Skip to main content

The Troubling Implications of the Book of Joshua

Anna is a pastor, writer, and theologian who obtained her BA in religion in '06, Diploma of Ministry in '16, and Diploma of Divinity in '17.

The Lord Delivers Victory

The Book of Joshua covers a seven year period, taking place after the Israelites had wandered the desert for forty years. Moses was dead, the original Jews who had fled Egypt were dead. This new and improved generation of Israelites were the ones who would enter the Promised Land. They had decided to place their trust in God. In the Book of Joshua, we see none of the grumbling and open rebellion that we witnessed in the Book of Numbers. In this book, we see hope and faith played out. The Israelites trust in God and are rewarded with success. Because of their faith, they finally got to enter the Promised Land.

The Israelites entered the Promised Land with the Book of the Law handed down to Moses and still in record 6,000 years later. Imagine starting a new life; we’ve all done it. The excitement we’ve felt when we went off to college, or started a new career, or moved into a new house with your new spouse. You get butterflies in your stomach, and you’re filled with the excitement of a new life stretched out before you. Every page is a blank one, just waiting to be filled. When we begin a new venture, we hope for and dream of success. But it’s not guaranteed. As often as not we fail, sometimes these failures are mere blips in the road, other times they’re catastrophic. We’re not promised success in life and that’s okay.

Perhaps that’s one thing that separates us from the ancient Israelites. We’re not guaranteed success, but they were. Joshua 1:6-9: “Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give to them. Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Do not let the Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

This was no idle promise. The Israelites had witnessed countless miracles in the desert. God had given them food from heaven to sustain them and water from a rock, He led them by day and by night through the harsh and unforgiving wilderness. There were no atheists after that, anyone who went against God was in open rebellion. In this new generation, they carried with them God’s promise of success. And succeed they did! They marched into Jericho and after seven years of fighting, the Jews conquered Jericho and divided up the land between the twelve tribes. The Jews were the conquering heroes and they all lived happily ever after*.

On the surface it’s a nice clean story. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation. God fulfilled that promise when he handed the Jews the land flowing with milk and honey. They finally had their Promised Land, all they had to do from there on out was remain faithful. The good guys won. Everything was going to be roses from there on out.

Can Unholy War Be Holy?

It is a nice and neat story-- provided that no one asks any follow up questions. Questions can be messy and a deeper look at the story can be unsettling. The land the Israelites took wasn’t uninhabited, the Israelites took it from an existing nation. That is a disturbing thought. That may why some people avoid asking those questions. It can get very uncomfortable. “Did God really order a bloody military campaign that demanded the slaughter of millions of people including their livestock?” Why not just kill the soldiers who enlisted (or were conscripted) to fight? Why kill innocent men, women, children, and infants? Why God, why on earth did you order them to kill the livestock? Kill the bad guys--fine, but the children? Surely the infants and the donkeys were innocent!

Joshua 6:21 paints an ugly picture, “They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep, and donkeys.” If a nation today was to invade another country, commit mass genocide, then kill all the farm animals and family pets, and then declare that God ordered them to do it, the United Nations would declare war crimes. There would be condemnation from almost every other country on earth. Religious people would cry blasphemy that a nation would use God as an excuse to slaughter innocent people. Other countries would impose sanctions and may even attack the invading country. We don’t get to just go around taking human life and then declare “God made me do it.”

So, what happened in Joshua? The way I see it there are three main possible answers.**

1) God did it. God orchestrated the destruction of Jericho with direct orders to kill every living thing.

2) God had nothing to do with it and the Jews invaded another nation of their own volition.

3) The Israelites mistakenly believed that God ordered the slaughter.


God Was Behind the Slaughter

Let us examine the first option: God did it. This involves questions of theodicy and morality. Can a just God allow the slaughter of a nation, and if so, is He really a just God?

The truth is, God sees the entire picture. He knows what is in our hearts, He knows the past, the present, and the future. We look at heaven and earth and God through a fuzzy window. One caked with fingerprints and filth. However, it’s the only window that we have ever looked through and so we don’t know the difference. People who get glasses after many months or years of vision impairment are often shocked at how clear they suddenly see the world. As humans we’re stuck with 20/60 vision, we can’t see what God sees.

