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Joshua's Wars of Conquest

by Doug Becker

Note: This essay was originally published as an appendix to Emergence's study guide for the book of Joshua in 2020.

God’s commands for the Israelites to wage war against the Canaanites present one of the most difficult ethical questions for Christians who believe that the Scriptures are the revealed Word of God. These commands are carried out in the book of Joshua, and can cause deep conflict between the theological and devotional truths taught in the stories on the one hand, and the historical reality of what it must have been like when the invading Israelite forces put the land’s inhabitants to the sword on the other. Many honest observers have wondered how the God who loved the world by sending his Son to die for us could also have commanded violence against an entire population of people.[1]

There are no simple and easy answers to this question, but our aim here is to try to provide a biblical framework for thinking about the challenges that face us as we read the book of Joshua. These questions are not new, and people of faith have wrestled with them throughout the centuries. Of the many answers that have been offered, some are more satisfactory than others, and often depend on one’s prior theological convictions (or lack thereof). As followers of Jesus, we believe that the proper posture for approaching this issue is encapsulated in Anselm of Canterbury’s famous and wise motto, “faith seeking understanding.” That is, we have many good reasons to believe in and trust the God of the Bible. And so, problems that seem challenging to us should be treated with diligence, patience, and open-mindedness, as well as the understanding that they do not somehow cancel out the positive reasons we have for believing in God and his goodness. Any realistic view of God must acknowledge that there are many aspects of him that are simply beyond human understanding. We therefore approach these questions in view of the wisdom given by God through the prophet Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”[2]

The Heart of the Problem

The challenge we are addressing is raised by texts such as Deuteronomy 7:1–5:
When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction [Heb. haḥărêm taḥărîm ʾōtām]. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and chop down their Asherim and burn their carved images with fire.

This is carried out by the Israelite forces in the book of Joshua. The summary of the battle of Jericho’s outcome stands as an example: “Then they devoted all in the city to destruction [wayyaḥărîmû], both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword” (Josh 6:21).[3]

A key biblical term used in both these passages, and others like them, is the Hebrew noun ḥerem, which is typically translated as “ban” or “devoted to destruction” (its related verb ḥāram occurs in the passages cited above). [4] This concept belongs to Israel’s ritual vocabulary alongside familiar terminology like “holy”/“common,” and “clean”/“unclean,” and indicates things that are irrevocably dedicated to the Lord. John P. Lilly describes it the idea as “uncompromising consecration without possibility of recall or redemption.”[5]  Accordingly, valuable objects were to be given to the sanctuary, and people and objects defiled by sin were to be destroyed.[6]  The Canaanite people and culture were utterly corrupt and evil, and had defiled the land that God had set apart as holy for his people. The idea of enemies and the spoils of war coming under a ban was not unique to Israel, and is attested also in texts from the eighteenth century BC in city of Mari,[7]  as well as the Mesha Stele, a monumental text dating to 840 BC in which a Moabite king recounts his version of the events surrounding 2 Kings 3, including the claim that he “devoted to destruction” (hḥrmth) the Israelite town of Nebo to his god, Ashtar-Kemosh.[8]  It isn’t surprising that we find this ideology of warfare throughout the ancient world. But how does is square with the God of the Bible? In order to get on the right track, let us first specify the nature of the problem.

A helpful place to begin is by asking, does the Bible teach that God has the right to take human life? The answer is yes. God will eventually conquer death itself.[9]  But until then, all human beings meet the same fate, even though Christ enables us to face it with hope. Some people die quickly and painlessly while others suffer long ordeals before passing. And if it is true, as the Bible teaches, that God is in sovereignly in control of every aspect of our lives, then death is no exception. We find this explicitly taught in Deuteronomy 32:39: “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.” Biblical teaching is unequivocal: It is the will of God that all people eventually die physical death, and he is the one who decides when that will happen.[10] The life God gives is a gift, and he wrongs no one when he, in his wisdom, decides to take it eventually from every single one of us.

