What do you do with a genocidal God?
The biblical book of Joshua paints a horrifying picture of God. Part 1 of a series on how we might read it as Christians
(Content Warning: some discussion of genocide and sexual violence in the Bible.)
It feels a little weird — borderline blasphemous — to say that the book of Joshua is the worst part of the Bible.
But if you’ve ever read through it, I’m sure you know what I mean. The book’s main plot concerns the arrival of the Israelites into the land God had promised them and the ensuing horrors they wrought on the people who already lived there. God, for the most part, is portrayed as a frighteningly petty colonizer who encourages and participates in genocide, enslavement, and sexual assault for reasons that are never fully explained.
I spent a year or so in undergrad thinking about how we could read the beginning of Genesis in light of what we now know about biology. And I ultimately came across a basic outline that I found satisfying — a way to “get something out of” reading Genesis 1 without having to sacrifice the truth of evolution.
And so, I thought, I would do the same thing with Joshua. I read some books, thought and prayed, and had difficult conversation after difficult conversation that again came up blank. The only two approaches to the book I could come up with were the “Modernist” approach1 — to read the book as literal history, with all the ethical baggage that carries2 — and the “feeling uncomfortable and avoiding the topic” approach I’d been taking.
I’m now five years older and I’ve learned a bit more about how the Bible works, and I finally feel like I’m starting to make some headway. This post is (God-willing) going to be the first in a series of five posts about Joshua published over the next couple of weeks, as follows:
In this post, I’m going to quickly spell out why I think the modernist reading of Joshua is such a big problem. Specifically, I will argue that the book’s portrayals of God’s actions are so awful that the described events shouldn’t have happened, that the archaeological evidence generally implies that they didn’t happen, and that modernist interpretations of the book have led to some real-life bad events that did happen.
In the next post, I will give an overview of traditional Christian and Second Temple Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament, arguing that the idea that we must interpret stories like those of Joshua as “things that literally happened” is fairly new. (Including an insistence by some early church fathers that only heretics like Marcion would read the Old Testament this way!) We’ll also look at New Testament uses of the Old Testament (and Joshua in particular) to hammer down the point that some “obvious” (to our eyes) views on how the Bible should behave weren’t shared by the earliest Christians.
The remaining three posts will consist of three separate ways of reading Joshua as Christian scripture (and sources where you can read more about them.) I’ve found all of them illuminating in some regards and unhelpful in others, and so even though they are in some sense contradictory I think they all shed light on the issue. In brief, they are (in no particular order):
Joshua in Historical Context: Most scholars date the book of Joshua to the sixth or seventh century BCE, at least five hundred years after the events it purports to describe, as Israel was entering a phase of suffering marked by humiliation and defeat by its more powerful neighbors. Parts of the book read differently in the context of “an oppressed people group telling stories of long-ago times when they were on top,” and even within this context we’ll see how Joshua challenges ideas of “insiders” and “outsiders” in ways that we can still learn from today.
Joshua as Spiritual Warfare: If you look closely enough at the Bible’s depiction of the tribes Joshua is fighting, they’re deeply connected to some of the weird parts of the Old Testaments — demons, giants, and other wicked forces. In this reading, the account of the conquest is meant as an allegory for the religious person’s fight against their inner demons, not a description of past events. This is fairly close to the way early Christians typically read Joshua, but we’ll spruce it up with some findings from modern scholarship too.
Joshua as Cautionary Tale: This reading is at once the simplest and most difficult way to read the story: simple in terms of rejecting parts of the text that clearly support evil, but difficult in the sense that it requires a willingness to reframe our view of scripture away from the Modernist approach currently popular in Evangelicalism. In particular, we will admit that the author of Joshua seems to be okay with (excited about?) terrible sins, and we will explore what we can learn from this historical-but-incorrect view of God our canon preserves. In the words of scholar Dora Mbuwayesango, “the book of Joshua can help the people of God to construct its identity in a sound way, namely by acknowledging and making explicit the revulsion we have for its narratives.3”
(If you would like to get notifications as entries in the series come out, you can subscribe using the button below. If not, scroll past it for a quick overview of problems with modernist readings of the book of Joshua!)
It shouldn’t have happened
The plot of Joshua is fairly simple: the people of Israel have arrived in the land they believe to be theirs, but there are already people living there. The first half of the book records a campaign of genocide, slaughter, and mass slavery of the region’s indigenous inhabitants, while the second half is a description of how the land will be divided among the invaders.
The Bible is full of people doing terrible things, and this isn’t necessarily a problem for Christians: the book of Esther, for example, describes a campaign of mass murder led by its heroine, but the book doesn’t explicitly take a stance on the slaughter and it’s easy to affirm both the lessons of the book and the wickedness of some of its main character’s deeds.
The book of Joshua isn’t like this, because the violence in the book isn’t just described — it’s celebrated and even consecrated. Here’s God’s commandment as described in Deuteronomy 20:
When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.
However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.
In two paragraphs we have commands supporting slavery, mass murder, and the objectification of women and children as property. And this is exactly what Joshua is going to do, still prodded along by God, in his eponymous book. Everybody in Jericho except for Rahab’s family is murdered, so Godsteps in to punish Israel — but not for the murder. We learn that some guy name Achan stole some gold and silver from Jericho instead of burning it, so God insists the Israelites stone him to death before they can commit another genocide in Ai and enslave the people of Gibeon.