In life, arrogance and ignorance go hand in hand. In spiritual matters, this maxim holds true. We can’t see what God sees; but rather than admit our ignorance on universal affairs, we arrogantly claim that we know better than God. “A just God would never allow such-and-so” we arrogantly cry “therefore, God must not be just!”

To understand why God might have ordered the slaughter of innocent Jerichites we can look at both the Bible and archeology. As we dig deeper we can see that the Jerichites (and Canaanites) were not “innocent” people. The Israelites wandered the desert for forty years. That’s a really long time. God knows all, He knew that the Canaanites were sinning, and that their sins would grow worse. God is merciful, He didn’t want to punish innocent people. We know this because the Old Testament gives us several examples of God giving people many chances.

In Genesis 18, God said that He would spare Sodom and Gomorrah if only ten righteous people could be found. As it turned out, there was only one righteous man and his family of four. In the Book of Jonah, the titular Jonah ran from God because he didn’t want God to show mercy to the Ninevites. Jonah eventually did the right thing and, as predicted, God spared the people of Nineveh. In Genesis 15:16, God told Abraham that his descendants would not receive the Promised Land until the “sin of the Amorites has…reached its full measure.”

The Jerichites were on a dangerous path. Only when they had reached the very embodiment of wickedness: bestiality, child sacrifice, idolatry, murder, and other depraved acts of violence did God allow the Israelites to sweep in and take over the land. God had given them every opportunity to repent, He did not permit the Israelites entry until He saw that there was no one left to save. Deuteronomy 9 further clarifies God’s intent. The Israelites were stubborn and sinful themselves; griping and grumbling, rebelling and worshipping idols at every turn. It was not because they were good that they got the land, it’s because other people were worse!

In Deuteronomy 9:5, 6 states that: “It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land: but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.”

Ouch. God really hammered home what He thought of the Israelites! Yet no matter how much they openly rebelled against God, God still loved them anyway. God gave the Israelites chance, after chance, after chance to return to Him. He gave other nations those same chances. Unfortunately for the other nations, they never repented or turned away. They continued to sin, and sin terribly. And it wasn’t ordinary sins that we all commit their sins were grotesque.

[CAUTION: The following paragraph may be disturbing. Some people may want to skip past it]

Archaeologists have found Canaanite temples with evidence of temple prostitutes and human sacrifice. Jars have been found dedicated to the god Baal, inside those jars were the remains of children sacrificed to the angry god. Foundation sacrifices have also turned up. Parents would slaughter their children and bury the remains in the walls to ensure good luck in their new home. At dig sites, researchers found that over half of the sacrificial infants were between only one and two months old, suggesting a desired age for those sacrificed. By the time of Joshua, the Canaanites were beyond salvation. To prevent other nations from falling into the same sin and decay, God punished Canaan. The Israelites were weak, often falling prey to temptation, the following books of the Bible confirm how far Israel eventually fell.

The question, then, becomes not: “Why would a just God punish a wicked nation?’ but rather “Why wouldn’t a just God punish such a nation?” The Canaanites sin was spreading like a cancer, it would surely infect the Israelites and everyone else. When one has a gangrenous limb, a wise doctor will remove the limb to keep the rest of body from dying. Jericho was a wicked city within a wicked nation. God does not punish innocent people; he spared Lot from the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, and he spared Rahab from the doomed walls of Jericho. Had the rest of the nation repented as Rahab did, then God surely would have spared the entire city.


The Israelites Acted Alone

Let us now look to the second option: God had nothing to do with the fall of Jericho.

The Israelites were a band of people who had wandered the desert for forty years. They needed a home, they saw that Jericho was a nice looking place with nice looking land so they went in by themselves and destroyed the city and all its inhabitants. While the first possibility would require an all-powerful God to miraculously destroy Jericho, this option allows for no such divine intervention. Though the Israelites were a small band of people, they crossed the Jordan (with no help from God), and knocked the walls of Jericho down (again, with no help from God), and fought a seven year war which they eventually won.

Through their own cunning and military might, the Israelites fought the Canaanites and won. Stranger things have happened. One need only to look to the history of United Kingdom to see this played out. To this day, the sun still hasn’t set on the British Empire as they continue to own territory in all time zones. Yet despite their power, smaller armies have fought them throughout the centuries and won. Today ISIS and Al Qaeda prove to be a formidable threat despite their lack of sophisticated equipment, formal military training, and money. The most powerful militaries in the world have not succeeded in eliminating these small-time terrorists. So, one can easily see how a small tribe of Israelites, brought up in the desert, could have enough moxie to defeat a far more powerful enemy.


