The “holy wars” of Israel are the single-most troubling ethical problem in the Old Testament. That is, according to Paul Copan, in Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. So problematic he examines this issue in no less than four chapters.
The problems go in a number of directions: Did God really tell the Israelites to destroy those cities, including women and children? Does this establish a view of God? Does this establish the way to deal with political and national enemies? Was it really a “total conquest” or was it a gradual elimination of Canaanite religion?
Big one: What’s at stake for you in this issue? Or, How have you thought your way through the issue of God and war in the Old Testament?
Especially for our situation: How have texts like this shaped our culture so that war, violence and taking the life of another are a justifiable way of settling problems?
Copan’s approach essentially is to respond to the New Atheists’ criticisms by pointing out the issues are more complex, the evidence supports other views, and a theological commitment to God as alone worthy of obedience and worship shifts the focus.
Here are some of his major points, and we can’t possible list all the evidence or record the details:
1. The Canaanites really were a sinful people — temple sex, bestiality, homosexuality (let’s not go there), child sacrifice and outright bloodlust on the part of their gods.
3. The issue of Israel with the Canaanites, Moabites, Ammonites, Amalekites was not ethnic or racist but polytheism, worship and the one true God.
4. Now to some major, major conclusions at a more specific level: the “conquest” was not about Israel completely wiping out the Canaanites; it was gradual, it involved very little physical destruction; it was directed — not at cities and people — but at military personnel, leaders, priests, and power institutions. Jericho and Ai did not have the general population but were military posts.
5. The rhetoric: Harem warfare, “women and children” is exaggerated Ancient Near Eastern language. It was conventional warfare rhetoric and in many cases women and children weren’t even present. He calls it “rhetorical bravado.” It’s a way of saying “we trounced them.” Even when Joshua said he utterly destroyed them (Joshua 11:12), he didn’t — they were still there at the end of the book!
6. Facts in Joshua already show that they did not in fact abolish the Canaanites but they remained with the Israelites in the Land.
7. The intent was to wipe out false religion — as painlessly as possible.
8. This was restricted to one time period; it was not how Israel treated other national conflict.
9. The bigger emphasis was on “driving them out” and not “wiping them out.” It was about dispossessing them of their religious presence in the Land.
10. Exceptions were permitted — conditions could be met.
11. Archaeology supports this gradual, limited, military-shaped defeat instead of a monstrous, one-time destruction of everything.
12. Christian use of these texts is misguided.
I’d like to see more struggling with (1) the reality of war in our world, (2) the implication of Israel in a world of wars and battles, (3) a critique of Old Testament war themes in light of Jesus’ teachings on peace (he touches this; more please), and (4) the “fallen nature” of Israel at this time and how that condition shapes perceptions of what God is doing in this world or at least of how God implicates himself in our fallen world.