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Joshua's Conquests .. Holy War or Genocide?

Carol Brooks

ALSO SEE

 Can God Kill The Innocent
How is it that God could allow the annihilation of thousands and thousands of people, whether that annihilation was through war or natural disaster? In fact, how is it that God could even command such a thing in the Old Testament if it is immoral to take the life of an innocent human being? And isn’t the fact that God ordered the killing of thousands of people an open and shut case for  hypocrisy?

Why Did God Allow The Killing of All The First Born of Egypt?

 

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 Joshua's Conquest: Did It Happen?
Good reasons for us to accept as historical fact the Biblical account of the Israelites' conquest of the land of Canaan under Joshua.

In an article called Joshua's Conquest: Was It Justified?, Robert M. Bowman, Jr., Prominent Christian apologist and director of the Institute for Religious Research, deals with the fact that many critics “argue that the idea that God authorized the Israelites to conquer the people of the land and kill not only men but, in some instances, women and children, is immoral, and therefore evidence that the Bible is not inspired”.

In the article he makes a number of critical points regarding the extreme depravity of the people of Canaan, which many readers do not seem to be aware of. However, there is one other factor that he has not mentioned and which is more than likely to be the overriding reason God ordered the annihilation of certain people. However the first point to consider is brought up by Mr. Bowman in a paragraph entitled …

    The Wickedness of the People of Canaan
    Critics of the Old Testament's claim that God ordered the killing of whole tribes in Canaan typically neglect the reason expressly stated in the Old Testament: those tribes were depraved beyond redemption (Genesis 15:16; Leviticus 18:21-30; 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 12:29-31; etc.). [See Footnote for These Bible Verses]

    According to the Old Testament, the Canaanites and other tribes in the land widely practiced child sacrifice, incest, bestiality, and other behaviors that almost everyone in history, including today, rightly regard as unspeakably, grossly immoral. If this explanation is even acknowledged, critics often claim that it is a later theological justification for Israel's displacing those peoples from the land. Even many mainstream biblical scholars make this claim.

    I have already questioned the conventional wisdom that the wickedness of the peoples of Canaan was an after-the-fact rationalization. However, even if the passages were all composed after the fact, such a response really skirts the issue, which is whether that theological justification was true. If the people of Canaan were akin to the peace-loving, civilized folks of different religions living in our suburban neighborhoods and working in our colleges, hospitals, and fire departments, then the Israelite claim that God had condemned those peoples as hopelessly degenerate would be rightly questioned. On the other hand, if the Canaanites and other peoples in the land were a degenerate society widely practicing bestiality and publicly burning their children to Molech, might not the Old Testament writers have had a point?

    In this regard an obvious question to ask is whether these horrifying Old Testament descriptions of Canaanite culture were at all accurate. Not surprisingly, our extra biblical sources of information are still very meager and fragmentary. Archaeology provides much more information about the classical period of antiquity, which corresponds roughly to the biblical postexilic and intertestamental periods, than it does for the second millennium BC. Moreover, the further back in time one goes the more disparate interpretations one gets from the archaeologists themselves. Still, some aspects of the Old Testament descriptions of Canaanite culture, including its religion, have been verified.

    One point of special interest is the Canaanite deity Molech, to whom, according to the Old Testament, the local pagan peoples sacrificed their children in burnt offerings. It was fashionable during much of the twentieth century to assert that the Old Testament had this completely wrong. Molech was said not to have been the name of a foreign deity at all, but a ritual term of some sort, and the children were not burned to death but were living participants in harmless rites (perhaps akin to those in modern neopaganism and other forms of nature worship). Several studies in the 1970s and 1980s put this revisionist theory to rest. The scholarly tide began to turn with Morton Smith's 1975 article debunking the fanciful theory that the references to children in the fire were spiritual metaphors. [1] John Day's study, published by Cambridge University Press, argued convincingly that Molech was the name given in Canaanite religion to the god of the underworld. He showed that the same deity is mentioned in the Ugaritic writings (MLK), the Mari tablets (Muluk), and in Akkadian records. [2]

