A Somewhat Systematic Look at the Violence in Joshua (for more depth to Sunday's sermon on the topic)
This Sunday we will continue in our sermon series working through the major themes of The Bible, and this Sunday brings us the story of Joshua leading the Israelites into the land of Canaan (aka The Promised Land) which will become Israel, and conquering the city-states therein one by one through the deliverance of God's mighty hand.
It sounds so much more regal that way, because working through the scriptures we are told that Joshua devotes the Lord all the men, women, children and livestock of Jericho, and completely annhilates other populations of people as well. That doesn't sound very regal...or very God-like, from our common conceptions or messages about God.
So what I aim to do below is give various interpretations of the violence in Joshua, and the implications each carries for Christian thought and Christian Practice.
1) Deuteronomy commanded it.
This is true, Deuteronomy, as recorded, Chapter 20 states that all peoples inside the borders of the Promised Land shall be annihilated, while those outside the borders should be treated as any battle goes, the warriors are killed and the women and children are kept as slaves or sent back.
Proponents of this theory argue two things:
A) That as Deuteronomy also says, they must remove any temptation what-so-ever from their midst so that they do not fall back into their old ways (see Golden Calf in Exodus). If the people were allowed to survive and were influencers in an Israelite converting or worshiping a false god, there is another Deuteronomy law that prescribes death for this offense anyways.
B) The people destroyed were guilty of worshipping other gods, therefore going against the law against anyone practicing idolatry or perhaps again, influencing an Israelite towards idolatry...all punishable by death.
This interpretation holds up the idea that scripture is indeed inspired (and perhaps infallible), and works from the assumption that the Bible is not culturally conditioned at all. It is not a book written by Hebrews, it is a book inspired by God, therefore the truth. It holds that God is God, and can do what God wants, and we are humans and should not question...which is consistent with Job, much of what Jesus says about God, and most other scripture after Moses' bargaining with God to spare the Israelitesafter the Golden Calf incident.
One problem this theory has is that it is inconsistent from the idea of grace and forgiveness. Jonah tells of an angry God, but one that allows the Ninevites to at least have the chance to repent. The Israelites themelves after Joshua break covenant with God over and over and over again, but God is faithful to them and gives them opportunities to come back into righteousness.
There also is the issue of Rahab and the Gibeonites. Rahab should be killed because she is a prostitute and a resident of Jericho, and the Gibeonites are another Canaanite tribe, so therefore should be eliminated for who they represent (El, Baal...name your Canaanite god). Rahab is praised in Hebrews as being saved for her faithfulness, to which I say AMEN! as she is the only character in the entire book to claim God's supremacy over all things...however, both her and the Gibeonites are saved in reality because they make oaths with Hebrews and it angers God when you don't let your yes be yes and your no be no. So this means that the law of oaths sworn before God is more powerful than God's command to wipe out the people of Canaan, leaving the Israelite people to potentially have infestors (even though Deuteronomy strictly says that even the Gibeonite slaves (wood cutters, etc.) must come to hear the reading of the law and mind the statutes). The point is...they didn't annihilate these people, and we read into Judges they apparently didn't historically take care of business or else the Canaanite tribes wouldn't have caused them so much trouble. Same can be said about all of Elijah's troubles in Kings.
The last issue (that I can see) is that this interpretation presents a God who "knows", such as God knew that the people needed to be destroyed so that they wouldn't stray or stumble. I'll be honest, if scripture weren't so honest about the ongoing unfaithfulness of the Israelites I would buy this, because I do believe God is all-knowing, but the Isrealites are consistently unconsistent with their devotion and eventually are exiled from the land anyways.
Does this mean that God could not see far enough that the Israelites would stumble AND that the lives were invaluable enough to leave no chance for redemption even though this plan wouldn't work out in the long run?
So this questions God's omniscience a bit, or at least limits it to a very specific part of scripture.
2) God demands blood
This is similar to the last argument and flows out of the Levitical and Deuteronomy laws, that God is the source of life, and so for obedience God requires life to be given back to God. It sounds a lot worse when you say God demands blood, when in reality it's a cultural view that you return life back to God.
