Understanding the Conquest of Canaan

by | May 17, 2017 | Biblical History, Monday Study Notes, Theodicy, Theology | 0 comments

On Monday night we took some time to consider the conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua, and the nature of the commands God gave which initiated it. Here are the notes:

Understanding Joshua and the Command to Destroy the Canaanites

This Summer on Monday nights we’re going to study the book of Judges together. To understand the book of Judges, you really need to understand some of the major things that happened in the book of Joshua–because the background to Judges is what happens in the book of Joshua. But there’s a major issue that people today often have with the book of Joshua: it’s the history of the military conquest of the land of Canaan, including the expulsion or killing of its inhabitants, by the people of Israel, in response to a divine command. Critics of the bible throw around words like “genocide” when they talk about the book of Joshua.

Here’s a typical comment from an author from a few years ago: “The Bible story of Joshua’s destruction of Jericho, and the invasion of the Promised Land in general, is morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein’s massacres of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs. The Bible may be an arresting and poetic work of fiction, but it is not the sort of book you should give your children to form their morals.”

So what’s going on? Did God really command or do something evil in the book of Joshua?

To answer that question, let’s walk through the scriptures from the beginning, and then consider some important considerations that arise from pondering the evidence.

First, in at the beginning of the bible, we see the foundational truth that God created everything. Therefore he owns everything, and he’s king over everything. Next, in Genesis 1:26-28 (a key passage for understanding this issue) we see that God gave Man dominion. Humanity rules the earth. God wants to exercise his rule through and with humanity.

Now, see Genesis 9:6.  Two big things happen before Genesis 9:6. The first is what Christians call “the Fall,” when humanity chose to obey and serve creation instead of God, sinned, and incurred God’s judgment.  After the Fall, the dominion of Man is messed up, and can’t be ultimately successful in the current state, but it’s not revoked. Most noticeably, what Genesis 9:6 shows us is that when something goes wrong in humanity, God’s plan is never just to throw humanity away and start over, but to redeem humanity by allowing us to be the central part of the process to destroy evil. In other words, God wants humanity to triumph over evil, and thus to preserve itself—he doesn’t want evil to overcome and destroy humanity.

The second big thing that happens before Genesis 9:6 is the Flood.

Now see Genesis 6:5-7, 6:13, 7:21-22, and 19:24-25.  In both of these situations (the Flood and the judgment on Sodom) God shows that he does retain the right to judge himself, not using Humanity, but judging directly, and on a large scale. Notice though, in both circumstances it was because the numbers were so overwhelming that the righteous people could not possibly have fixed the situation (in both situations only one family was left faithful). And in both situations the destruction is total, because the evil is so great. The impression God communicates in these accounts is that both societies had passed some point of no return, and could only grow in evil, harm, and misery from here on out.

But still, we can basically tell from Genesis 9:6, and from the rest of the story onward, that God prefers to not do it like these like he does it in these situations—he prefers to have enough people in the situation who know him and obey him that he can direct and empower them to take care of business, and thus Mankind can continue to fulfill its original mandate of ruling on behalf of God.

Here’s a key point: In the book of Joshua we’re looking at a time when God judged a whole geographic area, a whole culture, with this kind of total judgment. But this time he didn’t do it with Fire or Flood, but with other people. Before we balk at the judgment in Joshua, we need to ask ourselves: do I agree that God has the right to judge the earth and sweep evil off the face of it, and to determine when the only way to get rid of evil is to wipe out an entire civilization? If we don’t think God has that right, we are in fundamental disagreement with the Bible. At that point, Joshua isn’t our problem. Genocide is not our problem. God is our problem. We don’t believe he is the creator, or we don’t believe he is the king. And right there, if that’s the case, we’re simply not in any position to evaluate what happened in the time of Joshua. We have other, bigger things to talk about, farther back than any army and any war.

Because if you grant that God has the right to judge humanity in keeping with his righteousness, and that the penalty for sin is death, then it isn’t any great leap to acknowledge his right to use any means he deems appropriate. And when you see that his purpose all along was to rule the earth through humanity, it makes total sense that, when possible, humanity would be the instrument to destroy evil and bring righteousness to humanity.

