Tag: college essay

Violence in Joshua (redux)

Luke posted a summary of Mikey’s sermon on the Canaanite genocide. I haven’t listened to it. But I did finish the essay I mentioned in my previous post. This is an experiment in posting essays with footnotes on WordPress. Feel free to tell me why my apologetic for God’s violence is heinous and inappropriate, or to just skip this post. It’s long (I went over the 1,500 word word limit).  Does anybody know if there are rules against posting such things before they are marked? I hope my esteemed lecturer reads this before running my text through a plagiarism checker and finds this page online. It is all my own work…

Violence, Joshua and the Christian


The question of violence in the Old Testament is a source of consternation for many – from the rabid “New Atheists” to Christians seeking to synergise the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, with God’s actions and commands in the Old Testament.

We will explore the violence in Joshua, engaging with scholarly and theological interpretations of the Canaanite “genocide,” and its moral and ethical implications for the Christian.

Concluding that violence described in Joshua was not genocide, but the destruction, largely through dispossession, of an immoral culture, and there is no conflict in this issue for the Christian.


Understanding Biblical violence, especially in Joshua’s conquest narrative, is a difficult task. Some use it to dismiss the notion of God altogether. Richard Dawkins describes the God depicted in the Old Testament as “the most unpleasant character in all of fiction.”[1]

As readers struggle to reconcile the “Yahweh of Armies” in the Old Testament with Jesus the lamb in the New Testament, they apply different interpretive schemas to the Joshua narrative. Some assume intertestamental discontinuity, others read violent rhetoric as a boundary defining sociological device,[2] others use it to derive a “Just War” doctrine.[3] Calvin did not see Joshua as a paradigm for “Christian” warfare, suggesting if not for the “command of God” it was an atrocity.[4]

While acknowledging the work of scholars who argue for an ahistorical interpretation of the conquest account,[5] this piece considers the violence as written, that it occurred as described against the backdrop of Deuteronomic commands to occupy the Promised Land. The question of historical veracity is secondary to this discussion[6] and will only be discussed as it relates to the interpretation of violence in the narrative. This seems the most pastorally valuable approach, as the narrative’s affirmation of violence presents a moral dilemma for the Christian. If we can reconcile ourselves to the notion of actual violence, it becomes easier to justify its use as literary or sociological tool.

Violence in (and around) Joshua

The violent events in Joshua, including the conquest of Jericho (Joshua 6:20-21), Ai (Joshua 8:21-26), and Southern and Northern Canaan (Joshua 10-11), are the culmination of God’s promises to Abraham (Genesis 12, 15), and subsequent commands regarding the land throughout the Pentateuch (eg Exodus 23:23-30; Deuteronomy 6:10-19; 7:1-6, 20). The Joshua narrative is framed as a sequel to the Pentateuch through the repetition of the Deuteronomic account of Joshua taking over from Moses (Deuteronomy 31:23, 34:9, Joshua 1).

We read disturbing accounts of Israelites exterminating cities (Joshua 8:24-26, Joshua 11:10-11), with the Lord hardening Canaanite hearts to prevent their retreat (Joshua 11:20). Yahweh participates in warfare, toppling city walls (Joshua 6) and hurling hailstones from the sky (Joshua 10:11).

The mandated annihilation of the Canaanite nations (Deuteronomy 20:16-18) contrasted the way Israel was to treat other conquered people (Deuteronomy 20:1-16). Israel was to practice חרם (herem).[7]

The “completely destruction” of the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 20:17) was not without reason. They were wicked. Leviticus 18 instructs Israel not to behave like the Canaanites. The list of prohibitions includes child sacrifice, incest, and bestiality, finds a corollary in Canaanite culture. If Israel failed to stamp the Canaanites out they would be led astray (Deuteronomy 20:18), and would face their own cursed expulsion from the land (Deuteronomy 28:25-68). The Canaanites were forewarned of Israel’s impending arrival, and some chose to “melt away” (Joshua 2:9, 24), Millar argues that the “whole world” was watching Israel’s journey with God (Deuteronomy 2:25)[8] – the nomadic occupants of the land had ample time to escape.

At the heart of moral objections to God’s command of “genocide” is the assumption they involved the murder of innocents. The commands themselves are Biblically framed as God’s judgment on the wicked. Canaanite culture was seeped in immorality (Deuteronomy 9:4, Deuteronomy 18:12, Leviticus 18:24-25), the people “hate God” (Deuteronomy 7:10). God’s promise to Abraham came with a four-generation caveat on the basis that the iniquity of the occupants had not yet reached its full measure (Genesis 15:13).

