Joshua Jihad: Theological Whiplash

21 Dec

Second section of my comments on Joshua – addressing what is a key stumbling block for many to read this book – or even to read any of the Book. I guess you could say I’m taking a stab at answering or at least reflecting on the problem.

Is there an answer here – one that will really, finally satisfy us?

What about the Canaanites? The problem of “holy war”

One day while I was teaching the Bible to undergraduates, a first year student articulated a problem succinctly that I had to write an entire book to address. I was telling the class that the Exodus is the central event of the Hebrew narrative, asserting that this story of liberation from slavery was deeply inspiring, especially in comparison to so many other foundational stories of conquest and plunder. This was, after all, not a story that described the rich getting richer, but the enslaved getting freed. I added some remarks about class consciousness and liberation theology to make the story more contemporary, and lingered over the fact that this story has now come to have urgent political force in Latin America and South Africa as it had during the U.S. civil rights movement. Then, in the midst of this celebration, the student raised his hand and asked simply, “What about the Canaanites?” Suddenly all the uncomfortable feelings I had been repressing about the Bible for years flooded me. Yes, what about the Canaanites? And the Amorites, Moabites, Hittites? While the biblical narratives charted the creation, cohesion, and calamities befalling a people at the behest of their God, what about all the other peoples and their gods? Having long seen the Bible put to uses that I could not excuse – hatred of Blacks, Jews, gays, women, “pagans” and the poor – I now began to see some complicity, for over and over the Bible tells the story of a people who inherit at someone else’s expense. – Regina SchwartzThe Curse of Cain, p. ix-x

The struggle for land is so deeply embedded in the human soul – it is so central to our way of viewing the world – and it has led to so many devastating wars, to rethink land and its value might well be another form of the gospel needed desperately in a modern age.  – Gary Burge, Jesus and the Land

So, what about the Canaanites? What about “holy war”?

The simple question that confronted an Old Testament college professor is not one to be quickly dismissed or glossed over. We feel the complicity. We sense the conflict.

We typically rebuke our Muslim neighbors for embracing a religion with such a track record of violence, past and present. And yet here we sit with Joshua. We sense that we need a little more than an evasive and condescending, “Well, that was different.”

Let’s just say that if Joshua were made into a film, it would not be a “chick flick” – and it would not be rated “G.” It is filled with violence and carnage. Men and women, young and old. Slain. Cities burned. Bodies in heaps. Vanquished kings impaled on tall spikes, their dead bodies later to be flung into the ruined gates of their demolished cities.

How can God not only “wink” at this but actually command his own “jihad” on Canaanites?

How can this be the same God that we have come to know in Jesus?

Theological whiplash.

Turning once again to Peterson’s introduction to Joshua, he well states the problem and points to a solution:

For most modern readers of Joshua, the toughest barrier to embracing this story as sacred is the military strategy of “holy war,” what I have translated as the “holy curse” – killing everyone in the conquered cities and totally destroying all the plunder, both animals and goods. Massacre and destruction. “No survivors” is the recurrent refrain. We look back from our time in history and think, “How horrible.” But if we were able to put ourselves back in the thirteenth century B.C., we might see it differently, for that Canaanite culture was a snake pit of child sacrifice and sacred prostitution, practices ruthlessly devoted to using the most innocent and vulnerable members of the community (babies and virgins) to manipulate God or gods for gain.                                                                                                                                       

Peterson’s pointing to the perspective of time, culture and history certainly is key. We need more than our current cultural perspective – we need a historical (and theological) wide angle lens. The fact is that Joshua picks up a tale that is rooted in the story and promise made to Abraham 400 years previously:

The LORD said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age.  In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”  -– Genesis 15:13-16 NIV

Four hundred years prior to Joshua’s day, Abraham had walked and sojourned among the ancestors of the very people Joshua’s generation would have to confront and expel and destroy. Abraham bargained for a burial plot with some of them. He was the guest of some of their kings who turned out to have just as much integrity as he did – or more. There was even a priest of the Most High God from the ancient Jebusite city of Jerusalem with whom Abraham shared a meal and to whom he gave a tithe from the spoils of battle. But there was also the king of Sodom from whom he would accept nothing. There were the cities of the plain from which his nephew Lot barely escaped with his life. The fiery, calamitious destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was more than a localized expression of divine wrath against a few cities gone completely wild with violence, oppression and utter moral chaos – it was a warning to an entire Canaanite society that was already in serious decline. It was a warning that stood before them for four centuries. A warning ultimately unheeded as they continued their downward spiral into moral and spiritual oblivion.

