5 Clarifications About God and Violence in the Old Testament
(This blog post is inspired by episode #2 of the Adventures in Theology podcast). Listen to this episode of the podcast on Apple podcasts, Anchor, Spotify, or wherever else you enjoy streaming podcasts!
If you don’t know too much about Joshua, you need to know this, a large part of the narrative is a conquest. And Joshua begins right where Deuteronomy leaves off. (Watch the Bible Project’s video on Deuteronomy by clicking here.)
Some people have a problem with this book of the Bible because the Israelites aren’t going to go get vacant land… they were going to go take some land from some people. And that is why people have a problem with this book! Because it is basically God promoting the conquest of the land. God is even credited as the one who goes to battle on behalf of the Israelites. Deuteronomy 3:22 says: “Do not be afraid of the nations there, for Yahweh your God will fight for you.’” And that promise, that God will act as Israel’s Divine Warrior is stated four other times in Deuteronomy!
People have a problem with God commanding and even being the one fighting a war against these nations.
I have six points of clarification about violence, war, and God in the book of Joshua.
And this is 2019, so no one says, “wicked” as meaning cool anymore. So don’t get it twisted! These people were wicked, bad, evil, abominable, atrocious, vile, iniquitous, impish, incorrigible, nefarious, and egregious. Wow! That was a lot of synonyms.
God makes it clear and tells His people that the nations in the land are so bad, and that is why they, the Israelites, are getting the land, not because they are so righteous, because they aren’t. But they certainly are not like these wicked nations!
Anyways, it really cannot be exaggerated.
To name one example, they had a god (one of their many idols) named Molech, and Molech was supremely worshipped through infant sacrifices. Yes, that is how this “god” took delight. As a parent, you would pay homage to Molech by laying your firstborn child (while still a helpless infant) on the hands of this idol, which was a scorching furnace.
Basically, the child would die from sizzling and would melt into the furnace of the idol Molech. The Canaanites would purposefully play loud music so that it would drown out the sound of the child’s agony with the joyful shouts of music. They celebrated this. And the priests would console the parents, telling them that this act brings the utmost joy to Molech, and the whole nation will be blessed for it. Archaeology has only affirmed this to be true as thousands and thousands of charred remains of children have been dug up and found. This was a prevalent practice throughout these nations. And the women were not exempt in participating in such things. Thus, if they were willing to do such things to little children, imagine what else these people did!
This was no secret. Many nations in this land were doing acts like this atrocious one. And the Israelites knew about this. God even makes multiple comments in the Torah, especially Leviticus and Deuteronomy forbidding such a detestable act. God hates the oppression and torturous murder of innocent children. And all these nations were guilty of such practices for hundreds of years prior to the conquest in Joshua. God even says this is why He is driving these nations out of the land!
Which is a great segway to the second point…
It wasn’t a secret that Israel was coming to take a very specific plot of land, and the nations not only knew this, but they knew that had a choice–a chance to change their position. They were not allies, they were posturing themselves as enemies of the Israelites. Parts of Leviticus and Deuteronomy sum this up well, but it breaks down to the nations in the land having three options:
Partly because Joshua was a one-time scenario. This wasn’t a reoccurring conquest.
This is not Israel being this powerhouse nation who goes and strong-arms all these peaceful countries in the land. No way! The Canaanites were beasts of people and of warfare. Do you want a reminder of who the Israelites were?
This would be like the Super Bowl champions of the NFL going against your local high school football team. The Israelites would have been like the high school team.
So the only way the Israelites could actually have a place in the land is if God truly acted as the Divine Warrior and fought on their behalf!
And immediately it becomes clear that this is not like a radical religious person or people taking up arms today. How we picture religious holy war is so different… holy war says, “hey, we will go fight for God!” The Joshua conquest is God saying, “hey, I will fight for you, because you are weak.” Not the same!
The language resembles that of “ancient trash talk” or a more scholarly way of saying it–hyperbole… the verses that talk about killing everything that breathes, including women and children are clearly hyperbole. I will show you an example where that verse comes from and explain why it isn’t a problem.
“When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess,and he drives out many nations before you… seven nations more numerous and powerful than you— 2 and when the Lord your God delivers them over to you and you defeat them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy. 3 You must not intermarry with them, and you must not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons.” (Deuteronomy 7:1-3)
They would all be dead, so no intermarrying would happen. Also, if they really killed everyone in the land we wouldn’t see the continual conflict that happens for the hundreds of years afterward! Even through the time of King David these nations were causing trouble for Israel, so clearly they did not understand the general command to truly wipe out every person they encountered.
He was speaking with hyperbole to convey their victory. “We destroyed them all” and yet you are dealing with some of their people assimilating into your nation. You also have those same people rebuilding and being a problem a generation later.
We do this all the time in reflecting on sports victories.
