The Book of Joshua

One of the most disturbing parts of the Old Testament is the Book of Joshua. It is the story of the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites led by Joshua son of Nun around 1400 B.C. The topic is timely given the religious violence we see in the world today, and I plan to write a book about religious violence throughout the ages.
The story of the Israelite conquest of Canaan is an appropriate place to begin when writing an account of religious warfare and violence throughout history. According to the Book of Joshua, Joshua, the leader of the Israelites who succeeded Moses, commanded an army of about 40,000 soldiers. This was the first time a group of monotheistic believers commanded a significant army, and the conquest of Canaan was the history’s first recorded instance of genocide.
The stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses are all recorded in previous books of the Old Testament, and it is beyond the scope of this book to repeat the Biblical accounts. At the time of the conquest of Canaan, the Israelites had been wandering in the wilderness for forty years, having fled from slavery in Egypt. Moses, who led the people out of Egypt, had died and his mantle as leader of the Israelites had been taken up by Joshua, son of Nun. The exact century is difficult to pinpoint, but there is some archeological evidence that the destruction of Jericho took place around 1400 B.C. (As with all other events mentioned in the Old Testament the dates can only be approximated.)
Moses, having displeased God, was not permitted to enter the “Promised Land,” but once he had died, and Joshua had taken his place, there were no more impediments. In fact, the Lord spoke to Joshua commanding him to undertake the conquest.
“The Lord spake unto Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ minister saying ‘Moses my servant is dead; now therefore arise and go over this Jordan, thou and all this people; unto the land which I do give to them, even to the children of Israel. Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon; that I have given unto you, as I said unto Moses. From the wilderness and this Lebanon even unto the great river, the Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and unto the great sea toward the going down of the sun, shall be your coast. There shall not any man be able to stand before thee all the days of your life’” The Book of Joshua, chapter 1, verses 1-5.
So Joshua was given the command to conquer Canaan and assurance of the complete support of God. The first city Joshua decided to destroy was Jericho. He sent spies into the city and they lodged with a harlot named Rahab. Rather than betray the spies to the King, Rahab hid them on her roof and told the King’s men that the spies had already left, advising them to search for them in the hills outside the city. Why did she do this? Evidently the reputation of the Israelites had preceded them.
“She said unto the men (the spies) ‘I know that the Lord hath given you the land, and that your terror has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what ye did to the two kings of the Amorites, that were on the other side Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom ye utterly destroyed.’” Book of Joshua, Chapter 2, verses 9,10.
Rahab the harlot made a deal with the spies that she and her family would be spared.
Siege engines did not exist ca 1400 B.C. so the destruction of the walls of Jericho must have required an act of God. According to the Book of Joshua “The people shouted when the priests blew with the trumpets, and it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, and the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city.” Book of Joshua, chapter 6, verse 20.
No prisoners were taken, no quarter given. “And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.” Book of Joshua, chapter 6, verse 21. True to his word, however, Joshua spared Rahab and her family.
The next target of Joshua’s campaign was the city of Ai. This battle shows remarkable military sophistication for its time and reveals that Joshua was an adept general. No divine intervention was necessary. (Although Joshua would no doubt have claimed that he was divinely inspired.)
“And Joshua rose up early in the morning and numbered the people, and went up, he and the elders of Israel, before the people to Ai. And all of the people, even the people of war that were with him went up, and drew nigh, and came before the city, and pitched on the north side of Ai: now there was a valley between them and Ai. And he took about five thousand men, and set them to lie in ambush between Beth-el and Ai, on the west side of the city. And when they had set the people, even all the host that was on the north of the city, and their liers in wait on the west of the city, Joshua went that night into the midst of the valley. And it came to pass, when the king of Ai saw it, that they hasted and rose up early, and the men of the city went out against Israel to battle, he and all his people, at a time appointed, before the plain; but he wist not that there were liers in ambush against him behind the city. And Joshua and all Israel made as if they were beaten before them and fled by way of the wilderness. And all of the people that were in Ai were called together to pursue after them; and they pursued after Joshua and were drawn away from the city. And there was not a man left in Ai or Beth-el, that went not out after Israel; and they left the city open and pursued after Israel.
