“So Joshua struck the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings. He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the Lord God of Israel commanded.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
I’ve said it before and let me say it again here: If we don’t get the character of God right, we won’t be able to make sense out of the Scriptures. This is important all the time, but it is especially important in the narrative of Joshua where we find this verse, which, along with the other verses similar to it in this chapter and the next, gives people more trouble than just about any other portion of the Old Testament.
What does this mean? It means that unless we understand as a precondition that God is just and loving; that He always does the right thing, but that His doing the right thing is always tempered with mercy, we won’t be able to make positive sense out of places like this.
The reasons this verse have given so many folks such trouble are obvious. We are told Israel marched into all of these towns and killed everybody. Sometimes the text is explicit that they killed not just warriors, but women and children as well. They massacred them all at the command of God Himself. What do we do with this?
Well, to be honest, we start by struggling. If you don’t struggle with this picture of warfare and what appears to be a staggering loss of life at least a little bit, you probably aren’t reading it very closely.
Next, we begin to apply God’s character and see if we can’t make sense of things. We remember that the Scriptures tell one consistent story from start to finish and present one God in full splendor whose character is perfect, though sometimes hard for us to understand fully.
Here are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, God was using Israel as an instrument of judgment on the peoples of Canaan. He had given them over 400 years to leave the path of sin and evil and violence they had been on before bringing judgment against them. When God decrees to bring judgment, He is not limited in terms of the means by which He brings it. With Sodom and Gomorrah, it was fire and brimstone from the heavens. With the peoples of Canaan, it was Israel. This didn’t mean that Israel was somehow more noble or righteous than the Canaanites (quite the opposite as the narrative of Judges makes clear). Rather, it simply means He chose them as an instrument of judgment. It didn’t have anything to do with them, but rather was God’s sovereign choice.
Second, even though the text occasionally says it, we know they didn’t kill everyone because the text makes that clear as well. These latter instances don’t contradict the former, but rather, the former serve as summary statements to show their intention to and success in obeying God’s command. While these kinds of statements certainly don’t fit our modern standards of precise historical observations, they do fit the expectations of the times.
For example, earlier in chapter 9, the text talks about Joshua and the Israelite army pursuing a retreating force. In the space of one verse we are told that they totally destroyed them, and that some of them managed to escape to the nearby fortified cities. Also, from the later record of Joshua and Judges, we are told specifically that they did not nearly destroy everyone, a fact that made their lives vastly more difficult than they would have been otherwise. Obeying God’s commands completely even when we don’t understand or like them is always wise because they are given for our good.
One last thing to note here. This was Old Covenant behavior. Under the teachings of Jesus and the New Covenant, we recognize this kind of behavior as obviously problematic. This doesn’t at all make God culpable for committing evil. Rather, God was working with the people where they were, constraining their behavior and shaping it in the direction of of the kingdom, all with the New Covenant in mind. That’s what He does all throughout the Old Testament.
Now, does this make passages like this one easy? Not at all. But it does give us a framework for making positive sense and not letting our faith or understanding of God’s character get damaged by it. The Scriptures are tough. But, if we are willing to work a bit with them with the help of God’s Spirit, they can–all of them–bring us life.