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  • Brian Chilcote

Genocidal Joshua?

What about the bothersome parts of the Bible that depict God telling people to kill other people? How did these scenes make it into our finished Bibles?

We are taught that God is unchanging when it comes to the truth. We are also taught that Jesus perfectly reflects the truth about God (John 14). Without knowing the New Testament, we would be right in thinking that this God can be dangerous to the unchosen. There are plenty of examples of mass killings triggered by God's judgement in the Hebrew Bible. Noah's flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Egyptian firstborn (were some of them babies?), the Amalekites under Saul, Exodus 32, Numbers 31, Hosea 13… and so on.

The truth about YHWH, enshrined in his word, is that he's a vengeful God. But wait! Can we do some interpretive reconciling between God's love and justice?

The usual creative interpretations are stretched past their limits when applied to such straightforward passages like Deuteronomy 20:

"God was simply acting in accordance with the culture. He was meeting the expectations for an ancient Near Eastern deity so that Israel would fit in with the times."

These folks were so depraved, and contagiously so, that he had to cut their lives short."

"God had to show Israel the consequences of sin using a live demonstration." (a lot of good that did!)

"We can't understand it, but God can somehow keep His integrity while appearing to suspend mercy toward these horrible people."

"We're in a time period where God's wrath is being saved up until a Last Day. It will be just as bad for sinners on that day as it was for the Canaanites in Joshua's day."

Satisfied by these theories? Your answer would be "no" if you are honest about the complex collision between demanded perfection and extended love.

Can we imagine Jesus ordering his disciples to murder an entire town because of their bad behavior? Luke recounts a tradition that the disciples actually asked Jesus if it was OK to "call down fire" on some Samaritans and they got a rebuke for their trouble (Luke 9).

Let's have a look at Deuteronomy 20, Joshua's mandate from Moses as he advances to conquer Canaan, followed by some additional thoughts.

Deuteronomy 20:10-18

When you approach a city to fight against it, you shall offer it terms of peace. And if it agrees to make peace with you and opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall become your forced labor and serve you.

No problem- death or slavery for the inhabitants.

However, if it does not make peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. When the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall strike all the men in it with the edge of the sword. However, the women, the children, the animals, and everything that is in the city, all of its spoils, you shall take as plunder for yourself; and you shall use the spoils of your enemies which the Lord your God has given you.

What does this mean: "use?" In Hebrew the wording more literally means "eat." I don't think we are actually eating children here, but it does connote "using up," or "consuming."

This is what you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not of the cities of these nations nearby.

Far away? So there's less chance of retaliation? In the meantime, there are six identifiable city-states to annihilate, all are nearby. Different rules apply to a smaller, closer-in area:

Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave anything that breathes alive. Instead, you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, just as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that they will not teach you to do all the same detestable practices of theirs which they have done for their gods, by which you would sin against the Lord your God.

Some thoughts:

We approach these accounts from an established set of definitional constructs, i.e., ways of putting together a "picture" in our minds in response to the verbal data we take in. We have pre-set notions that automatically categorize and assimilate concepts according to what we already "know." Read on an uncritical level, with only our basic, builder-grade notions to help us, we draw what seem to be comfortable conclusions and we make them fit into our worldview, even at the expense of logic and reason.

Adding on some better critical tools helps us arrive at some better conclusions, but not before suffering some significant cognitive dissonance where old information (like Joshua's mandate) collides with new categories and mental tools we aren't used to using.

Biblical "genocide" is a great example. What we need are some alternatives for making sense of it from those who have collected more data about the story than we have. (Of course anyone can embark on in-depth study of the ancient Near East, but who's got the time?)

Sometimes we figure out that we are coasting along on a narrow set of interpretive biases that don't answer our probing questions like they used to. It's like getting along with an inefficient kitchen until you finally re-do it and wonder how you ever did anything in the old one. When it comes to the Bible, there are entire galleries of ideas and conclusions that are worthy of consideration and evaluation.

Here's an example. Learning about ancient near eastern culture, anthropologists and others offer these kinds of ideas to reset our expectations of ancient texts like the Hebrew Bible:



We see people as individuals

People are a collective

Individual responsibility for moral behavior

Group responsibility for moral behavior

Punishment for wrong falls on the individual

Punishment falls on the group

Resistance to bias against outsiders

Encouragement of bias against outsiders

Models of authority are democratic

Models of authority are authoritarian/absolute

Bias against supernatural cause-effect

Bias favoring supernatural cause-effect

Example, when discussing a god or gods, you always assume they have the final say no matter what we think. Genocide is no problem for kings or gods because they are acting the best interests of their subjects. Our questions about Joshua and other commands to kill would make no sense to an ancient person.