Moreover, death is a consequence of human sin. As Paul teaches in Romans 5:12, “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” And then, a chapter later, we read that “the wages of sin is death.”[11]  James also tells us, “Sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”[12]  While it is certainly true that death can be used to describe our state of alienation from God,[13]  the connection between spiritual death and physical death as a result of sin cannot be overlooked.[14]  God would be just in taking of life even if this were not the case, but he is more justified in doing so given that it is.

If God, then, is justified in ending human life, in virtue of both his sovereignty and his justice, it is difficult to see how biblical accounts of him carrying this out should be viewed as problematic. This is true even if God does a lot of it at once, such as in the flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, or his judgment on the Canaanites. To be sure, the pictures painted in these stories are not pleasant; death rarely is. But if we accept the fact that God has the right to take life, and especially to do so as judgement for sin, then biblical depictions of him doing this present no real challenge to Christian faith, as emotionally difficult as this may seem to us. We should also note that God’s attitude towards his judgment of sinners is in no way sadistic delight, but rather grief: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?”[15]

In light of these considerations, the real difficulty posed by the destruction of the Canaanites is not that it was the Lord’s will to judge them with death. Rather, it is that he commanded humans to carry this out. While God is justified in taking human life, under most circumstances, humans are not. One major reason why murder is wrong, under a biblical worldview, is that it robs God of a right that belongs only to him—the right to decide when to give and take life. It is not God’s will that human beings should exert this kind of power over one another. Commentator Nahum Sarna observes, “By his unspeakable act, the murderer usurps the divine prerogative and infringes upon God’s sovereignty; and, because human beings are created in the divine image, he also affronts God’s majesty.” [16] Although murder is certainly a crime against the victim, it is even more so a sin against God. This is why David, after killing Bathsheba’s husband Uriah, can pray in repentance, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”[17]

On the other hand, the Bible also teaches that God authorizes humans to take life under certain circumstances. Such circumstances would include punishment for capital crimes like murder[18]  or enslavement/slave-trading,[19]  justified warfare, and other acts that are protective in nature.[20]  When human beings do such things, they are acting as God’s agents.[21]  Therefore, a biblical perspective on killing would be something like the following: Intentional killing is sin except when it is authorized or commanded by God. The commands to war against the Canaanites fall withing these parameters, because, as we have seen, they were doing so in obedience to several commands given to them in the law of Moses (as the text explicitly says three times in Joshua 11:12–20).

Thus far, we have these two observations:

  1. God is justified in his taking of human life, both because of his sovereignty and his righteousness in judgment.
  2. Human beings are justified in taking life when doing so in accordance with God’s commands.[22]

Both these points are thoroughly biblical, and show that, given a Scriptural worldview, there is no true theological problem raised by the killing of the Canaanites.

One possible objection to this, however, would be to pit God’s portrayal in the Old Testament against his revelation in Christ in the New. Those who argue along these lines are correct to point out that there is a sense in which revelation is progressive. Things that are not clear or perhaps not revealed in earlier stages of redemptive history are revealed and become clearer in Christ. But some have taken this further, and have argued the Old Testament endorses a false view of God. Christians who think this way will usually suggest the Bible is a record, not of God’s revelation to us, but of our developing understanding of him.[23]

Space does not permit us to explore these different proposals to the extent they deserve, but we hope it is sufficient to note that such views do not take seriously enough the way Jesus and the New Testament writers affirm the Old Testament portrayal of God, even, and explicitly, with respect to the violence depicted in Joshua. Stephen, in his speech before being martyred in Acts 7, speaks approvingly of Joshua’s “dispossession” of the Canaanite peoples, attributing it to the work of God: he “drove them out before our fathers” (v. 45). Paul also, in his address to the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch, says that God was the one who “destroyed” the inhabitants of the land and “gave [it to Israel] as an inheritance” (Acts 13:19). Hebrews 11 praises the Old Testament military leaders explicitly for “conquering kingdoms” (vv. 32–34). All three of these passages treat Joshua’s military victories approvingly and attribute them to the work of God.