Now read Genesis 15:7-20. This brings us to God’s promise to Abraham. The land will be his. But not now. Why? It will be his descendants’, later, because God knows that in a few hundred years the place is going to be inhabited by a culture so evil that it will require judgment. But God won’t act until then. This brings up an important sub-point…

In the book of Jonah, there’s a similar situation. God declares that he will overthrow the city, because “their wickedness is great.” When the prophet walks through the city and yells out that the city will be overthrown in 40 days, the king declares a city-wide show of repentance, and the people really do turn from evil—just from the message that God’s going to overthrow their city (3:10). And God accepts their repentance, and decides not to bring the judgment. The prophet gets mad because he wanted God to judge the city, and God’s response is incredibly helpful. He says to Jonah: “Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left– and much livestock?” (4:11) In other words, God didn’t want to judge Nineveh, he’d rather they just turn from evil. And he specifically mentions children in this—God didn’t want the children to suffer if there was another way. In fact, he didn’t even want animals caught up in it if it was possible to avoid. That’s the kind of God we have in the Bible, and the prophet Jonah is a perfect contrast to him in this case. Jonah wants judgment. God would rather have repentance, and for life to be spared.

Read Exodus 23:20-24, 27-30. All these years later, the time has come. The evil of the Canaanite culture was complete. God must have known that they would not have had anything like the national repentance Nineveh had. He knew that the culture needed to be ended. And after he’s freed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, he announces that he will drive the inhabitants of the land out, and give the land to the Israelites.

Read Numbers 33:50-56. God says it again: “Drive them out.” Notice, the first announcement is not that they must all be killed, but that they must all be driven out, and that the shrines of their evil worship need to be destroyed. And, if Israel is disobedient, and falls into the same practices, they will suffer the same fate.

This brings us to some of the passages that say some more difficult things.

Read Deuteronomy 7:1-11, 16; 12:29-32; 20:16-18; 31:1-8. Notice this Big Point keeps getting repeated—“do not worship their Gods.” It is this demonic spirituality that has so corrupted the culture. The Israelites can’t do this work of justice and surgery if they have the same evil infection. God will only use holy people to judge this sin.

Here’s another main point: The sin of this culture, and these people, was extraordinary. The adults were all guilty of death for what they had done. It had even progressed to the level where the children couldn’t grow up without being twisted. The animals were messed up too. The culture needed to go. Definitely read Clay Jones’s article, We don’t Hate Sin So We Don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites. He catalogs archeological evidence of what their culture was like. The main things he lists are:

  • Rampant, degraded idolatry—worshipping statues in the most degraded matter.
  • Rampant sexual perversion as modeled by the gods they worshipped, including incest, adultery, homosexuality, ritual sex in their temples, and bestiality. These things seem to have been main features of their culture.
  • Probably the most egregious of all—child sacrifice. The culture of Canaan was unique in the world for the use and frequency of child sacrifice. They had statues of their gods they would heat red-hot and then place their children as old as four in the statues’ outstretched arms to cook to death in front of them. They had live music playing so you couldn’t hear the sounds of the screaming.

Read Joshua 1:1-6; 6:16-21.  One of the times when everything died. But even here, repentance is possible. Rahab is saved. Also read Joshua 10:28-40. So, for many of the cities, judgment was total. Evidently, if people ran away or repented, they were saved. But if they stayed, the only solution was total destruction. Of course, when we come to the first few chapters of the book of Judges, the problem facing the Israelites was that that they did not drive the inhabitants of the land out. It never says that God was angry that they didn’t kill them, just that he was angry that they did not drive them out. It wasn’t the death of individuals God was after, it was the expulsion of a culture from the land, and the overcoming of any people who wanted to entrench themselves and make a stand to keep the culture in the land.

What do we take away from all this?

