Saturday, March 08, 2008

Joshua: The Question of the Canaanites


How can a Missionary God destroy whole cultures of Canaanites? The idea of 'holy war' is basic to the whole tradition about Jericho. The city was devoted to the Lord. "The Hebrew term [devoted/hrem] refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the LORD, often by totally destroying them" (Leviticus 27:28f; Micah 4:13). God plainly instructed the Israelites to "completely destroy them . . . . Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God" (Deuteronomy 20:17‑18).

While we evangelical Christians accept the eschatological destruction of God's enemies, we sometimes find it hard to accept this wholesale genocide. The result was the spread of God's glory among the nations (Joshua 2:9‑11; 4:24; 6:1, 27). Why did God want to destroy them utterly?

Dick Bernal writes, "This was far more than human conflict. Jehovah God himself was waging war against Satan and his hosts! The Canaanites were devoted to idolatry, divination, necromancy, witchcraft, charms, and familiar spirits" (Deuteronomy 18:9‑14; 1 Corinthians 10:20‑21). Joshua's assignment at Jericho and throughout his military career was to follow God's lead as his instrument to destroy the systems of false worship (Deuteronomy 12:1‑3) and punish the sin of the Canaanites which empowered the systems (Genesis 15:16). The goal was to "subdue every enslaving spiritual force at work in the idols . . . [by destroying] the devices of false gods which had held the people captive."

The displacement of the Canaanites was not the first time it had happened even in Palestine. The Lord destroyed a race of giants and settled the Ammonites there long before Israel arrived, and Israel was instructed not to provoke them to war because the land belonged to the Ammonites (Deuteronomy 2:21). The same situation is mentioned in v.12 where the descendants of Esau drove out the Horites, another giant race. The Lord did not hate the Canaanites. He hated their gods. The Canaanites who came to YHWH were saved including Rahab and her family (Joshua 6:25).

War in Scripture is seen against a backdrop of spirituality. We often interpret the wars of Conquest as symbols of spiritual warfare, while rarely thinking of these wars as just that–actual power ministry. God himself said, "Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by miraculous signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the LORD your God did for you?" (Deuteronomy 4:34).

Here in Jericho we see this ground rule laid down heavily, along with some previously impenetrable city walls. The ark of the covenant at the head of the procession with an armed guard shows in the natural the outright invasion God had made into the enemy's stronghold at Jericho. The commander of the army of the Lord was leading his troops, some of whom were human.

All the unseen military activity went on while the well‑experienced General Joshua paraded his army around the town. When the walls fell, the spiritual battle was over as the subsequent events in the natural realm showed.