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Cosmic Warfare in the Book of Joshua

Cosmic Warfare in the Book of Joshua

Ancient Jericho and Cosmic Warfare
Ancient Jericho or Tel es-Sultan, illustrates the aspect of Cosmic Warfare in Joshua. Courtesy of pininterest.

The book of Joshua has suffered a damaged reputation in recent years. Many archaeologists consider the account of the Conquest as fantasy. Kathleen Kenyon’s dating of the fall of Jericho to 1550 BC has led them to conclude that there was no city to conquer in the time of Joshua (1400, or 1250 BC, depending on the date accepted for the Exodus). This has been ably challenged by Bryant Wood and the team at ABR (Associates of Biblical Research), but conservative voices are easily overlooked these days, even if they offer persuasive evidence (see the article here, and the video here). The Book of Joshua has also come under fire for its language of “utterly destroying” the inhabitants of Canaan (e.g., Josh. 6:17, 21). I have written elsewhere on the problem of violence in the OT (see my series, Violence in the Old Testament). Here I would like to focus on a point that is far too often overlooked. This involves the Book of Joshua’s outlook on the Conquest as Cosmic Warfare.

What is Cosmic Warfare?

Cosmic Warfare
Battling the prince of Persia (Daniel 10).

It is sometimes stated (and I have probably done so myself), that warfare in the OT is physical, whereas warfare in the NT is spiritual. However, a more accurate picture of what Scripture teaches would be to affirm that both testaments teach that warfare is physical AND spiritual. Cosmic warfare involves understanding the Bible’s teaching that spiritual forces battling it out in the heavenly realm often manifest that conflict in the physical realm. Daniel 10 gives us a glimpse into this dynamic. Daniel is given a vision and waits 21 days until a heavenly messenger is able to come and reveal to him its meaning. This heavenly being states that he was opposed in arriving sooner because of opposition from the prince of Persia (Dan. 10:13). The vision, however, reveals what will happen “to your people in the latter days” (Dan. 10:14). Daniel’s visions involve the revelation of real historic events. Thus there is a combination of spiritual and physical realities. While this is widely recognized as a feature of the Book of Daniel, a similar dynamic is at work in the Book of Joshua. This outlook is pervasive throughout the book, but I will limit my observations to 5 (groups of) passages.

Meditate on the Word and Follow It (Joshua 1:7-8)

Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.

The theme of Cosmic Warfare is inaugurated from the outset of the Book of Joshua. When God appears to Joshua promising to give Israel the land (Josh. 1:2-3), He does not do what we would expect. Certainly a general who is being sent on a military expedition, especially one as vast as the conquest of Canaan, needs some sage military advice. A clever plan outlining successful military tactics is what most commanders would hope for. Instead, Joshua is told to know and keep the Law of Moses! The Lord specifically says that if Joshua knows the Word, then he will prosper and have good success. Such a statement clearly implies that Canaan will not be won because of brute military strategy and force. The battle is more than a physical battle; it is first and foremost, a spiritual one! Although Joshua will battle a physical enemy, he needs to know that the physical resistance is a symptom of a greater spiritual reality.

The Preparation for Cosmic Warfare (Joshua 3-5)

Cosmic warfare-Crossing the Jordan
Israel prepares for cosmic warfare by following the ark across the Jordan.

The emphasis on spiritual preparation for battle continues in chapters 3-5. In chapter 3, the people are called upon to consecrate themselves as they prepare to follow the ark of God across the Jordan River (Josh. 3:2-4). Following the ark reinforces the idea that God is leading the way and fighting for Israel. The parting of the Jordan emphasizes God’s presence and recalls the similar miracle at the Red Sea when Israel left Egypt (Exod. 14-15). Just as the Lord had done battle with Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt and had triumphed (Exod. 15:4-12), so now He was leading Israel in the conquest of Canaan and its gods. After Israel crosses the Jordan, they do something counter-intuitive–they circumcise all the males (Josh. 5:2-9). Since the generation born in the wilderness had not been circumcised, this meant that every male of the nation needed to be circumcised except for Joshua and Caleb (the only two remaining from the previous generation). Such an action left the entire nation vulnerable to attack! All one need do is recall the story of Simeon and Levi attacking and wiping out the town of Shechem after all the males were circumcised (Gen. 34:24-29). For Israel, however, keeping the covenant (Gen. 17:9-14) was more important than physical vulnerability to the enemy. Following the recovery from being circumcised, Israel observes the Passover (Josh. 5:10-11). Once again, Israel is not following proper or even logical military protocol. The text is teaching us that being spiritually fit in order to maintain the Lord’s presence in the camp is far more important.

