Conquering the Land - Does God Endorse Conquest? (Joshua 6-12)
The fact that the Israelites’ productive economy was founded on dispossessing the Canaanites from the land, does however, raise uncomfortable questions. Does God endorse conquest as a means for a nation to acquire land? Does God tolerate ethnic war? Was Israel more deserving of the land than the Canaanites were? A full theological analysis of the conquest is beyond the scope of this article. While we cannot hope to answer the myriad issues that spring up, there are at least a few things to keep in mind:
- God chooses to come to his people in the rough-and-tumble of the actual ancient Near East, where the forces arrayed against Israel are vast and violent.
- The work of military conquest is certainly the most prominent work in the book of Joshua, but it is not presented as a model for any work that follows it. We find aspects of work or leadership in Joshua and Judges that are applicable today, but the dispossession of people from land is not one of them.
- The command to dispossess the Canaanites (Joshua 1:1-5) is a highly specific one and is not indicative of the general disposition of God’s commands to the Israelites or any other people group.
- The eradication of the Canaanites stems from their notoriously wicked ways. The Canaanites were known to practice child sacrifice, divination, sorcery and necromancy, which God could not tolerate in the midst of the people he had chosen to be a blessing to the world (Deuteronomy 18:10-12). The land was to be stripped of idolatry so that the world might have the opportunity to see the nature of the one true God, creator of heaven and earth.
- Repentant Canaanites like Rahab (Joshua 2:1-21; 6:22-26) are spared – and indeed the putative wholesale destruction of the Canaanites is never fully realized (see below).
- Israel will in turn practice much of the same wickedness as the Canaanites, giving a firm answer of “no” to the question of whether Israel was more deserving of the land. Like the Canaanites, the Israelites will also suffer displacement from the land through conquest by others, which the Bible likewise attributes to the hand of God. Israel is subject to God’s judgment too (see Amos 3:1-2 for example).
- The full Christian ethic of power is not to be found in the book of Joshua, but in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who embodies all of God’s Word. The Bible’s definitive model for the use of power is not that God conquers nations for his people, but that the Son of God lays down his life for all who come to him (Mark 10:42; John 10:11-18). The biblical ethic of power is ultimately founded on humility and sacrifice.
For more on the conquest, see C. S. Cowles, Eugene Merrill, Daniel L. Gard, and Tremper Longman III, Stanley N. Gundry, ed., Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003).
See J. Gordon McConville and Stephen N. Williams, Joshua in Two Horizons OT Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), pp.113-4.