Joshua, God's ordained killer

is it consistent for God to command Joshua and his army to disregard the commandment to not commit murder and include children in the total destruction of cities in the holy land?

Was Joshua Justified in Exterminating the Whole Population of Jericho?
# The priest initiated any war by reminding the Israelites that Yahweh fights for them. This clearly shows the war's sacred character (Deuteronomy 20:2-4) -- that is, this is God's war. He fights through His people.
# Cities outside the land of Palestine do not need to be entirely destroyed, but attacks on cities inside the land require destruction of all life (Deuteronomy 20:10-18). This practice is known as the "ban" or "herem". To put a city under the ban was to devote its occupants to Yahweh for destruction. It is often translated "completely destroyed" or "devoted" (Deuteronomy 20:17, 2:34, 7:2; Joshua 6:17, 8:26).
# They are specifically to show no pity to inhabitants of the land (Deuteronomy 7:1-2). That this needed to be commanded by Moses shows that these wars cannot be explained as cases where man's sinful violence is used by God to accomplish His purpose. God believes they will not want to fully carry out His directions, so He warns the Israelites against pity!



So what about war in the Old Testament?

Another troubling aspect of war in the Old Testament is the way the nation was called to mop up when a battle was over. In Joshua 6:15-21 , we see Israel called to kill all of the people, and destroy all of the spoils. Some of the reasons given for this are:

  • If the victory is God's, the people shouldn't benefit. Victorious armies normally collected slaves, animals and other booty.
  • If the defeated enemy is allowed to live, their pagan religions might influence the Israelites.
  • The defeated army deserves to die because they are fighting God and God's people.
War in the Old Testament is plan B, not the first choice of God. Having a king other than God was not the first choice either. One of the reasons why King David in the Old Testament could not build the temple was that he had killed too many people or "shed too much blood."

Q: In Josh 6:21 and so forth, how can you justify God commanding the Israelites to kill all the Canaanites?
A: The answer is brief and simple to say, but it might require a paradigm shift before you can understand. The answer is simply: God can do whatever He wants. The following explanation (hopefully) will help you understand the answer. Regardless of whether you agree that God can do what He wants, or like the answer, at least you can fully understand all that is meant by this answer.
Answer Yes or No
(Yes/No)
Would God be just if He made people’s lifespan longer?
(Yes/No) Would God be just if He made people’s lifespan shorter?
(Yes/No) When it was time for some one to die, would God be just to choose whatever means He wished?
(Yes/No) Would God be just if He let some people live longer than others?
If you answered No to any of the above, cite the relevant legal statute, if any, along with the authority behind that statute.
Now let’s briefly look at a very extreme, and untrue, example. Pretend for a moment that God decided that every person in North America would die when they were exactly ten years old. Supposed the manner of death was to be killed by the nine year olds. Would God be unjust? If so, on what basis? God is not a citizen of the United States, Canada, or any other country. Even if God was subject to our laws (which He is not), our laws do not try to legislate what God can do any more than they legislate what is permitted for tornadoes and hurricanes.
If you are going to say this extreme example, or any other for that matter, was unjust, you have only one possible basis for saying so. It is that since God’s character is good and what He has spoken is all true, an example could be shown to be unjust of God if and only if it was inconsistent with all He revealed about His character and ways.
Fortunately God is not like the extreme example. The Bible saying that God is loving does not "force" God to be loving. Rather, God was loving first, and freely desired to express to us that He was loving, along with being just, holy, and having wrath. God is asking you to follow Him, but He is not begging you. If you do not like this, you can go your own way and God will go His. But consider where your own way will lead….



