(08) The Conquest: God’s Dark Side?—Joshua 1–11

Ted Grimsrud

The story continues with the liberated Hebrews, armed with a blueprint for a new kind of society, ready to move into a homeland.  The land is portrayed as a necessary context for the living out of Torah – and as part of the gift God gave God’s people to enable them to live as a light to the nations.  The promise is a promise for social existence, living in history in genuine communities that embody the created intentions of God for human life.  For this promise to be actualized, the community must exist as a concrete community in a particular location.

In terms of its role in the bigger biblical story, the account from the book of Joshua of the Hebrew people entering the promise land, settling down with the mandate to embody Torah, accountable to their liberating God, tells of a crucial beginning.  Reading this account today, we find many elements of the account to be deeply disturbing.  And we must struggle with the violence, the massive and seemingly indiscriminate slaughter of the people who happened to be in the way of the Hebrews.  We must struggle with the legacy of this story – the warrant for parallel “conquests” in southern Africa, the Americas, Australia, and so on.  However, our focus on this “dark side” of the entry into the promise land, important as it may be for our own living with this part of our Bible, can also distract us from the role this account plays in the broader biblical story itself.

While the book of Joshua itself is quite celebratory of the events that established the Hebrews in Palestine, we end up by the time the Old Testament account concludes (and also as reflected in the assumptions of New Testament thought) with something quite different.  To the extent that the Joshua story reflects the establishing of Israel as a nation-state, a project wherein the promise must be embodied to be sustainable, the conclusion of the Old Testament tells us that the nation-state option failed – and that the promise will be fulfilled apart from being linked with any particular nation-state.

 The story itself does not make a direct link between the violence that established Israel in Canaan and the ultimate failure of the nation-state as a valid channel for promise.  However, in the end the point is clear.  The promise does not rely either on the founding violence of conquest nor on the sustaining violence of standing armies and centralizing economic practices that leave the many disenfranchised and in poverty in order to bankroll temples and king’s castles.  In fact, when read as a whole, the story makes clear that the main effect of gaining the promise land was to make apparent that the families of the earth will ultimately only be blessed by a genuinely alternative politics centered on love not coercive violence.  That is, the promise land motif is radically transformed in the story that takes us from Joshua to Jesus. 

Hence, for followers of Jesus, the Joshua story takes on significance for several reasons.  It is a story of God’s faithfulness, underscoring the connection between the promise, Torah, and the formation of a people and actual, concrete, landed life.  God calls a people to live in this world, displaying to the nations the ways of Torah – genuine justice, care for the vulnerable, compassion, equality – thus making clear God’s will for all creation. 

The Joshua story in important ways is part of the trajectory that runs from Abraham through Moses and then later prophets on down to Jesus.  This trajectory shows that God’s central concern is with right-making and life-sustaining justice for vulnerable people (slaves, widows, orphans, aliens), not with buttressing the power of the dominating human king.  The basis for the victory was trust in God, not a large collection of horses, chariots, and warriors.  The success of the new community was contingent on its adherence to the core teachings of Torah, teachings  that emphasized justice for the entire community.  Possession of the land from the start was understood to be contingent on continued faithfulness to God.

The Joshua story also sets the stage for the events to follow – events concluding in the Old Testament with the final failure of the Jewish nation-state, the destruction of the Temple and the king’s palace, and the recognition in the prophets that these events did not signal God’s desertion (or death) but in fact reflected God holding the people accountable to the covenant.  Out of the rubble comes an awareness that the promise continues, that the nation-state route actually is incompatible with Torah and the promise, and that the calling of God’s people is to “seek the peace of the city where they find themselves” (Jer 19) – that is, to spread the promise through diasporic existence as counter-cultural communities embedded within the nations.

And, of course, the Joshua story challenges the followers of Jesus to seek for greater clarity in their understandings of the relationship between violence and their calling to witness to the love of God.  This story is part of the overall story we claim as our founding story.  The integral place the Joshua story plays for Christians may be seen, symbolically, in the fact that our central figure, Jesus, takes his name from the central figure of the older story.  Jesus and Joshua must be reckoned with together.  But that does not mean that they must be harmonized.  I will suggest we do look for points of continuity that are very important, but that we also recognize the crucial points of contrast.  These points of contrast help us understand that this story we link our faith with develops as it goes along – and needs ultimately to be read in light of its end point.