God Gets The Credit

That leaves us with the third possibility: God did not intervene, but the Israelites believed that He did.

The Israelites were a very superstitious people. One couldn’t even sneeze without thinking that God had something to do with it. Disease, poverty, prosperity, success, failure, life, and death were all at the hands of a powerful Creator who had chosen them out of all the nations in the world. God saved them from slavery, led them through the desert, performed miracle after miracle, surely anything else that happened was in His hands. Is it any wonder that they would attribute military victory to this same God, even if He had nothing to do with it?

The Israelites were the underdogs, they should have lost, but they didn’t. They surely would have thought that it was the work of a deity, even if said deity actually opposed the violence. There is certainly historical+ precedent for this. In 1281 Kublai Khan attempted to invade Japan. The Mongols arrived in warships carrying hundreds of thousands of elite warriors, the Japanese were severely outnumbered. They were also prepared. Under the cover of darkness, they used small boats to board the larger Mongol ships. On board they fought small battles and would sometimes even burn the Mongolian vessels.

These attacks were an annoyance the Mongolians, but they were so numerous, it didn’t really have a great effect on them. The Mongols would have eventually conquered Japan but for seemingly divine intervention. On 14 August 1281 a powerful storm rose up as if from nowhere, for two days the tempest raged, obliterating the Mongolian Armada. Out of the thousands of Mongolian warships, only two hundred survived. The Japanese had won an impossible war and credited their victory to the gods. This ‘divine wind,’ or kamikaze, that sprung up had saved them.

It stands to reason that the superstitious Israelites would credit God with their victory, whether or not He was actually involved. It wasn’t just the Battle of Jericho, the Israelites blamed or attributed everything to God. It was common practice in the region at the time to credit a god or gods with victory, it would be stranger if the Israelites didn’t do that. Everybody is the hero in their own story, certainly if the Israelites were at war, then they were the good guys fighting the bad guys. Since they were the good guys, then obviously God would be on their side; the side of righteousness. Whether or not that is what actually happened, is of no real concern. They believed it and they were the ones who wrote the Bible. History is always told by the winners.

God Desires Peace and Love

Which scenario you believe may correspond with how you view the Bible; as the literal word of God, an interpretation of the word of God, or as a book entirely made up by man. One who views the Bible as the literal, infallible word of God is far more likely to believe that God killed the wicked Canaanites. Those who believe the Bible is the inspired word of God are more likely to believe either the first or third scenario. Those who think the Bible is fiction, are more likely to believe scenarios 2 and 3.

Regardless of how you view the Battle of Jericho, one thing remains important: We cannot apply any events in the Book of Joshua to events that happen today. The Israelites were God’s chosen people, it was through them that the Messiah came. With Jesus now here, the contract has been fulfilled, and there are no more races or nations that can claim superiority over another. We are all children of God. After Jesus, the only Promised Land is the one that awaits us in Heaven. Jesus and His disciples were from that Promised Land, and Jesus sent them out into the world, away from said territory.

When Jesus came and conquered, he did not conquer land, nations, or people, He conquered death. Jesus did not come bearing a sword, He preached pacifism. He promised His followers that those who were the peacemakers would not find peace, but would be the children of God. He promised mercy to those who were merciful and promised that those who thirsted for righteousness would be filled. When Peter cut off the ear of the guard who had come to kill Jesus, Jesus healed the guard. Whether or not God intervened in Canaan thousands of years ago, we must remember that that situation does not apply today. God desires peace and mercy, not bloodshed. We should all look forward to that glorious day when we will all beat our swords into plowshares.

*The Book of Judges gives further background and information on what happened following the war and resettlement of the Jews. They weren’t quite as successful maintaining law and order as they were at ordering raids and fighting battles.

** There are likely more that I’m not clever enough to see, if you have any ideas leave them in the comments section.

+Doris Flexner and Stuart Berg Flexner, The Pessimist's Guide to History, page 44, 2007 Harper Collins Publisher

© 2018 Anna Watson

Related Articles