    Meanwhile, evidence is trickling in that supports the Old Testament claim that the indigenous peoples of the region were engaged in the practice of child sacrifice. In 1978 an Egyptologist reported that relief pictures on an Egyptian temple showed Canaanite children being sacrificed while their cities were under attack. [3] That the Phoenicians, who at one time controlled Canaan, sacrificed children to their gods is well documented. "Archaeologists have recovered the gruesome evidence not only at the great Phoenician city of Carthage (in modern Tunisia), but also in Sicily, Sardonia, and Cyprus" (King and Stager, 361). [4] The evidence is not yet a "smoking gun" but is consistent and indirectly supportive of the biblical picture. [5]

Archeological discoveries in Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria confirm the Bible's descriptions of ancient Mideast society. As Wayne Jackson says regarding the 1929 discovery of Ras Shamra (“Fennel Head”) a sixty-five foot mound in northern identified as the ancient Phoenician city of Ugarit. The digging on level 1 (dated from 1600-1200 B.C.) unearthed fortifications, a scribal school and library that adjoined a temple, and a palace that contained numerous cuneiform documents

    “Funerary jars have been found with the bodies of young children distorted by suffocation as they struggled for life after having been buried alive as a sacrifice to Canaanite gods. Such young children have been found in the foundation pillars of Canaanite houses, and sometimes religious ceremonies were associated with their sacrifice.” (Wilson, 1973, p. 85). [6]

Fertility cults institutionalized male and female prostitution. Child sacrifice was used as a way of pleasing the gods, the chief of which was the sun-god, generally known as Baal or "lord." Additionally

    “The Canaanite religion was a horribly brutal system as well. For instance, the goddess Anath is pictured as killing humans by the thousands and wading knee-deep in blood. She cut off heads and hands and wore them as ornaments. And in all of this gruesomeness, the Baal-epic says that her liver was swollen with laughter and her joy was great.” [6] 


Were The Israeli’s More Righteous?
To be particularly noted is that Moses was very clear that God drove out the pagans not because the Israelites were so righteous that they deserved the land, but because the Canaanites then inhabiting the land were so corrupt. In fact Moses referred to the Israelites as a “stiffnecked people” who had nothing to brag about regarding their own virtue (this was brought up many times in the Old Testament). However the salvation and future of mankind rested in this tiny nation that God had chosen to birth the Messiah…

    "Do not say in your heart when the Lord your God has driven them out before you, 'Because of my righteousness the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,' but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you. "It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going to possess their land, but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord your God is driving them out before you, in order to confirm the oath which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. "Know, then, it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stubborn people. (Deuteronomy 9:4-6 NASB)


Was Human Sacrifice An Accepted Part of The Worship Of Yahweh?
Liberal critics of the Bible do not concede that “the Israelites, even at their best, could not have been all that different from their neighbors in Canaan” and that the religion of Israel's lawgiver and prophets was both morally and spiritually, of a radically superior character to the religions of the surrounding cultures. In other words “if child sacrifice was happening then everyone must have been doing it.” [5]

However, what these liberals base their opinions on is anyone’s guess since the Bible itself tells a very different story, making no effort to hide the fact that there were times that the Israelites did follow the detestable ways of the nations around them, in spite of strict instructions to the contrary.

    'You shall not give any of your offspring to offer them to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God; I am the Lord. 'You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination. 'Also you shall not have intercourse with any animal to be defiled with it, nor shall any woman stand before an animal to mate with it; it is a perversion. 'Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. 'For the land has become defiled, therefore I have brought its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants. 'But as for you, you are to keep My statutes and My judgments and shall not do any of these abominations, neither the native, nor the alien who sojourns among you (for the men of the land who have been before you have done all these abominations, and the land has become defiled); so that the land will not spew you out, should you defile it, as it has spewed out the nation which has been before you. 'For whoever does any of these abominations, those persons who do so shall be cut off from among their people. (Leviticus 18:21-29 NASB)

    "When the Lord your God cuts off before you the nations which you are going in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, beware that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, 'How do these nations serve their gods, that I also may do likewise?' "You shall not behave thus toward the Lord your God, for every abominable act which the Lord hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. Deuteronomy 12:29-31 NASB)

In what amounts to a blatant disregard for God’s instructions, two of Israel’s kings imitated the practices of the heathen nations, including sacrificing their own children to pagan gods. But, by doing so, both of them incurred the Lord’s wrath.

    Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem; and he did not do what was right in the sight of the LORD his God, as his father David had done. But he walked in the way of the kings of Israel, and even made his son pass through the fire, according to the abominations of the nations whom the LORD had driven out from before the sons of Israel. (2 Kings 16:2-3 NASB)

    He made his son pass through the fire, practiced witchcraft and used divination, and dealt with mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD provoking Him to anger.  (2 Kings 21:6 NASB)

The people of Israel were just as guilty as their kings and were just as soundly condemned. The following are some examples. [Also See Jeremiah 19:5-6; 32:35 and Ezekiel 23:36-39]

    "But come here, you sons of a sorceress, Offspring of an adulterer and a prostitute. ... Who inflame yourselves among the oaks, Under every luxuriant tree, Who slaughter the children in the ravines, Under the clefts of the crags? (Isaiah 57:3, 5 NASB)

    "For the sons of Judah have done that which is evil in My sight," declares the LORD, "they have set their detestable things in the house which is called by My name, to defile it. "They have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, and it did not come into My mind. "Therefore, behold, days are coming," declares the LORD, "when it will no longer be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of the Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth because there is no other place. "The dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the sky and for the beasts of the earth; and no one will frighten them away. (Jeremiah 7:30-33 NASB)

    "Moreover, you took your sons and daughters whom you had borne to Me and sacrificed them to idols to be devoured. Were your harlotries so small a matter? "You slaughtered My children and offered them up to idols by causing them to pass through the fire. (Ezekiel 16:20-21 NASB)


Israel's Rules of Engagement
Because we are many centuries removed from the events of those days it is more than troubling to imagine the Israeli soldiers executing not only the men, but also the women and children of what we imagine to be helpless and innocent peasants. Could what happened be called genocide, defined as the deliberate killing of a large group of people, just because they belonged to a particular race or nation? In other words did the Israeli soldiers wipe out other nations, not only because they were wicked, but because they were different?

However the Bible no where teaches that if a nation is wicked enough another group is justified in wiping out, or attempting to wipe out, the general population and take over the land. While it may not make us feel a whole lot better, what the Old Testament does say is that it was only certain indigenous people that had to be exterminated. The rules of engagement which determined when, where, and how much force was used were very definitively laid out. As Robert Bowman points out … [Emphasis Added]

    the "rules of engagement" for these conquests did not give the Israelites carte blanche to do whatever they wished. The rules restrained the greed and lust typically exhibited by victors in ancient warfare (and in far too much modern warfare as well) in ways that were far ahead of their time. God's law in the Pentateuch actually distinguished at least four different categories of non-Israelites and required Israel to act in markedly different ways toward each group. [5]

To make it easier the author divides the people into four categories calling them “indigenous peoples, border peoples, protected peoples, and sojourners”. He says [All Emphasis Added]

    By Indigenous Peoples I mean the people groups that inhabited the land of Canaan, specified in various texts as the Amorites, Hittites, Girgashites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites, and Jebusites (Genesis 15:19-21; Exodus 3:8, 17; 13:5; 23:23, 28; 34:11; Numbers 13:29; Deuteronomy 7:1; 20:17; Joshua 3:10; 9:1; 11:3; 12:8; 24:11; Judges 1:3-5; 3:5;1 Kings 9:20-21; Ezra 9:1; Nehemiah 9:8). The dominant tribe or nation among these peoples was the Canaanite people, which is why the land was called Canaan and why the Canaanites are mentioned more than any of the others. Israel was required to exterminate the peoples of these tribes, men, women, and children—and in most cases, livestock as well (Numbers 21:33-35; Deuteronomy 2:32-34; 3:1-7; 20:16-18; Joshua 6:21; cf. Joshua 8:22-29).

    The Israelites were explicitly forbidden to take wives from any of these peoples (Deuteronomy 7:1-4). Now, if Israel's claim that God commanded them to conquer Canaan was merely a theological pretext for their own wars of aggression, why did they not allow themselves to take women from those peoples? Why, in most cases, were they not allowed to take and keep livestock? The best explanation for their restraint in these matters was that they believed that God had forbidden them to take women or livestock from the peoples they conquered in the land. Such restraint—remarkable in that ancient culture—is evidence that their belief that God had ordered the conquest was quite sincere.

