Word of caution: What follows is an interpretation. It is by no means an authoritative assessment or explanation. Please don’t take offence, if it does not align with your understanding of the Bible. This explanation is far from perfect and is very much littered with pot holes. This is a long piece, so grab a cup o joe.
In previous post we looked at some common approaches to the problem of the conquest of Canaan, but we found that none of them is really satisfactory. What are we to say then? Is there any “solution”?
Many have wrestled with this problem and there isn’t really a solution that explains it all, but we can take a stab at it from different frameworks or points of view. There is something about this part of our Bible that is in the basket of things we don’t understand about God and his ways. You would think, “God, I wish you had found some other way to work out your plans.” There are days I wish this narrative were not in the Bible at all (usually after I’ve faced another barrage of questions about it), though I know it is wrong to wish that in relation to the Scriptures. God knew what he was doing – in the events themselves and in the record of them that he has given us. But it is still hard.
Nevertheless, there are a number of considerations that certainly help me cope with the destruction of the Canaanites and understand at least some things about it in the light of what the Bible as a whole says. I have to say immediately that the points I’m going to share with you are not really “solutions”. That is, they do not neatly remove the emotional and moral pain and revulsion generated by the conquest narratives. However, I do find these perspectives helpful for my own faith, and I pass them on in the hope they may help you too.
One of the problems is that we so often read this story, or horrible little bits of it, in isolation, and then try to find some meaning, justification, or excuse for it. But what we really must do is what we should do with every part of the Bible, namely, to put it in the wider framework of our whole Bible. We must get into the habit of doing that when we read any Bible text, and never more so than here.
So we will look at three frameworks that help to put the conquest in perspective – not in such a way as to make it “nice” or to take away all the nasty questions it raises, but at least in such a way as to help us connect it to the rest of what we know about God and his ways. We need to see the conquest narrative in the framework of the Old Testament story, in the framework of God’s sovereign justice, and in the framework of God’s whole plan of salvation.
The Framework of the Old Testament Story
We must understand the conquest within the context of ancient Near Eastern culture (and not by the standards of the Geneva Convention), and also within the limited span of history that it actually occupies (and not magnify it into the story of the whole Old Testament).
The Culture and Rhetoric of Ancient Warfare
The kind of warfare described in the conquest stories should, first of all, not be called “holy war” (a term never used in the Bible). It is called “a war of Yahweh”. That is, it was a war in which the God of the Israelites won the victory over their enemies.
The main feature of Yahweh war was that it was sanctioned by Yahweh, who functioned as commander-in-chief (even above the human military leader), and the result was guaranteed by Yahweh, regardless of the size of the opposing human forces, or (in some cases) whether the Israelites even had to fight at all. The enemies were enemies of Yahweh, not just of Israel.
Within that context, the concept of herem (or “ban”) was applied. This meant the total dedication of all that was being attacked – human, animal, or material – to God himself. In a battle or war in which herem was declared, there was to be no material profit for the Israelites, since no plunder was allowed. However, the rules of herem varied, as the Old Testament narratives show. Sometimes women and children were spared (Num. 31:7 – 12, 17 – 18; Deut. 20:13 – 14; 21:10 – 14); sometimes cattle could be kept (Deut. 2:34 – 35). But in the cases of nations living within the land of Canaan itself, the general rule was total destruction.
Now we need to know that Israel’s practice of herem was not in itself unique. Texts from other nations at the time show that such total destruction in war was practiced, or at any rate proudly claimed, elsewhere. But we must also recognize that the language of warfare had a conventional rhetoric that liked to make absolute and universal claims about total victory and completely wiping out the enemy. Such rhetoric often exceeded reality on the ground.
Admittedly this does not remove the problem, since the reality was still horrible at any level. But it enables us to allow for the fact that descriptions of the destruction of “everything that lives and breathes” were not necessarily intended literally. Even in the Old Testament itself this phenomenon is recognized and accepted. So, for example, we read in the book of Joshua that all the land was captured, all the kings were defeated, all the people without survivors (such as Rahab) were destroyed (e.g., Josh. 10:40 – 42, 11:16 – 20). But this must have been intended as rhetorical exaggeration, for the book of Judges (whose final editor was undoubtedly aware of these accounts in Joshua) sees no contradiction in telling us that the process of subduing the inhabitants of the land was far from completed and went on for considerable time, and that many of the original nations continued to live alongside the Israelites. The key military centres – the small fortified cities of the petty Canaanite kingdoms – were wiped out. But clearly not all the people, or anything like all the people, had in actual fact been destroyed by Joshua.
Even in the Old Testament itself, then, rhetorical generalization is recognized for what it is. So when we are reading some of the more graphic descriptions, either of what was commanded to be done or of what was recorded as accomplished, we need to allow for this rhetorical element. This is not to accuse the biblical writers of falsehood, but to recognize the literary conventions of writing about warfare.
Pondering Herem Further
One further thought about herem and “Yahweh war” is worth pondering, though I confess that I am not at all sure what conclusion my pondering leads to. That’s often how it is when we struggle with things we don’t fully understand about God. If such methods and practices in war were fairly standard in the ancient Near Eastern culture of that time, is there any sense in which God accommodated his will to such fallen reality within the historical earth-ing of his revealing and redeeming purpose?