As Christians, our starting point should be how Jesus himself thought of the Old Testament. All indications show that he viewed it as the true word of God, such that to believe or disbelieve the Scriptures was to believe or disbelieve God.[24]  Neither Jesus nor the New Testament authors give the impression that the Old Testament is in need of correction. In fact, New Testament theology is grounded in the foundations established in the Old.

God’s attributes should not be placed at odds with one another, as if any of them undermines the others. He is all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly loving, present everywhere, perfectly just, and completely sovereign. All of these are aspects of his holiness. Properly understood, these attributes complement one another and give us an accurate portrait of who God has revealed himself to be in all the Scriptures, nuanced and multitextured as they are. The love of God shown in Jesus Christ is magnified by the seriousness with which he judges sin. Only the life of the divine Son has the infinite value required to vindicate the holiness of the God of the Old Testament in his justification of sinners.

In sum, the Bible gives us a theologically consistent way of thinking about Joshua’s wars of conquest. God is justified in commanding war against the Canaanites, and the Israelites are justified in carrying out those commands. Nevertheless, we are likely left with a feeling that there is still something morally disturbing about both the commands and the stories. And for good reason. The violent taking of life should never sit easily with any morally serious thinker, let alone for those of us who believe that all human beings bear the image of God. More can and should be said, not least of all because these observations do not tell us the full story. We now turn to these, all of which should inform our thinking.

A Story from a Different Time
In the prologue to his 1953 novel, The Go-Between, the British author L. P. Hartley famously wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”[25]  This encapsulates our first observation, which is simple, yet important for anyone doing serious thinking about historical matters. In some very fundamental ways, humanity will always be the same, and Ecclesiastes 1:5 will always be true: “There is nothing new under the sun.” The essential elements that make us who we are will always be relevant—we will always bear the image of God, and we will always be twisted by sin, victims to our own choices and shortcomings, yet also beautiful in the many ways we reflect our Creator. But there are other ways in which we are drastically shaped by the times and places into which we are born. Things that seem obvious, both morally and intellectually, to one group, will seem strange and even repulsive to others. It is natural to think that all people everywhere would be evil or ignorant to not see things as we do. But doing so virtually guarantees that we will misunderstand cultures that are different than our own.

Before making judgments about the characters and scenarios presented in the Bible, we must make every effort to check our cultural biases at the door. With respect to the book of Joshua, the nearly 3,250 years that separate us from the people we read about should caution us about assuming what we would do if we were in their situation. We live on the other side of countless events in human history that have molded and shaped the world around us. And not a single one of us—even our best historians—truly knows what it would have been like to live in an ancient Near Eastern tribal society, whether Israelite, Canaanite, Philistine, Egyptian, Phoenician, or the countless other groups that existed at the time. This is not to say that the Scriptures withhold judgment on the characters that populate its narratives; far from it. But it does mean that our intellectual and moral compasses have very limited value in a world so vastly unlike our own.

Did God Really Say?

The events of September 11, 2001 forced our society to open its eyes to the reality of religious extremism, included in which is the fact that a small yet significant percentage of the world’s population believes that their god has given them a mandate to kill people. In what way are the beliefs that drive this mentality different from those possessed by the Israelites as they entered into Canaan and went to war with its inhabitants? After all, both believed they were acting according to divine directives.

The fact that people often do mistakenly believe that they are following the commands of deities is a reality that the Bible takes very seriously. In fact, Scripture’s insistence on monotheistic faith stands in stark contrast to the polytheism that was prevalent in the ancient world, the latter of which accepted the reality of foreign deities and imagined a world in which the gods of certain nations were merely subservient to the gods of others. By way of contrast, the Bible teaches that other gods are false, and that those who follow them are self-deluded, merely worshiping the works of their own hands.[26]  God’s verbal revelation in both the Old and New Testaments functions against this backdrop.[27]

