Interesting enough the book of Joshua is one of the most difficult books in the bible to wrap my head around. I can deal with Job, Leviticus and Ecclesiastes. But Joshua? How do you deal with a God whose agenda is merciless ethnic cleansing which goes way beyond our moral “war laws” or “humanitarian rules of war”.
How do you deal with a God who says, “don’t just kill the armed men, but slaughter all of the women and all of the children and babies too and don’t forget about the animals”? How do you reconcile the God revealed in Joshua with the God revealed in the Person of Jesus who said, “Suffer not the little children to come after me” and again, “if you cause one little child to stumble, may a millstone be strung around your neck and you be cast into the sea.”
How do you deal with this verse:
For it was the Lord himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the Lord had commanded Moses. – Joshua 11:20
Exterminate them all? Totally? Without mercy? This is God, the Christian God, the Trinity. Jesus is here with the Father and the Holy Spirit “hardening their hearts” so that they will go to war against Israel so that Israel can exterminate them. Without mercy.
But God is not without reason, of course. Let me offer two, which I hope avoid the charge of being “pat answers”:
1. The Covenant Is At Stake
First it is important to remember Gods main objective: to start a new family, a holy family, a family to undo the problem of the fall. God desires a loving relationship with his people, that is why he works in covenants:
And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him. – Deuteronomy 10:12
To worship other “gods” is the very selfish act of the fall enacted by Adam. Doing so would seemingly put in jeopardy God’s plan to renew creation through Abraham’s family. Israel had already proven that they are an insolent people, quick to worship other gods at the slightest of temptations (remember the Golden Calf incident). Remember the account of when the hot babes of Moab flashed a little leg toward the men of Israel? It didn’t take long for this influence to lead to the worship of other gods (Numbers 25:1-3).
So the Lord instructs the Israelites:
When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images and their cast idols, and demolish all their high place. – Numbers 33:51-52
Don’t take any chances! Don’t blend with the world! Don’t toy around with your faith! Don’t think it is harmless to do so! Be holy, be unique, be the new creation I am calling you to be. Be an example to the world!
God takes this stuff very seriously.
2. God is a Merciful Judge
But that is not enough. Where’s the grace? Where’s the mercy? Why couldn’t God give the inhabitants of the land a chance to repent? But “why” questions like this, the “what if” questions could be endless couldn’t they? Things could have been different. But different does not equal better and we don’t know what “different” would have looked like. We don’t have alternate realities to play with. We have our reality, and that’s it.
We could ask why God waited so long for Abraham’s descendants to take possession of the land in the first place. We could ask why God sent the children of Israel into Egypt. Why didn’t he simply give the land to Abraham and his immediate offspring? Was such a thing too small a thing to do for God? It almost seems as though Israel’s detour into Egypt was to procrastinate. To pass time. To wait for something. What was God waiting for?
Perhaps it was because of God’s grace towards the inhabitants of Canaan that God waited. Perhaps it was precisely because God is a merciful God that he prolonged the destruction of the inhabitants of Canaan.
But can we, dare we speculate about such things? We don’t have to, because the bible says as much at the very crucial point when God is announcing his unconditional covenant with Abraham, at that moment he declares his grace and mercy towards the inhabitants of Canaan:
In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure. – Genesis 15:16
“The sins of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure”? Can someone say grace? Can someone say mercy? Can someone say long suffering? God sent the Israelites into Egypt for hundreds of years to give the inhabitants of Canaan time to repent, time to change their ways.
Perhaps then the possession of the land could have gone differently. Now we are back to speculating, but it’s not wild speculation. God sent the children of Israel into Egypt on hopes that the people of Canaan would repent! Perhaps possession – far from being an “ethnic cleansing” – could have been a joint collaboration between the followers of Yahweh there, and the descendants of Abraham who were about to claim it (and we know that there were already followers of Yahweh in Canaan at that time besides Abraham – Genesis 14:18). Perhaps both groups could have become one group, one family, by faith. In the covenant renewal of Genesis 17 – where the covenant is made conditional – God certainly made provisions for such a possibility (Genesis 17:10-12).
Alas the inhabitants of Canaan did not repent. They did not turn from their ways. Things only got worse. And so the Judges mallet fell and Israel was the hammer which would deliver that verdict.
But unless we fall back into some arbitrary favoritism which is common in today’s Evangelical Christianity, let us not forget that the Lord’s treatment of Israel was no less severe then that of the inhabitants of Canaan:
If you ever forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and worship them and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. Like the nations the Lord destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed for not obeying the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 8:19-20
Israel certainly followed other gods, and in fact become worse than the nations they drove out. Still, God’s grace, mercy and long suffering were equal to that which God showed to the inhabitants of Canaan. Between Abraham and Joshua when God would cleans the Land, about four or five hundred years passed in which God mercifully waited for the inhabitants of Canaan to repent before he judged them (though scholars debate exactly how long). And between Joshua and Israel’s exile, about four or five hundred years passed again before God would again judge it’s inhabitants (this time, Israel) and again cleans the Land.