It is not being dishonest, it was just how you talk about warfare you are about to do, or warfare you already have done.
Once in the land, Israel did not try to expand their borders. They settled with a small piece of land and simply defended it when they had to. Unlike other nations who were aggressively trying to conqueror and expand their borders.
Israel was commanded to eradicate the evil, but once in the land they were commanded to take care of the marginalized and the foreigner. That is something many people forget.
If you didn’t know, “shalom” is the Hebrew word for peace, although it is much more robust than that.
War is not God’s ideal… shalom is, but we live with the reality that human choice has weight, people actually have the ability to exercise free will and make choices (good or bad). God does not override our free will. Part of our humanity is the insane privilege of having the power of choice.
With that said, we are ignorant if we think these brutal nations would have accepted Israel having a place in the land without any conflict. These nations naturally were tribal and opposed anyone in or around their borders. They were motivated by power and their means were brutal. They would not have allowed Israel to peacefully live there. So in some ways you can say that war was just necessary and inevitable.
As was already mentioned a few moments ago, Israel was to offer peace before going to war with any of these people… therefore peace, not war, was the preference and disposition. War was the unfortunate, inevitable result if these people would not change their ways or desire to live in harmony with Israel.
If our goal is to try to read the text through ancient eyes, which it is, then we should read it through their lens. And in their world, war was just a necessary and inevitable part of life. And before we can get on our high horses and see we have progressed, our modern society has killed more people in the 20th century than all other centuries combined. So before we can judge them for having to go to war, we have the same issue.
These nations were living out evil generation after generation. And God can only say “please stop” so many times before He will bring such wickedness to an end. Every time He listened to the cry of an innocent child being sizzled to death on the furnace-like hand of Molech He was being patient with these people. But because God is good and God is loving, He cannot stand idly by and do nothing.
It is kind of funny to me because sometimes it feels like people complain about God no matter what. It is like we witness evil acts in the world and we see, “gosh, if God is so good why didn’t He do anything to stop that?” And here is the book of Joshua, one of the few times God intervenes to stop nations of people who are pure evil and bringing constant death and chaos into God’s good world. And you know what people’s reaction is? I hear people say things like, “gosh, why did God command Joshua to go take down these nations? Wow, the God of the Bible is some angry, capricious God.” And I just am like, man, God just can’t do it right in our eyes. He is patient in enduring evil and we shake our fists at Him demanding He act. Then He acts and administers justice on the evildoers and we shake our fists and condemn Him of being blood-thirsty. So, can we at least take a step back and see that we put God in a pickle here?
Honestly, I don’t have a problem with God acting in Joshua, I almost have a problem that He waited 400 years to do so! Man, He is so much more patient than I would have been with these nations. But He really was giving them a chance to change their trajectory.
We get deeply upset with God for endorsing the war against the Canaanites, yet we complain in our world today when we watch atrocities go unchecked and unpunished. We are inconsistent with our critique of God.
And the last but not least point of clarification for today…
In Joshua, we will see examples of some of the “enemy” becoming part of God’s fold. Because ultimately, God is always on the side of life. And since God is always on the side of life, to the point of where He will, paradoxically, go to war to end the evil of wicked nations, so that He can instill ways in which that promote life in the long-term. Yes, because humanity has the dignity of choice and free will, sometimes drastic measures are taken to correct the course of history. God acted as the Divine Warrior after hundreds of years of offering a chance to change, but it came to the point where all these nations were not on the side of promoting life. So, if God truly is on the side of life, then sometimes war is the ugly, but necessary, way of handling nations who are destroying each other, and God’s world.
One of God’s most prominent attributes (in times of frequency) that he says of Himself is that He is slow to anger.
And these nations were opposing all that God valued and being agents of chaos. They were the very antithesis of what God was trying to do in the world. Therefore, in God’s righteous anger, there comes a point when enough is enough. God is always pro-life, for His people, for the foreigner, for the marginalized, for animals, and even for agriculture (plants and trees and land)… even to the point where He is willing to go to war to defend the cause of life.
We must pay attention in Joshua to the things in which God does say, and equally, what God does not say. Sometimes Joshua and the Israelites do things that are beyond the instructions of God–so pay attention for that!
To recap the six points here they are again:
The nations in the land were really wicked
The nations had a chance to change
The conquest was nothing like holy war movements in history
Hyperbole was involved in describing the conquest
God’s ideal is shalom, not war
God is always pro-life, in every way
What do we learn about God from this?
God goes to war in in Joshua because He cares. As Christians, we should praise God that He is not apathetic to the evil in the world. God’s justice is delayed, but not denied. He is slow to anger, but He also knows when to say “enough is enough.” We live in the gap between the fall and final redemption.
And we live with that hope.
On the journey with you,
Brayden Rockne Brookshier