Joshua, Calvin, and Genocide
By Ronald Goetz
In fairness to Calvin, it must be acknowledged that as a human being he did recoil from the work of extermination reported in Joshua. He did not hold it to be a paradigm of "Christian" warfare, and indeed he argued that apart from the "command of God … it would have been barbarous and atrocious cruelty had the Israelites gratified their own lust and rage in slaughtering mothers and their children. Nevertheless, an otherwise "indiscriminate and promiscuous slaughter" is not what it appears when it is done in accordance with the divine will. The annihilation of Jericho "might seem an inhuman massacre, had it not been executed by the command of God. But as he, in whose hands are life and death, had justly doomed those nations to destruction, this puts an end to all discussion."
But not even the hard-nosed Calvin could let the matter rest at this, for be felt that some explanation of the divine judgment was required...
Why couldn't Calvin let the matter rest with his authoritarian a priori defense of God's alleged commandments? Who can dispute the claim that God acts in mysterious ways? If God is perfect, so also are God's commands. Our incapacity for understanding God's ways, our actual abhorrence in the face of the apparent monstrousness of some of these "divine" demands, is emblematic of a failure from our side--not God's. "Whatever my God ordains is right." Therefore given such a premise, no justification of God is needed; indeed, it is presumptuous. Yet Calvin attempts to justify God. Given such clear-cut difficulties, what drives him to try this dubious defense of God which appeals to a human sense of fight and wrong, when an a priori assertion of the essentially incomprehensible divine fiat is logically unassailable?....
the sovereign mysteriousness of God is always a useful "ace in the hole." Still, argument from ignorance, or argument which rests its case in mystery, loses in existential and historical pertinence what it gains in metaphysical invulnerability. ...

In the popular text, The Book of the Acts of God, G. Ernest Wright comes to grief on the Joshua question. He accepts as valid the central conviction of the Deuteronomic historians, which is also a fundamental belief of almost every writer in the Old Testament, that is, Yahweh delivered Israel from Egyptian bondage and gave her the land of Canaan. Wright toys with such mitigating notions as the alleged immorality of the Canaanites and also, quite remarkably, points to the silver lining behind the clouds of Canaanite defeat. Eventually it was a "great thing" that they should taste defeat, for "in the long run" their surviving descendants (later to be called Phoenicians) became an immensely successful trading nation." A divine consolation prize?
After these preliminary observations Wright gets to the brute question itself. "Did God actually tell Joshua to carry out such terrible slaughter?" Wright's answer is equivocal. On the one hand, God cares what happens in history; indeed God controls the "direction of history to his own ends," but we are responsible for the sin and destruction which actually occur in the very history which furthers God's purpose. Somehow divine control is to be divorced from divine responsibility. "To say that God is in control, even of our wars and cruelty, does not mean that he is responsible for the way in which men carry them on."
Not realizing that it would all work out to be a "great thing" in the long run, that his great, great, great grandchildren would one day get rich, how are we to imagine that the Canaanite, surveying the slaughtered bodies of less fortunate children, would respond to the notion that the God who turned Israel loose upon Canaan is not responsible for the carnage?...
One might argue with some point that the slaughters purported of Joshua were exaggerated, that it was a Deuteronomic reverie--a grotesque exaggeration. Or one can argue that even when the hérem was carried out, it was never God's command, rather a barbaric and excessive act which misunderstood the actual divine will. Both approaches have a limited validity. Nevertheless if God acts in history to advance the divine will, and if a people was chosen as obviously fallible as the Israelites, God is in some sense responsible when they act with the excessive zeal and indisputably, God is responsible for the war in Canaan. Perhaps it could have been more cleanly fought, but if God "gave" Israel the promised land, then how can one dispute God's culpability in the instigation of Israel's war in which Israel laid claim to God's "inheritance?" Surely the Canaanites were not to be talked into leaving voluntarily. (One is reminded of the "voluntary" exodus of the modern Palestinian Arabs from the modern Israeli State.) Indeed not just in the case of Canaan, but generally to say that God acts in history is to imply at very least that not only the merciful triumphs of God's will, but also the wreckage of history are God's doing and God's terrible burden. Yet this is precisely what many Old Testament apologists will not admit. Usually only the outsiders, those unbelievers who call for a rejection of the biblical message on grounds of inhumanity, are willing to see what is so obvious to even the most naive reader of the Old Testament. And that is that the God spoken of in that terrible book is mighty in war --a Holy Terror...
We are quite revolted by the policy of the total annihilation of Israel's enemies done to the glory of God and are quick to turn to the teachings of Jesus as if they afford us a kind of absolute authority which requires us as "Christians" to reject the brutality of Joshua. We find the New Testament witness to the incredible love of our Lord a useful ground for defense of the biblical faith against the charge of inhumanity which critics of Christianity bring to bear against the Old Testament. We cling to the love of Christ as proof of our humanity. Indeed we use the love of Christ as a facade behind which to hide, both from our critics and from ourselves-the fact that we have more in common with the ethics of Joshua than the ethics of Jesus. America is a nation of invaders who with the conviction of their own manifest destiny all but exterminated the Indian nations. Granted we occasionally feel pangs of guilt-alas, it is conveniently too late. Having got what we wanted, remorse is a masochistic luxury we can well afford....