The roots of the Joshua story go back to when God called a people in the time of Abraham.  This people were meant to be a blessing for all the families on earth.  We read in Genesis of the trials and tribulations of Abraham’s descendents, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and how the people of Israel end up as slaves in Egypt.  Then, in Exodus, God liberates these slaves, under the leadership of the prophet, Moses. 

As the people journey through the wilderness, on their way to the promise land, they are given God’s commandments.  They learn of God’s will for their community life.  And, finally, as we read in the book of Joshua, they are given the land.  They are given a place to settle in, to put down roots, to establish a community that would faithfully follow God’s will.  God wanted them to be a channel for his healing work for all of creation.

 This part of the story is an important part in the overall story of God’s work for the salvation of the human race and all the earth.  However, it is an early part of the story.  For us, looking back and reading the whole of the Bible, we need to remember how the story ends – with the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus.  When people have used the story of Joshua and the conquest as a justification for refusing to put a face on their opponents, when white North Americans used conquest language from Joshua to justify violence against Indians, when Afrikaaners in South Africa used conquest language from Joshua to justify violence against the black natives, they all missed the point of the story when it is seen in the context of the entire Bible’s teaching about God healing creation.

When we look at the conquest story in light of the entire Bible, we can see continuity between Joshua and Jesus.  In fact, the name “Jesus” is the Greek version of the Hebrew name “Joshua.”  Jesus probably was named after Joshua.  The name means “help of the Lord.”  The continuity between Joshua and Jesus can be seen in several things. 

For one thing, both bring down the proud and the mighty.  It is important to notice in the story of Joshua, that the main people who are mentioned as resisting God’s will are the kings of the various nations.  Joshua is God’s instrument to bring down the mighty from their thrones.  Just as Pharaoh was brought low by God, so too are the Canaanite kings. 

Later on it is said of God’s work through Jesus:  “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Lk 1:51-2).

A second continuity is that for both Joshua and Jesus, the heart of their message is trust in God.  Do not trust in human wisdom.  Do not trust in empires and their weapons of war.  Do not trust in horses and chariots.  Trust in God’s care.  Trust in God’s power.  In the wilderness, and even in these early days in the promise land, the children of Israel struggled with trust.  They struggled with the temptation to go back to Egypt and the security of living under the wings of the empire.  This was an on-going struggle.

This concern was central in Jesus’ message, as well.  He also had to deal with lack of trust.  When Peter protested the idea of Jesus going to the cross, he was expressing lack of trust in God.  When the disciples argued about who was the greatest, they were expressing Empire thinking, the priority being on power and dominance over others.  They were not trusting in God.

A third area of continuity between Jesus and Joshua is that both sought the establishment of a community characterized by faithfulness to God’s law.  The basic message of the book of Joshua as a whole is that Israel will prosper, Israel will meet with success, Israel will show the light of God to the world only if Israel remains faithful to God’s commands.  Israel has been given wonderful gifts – liberation from slavery, the gift of the Law, and the gift of the land.  Israel has been given life; now Israel has the responsibility to live faithfully in light of God’s great mercy.  The basic idea is this: God loves you; God has given you salvation; God’s mercy comes first.  Now, what God asks of you is that you respond by living faithfully in light of this great mercy.  God has given you life.  God only asks that you live it, and in doing so you will be sharing that life with the rest of the world.

The basic message of Jesus is essentially the same.  The kingdom of God is at hand.  God loves you.  God accepts you and wants you to know life and to share life with others.  All God asks is that you live faithfully in response to his love for you.  God wants you to follow God’s commands – that may be summarized as love God with all your heart and soul and to love your neighbor as yourself.  Confess your sins and trust that God’s mercy will bring you healing.