We know that Old Testament law has to strike a balance between the ideals of God’s creational standards and the realities of fallen human life. The clearest illustration of this tension within the Torah itself (meaning the whole first five books of the Bible, Genesis to Deuteronomy) comes from Jesus, in the divorce controversy. The argument was over the divorce law in Deuteronomy 24:1 – 4, which, as Jesus pointed out, did not command divorce, but permitted and regulated it for the sake of the woman. But Jesus takes his questioners further back and points to the creation ideal from Genesis 2:24. Lifelong monogamous marriage is God’s best will for men and women. But in a fallen world God allowed divorce “because of your hardness of heart”. The same Scriptures – drawn from the one Torah – both state God’s creation ideal and also legislate God’s concession to our sinfulness.
It seems to me probable that if Jesus had been asked questions about slavery or about polygamy, he would have answered similarly. From the beginning these things were not in God’s intention; but in a fallen world of hardened hearts, they might be accommodated, with limiting and mitigating regulations, and with a strongly subversive critique that would eventually lead to clear recognition of their wrongness. That indeed is what we find in the Torah.
Is it possible (and as I say, I am not convinced I can answer this one way or the other to my own satisfaction), that in a fallen world where struggle for land involves war, and if the only kind of war at the time was the kind described in the Old Testament texts, this was the way it had to be if the land-gift promise was to be fulfilled in due course? If anything along these lines can be entertained – that is to say, if herem-style warfare can be even contemplated in the same moral framework as slavery and divorce (and many might reject the thought outright) – then we might be dealing with something God chose to accommodate within the context of a wicked world, not something that represented his best will or preference. In view of his long-term goal of ultimately bringing blessing to the nations through this people Israel, the gift of land necessitated this horrific historical action within the fallen world of nations at the time.
Is this a possible way of looking at herem? I can’t say that I feel comfortable with it, but then neither can I (or should I) be comfortable with anything in our fallen world that is on the one hand a hateful evil, and on the other hand somehow permitted by God in given circumstances. Malachi tells us unequivocally that God hates divorce as a kind of violence (Mal. 2:16). Yet Jesus tells us that God permitted it in the context of our sin (Matt. 19:8).
The Conquest of Canaan as a Unique and Limited Event
Another aspect of this framework of the Old Testament story is that the conquest was a single episode within a single generation out of all the many generations of Old Testament history. Of course, it spans a longer period than that if one includes the promise and then the completion. The conquest of Canaan was promised to Abraham, anticipated as the purpose of the exodus, delayed by the wilderness rebellion, accomplished under Joshua, and brought to provisional completion under David and Solomon. Even including all this, though, it was limited in the specific duration of the warfare involved. Although the process of settling and claiming the land took several generations, the actual invasion and destruction of key fortified cities took place mostly within a single generation. And it is this event, confined to one generation, that constituted the conquest.
Now there are many other wars recorded in the Old Testament (as you might expect, since it covers about a thousand years of human history, so wars are pretty inevitable). Some of those other wars also had God’s sanction – especially those where Israel was attacked by other nations and fought defensively to survive. But by no means are all the wars in the Old Testament portrayed in the same way as the conquest of Canaan. Some were clearly condemned as the actions of proud and greedy kings or military rivals. It is a caricature of the Old Testament to portray God as constantly on the warpath or to portray the conquest as simply “typical” of the rest of the story. It is not. The book of Joshua describes one key historical event, but it was finished. It should not be stretched out as if it were the background theme music for the rest of the Old Testament.
So the conquest of Canaan, as a unique and limited historical event, was never meant to become a model for how all future generations were to behave toward their contemporary enemies (whether future generations of Israelites or, still less, of Christians).
One way that the Old Testament resists the temptation to “apply” the conquest as a model for dealing with enemies forever after is that it is much more frequently referred to simply as an act of God rather than as the military achievements of the Israelites. The Israelite farmer, for example, when he celebrated the harvest in the land, was to declare, “I have come to the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us” (Deut. 26:3) – not “to the land that I fought to conquer and obtain”. Joshua reminds the people that it was “the Lord your God who fought for you” (Josh. 23:3). The psalmists and prophets lay all the stress on the conquest as God’s gift of the land to Israel (keeping his promise to Abraham). They hardly ever mention Israel’s military exploits in the process. In fact they tend to discount them:
With your hand you drove out the nations
and planted our ancestors;
you crushed the peoples
and made our ancestors flourish.
It was not by their sword that they won the land,
nor did their arm bring them victory;
it was your right hand, your arm,
and the light of your face, for you loved them.
— Psalm 44:2 – 3
The conquest, then, stood as a monument to God’s faithfulness and mighty power. It was not a monument to Israel’s military brilliance. It was not some great national achievement that could be replicated any time the Israelites felt inclined to do some Canaanite-bashing.
When we look at the conquest in this way, as a unique and limited event, a specific act of God located firmly within the narrative of Israel’s early history of salvation, it also helps us understand why Jesus could prohibit his disciples from emulating the violence of the Old Testament, without condemning the Old Testament itself. Remember when the “sons of thunder”, James and John, wanted Jesus to call down fire from heaven? Perhaps they were thinking of Sodom and Gomorrah, though they may have had Canaanites in mind too. They felt this should fall on a whole Samaritan village because they had refused to welcome Jesus. But Jesus roundly rebuked them. Such methods were not for Jesus or his disciples (Luke 9:51 – 56). We are not to behave in such ways now, nor should we ask God to.
