After the death of Moses, and just before Israel began the military campaign to take control of the promised land, God himself encouraged the new leader of Israel, Joshua. He also reminded Joshua of the key to his and Israel’s success.
Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”Joshua 1:7-9 ESV
The key to Israel’s victory was their faithfulness to the written word of God, a principle also highlighted in Psalm 1. Ironically the book of Joshua is often misused to undermine Christians’ confidence in Scripture. And this not only by non-Christians, but also by ministers in the church.
Joshua, they say, promotes genocide; that it describes Israel as having been engaged in an extermination campaign against the Canaanites. It is true that there is some language in Joshua that could be taken that way, if taken in a strict wooden literal sense. Joshua 11, for instance, describes the conquests in northern Canaan. Of one Canaanite strongholds, Joshua 11:11 says they were devoted to destruction, “there was none left that breathed.” The narrator goes on to explain that several other cities were also “devoted to destruction” and “they did not leave any who breathed” (v.14). This, according to even ministers like the United Methodist, Adam Hamilton, is where this author of Scripture got it wrong. He deems Joshua 11:11 & 14 to be passages that do not reflect the actual heart of God and declares that these passages were never inspired by God at all.
But Joshua 11:15 itself insists that Israel had done “Just as the Lord had commanded Moses his servant, so Moses commanded Joshua, and so Joshua did. He left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses” (see Deuteronomy 20:16-18).
Although Rev. Hamilton has repeatedly insisted, as he once again did recently in an article he wrote in response to Tom Lambrecht, that he and no one he knows really has a lower viewer of Scripture than conservatives. It’s hard to take Rev. Hamilton’s claims seriously when in his own words he has declared that not all of the Bible is inspired by God and that some parts, like the passages in Joshua above, were never inspired of God. He also teaches explicitly that the parts that are inspired are inspired in the same way as the writings of many other books or sermons such as the writings of C.S. Lewis. On the one hand, he says the Bible is more authoritative than other Christian works because it was closer to the source of the main events.
But on the other hand it’s not clear that he really believes this because he says the authors of Scripture were trying to describe their encounters with the Divine, but sometimes misinterpreted those experiences in ways that do not reflect the heart of God revealed in Jesus. Hamilton sees Scripture as a word about God rather than a word from God. And he sees it as a word about God that is flawed, irredeemably so in some passages. The problem is the passages that he deems “problematic” are much more pervasive than he acknowledges and some of the teachings of Jesus himself would fall into Hamilton’s problematic “bucket.” He certainly could not honestly agree with John Wesley’s statement in his preface to the New Testament notes.
The Scripture therefore of the Old and New Testament, is a most solid and precious system of Divine truth. Every part thereof is worthy of God; and all together are one entire body, wherein is no defect, no excess. It is the fountain of heavenly wisdom, which they who are able to taste, prefer to all writings of men, however wise, or learned, or holy.
Wesley was merely echoing the longstanding belief of the Church that Scripture is a reliable, trustworthy, true, and sufficient testimony to the good news of the saving work of God in our fallen world. Whatever he says, it’s obvious that Rev. Hamilton really doesn’t believe that Scripture is sufficient. He actually teaches that it is deficient. Regarding Joshua, he puts us in a position where we have to decide is Adam Hamilton right or is the book of Joshua (i.e. 11:15) and the book of Deuteronomy right (i.e. 20:16-17)? It would be helpful to reflect on the accusation that Joshua promotes genocide. Did God really command Israel to commit genocide?
As Joshua 11:15 indicates, the story we find in Joshua is the culmination of a narrative that begins in Genesis. It’s the culmination of a story line that runs all the way through Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Those who think they are just picking at bad threads in a few passages in Joshua are really pulling a thread that will unravel the entire narrative beginning in Genesis, a narrative that Jesus and the apostles and all the New Testaments writers assumed to be the trustworthy and true word of the Living God.
