There is a problem with the Old Testament. At a key juncture in salvation history, the God of Abraham commandeers one nation in order to destroy another. The aggressor nation attacks the second nation because God has judged the latter guilty. The aggressor is merciless, sparing neither women nor children, expelling the inhabitants from their land, and destroying sacred sites and symbols of religious practice—in effect, wiping them off the map. And, according to the Hebrew scriptures, all this happened by the terrible will of the sovereign Lord of Hosts.
It is a harrowing moment in the history of God’s people. But I am not referring to the conquest of Canaan by the tribes of Israel. I am referring to the assault on the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians (a little over 700 years before the birth of Jesus) and the campaign against the southern kingdom, especially the city of Jerusalem and its temple, by the Babylonians about 130 years later.
As the historical and prophetic books of the Old Testament testify, the violence against Israel, north and south, wrought by these pagan empires was nothing less than the judgment of Abraham’s God against Abraham’s children. Their sin? Defection from God’s will for their covenant life as revealed in the law of Moses. They were in covenant with the Lord as a community, and they suffered the covenant punishments as a community. The result: mass ruin, political chaos, incalculable suffering, and death (for some) and exile (for others). It is a fearsome thing to fall into the hands of the living God, even—or especially—as his chosen people.
This set of events is not typically the first to come to mind when people, including Christians, wonder about the ethics of the Bible or the character of the Bible’s God. Hands down, that event is instead the destruction of the Canaanites by Israel at God’s command. But there are two reasons for framing Christian answers to questions about the Canaanite conquest with the Assyrian and Babylonian devastation of Israel and Judah:
First, because the human suffering superintended by God according to the Law and the prophets is even-handed; Israel is not exempt. Second, because Christians who read the sacred texts of Israel as their own—that is, as the church’s canonical Scriptures—are typically Gentiles. We Gentile Christians are prone to viewing the Jews as foils in the biblical story, by which I mean that we tend to see them as examples of what not to do. And that is when we aren’t indulging the temptation to follow Marcion in simply expunging parts of the Old Testament from the canon altogether.
But for Christians there is no such option. The question is not whether Gentiles accept the Old Testament but whether it accepts us. The apostles answered in the affirmative, and we have claimed to be Abraham’s children by faith ever since. But just for that reason the Scriptures of Israel are a given for us: a nonnegotiable constituent of the deposit of faith, comprising the twofold written testimony of the apostles and prophets to the good news of Israel’s God. Like it or not, this testimony includes the book of Joshua. How, then, ought we Gentiles who profess faith in the second and greater Joshua to receive and understand this book as the word of the Lord to and for us today?
Facts and interpretations
In response to this question, Charlie Trimm has written a wonderful book, The Destruction of the Canaanites: God, Genocide, and Biblical Interpretation. Even wading into these waters is admirable, since the subject of Joshua and Canaan has become something of a genre unto itself in academic and pastoral scholarship. The books and articles on the topic are many.
Trimm, a professor at Biola University, cuts through the noise in this slim volume, which seeks not to resolve the matter but to frame possible answers for readers. Those readers are not bad-faith interlocutors. They are every one of my undergraduate students and not a few fellow adult Christians. Honest people want to know what to do with the conquest. They want to believe in the God and Father of Jesus Christ, and Joshua is an obstacle. I thus have no doubt that Trimm’s book—concise, accessible, judicious, and well-researched—will prove an invaluable resource in pastoral and classroom settings for years to come.
Trimm organizes the book in two parts. In part 1, he gives an overview of warfare in the ancient Near East, summarizes contemporary scholarship on genocide, and introduces readers to the Canaanites. This provides a foundation for part 2, where he outlines four major options for Christian interpretation of the conquest. Before turning to these options, it is worth mentioning a few facts that stand out in the opening chapters.
First, unlike what some of us may have read or assumed, the practice of herem, or “the ban” (i.e., devoting all the residents of a city to God by slaughter), was not common in the ancient Near East. In fact, outside of a few possible mentions in other nations’ records (and these may have been exaggerations), it appears that Israel is unique in this respect.