But the fact that disciples of Jesus are not to emulate events or actions in the Old Testament does not mean that Jesus regarded those events or actions as inherently wrong in themselves at the time, or that he thought Moses and Joshua (for example) were utterly mistaken about God’s will at the time, or that the Old Testament narrators, psalmists, and prophets were wrong to consider such events as having been accomplished or authorized by God. There is no indication that Jesus took such a view of the Old Testament narrative and much that suggests the contrary – that he accepted it at face value.
This leads naturally to one of the most important perspectives that the Bible itself offers in helping us to understand the conquest. This is a perspective that needs to be taken seriously since the Bible repeatedly affirms it. It brings us to our second major framework.
The Framework of God’s Sovereign Justice
The conquest is consistently and repeatedly set within the framework of God’s international justice and punishment. I believe this makes a major difference to how we read and understand the whole story. It is repeatedly portrayed as God acting in judgment on a wicked and degraded society and culture – as God would do again and again in Old Testament history, including against Israel itself. In that sense, although the story is unique and limited (as we have just seen), it is also entirely in keeping with the way the rest of the Old Testament shows God using nations as the agents of his anger against collective human wickedness.
The word “genocide” is sometimes used about Israel’s conquest of Canaan in the Old Testament. But this can be misleading. Technically it is correct, inasmuch as the term literally means the killing of a nation, and that is what Israel was commanded to do to the Canaanites (even if they manifestly did not actually carry it out fully). However, as used in the modern world, “genocide” goes along with vicious self-interest usually based on myths of racial superiority, and therefore it is sometimes also called “ethnic cleansing” (a euphemism if ever there was one – treating people like dirt). But the conquest of Canaan is never justified on ethnic grounds in the Bible, and any notions of ethnic superiority – moral or numerical – are resoundingly squashed in Deuteronomy, as we will see in a moment.
Nor is it right to argue, as some do, that there is an irreconcilable contradiction between Israel’s celebration of their own release from oppression in Egypt and Israel’s alleged oppression of the Canaanite nations a generation later. The action of Israel against the Canaanites is never placed in the category of oppression but of divine punishment operating through human agency.
The Wickedness of Canaanite Culture and Religion
As part of his covenant reassurance, God told Abraham that his descendants would possess the land of his temporary residence, but not immediately: “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure” (Gen. 15:16, my emphasis). What that last phrase means is that the Amorite/Canaanite society of Abraham’s day was not yet so wicked as to morally justify God’s acting in comprehensive judgment on it (as he was about to do, for example, on Sodom and Gomorrah). But that time would come. Eventually, the Canaanites would be so “fully” wicked that God’s judgment would deservedly fall.
This interesting verse points to the justice of God, which Abraham totally believed in (see Gen. 18:25). All human beings and all nations are sinful in one way or another. But there are times when extremes of wickedness and degradation call down God’s signal judgment, and there are times when God deems such action to be inappropriate or premature. God alone has such discernment. But God’s words to Abraham indicate that judgment on the sin of the Canaanites still lay in the future, when it would be fully deserved.
Generations passed and Canaanite society did indeed fill up the pot of their sin. The degraded character of Canaanite society and religion is more explicitly described in moral and social terms in Leviticus 18:24 – 25; 20:22 – 24 and in Deuteronomy 9:5; 12:29 – 31. It includes the sexual promiscuity and perversion particularly associated with fertility cults as well as the callousness of child sacrifice. This is reinforced in the historical texts, with additional notes about social oppression and violence (1 Kings 14:24; 21:26; 2 Kings 16:3; 17:8; 21:2). Now if we take all these texts seriously as part of God’s own explanation for the events that unfold in the book of Joshua, we cannot avoid their implications. The conquest was not human genocide. It was divine judgment.
The New Testament accepts the interpretation of the conquest that is so dominant in the Old – God’s punishment of the wicked. Hebrews 11:31 describes the Canaanites as “those who were disobedient”. This implies that the Canaanites had been morally aware of their sin but that they had chosen not to repent of it but to persist in it against the voice of their own consciences.
If we place the conquest of Canaan within the framework of punishment for wrongdoing, as the Bible clearly does, it makes a categorical difference to the nature of the violence inflicted. It does not make it less violent. Nor does it suddenly become “nice” or “OK”. But it does make a difference. The consistent biblical affirmation that the conquest constituted an act of God’s punishment on a wicked society, using Israel as the human agent, must be taken seriously by those who wish to take the Bible’s own testimony seriously, and it must not be dismissed as self-serving disinfectant for the poison of Israel’s own aggression. Punishment changes the moral context of violence. We can see this in other situations in life that involve violence at some level.
There is a huge moral difference between violence that is arbitrary or selfish and violence that is inflicted under strict control within the moral framework of punishment. This is true in human society as much as in divine perspective. Whatever our personal codes of parental discipline, there is surely a moral difference between a smack administered as punishment for disobedience and vicious or random child abuse. Similarly, there is a moral difference between the enforced captivity of someone imprisoned as punishment under due process of law for a defined criminal offence and the captivity of someone kidnapped as a hostage for no offence whatsoever.
The use of violence within a framework of justice and punishment may be problematic, but it is not simply indistinguishable from the use of violence in wantonly selfish, arbitrary, and malevolent ways. The fact that the Bible insists repeatedly that the violence of the conquest was inflicted as an act of punishment on a whole society puts it in a moral framework that must be differentiated from random or ethnocentric genocide. It does not make it “nice”, but it does make it different.