The Commander of the Lord’s Army (Joshua 5:13-15) and the Battle Plan for Jericho (Joshua 6:1-5)

Joshua and the Commander of the Lord's army
Joshua and the Commander of the Lord’s army by James Tissot. The Commander’s appearance is a clear announcement of Cosmic Warfare.

On the eve before the conquest of Jericho, Joshua has a strange and surprising encounter. He sees a man with a sword and inquires “Are you for us, or for our adversaries” (Josh. 5:13)? The man reveals that he is under allegiance to no one but the Lord by his response of “No.” He then proceeds to identify himself as “the commander of the army of the Lord” (Josh. 5:14). His deity is emphasized by the fact that Joshua falls down before him and the commander tells him to remove his sandals as he is on holy ground (Josh. 5:14-15). This statement is, of course, a direct allusion to God’s revelation to Moses at Sinai in the burning bush (Exod. 3:1-6). The continued references to the Exodus story remind us that just as the Lord conquered Egypt, so the Lord will conquer Canaan. The appearance of the commander of the Lord’s army could not be a more explicit reference to the nature of the coming conflict. What faced Joshua and Israel was not only a conflict with the people of Canaan, but a cosmic conflict.

The Fall of Jericho
The destruction of Jericho emphasizes that Israel was engaged in Cosmic Warfare.

The battle plan against Jericho (Josh. 6:1-5), as well as the subsequent account of the battle, continues to emphasize the spiritual nature of the battle. From a human point of view, Israel could not have had a worst strategy. March around the wall everyday with the ark and the priests leading the way and on day 7 march around 7 times, blow the trumpets and shout, and the walls will fall down. The skeptical would surely say…”Right, now there’s a sure-fire plan!” Yet the text states that this is what Israel did, and as the song says, “the walls came a tumblin’ down.” Even archaeologists who are skeptical of the biblical account will admit two things that the Bible makes clear. 1) The walls fell outward (a very unusual thing–usually they fall inward); and 2) Jericho was well fortified. This initial story of the conquest not only emphasizes that the Lord fought for Israel, but that the battle could not be won by flesh and blood alone. Again, cosmic warfare is being waged.

Cosmic War and the Sun and Moon Standing Still (Joshua 10:12-14)

Cosmic Warfare
Joshua 10:13-14 clearly demonstrates cosmic warfare, as Joshua calls on the sun and moon to stand still.

One of the most famous stories of the Book of Joshua is the battle to save Gibeon in which Joshua calls on the Lord to have the sun and moon stand still (Josh. 10:12-14). While there is no consensus on what Joshua was asking the Lord to do, our point here is to notice how the theme of Cosmic Warfare is once again being emphasized. The mere fact that the sun and moon are involved in this story suggests that the focus is cosmic. It is not uncommon in the Bible to see the Lord use the elements of nature (or the cosmos) to fight against the enemy. In Exodus 14-15, God uses the sea. In Judges 5:20-21, Deborah and Barak celebrate by singing that the stars and the Kishon River fought against their enemy Sisera. 2 Samuel 18:8 declares that, “the forest devoured more people that day than the sword.” In Joshua 10, we are told that the Lord sent great hailstones upon the enemy and that more died from the hailstones than by the sword (Josh. 10:11). Once again, the Book of Joshua could not be more explicit about the nature of the conflict. This is not merely a physical war between two nations, this is cosmic warfare.

