’s use. When people within the cities of the promised land were taken, they were killed (Lev 27:29; Josh 6:21) out of concern that they might lead Israel into idolatry (Deut 20:18).

The herem command was included in legislation that anticipated warfare as part of Israel’s experience (“when you go to war . . .” [Deut 20:1]) and is often translated as “total destruction” (Deut 7:2; 20:17). The practice was not legislated as part of Israelite warfare outside of the promised land (Deut 20:10–15) nor did it legislate complete annihilation of all people in the promised land. Inhabitants did survive Israelite battle (Josh 10:36–39 compared with 15:13–15; 1 Kgs 9:21), and, rather than total destruction of all inhabitants, the aim may have been to destroy or cripple any sense of national identity.

3 reasons the command of total destruction is not the same as genocide

The herem command was not a general call to wipe out all the inhabitants in the land, for three reasons:

First, it is true that the command to “destroy them totally” in Deuteronomy 7:2 does not limit the action to cities. Immediately following the command in Deuteronomy 7:2, Israel is prohibited from ongoing interactions with the Canaanites (v. 3). This is very odd if verse 2 intended the utter destruction of all inhabitants. A likely scenario is that the command in Deuteronomy 7:2 focused on cities (as occurred in Joshua), leaving alive those inhabitants who fled to the surrounding countryside and villages. It is ongoing interaction with the remaining population that verse 3 prohibits.

Second, entry to the land did not envision total destruction of all the population. This is apparent from the many texts that speak of God “driving out” the inhabitants. Yet this action was also incomplete for God vowed he would not drive them out all at once, lest the “land . . . become desolate and the wild animals too numerous” (Exod 23:29–30; Deut 7:22). Instead, Israel would dwell among the Canaanites. As Israel increased, it would take the land over time.

Third, the hyperbolic nature of ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts aligns with the above evidence that the herem command was not genocidal in its scope. For example, the ninth century BC Moabite Stele, is particularly illustrative of the point:

Israel has utterly perished forever. . . . I fought against [Nebo] from the break of dawn until noon; and I took it; and I killed everyone in it, seven thousand men and women, both natives and aliens, and female slaves; because I had dedicated [the word uses the same root as in herem] it to Ashtar- Chemosh [the Moabite god].

The stele describes a battle in which Israel is said to have “utterly perished forever” and in which “everyone” was killed because they had been “dedicated” (using the same word that underlies herem). The account’s intentional hyperbole is clear, for Israel did not utterly perish. It remained after this battle concluded.

It is inaccurate, then, to charge the text with describing genocide, for neither the text’s claims nor the ancient Near Eastern context supports such a conclusion. Warfare in Joshua, even with the herem command, does not empty the land completely or destroy all the inhabitants. God went ahead of Israel to drive out the inhabitants, and Israelite action was directed against the cities. Not all the inhabitants were killed, and even in the face of “utter destruction” of cities, survivors remained. Israel’s possession of the land was accomplished over several years while Israel dwelt in the midst of the remaining Canaanite inhabitants.

How to reconcile warfare in Joshua with “Love your enemies”

How should the text be read in light of the New Testament? Does it paint a portrait of God at odds with Jesus’ command to “love your enemies,” do good, turn the other cheek, and be merciful (Matt 5:43–44; Luke 6:27–36)? Does the text in any way provide a paradigm for action today?

First, this challenge can be addressed through consideration of the text’s command for herem. Despite the limited character of herem as described above, it still portrays God as commanding the death of at least some of the inhabitants.

Perhaps a way forward begins by acknowledging the challenge the command presents. It can be hard to accord with other texts that speak of God’s love and mercy. In this, the command does remind us that God’s ways are not ours.

It seems that much of the difficulty is tied to one’s starting point: if it is assumed that humans are good and deserving, then the command, as well as God’s decision to remove the inhabitants from the land, seems arbitrary and unfair. But if one’s starting point is that all humans are sinful and under judgment, then judgment against the Canaanites is within God’s just acts.

Notably, even Israel can fall under the herem by God’s command; there is no special treatment for Israel or against the Canaanites. Further, if all humans are sinful and under judgment, then all humanity is deserving of destruction. It is God’s mercy that limits the extent and use of the herem.

While these considerations of herem help to place the practice within its Old Testament context, they do not fully address the challenge of reading these texts within the context of a two-testament canon. For that, a second consideration is needed and calls for reflection on the reality of warfare in Joshua and in the Old and New Testaments.

Warfare in Joshua and the rest of the Bible

Whatever is said about warfare in Joshua must be set within the whole canonical narrative. The events in Joshua are part of God’s plans and purposes to restore humanity to relationship with its creator; there is much more at stake than carving out a safe land for one group of people. While working within physical, human contexts, God’s plan deals with spiritual realities: sin, death, redemption, and the restoration of humanity to God.

