The Old Testament is filled with various ethical dilemmas, but perhaps the most complex one is Joshua’s conquest of Canaan. God’s command to kill all the Canaanites—men, women, and children—has led Richard Dawkins, an atheistic philosopher, to state
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully (The God Delusion, p. 31)
You may not know what half of those words mean. But trust me, they’re bad. If Dawkins’s view of our Old Testament God contains even an ounce of truth, then we’ve got a real problem on our hands. Is the God of the Old Testament really a bloodthirsty, vindictive bully?
On the flipside, the conquest has given others biblical precedent to wage modern war. Two weeks into the Iraq war (2003), former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld encouraged president Bush with these words:
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.
Rumsfeld’s words are a quotation from Joshua 1:9, which God spoke to Joshua on the eve of the conquest of Canaan. They are a divine command to wage a “holy war” on the pagan Canaanites. And Rumsfeld saw fit to appropriate the same logic for America’s own (holy?) war against Iraq. The implications are clear: America is a holy nation and the terrorists in Iraq, like the Canaanites, need to be annihilated.
Rumsfeld wasn’t the only national leader to use Joshua’s conquest to give religious backing to war. Christian history is filled with examples of nations fighting other nations, or people seeking to annihilate other people, all under the banner of holy war. (The Crusades of the Middle Ages are one horrific example.) I’m not sure it could be done, but it would be interesting to see how many people have been killed, tortured, and in some cases cannibalized, all because certain Christians sought to apply the book of Joshua to their lives.
Needless to say, there still exists an ethical urgency to understand Joshua’s conquest and how—if at all—it applies to us today. Does God’s command to kill the Canaanites justify a Christian’s use of violence?
Over the next few posts, I’m going to look into the ethical issues surrounding the conquest, including the slaughter of women and children, and whether or not the conquest can be used by Christians to justify violence (or war). For the rest of this post, I’ll lay out a few ways Christians have understood the conquest.
Some think that Joshua (and Moses before him) misunderstood God’s command to kill all the Canaanites. God actually didn’t really mean that they should kill the Canaanites. The Israelites simply acted “in good faith acted on what they believed to be God’s will” (Cowles, “Radical Discontinuity,” Show Them No Mercy, Kindle loc 620). While this approach distances God from the apparent evil action (commanding the genocide), nowhere in the Bible does it say that the Israelites misunderstood God. In fact, the Israelites are rebuked for not driving out all the Canaanites from the land (Judges 2). If God never actually commanded Israel to get rid of all the Canaanites, then such a rebuke would be nonsensical. There’s got to be a better solution for Joshua’s conquest.
Other Christians say that the Bible grossly distorts what actually happened. Even though Deuteronomy and Joshua speak of entering and conquering the land, this isn’t what took place at all. What really happened—despite the biblical picture—is that the Israelites were already living among the Canaanites and yet there was a “peasant revolt” within the land. The oppressed Israelites rose up and overthrew their oppressors—the Canaanites—and then described their uprising as a “conquest” in their sacred Scriptures (the book of Joshua). This view not only dismisses the Bible’s own presentation of what happened, but relies on rather scanty historical evidence for support.
Still others—yes, even Christians—will assume that the God of the Old Testament is quite different than the God of the New. The God of the Old is filled with wrath, judgment, and violence, and it fits right in with His character to command an indiscriminate slaughter of all the Canaanites. But the God of the New, revealed in Jesus Christ, shows us how to love, forgive, and live peaceably with all mankind. So when it comes to the Canaanite genocide, there’s no problem. The God of the Old is a God of genocide. Let’s just be thankful that we serve the God of the New.
I don’t think any of these views does justice to what the Bible actually says. Regardless of the apparent moral dilemma, it seems best to deal with the text head on and then figure out how God could command such things. God doesn’t need us to make excuses for Him. So let’s approach the problem with a plain reading of Scripture and then move towards a solution of the ethical problems therein.