JOSHUA Holy War and Those Who Wage It

15 On the seventh day they rose early, at the dawn of day, and marched around the city in the same manner seven times. It was only on that day that they marched around the city seven times. 16 And at the seventh time, when the priests had blown the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, “Shout, for the Lord has given you the city. 17 And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live, because she hid the messengers whom we sent. 18 But you, keep yourselves from the things devoted to destruction, lest when you have devoted them you take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel a thing for destruction and bring trouble upon it. 19 But all silver and gold, and every vessel of bronze and iron, are holy to the Lord; they shall go into the treasury of the Lord.” 20 So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people shouted a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they captured the city. 21 Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword. (Joshua 6:15–21 ESV)

This is it. The long-promised holy war of conquest, extermination, and expulsion, the war without pity or mercy that God commanded Israel to wage way back in Deuteronomy 7, has begun.

A very conservative friend of mine, very proud of his Magyar heritage, once noted that this is what people do and have always done. “We killed all their men, we took all their women, and pretty soon their children began to look like us.”

We are troubled by conquest, by this kind of assimilation, by the taking of territory and the killing of people and remaking both in another image. Conquest and colonization, enslavement and expulsion and extermination, no longer sit well with us. Perhaps they never have. I suspect our unease is a product of the conquered and enslaved living in our midst. Reminding us daily who they are. Who we are.

But I doubt we’ve really changed. Not in such a short time. My friend is right — this is what human beings do.

We’re also uneasy with God being the author of this conquest, this expulsion, this extermination. This is not a God of Love, a God of mercy and compassion, a God who suffers with us, a God who forgives and redeems, who promises peace to the world. This is the worst of God, and of us.

… and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. (Deuteronomy 7:2)

Because their gods will be a distraction. And the Lord God of Israel is not wrong — the entire history of Israel shows how attractive the idols and Canaan are, and how destructive for Israel their worship will be. Israel will suffer division, civil war, defeat, conquest, occupation, and exile because of idolatry.

God is not wrong.

So note, as Israel marches into the promised land and makes war on the Canaanites to take their cities, their fields, and all the land in-between, that Israel does not do what God tells it. Israel shows pity and mercy, is lazy in following even this command of God.

Israel is forbidden to covet the silver or the gold of the Canaanites. The plunder belongs in “the treasury of the Lord,” whatever that might mean. And on this one day of perfect battle, when God hands Jericho to Israel without a struggle, as Israel puts the city to the sword, we still cannot keep our hands off “the devoted things.” Grasping hands clutch at the silver and gold bound for the treasury of the Lord, and hold it tight, concealing these things under garments as Jericho is leveled and its streets run with blood.

Canaanites are left alive. “Now when the people of Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not utterly drive them out.” (Joshua 17:13) Slavery hardly seems merciful to us, but God said nothing about enslaving the Canaanites. They were to be killed, driven out. Not employed as hewers of wood and drawers of water.

So, lest we think killing and violence, destruction and brutality are easier than love and compassion, it isn’t. This is hard work, holy work, this divinely sanctioned mass murder. It is God’s work. And Israel can no more do this than love their neighbor as themselves.

Israel fails, and fails utterly at this task of conquest, expulsion, and extermination. Eventually, God will stop fighting for Israel. Even as David prepares to become king of all Israel, the land is full of Canaanites. While Solomon reigns, the land is still full of Canaanites. With their pillars, their Asherim, and their carved images — all the attractive nuisance God said it would be.

So, God has to learn to deal with his feckless, fickle, faithless people who can no more obey him in matters of war and killing than we can in peace and love. God stops driving out the people of Canaan, instead handing Israel over Canaanite rule time and again as a consequence for faithlessness. We cry out to our God and demand, “deliver us this day!” Saviors and redeemers are raised, and the people delivered, but only for a time.

God never again issues this command to Israel, to wage a war of conquest without mercy or pity. God is slowly learning what we are and aren’t capable of. God is slowly learning that we cannot be faithful. In anything.

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