Two seemingly contradictory notions operate regarding the occupants of the land. Israel is to devote those they find to destruction, but the occupants will be driven out (Exodus 23:27-33, 24:34, 33:2, 33:52, Leviticus 18:24, 20:23 Numbers 21:32, 33:52, Deuteronomy 4:38, 6:19, 9:3-5, 11:23, 12:29, 18:12, 33:27). Removal from homelands was a common method of destroying ancient cultures.[9]

This apparent paradox is resolved for us in the case of the Anakites, who were totally destroyed in the Promised Land, but survived in other nations (Joshua 11:21-22). This is not genocide.

The potential injustice is not the punishment of the Canaanites, but the mercy shown to Israel, whose continued occupation of the land depends on obedience (Leviticus 18:28, Deuteronomy 28:36, 63-64, 29:27-28, 30:17-18), they too faced חרם for disobedience (Joshua 7:11).

Understanding חרם in the Promised Land

The interpretation of חרם is controversial. Von Rad (1965) identified it as an integral part of “holy war.”[10] Longman (2003) calls it the climactic aspect of divine warfare.[11] He ties obedience with success in battle against strong enemies, and failure against weak – citing victory in Jericho (Joshua 6:21), and failure in Ai (after Achan’s sin) as didactic moments.[12] Crouch (2009) interprets the command as a socio-rhetorical device brought about as a response to foreign threats.[13]

Rowlett (1996) frames the discussion on חרם and “holy war” at length, concluding that there is nothing culturally unique in Bible’s presentation of divine participation in written accounts of warfare.[14] Lilley (1983) argues that for theocratic Israel all war was “holy,” as was the case for many ancient societies.[15]

Millar (1998) argues for a theological understanding of חרם,[16] he interprets commands to violently dispossess the Canaanites as rabbinic hyperbole,[17] not about warfare, but the need to remove their influence,[18] dismantling the nation.[19] He acknowledges that the command (Deuteronomy 20) is “startlingly literal” – but suggests that the instructions are not simply about military victory but the annihilation of a culture.[20]

A study of Deuteronomy 7 leads to this conclusion. God says he will drive the nations out ahead of them (Deuteronomy 7:1), that the Israelites are to “completely destroy them” (Deuteronomy 7:2), but then provides instructions for living with survivors (Deuteronomy 7:3-5). This would suggest genocide is not the intention, but rather a destruction of Canaanite identity.[21]

Violence in Joshua: A question of discontinuity

In order to reconcile the “immoral” commands and actions God justifies in the Old Testament some scholars, like Seibert (2009), require a separation of the “textual God” and the “actual God”.[22] Cowles (2003) suggests the חרם order came from Satan and was mistakenly applied to Yahweh through Israel’s primitive theology.[23]

These arguments suggest a discontinuity between Yahweh’s Old Testament commands, and Jesus’ words in the New (Matthew 5-7). Death is the punishment for sin (Romans 6:23). It is not out of character for God to be acting as judge over the Canaanites.

Craigie (1978) argues that the violent account was not produced by “barbarous times.”[24] He argues this narrative is pivotal to the Old Testament,[25] and that New Testament writers affirm the Old Testament’s authority.[26]

Violence in Joshua: A question of sociology

Rowlett (1996) and the “German school” require a sociological reading of Joshua’s violent rhetoric at the expense of historical truth, comparing Joshua to Shakespeare.[27] Von Rad (1957) suggests that commands to avoid Canaanite cultic practices follow a long history of Israel “going to school with Canaan.”[28]

Brueggemann (2009) argues against a historical-critical study of Joshua, suggesting that its picture of history is subjective[29] and that the story should be considered sociologically and literarily.[30] His view is that Joshua was both identity building for an oppressed people,[31] and the divine sanction of a new social possibility.[32] Brueggemann accepts that God mandated actual historical violence as “a tightly circumscribed in the interest of a serious social experiment” to end dominion and foster an egalitarian society.[33]

Rowlett’s reading of Joshua in the light of a “thinly veiled Josiah provides” insight into the use of conquest rhetoric similar to surrounding nations in order to develop Israel’s national identity.[34] One may dismiss Rowlett’s conclusions on historical veracity while recognising that the narrative had an identity developing function.

Violence in Joshua: A question of history

Questions have been raised regarding the historicity of events in Joshua and the manner in which the Israelite nation emerged. Noth (1960) argues that Old Testament historical accounts are vieldeutig (capable of more than one meaning).[35] Gard (2003) highlights the divergent interpretations of this violence – after Von Rad (1965) suggested that “holy war” was a product of late theological interpretation of history.[36]

Conversely, Gard’s study of ancient warfare led him to interpret the violence is representative of historical events.[37] Craigie (1978) argues that the violence is historical and essential for establishing a nation in a hostile environment. Goetz (1975) suggests a Utopian vision required a clean slate.[38] Establishing a nation was the purpose of Yahweh’s intervention in history.[39]

Violence in Joshua: A question of theology

Woudstra (1981), like Millar, argues the purpose of the violence in Joshua is theological, suggesting “all dualism between faith and history, and between theology and exegesis should be avoided,” and interpretation should flow from a base of Christian theism, not literature, objective history,[40] or sociology (as advocated by Brueggemann[41]).