The Destruction of the Anakim (Joshua 11:21-22)

To this point it is evident that the Book of Joshua depicts cosmic warfare. But the emphasis on the destruction of the Anakim clinches it beyond all doubt. Militarily speaking, the Israelites would have had little chance against the population of Canaan on their own. This is emphasized by the strength of the Canaanites and their fortified cities (Num. 13:28; Deut. 3:4-5). However, while Israel would have needed God’s help to defeat the Canaanites, the Scripture reveals that there was an enemy even more fearsome whose roots were in both the physical and spiritual realms. This enemy was the Anakim, the descendants of the Nephilim (Num. 13:32-33). No one has done more to demonstrate the cosmic view of Joshua than Michael Heiser by his investigation of the significance of this people group for the Conquest (see Heiser’s The Unseen Realm, especially Part 5 Conquest and Failure, pp. 181-217). Heiser writes, “Since the Nephilim were part of Israel’s supernatural worldview and their descendants turn out to be Israel’s primary obstacle for conquering the promised land, the conquest itself must also be understood in supernatural terms” (Unseen Realm, p. 185).

Cosmic warfare
The sons of God and daughters of men produced the Nephilim (Gen. 6:1-4)

We first learn about the Nephilim in Genesis 6:1-4. The union of “the sons of God” (spiritual beings) with “the daughters of men” (human women) results in the birth of these hybrid beings. It is specifically the presence of the Anakim that terrify 10 of the 12 spies. They report, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them” (Num. 13:32-33). A number of passages in the OT demonstrate that the Nephilim and their descendants were spread throughout Canaan, Transjordan (Bashan), Edom and Moab (Gen. 14:5-6; Deut. 2:10-12, 20-23; 3:8-11; Amos 2:9-10). These passages show that they were called by various names including Nephilim, Rephaim, Anakim, Emim, Zamzumim (Zuzim), Horites, and Amorites. Heiser contends that the spiritual powers of darkness purposely planted their progeny in and around the Promised Land in order to prevent God from giving it to His people Israel. The main task of the Conquest was to rid Canaan and Transjordan of these people groups, as well as those who were intermixed with them such as the Canaanites, so that Israel could take up possession of the land. If Heiser is correct, and I think he is, this makes the Conquest more than just a clash between nations. It makes it cosmic warfare. This point is driven home in Joshua 11:21-22 which purposely focuses on the destruction of the descendants of the Nephilim. There we read, “And Joshua came at that time and cut off the Anakim from the hill country, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab, and from all the hill country of Judah, and from all the hill country of Israel. Joshua devoted them to destruction with their cities. There was none of the Anakim left in the land of the people of Israel. Only in Gaza, in Gath, and in Ashdod did some remain.” (For more on this aspect of the Conquest, see my article Giants or Canaanites? The Conquest.)

Joshua and Cosmic Warfare

More could be said, but the above discussion is sufficient to establish that the Book of Joshua pictures a cosmic conflict. When interpreting and teaching the Book of Joshua, as well as any discussion about the violence in Joshua, it is important to keep this ancient context in mind. In fact, the biblical worldview would teach us that with any conflict we need to see beyond the mere physical manifestation of that conflict. Scripture is clear, in both testaments, that there are spiritual enemies attempting to thwart God’s plan for this world. It is this worldview that prompts the apostle Paul to use the language of cosmic warfare as he reminds believers, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).

Shechem: Insights From Biblical Geography

Shechem: Insights From Biblical Geography

Ancient Shechem
Aerial view of the ancient city of Shechem

In my previous two posts (here and here), I have sought to demonstrate how learning biblical geography can be a helpful way of studying the text of Scripture. The ancient city of Shechem, located near modern Nablus, is another example of what can be learned by studying biblical geography. The city of Shechem is mentioned 54 times in the OT, not counting an additional 13 times where it refers to an individual by the same name. It is specifically mentioned twice in the NT (both in Acts 7:16), however, the mention of Sychar in John 4 may be the same city. It is certainly the same geographical area (see discussion below). Because of its frequency, we will only examine the most significant occurrences of this city in Scripture.

Shechem and the Patriarchs

Shechem
Shechem is located in the heart of the Land of Canaan.

The first mention of Shechem occurs in Genesis 12:6 when Abram enters the land of Canaan. We’re told that the Lord appeared to Abram and promised him that the Land of Canaan would be given to his descendants. As a result Abram built an altar. Thus our initial introduction to Shechem involves the Lord revealing Himself to Abram and Abram’s grateful response by building an altar.

Simeon and Levi
Genesis 34 tells the story of how Jacob’s sons destroy the inhabitants of Shechem for the rape of their sister.