This provides the context for much of what we see in the stories of Israel’s early years, where God often seems intent on leaving no room for doubt that the revelation given through Moses was indeed from him. God judged Egypt through ten plagues.[28] He led them through the wilderness with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.[29]  He parted the Sea of Reeds, destroying the Egyptian force that pursued them.[30]  He sustained them with bread from heaven,[31]  water,[32]  and quail,[33]  as well as unambiguous military help,[34]  He visibly and audibly manifested himself on Mount Sinai.[35]  Moses’ face visibly glowed after being with God.[36]  The glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle once it had been consecrated.[37]  Both Miriam and Aaron’s opposition[38]  the rebellion of Korah[39]  were aimed squarely at the question of Moses as the exclusive mouthpiece of God, and both were met with swift and extraordinary divine judgment. Of all the tribes, God showed his favor on Aaron by causing his staff to bud.[40]  God sent fiery serpents as judgment against the people’s grumbling, and authorized Moses alone to provide the remedy,[41]  and he sent a plague on his people for worshiping Baal Peor, which abated only after Aaron’s son Phineas took action.[42]  And even as the people moved into the land, God’s presence was confirmed by him parting the waters of the Jordan,[43]  and his miraculous interventions in several key battles.[44]  Additionally, the authority of Moses is publicly passed on to Joshua, assuring that Israel would follow him, as they had followed Moses.[45]

While each of these blatantly miraculous acts had purposes of its own, they also served the function of eliminating any reasonable doubt as to whether their God was real and what he had commanded them. It is probably no exaggeration to say that there were likely no atheists among these generations of Israelites. Their belief or unbelief rested squarely on their hardness of heart, not on any purported lack of evidence. This stands in extreme contrast with the violent Islamic jihadist, whose only justification for his actions are interpretations of the Qur’an, which itself was given in private settings to Muhammad. The primary reason for objecting the Muslim extremist worldview is that those who believe it are deceived—their god does not exist, he has not spoken, and they do not have adequate justification for their dangerous beliefs. None of these things can be said of the Israelites. In fact, with only very few exceptions throughout redemptive history, few people who have ever lived have had stronger supernatural confirmation for their knowledge about God, including what he required of them.

The Myth of Peaceful Adversaries

We should not miss the fact that all modern Western critics of the early Israelite wars do so from the context of the most safe and secure societies the world has ever known. Most of us do not know what it is to live under constant physical threat to us, our families, and our livelihoods. Anyone who has read the Old Testament knows that war and the terrors that it brought were a real possibility at any and all times. Can we truly imagine what it would have been like to be homeless escaped slaves entering into a land filled with hostile city states that wouldn’t have hesitated to kill our men, rape our women, and make slaves of our survivors?

And this was, in fact, what Israel encountered. In the wilderness, having escaped the Egyptian army, Israel fell under almost immediate attack from Amalekite raiders.[46]  Recounting this, Deuteronomy 25:18 reminds God’s people of how Amalek purposely targeted their weak: “He attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God.”[47] Years later, as Israel attempted to move northward into the Transjordan, the king of Edom refused to give them passage, and even came out with “a large army and with a strong force” to stop them.[48]  Soon after this, Israel was attacked again by the king of the Canaanite city of Arad, who “fought against Israel and took some of them captive.”[49]  Matters did not improve as Israel moved even further north and were attacked by two different Amorite kings, Sihon and Og.[50]

According to the accounts of Joshua, many of the battles fought within Canaan were not initiated by the Israelite forces either. After the Israelites attacked Jericho and Ai, they faced a coalition of southern kings who attacked Gibeon in order to draw Israel into battle due to their treaty obligations.[51]  In a summary statement, the text tells us, “There was not a city that made peace with the people of Israel except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon.”[52]  Likewise, Jabin, king of Hazor, formed an alliance with several northern cities “and came out [against Israel] with all their troops, a great horde, in number like the sand that is on the seashore, with very many horses and chariots.”[53]

None of this should be taken to mean that all of Israel’s battles in the land of Canaan were defensive. We have already noted that Jericho and Ai were offensive, and the cities listed in Joshua 10:29–43 can be added to the list. Nor does it permit us to ignore the fact that Israel entered the land with the express purpose of driving out the native inhabitants. Had none of them attacked, Joshua would still have been divinely obligated to wage war against them. But these observations do allow us to more accurately assess the situation on the ground. These were not peaceful cities who would have been happy to welcome the tribes of Israel as their new neighbors. They were aggressors in their own right, ready to wage open war on God’s people.

