God’s People Go to War: What I Noticed When I Read Joshua

Wes  —  February 14, 2018
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Many people struggle to understand the story of Joshua and the conquest of Canaan. They understandably wonder, “Is Jesus of Nazareth, who told His followers to love their enemies and turn the other cheek, really the exact representation of the God who ordered warfare in the book of Joshua?” As I’ve done with previous Bible books, I sat down and read the book of Joshua in one sitting. Here are a few things I noticed.

Must Be Understood in Light of the Torah

The book of Joshua is “Part 6” in the story of God and His covenant people. Over the last few weeks, as I’ve read each of these books in close succession, it has really helped me keep the major themes at the forefront of my mind.

As I’ve said in previous posts, the earth is a major character in the Bible. The Canaanites had polluted and defiled the land through idolatry and violence. The book of Leviticus says the land was vomiting out the Canaanites. The voice of a multitude’s blood was crying out to the Lord from the ground. God’s good creation was groaning for deliverance.

The conquest was much like the Flood. The wickedness of the Canaanites had reached epic proportions; the land had to be wiped clean. But this time, when God wiped the land clean, He would take up residence in the land. He would make it “holy ground” and populate the land with a holy people – a kingdom of priests – and they would bless all the nations of the world.

The Canaanites Had Been Warned

From the very beginning of the book, it is obvious the Lord’s reputation preceded Him. The Canaanites knew the power of the Lord and knew they had been condemned by Him. They were terrified. Some even threw themselves on God’s mercy.

God didn’t just suddenly surprise the Canaanite people with swift and terrible justice. For over four hundred years, God delayed punishing the Canaanites. For forty years, His people marched around the land in the wilderness; giving the Canaanites more time to repent. And for seven days, Israel marched around the walls of Jericho. Proving that the Lord is patient toward people, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

When the Day of the Lord finally came, it came like a thief in the night and the world of the Canaanites was destroyed by fire and sword.

Put to the Sword vs. Drive Out

There are a few verses in Joshua that, if taken all by themselves, make the reader believe the idea of the conquest was to kill every man, woman, and child in the land. This is why reading whole books, rather than taking passages out of context, is so important. There is certainly a lot of warfare in this book, but the phrase “drive out” is repeated even more than any language about killing.

Taken as a whole, it sounds like many of the Canaanites recognized the impending judgment of God and fled from their cities. The ones who died were the hard-hearted ones who decided to fight against God. The fact that they were “driven out” of the land should probably remind us of Adam and Eve (and later, Cain) who were themselves “driven out” by God. The Canaanites, like Adam and Eve, were driven out of paradise.

Every Canaanite man, woman, and child was cursed and condemned by their sin. As God said to Adam and Eve, “You will surely die.” For some Canaanites, their condemnation was carried out literally. For others, it was carried out by being driven out to die in exile. Of course, there were others whose condemnation was not carried out because of Israel’s later disobedience.

The Lord is the Warrior of His People

Many people think the book of Joshua proves that God is somehow “pro-war.” But when taken as a whole, the first six books of the Bible make it very clear that the thing God most hates is people shedding one another’s blood. After the conquest of Canaan, Israel was to have the world’s most unusual defense system and war policy.

They were not supposed to accumulate weapons of war either for offensive or defensive campaigns. In fact, even during the conquest, when they captured chariots they were supposed to destroy them and hamstring the horses. Isn’t that bizarre? God’s people were not allowed to own the best military equipment of the day. They were told over and over again not to put any confidence in military strength. God was the warrior of Israel. It was not Israel’s sword or bow which conquered the land, it was their God.

God wanted to continue to be their protector and their peace. As such, He would not tolerate them accumulating or putting their trust in weapons of war. That was the sort of idolatry the Gentile nations practiced. Sadly, it would be the sort of idolatry Israel would soon practice as well.

Pointing to Jesus

When Jesus came into the world, the wickedness of the world had once again reached epic proportions. The cup of wickedness and defilement had reached the brim. The earth was groaning for deliverance. Jerusalem had become a crossroads of both Jewish and Gentile rebellion.

Jesus became the perfect one-man version of Israel. Perfect in obedience to God’s will. Perfect in His trust of God. Perfect in His compassion and mercy. He played the role Israel had never ben able to play. And finally, He lifted the curse of the exile. But He did it by becoming accursed in the people’s place. He let the consequences of the world’s rebellion fall on Him. He drank the cup!

In so doing, He delivered – and is delivering – people from exile. God is moving into the hearts of His people. The earth is being populated with a kingdom of priests. Meek and gentle peace-makers. People who overcome evil with good, even if they – like their King – must suffer unjustly. One day our Deliverer will return to finish what He has started. The children of God and the earth itself wait longingly for that day when we will be delivered from corruption (see Romans 8:18-25). Until then, we put our trust in the Lord.

I love you and God loves you,

Wes McAdams