Expositor's Bible Commentary (EBC), Joshua
Special Problems

a. The Annihilation of the Canaanites

The single greatest problem in the Book of Joshua is the extermination of the Canaanites. Men, women, and children were included among the things that were to be "devoted to the LORD" (6:17; cf. NIV mg.).
The Moabite Stone from the ninth century B.C. bears evidence that this practice was not unique to Israel in the ancient Near East. Inscribed on the stone is King Mesha's boastful report that he had destroyed all the inhabitants of Ataroth as a sacrifice to his god (ANET, p. 320).
This was not the first instance of the practice in Israel. In Numbers 21:2-3, the Israelites vowed to "totally destroy" (haram) the cities of the Canaanites in the Negev if God would give Israel victory over them.
A common but unsatisfying explanation of this difficult moral problem is that Israel was mistaken in thinking that God had commanded such indiscriminate slaughter. It is pointed out that this practice was not carried out consistently in the Conquest (many exceptions are reported in Judges), nor was it practiced by Israel in later years.
This, however, does not explain the theology of Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Judges. The text (Josh 6:17, 21; Deut 20:17; Judg passim) clearly states that the command to destroy the Canaanites came from God himself, and the Israelites are reproved for their failure to obey it (cf. Ps 106:34-42).
God was careful to point out that he was not arbitrarily destroying the Canaanites just to give the land to Israel. The wickedness of the inhabitants of Canaan was the reason why God was removing them; and if Israel proved unfaithful, she too would be removed from the land (as happened in the Exile). Genesis 15:16 records a profound statement in which God tells Abraham that his descendants will have to wait four generations to take over the land because "the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure." God would not favor Israel in a way that was unfair to others.
A part of the wonderful omnipotence of God is that he works sovereignly in history to punish the wicked and to reward the righteous: "The Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment" (2 Peter 2:9).
The extermination of the Canaanites is but one of the many evidences in the Bible, as well as in real life, that evil is real and that the Devil exists. Evil does not flee at the snap of one's fingers. The struggle with sin and the Devil took the Son of God to the cross. There was no easy victory even for him. Only by his suffering and death has he overcome evil once and for all. Those who will not be separated from their sin by repentance will be destroyed with their sin, as Jesus said, "If you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins" (John 8:24).
God's severity in his treatment of sin and of sinners is but the obverse side of his grace and love. Sin and evil destroy the people he loves and prevent the full establishment of his glorious kingdom.
One of the most telling objections to the slaughter of the Canaanites is raised against God's use of the Israelites as instruments of his judgment. Perhaps this was done to impress on the Israelites the truth that "the wages of sin is death" (Rom 6:23). The explanation given in the Wisdom of Solomon (12:3-11) is very thought provoking. It says that God chose to annihilate the Canaanites little by little, rather than all at once, to give them opportunity to repent.
The most difficult thing to understand is the slaughter of innocent children. We must remember that death is not the ultimate destiny of the human race, nor is it the greatest evil. Someday God will give a full explanation, which is something that only he can do.