Stated Purposes

The Old Testament gives two primary stated reasons for God’s commands for Israel to drive out the Canaanites. The first, which we have already noted, is that it was an act of judgment on the sinful city states within Canaan. Deuteronomy 9:4–5 is explicit:

Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, “It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,” whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

God is not giving the Promised Land to Israel as a reward for their upstanding moral character. They are the merely recipients of the gracious promises given centuries earlier to their forefathers, and the inhabitants are being driven out because of their own wickedness. Several passages elaborate on this theme. Deuteronomy 18:9–14 lists deviant religious practices such as child sacrifice, omen reading, necromancy, and other divinatory rites.[54]  Leviticus 18 catalogs numerous sexual practices as “abominations” for which “the land vomited out its inhabitants.”[55]  To these, we would add the willingness of the Canaanite cities to wage war against the Israelites, noted in the previous section, as evidence of their hostility and disregard for the vulnerable sojourners and foreigners.[56]

Another important statement relevant to this point is made in Genesis 15, the passage where God formally established his covenant with Abraham.[57]  Here, God tells him that the reason he brought him into Canaan was “to give you this land to possess.” But he also makes clear that this would not happen immediately. Rather, God told him of how his descendants would be “sojourners” and “servants in a land that is not theirs” for “four hundred years.” God ends this promise with the intriguing statement, “For the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”[58]  Apparently, even then God was delaying his judgment on the Canaanites, knowing that their wickedness would eventually grow to a point of necessitating divine justice.[59]

The second stated reason for driving out the Canaanites given in the biblical text is given in Deuteronomy 20:18: “. . . that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the LORD your God.” This is reiterated elsewhere in Deuteronomy 7:4, 12:30, and 18:9. The Israelites had already proven susceptible to idolatrous religious practices, as evidenced in their worship of the golden calf in Exodus 32 and of the Moabite deity Baal Peor in Numbers 25. And the rest of the history of Israel given to us in the Old Testament is a testimony to how frequently God’s people became corrupted by idolatrous worship. To this we should add what we see our own lives, how easily our hearts turn aside from God to worship created things.

The critical question here is how important it is for God’s people to follow the first two of the Ten Commandments—do not place other gods before the Lord, and do not worship him through the use of idols. The way we answer this will greatly impact what we make of much of the violence in the Old Testament. If we feel that the abandonment of the Lord for the worship of other gods is no big deal, then we will probably view much of what we read in the Bible as a gross overreaction. However, according the Bible, following these commandments, and the preservation of true worship of the one true God is of critical importance.

God’s violent response to human sin is just that—he is responding to evil. Of course, the severity of any evil act depends on what makes an action moral or immoral, especially the degree of harm that is inflicted. If we accept the narrative of Scripture, that Israel is central to the plan of God to decisively counter the plague of sin that robs God of his glory and brings death and condemnation to everyone who has ever lived, then an individual or a community acting in willing opposition to that plan would be guilty of a very serious criminal act. The command to devote the Canaanites to destruction is given to protect God’s chosen people from the idolatry that would have drawn Israel away from God (as it eventually did), and to judge sin. If we think little of these objectives, then we will have a very hard time coming to terms with what we find in the pages of Joshua. But if we accept what the Bible teaches, then this will have to enter into our calculation—that there was a time and place when God dealt visibly with unrepentant sin, and this should serve as a warning for all of us.

Refusal of Peace

As we noted in chapter 2 of this study, the nation of Israel was not a closed group that outsiders had no hope of joining. Several passages indicate clearly that people who were not descended from Abraham were to be welcomed into the covenant people, on the condition that they would embrace the Lord as their God. We see this in the “mixed multitude” that left Egypt along with the Israelites in Exodus 12:38, as well as other non-Israelites who were incorporated into holy nation over the years, with Caleb the Kenezzite standing as a powerful example.

