Why Did God Command the Invasion of Canaan?
The conquest of the Canaanites in the book of Joshua is among the most challenging passages in the Bible for modern readers. It’s also one that we’re not typically equipped to understand at first glance. Most readers imagine that God commissioned his nation to vengefully wipe out an entire nation of Canaanite men, women, and children. However, a deeper reading reveals that the reasons for the conquest were more complex, the scope of the destruction was smaller, and God’s mercy was present throughout.
We are at the end of a three-part series addressing violence in the Bible. In part one, we looked at the flood. In part two, we looked at God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Now we come to the Israelite’s invasion of Canaan found in the book of Joshua.
Let’s start with what’s hard about this story.
Even a cursory reading of Joshua can provoke questions that leave us confused, angry, and perhaps even ready to give up on the Bible and on God. Why would a good God send his people to take land that belongs to another nation? Is this just one more example of people using religion to justify violence and conquest? My god is telling me to take your land, so here I come! If Jesus says to love your enemies, why does God declare war on them in the Old Testament?
From Abraham to Moses: The Land is Promised
The Bible tells a unified story and, like all stories, you can’t just jump into the middle. The conquest has a context, and that context takes us into the heart of the biblical story.
On page one of the Bible, God made the heavens and the earth and declared his creation good. However, a few pages later, humanity rebelled and sought to determine good and evil for themselves. The rebellion builds quickly, and humanity, created to spread the peace and flourishing of God throughout the earth, spreads disaster instead.
In Genesis 12, God chose one man, Abraham, and promised that, through him and his family, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. God then told Abraham that his descendants would inherit the land that was then inhabited by the Canaanites, so that as one people group, Yahweh would be their God and they would be his people.
From Moses to the Book of Joshua: The Conquest Begins
After the exodus from Egypt, Moses passed his leadership of the Israelites to Joshua. Joshua’s job was to lead the people across the Jordan River into Canaan and take back the land God promised Abraham. After all, the plan was that Abraham’s descendants would be a blessing to all the world (Genesis 12:1-3). God called them a “kingdom of priests,” and this land was to be the place where their royal priesthood would begin (Exodus 19:4-6).
The only problem was that the land was full of other people who didn’t want to leave.
This is where the book confuses a lot of people. How does killing the Canaanites fit in with Israel’s calling to be a kingdom of priests and a blessing to all the nations? Isn’t starting a war the opposite of blessing the nations? Why would God command his kingdom of priests to kick things off with an invasion?
Before we land on answers to those questions, we need to take a deeper look at the culture and characters in play here.
Who Were the Canaanites, Really?
Of course, not all of the Canaanites were evil, but when you learn more about the corrupt practices of their culture, it is hard not to cast them as the “bad guys.”
The Bible paints a pretty grim picture of Canaanite practices. Leviticus and Deuteronomy contain detailed and lurid lists including: the worship of demonic idols, taboo sexual acts, and even the sacrifice of children to the Canaanite gods.
God makes it clear to the Israelites that it is “not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations…” (Deuteronomy 9:5). Israel’s mission was clear: They were not to be influenced by the Canaanites’ wicked practices and the cultural systems that fostered and endorsed them.
The Motivation of the Conquest
Given that mission, let’s talk about the misguided idea that Joshua and the Israelites were motivated by the act of killing a people group. The conquest was more about ending the Canaanites’ religious and cultural practices than ending their lives. The problem wasn’t the people, but idolatry.
In The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest, John Walton suggests that the point of Israel’s invasion was more about the dismantling of the community of which the Canaanites were a part of than ending their lives. It could be compared to what the Allies set out to do during World War II. They were on a mission to end the Nazi regime, but that didn’t mean they had to kill every German.
The battles of the book of Joshua were not simply one ancient tribe using violence to displace another and then using God to underwrite their own territorial agenda. Rather, they were a part of God’s plan to cleanse the land of evil practices and push back the dark spiritual powers that had enslaved the people of Canaan.
So that is the why of the conquest, but what about the how? It turns out there is a whole lot more going on with these battle stories than most modern readers expect.
What Do We Need to Know About These Battles?
Military Outposts, Not Cities
If we are imagining Jericho (Israel’s first battle in Canaan) as a sprawling ancient city full of schools, businesses, and homes, it provokes a certain natural reaction in us. But as Joshua Ryan Butler explains in his book The Skeletons in God’s Closet, that might not be the best way to envision what is happening.
“The cities Israel takes out are military strongholds, not civilian population centers... So when Israel ‘utterly destroys’ a city like Jericho or Ai, we should picture a military fort being taken over–not a civilian massacre. God is pulling down the Great Wall of China, not demolishing Beijing. Israel is taking out the Pentagon, not New York City.”
Not Everything was Fair Game
The saying “all is fair in love and war” does not apply to the conquest of Canaan.
God put firm boundaries on the extent of the conquest, and several of the tribes in the region were not to be harmed at all (Deuteronomy 2). God also put a time boundary on the conquest (Deuteronomy 7:22). This wasn’t an instant takeover—the conquest was to take a long time. God told them that he would drive the people out slowly over time.
Furthermore, the offer of peace was always available, but most of the Canaanites didn’t take it. Deuteronomy 20 lays out the rules of warfare for the Israelite nation, a sort of ancient Geneva Convention. In that passage, God instructs Israel to offer terms of peace to their enemies before a battle. The book of Joshua doesn’t include detailed accounts of the offers of peace, but Joshua 11:19 indicates that the offer was made and consistently refused. “There was not a city that made peace with the people of Israel except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon.”