The Conquest Did Not Mean That the Israelites Were Righteous
One of the strongest temptations in times of war is to demonize the enemy and placard your own side’s righteousness. This is as true in modern times as ancient. It is all too easy to adopt the posture of the “knight in shining armor” and dress up the whole conflict in simplistic moral polarity as in Hollywood movies. If the enemies are “bad guys”, then we must be “good guys”. God knew that the Israelites would be tempted to fall into this kind of self-congratulation after they won their victories in Canaan, so he nipped it in the bud in Deuteronomy 9:
After the LORD your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you. 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. Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.
— Deuteronomy 9:4 – 6
The Israelites wanted to make a straightforward equation:
Our victory = our righteousness + the enemy’s wickedness
But Moses says they’ve got the sum wrong. The Israelites would be right in their estimation of the Canaanites but utterly wrong in their estimation of themselves. The fact that God intended to use Israel as the agent of his punitive judgment on Canaan did not mean that the Israelites themselves were righteous. In fact, as Moses reminded them, their rebellions had made God angry enough to destroy them on more than one occasion (take a look at the rest of Deut. 9 for the evidence). So they had nothing to be proud and self-righteous about.
In later Old Testament history, turning the tables, God used Assyria and Babylon as agents of God’s judgment on Israel’s wickedness. But that did not make those nations righteous! Quite the opposite. Those nations would be condemned for their own wickedness.
God could and still can use the most deeply unjust nations as the agents of his own sovereign dispensing of historical justice in the international arena – and then deal with those nations too. This was the problem that Habakkuk wrestled with, and it still bothers us today. But the Bible asserts it. God can use one nation as a stick to punish another; but the stick he uses may itself be very bent.
But this brings us to a third point in relation to God’s sovereign justice, and it is even more sharp.
God Threatened to Do the Same against Israel, and Did So
God warned the Israelites that if they behaved in the same way as the Canaanites, God would treat Israel as his enemy in the same terms as the Canaanites and inflict the same punishment on them using other nations (Lev. 18:28; Deut. 28:25 – 68). The land that had vomited out the Canaanites would be perfectly capable of doing the same with the Israelites, if they indulged in the same repulsive Canaanite practices. The same God who acted in moral judgment on Israel’s enemies would act in precisely the same way on Israel. The Israelites needed to know (as do we) that the conquest was not some charade of cosy favouritism. Israel stood under the same threat of judgment from the same God for the same sins, if they chose to commit them.
But this was not left merely as a threat. In the course of Israel’s long history in Old Testament times, God repeatedly did act in punitive judgment on Israel. And the language used to describe God’s action on such occasions is exactly the same as the language of the conquest (“destroy”, “drive out”, “scatter”, etc.). God thus demonstrated his moral consistency in international justice. It was not a matter of divine partiality (taking Israel’s side no matter what). Quite the reverse: the Old Testament argues that Israel’s status as God’s elect people exposed them all the more to God’s moral judgment and historical punishment than any of the surrounding nations, including those they conquered (cf. Ps. 78:59 – 64; Amos 3:2).
Indeed, we might point out that over the whole history of Old Testament Israel, far more generations of Israelites felt the judgment of God at the hands of their enemies than the single generation of Canaanites experienced the judgment of God at the hands of the Israelites.
And as has been mentioned, the conquest of Canaan stands in Scripture as one of those signal events that points to the final judgment (along with other catastrophes like the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the fall of Babylon, etc.). However, although the conquest may point to the final judgment, it was not the final judgment. It would be quite wrong to assume dogmatically that every Canaanite who perished automatically “went to hell”. The story of Rahab, as we will see below, points strongly in another direction. God knows the hearts of all and his final judgment is discriminating, just, and merciful.
The Histories of Other Nations Also Directed by God
For many people there are probably two dimensions of the conquest narratives that most upset them and that they find hard to understand in relation to the God they know and love. One is the sheer horror of the bloodshed involved, as in any time of war. But the other is the fact that God commanded it. This is inescapable in Deuteronomy and the narratives.
As we have said above, it seems impossible to twist this into saying that Moses and Joshua thought up the whole grim scheme and then claimed God’s support. We are well aware that political leaders sometimes do exactly that: plan an invasion and then claim to have God on their side. But as I have tried to explain, if we take that line, we make nonsense of a lot of the rest of the Old Testament (not just Deuteronomy and Joshua), and we part company with Jesus, Stephen, Paul, and the rest of the New Testament as far as we can tell, where the conquest is simply accepted in the way the Old Testament describes it: an act of God through human agents.
If we are troubled by the text saying that God commanded it, we have to ask: Would it actually make any difference theologically if there were no direct command of God in the text telling the Israelites to conquer Canaan, but he had simply allowed it to happen? Or would it make any difference if the driving out of the Canaanites had not been done by the Israelites at all, but by some other nation? After all, it is a central part of the biblical affirmation of God’s sovereignty that all things happen in some way in accordance with his will – no matter who does them or whether he has given an explicit command or not. Nothing takes place outside the sphere of God’s sovereign governance in the broadest sense.