It is probably no coincidence that the very first Canaanite encountered in the land is Rahab, who turned to the Lord, was spared the fate of her city, and was welcomed into Israel. Indeed, her story stands in juxtaposition to that of Achan, an Israelite who turned his heart away from God and was placed under the ḥerem alongside the enemies of God. The Canaanites’ unwillingness to turn from their sin and join Israel is also displayed in Joshua 11:19, where we are told that “there was not a city that made people with the people of Israel except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon.” Thus we should not assume that the Canaanites who were killed in the wars of conquest had no choice but to be destroyed. Rather, they believed that their superior numbers, fortified cities, military strength would enable them to continue in their sinful practices.

A New and Better Way

It is not uncommon for Christians to be accused of cherry-picking the Bible—focusing on the parts we like and avoiding those that we don’t. This is indeed a problem in the church, especially among those of us who don’t consistently read through our Bibles. This results in a lopsided view of God and a faith that is ill-equipped to stand up to challenges and personal struggles. So let’s get it out of the way: We all need to cherry-pick less.

But are we cherry-picking when we follow the loving pattern of Jesus and the early church, rather than violent examples in the Old Testament, such as we find in the book of Joshua? (This is not to say that there are not loving parts in the Old Testament, or wrathful parts in the New.) Not at all, because the Bible itself teaches a distinction between what God was doing in the Old Testament and what he is doing in the New. Jesus’ disciples are not bound by the Old Covenant, or by the law that governed God’s people under it. When Christians eat shellfish, get tattoos, and grow cucumbers alongside asparagus and Carolina Reaper peppers, we are not doing so simply because we have chosen to ignore the parts of the Bible that we don’t like.

To the contrary, the reason why we do not observe these laws, or deal with idolatry the way Israel did (when it chose to deal with it), is because the Bible itself teaches us that Christians are no longer under the jurisdiction of the Law of Moses—the law that provided moral guidance for ancient Israel between twelve and fourteen hundred years before the coming of Christ. This law, which was the ethical standard for the Old Covenant, was given to govern a specific people, at a specific time, under specific circumstances, at a specific point in God’s overall plan of redemption—all of which are different than our own. According to the New Testament, Christians are under the New Covenant in Christ (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:5–6, Heb 7:22). The Old Covenant law, therefore, is not the Christian’s master; Jesus is. This is why Paul can stand as “not being myself under the law” (that is, the law of Moses), “but under the law of Christ” (1 Cor 9:20–21). This is also why the early church, faced with the question of whether to require Gentile converts to submit to the law of Moses, had the freedom to conclude that doing so would be “putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear.” To the contrary, Peter contended, “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Acts 15:5, 10–11).

The New Covenant is “not like the covenant that [the Lord] made with [Israel’s] forefathers on the day when [he] took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt” (Jer 31:32). As the writer of Hebrews puts it, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Heb 8:13; Rom 11:27). There is a legitimate biblical difference between the ethic required by those in Jesus’ kingdom and that which was required of the ancient Israelites.

Much more could be said about the relationship between Old Testament law and the Christian. For example, none of this means that Old Testament laws, such as the Ten Commandments, have no relevance for the Christian life. The principles that lie behind the letter of the law are relevant for all of God’s people at all times. Our task with these laws is to discern these principles and to let them inform our conduct in light of the coming of Christ. Our point here is simply to state that it would actually be unbiblical for Christians to engage in the kind of violence found in the Old Testament laws and stories, because God’s mission for the church is different than it was for Israel. As the church, we are not a political entity with an earthly king, requiring our spiritual leaders to use military force to defend and preserve our religious life. We aren’t called to inhabit a land, but are rather called out from every land. And, unlike Israel, our spiritual wellbeing doesn’t stand or fall on the religious policies of any particular government.