The Law of Love and the Sixth Commandment

The single commandment from that second table most obviously relevant to the questions at hand is, of course, the sixth: "You shall not kill." But what, exactly, does the sixth commandment prohibit? Does it prohibit all taking of human life? Does its stark and simple form imply that taking another human’s life is always and everywhere immoral? Or, rather, does it prohibit only the wrongful taking of human life? Does it starkly and simply imply that all murder is wrong?

An examination of the Hebrew verb in Exodus 20:13 is not immediately conclusive. Though a few translators, and many interpreters, have rendered it "murder," suggesting that the commandment is directed not against all killing, but only against all wrongly motivated killing, the verb itself (r_sah) is elsewhere used in the Old Testament for even unintentional, apparently accidental and unmotivated, killing (Deut. 4:41-3; 19:1-13; Josh. 20:3, etc.). This might lead one to think that if, in the eyes of God, not only murder, but also "involuntary manslaughter" is always wrong, then surely no war stands much of a chance of being pleasing in God’s sight.

What is quickly apparent, however, is that the committing of an act normally wrong, even an act simply and explicitly forbidden in one of the Ten Commandments, is not always and under every circumstance wrong. After all, one often noted and vexing fact about the Old Testament is that the same God who commands the Israelites not to kill (in the sixth commandment) elsewhere commands them in detail to kill the enemy (I Sam. 15:3, etc.). Indeed, the very verb under consideration (r_sah) used in the sixth commandment against killing is used in a commandment to kill in the infliction of capital punishment in Numbers 35:30.

A final note on r_sah. In some of the prophetic and wisdom writings, r_sah does seem to refer (disapprovingly) to that complex of wrong motive, act, and primary intention we call murder (e.g., in Hosea 6:9, Job 24:14, and Ps. 94:6).

Thus, our conclusion is that a mere reading of the Hebrew text in Exodus 20:13 is only a beginning. Even a comparative word study of r_sah is insufficiently illuminating. For, in the first place, the referent of this verb is clearly not confined to what we could call murder—though it does sometimes refer to murder. In the second place, though the verb is generally used in the sixth commandment to prohibit "killing," it is also specifically used (in Numbers 35:30) to command (a special sort of) killing. Since God never commands the performance of an action which is, in that case, wrong, we may conclude that the doing of what r_sah refers to (let alone what the two other Hebrew verbs we translate "to kill" refer to) is not always wrong. At the very least, it has not always been wrong. Still, this does not tell us nearly as much as we want to know with respect to our present questions about the Christian and war. The only thing we are so far safe in assuming is something we already knew before studying Exodus 20:13, viz., that murder, no matter what Hebrew verb we may be translating, is nowhere countenanced in the Old Testament. To take another human life for the wrong reason is, clearly, always wrong. Both the sixth commandment and the Lord’s summary command which includes it ("Love your neighbor as yourself") plainly proscribe at least murder.

The question at the heart of the Christian-and-war issue is, however, whether every killing, including every killing in wartime, is an instance of murder. Does the Old Testament, particularly, regard every killing as wrong killing? As we have already seen above with respect to Numbers 35:30, (many additional passages could be adduced), it does not. Does the Old Testament, then, regard every killing in war as wrong killing? Again, clearly not. The Old Testament documents report that the Israelites were sometimes commanded by God to destroy God’s enemies by the sword. The books of Joshua, Judges, and particularly I Samuel abound with examples of such commands. These incidents have troubled the church for centuries. Some early and enduring heresies have sprung from what their founders took to be intolerable implications about the nature of the Old Testament God found in these incidents. Surely, we who confess a Reformed doctrine of biblical inspiration are not ready to scrap or to explain away these troublesome passages about the war-like God of the Old Testament. Still this does not tell just what relevance they have, in the new age of Christ, for a statement on the Christian’s proper attitude toward war. For one thing, we have no modern nation, no sovereign states which are also identical with the people of God. We have no theocracies. In fact, we regard all tendencies to claim a special national alliance with God as idolatrous and wicked. The particular relationship which obtained, then, between God and Israel now obtains between God and no modern nation. It obtains, in fact, only between God’s Christ and his church. But the church does not engage in earthly, physical warfare.

