Exterminate them without mercy: The problem of Joshua, genocide, and the character of God

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.[1]

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?

[1]Walter Brueggemann, Divine Presence Amid Violence, 39.


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  • This is a subject I’ve been looking into recently as well. Thanks for
    your contribution, Kurt!

    I also found this series of six articles on the subject. Though a bit on
    the long side, it’s well worth the read. It makes, in my opinion, a
    very satisfactory explanation that remains true to the texts.


    • Chuck,

      I searched, and found this comment here, but nothing on your blog… yet. I do like this series of posts from EBC which you sent me earlier.

      • Yeah, I’ve not posted anything about this topic on my blog. Sorry.

  • Kurt, I love it when we wrestle with our picture of God. He is leading each of us into more truth! Reconciling the seemingly contradictory images of The Father in the OT with the revleation of Him in Jesus Christ is a hot-button topic these days, for sure. Thank you for being open as you grow. You reference Greg Boyd’s new book. I’m looking forward to that one as well. Have you heard his two sermons from this past July titled “God’s Shadow Activity” and “Shaddow of the Cross”? For those who may not know, they are available on the sermon section of the website whchurch.org.

    I used to share your perspective on God’s activities in the OT. But when I heard the two sermons I mentioned, things clicked and I experienced a paradigm shift that allowed me to see that God truly is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow! I highly recommend them to you and your readers. Love and peace to you today.

  • To respond to your report: I don’t think we can really say that the narrative of the Old Testament sees God working only through one nation and the New Testament sees God working through many nations. All throughout the Old Testament, God is using many nations to bring His will about even in the Old Testament, even Egypt at one point! What makes Israel’s role at the other central actor in the Old Testament is they are used with the specific purpose of blessing all families and, as a result of Abraham’s obedience in offering up Isaac, the blessing is extended to all nations. This is the major theme developed in the Old Testament, but it by no means allows us to take the Old Testament as God working only through one people and the New Testament through all people. The Old Testament simply puts major emphasis on the major role Israel plays. Emphasis does not equal exclusion of alternatives.

    So Jesus isn’t presenting a new way that God is working. Rather, it would be more appropriate to say that Jesus is ordering everything appropriately as God orders it, being the embodiment of the Wisdom of God. “There is a time for peace and a time for war” as Old Testament wisdom says. He emphasizes peace (once again, emphasis does not exclusion fo alternatives) as the central and primary way for the people of God to live, against the background of a belligerent Israel and a sprawling Roman empire. But he does endorse coercive/violent forms of action, such as his symbolic cleansing of the Temple foreshadowing the wrath of God upon Israel in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Then the Jesus of Revelation is definitely violent, with a divinely mandated slaughtering of those opposed to God. But even then, violence remains circumscribed. And the justified violence is centered around the rampant sinfulness of certain people, not merely the presence of sin. The latter is responded to with patience, grace, and mercy; but the former evokes God’s wrath to cleanse creation of those who would destroy creation as God intends it.

    There is only a problem with Old Testament violence if we universalize without exception selective themes of the New Testament. If we take Jesus’ sermon on the mount as another set of instructions like the Pharisees treated the Torah, rules that allow for no exception (as observance of the Sabbath was treated by the Pharisees as begin without exception), then we create the problem. But if we see the sermon on the mount as the embodiment of Wisdom, then the Sermon on the Mount isn’t to be treated like a legalistic set of rules that entertain no exception (and indeed, there are some proverbial wisdom like says, such as the reciprocity norm latent within Matthew 7:2). After all, Old Testament Wisdom entertained tension and accepting conflicting opinions on the surface; and wisdom is used as a form of identity for Jesus (See Matthew 11:18-19, 12:42, 1 Corinthians 1:30). Interestingly enough, the two Gospels that record a form of Jesus’ sermon on the mount (Matthew and Luke) both have the idea of wisdom as a repeated theme.