    We might note that the command to wipe out these peoples did allow for exceptions. The obvious example is that of Rahab and her family, who were residents of Jericho. In return for her help, and in response to her plea for mercy, Joshua's two spies promised Rahab that she and her whole family would be spared when the Israelites destroyed Jericho (Joshua 2:8-21), a promise Joshua honored (6:17, 22-23, 25).

    Border Peoples lived in cities and villages on the outer edges of Canaan, who were not part of the seven or so indigenous tribes of Canaan. Cities outside the region inhabited by the Canaanites and other condemned peoples, but within the land designated as belonging to Israel, were first to be offered terms of peace, in which its people would become forced labor and serve the Israelites. If a city refused, Israel was to make war against it, kill all its men, and allow the women and children to live (Deuteronomy 20:10-15). The distinction drawn between the outlying cities of the land and the cities of the Canaanites and other peoples clustered within the land reflects the belief that the indigenous peoples were too far gone to be shown any mercy, while other people groups were not deemed similarly degenerate.

    The Protected Peoples were tribes or nations in the region that Israel was to leave alone. The most significant of these was Edom. When Israel sought to pass through the territory of Edom—even promising to pay for the use of its water—and Edom refused, Israel simply went another way (Numbers 20:14-21). Yet when Sihon, the king of the Amorites, refused to grant the Israelites safe passage, Israel conquered and possessed the Amorite cities (Numbers 21:21-32), destroying every man, woman, and child (Deuteronomy 2:32-34). The reason for the differing treatments was that Israel considered the Edomites (who were descendants of Jacob's brother Esau) brothers (Numbers 20:14).

    Sojourners were individuals or families whose tribal origins were from outside the land but who had immigrated into the land of Canaan. The Old Testament refers to such persons as sojourners, aliens, or strangers (the terms are roughly if not entirely synonymous). Israelites were forbidden to wrong a stranger or oppress him (Exodus 22:21; 23:9). Anyone who took the life of any human being was to be executed; this standard applied for the stranger as well as the native (Leviticus 24:17-22). Sojourners were to be permitted to offer sacrifices to the Lord; again, the point was made that the law was to be the same for the Israelites and the sojourners (Numbers 15:14-16). Israelites were to love the alien, remembering that God loves aliens and that they were aliens in Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:18-19). Israelites were not to pervert justice due to an alien (Deuteronomy 24:17-18). Clearly, the Mosaic Law was not xenophobic (expressing fear or animosity toward people of other races). Since such sojourners were not part of the degenerate culture of Canaan, they were to be welcomed into Israelite society and placed under the same laws as Israelites. [5]

Note that under the heading of Protected People above, Robert Bowman says the reason the Israelites spared the Edomites was because Israel considered the Edomites, descendants of Jacob's brother Esau, brothers, which may be true. However the Edomites were also not inhabitants of the land of Canaan and not one of the tribes that God wanted exterminated.


The Sticking Point... The Children
However while many valuable and very relevant points have been made so far, all of them fail to answer the question of why the youngest and, supposedly, most innocent of the Canaanite society were also executed along with the adults.  While very little is specifically said about this in the Old Testament accounts, but is clearly implied by the verses that tell us that Israel, obviously following orders, left no survivors.

    They utterly destroyed everything in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword. (Joshua 6:21 NASB)

    "Only in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes.  (Deuteronomy 20:16 NASB)

    The LORD gave it also with its king into the hands of Israel, and he struck it and every person who was in it with the edge of the sword. He left no survivor in it. Thus he did to its king just as he had done to the king of Jericho.  (Joshua 10:30 NASB)

    They struck every person who was in it with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them; there was no one left who breathed. And he burned Hazor with fire.... All the spoil of these cities and the cattle, the sons of Israel took as their plunder; but they struck every man with the edge of the sword, until they had destroyed them. They left no one who breathed.  (Joshua 11:11, 14 NASB)


Is It Left To Us To Figure It Out?
Many believe that the Bible gives absolutely no explanation for the extermination of young children which, if true, would leave the critics justified in believing that these actions were morally reprehensible and that the Jews religion and their God were no better than every one elses. And if no explanation is provided we, as Christians, are left with little choice but to poke around and come up with some logical reasons this should have happened.