Woudstra identifies a schism between those who construct hypothesis on the assumption that God’s intervention in history, and those who assume none.[42] Historical interpretations derived through the latter category will inevitably produce theologically anemic results.

Violence and God: A question of morality

“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”- Socrates, Euthyphro, 399BC

This Euthyphro dilemma is significant moral question for Christians responding to God’s violent actions. Divine special pleading is not required to justify these actions. The Biblical account leaves no room to question the morality of God’s actions, they are affirmed throughout as just. While one might dismiss the text, one cannot argue that God’s actions are immoral on the basis of the written account.

Goetz (1975) suggests the framework that all deserve death, with mercy an act of grace allowed Calvin to dismiss any analysis of God’s morality vis-à-vis the Canaanite situation “out of order.”[43] Calvin argues it is God’s decision who deserves death, and at what point.[44]

Wright (2004) argues the conquest was a limited event,[45] employing conventional warfare rhetoric, described as an act of God’s punishment, with a promise of equal treatment for Israel in response to disobedience, and that the conquest anticipated the final judgment.[46]

The utilitarian use of violence is not morally normative for the Christian. Neither is all violence necessarily evil.[47] Joshua’s violence serves to fulfill God’s promise to establish a nation. The atonement pivots on an act of violence, which has implications in determining the permissibility of violence.[48] Goetz suggests that the cross should be understood as the focal point of rage between humanity and God.[49] Mouw (2003) concludes Christians are to suffer violence, not enact it.[50]

Rowlett, while arguing for a non-interventionist understanding of Joshua identifies a conundrum for the Christian pacifist – “placing emphasis on divine involvement in conquest stories, rather than human agency, involves the deity in complicity with violence.[51] Syllogistically, if Yahweh is perfect and just (Deuteronomy 32:4), and complicit with violence, then violence can be just. Furthermore, Jesus simultaneously affirms peacemakers, and the Old Testament (Matthew 5:9,17). Questioning the morality of God’s dispensation of justice in the Old Testament must also raise questions about the morality of his right to judge.

We have rejected both the views of those who see discontinuity between the God who destroyed nations and humbled himself to a violent death, and non-interventionist views of violent accounts. So far as the New Atheists are concerned, interpreting the “God of the Old Testament” without the external criterion of the teaching of Jesus may indeed prove troubling,[52] but in this light Christians can rightly affirm instead the “God of the whole Bible” as perfect, just, faithful and upright (Deuteronomy 32:4).

[1] Dawkins, R, The God Delusion, (London:Bantam), 2006, p 31, “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.”

[2] Rowlett, L.L, Joshua and the Rhetoric of Violence: A new historicist analysis, (Sheffield:Sheffield Academic Press), 1996, pg 181

[3] Boettner, L, ‘What the Old Testament Teaches Concerning War,’ The Christian Attitude Towards War, (New Jersey:Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company), 3rd Edition, 1985, pp 12-17

[4] Goetz, R, ‘Joshua, Calvin and Genocide,’ Theology Today - Vol 32, No. 3 - October 1975, p 264

[5] Dever, W.G, Who Were the Israelites and Where Did They Come From, (WmB Eerdmans:Michigan), 2003, pp 37-48

[6] Wright, C.J.H, ‘What about the Canaanites?,’ Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, (Leicester:InterVarsity Press), 2004 pp 472-473

[7] חרם (herem) : To devote or consecrate to destruction.

[8] Millar, J.G, Now Choose Life: Theology and Ethics in Deuteronomy, (Leicester:Apollos), p 149

[9] Ahlstrom, G.W, The History of Ancient Palestine (Minneapolis: Ahlstrom, G. (1993). The History of Ancient Palestine. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.Fortress Press), 1993, p 601

[10] Von Rad, G. Der Heilige Krieg im alten Israel, (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht), 1965

[11] Longman III, T, ‘The Case for Spiritual Continuity,’ Show Them No Mercy: 4 views on God and the Canaanite Genocide, (Michigan:Grand Rapids) 2003, pg 172

[12] ibid, pg 173

[13] Crouch, C.L, War and Ethics in the Ancient Near East: Military Violence in the Light of Cosmology and History, (Berlin:Walter De Gruyter GmbH and Co), 2009, pg 183

[14] Rowlett, ‘Divine Warfare,’ Joshua and the Rhetoric of Violence, pg 65

[15] Lilley, J.P.U, ‘Understanding the Herem’, Tyndale Bulletin, 44 no 1 My 1993, p 169-177, cf Crouch, C.L, War and Ethics in the Ancient Near East, pg 189

[16] Millar, J.G, Now Choose Life: Theology and Ethics in Deuteronomy, p 156

[17] ibid

[18] ibid, p 158

[19] ibid, p 159, “This is theological preaching, urging Israel on to wholehearted obedience. In this context we should expect some hyperbole, at least,”

[20] ibid, p 159

[21] ibid, “Throughout this chapter, it is clear that the Mosaic Preaching is concerned to bring the Israelites to the conviction that shattering the structures of Canaanite society is a theological necessity. This is expressed not in terms of driving out or dispossessing the Canaanites, but of destroying them.”