In the pursuit of these spiritual realities, God works in different eras and in different ways. Restoration takes shape in promises made to Abraham that include land gifted to a nation, Israel (Gen 12:1–3, 7; 15:18–21; 17:8; Exod 3:8, 17; 6:8; 33:1; Deut 1:6–8; 4:1). In the land Israel was to live as a light and a kingdom of priests in the midst of the nations, drawing them to the Lord (Exod 19:5–6). At the time of Joshua, God forwards his plan through a nation and land and within an ancient context that includes warfare. This is, however, only one step in the fulfillment of God’s plan that eventuates in the work of Christ and finds its eschatological conclusion in the earthly kingdom of God. It is this plan that provides the necessary context for the warfare in Joshua.

Throughout the Old and New Testaments, God is presented as a warrior. In the Old Testament, that role is expressed in flesh- and- blood realities. To redeem his nation Israel, God acts as a warrior on its behalf. He battles Pharaoh to rescue Israel and covenant with it at Sinai (Exod 14:14; 15:1–5). God brings Israel into the land and secures a place by battling against the inhabitants. In times of Israel’s apostasy, God battles against it, using foreign nations as his agents in battle against apostate Israel. When God ejects Israel from the land, he uses Babylon as his weapon to send Israel into the judgment of exile (Jer 21:3–10). In all these contexts, God the warrior acts through flesh- and- blood battle to further his plan.

In the New Testament, however, God’s plan moves into a different phase and context. Battle is engaged directly with spiritual realities and is not worked out in the context of nations and land. Instead, God comes in the flesh to continue the battle through the work of Christ. Using vivid battle imagery, Christ battles principalities and powers, winning victory through the cross.

While Christ moves away from the realm of flesh- and- blood battle to spiritual battle, this is not to say that the New Testament knows nothing of physical violence. It is a false dichotomy to consider the Old Testament as violent and the New Testament as non- violent. The New Testament does at times specifically avoid violence (such as when Jesus commands his disciples to not defend him). Yet violence remains an intrinsic part of the New Testament message. For instance, John the Baptist speaks of God’s coming wrath (Matt 3:7–10), and Jesus also speaks of violent ends for the body (Matt 10:28; Luke 12:5). These New Testament expressions of violence are not, however, within military contexts nor directed to or conducted by nations. Rather, they are outcomes of the larger battle now effected in the person and work of Christ.

In the New Testament Christ battles against principalities and powers and wins victory over sin and death. This decisively moves warfare into spiritual contexts as is borne out by the New Testament’s use of militaristic imagery. Paul describes himself battling as a soldier (2 Tim 4:7). His weapons wage war not “as the world does” but by “divine power to demolish strongholds” (2 Cor 10:3–5). He urges Timothy to “fight the battle well” (1 Tim 1:18), like a soldier strengthened by God’s grace and enabled to please his commander (2 Tim 2:1–4). The battle is fought against false teaching and against Satan and his human agents and is won by confession of faith and by Christ (1 Tim 1:15–20; 6:12–16).

These texts call Christians to spiritual warfare against unrighteousness. Yet, while the power of sin, death, and the devil were defeated at Calvary, they remain a reality in the world until their final defeat at the end of time. Until then, Christians take up spiritual armor and battle against “the rulers, . . . authorities, . . . powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:10–18). This spiritual battle finds its culmination in John’s revelation. There a great, final battle is depicted (Rev 19:11–20:6). Whether a vision of an actual future battle or a powerful image of Satan’s future overthrow, it reveals Christ gaining final victory through battle. With Satan defeated the book turns to the eschatological consummation of Revelation 21. Here are realized the ideals of the promised land: peaceful rest, righteous living, and God’s rule in the midst of humanity.

Warfare is present throughout the biblical text. It is part of God’s plan that deals with sin, death, redemption, and restoration. In the Old Testament, God works through a nation and a land. In this context God as a warrior engages in warfare on the physical plane. Joshua and the herem warfare in it is contextualized within that. But the Old Testament is part of the larger story that comes to completion in the New Testament. In it Christ moves the battle from the physical realm to the spiritual realm when he wins victory over principalities and powers. The church takes up that battle. Being neither a nation or possessed of land, the church fights not on the physical plane but the spiritual.

Within this larger story, the battles of Joshua— though real— also serve as types and shadows of the greater battle fought by God the divine warrior.

Why Joshua does not permit religious warfare today

For God’s people in ancient Israel warfare was part of taking the land. This moment in redemption history has passed. Now, the church engages in spiritual warfare. The battle having moved from the physical to the spiritual context, there can be no justification for battles such as mounted in Joshua. God does not command them; God does not need them. With Christ his work proceeds otherwise. Past or present readings of Joshua that use the book to justify warfare by any nation or people against another fail to read the text within its canonical and redemptive contexts.

In all the depiction of warfare throughout the biblical text, the ultimate expression of the divine warrior’s battle is that of the servant-king freely giving himself to death on a cross. This recognizes that Christ’s self-giving in battle is the culmination of and the final expression of God’s redemptive plan.

Learn more in Lissa Wray Beal’s Joshua video lectures on MasterLectures. Watch the first lecture FREE.

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