The two suggestions Mr. Bowman puts forward are, in a nutshell,

     1) perhaps the children were “beyond civilizing”. Perhaps so “abused and forced to participate in obscene conduct they would have grown up psychologically and spiritually scarred”. And 2) that “the STDs and other infectious diseases that must have pervaded those cities may well have been carried by the smallest children, and if so, they may have posed a grave danger to the physical health of the Israelites.” He also suggests that perhaps “that infectious diseases were also ravaging the domestic animals in these cities, which would also explain why they were destroyed”.

However I can not completely buy this explanation and I doubt that very many thinking persons will either. While it may very well be true that many of the children could have been psychologically scarred, it is yet entirely possible for abused children to be rehabilitated with long term love and care. Besides which there had to be any number of new born and infants among the population, perhaps some of them just a few days old. Was this enough time for this baby to become scarred or to carry an infectious disease? The whole thing sounds suspiciously like we are making excuses for our God.

However perhaps the Bible is not quite as silent on the topic as some think. Perhaps with a little digging we will find the underlying reason that these people had to be mercilessly exterminated, and was the right thing to do.

In fact what is often overlooked, but very telling, is that this discrimination against the Canaanites started much much earlier than the time of Joshua. For instance, Abraham made his servant swear that he would not pick a wife for Isaac from among the Canaanites [Genesis 24], and Isaac in turn instructed his son Jacob to not choose a wife from the daughters of Canaan [Genesis 28:1]. Both men very specifically mentioning staying away from the Canaanites.

Why?

What was so wrong with the Canaanites that no association was to be made with them and they were later to be completely exterminated?

Who or What Were The Inhabitants Of Canaan? See As It Was In The The Days Of Noah 003white
 

 

End Notes
[1] Morton Smith, "A Note on Burning Babies," Journal of the American Oriental Society 95 (1975): 477-79.

[2] John Day, Molech: A God of Human Sacrifice in the Old Testament (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 4-14, 29-71.

[3] A. Spalinger, "A Canaanite Ritual Found in Egyptian Reliefs," Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 8 (1978): 47-60.

[4] Philip J. King and Laurence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, Library of Ancient Israel (Louisville and London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 361.

[5] Joshua's Conquest: Was It Justified?. Robert M. Bowman, Jr., Manager, Apologetics & Interfaith Evangelism. North American Mission Board.
http://www.4truth.net/site/c.hiKXLbPNLrF/b.3226507/k.515A/Joshuas_Conquest_Was_It_Justified.htm

[6] Wayne Jackson, M.A. Old Testament events and the goodness of God
http://www.christiancourier.com/articles/467-old-testament-events-and-the-goodness-of-god

 

Footnote
'You shall not give any of your offspring to offer them to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God; I am the Lord. 'You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination. 'Also you shall not have intercourse with any animal to be defiled with it, nor shall any woman stand before an animal to mate with it; it is a perversion. 'Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. 'For the land has become defiled, therefore I have brought its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants. 'But as for you, you are to keep My statutes and My judgments and shall not do any of these abominations, neither the native, nor the alien who sojourns among you (for the men of the land who have been before you have done all these abominations, and the land has become defiled); so that the land will not spew you out, should you defile it, as it has spewed out the nation which has been before you. 'For whoever does any of these abominations, those persons who do so shall be cut off from among their people. 'Thus you are to keep My charge, that you do not practice any of the abominable customs which have been practiced before you, so as not to defile yourselves with them; I am the Lord your God.'" (Leviticus 18:21-30 NASB)

"You shall also say to the sons of Israel: 'Any man from the sons of Israel or from the aliens sojourning in Israel who gives any of his offspring to Molech, shall surely be put to death; the people of the land shall stone him with stones. 'I will also set My face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he has given some of his offspring to Molech, so as to defile My sanctuary and to profane My holy name. 'If the people of the land, however, should ever disregard that man when he gives any of his offspring to Molech, so as not to put him to death, then I Myself will set My face against that man and against his family, and I will cut off from among their people both him and all those who play the harlot after him, by playing the harlot after Molech. (Leviticus 20:2-5 NASB)

"When the Lord your God cuts off before you the nations which you are going in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, beware that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, 'How do these nations serve their gods, that I also may do likewise?' "You shall not behave thus toward the Lord your God, for every abominable act which the Lord hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. (Deuteronomy 12:29-31 NASB)  [PLACE IN TEXT]

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