Not Israel vs. Canaan, but God vs. Human Evil
There’s an extremely important story that opens up all the battles between Israel and the Canaanites. The angel of the Lord confronts Joshua near the Jordan River (see Josh 5:13-15). Joshua asks if the angel is on the Israelites’ side or their enemy’s. With these words, Joshua reveals his understanding of the battles ahead: God is pro-Israel and anti-Canaanite. The angel quickly corrects him by saying “No. I am the captain of the LORD’s army.” The point is clear. God is going to bring his judgment on human evil, and the real question is whether Israel is on God’s side.
This theme is highlighted in many of the battle stories. Most often, God is the one leading the charge and the Israelites are in charge of clean-up. Jericho is a great example of this, as the Israelites play only a minor role in bringing down the walls (blowing trumpets doesn’t count as a form of ancient demolition!). The Israelites are outnumbered, outgunned, and fighting against fortified cities and professional militaries. They do not have a standing military and are not professional soldiers; they are a disadvantaged militia fighting against standing armies and cavalry. Given their huge disadvantage, the likelihood of each battle turning in favor of the Israelites would be nearly impossible— a divine hand is clearly at work.
Overtures of Peace
Although the Canaanites as nations were subject to the judgment of God, they had decades of advance warning (remember what happened to Pharaoh). Not only did the conquest of Canaan not catch them by surprise, but those who declared faith in Yahweh were spared (see Rahab’s confession in Josh 2:8-11).
Rahab is one of the first and most prominent examples. Although she was a prostitute (a low social position in Canaanite culture), her life, and the lives of her family, were spared because they believed in the God of Israel. In fact, so complete was Rahab’s incorporation into the community of faith that in the providence of God she became the ancestor of Jesus (see Matt 1)! God can and is willing to save anyone. We are also told that the entire tribe of the Gibeonites did escape judgment in the same way (Josh 9). These narratives thus lead us to believe that many Canaanites escaped the judgment brought on their people by repentance and faith in Yahweh.
Joshua in the Light of Jesus
Not all of these reflections will be compelling to everyone, and none of them should be taken in isolation. However, it is important to see that this is a complex moral issue, and simple answers are misleading and unhelpful. From the perspective of the Old Testament, we are ultimately dealing with a question about God’s justice. We join Abraham who stood before Sodom and Gomorrah, interceding for its inhabitants when he asked, “Won’t the judge of all the earth do what is right?” (Gen 18:25).
Also, when we place these stories into the larger biblical storyline that leads to Jesus, the picture shifts significantly. Jesus explicitly rejected violence as a means to further God’s kingdom on earth. In fact, he said that violence was capitulating to the very forces of evil itself (Matt 26:51-56). He taught that God’s rule is expressed through non-violent resistance and by serving one’s enemies with love and prayer (Matt 5:38-48). Ultimately, for Jesus, this was not a matter of just words. He went to Jerusalem for Passover, to be enthroned as the messianic King of Israel, and he did it by giving up his life… on purpose. Jesus confronted the dark powers of evil and, as Paul says, “disarmed the rulers and authorities, making a public spectacle of them and triumphing over them by the cross” (Col 2:15). The upside-down victory of Jesus’ war on human evil took place when he died on behalf of his enemies.
To be a Christian is to believe that when we look at Jesus, we see God’s truest nature and character revealed (“If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father” John 14:9). The limited occasions when God authorized violence was apparently not something he did with pleasure. In the defeat of the Canaanites, we see God’s “strange work” as Isaiah called it (Isa 28:21). It was a necessary decision that does not express God’s ultimate purpose in the world, or his heart for people. Anyone who’s been in a leadership position knows what it’s like to face complex decisions where there are no good options, only bad or worse possibilities. To believe that Jesus reveals God, means that our foundation for understanding God’s character is in his life, death, and resurrection.
The last thing we’d like to consider is the cross of Jesus. In the execution of Jesus on the cross, the New Testament is asking us to see the very love and heartbeat of God for all broken and lost humanity. On the cross, God joins the godforsaken, including the Canaanites. Jesus’ death and resurrection shows that God is not distant from the tragedies of injustice and death. Rather, in Jesus, God has fully participated in these horrific realities and overcome them with his love and life. And so, we can come alongside Abraham and hope for even more than simply divine justice. Our hope is infused with the power of Jesus’ resurrection, which is ultimately the life-giving power of God’s love.