Deuteronomy, for example, in a much neglected chapter, puts Israel’s driving out of the Canaanites on exactly the same footing as various other invasions and conquests that had taken place involving other nations in the region around the same time, and it sees all of them as sovereignly managed by Yahweh, God of Israel. This is clearly stated in Deuteronomy 2:10 – 12, 18 – 23, which is worth reading if you can cope with the unfamiliar names – indeed, precisely for that reason.
Actually, we are so unbothered by these statements about God driving out one bunch of foreigners at the hands of some other bunch of foreigners that some translations put these verses in parentheses! We read that God destroyed the Zamzummites by driving them out before the Ammonites, and we mutter, “Who? So what? Put that in brackets.” But we read that God destroyed the Canaanites by driving them out before the Israelites and we exclaim, “What? How terrible! How could God do such a thing?”
Now we are not told that God commanded the Ammonites to drive out the Zamzummites, or that he commanded the descendants of Esau to drive out the Horites (Deut. 2:22), but the text makes it plain that these “drivings out” were as much the action of God as of the people who did them – just like the Israelites. Deuteronomy draws the comparison explicitly and intentionally. God is sovereign over the movements of all nations on the chessboard of history, and at one level, Israel’s capture of Canaan is no different from these others, any more than their exodus from Egypt was any different from the migration of the Philistines from Crete or the Syrians from Kir, according to Amos 9:7. All of these are within the will of God – whether there are express commands or simply historical permission, so to speak.
So part of our difficulty may lie in the way the Old Testament makes little difference, as we seem theologically compelled to do, between the express or decretive will of God and the permissive will of God. That is to say, we affirm that all things happen within the sovereignty of God, but we find it necessary to distinguish conceptually between what God expressly wishes or effectively causes to happen and what he allows to happen, subject to his own final control. We have come to make that distinction as a necessary way of holding together all that the Bible itself affirms about the sovereign will of God being involved in all that happens. Stuff happens. And God is in the stuff, though we struggle to explain precisely how.
We are getting into deep water, which the greatest theological minds have never fully fathomed. But I hope we can at least see that merely reading that God commanded something does not put it into an essentially different box from what God permitted in all the other stories within the Old Testament, where it may appear that God stands back from the action and plays a less interventionist role (which is most often the case, actually). The whole biblical narrative, at every level, is an outworking in different ways of the sovereign providence of God in the complexities of human history.
The Framework of God’s Plan of Salvation
We come to our third framework within which we need to place the conquest. We need to see it within the overall story of the Bible. The conquest of Canaan itself, of course, is a grim narrative of judgment and destruction. But it is part of the total Bible story, which is the story of salvation and ultimately a story of universal blessing. What light does that shed?
First of all, it reminds us that although the Bible contains stories of war, such as the conquest, it points toward God’s ultimate plan, which is to bring peace among all nations and an end to war and all forms of violence. Second, when we trace the story back to Genesis, we recall that God’s purpose declared to Abraham is to bring blessing to all nations. So we will look at how that long-term vision had some practical effects within the history and laws of Old Testament Israel in relation to foreigners. Finally, we must remember that the Old Testament points forward to God’s accomplishing salvation for all nations through Jesus Christ and that this will be a cause for rejoicing among the nations, as indeed it has to be for us also, even if we struggle to understand the story that leads there.
The Vision of Peace
A major counterweight to the violence of the conquest is to hear a different voice within the Old Testament itself. It is the voice that condemns violence when it is the fruit of wickedness. This voice is heard early, when Jacob denounces his own sons Simeon and Levi for taking utterly disproportionate revenge (Gen. 34:30; 49:5 – 7). It is the voice that longs for an ending to all war and the coming reign of God’s peace.
While the fact of war is acknowledged and while victory in war is seen as a gift of God (e.g., Pss. 18; 20), the excessive violence and bloodshed that are inevitable in wartime are critiqued. It was customary in the ancient world for conquering generals to honour the gods that had given them victory by building temples or statues of the gods in commemoration. The Old Testament narrative records that God had given David victory over his enemies. So David’s desire to build a temple to his God might have been seen as the natural and expected outcome.
Yet we find the opposite. God unexpectedly blocks David from doing so, and among the reasons given was precisely the fact that he had been a man of war and bloodshed. The temple of Yahweh would not be built or characterized by such a life of violence (1 Chron. 28:3). The psalms complain regularly about violence, whether personal assault (Pss. 10; 59) or social oppression (37:12 – 15). Nations that readily resort to war and glory in it are also condemned (68:30). God’s people are to trust in him for salvation, not in military muscle (33:16 – 19). At least one psalmist struggles with being a man of peace living in the midst of a war-hungry people (120:6 – 7) – a position believers often find themselves in.
Alongside such condemnation of the violence associated with injustice and oppression, there is the strong longing for an end to all war and the reign of God’s peace. Psalm 46 looks forward to the day when God will make wars to cease to the end of the earth by abolishing all the weapons of war.
