I just finished reading the book of Joshua yesterday. It’s not an easy book to digest. Joshua is one of the hardest books in the Bible to come to terms with. Events take place in this book that just don’t sit well.
Joshua is the story of the conquest of the Promised Land. In this book we see the nation of Israel move from living in the desert to taking possession of the land God had promised to Abraham hundreds of years earlier. The problem is, there are already people living in the land. To make matters worse, Israel doesn’t just displace the people living there, they annihilate them.
Nearly 20 times in the book of Joshua we are told that they capture a city and utterly destroy, or devote to destruction, every living person in the city. Several times we are told that they destroyed them to the last man.
“And all the spoil of these cities and the livestock, the people of Israel took for their plunder. But every man they struck with the edge of the sword until they had destroyed them, and they did not leave any who breathed.” (Joshua 11:14)
These stories create an ethical dilemma for us. As we read them, we are tempted to think of Israel committing genocide. Commanded by the Lord to do so!
I want you to see that this is not genocide, it is, as Mark Dever puts it, the “expiration of God’s mercy.”
First, God owns the land, and the people in it. They are his to do with as he pleases.
“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein,
for he has founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the rivers.”
Second, God is using Israel to carry out judgment for sin.
“Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” (Deuteronomy 9:5)
The Canaanites were wicked people. They worship demon gods to whom they sacrificed their own children by burning them alive. They engaged in perverted sexual practices as part of their worship. God is judging them for their sins.
Later he will also judge Israel for the sins of its people. We see that right here in Joshua.
After the fall of Jericho, the people go to take a rather small town called Ai. Much smaller than Jericho, they thought they could easily defeat the city, yet they were routed and fled before the men of Ai. Joshua bemoans the defeat and God tells him why it happened.
“Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their own belongings. Therefore the people of Israel cannot stand before their enemies. They turn their backs before their enemies, because they have become devoted for destruction. I will be with you no more, unless you destroy the devoted things from among you.” (Joshua 7:11-12)
Here’s what happened. At Jericho they had been told to kill everyone and to take no plunder. Everything of value was to be given to the levites for use in the temple. One man took some gold and sliver and clothing for himself and hid it in his tent. God allowed the army to suffer a humiliating defeat because of this sin. The problem was sin, the solution was death. This man, Achan, was singled out, he confessed, he was judged, and then stoned. Israel then resumed its victorious conquest.
So, this destruction of peoples is not directed because of race, but because of sin. Israel itself is not exempt from this standard.
Third, the purpose of the command to destroy the people of Canaan is to preserve the purity of the nation’s worship, not the purity of their blood line.
“…when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. You shall not intermarry with them, give your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.” (Deuteronomy 7:2-4)
Fourth, God shows mercy to those who acknowledge him.
The story of the taking of Jericho opens with the scouting of the city’s defenses. Two spies are sent and they are aided in their mission by a Canaanite prostitute named Rahab. She has heard of the God of Israel. She acknowledges God as supreme. Her entire family is saved from the destruction of Jericho.
Then in chapter 9 we have the story of the Gibeonites. This group of people see what is happening to anyone who fights against Israel, and they’ve heard that Israel isn’t signing any peace treaties with the locals, so they cook up a scheme to trick Israel into signing one with them.
Again, they acknowledge God. The Israelites make mistakes in this story. They don’t consult God when making this decision, but ultimately God shows his sovereignty in this situation because he uses it to create another situation where Israel will be able to quickly deal with several troublesome kings all at once. They are lured out of their fortified cities to make war on the Gibeonites and Israel is able to launch a surprise attack and defeat them.
The Gibeonites are not destroyed, an exception is made and they are put to work supplying water and firewood to the tabernacle. Being associated with the tabernacle is an honored position in Israel. It put you closer to God.
The point is, exceptions were made for God’s mercy. Just as Israel was subject to God’s judgment when they failed to obey him, the gentiles are subject to God’s mercy when they do acknowledge him.
Rahab and the Gibeonites picture for us the salvation of gentiles through faith.
When you sit down to read Joshua, don’t get sidetracked by a wrong understanding of what’s going on in the story. To be sure, the book is full of destruction and death, but the point of the story is the faithfulness and sovereignty of God. God brought them into the land, and God gave them the land. It was not of their own doing, and it was not because of their own righteousness.
In another post tomorrow, I’ll address the central message of the book of Joshua, and hopefully give you a better understanding of why it is included in the Bible, and how it points us to Jesus.