Shechem plays a significant role in the story of Jacob after his return to the land (having spent 20 years with his uncle Laban in Haran). It is only the second place in Canaan where one of the patriarchs purchased a part of the land (the other was the cave of Macpelah and surrounding land where Abraham buried Sarah–Gen. 23:16-20). We are told that Jacob purchased some land near Shechem, and then, like his grandfather Abram, he built an altar there which he called “El Elohe Israel” (God, the God of Israel–Gen. 33:18-20). Thus, the first two mentions of Shechem in the Bible represent God’s promise of the land, along with Jacob’s purchase of some of that land, followed by both patriarchs worshipping the true God by building an altar to Him.

Things take a turn for the worse, however, when Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped by a man named Shechem (Gen. 34). Shechem was the son of Hamor, the ruler of the city at this time, and for whom, apparently, the city was named. Outraged at the treatment of their sister, the brothers (led by Simeon and Levi) devise a plan that leads to the destruction of the people of Shechem. Jacob fears retaliation by the surrounding inhabitants and God appears to him at that time telling him to go to Bethel. Before leaving, however, Jacob has his household put away all their foreign gods and purify themselves (Gen. 35:2).

As an interesting sidenote: In Hebrew the name “Hamor” means “donkey.” The inhabitants of Shechem are referred to as the “sons of Hamor” or “sons of a donkey.” While excavating the city under the lowest floor of the outer guardroom, what appears to be a donkey was found buried there [Toombs, L. E. (1992). Shechem (Place). In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 5, p. 1182)]. The reason this is interesting is that Canaanites are known to have ritually slaughtered donkeys in dedication to their gods and buried them in the foundation of the city gates. See the following article: Bronze-Age Donkey Sacrifice Found in Israel.

Joshua

Mount Gerazim and Mount Ebal. The vicinity of ancient Shechem.
Mounts Gerazim and Ebal provide the backdrop to the city of Shechem.

The Book of Joshua informs us that Shechem was both a city of refuge (Josh. 20:7), as well as a Levitical city (Josh. 21:21). Shechem was located near two mountains–Gerizim and Ebal. Before entering the Promised Land, Moses had commanded the people to build an altar on Mount Ebal and to divide the tribes between the two mountains. Half were to pronounce the blessings of the Law from Mount Gerizim, while the other half were to pronounce the curses of the Law from Mount Ebal. The fulfillment of this command is recorded in Joshua 8:30-35.  Shechem is also the setting for Joshua’s famous speech that includes the words, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve. . . But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15; see Josh. 24:1). These important events recall the patriarchal stories, especially the story of Jacob. Just as Jacob had called on his household to put away their foreign gods, so Joshua, centuries later, challenged the nation of Israel to do the same. Except for the horrendous crime committed by Jacob’s sons in the slaughter of the people of Shechem, its early history left a legacy of commitment to God and a repudiation of foreign gods. Shechem was also the place where the bones of Joseph were laid to rest (Josh. 24:32), a reminder of the promise given to Abram at Shechem that God would give his descendants the Land of Canaan. Not too bad of a start for this geographical location. But all that was about to change!

Abimelech

Death of Abimelech
Abimelech was killed when a woman threw an upper millstone on his head, crushing his skull.

The story of Abimelech, the son of Gideon by a concubine, is recorded in Judges 8:30-9:57. Although at one point Gideon had broken down the altar of Baal and cut down the Asherah pole (Judg. 6:27-28), leading Israel away from idolatry, by the end of his life he was responsible for leading Israel back into idolatry. Abimelech’s mother was from Shechem (Judg. 8:31) and he was able to convince the leaders of Shechem to make him king (Judg. 9:1-2) and destroy the other sons of Gideon (also known as Jerubaal). Abimelech hires 70 “worthless men” to do the job of slaughtering the 70 sons of Gideon. He hires them by using money from the temple in Shechem dedicated to the god Baal-Berith (Judg. 9:4-6). It is unclear how many temples existed in Shechem. Later in the story a temple dedicated to El-Berith is also mentioned (Judg. 9:46). Many scholars believe that these are two names for the same temple. El, which means god (or God), was the head of the Canaanite pantheon. According to Canaanite religion, Baal was a son (or possibly a grandson). There is also a sanctuary mentioned in Joshua 24:26. After Joshua wrote some words in the book of the Law, we are told that he set up a large stone “under the oak that was by the sanctuary of the Lord.” Ironically, this may be the same place later called the temple of Baal-Berith. In other words, a place that was known for turning from foreign gods to worship the true God had become a place where Baal was now worshipped. Another irony of the Abimelech story is that he destroys this temple when he demolishes the city of Shechem (Judg. 9:46-49)–the very temple whose funds had been used to install him as king!

