Initially, the discussion on genocide in the Joshua campaign was limited to a two-part series. I wrote my contextualizing piece, trying to place the story in its own context and left it at that. Typically, I find that satisfactory. After all, I am an exegete, not a theologian in the classical sense. My job is to understand what the text meant and I leave the what it means for others to figure out. However, in this case, I’ve concluded that wasn’t enough. There needs to be a “what now” to wrap up our discussion.
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The Conquest narrative, like many accounts in the Bible, Old Testament in particular, is challenging for us, especially when it comes to interacting with non-believers. How does that conversation even go?
“Hey, you should follow Jesus.”
“He’s cool, but what about this Old Testament God? He’s kinda…rough.”
“Oh yeah, we follow him too. He’s the same God.”
“So you want me to follow a God who commanded invasion, Manifest Destiny, and mass slaughter?”
We often have several responses to this. One is to ignore it, figuring that non- and new-believers can read those stories “when they’re ready,”—whatever that means. There are obvious problems with this such as making people feel deceived and disillusioned with the fairy tale image of God we’ve given them, as well as the fact that these stories are pretty well known and so most people already have these concerns before we can hide them away. Another way we deal with it is to allegorize it or sanitize it. We might say that it didn’t really happen like this or God didn’t really mean what he said (which opens up a massive load of problems) or it wasn’t really that bad. Of course, this too ignores the reality of the story, a story drenched in blood and violence, all at the command of a supposedly loving God.
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I suppose another way is to fully embrace the violence and use it to justify one’s own mass slaughter. As much as I wish I could say that was a joke, reality has shown the opposite from the Crusades to the Manifest Destiny-driven western expansion of the U.S. to the Age of Imperialism even to mass shootings and violence today. This too seems to be a misstep in properly understanding the text.
What all these ways of dealing with the text have in common is that they avoid dealing with the apparent messy dissonance between the YHWH of the Old Testament and the Jesus of the New Testament, both of whom are probably the same person. One seems excessively violent while the other is, for the most part, peaceful. How do we bring these two seemingly irreconcilable images together into a complete whole? How do we apply the Conquest to our lives without losing the fundamental principles of love and acceptance that Christ teaches? How do we teach and discuss these to others without misconstruing God as bipolar at best and a blood-thirsty psychopath at worst?
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To be honest, I don’t know if I have the right answers. What is written below are simply my own thoughts and musings. Unlike my other articles, you will notice there aren’t any citations so this isn’t a heavily researched or academic-ish piece. This is how I have come to understand and accept the story. Perhaps you will find it useful or perhaps it will make things worse for you. I can only pray that Jesus will use these words to help you come to understand him better.
I love stories, which in part is how I became an archaeologist in the first place. My favorite genre is sci-fi and fantasy. I love the Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Wheel of Time, Inheritance Cycle, and a whole host of books and movies you’ve probably never heard of. I will admit to enjoying the Game of Thrones series until the last two seasons went off the rails, a rant I will save for another time and venue. Additionally, I’m a big fan of video games, currently playing through Skyrim and the Witcher 3 in my extremely limited spare time.
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Violence is, of course, one thing all of these have in common, to an extreme degree. Some more conservative Christians have attempted to reprove me for my enjoyment of such media by asking me if it’s very Christian to consume things with such violence. My response is to laugh and ask if they’ve read the Bible, which remains the single-most violent book I’ve ever read. What makes the Bible even more disturbing than any of these others is that a) I look to the Bible to guide my life and b) not all the violence is condemned. In fact, the most violent parts of the Bible are actually affirmed.
The first step is simply to accept the violence in the Bible. Even if we know the stories, we often unconsciously sanitize them in our minds. Even the first two parts of this series could be construed as sanitizing the story. My purpose was not to write an apologetic nor to shy away from the extreme violence present in the record, something I hopefully conveyed. Rather, I was attempting to clarify misrepresentations of the story that make it worse than it actually is. But make no mistake, the Conquest narrative is an extremely violent story where tens of thousands of people were slaughtered and even more forcefully displaced, all at the command of God.
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The violence of the Bible is something we simply have to accept. It is no different than the violence in TV, movies, books, and video games, except of course in the Bible, it is real, actual human beings suffering, as opposed to fake characters. Being in the Bible does not mean that Israelite swords and spears hurt less, that the Canaanite soldiers’ death was something less awful than any other soldiers’ death, or that the families who survived suffered the devastation any less than those who suffered under any other violent invasion throughout human history. The first step in coming to terms with the violence in the Bible is simply to accept it as it is, in all its horror.
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Now that we’ve done that, what do we do with it now? How do we move forward without becoming violent ourselves, screaming “Deus vult!” [“God wills it!”] and charging off to wipe out anyone we consider evil? At the same time, how do we avoid simply allegorizing the story away?
First, the Bible is kind enough to give us a big-picture view of what God was trying to do. As mentioned before, God’s plan was to create a “kingdom of priests” where his people would flourish living under his guidance, as he intended humanity to live. To accomplish this, he needed to create a safe space for them to grow into that ideal, which of course involved displacing the current inhabitants. While mass slaughter wasn’t the ideal, again as discussed, it was also likely unavoidable, unless God wanted to circumvent free will and simply program the Canaanites to leave. Instead, God gave the Canaanites a choice: leave on their own, surrender their entire way of life to join the Israelites, or fight and die. Most chose option three and thus God instructed the Israelites not to hold back. Was it ideal? No. But it was the best of a bunch of terrible options.
