Longing for the Divine

Reconceiving the Conquest, the Canaanites, and Joshua’s God

I remember the days when I listened to children’s Bible songs in the car with my kids. “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” commanded the children to shout, “And the walls came tumblin’ down!” Then “Only a Boy Named David” told the story of how one little stone made a giant come tumbling down. Immediately following was a song that repeats Jesus’ words: “This is My commandment that you love one another.” As I listened to the music, I wondered why we present children with songs and rhymes about events like the conquest of Jericho, when some of the most difficult questions arise from such stories. How can children reconcile songs about violence perpetrated against men, women, and children with Jesus’ command to love one another? Cute little songs about these stories leave out a lot of information. So, how do we explain them?

The Jericho story is less troubling once we understand that the conquest targeted military outposts and strongholds that guarded the land and was not a mass murder of civilian population centers (The Skeletons in God’s Closet, 2014, p. 226). Scholar John Walton suggests that Israel’s conquest was more about dismantling the Canaanite kingdoms and religion than ending people’s lives. Its goal might be compared to that of the Allies in World War II, who were on a mission to end the Third Reich. The Allied forces were sent to reclaim the occupied territory and neutralize the influence of the Nazi regime, but they didn’t aim to kill every German soldier and citizen (The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest, 2017, p. 176).

Theologian Paul Copan explains that Joshua’s conventional war rhetoric asserted God’s total supremacy over the Canaanite idols. However, Joshua didn’t believe that all the Canaanites were literally destroyed in this conquest. It helps to understand that accounts of this conquest are stylized with exaggerations and rhetorical bravado according to the period’s common method of recording history; they don’t intend to depict total extermination (Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God, 2011, pp. 170–171).

Read this way, Israel’s conquest becomes less horrific. Yet, I remain unsatisfied because such explanations tend to defend God’s violent commands by justifying the difficult aspects. Though we can show that God had good reasons to call for violence, such as responding to child sacrifice and bestiality, the violence remains terrifying and we are still left with these troubling descriptions. One might wonder if God commands us to take up arms against our enemies in the service of reformation or revival. Might God choose to annihilate us all for our moral wrongs to prevent us from infecting the universe? 

No, I don’t believe that’s what the story of Jericho tells us. Things had reached a point where God had to intervene to stop evil from taking over and to prevent further degradation and loss of life. To the tiny nation fearful of the world’s cruel empires, knowing that God would check the formidable threat and deliver them was good news. God’s actions were about judgment and deliverance, not genocide. As scholar N.T. Wright states, “In a world of systematic injustice, bullying, violence, arrogance and oppression, the thought that there might come a day when the wicked are firmly put in their place and the poor and weak are given their due is the best news there can be. Faced with a world in rebellion, a world full of exploitation and wickedness, a good God must be a God of judgment” (Surprised by Hope, 2008, p.137).

God took special interest in the Israelites, providing them with divine instructions for conducting the battle against Jericho. The exalted commander of the Lord’s armies appeared to Joshua and said, “See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men” (Joshua 6:2, NIV). No assault was to be made. God simply needed His people to trust and wait for Him. The battle was intended to entail cooperation between the divine and human, but it’s the human element that most concerns me. God was working with fallen, violent-prone humans, who had the tendency to credit God with their own violence.

In the Jericho story, God promised deliverance and only commanded the Israelite army to charge the soldiers. It was Joshua who commanded the Israelite army to do more. God wanted to drive the enemy out little by little, but in their zeal, the Israelites exalted their own strength, going beyond God’s commands (Exodus 23:30). This is evident in the story of Ai, the second fortress they raided. The failure at Jericho and the subsequent disaster at Ai are unmistakable signs of human failure to trust God. These events highlight that to inherit the land, the Israelites would have to become faithful and obedient. 