Temple of Baal Berith in ancient Shechem
This photo, the same as the one above, points out the Temple and standing stone discovered at Shechem

Archaeologists have uncovered a temple in ancient Shechem (see the photo above). The destruction dates to the 12th century BC, the same time period as Abimelech’s destruction described in Judges 9. A standing stone was also discovered, part of which is still standing. It is probably this stone which is referred to in Judges 9:6 which states that Abimelech was made king “beside the terebinth tree at the pillar that was in Shechem.” Some also believe that this may be the same stone mentioned in Joshua 24:26. Archaeologists have also uncovered a statue of Baal at Shechem providing firm evidence that Baal was worshipped there. For further information click on the following link: Abimelech at Shechem.

Shechem and The Divided Kingdom

The disappointing history of Shechem continues as it becomes the scene for the coronation of Solomon’s son Rehoboam (1 Kings 12:1). On this occasion, however, the northern tribes presented their grievances and when Rehoboam answered them harshly, the ten northern tribes made Jeroboam their king and created a permanent separation that lasted until the Exile. In fact, Shechem was fortified by Jeroboam and became the first capital city of the Northern Kingdom (1 Kings 12:25). If the reign of Abimelech emphasized the spiritual apostasy of Israel, the dissolution of the United Monarchy at Shechem was a precursor to the troubles that would plague Israel and Judah eventually leading both kingdoms into exile. Thus bringing to an end (at least momentarily) the promise made to Abram to give the Land of Canaan to his descendants.

The New Testament

Jacob's well at the foot of Mount Gerizim near ancient Shechem
Jacob’s well, now housed inside a Greek Orthodox Church in the area near Mount Gerazim and ancient Shechem is the location of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman.

By the first century A.D., the area around Shechem had become part of Samaritan territory. In fact, archaeologists tell us that Shechem ceased to exist in the first century B.C.. The only direct reference to the ancient city of Shechem is found in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7:16, when he is recounting the history of the patriarchs. However, the NT knows another very important episode that happened in the vicinity of ancient Shechem. This is the story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at a well near Sychar (John 4:5). Whether Sychar refers to ancient Shechem or to a nearby town (known today as Askar), is disputed by scholars. One thing that is certain is that the well that Jesus meets this woman at is the well of Jacob and is near the parcel of land given to Joseph (John 4:5). Today a Greek Orthodox Church has been built over the site (see the photo on the left) which sits near the foot of Mount Gerizim. Anyone familiar with the ancient site of Shechem from the OT would immediately recognize that this conversation takes place in the same locale by the reference to the mountain on which the Samaritans worship (John 4:20). The ruins of the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim can still be seen today. This Temple, built around the middle of the 4th century B.C., was destroyed probably sometime in the 2nd century B.C. (either by John Hyrcanus, or Simeon the Just).

While Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman has many implications (including her own salvation, as well as those in the town), for our purposes it creates the perfect ending to the sorted tale of the city of Shechem. Jesus’ response to the woman at the well concerns worship that is “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23). How fitting that Jesus speaks of the meaning of worship that pleases the Father in a place where Abram and Jacob had built altars to the true God, and where Jacob and, later Israel, had put away their foreign gods in order to worship the God of Israel. How fitting also that Jesus brings the gift of the Kingdom of God to this woman and the people of her town in the very area that had witnessed the division of the Kingdom of Israel! Knowing the stories about Shechem in the OT and understanding that Jacob’s well and the first century village of Sychar is in this same geographical area brings a satisfying conclusion to a city with a mixed spiritual and political heritage. How good of God to bring this region full-circle through providing the living water that only Jesus can give!