    But the antitheses that we are always tempted to create between the Old Testament and New Testament (Such as one people vs. many peoples, law vs. grace, war vs. peace, hate vs. love, etc.) aren’t really there if one does a close reading. Both of the multiple forms of antitheses are both present in both testaments, with one having a louder voice at some times and then the other gets its turn to speak loudly. Rather, to characterize the OT and NT with oppositional traits is an oversimplified ways to try to get rid of the tension, instead of dealing with the tension appropriately. In doing so, we neither deal with the Old Testament nor New Testament fairly, but oversimplify each in order to justify a particular mindset.

  • Brad Anderson

    Kurt, I’m sympathetic, but I struggle with this at multiple points (and with Boyd as well).

    First, it’s important to realize that what Yahweh does vis-a-vis the other nations is not simply conquest (which you recognize), nor is it even just ending domination (a la redemptive violence). It’s judgment. In Gen 15, God tells Abram that he will give the land to Abram’s descendents, but not just yet, “for the sin of the Ammorites has not yet reached completion.” The “Ammorites” is an umbrella term for the peoples living in the area, and that little clause there suggests something interesting within the context of covenant that defines the Pentateuchal narrative: God had some sort of relation to those peoples, and they defied that relationship in some significant way. If we look later at prophetic judgments uttered against Israel, we find that their explicit violence is deliberate: what Israel has done to others, Yahweh will do to Israel. I believe that same logic is at work here with Canaan as well. What Joshua portrays is a very specific “policy” restricted to a very specific situation, with no notion whatsoever that it is to be replicated later in Israel’s life. Do we know what relations those nations have had with Yahweh or what sins they have committed? No; we’re not made privy to that. But as Aslan tells the children from time to time when they ask about the responsibilities or fate of the others, “That is not your story.” It’s none of our business. Yahweh is a holy God, and Yahweh is Creator; as such Yahweh has a particular and unique authority here. That we’re not privy to the context is not a reason to believe the narrative is theologically misguided.

    I think your logic re: Jesus is a bit problematic at spots, too (and I think this is true of Boyd as well). The first has to do with the implicit transferring of Christ’s authority to us. The questions “would Jesus participate in such violence in our day?” and “Does the church have the same kind of divine license to kill others who oppose our way of ordering society?” are not synonymous questions as you make them to be. We don’t share Christ’s authority, so even if in his exalted state he uses violence (as Isaiah and Revelation both suggest his kingship is capable of), it doesn’t mean we can; in fact, it precludes us from doing so because to do so would be a form of blasphemy (claiming God’s role). Christ’s lordship requires our nonviolence.

    Second, you write, “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.” This is simply not accurate. Note how 1 Peter 2 explicitly appropriates the language of Exod 19:5-6 (the very same language that made Israel a people) and describes the church precisely as a “holy nation.” The fact that ethnicity is not primary in this national identity changes little; it was not primary even in the OT – covenant identity was. So then your following claim is rendered deeply problematic:

    “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.”

    God is actually doing very similar things in both Israel and the church overall, but what happens in the Canaanite context is singular, even for Israel’s own life. And the Second Person of the Trinity isn’t divorced from this, unless we want to take the Marcionist route (all too common in Anabaptist exegesis, I’m afraid) and pit the God of the OT against the God of the NT. Even as I transition into Mennonite identity myself, I’m not willing to make this move.

  • Stephen

    “Would Jesus EVER sanction such an action in our day?”

    There is only one possible answer to that question.

    • Really? I’m not sure how you could say that with such certainty.

      I would personally doubt that God would call his people to act in such a manner today, but he certainly could if he saw fit.

      And what of the coming tribulation? That sounds a lot worse to me than what Joshua’s forces did. Does it really make a difference whether God uses humans or spiritual beings as his instruments of judgment?

      • Stephen

        If one accepts that Jesus Christ is the final revelation of God and His heart to the world, and one accepts the teachings of Christ on the subject of violence, then I have a hard time imagining what other answer one could give other than “no, Christ would never command such a thing”. Unless you accept a nominalist or voluntarist account of God’s nature, then it is a bit of a stretch to say that “God could choose to tell His children to do something that, in His absolute revelation to them, He told them not to do”.