By contrast, God did command destruction of the idolatrous community of which the Canaanites were a part—these people were doomed to defeat. The Israelites were to drive the Canaanite regime from the land, for its “cup of iniquity was full,” but it didn’t have to be that way (Genesis 15:16). The Canaanites were given forewarning, and many fled before encountering the Israelites. Offers of peace were also made, but those who refused had to either fight or assimilate by adopting Israel’s ways (Deuteronomy 20:10; Joshua 11:19). Some of the Canaanites turned to follow the God of Israel. For example, Rahab and her household, which included men, women, and children, were spared and accepted. God admired Rahab’s faith, incorporating her into Israel’s lineage and chosen elect. How could a prostitute who provided sexual services to the Canaanites end up in the lineage of Jesus? I think God was hoping that many more inhabitants would likewise respond in faith to share in such salvation.

My preferred explanation of the Canaanite conquest, however, does not draw warrant from the nuances of Joshua’s conquest, for I aim to understand what God is like. If I take all scripture seriously, I must refine my view of God in light of its entirety. If I truly depend upon God’s revelation, Joshua cannot be the final world on the subject. Misreading a command or instruction can lead me to conclude that under some conditions, God’s Word calls people to armed rebellion. The story of the conquest, however, was never intended to suggest that God condones violence or commands people to fight religious rivals. No part of this story was ever to be repeated. Jesus, who is the embodiment of God’s Word—the Word made flesh—said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight” (John 18:36, NKJV).

God made the rugged commitment to be with the Israelites along their tortured path to hope, but the Book of Hebrews tells us that Joshua’s conquest did not lead them to the “rest” God wanted (Hebrews 4:8–9). Joshua did a good job getting them to the land, but he didn’t lead them to God’s desired conclusion. The Israelites never experienced a thousand generations of peace. They didn’t enjoy nearness to God’s glory in a way that drew the other nations to them. A nationalistic view of conquest was never meant to define Israel’s future. To survive as a minority nation in a rough-and-tumble world, the Israelites fought, but fighting couldn’t prepare them for the glory of God revealed on the cross. Though the Israelites never fully achieved the rest God desired, the promise remained and continues today.

God was certainly with Joshua at the collapse of Jericho, which prepared the way for Jesus, who would collapse every enemy bulwark and completely depose the tyranny of sin. God fulfilled His promise through Joshua, but from God’s point of view, there is another level. The land the Israelites conquered and inhabited was not the world to come. There is yet another day, another Sabbath rest for the people of God that has everything to do with making God’s ultimate purpose reality. Fighting does not bring us into the land; it’s Jesus who takes us in.

Jesus is the final goal. Jesus is better than Joshua not because there is tension between them but because Jesus improves our understanding of the message. Joshua was not a “prophet like Moses” in the fullest sense. This legacy was fulfilled by Jesus, who trusted God completely and who revealed true leadership from God’s point of view. Jesus came not only to confirm what came before but to shed new light. The fall of Jericho and the conquest of the Canaanites ultimately leads us to a greater hope and a better sense of God’s presence. The conquest of Jericho is not abandoned or unhinged but rather muted, as it is dwarfed by the profound revelation of Jesus leading us into the world to come. Jesus offers us a better paradigm for understanding the process of redemption. His explanation changes how we view the conquest and its violence. Jesus came to drive out evil and to become the true conqueror and hero of our lives. He offers reconciliation, ushering in a kingdom of peace more fully than Joshua did. We are called to follow Jesus into this day of rest, and this hope forms the image of the better world we await and trust that God will complete. 

Rahab’s faith calls us to envision reconciliation between Israel and its sworn enemies—God’s people reconfigured and united. Jesus does not just bring the Israelites into the land; He brings the “entire house” with Him (Hebrew 3:6, NLT). Might Jesus offer us a better understanding of entering the land? The Gospel of Matthew describes a Canaanite woman who revealed to Jesus her descendancy from Israel’s enemies, though she referred to Jesus as the Son of Israel. Like Rahab, she looked to Joshua for healing and salvation. Might Jesus’ response, with arched eyebrow and pointed stare, tell us something about His desire for reconciliation with Israelite enemies? In their subsequent mission, the disciples were to convey that Jesus blesses faith, even from Israel’s former enemies (Matthew 15:21–28). Reconciliation and peace among national and religious rivals is cause for celebration. God wants not only to remove Canaanite ideas from our hearts and lives but also to cease our fighting, allowing us to envision a future where everyone is blessed and invited to enter God’s eternal rest.

Craig Ashton Jr.

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