Interpreting Violence in the Book of Joshua through Wisdom Chapter 12

 The Problem We Have With Joshua

The Book of Joshua, as well as many other books in the Old Testament, may be unsettling for some people. The criticisms that have been level at the Old Testament as of late by the so called, "New Atheists," revolve around an objection that goes something like, "Yahweh seems to inspire a type of religious fanaticism which brings people to violence in these books. It is the worst type of cultural scourge which so many Americans still flirt with today." And being aware of true religious fanaticism in our world today with realities like ISIS only seem to drive home the point even more. The problem, though, with this is that it is too simplistic an explanation. It's too simplistic a view of Theology. It's too simplistic a view of the Bible. To view the Bible as though it were a set of eternal truisms listed out for humanity for all time is to suggest that one has never picked up a Bible. 

Gradual Revelation

An extremely important principle of the Theology of Christian revelation is that of "gradual revelation." Like a parent who raises a child must gradually teach the child the core values of right and wrong, God is the same to the human race. A parent cannot necessarily reason with a 4 year old as to why throwing a tantrum or disrespecting them is wrong, they may have to convey that truth with a spanking or punishment. But as that child grows up, a spanking will no longer be appropriate, reasoning and conversation may be the way to go. If the Book of Job makes anything clear it is that pride is fundamental temptation for conscious beings, especially when everything seems to be within their own power. That is why, in Job, God explains why he created the "Leviathan," the dragon of chaos and suffering, to humble man from his pride. Thus, we see Yahweh consistently humbling the human race in its infancy so that we could come to understand our place as the creation, not the creator, and finally be able to receive the fullness of revelation, that of mercy. 

Context Matters

All that is to offer a Theological and conceptual framework in which to understand that context matters. A theme that I have written about in some of my research papers is that the world is a place of two fundamental realities, the universal and the particular, the eternal and the temporal, act and potency. Revelation gives us eternal truths, but they are encountered, received, and must be applied according the particular situation of history they are in. 

And so speaking of the particular time and place of the Book of Joshua, it is important to remember that this takes place in an ancient world far removed from 21st century America. This is a brutal world where survival is at the forefront of the agenda of every day. There is no infrastructure. There are no supermarkets, highways, hospitals, airports, police, incarceration system, etc. This is a world in which survival depended on the social cohesion of the group of people that you were with, otherwise chaos, famine, capture and death ensue. Imagine traveling around a desert with 100,000 people trying to survive. Rules must be followed, or death will result. 

The Original Plan to Establish God's Kingdom

This being the case, when God calls Abraham to begin his Chosen people to bring his revelation at the crossroads of the world, they must soon go to live in the safety of Egypt so that their numbers can increase and they can live as a nation on their own and survive. When they are ready, God leads them out and the land which he wants them to have. There are people who have settled there in the meantime who were old relatives of theirs, but who embody everything that God does not want humanity to embody. Idolatry, incest, witch craft, sexualized religious ritual, human sacrifice, abortion. In the Book of Exodus, when God is explaining the plan to retake the land, he says: 

"See, I am sending an angel before you, to guard you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared. Be attentive to him and obey him. Do not rebel against him, for he will not forgive your sin. My authority is within him. If you obey him and carry out all I tell you, I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes. My angel will go before you and bring you to the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites; and I will wipe them out. Therefore, you shall not bow down to their gods and serve them, nor shall you act as they do; rather, you must demolish them and smash their sacred stones. You shall serve the LORD, your God; then he will bless your food and drink, and I will remove sickness from your midst; no woman in your land will be barren or miscarry; and I will give you a full span of life. I will have the terror of me precede you, so that I will throw into panic every nation you reach. I will make all your enemies turn from you in flight, and ahead of you I will send hornets to drive the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way. But I will not drive them all out before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild animals multiply against you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have grown numerous enough to take possession of the land. I will set your boundaries from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines,* and from the wilderness to the Euphrates; all who dwell in this land I will hand over to you and you shall drive them out before you. You shall not make a covenant with them or their gods. They must not live in your land. For if you serve their gods, this will become a snare to you."

Things Go South - It Becomes a "No Fail" Mission With "the Ban"

God says that he is going to send an angel to guide them in the reconquering, he is going to send "hornets" of some sort to drive the people from the land little by little, and they will know that Yahweh has given the Israelites the land and be in fear. (see footnote 1) Now, unfortunately, there are some problems along the way in getting to the Promised Land (See Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) and being delayed in getting to the Promised Land, the enemies of Israel somewhat regain their courage and some will stay and fight. Also, Moses is convinced that because of the failures of the Israelites that they will not be able to be near the pagan peoples without losing their faith and the whole mission going to Hell. So "the Ban" is instituted. When they go to the Promised Land, those who have not fled before them must be killed, every man, woman, child, and animal. If the people will not flee, they will face divine judgment for their transgressions. 

God's Divine Judgment

The Book of Wisdom, chapter 12 explains the situation in some detail. 

"Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little, warn them, and remind them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, Lord! For truly, the ancient inhabitants of your holy land, whom you hated for deeds most odious works of sorcery and impious sacrifices; These merciless murderers of children, devourers of human flesh, and initiates engaged in a blood ritual, and parents who took with their own hands defenseless lives, You willed to destroy by the hands of our ancestors, that the land that is dearest of all to you might receive a worthy colony of God’s servants. But even these you spared, since they were but mortals and sent wasps as forerunners of your army that they might exterminate them by degrees. Not that you were without power to have the wicked vanquished in battle by the righteous, or wiped out at once by terrible beasts or by one decisive word; But condemning them by degrees, you gave them space for repentance. You were not unaware that their origins were wicked and their malice ingrained, And that their dispositions would never change; for they were a people accursed from the beginning. Neither out of fear for anyone did you grant release from their sins. For who can say to you, “What have you done?” or who can oppose your decree? Or when peoples perish, who can challenge you, their maker; or who can come into your presence to vindicate the unrighteous? For neither is there any god besides you who have the care of all, that you need show you have not unjustly condemned; Nor can any king or prince confront you on behalf of those you have punished. But as you are righteous, you govern all things righteously; you regard it as unworthy of your power to punish one who has incurred no blame. For your might is the source of righteousness; your mastery over all things makes you lenient to all. For you show your might when the perfection of your power is disbelieved; and in those who know you, you rebuke insolence. But though you are master of might, you judge with clemency, and with much lenience you govern us; for power, whenever you will, attends you. You taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are righteous must be kind; And you gave your children reason to hope that you would allow them to repent for their sins. For these were enemies of your servants, doomed to death; yet, while you punished them with such solicitude and indulgence, granting time and opportunity to abandon wickedness, With what exactitude you judged your children, to whose ancestors you gave the sworn covenants of goodly promises! Therefore to give us a lesson you punish our enemies with measured deliberation so that we may think earnestly of your goodness when we judge, and, when being judged, we may look for mercy. Hence those unrighteous who lived a life of folly, you tormented through their own abominations. For they went far astray in the paths of error, taking for gods the worthless and disgusting among beasts, being deceived like senseless infants. Therefore as though upon unreasoning children, you sent your judgment on them as a mockery; But they who took no heed of a punishment which was but child’s play were to experience a condemnation worthy of God. For by the things through which they suffered distress, being tortured by the very things they deemed gods, They saw and recognized the true God whom formerly they had refused to know; with this, their final condemnation came upon them."

And so when we get to the Book of Joshua, that is what is taking place. The Lord's divine judgment is being exercised on those who would not flee the land. The Book of Joshua shows that they knew that the land had been given to the Israelites by God. They knew who Yahweh was and what he had done with marvelous works and wonders. Yet they did not listen. And so just as the Lord said, we see in Joshua an angel who appears before the battle of Jericho armed with a sword. 

"While Joshua was near Jericho, he raised his eyes and saw one who stood facing him, drawn sword in hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you one of us or one of our enemies?” He replied, “Neither. I am the commander* of the army of the LORD: now I have come.”

The conquest begins and Joshua leads the Israelites army in many battles against countless cities and local kings. There are executions where Joshua has the leaders put to death after the battle is over. There are times when they go and slaughter a whole city of women and children. There are also times where God helps them in battle and rains down rocks from the sky to kill the opposing forces. 

Why Couldn't They Have Just Gotten Along? 

There are a few passages which seem to suggest that maybe this violence isn't needed. The family of Rahab in Jericho makes a covenant, after all, with the Israelites and goes to live among them and assimilate. There's another city in which they knew that they were going to be destroyed and so they

sent emissaries to Joshua, faking that they had been from a long distance away and were in need of help (seems to me appealing to that code of taking in strangers in this part of the world) so Joshua makes a covenant of peace with them and helps them. Later it turns out that they were from just down the road and the covenant that was made now meant that they couldn't be attacked. So they become servants of Yahweh and the Israelites, but have entered into relationship with them. Why could this not have been done with all the peoples of the land? 

In response to this, it may be helpful to remember the limiting practicalities of the time and place in which this is happening. How easy is it to assimilate a large number of people into your population? Why was it forbidden to make treaties and to intermarry? Why couldn't they have saved the children at least and killed the adults if necessary? All of these options involve the adoption and assimilation of the pagan culture, practices, and gods of a people who embodied everything that goes against the Natural law and the divine law that God is trying to help humanity embody. The previous failures of the Israelites to separate themselves to be "holy" for the Lord over the whole Pentateuch led to the strict commands of Deuteronomy to basically not even try it anymore because they couldn't do it. And, as far as the children. Taking in large numbers of children who, like Moses very clearly did, would recognize that they had been from a foreign people, may itself destroy Israel from within as those children grew up and could possible be filled with animosity knowing that their families had been wiped out. Pharaoh faced that problem with the Israelites and had resorted to killing all the make children from the womb. Okay ... but killing the animals too, seriously? Many pagan nations of the time worship livestock as gods. The temptation to fall into the same practices had already been demonstrated when the Israelites made the Egyptian golden calf and “began to worship.” These ceremonies involved ritual prostitution and orgies. Thus, one of the main reasons for animal sacrifice is so that the people can break their habit of idolatry that had been engrained in them during their time in Egypt. All in all, the ban is a last stitch effort to ensure the survival and integrity of God’s people so they could be the conduit of Gods revelation on Earth. 

 "You must not invoke their gods, or swear by them, or serve them, or worship them, but you must remain loyal to the LORD your God, as you have been to this day." 

In summary, this was a mission that was on the brink of failure so many times before this that what was left was the last resort to making it work. It had to become a no fail mission where intermarriage and intergeneration hostilities from a corrupt and perverse people could not be accepted. And yet, even these killed will be shown mercy in the fullness of time by Christ whose revelation was able to come about through these times in the Old Testament. 


^1^ "Once you crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho, the men of Jericho fought against you, but I delivered them also into your power. And I send hornets ahead of you which drove them [the Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites, and Jebusites] out of your way; it was not your sword of your bow."

"At our approach the LORD drove out [all the peoples, including] the Amorites who dwelt in the land."