The fact is the Lord is the Landlord of the entire planet (see Psalm 24:1; Acts 17:26). And he reserves the right to evict any and all tenants that abuse the land and terrorize the neighborhood. He frequently uses natural calamities to accomplish this (as, evidently, with the cities of the plain in Genesis 19) or through the instrument of war waged by other nations (as in the case of Joshua). God both roots people in places and uproots them from those same places (see Jeremiah 1:10). But he always gives notice – often four centuries’ worth of notice or more. The Canaanites being “evicted” as tenants of the land is not regarded as unique, biblically – and Joshua’s generation was specifically told to evict and uproot them and no others (see Deuteronomy 2:9-23).

But still we can feel torn at the scenes of divinely sanctioned carnage – which is a good sign for us. Much better that, than to proudly parade and use these stories and scenes to adorn our latest military, religious and political platforms of our national agendas of expansion and acquisition. We must remember the lesson Joshua learned before evicting a single Canaanite tenant: the Lord is not a nationalist – he is not on anyone’s side (cf. Josh 5:13-15).

We should remember that God doesn’t enjoy these scenes either, necessary as they may have been in the dark history of this world. He takes no pleasure in the death and judgment of the most vile and violent tenants in his world (see Ezekiel 18:32).

We should remember that in using Joshua’s generation to evict the Canaanite tenants occupying the land, God was also placing the family of Abraham in the land he had promised and foreseen for them, a land in the middle of the earth, on the highway of the nations; a land where they could be salt and light in a dark and oppressive world; a land from which they could and would utlimately bring blessings untold to all the nations of the earth in a coming Messiah and kingdom that would ultimately make any more stories like the book of Joshua unnecessary.

We should remember that in that Messiah – our Joshua (Jesus) – swords are finally beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks as the nations learn war no more; that in our Joshua hesed (divine mercy and grace) triumphs over herem (divine curse and judgment). Our Joshua impales no kings on tall spikes. He instead allowed himself to be impaled by the kings of this world, and through that cosmic act of love, he has changed everything.

We should remember that our Joshua, on the one occasion he encountered a descendent of the Canaanites divinely targeted in that first Joshua’s day, first played to and thereby exposed his generation’s shortsightedness and bigotry and then ultimately heard the Canaanite woman’s request and healed her demonically oppressed daughter and sent her home in peace.

The first Joshua did not lead people into rest. Our Joshua does.

It’a whole new way of looking at “taking the land.”


Posted by on December 21, 2011 in Joshua, Old Testament


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2 responses to “Joshua Jihad: Theological Whiplash

  1. Jen Metts

    December 27, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    Your post definitely resonates with me. We forget that God also raised an army of Chaldeans to destroy Jerusalem, kill thousand and drag a remnant off into 70 years of captivity, because the Israelites ignored countless prophets and hundreds of years of warning. God’s people are not immune. If the Old Testament teaches us anything, it should be that no matter how much blood is spilled, be it Canaanite, Amorite, or Israelite, no blood of man could bring peace and stop the violence. Yet in the violent, bloody murder of one man, we can have peace and an end to violence. We need to stop using the Old Testament as an excuse to perpetuate more violence, but rather see the whole of it as our warning to end violence and spread peace through Christ Jesus. We must evolve to a higher state of understanding, leaving the rudimentary lessons of mankind’s barbaric beginnings, and embracing the divine understanding, in Christ, that all mankind and creation is loved by him. We need to follow his lead of swords into plowshares, as we are now empowered by the blood of Christ to bring peace to a warring world. We can either embrace peace or parish by the very sword we refuse to lay down. I will choose peace. I will choose to evolve in Christ to the divine love of all humanity.

    Thanks, Mike, for sharing your always insightful perspective with us.

  2. wordhaver

    December 27, 2011 at 6:52 pm

    Right on, Jen! :o)


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