Cosmic Warfare in the Book of Joshua
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?
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)
7 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. 8 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)
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)
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 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)
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).
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).