What to Do with the Violence in Joshua

This week we looked at a text in Joshua that many of us prefer to skip over: Joshua 10:28-31 and following verses.  After the defeat of Jericho, subsequent battles were fought in a more familiar and violent way (not supernatural like the Jericho victory.)  One of the most common objections to the Bible and rejections of the Christian faith is the violence of the past, like this list of battles in Joshua 10.  

Modern apps like Pandora are designed to contour what you receive (music) according to your specific tastes.  In fact, you don't even have to listen to an entire track before skipping to what's next.  And you can "like" or "dislike" tracks to make the algorithm customize its offerings ever more according to your personal tastes.  

But we mustn't read the Bible this way.  

So how do we translate and interpret passages like this and avoid the "algorithm tendency?"

1) Context is key.  The literary context of the passage in Joshua 10 is God's judgment on the Canaanites, not  the acquisition of land or power.  And God alone has the holy privilege of casting judgment on those who distort his creation.  Only God heard the prayers of the vulnerable in Canaan when they pleaded for mercy from their oppressors.  And God moved to judge those immoral deeds.  The Mosaic Law (torah) prohibits vile acts, not because they weren't happening, but because they were happening in the land that the Israelites would one day occupy (Lev. 18-21, Dt. 24).  God gave the law to keep his covenant people from making the same mistakes (but they did later anyway, but that's another story).  So when we read a passage like Joshua 10, we must resist the temptation to place ourselves in the judgment seat over the Canaanites and deem them innocent, thus making God appear to be unfair and barbaric.  Moreover, we cannot read the stories of conquest and then "fast forward" through the rest of the literary context of the Bible as though Jesus himself would condone Joshua's military conquest as the means to God's kingdom.  Narratives like Joshua 10 must be read in their literary context.     

2) Understand hyperbole.  Hyperbole is a literary device that relies on exaggeration to highlight the purpose of stories, including true stories.  Think of the way war veterans tell the stories of victorious battles.  Or even the way we talk about sports: (for example, "The Cougars 'totally destroyed' the Ducks this year!")  In Joshua, the description of "total destruction" is referred to as "conquest narrative" and describes a strategic destruction of military outposts, not whole cities.  Moreover, it was written to make an historical point -- that the God who established a covenant with a particular people, the Israelites, intended that covenant to ultimately be shared and lived out by surrounding nations and eventually the whole world.  And why?  For domination?  No.  God is already Lord of all creation.  Domination cannot have been the purpose of these conquest narratives.  The hyberbole, then, is designed to highlight the importance and commitment of God to bring the world into right relationship with him by way of his covenant law.  But WAIT!  If that still offends you, keep reading.  There's more to consider...  

3) Read passages in history and social context.   Biblical scholarship uses a German phrase, sitz im leben, which means "setting in life."  The Bible can be interpreted only in light of its sitz im leben, the time and social context in which it was written.  Today, many Christians and even non-Christians are fond of the idea that if God cares about us at all, God will communicate God's self to us in a way that makes sense to us.  In fact, we even criticize church traditions that expect common people to rise to an unnatural level of understanding (e.g. "high church") to apprehend the scriptures and beliefs of Christianity.  But if God is willing to communicate the in-breaking Kingdom of God in a way that we can understand today, wouldn't God do the same through all ages and contexts?  Including a world that includes violence?  The fact is that the ancient world was one that included warfare.  But was it the only one?  Do we in the 20th and 21st century dare suggest that our world is not still characterized by conflict?  The 20th century was the most violent in human history, and moreover, in the context of a Western world predominated by Christendom.   It's a "bit rich" for western Christians today to condemn violence in the Bible as though we are strangers to it.  So we must be careful not to read any particular scriptures independently of the larger Bible story.

4) Read Joshua through the lens of Jesus.  Jesus taught that the people of God's new covenant (i.e. Christ-followers, or "Christians") would be unique in the world because of the way they would love God and their neighbors as themselves, and even demonstrate the greatest love a person can show.  This word stands in direct opposition to any encouragement of slaughter in the name of God.  When we read and listen to God's Word in its totality, it is unthinkable to condone violence as a means by which God brings covenant life to the world.  But to follow Jesus' teaching and example does not mean to forget the history of God's people.  By contrast, it means to remember that story and set it in stark contrast to the renewal of God's covenant not only with a people chosen as descendants of particular patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) but with the entire world.  And this new covenant, open to all who would receive and follow Jesus, is one of abundant life and perfectly balanced peace.  A life which was won for humanity, not against any part of humanity, by the one who was and is God and human, the incarnate messiah, Jesus.  

 

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2 Comments


Nancy Keay - July 4th, 2020 at 1:55am

Thanks for this!

JT Robinson - October 21st, 2020 at 1:24am

Joshua documents one genocide after another, elderly, woman, children, animal, every breathing thing. The only people to escape did so by deceiving Joshua into believing they were from far away, and this only succeeded because Joshua "did not consult the Lord". Josuha is praised for this slaughtering as he is carrying out what was commanded. You just can't gloss over this and call it hyperbole. Historical evidence says this didn't actually happen, certainly not on this scale, that's the only good news here. I confess I have no idea why this is in here or what it means that it made it into the canon but I can't ignore it or gloss over it either.

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