So, the story of Joshua is a story of mercy in many ways.  It is very much in continuity with the story of Jesus.  And yet, we can’t help but notice some major discontinuities as well.  The Joshua story points toward the Jesus story, but it is not there yet.

I want to mention two central discontinuities.  For one thing, in Joshua’s conquest, the enemies were killed.  The kings especially are emphasized—but as we read, “all the people they struck down with the edge of their sword, until they had destroyed them, and they did not leave any who breathed” (Josh 11:14).

In contrast, Jesus insists that even enemies are to be loved.  We know Jesus’ incredibly challenging words:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors, so that you may be children of your father in heaven” (Mt 5:43-45).  This teaching of Jesus will find its fulfillment when, in contrast to the time of Joshua when the kings of the earth are put to the sword, in Revelation 21 we read that “the kings of the earth will being their glory into [the New Jerusalem]” (21:24).  Jesus brings healing for everyone.

The second discontinuity is that in the story of Joshua, it is violence that wins the victory.  It is true, and important, that this violence is qualified in some ways.  Many of the important victories are won by God’s miraculous involvement, not by superior human firepower – such as the battle of Jericho where the walls come a ’tumbling down.  Israel was not to be a militaristic state, with a permanent army, and the generals running things.  Nonetheless, we can’t avoid the reality that Joshua’s victories are won through violence, fighting against the oppressors, the kings of Canaan.

In contrast, Jesus’ victory is won through refusing to fight back.  He called Peter “Satan,” when Peter questioned whether Jesus should go the way of the cross.  Jesus’ entire ministry was about breaking the spiral of violence.  Jesus knew that ultimately, fighting fire with fire, violence with violence, oppression with revolution – the only winner of that kind of fight is Satan, the forces of chaos, the rule of the sword.  Jesus’ ministry was about trusting in God, that God’s love will conquer death, non-violently.

The story of the gift of the promise land which we read in the book of Joshua is an important part of the overarching biblical story of God’s healing strategy.  Partly, it is important because it shows us God’s concern for justice and peace (shalom) among his people.  It shows us the central importance of trusting in God.  It shows us that God opposes the proud and mighty who do not trust in God.  And it shows us the centrality to God of our faithful living in response to God’s gift of salvation.

And, the story of the conquest is important because it can help push us towards clarity about what Jesus was about.  He shared with Joshua opposition to the high and mighty.  He also called for trust in God and for obedience to the law of God as the necessary response to God’s mercy.  In contrast to Joshua, though, Jesus shows us more fully God’s will. 

Jesus shows us that God wills that we always put a face on our opponents, our enemies.  In fact, Jesus shows us that God wills that we love our enemies.  And Jesus shows us that the healing strategy of God leads to a rejection of violence, the acceptance even of death if that is where living in love leads.  Jesus lived and taught that what matters most is the confidence that God’s love conquers death, that God’s love will heal all of creation.

For the Christian pacifist, the Joshua story needs to be seen as part of the bigger story, not read in isolation as a “problem passage” that must be explained away.  We need to acknowledge the existence of this story as part of the bigger story.  We will gain more from this acknowledgment if we focus on how Joshua contributes to the overall direction the bigger story – culminating in a new Joshua who gives no hint of repudiating his namesake even as he devoted his life to loving friends and neighbors.

When we accept the Joshua story as part of our bigger story, however, even as we focus on ways that it helps lead to the clarity of Jesus’ message of peace, we of course must also come to terms with the terrible violence that remains.  And we also must come to terms with the legacy of that violence in subsequent “people of the book,” Christians and Jews.

Ultimately, I find it most helpful to recognize that the Bible in many ways simply reflects actual life – for better and worse.  In life we do have a great deal of violence, but as pacifists we choose to interpret the violence in light of our convictions of the supremacy of love and compassion, seeking healing over seeking to dominate.  The biblical stories are stories of life, they too may be interpreted in light of our convictions about peace.  I suggest that this is in fact what Jesus himself did – when he embraced his own identity as Joshua’s heir while making clear that in the end God is a God who loves enemies, not a God who underwrites genocide.

