Author note: A couple of years ago, I wrote the following blog post about an approach to the most difficult text when it comes to understanding God’s character. Although I think my view has / is evolv(ed/ing), I think that this article is a good conversation starter. In the next year or so I plan to revisit Old Testament violence. Particularly, I’m looking forward to reading more OT scholars and utilizing Greg Boyd’s forthcoming book, “The Crucifixion of the Warrior God.” What I’m particularly interested in is your thoughts on how to approach these OT passages…
What is different about Israel compared to other nations? From their beginnings they are a community that is devoted to God and are a people on the move. They are nomads in search of a land where they can govern themselves under the love of their Creator. Remember that at this time, their only king is God himself. In fact, later on in the storyline, Israel will ask for a king so that they can be just like all the other nations. You can read this story in 1 Samuel 8.4-12.
God wanted to be their only king. He wanted to govern them to be a nation that looks different than all the nations of the world that use domination as a means to victory. Notice the warning that was given: “He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses…” (v.11) In the ancient world, the image of “chariots and horses” represented a system of government that was fueled by accumulating “surplus and wealth.” In other words, the “chariots and horses” are an image of conquest and social domination. And under such a system in the ancient world, poverty and suffering was prevalent.
In God’s economy this was never the plan. He didn’t desire for such a system to be put in place, for he didn’t want anyone to be a victim in Israel. His special people, his Israel, was called to be a light to the rest of the world… and to be such, they needed to be a community that was characterized by the love of God and love of people. Notice Joshua 11.4 and following…
4 They came out with all their troops and a large number of horses and chariots—a huge army, as numerous as the sand on the seashore. 5 All these kings joined forces and made camp together at the Waters of Merom, to fight against Israel. 6 The LORD said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid of them, because by this time tomorrow I will hand all of them over to Israel, slain. You are to hamstring their horses and burn their chariots.” Joshua 11.4-6
Notice here the same kind of language is used to describe the powerful nations in Canaan. They have might and want to dominate the world by use of violence, even if some people are left in poverty as a result. And here we find that Israel, who at this time are a large group of nomads who have lived in the desert for several years.
In comparison to other nations, they are a large group of peasants who compared to the Canaanites, are lowly. So what is the point of the violence in Joshua? Consider Joshua 11.20…
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
“exterminating them without mercy”
How does this fit with the God of love we see revealed throughout the whole of the Bible and particularly in Jesus Christ? Let me read you a quote that helped me make more sense of this difficult story of genocide…
Does God mandate violence? Properly contextualized, this narrative answers yes, but of a specific kind: tightly circumscribed, in the interest of a serious social experiment, in the interest of ending domination. The revelation is not really act, but warrant or permit. The narrative requires us to conclude that this community was utterly persuaded that the God of the tradition is passionately against domination and is passionately for an egalitarian community. (Walter Brueggemann, Divine Presence Amid Violence, 39.)
So, in this circumstance we see that God saw it fit to destroy entire nations that were utterly opposed to his way of operating in the world. God, in order to carry forward his redemptive mission, had to use violence to purge the land of all influences that had the potential to corrupt his way of ordering society.
Now the question remains: would Jesus participate in such violence in our day?
In other words: Does the church have the same kind of divine license to kill others who oppose our way of ordering society? Notice a key difference in the storyline of redemption that takes place after Jesus comes. No longer is God working through one nation, but he is working in every nation to gather a people to himself. God no longer has a holy nation that represents him on the earth, the multiethnic church is now his representative. We no longer can hate other nations, because these are the very places God is drawing his multiethnic family from. What worked under God’s command for the greater good of establishing a special nation that didn’t give into the desire for “chariots and horses” no longer works under the new revelation of Jesus. Jesus shows us God! And God is operating through a different means in this part of the story of redemption. He is operating by offering peace rather than the sword of violence.
In Joshua’s days he operated in Joshua’s ways…
In Jesus’ day he operated in Jesus’ ways…
And in our day he is at work in our ways… continuing the work of grace, love and peace in our world.
What I have offered is a reading that attempts to contextualize genocidal act of Joshua. What other theories / theologies / explanations have you heard? What do you think about the perspective offered here? Would Jesus EVER sanction such an act in our day?
Kurt Willems (M.Div., Fresno Pacific) is an Anabaptist writer preparing for a church planting project with the Brethren in Christ. He writes at: the Pangea Blog and is also on Twitter and Facebook.