Approaching These Matters with Unbelievers

We live in a day when one no longer needs to read the Bible, or any book for that matter, in order to find reasons to reject Jesus. A myriad of skeptical sources awaits anyone with Google and a pulse. And the topic addressed here will be at the top of the list of anyone looking for moral problems in the Bible. Our hope is that the information provided here would prove helpful to those encountering such objections. But we would also remind the Christian seeking to witness to his or her unbelieving friends that these questions are not of “first importance.” Although they may be encountered as roadblocks to belief, we must remember that providing answers to them that unbelievers will find morally satisfying should not be thought of as a necessary prerequisite for sharing the gospel, as if the truthfulness of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the forgiveness found in him, somehow depends on cracking the moral dilemmas of the Old Testament. For this reason, we recommend refocusing unbelieving friends and family members on the critical question of the gospel, and realizing that the matters covered in these pages are best handled from Anselm’s perspective, mentioned at the outset, of faith seeking understanding.

[1] This important issue has been treated at length in many publications. The most thorough and rigorous work of which we are aware is Paul Copan and Matthew Flannigan, Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014). A shorter version can be found in chapters 15–17 of Copan’s earlier work, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011).

[2] Isaiah 55:19.

[3] Also Joshua 7:21–29; 10:28–43; 11:10–15, 19–23.

[4] In the Hebrew Old Testament the verb occurs 51 times and the noun occurs 29 times.

[5] J. P. U. Lilley, “Understanding the Ḥerem,” Tyndale Bulletin 44.1 (1993): 176–77.

[6] Leviticus 27:28–29.

[7] Abraham Malamat, Mari and the Early Israelite Experience, The Schweich Lectures of the British Academy 1984 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 70–79. In Mari, the term used for this concept is asakkum.

[8] K. A. D. Smelik, “The Inscription of King Mesha,” in Context of Scripture Volume 2: Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World (ed. William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, Jr.; Leiden: Brill, 2003), § 2.23. Reflecting the ritual nature of this term, Smelik translates it, “killed as a sacrifice.” Younger notes even more extreme versions of this idea in Assyrian texts, such as the Annals of Aššur-nasir-pal II: “I made a pile of their corpses. I burned their young boys (and) girls. I flayed Hulaya, their city ruler; (and) I draped his skin over the wall of the city of Damdammusa. I razed, destroyed, (and) burned the city” (cited in K. Lawson Younger, Jr., Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing [LHBOTS 98; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990], 236).

[9] Isaiah 25:8; 1 Corinthians 15:54–55; Hebrews 2:14–15; Revelation 20:14; 21:4.

[10] Notwithstanding the exception of those in Christ who are alive at his coming (see 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17).

[11] Romans 6:23.

[12] James 1:15.

[13] Luke 15:24; Ephesians 2:1, 5; 4:18.

[14] For example, Genesis 5.

[15] Ezekiel 18:23; also v. 32; 33:11; Genesis 6:6; Isaiah 63:10; Ephesians 4:30; 1 Timothy 2:3–4; 2 Peter 3:9.

[16] Nahum M. Sarna, Exodus, JPSTC (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), 113.

[17] Psalm 51:4.

[18] Exodus 21:12–14; Leviticus 24:17–23; Numbers 35:9–34.

[19] Exodus 21:16; Deuteronomy 24:7.

[21] The Bible contains other examples of people acting as God’s agents in judgment. The Assyrian armies were sent against the Northern Kingdom of Israel as a judgment for their sins (2 Kings 17:6–18: Isaiah 10:5–19), as were the Babylonians against Judah (Jeremiah 21:1–10). One big difference between these nations and the Israelites under Joshua is that the Israelites were acting out of obedience to the Lord, while the Assyrians and the Babylonians were acting out of their own sinful ambition, and were themselves judged accordingly. Nevertheless, in all three cases, God used human warfare to judge sin.

[22] If this latter point seems harsh, consider that most people believe killing is justified in certain circumstances, irrespective of religious considerations (e.g., capital punishment, justified warfare).

[23] Examples would include Peter Enns, Eric Seibert, Brian Zahnd, and Gregory Boyd. There are, of course, others who would argue that the task of modern theology is to continue to correct the primitive views of God found even in the New Testament.

[24] Matthew 4:4; 19:4–6; 22:41–45; Mark 7:9–13; John 10:35–36; 17:17.

[25] L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953).

[26] Deuteronomy 4:35, 39; 32:39; 1 Samuel 2:2; Isaiah 44:8–20; 45:5–7, 18, 21–22; Joel 2:27.