Driving Out, Not Destroying
Much of the language of the conquest picks up this language of “driving out” and dispossessing (Exodus 23:27-30, Deuteronomy 9:1), which is a different focus than killing and conquering. This is the language of exile, not destruction. The conquest wasn’t a massacre, it was a dismantling of a dark cultural regime. In fact, only three fortresses were totally destroyed: Jericho, AI, and Hazor (Joshua 6:24, 8:28, 11:13).
Many Canaanites Were Spared
Most often, even if a city or region was to be taken, its inhabitants were not to be destroyed. For example, there were cities that the Israelites conquered where we’re told that no Canaanites survived (Hebron and Debir in Joshua 10:36-39). But just a few chapters later, when other Israelites go to these cities, there are still Canaanite people living there (Joshua 15:13-15).
Perhaps some of you are scratching your heads after reading that last point. After all, doesn’t the text say over and over that Israel’s enemies were totally destroyed. What gives?
Three Conventions of Ancient Battle Narratives
The conquest accounts use extreme battle language to describe what Israel was doing in Canaan. Readers frequently come across phrases like, “nothing was left alive that breathes,” “totally destroyed,” and “left no survivor.” The vivid language makes it seem like what God is telling them to do goes way beyond what we might think of as “normal” warfare.
However, just because the text says those things, doesn’t mean they should be taken literally. Remember, these books weren’t written in the modern style of history. Often, the key to understanding them lies in understanding the context out of which they came.
How can this vivid battle language be understood then? We would like to suggest three things that are happening here: idiom, exaggeration, and rhetoric.
1. Battle Idioms
Ancient cultures had literary idioms—or figurative language that says one thing but means another—just like we do. When someone tells you it is “raining cats and dogs outside,” they don’t mean that animals are falling from the sky. They just mean it is raining hard. With idioms, to take the words literally is to misread them.
For an example of an ancient battle idiom, consider this: 2 Kings tells the story of the Assyrian invasion of Israel, which was turned back after a miraculous defeat during the siege of Jerusalem. Archaeology has revealed that the Assyrian king went home and told a different story, that he “shut up [Jerusalem] like a caged bird.” This was essentially ancient public relations management in the form of a well-known idiom for a siege. Similarly, Joshua uses idioms like these when he is writing his battle narratives.
2. Conventions of Exaggeration
As modern people, we expect a level of journalistic accuracy when it comes to historical accounts, but ancient cultures had a different understanding of things. In ancient battle narratives the exploits of the protagonists are often inflated for literary effect.
For example, on one Egyptian tablet, Pharaoh Merneptah boasted of his military exploits with the line: “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not” (~1200 BCE). However, as we know, Israel was never wiped out by Egypt. The language was hyperbolic trash-talk. The book of Joshua observes the same conventions of exaggeration when it describes the scope and intensity of the conquest.
3. Rhetorical Bravado
Rhetoric often employs figurative language and conforms to the conventions of a literary tradition. In this case, the conventions of ancient warfare narratives are observed. Rhetoric is meant to be persuasive; it has an agenda and a story to tell.
As Paul Copan explains in his book Is God a Moral Monster?, “Joshua used the rhetorical bravado language of his day, asserting that all the land was captured, all the kings defeated, and all the Canaanites destroyed.” The point of all this rhetoric was to assert God’s total supremacy over the Canaanite idols. However, Joshua didn’t believe all the Canaanites were destroyed (as is clear if you read the whole book).
Finding Jesus in the Conquest
Though the conquest remains a difficult section of Scripture for many reasons, we hope a clearer picture of the context and the scope of the conquest helps ease some of the tension we all feel when reading these passages.
However, the point of reading the Bible isn’t to look for ways to square it with modern ethics or even to answer all of our questions. The story the Bible is telling is about God’s mission to restore his rebellious creation and bring all of humanity back to himself through Jesus. Every part of the story points toward this great narrative arc of redemption, even the conquest of Canaan.
The Prince of Peace
If the hostile, tribalistic, violent hype of the conquest were the best understanding we had of God’s character, we would expect even more of the same when, centuries later, that God took on flesh and came to earth. We would expect to see a warlord who comes to set things right by might and blood. Though Jesus did come to set things right by blood, he is as far from a vengeful warlord as it is possible to be.
Jesus was born into a poor family and oppressed by the Roman empire, and he knew what it meant to be marginalized and outcast. In his ministry, he rejected violence as a means to establish his Kingdom (Matthew 26:51-56). He crossed tribal, ethnic, and cultural boundaries in his offer of love and grace, even to a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:22). The Prince of Peace suffered a violent death at the hands of violent men and revealed God’s true heart when—though he had the power to use violence to protect himself—he suffered on the behalf of the very people who were murdering him.
In Christ, God himself suffered violence so that violence might be ended forever.
Joshua and Jesus
Similar to Joshua, Jesus came to drive evil out of his creation. But unlike Joshua, Jesus’ weapons were wisdom, love, and sacrifice. In the book of Joshua, God was triumphant in Canaan despite the death and violence of battle. In Jesus, God triumphed over death itself because of the violence he endured. Joshua bought victory at the expense of his enemy’s blood, but Jesus bought victory for his enemies through the shedding of his own blood.
The conquest is not the evidence of a strange divide between the Old Testament (and its angry God) and the New Testament. Rather, Joshua points to Jesus, the true conqueror, who announces an alternate Kingdom in the midst of ruling powers of evil. He is the king whose reign ushers in an eternal Kingdom of peace for all creation more fully than Joshua’s battles against evil ever could.
For more food for thought, check out our previous blog post on the conquest.
Walton, John. The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest. Inter-Varsity Press, US, 2017.
Butler, Joshua Ryan. The Skeletons in God’s Closet. Thomas Nelson, 2014.
Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Baker Books, 2011.