The same vision inspired Isaiah, who links this hope of an end to war with his promise of the coming of God’s messianic king, who will reign over an era of cosmic peace between nations and between humanity and nature. Isaiah foresees all nations seeking justice under the government of God and needing neither to practice nor even to learn war anymore:
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
— Isaiah 2:4 (see also 9:2 – 7; 11:1 – 9)
War is part of the fallen world of violent human beings, but it will play no part in the new creation. War in the fallen world has also been part of God’s international sovereignty, as an act of his historical justice (as the conquest is interpreted in the Bible), but even that too will be transcended. Peace, not war, is the mark of the reign of God. For the reign of God will mean the outpouring of God’s Spirit and the triumph of righteousness and justice. As Isaiah foresaw, “the fruit of righteousness will be peace” (Isa. 32:17; cf. 32:1, 15 – 20). “Blessed,” therefore, said Jesus, in harmony with this Old Testament perception, “are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9), along with those who hunger and thirst for justice and are persecuted for the sake of it.
Blessing the Nations
The second consideration to keep in mind when we put the conquest in a fully biblical framework is that it is part of a story that has as its ultimate goal the blessing of all nations. So important is this goal that Paul called it “the gospel in advance” (Gal. 3:8). It is the amazing good news that in a world characterized by the rebellion, sin, violence, corruption, and arrogance of Genesis 3 – 11, God still intends to bless all the nations on earth! That was his promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3. So we have to see the whole story of Old Testament Israel as the first stage of that great project of God for world salvation.
In the Old Testament history of Israel there is a clear distinction between the people of Israel and the rest of the nations. Israel was the people whom God had chosen, called, redeemed, and brought into covenant relationship with himself. The nations did not yet enjoy that relationship. But – and this is the utterly crucial point – the whole purpose of God in choosing Israel was so that the nations would eventually do so. The overall thrust of the Old Testament is not Israel against the nations, but Israel for the sake of the nations.
There are many psalms and prophecies that speak about that, but we can look at two practical evidences of it: the conversion and inclusion of foreigners within Israel, and the care for foreigners in Israel’s law. These provide interesting counter-testimony to the idea that Israel’s only attitude to foreigners is the one we find in the story of the conquest.
However, before we turn to those positive angles, we have to face a difficulty that is probably already bubbling up in your mind: If God’s plan was to bless the nations, then once again, what about the Canaanites? If Israel was supposed to be the means of God blessing the nations, how then could God use them to bring such suffering on the Canaanites? What we need to see is that the Bible feels no contradiction between the ultimate goal of universal blessing and historical acts of particular judgment.
It is important to see the blessing of the nations as God’s ultimate (eschatological) purpose. It did not mean that God would therefore have to “be nice” to everybody or every nation, no matter how they behaved. The Old Testament makes it abundantly clear that God remains the moral judge of all human action and of all nations. God acts within history in judgment on the wicked, including wicked nations. As we have seen, that is how the conquest of Canaan is plainly interpreted in the Bible.
This was true for Israel as well. God’s covenant promise of long-term blessing and protection did not prevent God from punishing particular generations of Israelites in their Old Testament history. So, God’s ultimate purpose of blessing all nations does not eliminate his prerogative to act in judgment on particular nations within history, any more than parents’ long-term and loving desire that their children should flourish prevents them from necessary acts of discipline or punishment in the meantime.
Conversion and Inclusion of Foreigners within Israel
It is amazing, and it cannot be accidental, that the opening narrative in the book of Joshua describes not a conquest but a conversion. The story of Rahab in Joshua 2 is prominent in position, length, and importance (see also 6:17, 22 – 25). Here is a Canaanite who recognizes the power of Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, as proved by the things she and her fellow Canaanites have heard about all he has done. But unlike the rest of the Canaanites, Rahab chooses not to resist this God and his people, but rather to change sides and put her trust in the first Israelites she meets.
This was not just a case of raw self-preservation. Rahab’s words show a deeper theological awareness of the sovereignty of Yahweh in the exodus, in the gift of the land, and indeed over all creation. Rahab the Canaanite has come to believe what God spent a generation trying to teach the Israelites:
[Rahab] said to [the spies], “I know that the L ORD has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the L ORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the L ORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.”
— Joshua 2:9 – 11 (my emphasis)
As a result, Rahab the Canaanite and her household are spared because she believed in Yahweh the God of Israel. Deuteronomy 7 makes it clear that the problem with the Canaanites was not ethnicity (which is why I dislike the word “genocide” with its ethnic overtones), but idolatry. Rahab shows that somebody who renounced the gods of Canaan and came to worship Yahweh the living God was spared. It also shows that there was a way for Canaanites to avoid the destruction, if they chose to. Were there other Canaanites who chose to believe in Yahweh, but didn’t have Israelite spies dropping in to give their testimony to? Canaanite secret believers? We have no way of knowing of course, though we do know that some groups, like the Gibeonites, were spared and accepted into Israel and later even protected from other Canaanites – even though they had used deception to acquire that immunity (Josh. 9).
What we can say is that the very first Canaanite we meet in the narrative of the conquest of Canaan is a converted one who gets saved. And this story of conversion and salvation is so important that it is mentioned three times in the New Testament. Rahab enters into the genealogy of the Messiah (Matt. 1:5); she is included among the models of faith (Heb. 11:31); and she is held up as an example of proving faith by action (James 2:25).
Along with Rahab we can mention individuals like Ruth, who professes a conversion to the God of Israel that surpasses all others in the Old Testament for its rhetorical and emotional power (Ruth 1:16 – 17), Naaman (2 Kings 5, esp. v. 15), and the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17, esp. v. 24). All of these are foreigners who came to profess faith in Israel’s God and receive his blessing, as Jesus controversially pointed out in his hometown (Luke 4:24 – 27).