Our insistence on social relationships based on individual identity would seem completely weird to them. Stereotypes offered a quick shortcut to a proper course of action. No deliberation needed when talking about an Idumean or an Amalekite. "Genocide" to us is a serious injustice because we understand that some people in that group might be friendly to us or even opposed to what their group is doing. Stereotypes are dehumanizing in our minds, not in the minds of the ancients.

Modern alternative readings of Deuteronomy and Joshua's attack on Jericho- possibilities for understanding more:

The Israelites were mistaken about the command- they just supposed that their God wanted them to kill an entire city as an offering to Him.

  1. Israelites did not have a complete picture of YHWH, and simply assumed He was like all the other gods and kings who command annihilation of settlements

  2. This was seen as a normal political reality back in the old days by those who told the story later

  3. Puts the Old Testament into a category of literature that does not reflect reality, rather someone's faulty or idealized interpretation of events

It never happened- it's a legend that supports the origin story the Israelites favored

  1. Archaeology actually tends to support this view. There's indeterminate evidence of a walled city there at the time of Joshua's campaign. It could be an etiological story (explanation of how things came to be). See Rahab…"to this day" in 6:25, the naming of Gilgal in Josh. 5:9

  2. Extensive archaeological work has been done, studying the settlement patterns of the area, none of which show large-scale immigration and conquest of small city-states from that time period

  3. Textual evidence supports the conclusion that the author(s) of Joshua are referred to as the "Deuteronomistic," meaning that these editions of the national origin legend included an exaggerated presentation of the early days of Israel in line with a later agenda to unify and persist as a people

  4. Something like a collapsing wall may have happened at some point, forming the kernel of the Jericho story. An earthquake? Not impossible.

  5. "Proof" depends on date. A biblical date would be around 1400 BCE. Other theories propose 1200. Still others propose that Hebrew settlement in Canaan was gradual, making possible dates even fuzzier.

Read it as an allegory; a fable that illustrates and important moral lesson

  1. Most later Christian interpreters see in Joshua a type of Jesus, tying together Jesus and Moses. God has to be both merciful and just, therefore stories of judgement are illustrations of the just aspect of God

  2. It became a rationale for supersessionism - as Joshua (Jesus) took over from Moses (Judaism), so Christians now take their place as covenant people

  3. Maybe the basic outline really happened, but it was later crafted into an allegory. The genocidal parts are simply warnings against sin and emphasize warnings to stay clear of other religious practices

  4. Add in the possibility that the ruins of Jericho were visible when the story was told and used as an object lesson

It's a matter of Progressive Revelation

  1. God allowed humanity's perceptions of Him to progress from primitive to developed

  2. There are mentions of God's love in the Old Testament, even to outsiders like Rahab and Ruth

  3. We have the privilege of standing on this side of Jesus and can see how everything is brought together in Christ, but Joshua and his people just didn't know any better

  4. There's going to be a final judgement anyway and God knows all of this so he can take what seem to us to be drastic measures when he needs to

It really happened as described. A loving / just God must have a good reason

  1. Preserving Israel from the detestable religious practices of the Canaanites?

  2. It was so bad for the Canaanites that he had to enact a death penalty?

  3. Was God patient with them? Did he give them a chance? Did Israel's 400 years in Egypt meet the criteria of "having a chance to repent?"

  4. He had to preserve the Israelites from the terrible and contagious sin of Canaan

  5. It was limited to a few cities, so it wasn't that bad. Were they given a chance to surrender or flee? Deut. 20 does include some restraint, like offering terms of surrender first.

  6. It was fair: Israel and Judah were also found guilty by God and exiled later

  7. What about now? Can churches claim to "hear from God" that a certain group must be destroyed?

The final view, a literalistic approach, has severe problems. Do we think our insight into human psychology is superior to the ignorance of the ancients? Or superior as a cultural feature? I think most would answer yes when we consider the fate of innocent Canaanite children. One defense is to state that Canaan's practices were so bad that God didn't want the babies to grow up damaged and as evil as their parents. This reads a lot into the text, and along with the theory that the 400 year exile gave them a chance to repent (with no godly examples around?). So the question is not solved- even if our perceptions of Him change, is the God we know today the same as the one Israel encountered in 1200 BCE? Can we picture God telling Christians to wipe out their neighbors who are said to be evil?

When dealing with ancient texts, we can only talk about likelihoods and probabilities. Adding on a layer of inerrancy as a sacred text does not allow them to speak for themselves and leads to a lot of faulty interpretation. In order to make it free from error, we are forced to add to or subtract from the actual texts. We also must insist on readings that agree with each other when they really don't.

By accepting that idea, readers must give up their "magical thinking" and deal with the texts in all their little-known original contexts, complexities, layers, interactions with editors, long histories, translational challenges and so on. It is much more difficult than a straightforward reading with modern mental biases, but it makes a heck of a lot more sense!