  1. This wasn’t genocide, or simply mass-killing or war. It was justice. The Canaanite culture promoted evil that was harmful to all of humanity, and would not go away by itself. So God commanded a judicial sentence to be carried out by His chosen servants. It was the execution of a justly imposed penalty. In this way, the conquest of Canaan was also preventative. It was to purge the evil from the earth, so that it can’t continue. It wasn’t directed against anyone because of their race, but because of their culture and their practices.
  2. Joshua and the Israelites were only justified in carrying out their conquest because they were divinely commanded to do so. To authenticate his approval of the conquest, God did extraordinary, huge, public miracles, starting in Egypt, and continuing on through the entire campaign. So it’s not just that Israel had the power to conquer (like the Nazis in Germany), or that they said God was with them (like ISIS)—it is that God actually was with them. In fact, it’s pretty clear, they couldn’t even have won the war if God had not divinely intervened. They were by far the weaker people in the equation. And if God had not commanded and empowered them to conquer Canaan, they themselves would have admitted they had no claim on the land and no justification for anything they did.
  3. Last year, during my own bible reading, I started to wrestle with the account in the book of Joshua for myself. I spent some time praying about it. One surprising set of thoughts that came to me in that time was this: Our culture has no moral authority to stand in judgment of the book of Joshua at all. Why? We love violence. We love killing and cruelty. We pay to watch it and even enact it (in video games) for entertainment. Therefore, we have no right to turn around and act squeamish at these stories. And this brings up another the most likely reason we are so offended at the record of Joshua is not that we are such a righteous, peace loving culture, but actually it is that we are so much like the Canaanites. Not only do we love violence, we love dark spirituality. And we love dark and sinful sex. So of course we take offense when God announces that a culture like that needs to be destroyed. Maybe, what we’d find if we looked through history is that the closer a culture is to the culture of Canaan, the more the story of Joshua seems outrageous, and the further a culture is from Canaan, the more it will make sense. Maybe our reaction against it is actually just defensiveness, and not some sense of justice. If we love justice, let’s stop loving violence!
  4. This brings up one of the most hypocritical parts of common objections to the book of Joshua. I said that child sacrifice was one of the most horrible things going on in Canaan. When later, the Israelites themselves started getting into it, God singles it out as something beyond evil. And of course, we too are a culture that kills our own children. More than 50 million have died in the last 50 years—children we murdered with abortion. So we totally mimic the Canaanite culture in that respect, and then, when we want to object to Joshua’s conquest, we say—“Yeah, but what about all those children? They were innocent!” And I think God must reply: “The Canaanites were themselves killing their own children, so they have no moral authority here. And, if you care about children dying, stop killing your own.” And like we saw in the situation with the prophet Jonah, we know that God cares hugely for children. Jesus taught the same thing. So if a situation arises where the death of children is unavoidable, it must be that God knows it is both a necessary tragedy which will prevent further, bigger tragedy, and that it is actually more merciful to the child than to allow them to grow up in the culture, and be lost forever. I believe the Bible indicates that children who die have eternal life, and a place in his kingdom forever. That alone would never justify the death of children—which is why this situation required God’s omniscience and his direct command, as well as the verification of huge, public miracles, over the course of years (and the miraculous victory of a weaker people over a stronger people because of divine intervention, as is the case right from the beginning, at Jericho). Over the long haul, God wants as few people as possible to have to die. And everything he does in the bible works towards that end. He is the one who is always restraining and minimizing our murderous instincts. When he does it by overthrowing some cites, we cry that he’s not being fair.

In other words—humans have no right to indict God. Followers of Christ are people who reached that realization personally. We get to some point in our life and we realize—God’s not the problem. I’m the problem. And when I blame him, I’m being a hypocrite. That sense that I’m the problem—the bible calls that conviction. No one can truly believe in God or follow Jesus without passing through the door of real, down-to-the bone conviction—I’m a sinner. I deserve God’s judgment. But God is so big-hearted, that as soon as we let ourselves admit that and feel the weight of it, and we cry out for mercy from Jesus Christ—he grants us mercy!

The book of Joshua turns out to be about what God’s doing with the whole world, today. He’s calling people to follow him. He’s got a leader he’s using to eradicate evil from the earth. Anyone can repent, like Rahab, and be spared. And so all this talk of justice and mercy on a societal level is really supposed to boil down to each of us, individually, here tonight. Where are you? God is inviting every man and woman to own their own sin, turn away from it, and embrace God’s grace and love. It’s extended to you.

But the bible is very clear that what happened to Canaan is going to happen to the whole earth. Right now, like Rahab and her family, the opportunity is there for people to repent. The call is going out—you can escape the coming judgment. Because, like I said, there’s another man, who, actually his Hebrew name is Joshua—we call him Jesus. As the culture of the whole world starts to look more like the culture of Canaan, soon God will decide we’ve passed some point of no return, and he will send Jesus Christ to conquer the earth and totally cleanse it of evil. That’s the real message of Joshua. In Jesus Christ, a Man will conquer sin forever.

This might not seem like the most uplifting message on the surface. But think about it. What kind of help do we really need in this world? If we’ll face God’s Word head-on, he’ll give us real answers, answers that are big and solid enough to handle the actual lives we’re going to have to live. In the story of the bible we’re seeing that evil won’t last forever. One day all the killing and darkness will be gone. And even better than that, God’s doing it in such a way that we can be preserved through the process. In order to clean the earth, he’s not going to wipe us away too. Humanity will win, in His name. What Jesus started on the cross, he’s going to finish on his white horse. Everyone will see his greatness. And everyone’s invited to share in his victory.