[27] First Corinthians 8:4; 1 Timothy 2:5.

[28] Exodus 7–12.

[29] Exodus 13:17–22; Numbers 10:11–35.

[30] Exodus 14.

[31] Exodus 16.

[32] Exodus 17:1–7; Numbers 20:2–13.

[33] Numbers 11:31–35.

[34] Exodus 17:8–16; Numbers 21:1–3, 21–35.

[35] Exodus 19:16–20; 20:18–21; 24:9–18.

[36] Exodus 34:29–35.

[37] Exodus 40:34–38.

[38] Numbers 12.

[39] Numbers 16.

[40] Numbers 17.

[41] Numbers 21:4–9.

[42] Numbers 25.

[43] Joshua 3.

[44] Joshua 6; 10:1–15.

[45] Numbers 27:12–23; Joshua 1:5, 16–18.

[46] Exodus 17:8–16.

[47] Here the Amalekites are personified as an individual—a he.

[48] Numbers 20:20–21.

[49] Numbers 21:1–3. Arad is one of the cities later defeated in Joshua’s southern campaign (Joshua 12:14).

[50] Numbers 21:21–35.

[51] Joshua 10:1–28.

[52] Joshua 11:19.

[53] Joshua 11:4. For the battle, see Joshua 11.

[54] Here, child sacrifice is referred to as “making one’s son or daughter pass through the fire.” This is a common expression in the Old Testament (Leviticus 18:21; 2 Kings 16:3; 17:17; 21:6; 23:10; Jeremiah 32:35; Ezekiel 16:21; 20:26, 31; 23:37), and seems, both here and in 2 Kings 17:17 and 21:6, to be connected with divination. Elsewhere other expressions are used, such as in Deuteronomy 12:31, which speaks of Canaanites “burning their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.” The strongest archaeological evidence for child sacrifice is found in the Phoenician city of Carthage, where a massive 6,000 square meter burial ground of infants and children burned in sacrificial rituals has been excavated. It should be noted that Phoenician religion had many similarities to the religion of Canaan, and is often cited in scholarly literature as evidence for Canaanite beliefs and practices. Writing in the third century BC, the Greek author Kleitarchos describes the practice: “Out of reverence for Kronos [the Greek equivalent of Baʿal Hammon], the Phoenicians, and especially the Carthaginians, whenever they seek to obtain some great favor, vow one of their children, burning it as a sacrifice to the deity, if they are especially eager to gain success. There stands in their midst a bronze statue of Kronos, its hands extended over a bronze brazier, the flames of which engulf the child. When the flames fall upon the body, the limbs contract and the open mouth seems almost to be laughing, until the contracted [body] slips quietly into the brazier. Thus it is that the ‘grin’ is known as ‘sardonic laughter,’ since they die laughing” (P. G. Mosca, Child Sacrifice in Canaanite and Israelite Religion: A Study in Mulk and Molech (PhD diss., Harvard University, 1975), 22. For more details, see Lawrence E. Stager and Samuel R. Wolff, “Child Sacrifice at Carthage: Religious Rite or Population Control?” BAR 10.1 (1984): 30–51.

[55] Leviticus 18:25.

[56] During the period of the judges, the Canaanite military commander Sisera’s mother is portrayed as testifying to her son’s practice in war: “Have they not found and divided the spoil? A womb or two for every man” (Judges 5:29–30).

[57] His name was Abram at this point.

[58] Genesis 15:7–8, 13–16.

[59] The term “Amorite,” which derives from the Sumerian Martu and the Akkadian ammuru, meaning “westerner,” is often used in the Bible to refer to non-Israelite “hill-dwellers,” and, as here, as a synecdoche referring to all Canaanites. See Tomoo Ishida, “The Structure and Historical Implications of the Lists of Pre-Israelite Nations,” Biblica 60 (1979): 461–90; Kevin G. O’Connell, “The List of Seven Peoples in Canaan,” in The Answers Lie Below: Essays in Honor of Lawrence Edmund Toombs (ed. A. G. Thompson; Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984), 221–41.




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