Second, genocide is hard to define. Must it include a racial, ethnic, or religious element? Must it aim at the annihilation of an entire group? How should such a group be defined? (For example, could it be a political party, or must membership in it be nonvoluntary?) Does motivation matter or only consequences? For example, is all settler colonialism essentially genocidal? What about the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima?
Third, the difference between various commands given to Israel regarding the Canaanites is striking. Exodus 23, Leviticus 18, Numbers 33, and Deuteronomy 6–7 all contain opposing and sometimes opposed instructions—almost none of which mention herem by name or even describe killing en masse. These discrepancies present numerous moral, historical, exegetical, and theological possibilities for interpreting the conquest.
Trimm boils down these possibilities to four, each a matter of “reevaluation.” The question, challenge, or problem of the conquest might be resolved by reevaluating (1) God, (2) the Old Testament, (3) the interpretation of the Old Testament, or (4) the violence in the Old Testament.
The first option takes the Bible at its word: the God of Abraham commands and approves of genocide. But genocide is intrinsically evil. Therefore, the God of Abraham is evil and thus to be repudiated, disbelieved in, or both. This is the view of “new atheist” Richard Dawkins, for whom “the God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction.” It is also the view of Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, who writes that “in most of the Old Testament” the God of Israel is “presented as quite evil: a blood-drenched, cruel, war-making, genocidal, irascible, murderous, jealous storm-god.” Trimm assumes, however, that believing this means ceasing to be a Christian. It is the only option of the four that he rules out.
The second option argues that “while the Old Testament records examples of extreme divine violence, we should not accept those violent texts as authoritative for us and should disassociate God from them.” Proponents here, including Walter Brueggemann, Eric Seibert, Thom Stark, and Gregory Boyd, have no interest in exhuming the Marcionite project. They want to preserve the Old Testament. But they see no possibility for harmonizing the conquest with either our consciences or the life and teachings of Jesus. Christians, then, must acknowledge that texts in which God sanctions violence are not authoritative for the church and do not reflect the true character of God.
The third option suggests that the problem lies not in the texts but in our interpretation of them. Perhaps the events narrated in Joshua ought to be allegorized; or to be understood metaphorically, commending nonlethal action or banishment; or to be categorized as hyperbole, so that the Canaanites are not so much exterminated as disarmed—that is, dispossessed and thereby transformed from a threat into mere neighbors.
Both this and the previous option must confront two related questions, though. Did the events depicted in Joshua occur in history? And even if they did not, does the text not clearly refer to slaughtered Canaanites? Even if the dead are merely textual, the text in question is Holy Scripture, by whose word we are (so we believe) formed into the image of Christ. Does Joshua contribute to that formation?
With Job before the whirlwind
The fourth option defends both the historicity of the conquest and its moral and theological legitimacy. Trimm offers many ways of doing this. One is that the wickedness of the Canaanites is the proximate cause of God’s judgment on them through the Israelites. This point is strengthened by the fact that Israel receives virtually identical judgment later in the story. Another route is the uniqueness of the conquest—its “unrepeatability,” in the phrase of theologian Willie James Jennings—as something rooted in God’s covenant promise of the land to Abraham.
A third suggestion sees in the conquest a type or figure of final judgment, in which a far graver sentence is issued than loss of earthly life. (The philosopher Phillip Cary observes that we are all Rahab, living in the walls of spiritual Jericho. Will we open our homes to the Lord? Will our trust in him spare our souls?) Last, some connect the conquest not only forward to the razing of the temple and the expulsion from the land but backward to the Exodus and the Flood. In the story of Noah, in particular, we see God’s fierce judgment at work, when the watery chaos of the grave swallows up the inhabitants of the land, one and all. The book of Revelation offers similarly comprehensive visions of death and destruction.
The philosopher Howard Wettstein has written that the herem texts place us with Job before the whirlwind. We groan and lament yet receive no answer; indeed, we receive questions in lieu of answers. Charlie Trimm has done something similar. He has given the church possibilities. It falls to us, with fear and trembling, to decide.
Brad East is assistant professor of theology at Abilene Christian University. He is the author of The Doctrine of Scripture and The Church’s Book: Theology of Scripture in Ecclesial Context.