Have you ever tried to read the book of Joshua? It starts out with some great pump-up verses:
9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
Then Rahab gives us a thrilling story of intrigue and suspense, better than any spy novel. And of course, the battle of Jericho, reverberating through Sunday school classrooms everywhere. The beginning of Joshua is like the scriptural equivalent of Jock Jams, by the end of chapter 6 you’re ready to take on the world.
And then we start getting uncomfortable very quickly. None of us wants to make Joshua 11:20 our life verse.
God’s judgment begins to take the forefront and all of the sudden everything is being “devoted to destruction.” Israel is commanded to wipe out the people of Canaan, laying siege to its cities and leaving no one alive. That doesn’t sound like a merciful and loving God who leads his people like lambs. It doesn’t much resemble the Jesus we know and love who stands at the door and knocks politely. To our ears…it sounds a lot like genocide.
So how do we reconcile these images of the Trinity that seem to be at odds with this violent military take-over?
Let’s start by back-tracking to Genesis. God first calls Abram to leave Ur and promises to give him land, descendants, and make him a blessing to all nations (more on that later). Abram immediately leaves and moves to Canaan. When he gets there, he builds an altar and worships God in the land (Gen. 12:7). An estimated 500 years before the book of Joshua, God establishes traces of himself in the land. Traces that at any time could have led the Canaanites to worship Yahweh.
At this same time period Abram crosses paths with Melchizedek, the king of Salem. We know very little about this man, other than the fact that he was a “Priest of God Most High” (Gen. 14:17-24). He blesses Abram, which is noted as an honor and a gift and Abram offers a tithe to him. He is also mentioned significantly in Hebrews 7 as a person who was a foreshadow of Christ. There are a lot of things we can note about Melchizedek, the main point I want to draw for our purposes is that other people were worshiping God at that time. He shows us that it was possible for anyone to recognize the true God, and to worship with truth and favor.
500 years later when God brings the people out of Egypt, their reputation as a people with a powerful God spreads throughout the surrounding countries (Num. 22:1-3). Each of the 10 plagues on Egypt had been a direct challenge to Egypt’s gods where Yahweh had shown himself victorious. All of the Ancient Near East knew that God had come out on top. It was this report that Rahab relays to the spies (Josh. 2:8-14). She recognizes Yahweh as the true God and asks to be accepted as a follower of Israel’s God and as one of their people. She goes on to become an ancestor of Christ and is forever honored as a member of Jesus’ family tree (Matt. 1:5). Rahab’s example shows us that when a Canaanite wanted to put their trust in God, they were saved. Ninevah’s example of immediate repentance in the book of Jonah is also an indicator that God sends opportunities for mercy to people who will receive it. Canaan’s lack of repentance tells us something about the state of their hearts.
God tells the people before they enter the land why it is that he is taking it away from the Canaanites and other occupants and giving it to Israel.
5 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.
The land of Canaan was a corrupt place full of violence and bloodshed. Their idol worship resulted in “every abominable thing” not least of which was burning their sons and daughters as offerings to their gods (Deut. 12:29-31). Their god, Moloch, was made of iron and was hollow with extended arms. They would burn fires under his statute and place their children in his red hot arms as their sacrifices to him. There was also cult prostitution and human blood routinely offered in the pagan temples. This was not a peacefully oblivious community just minding their own business; it was a place of exploitation and murder. The Lord’s violence in wiping out this people was in kind with the violence that they had been committing. We need God to be a God of justice who saw children being killed by their parents and people being trapped as sex slaves and didn’t turn a blind eye.
Even in the midst of judgment, it is imperative to remember that God does not love vengeance. Anytime we feel uncomfortable with God’s judgment we need to go back to Ezekiel 18
30 “Therefore, you Israelites, I will judge each of you according to your own ways, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. 31 Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? 32 For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!
God’s desire is for all of his creation to turn and live. Judgment is a last resort to protect against further destruction. God is not lying in wait for the tiniest slip-up, he drags his feet towards punishment.
Finally, the Canaanite conquest is a very specific event that God does not set as a precedent to be repeated. The Abrahamic Covenant is for a particular piece of land for the Jews. It is not meant to be replicated by other people groups in other parts of the world. God was gathering a people for himself in a land that he had chosen for them, and because he would dwell with them in the land it needed to be pure. In a sense, the blood of the conquest was a purifying atonement for the corruption of the land which cleansed it for something new and better to take its place. To use this conquest to justify any violent take-over’s or human extermination would be a false and heretical use of scripture.
In all of this, God’s heart remains for the nations. At the core of the Abrahamic Covenant is a promise that through Israel all the nations would be blessed. Even as God gives the people the land of Canaan, he repeatedly reminds them not to forget what it feels like to be a foreigner.
17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.
Israel was to be a people set apart to be a signpost to all the world of the True and Living God. Jesus of course continues this aspect of the covenant and takes it to a whole new level by including the Gentiles. His final command to the apostles is to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18-20.) As we look to the restoration and the renewal of all things, we see that God’s end-game has always been a global community of faith (Rev. 21:24-26.) It’s ok to still not make Joshua 11:20 your life verse. God shares our discomfort with human death and sent Jesus to reconcile us from our alienation. That discomfort can propel us to live into God’s bigger plan of a diverse and unified Church. Take your anxieties over Canaan and channel them into creating opportunities for all people to turn to Jesus and receive his life abundant.