        And as for the whole “tribulation” think – well, I’m a preterist, so the question is moot to me. 🙂

        • The question is though: Is Jesus the person or the Gospel testimony about Jesus the final and complete revelation of God? Jesus said that He would send His Spirit, so it would not seem correct to categorically call Jesus’ earthly ministry and words as the final and complete revelation of God.

          Now maybe Jesus Himself is the final and complete revelation, but that would entail that we are open to learning more about Him and not simply constraining our understanding of Him to the Gospel accounts.

  • Great post, Kurt! I appreciate the way you point out the “difference in the storyline of redemption that takes place after Jesus comes.” I’m no Marcionite, but it is my understanding and belief that the incarnation really changed everything. The fact that God has now embraced, indeed become, humanity means the ways in which we live and relate to God and to each other (and the ways that God relates to us!) are drastically different than how things were before Jesus.

  • In my mind this is connected with the broader question of “retributive” justice, and simply whether or not we are willing to accept it? (Accept it in *some* form, that is; I don’t care for the way it is often used in protestant tellings of the cross, which make it sound as though God was just pissed and needed to vent before he could forgive anyone.) Does God, in his justice, see fit to deal with evil (such as that of the peoples of Canaan, as well as among his own people) by punishing and destroying it? Or are his purposes “purely redemptive”? (I guess “restorative” is the popular way of putting it.) Within this polarization, the question of Canaan becomes subject to where one stands on that larger issue of violence and wrath in the divine economy.

    I’ll do my best to state, positively, what I think. God is revealed in the Bible as both a punisher of wickedness and as a loving and forgiving bestower of mercy; the one informs the other. Like the death of Jesus, the conquest of Canaan occurs within the context of a world under judgment, “handed over,” as Paul states repeatedly in Romans 1, to the futility of sin and death, because we have chosen, in prideful self-assertion against God, our own knowledge of good and evil over and against God’s good purposes for us and for the world. We are born, consequently and as a reflection of God’s judgment, into the world system of sin and death, such that we too seem invariably to choose our own way the older we get, in variance from the knowledge of God. God’s judgment lies over all of human life that is estranged from and rebellious toward him–not merely because it deprives him of his honor, as Anselm reasoned, but because it thwarts his good and loving purposes for the world by denying his Lordship over it. And so God passes judgment, in his wrath, and this judgment takes the form of the vast array of dynamics that enslave our world to futility: the spread of disease, the expansion of military powers, the fracturing of human relationships and societies, and so on. This isn’t to say that death didn’t “exist” before the fall–merely that God’s wrath expresses itself in the *dominion* of Death over the world, and as such, death reflects God’s judgment. (God’s purpose for creating humans, though, was that that they would have dominion over the world and set it free from death. Instead they became enslaved to it.) Death is God’s answer to a humanity that thinks it can be, and can be god, without its Origin. And death’s dominion is therefore at the disposal of God’s judgment–even though, since by its very nature it negates the life God ultimately purposes for his creation, it too remains evil and the final enemy to be destroyed. But as with the Babylonians who destroyed Jerusalem (who by the admission of the prophets were *both* wicked themselves *and* were God’s just punishment on Israel) God can and does use death–and in the historical instance of Joshua and the Israelites, used it through the military power of his people–in order to bring his judgment. That doesn’t make the thing itself good or pleasant or desirable in itself. It is “good” only in that it cleansed the land of Canaan from the presence of sinful inhabitants (though, ironically, because of Israel’s own sin, only to be replaced by more of them).

    What happened to the Canaanites thus reflected God’s judgment; what happened to Israel in their failure to dispossess them completely reflected God’s judgment; what happened when Israel went astray and were led into exile reflected God’s judgment; and what happened at the cross reflected God’s judgment. At the cross, God entered into the dynamics of death’s dominion in the world, and created within himself, as it were, a “space,” in which human beings (including, dare we say, perished Canaanites?) could be spared of judgment by receiving it “in him”–a place where God is saying, “repent and come to me, and I will bear all the consequences that stemmed from your rebellion–death’s dominion–in myself, for your sake, and you will be saved.” Those who will not do so remain under the deserved judgment of Adam rather than under the undeserved judgment of the Messiah: the outpouring of his wrath that culminates, whatever the particular historical means, in eternal death (however this is to be understood). In going to the cross, Jesus was not denying the validity of violent punishment for sin–it was not, in other words, a protest against the idea of divine wrath, but (as with the passover) a liberation from it, one that leaves the unrepentant under it for as long as they do not repent. Jesus underwent the judgment of the human race as the only innocent one (the same that was reflected in the conquest of Canaan), and is therefore fit to represent and redeem his people from death. But those who persist in rebellion are still “under wrath”–they still face the dominion of death that their sin obtains and experiences.