[22] Seibert, E.A, Disturbing Divine Behaviour: Troubling Old Testament Images of God, (Minneapolis:Fortress Press), 2009, pp 169-182

[23] Cowles, C.S, ‘The Case for Radical Discontinuity,’ Show Them No Mercy, 2003, p 40.

[24] Craigie, The Problem of War in the Old Testament (Oregon:Wipf and Stock), 2002 [orig. 1978], pp 34-35

[25] ibid, pp 36-37

[26] ibid, pp  37-38

[27] Rowlett, op. cit, p 163

[28] Von Rad, G, Old Testament Theology: The Theology of Israel’s historical traditions, (Louisville:Westminster John Knox Press, 2001 edition), 1957, pp 24-25

[29] Brueggemann, W, Divine Presence Amid Violence: Contextualising the Book of Joshua, (Colorado Springs:Paternoster Press) p. X

[30] ibid p. 4

[31] ibid, p. 26

[32] ibid, p. 30

[33] ibid, p. 39

[34] Rowlett, op. cit, p 181-182

[35] Noth, M, The History of Israel, translated by Stanley Godman, (New York: Harper & Row) 1960, pp. 48-49

[36] Von Rad, G. Der Heilige Krieg im alten Israel, (Gottingen:Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht), 1965, pg 18, cf. Gard, D.L, ‘The Case for Eschatological Continuity,’ Show Them No Mercy, 2003, p 119

[37] Gard, D.L, op cit, p. 119

[38] Goetz, op. cit. p 273, “Utopian revolution without extermination must degenerate into mere reform-and mere reform compromises with the evil it seeks to redress.”

[39] Craigie, P, The Problem of War in the Old Testament, pp 69-74

[40] Woudstra, M.H, The Book of Joshua, (Grand Rapids:Wm B Eerdmans), 1981, p. 21

[41] Brueggemann, op. cit, p. 3

[42] Woudstra, M.H, op. cit, p. 19

[43] Goetz, R, ‘Joshua, Calvin and Genocide,’ Theology Today, Vol 32. No 3, October, 1975, p 266

[44] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of Joshua. Trans. Beveridge, H (Grand Rapids:Wm B Eerdmans), 1949, p 163, “There is no more ground for obloquy against him than there is against those who pronounce sentence on criminals. Even though in our judgment, children and many women were without blame, let us remember that the judgment-seat of heaven is not subject to our laws… Certainly any man who will thoroughly examine himself, will find that he is deserving of a hundred deaths. Why, then, should not the Lord perceive just ground for one death in any infant which has passed from its mother’s womb? In vain shall we murmur or make noisy complaint, that he has doomed the whole offspring of an accursed race to the same destruction; the potter will nevertheless have absolute power over his own vessels, or rather over his own clay.”

[45] ie. they were not normative of the Old Testament or Israel’s approach to its neighbours

[46] Wright, C.J.H, ‘What about the Canaanites?,’ Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, (Leicester:InterVarsity Press), 2004

[47] As Christian pacifists are wont to do – for example Millbank, J, ‘Violence: Double Passivity,’ Must Christianity Be Violent? Reflections on History, Practice and Theology, edited by Chase, K.R and Jacobs, A. (Michigan: Brazos Press), 2003, p 183

[48] Mouw, R.J, ‘Violence and the Atonement,’ Must Christianity Be Violent?, 2003, p 163
“If it is true, as reformed theology has put it, that the transaction of the cross necessarily required that Christ experience the wrath of the Father, then Reformed thought does indeed insist that violence is an essential feature of the atoning sacrifice of Christ – an insistence, they might go on to point out that has clear implications for questions about the permissibility of violent activity.”

[49] Goetz, op. cit. pg 274, “The cross not only is the focal point of divine wrath against us; it is also the focal point of human rage against God. The human comedy has stored up a reciprocity of outrage that only the trial and death of one who was both the son of God and the son of man can suffice.”

[50] ibid, pp 165-166

[51] Rowlett, Joshua and the Rhetoric of Violence, pg 67

[52] McGrath, A, The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, (London: SPCK), 2007, pp 58-59