April 7

Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible

Reading schedule

Matthew 28:11-20; 1 Corinthians 4:14-21; Psalm 78:65-72; Joshua 9-10

We have seen in other passages (Deuteronomy 20) that warfare in Israel was limited in humane ways. However, Joshua 10 and 11 describe battles in which every living thing was destroyed. This reflects a deeply troubling aspect of warfare in the Old Testament. At times, God tells Israel that they are to kill every living being (and sometimes animals) among those they defeat (Deuteronomy 2:34-36; 7:2; 20:17). This command related specifically to the conquest of Canaan and the destruction of seven people groups. It did not apply in other situations, and should never have been used to justify war outside of this initial context.

At the same time, commanding total war on any people offends many. The Hebrew term used for completely destroy is herem, and it literally means to devote to the ban. This concept was common in other ancient Near Eastern cultures. After victory, the spoils of war were sometimes ‘banned’ which meant dedicated to the victor’s god. All living beings and property would be completely destroyed. This was seen as a way of glorifying the deity and extending his reign over new territory. It was standard practice in those days, not something Israel developed.

The horrific picture of God ordering the Israelites to kill every man, woman and child has caused difficulties throughout Jewish and Christian history. Volumes have been written on the topic. The main justifications given are that the seven tribes subjected to the ban had sinned so heinously (through paganism, ritual prostitution, infant sacrifice, etc.), and were so closed to repentance, that their judgement was justified. Another reason is that Israel needed land and if the inhabitants remained they would have corrupted them (as actually happened).

Another approach proposes that the terms used were common expressions never intended to be taken literally. Thus, while Joshua 10 reports that Hebron and Debir were totally destroyed, we soon read that Canaanite survivors continued to live in Hebron and Debir (Joshua 15:13-16). Similarly, while Joshua is said to have taken the entire land (Joshua 11:23), we later read that this did not happen in many parts of the land (Judges 1:19-36). The writings of other cultures similarly state that Israel was totally destroyed, with a ninth-century BC Moabite text stating that ‘Israel perished utterly forever.’ Such all-encompassing statements were hyperbolic, intended to convey victory, not literal annihilation. Proponents of this view add that there is little archaeological evidence to support widespread devastation in Israel at this time.

Another aspect of this argument is that the ban was implemented differently. When Jericho was attacked and destroyed, Rahab and her family are spared (Joshua 6:17). No indication is given that sparing those who joined Israel was a violation of the ban. Many commentators believe that the seven days of marching around Jericho were to give people time to turn to God and be spared, such as happened later with Jonah and Nineveh. All property in Jericho was destroyed, but God allowed the property and livestock from Ai to be taken and used (Joshua 8:1-2). The ban appears to have been interpreted and applied differently, even in the immediate circumstances.

One consistent feature of the ban is the destruction of all people, including women and children. This remains the most troubling and difficult dimension. Death of combatants in war is expected. But the language of the ban is that of total destruction: repeatedly this passage states that they ‘left no survivors’ (10:28, 30, 33, 37, 39, 40) and killed ‘everyone’ (10:32, 35, 37, 39). It also emphasises that God commanded all this (10:30, 32, 40, 42). What sort of God kills women and children? Some question if this happened. The killing of women and children is nowhere described in the Bible, except as part of the sweeping generalisations. Other cultures described in gory detail how prisoners were tortured and killed, but this does not occur in the Bible.

Even if total warfare was not practiced, God commanded it. If he did not mean for the Israelites to kill everyone, he took a huge risk that some might have taken him at his word. We must deal with the biblical description of a God who judges sin and orders executions. God does not take pleasure in anyone’s death (Ezekiel 18:23), but he is also a warrior and must judge and punish sin (Psalm 78:65). The Old and New Testaments teach this. The kingdom of God is one of love, but also power (1 Corinthians 4:20-21). For Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, living through the atrocities of civil war in his own country, the former Yugoslavia, convinced him of this troubling truth. ‘Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love’ (Free of Charge, 2006, p.139).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s