What justification is given for this? Sometimes I hear people talk about the Canaanites doing terrible things like child sacrifices — it’s not super clear how murdering all the children is a better outcome than this, and it’s also (as far as I can tell) not mentioned in the biblical record as a reason. Instead, the primary reason given seems to be that God is worried the Canaanites will tempt his people into idolatry if they intermingle.
This isn’t really satisfying, for two reasons. First, the Israelites seem to spend most of the Bible worshipping idols anyways, so the mass murder of men, women, and children doesn’t even seem to accomplish the goal it was set with. Second, it doesn’t really answer the question of why God decided to give the Israelites the Canaanites’ land to begin with! Why not just make new land for them? What makes the land of Israel so important that it’s worth exterminating seven different ethnic groups for?
(To be clear: I am a Christian and am not trying to say we should just throw out the Bible. The questions I’m wrestling with are ones the earliest Christians seem to have been aware of, and in many cases they came down on the same “the events of Joshua shouldn’t be interpreted literally” side I’m on. We’ll see more in the next post.)
It didn’t happen4
When biblical archaeology started to take take off in the early twentieth century, the American evangelical church was fully drawn in by modernist readings of scripture. As a result, archeologists like William Albright set out to confirm the story of Israel told by the Old Testament as literal fact by finding evidence for the events it described.
This lasted a couple of decades, until problems started to pop up. The settlements best identifiable as Jericho and Ai, for example, don’t seem to have been occupied during the times Israel would have been conquering them, while the settlements that were destroyed during the time period are not mentioned as such in the Bible (and show no evidence of having been destroyed by Israelites.) The author of Joshua does not seem to be aware of the region’s Egyptian hegemony at the time, and some of its descriptions of locations fit better with its mid-first-millennium-BCE time of writing than the time of the conquest itself.
The result of this and other evidence is that, while there is still significant debate on precisely how Israel formed, scholars have come to reject the book of Joshua as being a useful historical source. I don’t want to overstate this — interpreting archaeological evidence is harder and more subjective than, say, biology — but there does seem to be a real consensus that the story told by the book of Joshua did not happen in any literal sense.
I find this both comforting and concerning. Comforting because “God led a couple of genocides a couple thousand years ago” is, of course, not something I would like to believe, but concerning because my whole Christian life it’s been taken for granted that the point of the “historical” Old Testament books is to narrate history as it actually happened.
This, of course, isn’t a problem with the Bible. It’s a problem with the expectations I and my faith community put on the Bible. The assumptions that I brought to the table (that ancient Israelites were interested in writing history in the modern sense) have run up against the facts, and something will have to budge. We’ll see in the next post a lot more detail on how other Christian and Jewish writers have traditionally interpreted stories like this.
But it did cause bad things to happen
One of the basic problems with modernist interpretations of Joshua is laid out in Robert Allen Warrior’s “Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians.” Warrior writes that he finds it difficult to engage with the Exodus (Israel’s rescue from Egypt) as a source of liberation because the story is so intimately tied to what come next: Israel led into a “promised land” and exterminating the indigenous population.
As a Native American, Warrior points out that the people in the story he identifies most with are the Canaanites: a collection of disparate people groups whose land is suddenly claimed by an outside force demanding they either leave or live under the terms of the conquerors. The land is then divided up among the newcomers with little regard for what came before, and the story continues to be told primarily through the lens of the victors.
I don’t think (and Warrior doesn’t argue) that the book of Joshua literally caused the horrific history of genocide our continent has seen. But it takes little digging to find American churches past and present referring to America as some variation on “the Promised Land” with Native Americans as “the Canaanites”, just as the colonizers in Africa considered themselves to be following in Joshua’s footsteps and a handful of far-right Israeli rabbis today read the commands in Joshua as justifying all sorts of atrocities against Palestinians.
History is full of nuances and most events have multiple causes, and I think greed and power are closer to primary causes of the past few centuries’ terrible deeds. But the modernist reading of Joshua has given colonizers and imperialists a place to see themselves as biblical heroes instead of villains, and given how often the words have been deployed in sermons and speeches it takes very little historical imagination to see that this sort of dehumanizing and violent rhetoric most likely made things worth than they otherwise would have been.
So welcome to my “what the hell do we do with the book of Joshua” journey, and I hope the coming posts provide you with some sort of spiritual nourishment.
Sometimes this is called the “traditional” approach. I don’t really like this name because it implies this is the “oldest” approach or the one Christians have always held, and this isn’t true.
Sometimes this approach comes with the idea that it takes “extra faith” and “extra virtue” to follow a God who does the awful things described in the book. This seems backwards to me — surely the more faithful interpretation is the one that doesn’t believe God did something so against his very nature?
The Global Bible Commentary, page 69.
See, e.g., “Early Israel in Recent Biblical Scholarship” by K. Lawson Younger Jr. for a slightly more Evangelical-adjacent presentation of this data, and sources. I also enjoyed Ralph K. Hawkins’s How Israel Became a People, Uriah Y. Kim’s Decolonizing Josiah, and various things Pete Enns has written on this question.