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Something to keep in mind is that “best” doesn’t mean “good.” If given the choice between being bitten by a copperhead, a banded krait, and a black mamba, being bitten by the copperhead is the “best” option. It is most certainly not a “good” option.
Perhaps this isn’t enough and that’s totally understandable. But it does highlight the reality of sin, especially for God. Even the almighty God cannot always find a “good” solution. After all, is anyone arguing that sacrificing the perfect innocence of Christ for all our guilt is “good”? Of course not. It’s just the only option that would work for our salvation. At least the Conquest option at least gave the Canaanites a choice, even if it wasn’t great.
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Speaking of the Canaanites, another way of looking at this story is to place ourselves in their shoes. Granted, this runs the risk of allegorizing, but it does highlight the real consequences of sin. As pointed out previously, the Canaanites were not exactly the best people, certainly people that would be a corrupting influence on the Israelites. In every instance of the Israelites attempting to get along with the Canaanites corrupted them and their failure to push them out resulted in their ultimate downfall. This is why God could not have them coexist; the Canaanites would inevitably corrupt the good God was trying to build with his people.
We are no better. We are an inherently corrupting force on our planet and universe. Everything we touch, we ultimately destroy. Even with God’s influence restraining us to a degree, violence and destruction are our driving aim. Maces, the first weapon of war solely designed to kill, appears on the scene as much as 12,000 years ago. Ancient history is driven by violent conquest, massacre, and destruction. The development of agriculture and husbandry immediately leads to the hoarding of wealth and food, creating power distinctions in society. We have always bent our resources first at developing better and more efficient ways to kill each other. Maces gave way to swords and spears, which gave way to bows and chariots, which gave way to gunpowder. Warplanes precede commercial airlines. When Einstein cracked the relativity code, the first thing we do is invest in nuclear fission, a power that has tremendous potential for providing energy for all. Instead, of course, we build a bomb that massacred a quarter-million people.
Wherever humans settle, throughout history, the environment immediately becomes polluted. Even as hunter/gatherers, we sucked dry the resources of one area before moving on. As urban settlements grew, so did our damage to the environment until now, we are quite literally suffocating our world to the point nature seems to be punching back.
Everything we touch, we corrupt. In truth, as a race, we cannot coexist with the rest of the universe lest we corrupt it too. We are an infestation that must be eradicated for the wellbeing of creation. Thankfully, according to the Bible, just such an eradication is on its way.
And yet, God still has extended an opportunity for salvation. Just like Rahab and the Gibeonites who found refuge in forsaking their Canaaniteness with the Israelites, so we can find refuge in Christ by leaving our worldliness behind. Of course, this means abandoning all the things that we identify as us, all the corrupting mindsets, beliefs, practices, and ways of life that we know to join in what Jesus has for us. For most of us, this is too much yet that is price Jesus demands. Nothing of this sinful world can come with us, lest the corruption and taint of sin continue to spread. We ought to simply be wiped out, yet Jesus gives a chance, undeserved, at salvation.
On the corruption side, we can also put ourselves in the shoes of the Israelites. They couldn’t allow any remnant of the Canaanite society to survive. It would inevitably, unquestionably corrupt and destroy them. They didn’t and they were, which ought to stand as a stark warning to us: we cannot let any of the world become part of our life.
Granted, this is a tremendous challenge for Christians. We are supposed to be in the world but not of the world, a very delicate and virtually impossible tightrope to walk. It is tempting, on the one hand, to simply shut ourselves in our churches and remove ourselves from the world, which does no one any good. On the other hand, there is the temptation to compromise with the world, trying to make ourselves more appealing, more to the outside to fit in. History has shown neither approach ends well.
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We cannot avoid the world, as we are supposed to spread the Gospel and we can’t all become monks. Yet neither can we compromise with it. We cannot incorporate the mentality, the practices, and ways of the world into our lives. Even this is tricky. Does that mean we shouldn’t use worldly PowerPoint? Well, no. What about employing snazzy sales methods to convince people to get baptized? That’s probably a bad idea. Where’s the line between those? I can’t answer that, to be honest.
Of course, that goes beyond how we do church. What do we read, watch, and do? What company do we keep? Are we allowing Canaanites to live in our lives? Who is influencing who?
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The fact is, whenever “Canaanites,” be they people or things, exist in our lives, it is us who are inevitably corrupted. Yes, Jesus hung out with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes but he never once compromised to make them comfortable. In fact, most of Jesus ministry was about making people uncomfortable. While we tend to focus on Jesus making the religious elites uncomfortable, never think for a second that he didn’t make everyone else uneasy too. How do you think “Go and sin no more” felt?
If the story of the Conquest has anything for us to understand, it is the devastating power of sin to corrupt and destroy anything good. There is no compromising, no coexisting with it. On one side, we are that very corrupting power and we must shake every bit of it off while on the other, we cannot allow those same influences to take root in our lives in whatever form they may take.
Perhaps this doesn’t help reconcile the violence but perhaps this understanding can help you understand the absolutes at play when it comes to dealing with sin. If so, may God bless you in this. If not, do not shy away from the story, don’t sanitize it, don’t hide from it. Face the messiness and let God guide you through.