Inclusion of foreigners was not merely for individuals. The Old Testament also points to the inclusion of whole peoples within the covenant people of God. This too can be very surprising. The Jebusites, for example, are regularly included among the standard list of nations in the land of Canaan that were supposed to be destroyed by Israel (e.g., Deut. 7:1). Yet they clearly were not destroyed in the original conquest, for even in Joshua’s old age, we are told that “Judah could not dislodge the Jebusites, who were living in Jerusalem; to this day the Jebusites live there with the people of Judah” (Josh. 15:63).
It was David who eventually “dislodged” them when he finally captured Jerusalem, several centuries after Joshua (2 Sam. 5:6 – 10). But even then they were still not destroyed, but were rather absorbed into the tribe of Judah. The Jebusites seem to have moved from the “hit list” to the “home list” over the course of Israel’s early history. From being among the nations destined for destruction, they came to be included within the covenant people as a clan in Judah.
This would be remarkable enough in its unpretentious way – another little piece of evidence that the conquest was not uniformly destructive and that not only individuals but whole peoples could change sides. However, the Jebusites feature once more in a far more powerful way, in a prophecy concerning – of all people – the Philistines. The prophet Zechariah, after describing God’s judgment on the nations including the Philistines (Zech. 9:1 – 6), suddenly and surprisingly envisages a different future for the Philistines:
It [Philistia] too shall be a remnant for our God;
it shall be like a clan in Judah,
and Ekron [a Philistine city] shall be like the Jebusites.
— Zechariah 9:7 (NRSV, my emphasis).
The Philistines will have “a remnant” (a term normally associated with the saved remnant of Israel after judgment). And even the Philistines (historical archenemies of Israel) will come to be included within Judah itself as one of its clans – just like the Jebusites, the original inhabitants of Jerusalem, no less!
So the historical memory that the Jebusites had moved from being on the herem list of enemy nations before the conquest to being a clan within Judah living right in the city of David, is here used as a picture for what God’s redeeming power can do for other enemy nations. What God had done for the Canaanite Jebusites, God could equally do for the Philistines! And if there is hope for the Philistines, there is hope for anybody. Psalm 87 caps this by including the Philistines and other historical enemies of Israel among those who will eventually be registered by God as native-born citizens of Zion. How much more included could you get?
Care for Foreigners in Old Testament Law
Another major counterbalance to the destruction of the Canaanites in the conquest narrative is the strength of practical concern for foreigners that is enshrined in Old Testament law. Many foreigners (whether former Canaanite population or immigrants) assimilated and became “resident aliens”. But generally foreigners were vulnerable, because they lacked the natural protections of family and land. There was a strongly positive concern for their well-being and protection.
What did the Old Testament law have to offer such foreigners? A great deal. If you take time to read through the texts below, I think you will be impressed with an ethos that strongly modifies what we might think if we only read the conquest narratives. The Old Testament speaks of protection from general oppression (Ex. 22:21; Lev. 19:33) and from unfair treatment in court (Ex. 23:9; Deut 10:17 – 19; 24:17 – 18); inclusion in Sabbath rest (Ex. 20:9 – 11; 23:12; Deut. 5:12 – 15) and inclusion in worship and covenant ceremonies of Passover (Ex. 12:45 – 49), the annual festivals (Deut. 16), the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29), and covenant renewal ceremonies (Deut. 29:10 – 13; 31:12); the economic benefit of the triennial tithes (Deut. 14:28 – 29; 26:12 – 13) and access to agricultural produce (gleaning rights) (Lev. 19:9 – 10; Deut. 24:19 – 22); and equality before the law with native-born (Lev. 19:34).
Binding all such practical legislation together is the simple command, given twice: love the foreigner. In Deuteronomy, this command is based on the example of God himself. Yahweh is characterized by his practical love for the needy foreigner – a character trait that Israel knew well from their exodus experience:
He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigners residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.
— Deuteronomy 10:18 – 19 (my emphasis)
In Leviticus, the same command mirrors the earlier command in the same chapter to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).
The foreigners residing among you must be treated as your native – born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.
— Leviticus 19:34 (my emphasis)
So there is a powerful pulse of legislative energy in Israel’s law that is positively favourable and protective toward foreigners in their midst. Now of course this does not remove or even reduce the violence that we find in the narrative of the conquest. But it does show a counterbalancing force within the legal custom of Israel. And that in turn shows that the conquest was seen as a limited historical necessity, not as an ongoing paradigm for social attitudes or behaviour within Israel toward foreigners in general. When Paul told Christians to “practise the love of strangers”, he was drawing on strong scriptural roots. Hebrews 13:1 – 2 has a similar exhortation, with clear Old Testament allusion as precedent. There philoxenia is put right alongside philadelphia (love for brother/sister).
The Praise of the Nations
Finally, the third element in this “whole Bible framework” is to look to the ultimate future that the Bible envisages for the nations. What does God have in mind for the nations, as you read the Old Testament? Judgment, comes the answer, very quickly. Yes, but the same is true for Israel. Indeed, what is more prominent in the Old Testament than God’s words of warning, threat, and then actual judgment on the covenant people themselves? The Old Testament is simply stuffed with the reality of judgment – on Israel. But beyond that judgment of Israel lay the indestructible hope that God would be faithful to his promise to them and once more bring them salvation and restoration.