The book of Joshua, along with many of the other Hebrew Bible stories, shows a patchwork of redaction and creativity (brilliant as it is!) by court scribes during and around the exiles of Israel and Judah, finalized in the aftermath around 500 BCE. They assembled, rewrote and edited the national story of Israel and Judah with varying agendas. To explain the differences in the various names used for God, topics addressed, vocabulary and objectives, a controversial theory was put forward arguing that there were at least four main producers of texts, each with a specific agenda. The "Deuteronomist," likely more than one person, contributed some of Joshua in addition to Deuteronomy as a historian interested in compiling the various legends concerning national origins into a cohesive (and heroic) narrative.

While Wellhausen's Documentary Hypothesis is speculative, a large majority of scholars see the Old Testament as a complex compilation from numerous sources. If these stories were put together in the 6th century BCE, what really happened matters less than what the royal scribes did with the old, old stories. It's interesting that they were somewhat conservative in their method, leaving in a lot of contradictory material, even juxtaposing them as in Genesis 1 and 2.

Joshua should be read as a national origin story. It's important background to the emergence of Judaism in the centuries between 500 BCE and 100 CE. Americans are culturally formed by our stories of George Washington, the Constitutional Congress, the defeat of the British, the Civil War; they had stories like Jericho. These were stories that were read in synagogues and rehearsed by families around the hearth, building a national and ethnic identity. It explained for them how they came to live in the land they now occupied. (YHWH did it all for them). What does it say to us today?

What do we normally see when we encounter legendary material? There's plenty of gold in these stories that can shape our thinking and behavior, just know that it won't be the same as those for whom it was first produced. We don't have Hellenistic kings in control of our culture, or Romans ready to quash dissent with a sword. Our questions are personal, individual and psychological. We do like to connect our faith with ancient sources which, we are told, makes it more legitimate. Reading the story of Jericho makes us think about ourselves. For example:

  • Praying for certain metaphorical "walls" to come down

  • Being reminded of God's power to help us

  • Obedience to God while feeling embarrassed or weird

  • God's mercy in evangelism by focusing on Rahab

  • Adding the concept God as a "warrior" on our behalf

  • Devoting everything we have to God

  • Reassurance that God is working in the background

A very quick survey of Sermon Central makes my point. None of the sermons I saw have anything to do with the most likely purposes for its inclusion in the Hebrew Bible. Even today, one Jewish reading of Joshua allegorizes the account as a picture of how G-d sends beautiful souls down into lowly bodies and places to elevate them and prepare a place for G-d to dwell physically on earth.

In the broader sense, this mission is the mission of every Jew in all times. The soul, a G‑dly being, is sent down to exist in the physical world, in a human body. This incredible descent is with the intention that the soul should influence and elevate the body (as well as the world around it)—to turn an animal-like body into being a conductor for G‑dliness. -- Mendel Dubov,

Some, like Marcion of Sinope in the 2nd century, decide to chuck the Old Testament and its vengeful god entirely. He advised his Christian congregations to use only Luke and the letters of Paul as their scriptures. Signing up for Marcionism is not advisable because you miss the richness of all the roots of our faith. Embrace the strangeness of Joshua and push it forward. While we have every right to disagree with ancient authors about what God's love looks like in the book of Joshua- so foreign to our thinking- we are able to see just a little bit more clearly when we engage the Bible on its own terms.

To Think About:

Read Joshua 6 and draw some conclusions about the story. What intellectual resources did you use to make those conclusions?

Is it legitimate to use ancient Jewish scriptures to answer modern personal needs?

Why do you think a literal reading of Joshua and Deuteronomy is so popular?

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Nov 12, 2023

Brian, I really enjoyed your summary of different ways to approach these problematic stories and your reminder that an Ancient Near East culture just wouldn't even be interested in many of the questions we are asking. In addition, I've known many people who have been able to hold in tension a high view of Scripture and their own discomfort with passages containing genocide and other practices we have renounced, recognizing along with George McDonald (speaking about burning witches), "that is not the Gospel way." Therefore, the dismissal of the position "It really happened as described. A loving / just God must have a good reason" for the reasons you mention seems like a bit of a straw man argument to…

Brian Chilcote
Brian Chilcote
Nov 13, 2023
Replying to

I'm glad you enjoyed the article, and even more thrilled that you left a comment! One reason for these articles is to start conversations in a way that values everyone's seat at that table.

The solution to the theodicy in question is: "It really happened as described. A loving / just God must have a good reason." And then I gave a number of possible interpretive justifications for God's command to kill the Canaanites. These justifications are a modern attempt to square a violent Old Testament God with a New Testament God who asks us to love our enemies. Maybe there is no need for a justification; we can just say we don't know God's reason and leave it at…

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