For more on Shechem see the excellent article entitled: The Geographical, Historical & Spiritual Significance of Shechem at bible.org.

The Conquest of Canaan & Context: Violence in the Old Testament Part 3

The Conquest of Canaan & Context: Violence in the Old Testament Part 3

265The next group of articles on Violence in the Old Testament will be a bit like baking a cake. It takes more than one ingredient to bake a cake and, similarly, it takes more than one answer to respond to the charge of the immoral nature of God as reflected in the violence in the Old Testament. There is no particular order of importance to most of the articles, but I will begin with what I perceive to be one of the most serious errors made by the new atheists.
We are all familiar with the modern media taking the words or actions of someone out of context in order to create a sensational story. This is a chief complaint among celebrities and justifiably so. It often becomes difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. conspiracy-theories-death01Conspiracy theories are also in vogue, and it is interesting how many “facts” can be dug up (or misconstrued) to “prove” or “disprove” something. Though some people like a good gossip story whether it is true or not, if we are honest we must admit how unfair and unethical this practice is. Much the same tactic is used in criticizing the God of the Bible. As I mentioned in my last article, even the church can sometimes be guilty of giving God a bad press. Removing biblical statements and stories from their surrounding context is a favorite tool of the new atheists and those who parrot their position. Whether this is done intentionally or out of ignorance (and I suspect a little of both), it is bad scholarship.

The Conquest of Canaan

One of the most serious attacks by atheists concerns the Conquest of Canaan under Joshua. The new atheists wonder how a God who orders the extermination of a people can be considered good.

Tissot, The Taking of Jericho. Jericho was the first battle in the Conquest of Canaan.
Tissot, The Taking of Jericho. Jericho was the first battle in the Conquest of Canaan.

The God of the Old Testament is disparaged as a bloodthirsty genocidal xenophobic Being. We cannot deny that a command such as the one found in Deuteronomy 7:1-2 to “utterly destroy” the nations that dwell in Canaan, seems particularly harsh. So are the new atheists right? In future articles I will offer other explanations for the Conquest of Canaan, but in keeping with the purpose of this article, I want to focus on the importance of being faithful to the context.
Accusing God of ethnic cleansing is an example of how a passage is quoted without considering the context in which it occurs. This context is actually quite broad. It involves understanding the story that begins in Genesis and extends all the way through 2 Kings. This large block of material may seem quite excessive for considering this question, but in reality the “big picture” is necessary for a proper interpretation.

Mr. Darcy (Colin firth) in the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice
Mr. Darcy (Colin firth) in the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice

For example, Elizabeth Bennett’s rebuff of Mr. Darcy’s proposal in Pride and Prejudice is similar to that of the atheists toward God. Given the facts she has at her disposal, Mr. Darcy seems to be a loathsome human being, and, at the point of her rejection, we as readers are in agreement with her. However, the more Miss Bennett learns about the true Mr. Darcy, the more she admires and loves him, and so do we as readers! The point is, we have to read the whole story to come to appreciate and understand Mr. Darcy. The same is true for God and the Conquest of Canaan. For our purposes here, I will narrow the context to the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua, in order to demonstrate how a knowledge of even the immediate context (not to mention the broader context) changes our perspective.

The Immediate Context of the Conquest of Canaan

The first thing we learn, only a few verses later (Deut. 7:7), is that God has not amassed some great war machine to fight the inhabitants of Canaan, but has actually chosen a very weak people. The biblical accounts are very consistent in testifying to the fact that Israel is constantly “out-manned” and “out-gunned” by the superior fighting forces of the Canaanite peoples (e.g., Num. 13:28; Deut. 1:28). In fact, the biblical context declares that the reason the Israelites did not immediately march to Canaan and begin the conquest was because of their fear of the might of the Canaanites.

The Israelites were not bullies in the Conquest of Canaan.
The Israelites were not bullies in the Conquest of Canaan.