And that same hope and promise is held out for the nations. God promised Abraham that through his descendants all nations on earth would be blessed, and that is the promise that drives the whole drama of the Bible toward its great climax in Revelation. So, just as Israel went through the purging fire of God’s judgment but held on to his promise of ultimate restoration, so the nations will be sifted by the judgment of God, but there will be people from every nation who will be included within the redeemed humanity that God is already creating in Christ. His goal is that the new creation will be populated by people drawn from all the nations he has made. The quantity of biblical texts that affirm this is enormous, and it is rather scandalous that so many Christians are quite unaware of this great plan of God for the nations.
Here is only the briefest outline summary of God’s plans for the nations. It is worth pausing to take the time to read this sample of texts. They are amazing in their scope and vision.
- The nations will benefit from the Abrahamic blessing of Israel (Ps. 67).
- The nations will come to worship the living God (Pss. 22:27 – 28; 86:8 – 10; 102:15, 21 – 22; 138:4 – 5; 145:10 – 12; Isa. 2:1 – 5; 12:4 – 5; 42:10 – 12; 45:6, 14, 22 – 25).
- The nations will be included within Israel as the extended people of God. As such, they will be
- registered in God’s city (Ps. 87).
- blessed with God’s salvation (Isa. 19:16 – 25).
- accepted in God’s house (Isa. 56:3 – 8).
- called by God’s name (Amos 9:11 – 12).
- joined with God’s people (Zech. 2:10 – 12).
One text I have deliberately left to the end is Psalm 47. The reason for singling it out is that it specifically mentions the conquest of the Canaanites, but it includes even that as a cause for praise among the nations themselves.
Clap your hands, all you nations;
shout to God with cries of joy.
For the LORD Most High is awesome,
the great King over all the earth.
He subdued nations under us,
peoples under our feet.
He chose our inheritance for us,
the pride of Jacob, whom he loved.
— Psalm 47:1 – 4 (my emphasis)
The writer of this psalm calls the nations to join in applause to Yahweh, God of Israel. Clapping is a form of physical and audible thanksgiving that goes beyond words. People clap because something has brought them pleasure or benefit, and they are grateful. What, then, does our psalmist invite the nations of the world to give a round of applause to Yahweh for?
The answer at first sight seems perverse (see v. 3):
— He [Yahweh] subdued nations under us [Israel], peoples under our feet.
The nations are being asked to clap to Yahweh because he is the God who defeated them through Israel! Is the psalm nothing more than military cynicism masquerading as worship? The only alternative to reading it in that way is to discern a deeper theological conviction about the meaning of the conquest.
The nations can be summoned to applaud Yahweh because even the historical defeat of the Canaanites by Israel will ultimately be seen to be part of an overall history of salvation for which the nations themselves will praise God. This means that we must read the single story of the conquest of Canaan within the larger story that will ultimately lead to all nations having cause to praise and thank God for the salvation he accomplished in Christ.
Canaanite culture at that point in history was degraded to the point of deserving divine judgment, as we saw. But the God who acted in historical judgment on them was also “the great King over all the earth”. And when this great King takes up his reign, then all the nations will be the beneficiaries. Ultimately, then, the history of Israel, including even the conquest, will be the subject of praise among the nations, for whose saving benefit it happened. Deuteronomy 32:43, along with its use by Paul in Romans 15:7 – 12, points in the same direction.
Conclusion – the Road to Calvary
This thought brings me to a final reflection. As I struggle to understand God in relation to this nasty part of biblical history, I have to ask myself where I stand.
As I read Psalm 47, where do I find myself? I am not an ancient Israelite like its original author and hearers. Neither am I a Canaanite, one of the conquered nations of verse 3. But I do stand as a believer among the redeemed from all the nations. I am among those who are summoned to clap my hands and give praise to Yahweh the God of Israel, the great King, the Lord Most High, and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In that sense, because I am in Christ, I too am part of “the people of the God of Abraham” (Ps. 47:9; cf. Gal. 3:29).
For this history is part of the story of my salvation. This is my story; this is my song. This is the way in which God in his sovereignty chose to work within human history to accomplish his saving purpose for humanity and for creation, including me. I may not understand why it had to be this way. I certainly do not like it. I may deplore the violence and suffering involved, even when I accept the Bible’s verdict that it was an act of warranted judgment. I may wish there had been some other way.
But at some point I have to stand back from my questions, criticism, or complaint and receive the Bible’s own word on the matter. What the Bible unequivocally tells me is that this was an act of God that took place within an overarching narrative through which the only hope for the world’s salvation was constituted.
Within that overall biblical perspective, the road to Canaan was one small stretch along the road to Calvary. From that point of view, I cannot do other than include it among the mighty acts of God for which all his people are called to praise him. I have to read the conquest in the light of the cross.
And when I do set it in the light of the cross, I see one more perspective. For the cross too involved the most horrific and evil human violence, which, at the same time, also constituted the outpouring of God’s judgment on human sin. The crucial difference, of course, is that, whereas at the conquest, God poured out his judgment on a wicked society who deserved it, at the cross, God bore on himself the judgment of God on human wickedness, through the person of his own sinless Son – who deserved it not one bit.
As we draw this part to a close, note once again that humble submission to the biblical teaching on the sovereignty of God on the one hand, along with robust reflection on the mystery of the cross of Christ on the other, combine to strengthen our faith in the midst of things we do not understand.