Israelites were actually pretty tame compared to other cultures about their blood offerings as they were one of the few that didn't allow human sacrifices.
In the context of Joshua this would relate to a Hebrew term known as "herem", which means to devote or destroy. While this is certainly a cultural idiom, it means that when Israel sacked Jericho and other cities the people in it were devoted to the Lord...in other words they dedicated those people to the satisfaction of God, so that God would know the Israelites were serious about keeping this land holy. They were giving the life of the land back to God, AND not keeping any of the spoils of war for themselves, further obedience.
In this view, if the Israelites do not kill the inhabitants, they are merely seeking war for their own personal gain and glory (see the whole list of bad kings presented in Kings/Chronicles).
And while it sounds gruesome it does fit with the idea of Jesus upon the cross as a ransom sacrifice for our sins.
This idea has not been popular amongst more liberal Christians who do not want God to be vengeful and in need of the loss of life to be satisfied. While I do not want this God either, I think we are missing out on the cultural understanding of blood/life and reading scripture with too much of our modern glasses.
The real issue comes when the blood is someone from outside your circle's blood. Deuteronomy is filled with many justice laws that protect resident aliens, but not near the protection provided to the Hebrews. And yes, Hebrews get killed like Achon did for breaking the covenant, but none are devoted to God. Which begs the question of God's love for the world again, instead of just God's chosen people.
3) The Culturally Bound argument
This argument suggests that the warrior imagery and desire for the loss of life is bound up in the author's own biases associated with the time and the place of the writing.
So...the "herem" was Joshua's idea of devotion to God...not God's idea.
God conquering the other warriors...more of a retelling of the story by the victor, with the idea that God won the battle (a popular way of thinking about gods in this time).
"God commanded = it worked out, so God is given the glory."
What we gain from this is a freedom from a God that does not fit into our cultural, moral standards, and makes more apparent sense with the God presented in Jesus Christ and called "love" in 1 John. It puts the honus of violence upon the people (which we know people tend to be a part of unfortunately) and fits with how most people view God, as someone who empowers us to live and be free change agents in the world...more of the grace than the law.
What we lose is...
-the Bible becomes a culturally formed document, which means it is not infallible and has human elements in it...problematic for some to think of the Word of God as humanly influenced.
This also begs the question of if we can pick or choose what we want to believe in scripture or not. I believe everyone including the most Biblical literalist picks and chooses from scripture, and some of this can be countered by the thesis of the "red letter Christian", one that sees the writings associated with Jesus as the ultimate authority, and then filters the rest through that lens.
-in this theory we also lose the two ideas of 1) absolute faith and dependence upon God, without questioning...which could be a good thing for many of us, and 2) the idea that God is intimately active in all decisions, events and happenings in our world.
If God didn't command this, then who did? And why wouldn't God stop it if God didn't want it to happen? And if God didn't command this, then what else in scripture did God not command? This can be problematic if taken too far.
-in this we don't lose all of God's wrath, but we do lose the idea that when we are saved through Christ that we actually have something to be saved from. Modern Christians would say we are saved from hell, but hell is essentially the progression of God's wrath from clearing the world to an afterlife of punishment...so it's the same anger.
I've never liked the word wrath, although I think this loss is profound for our faith. The idea of the Law was that the chosen people could be holy like God was holy (which Jesus echoes in the Gospels), and the deaths were to eliminate non-holiness more so than avenge a wrathful God. It's in Jesus that all non-holiness is taken upon holy person, therefore providing the adequate sacrifice and therefore we are more free to pursue God's law with boldness and courage, without having to worry about the nuts and bolts.
So these are the three paths that I can see, and all of them have things we preserve about God and all of them have deficiencies when we look at the whole corpus of scripture...and I'm most cerain I didn't cover them as adequately as I should/could have.
One thing that comes out of all of them, or should, is the idea that Christ either satisfied all vengeance (God satisfied God's own vengeance) or Christ gives us the lens in which to judge all other scripture...so that we can be free, one, from salvation according to the law, but a big 2) we can be free from people who believe they are called to commit atrocities in the name of God "just like Joshua did."