This new series is devoted to shedding some light on the so-called genocide passages of the Old Testament, among which Joshua stands out. As I’ve written before, my point isn’t to explain away every passage that disturbs us, but I do hope to help us wrestle with them in new ways.
So I think the best place to start is with the underlying concern that these books give to readers today:
What the hell kind of God would order genocide? Is this really who Jesus worshiped?
Normally, it’d be easy to ignore this God. This is the Lord of suicide bombers. But given that Jesus called this God “Father” and even identified himself with Him, it’s a question we can’t ignore.
Who is this God?
There are a lot of answers to that question. This is the God who called out to Abram, promising his descendants and a role in bringing blessing to the whole world. This is the God who took a barren woman and made her conceive a son named Isaac, who wrestled with Jacob, who used the circumstances in Joseph’s life to make him a power-holder in Egypt and deliver people from a famine.
This is also the God of the Exodus, who hears the cry of slaves and judges empires and their gods. And this is the same God to whom Moses asked to see His glory, and here was the divine response:
The Lord passed before [Moses] and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
This is the God who led Joshua into Canaan, after promising his forebears that the land they saw would someday be theirs. This God, by His own words, was someone who abounded in steadfast love but punished evil.
And it is this moment in Israel’s history that I think made Israel understand that even though they were going to war, they were to show mercy to Canaanites if they asked for it.
If forgiveness is at the heart of who God is, if love and mercy and grace is a manifestation of His glory, then it follows that such things would be something He wants from Israel–including her mightiest warriors, from Joshua all the way down to the grunts.
Love was the commandment above commandments and fiercely connected to Israel’s monotheism. We often think of the Law as a series of strict rules, as opposed to Jesus’ sense of grace. But that is, frankly, a sloppy interpretation that fails to take into account passages such as this:
“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
This new nation’s sense of monotheism was to be forever tied to her calling to love her one God. And when Israel failed to do that, time after time, as we today continue to fail, He is gracious and merciful to her and to us.
I don’t intend to push aside the instances in Scripture where He acts against people who go after other gods or commit injustice. Some of those moments are difficult to process. However, the writers of the books, and the early church that eventually assembled the holy canon, saw no contradiction between God forgiving sin and punishing it. (If tension exists here, I think we’re meant to live in it, not ignore it.)
I would argue, though, that dealing out punishment is not what God wants. It’s what He does, to be sure, but it’s not His ultimate desire. His purpose seems to be reconciliation, as is evident by the fact that when He speaks to Moses, His love and mercy come first. I think that’s something that Moses would have remembered.
I also think it’s a lesson he passed on to his people who, years later, carried it with them into battle. No, you don’t see God in Joshua calling out from heaven, telling Israel to stay her hand. At this point in her history, though, I don’t think Israel would’ve needed that.
Moses had been there when God revealed who He is.
And what Moses saw was mercy.
How this plays out during Israel’s wars with Canaan is something we’ll explore soon enough. But before we do that, there’s another topic that we should address:
If this is God, who, then, is Israel?