While this argument doesn’t necessarily justify the slaughter of Canaanites, it does help provide the proper context for the story which insists that God did not prepare a master race of killers to destroy the Canaanites. This is important because, Israel is often pictured as the bully on the block intimidating the “90 lb.” weakling Canaanites. The Israelites are often vilified by atheists as being some merciless military machine wiping out the poor defenseless Canaanites. Biblically and historically (verified by archaeological finds), this is far from the truth.
Two chapters later, we read of God’s reason for destroying the Canaanites. Deuteronomy 9:4-6 emphasizes that it was the wickedness of the Canaanites that prompted this action. In fact, not only is the Canaanites’ wickedness emphasized, so is the unrighteousness of the Israelites! In other words, the conquest has nothing to do with race or ethnicity, but with righteousness and sin. The Conquest of Canaan is not an attempt at genocide. God’s motive is not that He is prejudice against the Canaanites, but rather that He is judging the Canaanites for their sin. This is also evident based on several other observations. First, if God hated Canaanites because of their race, He would never have allowed Joshua and Israel to spare Rahab and her family (Josh. 6:22-25) or the Gibeonites (Josh. 9). Both stories emphasize that Canaanites who confessed faith in the God of Israel would be spared (Josh. 2:9-14; 9:24). Rahab and the Gibeonites are not only spared, they become a part of the nation of Israel. In fact, they become a very important part. Rahab becomes an ancestress of Israel’s greatest king (David) and also a link in the chain that leads to the Messiah (Matt. 1:5), while the Gibeonites become servants of the tabernacle, and later of the temple (Josh. 9:26-27).

The Commander of the Lord's army appears to Joshua before the Conquest of Canaan
The Commander of the Lord’s army appears to Joshua before the Conquest of Canaan

Second, the account of the Conquest of Canaan is told in a very unusual way which is uncharacteristic of ancient battle accounts. On the eve of the first battle (Jericho), Joshua is confronted by a mysterious figure called “the Commander of the Lord’s army” (Josh. 5:13-14). Joshua asks Him a very important question, “Are You for us or for our adversaries?” The response that we as readers might expect is, “I’m for you Joshua and all of Israel.” However, the response Joshua receives is “No, but as Commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” In other words, God is not into playing favorites; He is true to Himself and His purposes. As we have seen from the passage in Deuteronomy 9:4-6, His purpose is to judge the sin of the Canaanites and give the land to Israel, but this does not mean that God has an “us against them” mentality. Archaeologists have never uncovered an ancient battle account of a victorious nation similar to this. The enemy is always put in the worst light possible, while the victorious nation sings of the virtue of its people, king, and god(s). No people in the ancient Near East would claim that their god(s) gave them victory even though they were unrighteous and stubborn! Furthermore, these accounts are always told from the point of view of the victorious king or people, but the account in Joshua allows us at times to see the Conquest through the eyes of the Canaanites (Josh. 2:8-13; 5:1). This creates some sympathy for the Canaanites, something other ancient battle accounts would never do for the enemy.

God is Not Genocidal or Xenophobic

Against this background, it cannot be claimed that God is commanding genocide, especially if by that term we are indicting God for being racially prejudice toward a particular people. The claim that God is xenophobic also cannot be sustained. Not only do Rahab and the Gibeonites show God’s welcoming of foreigners, but the Old Testament itself demonstrates time and again God’s compassion for the stranger and alien in Israel (e.g., Deut. 31:12; Josh. 8:33, among many other verses). The fact is that words like “genocide” and “xenophobic” are very hot politically incorrect terms in our society designed to invoke a negative emotional response when used. Not only does the Old Testament context not justify the use of these terms, it is unfair of the new atheists to use them for the purpose of creating a negative response in the heart of their readers.
Many other objections remain to be tackled. We will certainly return to the problem of the Conquest of Canaan, there are other responses that need to be made. The purpose here is to plead for the importance of context. If atheists are going to attack the God of the Old Testament by using the Old Testament, then, to be honest, they must take the context seriously. It will not do for anyone to lift a text out of the Scripture and create their own meaning for it. No one would do this with other literature and be considered a legitimate critic. Why should atheists not be held to the same standard of interpretation when it comes to the Bible? Furthermore, it is not only unfair to create one’s own meaning by removing a statement from its context, it is also manipulative to use inaccurate buzz words that create a negative emotional response clouding the judgment of the reader.
So far our cake has only one ingredient, in my next article I will look at other responses related to the Conquest of Canaan and Violence in the Old Testament.