    The Canaanites are an historical instance of one such people, who are under judgment and experience the consequence of a life without God. The question is not, “How could God do this to them?” Rather, the real question goes back further to ask, “How could they–or we for that matter!–do this to God?” Are we going to pass judgment on God, the judge of the earth, or are we going to forswear our ability to know what judgments of his are and aren’t “loving” or “appropriate,” and recognize the bankruptcy of our knowing good and evil on our own steam? My opinion specifically concerning the conquest of Canaan, then, is that it confronts us not so much with a moral question as with an *epistemological* one: shall we hand the God who conquered Canaan over to our own moral judgment, or shall we acknowledge him and not ourselves to be the origin of good and evil, of right and wrong? When we say, “How could a loving God destroy the Canaanites?” we are manifestly rehearsing the whole problem of the human race vis-a-vis God: we have become knowers of good and evil, whose judgment takes God’s own actions to the bar of our own judgment, rather than basing our knowledge off of those actions as a revelation of God’s character. We are defining “love” separately from him, and then subjecting him to that definition; rather, we ought to determine what love is on the basis of God’s revelation of himself, as the one who loves enough to hate evil and to destroy it, and yet to rescue from it those who turn to him at unthinkable cost to himself. The God who is love can and does destroy Canaan, because the God who is love hates evil and is implacably devoted to its destruction.

  • Jason Lacoss-Arnold

    It’s interesting that he has Israel destroy the weapons (chariots and hamstring horses) instead of capturing for it’s own later use. So there is a seed of breaking the cycle here.

    I’ve also heard that the OT mindset was that anything God allows is thus an action of God’s. Specifically, I’ve heard that said around the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. The text says that God hardened his heart, but it means that his hearth was hardened and God is all powerful thus he hardened his heart. That same principal seems to cover the text you cited as well (although it’s probably not a useful on some harder Joshua texts).
    I personally also wonder if the OT revelation isn’t quite as clear cut as it’s portrayed and we want it to be. Paul (IIRC) comments about “seeing as through a mirror dimly”. I wonder if all revelations were dim, partial, cloudy and only Jesus had a full revelation. I can see why others wouldn’t wan to go that far though.

  • I think there are a lot of stories in the Bible that are examples of “what not to do”, even if that might not be explicit in the Bible. Like, pretty much all of Samson’s life.

    I think that the clearest example that Israel may have misunderstood God–and written it down–comes from the two separate accounts of David having a census (2 Samuel 24:1, and 1 Chronicles 21:1).

    One says “God did it” and the other says “Satan did it”. Chronicles was written much later on, in retrospect, post Babylon. In other words, they realized that they weren’t as unique and immune as they thought they were. I think even the writers themselves were willing to admit, “Yeah, that was definitely NOT a God thing.”

  • Craig

    We should seriously reconsider the appropriateness of rationalizing these texts. It may be that the only right thing to do is to lay them out in all their brutality and suggest that these ancient texts do what they seem to do: they reflect primitive and underdeveloped moral sensibilities. Such an admission takes moral courage. If, however, you take this stand yourself, then you are in a much better position to ask the same of others, regardless of their parochial traditions, religious or otherwise.

    If, however, you do engage in the “rationalization” strategy, you should at least issue a clear caveat to your audience–stating that what you are seeking to provide may very well be a mere rationalization of texts that reflect primitive moral sensibilities. To write as if this possibility isn’t a possibility is morally inexcusable, even if it done in the name of religious piety.