In being honest, then, we are left with little choice but to admit that we do not read the Joshua text as an accurate portrayal of the true character of God – at least the parts that speak of God commanding putting every single person in various communities to the sword.  These stories were told in a historical context prior to the kind of clarity about pacifism that came with Jesus.  So the storytellers were not as worried about seeming to accept violence as later writers would have been.  Nonetheless, for the reasons mentioned above, the overall story points toward Jesus, not toward power politics. 

Reading the Bible as a whole, we are left with the sense that the importance of the Joshua story may be seen as much in how it provides a contrast with comes later as with its own intrinsic meaning.  The Joshua story helps make clear how ultimately the nation-state option was a failure.  It also helps make clear the portrayal of God by Jesus as one who loves enemies – and calls believers to do that same.

4 thoughts on “(08) The Conquest: God’s Dark Side?—Joshua 1–11

  1. Roger

    Ted — no reponses yet.
    As for me — this article is long overdue.
    I have never read one before with this angle.
    Mentioning failure from Gods word seems to be a taboo.
    The contrasts of Joshua’s campaign & of Jesus.
    The similiarities of Joshua’s campaign & of Jesus.
    Yes — many promises did end in the physical/biological & polictical.

  2. Albert Steiner

    As I continue to look at the OT wrath of God, and the Violence he did, and the way God (King of the Universe) had his chosen people conquer the promised land with genocide of the previous inhabitants. The story in Exodus, and Leviticus shows how again and again God needed to discipline his chosen people to form them into a people who looked to him as their God. In fact, Jesus did not come until the Chosen people had to learn to live faithfully in a time of generations of occupation by a harsh nation. Then the stage was set for God to show his new way through Jesus.
    I am impressed with the NT word that all things were created by Jesus, so presumably he was part of this chapter of God’s action.
    It seems to me that God had a redemptive plan from the beginning, from creation. He knew that mankind would choose the knowledge of good and evil, that would take the opportunity to create their own hell on earth, hell that often abused innocent people.
    Just as family systems can be broken, the mankind system was broken, those with power too often abuse the weak. God could only redeem this broken mankind system by coming personally as a man himself and suffering a highly abusive death on a cross. But death could not hold Jesus/God. The Resurrection and the sending of God’s Holy Spirit to followers of Jesus teachings, changed the mankind system in such a way, that followers of the way no longer were to use violence to bring the Kingdom of God. The kingdom of God became a living alternative to the empire of violence. Even though the empire killed some of those who would not worship Empire and the Emperor, the Way spread and grew. With many different problems and false branches, the way of non-violent redemption continued to grow. We are called to join that way, each in the way God’s spirit moves us to live the life of non-violent redemption giving ourselves in all of the ways to which we are called. (Taking up our own cross daily!) This is why we as followers of Jesus way, do not participate in war, instead we give ourselves to ways to do our part in the redemption of the broken mankind system.
    God help us, it is easy to get confused with so many “Christian” voices. We need to keep coming back to God’s deep love in Jesus that loved us even to his own horrible death. His victory over death in Resurrection, released his Holy Spirit to be with us and help us to walk in his way.

  3. Ted Grimsrud Post author

    I like this Al, especially your emphasis on the clarity of God’s revelation in Jesus. This is the basic issue. Only if we truly don’t think God is definitively revealed in Jesus do the Old Testament stories become big problems.

    That said, I am growing increasingly comfortable with seeing the Joshua story (and the others) as “legends” more than as literal historical facts. Then we can say that not every detail has equal weight and the meaning is most of all to be found in the contribution each part of the story makes to the whole (which ultimately is the story of Jesus’ love, as you say).

  4. Jon Nichols

    Thanks for the great article and site. I’m preaching an upcoming series on the book of Joshua and I was wondering if you had any additional resources or recommendations. I’ve picked up the Believers Church Bible Commentary on Joshua and have found it helpful.
    However, other resources I’ve found have only spoken of the conquest of the canaanites in general terms and not dealing with the actual text, or they have a weak apologetic (aka. it’s judgement not genocide so its ok to murder.)


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