In Genesis 15, when God ratifies his covenant with Abram, God prophesies long into the future and shows Abram that the descendants that God will give him will end up enslaved in Egypt for 400 years before being delivered and being granted the land of the Canaanites.
“And they shall come back here [Canaan] in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites [one Canaanite tribe mentioned to represent all of them] is not yet complete.”Genesis 15:16
Genesis 15:16 indicates that God was giving the Canaanites 400 years before bringing judgment, which would also have given them time to repent. In Leviticus 18, in the midst of prohibitions given to Israel regarding various forms of sexual immorality, including child sacrifice, Leviticus 18:24-25 says:
Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.
These were the sins for which God would drive the Canaanites out of the land with Israel as the instrument. Note the language “drive out.” This language with regards to the Canaanites used here in Leviticus is also used in Numbers and throughout Deuteronomy. It’s also used in Joshua itself. In the same passage from Leviticus 18 above, God through Moses goes onto to warn Israel that they too are to avoid falling into those same sins because God would judge them in the same way. The passage also assumes that there would be foreigners residing among Israel under Israelite rule (Leviticus 18:24-30). Most of those would be the very same Canaanites that Israel was to “drive out” and “devote to destruction.”
The mission of Israel was to take control of Canaanite strongholds, to drive them out of power, to destroy their evil influence in the region. Deuteronomy 20:18 captures this intent: “that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have dome for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.” Israel’s call was to set up a kingdom under the leadership of the Creator himself to be a witness to and to spread the holy, healing presence of God to all the nations of the earth. This included the Canaanites themselves. Rahab, a prostitute in Jericho, and her family would be some of the first recipients and an example of that very thing (Joshua 6).
“Drive them out” didn’t mean literally to completely expel every single one of them from the region, and “devote them to destruction” leaving “nothing that breathed” didn’t mean that all of them were to be literally exterminated. The last chapters of Joshua and the beginning chapters of Judges make this very clear. Tens of thousands of Canaanites remained among the Israelites even under Israelite rule. In the reign of king David later we will read about how one of his most loyal soldiers was Uriah the Hittite, and how David was condemned for the tragic injustice he infamously perpetuated against him (2 Samuel 11-12).
The language of total annihilation and leaving nothing that breathed and so forth was stock figurative hyperbolic language used throughout the Ancient Near East, including by the Canaanites themselves to describe victories in battles. The battles themselves were real and incredibly brutal as war has been throughout history into the present day. The different Canaanite tribes themselves were often at war with each other as various warlords (i.e. kings) would seek to gain total control over the land. I just finished watching a Netflix documentary discussing the age of the Samurai in Japan in the 1500’s and how various clans led by various warlords fought for control over all of Japan for well over a hundred years in incredibly vicious and brutal battles. I think this may help us imagine the situation that God led Israel into in Canaan under the leadership of Joshua and his many successors. But he wasn’t leading them to commit genocide. God’s intent in his call of Israel was to reclaim ground subverted under the influence of the serpent and suffering under the curse of sin to restore his healing presence and blessing to all families of the earth, including Canaanite families (Gen 12:3; 18:19).
People who use Joshua to undermine the church’s confidence in the written word of God, are undermining people’s confidence in the very thing that God told Joshua would be the key to God’s people’s success. Israel’s call found its ultimate-albeit still-to-be consummated- fulfillment in Jesus Christ. And the mission to reclaim ground for the kingdom of God continues with the faithful witness of the Church (Matthew 28:18-20). The Church is not called to wage war physically in the same way that Israel did, but we are called to wage war against the “spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:10-20).
For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, …2 Corinthians 10:4-5
If we are to be successful we too must have confidence in the testimony of Scripture, that it reliably and truthfully bears witness to the Word of God in the flesh by whose blood and by whose word we conquer the deceiver of the whole world, the devil (Revelation 12:11). If we are to successfully reclaim ground for the kingdom of God–first and foremost in our own hearts (Mark 4:1-20)–we must regain confidence and commitment to the word of God.
By Cliff Wall