“And the ambush arose quickly out of their place, and they ran as soon as he (Joshua) had stretched out his hand and they entered into the city and took it, and hasted to set the city on fire. And when the men of Ai looked behind them, they saw, and behold, the smoke of the city ascended up to heaven, and they had no power to flee this way or that way, and the people that fled to the wilderness turned back upon the pursuers. And when Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had taken the city they turned back again and slew the men of Ai.” The Book of Joshua, chapter 9, verses 10-21 (except verse 18)
Brilliant tactics that even the military genius Hannibal might have admired.
Again no mercy was shown and no quarter granted.
“And the king of Ai they took alive and brought him to Joshua. And it came to pass, when Israel made an end to slaying all the inhabitants of Ai in the field, in the wilderness where they chased them, and when they were all fallen on the edge of the sword, until they were consumed, that all the Israelites returned unto Ai and smote it with the edge of the sword. And so it was that fell that day, both of men and women, were twelve thousand, even all the men of Ai. For Joshua drew not his hand back, wherewith he stretched the spear, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai.
“And Joshua burnt Ai and made it an heap forever, even a desolation unto this day. And the King of Ai he hanged on a tree until eventide, and as soon as the sun was down, Joshua commanded that they should take his carcase down from the tree and cast it at the entering of the gate of the city and raise thereon a great heap of stones, that remaineth unto this day.” Book of Joshua, chapter 8, verses 23-28.
According to the Book of Joshua, the Israelites under his leadership ultimately destroyed 31 kings and their city-states. How many individuals might that be? If all the cities were approximately the size of Ai, that is about 12,000 souls, it would amount to about 370,000 people. Of course it is difficult to determine at this point the size of each of these cities at the time of their conquests.
Did the Isrealites spare any of the locals? Yes. The city of Gibion sent ambassadors to Joshua asking for a treaty and an alliance. They deceitfully made it appear that they had come from far away, and Joshua consented to the alliance. When he found out their ruse he was angered but would not go back on his agreement.
“And Joshua called for them, and he spake unto them, saying Wherefore have ye beguiled us, saying we are very far from you; when ye dwell among us? Now therefore ye are cursed, and there shall none of you be free from being bondmen, and hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.” Book of Joshua, chapter 9, verse 22,23.
The only other people mentioned that survived the invasion were the Jebusites of Jerusalem.
“As for the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the children of Judah could not drive them out; but the Jebusites dwell with the children of Judah at Jerusalem to this day.” Book of Joshua, chapter 15, verse 63.
The remainder of the Book of Joshua describes how the conquered lands were distributed among the various tribes that followed Joshua.
A number of questions arise. How much of this account is true? How long a time elapsed between the events themselves and the time they were written down by scribes? The Old Testament is not a history book and should not be regarded as such. Everything should be open to question. Even with what archeological evidence we have, it is impossible to determine the truth or untruth of this account.
Assuming, that this account in the Old Testament is true, however, can the conquest of Canaan be considered a religious war, or is it merely the depredations of a landless people, hungry for land, who are using a belief in God to justify their actions? Certainly there was no attempt here to spread their monotheistic beliefs among non-believers-to do that you have to allow converts to survive. In a recent interview the evangelist Pat Robertson remarked upon the motivations of Joshua and his followers, saying “These people (the Canaanites) had like four hundred years of serving idols, so God knew that he had to get them out of the presence of Israel. So that was the reason. Now as far as the Amalekites, they had the same sort of reason.” If that interpretation is correct, then the conquest of Canaan must be considered a religious war.
The other question that arises is how should modern people judge people of that era? Clearly Joshua and his followers had no perception that anything they were doing was wrong and would not have questioned the perceived word of God. In fact, in that day and age, any people seeking to gain land for themselves by conquest would probably have done exactly the same thing, whether or not they believed that they were called upon to do so by a deity. This raises uncomfortable questions of moral relativism. Do we condemn religious extremists of our own day who sincerely believe that what they are doing is morally right? How should we regard ISIS followers beheading Christians who refuse to convert, or Christian judges in Uganda condemning homosexuals to death? How do we decide what may be justified by religion and what may not?

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