We’ve been preaching through Joshua at the UWA Christian Union’s public meetings this semester and this week we hit the disturbing issue of Joshua’s conquest of the Promised Land.
And it is disturbing. As God tells Israel:
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. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them
The calculated violence of the conquest is difficult to stomach and has led many people to declare that if this is the God of the Bible, they want to have nothing to do with him.
When God says “completely”, he means completely. They are to “save alive nothing that breathes” (Deut 20:16). Every living thing from the nursery to the nursing home to the donkey out the back is to be completely wiped out (cf. Josh 6:21).
The calculated violence of the conquest is difficult to stomach and has led many people to declare that if this is the God of the Bible, they want to have nothing to do with him. Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist, has described the conquest of Joshua as:
… ethnic cleansing…a text remarkable for the bloodthirsty massacres it records and the xenophobic relish with which it does so. …the Bible story of Joshua’s destruction of Jericho, and the invasion of the Promised Land in general, is morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein’s massacres of the Kurds and Marsh Arabs.
He concludes that:
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
But is he right? Is God a bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser?
Understanding the Conquest
The short answer is no, but to explain why, we need to take a closer look at the biblical account. Among the many arguments, two pieces of evidence are worth mentioning.
God’s cleansing of the Promised Land is not genocidal in nature, it’s against sin.
The first, from Joshua, is that there are divinely sanctioned exceptions to his command to completely destroy. Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute, is spared from the complete destruction of Jericho because she turns to the LORD (Josh 6:22-25, cf. Josh 2). One chapter later, Achan, an Israelite—one of God’s own people—is himself devoted to destruction for taking some of the devoted things from Jericho. In fact, his entire household (including the donkeys!) receive the same treatment that foreign Jericho received (Josh 7:24-25). What this tells us is that God’s cleansing of the Promised Land (for it is a cleansing) is not genocidal in nature—his pogrom isn’t against race—it’s against sin.
The second bit of evidence confirms this. In Deuteronomy God states explicitly why he is giving Israel the land.
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 provides two reasons for the conquest, and neither of them are along ethnic lines.
The conquest is not divinely-sanctioned ethnic cleansing; it’s divinely-sanctioned judgment. The Canaanite nations are exceptionally wicked and so deserve God’s just condemnation.
First, the conquest is not divinely-sanctioned ethnic cleansing; it’s divinely-sanctioned judgment. The Canaanite nations are exceptionally wicked and so deserve God’s just condemnation. Their deeds, the most extreme of which is child sacrifice, are “an abomination to the LORD” (Deut 18:9-14) and as a result of their iniquity they are devoted to destruction.
Does this imply that Israel is morally superior? No. God may use Israel as the instrument of his judgment, but significantly their destruction of the Canaanites and subsequent possession of the land cannot be attributed to their own righteousness. This is the main burden of Deuteronomy 9:4-5. Twice Israel is warned not to take the moral high ground, for they are no better than any other nation. Indeed, the passage goes on to say in verses 6-7 that they are both “stubborn” and “rebellious”.
But if this is the case, why does Israel get the land? The answer is in the second reason God gives for the conquest. Israel’s possession of the land is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel’s forefathers. Their fortune is a result of divine election and not because there is anything inherently superior in being an Israelite. The eagle-eyed will observe that there is an ethnic connection here—Israel are the physical descendants of Abraham—but when considered against the backdrop of God’s sovereign choice (e.g. Deut 7:6-8, Rom 9:11) it is clear that there is nothing intrinsic to Abraham or his descendants that caused God to choose them. He simply did. And that’s the furthest from being racially influenced as you can get.
Being Properly Disturbed
None of the above means we shouldn’t be disturbed by the conquest of Canaan. We should be—but not because it calls into question God’s character, but because it calls into question our own.
God is holy and we are not, and what is revealed in the conquest narrative is the seriousness with which God sets himself against sin. Our sin. We are meant to be disturbed. Disturbed enough not to block our ears and point the finger back at God and cry foul, as Dawkins does, but to humbly accept God’s pronouncement and see it for the warning that it is.
And that’s why the inclusion of Rahab and the election of Israel is of such great comfort in the midst of such terrible history. It shows us that this God who deals with sin so violently and so completely is not merely just, but merciful. He does not treat us as our sins deserve but welcomes anyone who turns to him for refuge from his coming wrath. Such is his promise in the Lord Jesus.
 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (10th Anniversary.; London: Transworld, 2016), 280.
 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (10th Anniversary.; London: Transworld, 2016), 51.