For another consideration, we must reflect on the fact that even if we had some modern nation privileged as Israel was to be true church and state at once, we still would not necessarily know how to identify it or what to do with the celebrated Old Testament war passages. Does it follow from the fact that God once commanded war with the Israelites as his army that he now favors (say) the Germans? Again should we not be at once suspicious if a modern Chinese prophet, singularly godly in an atheist country, reported that God had commanded the Red Chinese to attack the United States as a judgment on our apostasy? The truth is that we are rightly wary of any modern reports of God’s command to some one nation to attack and destroy some other nation or nations.

In the third place, consider again the difficulty of applying the Old Testament war passages to our modern situation. Suppose God once told the Israelites to slay not only men and warrior-men, but also "women, infant and suckling . . . " (I Samuel 15:3). Does it follow that we may do things like that today? Nowadays, soldiers who kill unarmed women and children are often tried and punished by courts of their own country.

This leads to a fourth, and perhaps the most important, consideration. What God wills for our moral lives shows progression. The history of God’s deeds and of God’s words is a history which always moves toward a better match between God’s perfect will and his commands to stubborn, sinful, and blind human beings. It was one of the great insights and one of the persistent themes of such Reformed thinkers as John Calvin that God continually accommodates himself to us in the history of his dealings with us. He leads us along. What he may allow early because of certain desperate historical circumstances or because of our "hardness of heart" (cf. Mark 10:2-9) may not always be allowed—let alone commanded.

Wikipedia on Joshua

One difficulty in this book arises out of the command given by God to completely exterminate the Canaanites.

Liberal theologians see this as an ethically unjustifiable order to commit genocide, which is inconsistent with the overall view in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures of God as a loving, compassionate Creator. They see it as a theological polemic, with the majority of events invented during or after the Babylonian captivity, to encourage faithfulness to the Jewish creed at a time when it was being threatened. For instance, Morton (pp. 324-325) says that Joshua "should be understood as a rite of ancient peoples (Israel among them) whereby within the context of their times, they attempted to please God (or the gods)".

Conservative theologians, who see the book as a historically accurate account written during or soon after the life of Joshua, give one of the following explanations to this problem:

  1. War was an essential part of the history of the Near East in the fifteenth century BCE. Although it is still sinful, some commentators argue that the book shows God using sinful activities in order to accomplish his just purposes. This does not mean that God supports war, simply that he works with humans as they are. These commentators emphasise what they see as the depraved nature of Canaanite society, pointing to archaelogical evidence of practices such as child sacrifice (burning the infant victims alive). For instance, Hallam, who takes this view, lists a number of pieces of archaeological evidence to support this thesis: "Just a few steps from this temple was a cemetery, where many jars were found, containing remains of infants who had been sacrificed in this temple . . . Prophets of Baal and Ashtoreth were official murderers of little children." "Another horrible practice was [what] they called `foundation sacrifices.' When a house was to be built, a child would be sacrificed, and its body built into the wall. . . . The worship of Baal, Ashtoreth, and other Canaanite gods consisted in the most extravagant orgies; their temples were centers of vice. . . . Canaanites worshiped, by immoral indulgence, . . . and then, by murdering their first-born children, as a sacrifice to these same gods." However, some of this evidence is disputed, with others arguing that it may have been invented at a later date in order to justify the act of extermination. Also, according to biblical text, God commanded in many cases the slaughter of every child, as well as the adults, of a defeated people.
  2. Christian theologians have tended to emphasise what they see as the progressive nature of revelation in the Bible. As the Bible progresses, God is seen to reveal himself in ways that are fuller, clearer and more accurate, culminating in the ultimate revelation of God in Jesus Christ. God's command through Joshua to take possession of the land by force of arms is viewed in the context of God's command through the second Joshua, Jesus Christ, to bring about his kingdom through the peaceful application of his teaching.

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