4.14 Joshua -- Divine Genocide?
Joshua is a book of ruthless cleansing of the land. But at least the violence was impartial -- it was not directed solely at Canaanites, but also included disobedient Israelites, whether individuals like Achan, or entire tribes. Although a civil war massacre was avoided in Joshua, it occurred later in the Book of Judges. The dispute with the Reubenites over building an altar (Josh 22) seems to be an example of a later verse from Psalm 69: "zeal for your house consumes me." The zeal for holiness consumed all in its path, the fire of God burned everything it touched. The land and all its inhabitants, whether Israelite or Canaanite or alien, were undergoing a purging.
It must be stressed that the duration of the holy war phase was temporary. We make the following five observations:
a. There is no validity for believing that God instituted the "scorched earth" policy as a model for later Jewish or Christian attitudes to unbelievers, as some later interpreters thought. God acts in unique ways at different times in history: for example, the Flood and the plagues of Egypt were unrepeated acts of judgment. So the destruction of Canaan should be seen as a specific fulfilment of the curse of Noah, legitimized by the abhorrent conduct of generations of Canaanites, whose actions defiled the land (Lev 18:24-25). There is no justification for thinking that the Old Testament authorizes a form of "jihad" against all non-believers.
b. The criterion for acceptance/enmity with God was not racial but moral: the issue was obedience. Rahab was spared, Achan was stoned. The tribes of Gad and Reuben would have been slaughtered en masse if they had built a rival altar to the one in Shiloh. On the other hand, on the side of mercy, when God set aside cities of refuge, He specifically included aliens as having access to these cities. The same laws applied to Israelites and resident aliens. Race was not a factor.
c. The invasion of Canaan was the third stage of the Exodus saga: first was Deliverance, second was Identity Formation, third Implementation. At this period of time, no latitude of conduct or belief was permitted. It was a nation at war. Yet more than the violence and bloodshed, it is the lack of freedom that offends the modern sensibility, both of believers and of secularists. For the believer, whether Jewish or Christian, he is used to a religion of frequent human failure encountering a God who is as willing, even eager, to forgive as man is to sin. The unbeliever exalts as the highest moral value the freedom of choice, without which there can be no "good" or "bad" actions.
These two attitudes confront the foundation of Israelite faith, a "primitive" religion of absolutes, where failure was disobedience, disobedience was sin, and some sin was lethal. There were no gray areas, everything was written down and spelled out. "Do (a) and live, do (b) and die. Blessings or curses. Ebal or Gerizim." Both modern mindsets are not merely antagonized by the original revelation of God to Israel, they cannot even comprehend it. It is rejected out of hand, it is abhorrent, repellent. If God exists at all, they believe, these writings misrepresent Him.
d. The spiritual consequences of the rejection of the judgment of the Canaanites include:
1. elevation of compassion, tolerance, moral freedom or some other recent value above the reverence for God's holiness
2. belief in a God of unlimited love, or that Love is god.
3. devaluation of the role of obedience in religious faith: it is intentions that matter most
4. denial of the serious consequences of sin, e.g. probable disavowal of eternal punishment
5. a tendency away from the conviction that God directly intervenes in and reveals Himself in history.
6. instead, God is viewed as perfect, ideal, imminent in all cultures and humans, expressing Himself wherever human love and freedom are found.
e. The apostle Paul, writing nearly 1500 years later, addressed related questions when he exalted the sovereignty of God over the rights of man:
What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy. ...Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath--prepared for destruction? (Rom 9:14-22).
Paul was not writing specifically about the Canaanites, but about God's choice of Jacob over Esau, and His hardening Pharaoh's heart. The same issues are involved in the judgment of the Canaanites. Roman converts apparently had questions about human freedom and God's justice which are similar to those of modern men. The Romans, with their background in Greek philosophy, placed man at the center of history, with the gods as helpers or hinderers of human choices. Paul responded with a Jewish perspective stretching back 2000 years: God is at the center of history, and mankind serves His purposes. Some men do so willingly, others in spite of their choices. God's will, not human freedom, is the highest good and the ultimate touchstone of history:
For from him and through him and to him are all things (Rom 11:36).
The "trick," then, is to catch the drift of His purpose in our time and, like Rahab, to align ourselves with it, so as to be swept up and included in it, rather than cast aside. Further study of the Scriptures, Old and New Testament, will assist us in discerning His will.