Now, About all that Killing...by Robert L. Hubbard Jr.
Joshua part 3 Bam! That’s the mental sound I imagine readers hear when they read the book of Joshua for the first time. Let’s be honest: reading it can be, quite frankly, a jarring experience—ethnic cleansing on a grand scale, all in God’s name. Questions abound … *Why didn’t he first give them at least one chance to repent? *Does the book teach that it’s OK to use violence in God’s name? These (and many other related questions) have no easy answer. But in this blog, let me try to cast some light on them.
Joshua part 3
Bam! That’s the mental sound I imagine readers hear when they read the book of Joshua for the first time. Let’s be honest: reading it can be, quite frankly, a jarring experience—ethnic cleansing on a grand scale, all in God’s name. Questions abound …
*Why didn’t he first give them at least one chance to repent?
*Does the book teach that it’s OK to use violence in God’s name?
These (and many other related questions) have no easy answer. But in this blog, let me try to cast some light on them.
What’re We Talking About Here? Two basic Israelite ideas underlie the violence in Joshua. The first is a major biblical theme, Yahweh war, the idea that God wins military victories over his (and Israel’s) enemies, often with Israel’s participation. In Yahweh war, Yahweh fights on Israel’s side, a point the book of Joshua makes (Josh. 10:14). Yes, Yahweh does have enemies—the Canaanites in Joshua, for example—and Yahweh war is a sacred, religious act. Israelite soldiers can’t go into battle unless they’re ritually pure (Deut. 23:9-14).
The second idea is the practice of herem, the ritual consecration of people and property to God through destruction. God permitted Israel to make peace with foreign nations but commanded them to annihilate the Canaanites (see Deut. 20:10-18). That’s right: through destruction possession of the Canaanites was to pass from earthly hands to God’s.
(Yeah, I know … that that sounds weird).
But there are limits to herem, too. Only Yahweh could authorize it. That meant that no human could invoke it on his own—i.e., for revenge or other violent purposes. More important, God applied herem only to the Canaanites. It was not an ongoing practice applied to anyone else. After Joshua, the practice basically disappears from the Old Testament. It served God’s stated purpose—to rid Israel of Canaanite idolatrous influence.
"And Now, a Comment from Joshua …." How does the book of Joshua itself explain the violence? In an important article, scholar Lawson Stone highlights one striking contrast in the book, the acceptance of Yahweh’s plan for Canaan by Rahab and the Gibeonites (ch. 2:9-11; chs. 9-10) with the resistance to it by Canaanite kings (5:1; 9:1-2; 10:1-5; 11:1-5). In his view, the contrast seems to soften the book’s violent tone and subtly sound a contrary, less militaristic theme.
That theme says: the Canaanites perished because they resisted Yahweh, not because they were idolaters or decadent. Thus, the book’s message main message is: respond obediently to Yahweh’s actions or die for resisting them. Those who obey receive compassion—indeed, salvation—as exceptions to the herem mandate. Now, that’s not exactly the Christian Gospel, but it sure sounds pretty similar to me.
Joshua 11:19-20—the only explicit comment on the issue in the book—is along the same line. It says that Yahweh decided to "harden their [the Canaanites’] hearts" so that they would attack Israel and be destroyed. It singles out the Gibeonites (Josh. 9) as the only people who "made peace with the Israelites" (v. 19). The implication: had other Canaanites sought peace rather than war, they, too, would have survived. In other words, herem marches us into the invisible realm of God’s mysterious, hidden, sovereign actions. He hardens Canaanite hearts just as he did Pharaoh’s. But the Canaanites bear at least some responsibility, too. Had they sought peace they would have survived like the Gibeonites.
My Bottom Line. Frankly, I don’t think I’ll ever feel comfortable with what takes place in Joshua. Lord knows, I’ve chewed on the problem for years. The reason is that I’ve been too radically changed by Jesus’ teaching of non-violence. I may not feel good about the Canaanites’ fate, but as a Christian I no longer have the option to call down herem from heaven on anyone. Instead, I walk the road that leads from the salvation granted Rahab and the Gibeonites, that crosses Mt. Calvary and the cross of Christ, and that enter the world of modern Canaanites. And I bring them the good news of Jesus.
Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. (PhD, Claremont Graduate School) is Professor of Biblical Literature at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL. He also taught at Denver Seminary and served as a chaplain on active duty in the United States Navy and in the United States Naval Reserve. Dr. Hubbard is author of The Book of Ruth: New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1988), which received the Christianity Today Critics Choice Award as the best commentary of 1989. He co-authored Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Word, 1993), with William Klein and Craig Blomberg, and wrote Joshua in the NIV Application Commentary series. He is ordained by the Evangelical Free Church of America. He and his wife Pam reside in Chicago.
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