When you have three young children, one of the things you find yourself doing is singing a lot of the songs you used to sing in Sunday school and at church when you were a kid. There is one that has been particularly favored by my kids in recent days: “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.” Perhaps you remember the song’s chorus:

Joshua fought the battle of Jericho,

Jericho, Jericho.

Joshua fought the battle of Jericho,

And the walls came tumbling down!

The song is a lot of fun for our kids, as it gives them an excuse to march around the living room and simulate the fall of Jericho’s walls with hand motions. It is also a good way to impress on their young minds the basic truths of one of the most famous stories in the Old Testament. In fact, I would venture to say that most children who spend any length of time in a church’s educational programs will hear the story of Joshua and Jericho several times over.

Telling the Whole Story

As I think back on my time as a child in Sunday school, I know that we learned the basics of the fall of Jericho. Who could forget Joshua and the Israelites’ marching around the city once a day for six days, seven times on day seven, and the blowing of the horn and the shout that resulted in the walls’ miraculously falling to the ground? Yet, one thing I do not remember very clearly from my childhood is what happened immediately after the walls fell: “Then [the Israelites] devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword” (Josh. 6:21).

Honestly, it is possible that my teachers talked about how the Israelites put to death everyone in the city (except Rahab and her family) after the walls fell and that I have forgotten it. I am fairly certain that if they did tell me about the destruction of the people and the animals of Jericho, they did not put any primary focus on that part of the event. I do not blame them for that, as they would have been following a curriculum of some kind, and thus they were probably just teaching what the lesson plans told them to teach.

The Problem

In any case, it is understandable why teachers and curriculum might not put much emphasis on the destruction of Jericho’s citizens or the other instances in the book of Joshua that describe the Israelites’ killing the residents and animals of entire towns. These stories can make us feel uncomfortable, after all. They can be hard enough to explain to adults, let alone children. Why would God order His people to do such a thing? How could it be right for Him to do so when we quickly condemn the mass slaughters that occurred in Soviet Russia, the Holocaust, and other events that are within living memory of many of us? Do this invasion and the destruction of the Canaanites somehow contradict Jesus’ command to love our enemies?

Giving an Answer for Our Hope

Do a little reading or talk to an unbeliever who is familiar with the account of the invasion of Canaan and you will soon see that this account is a problem for many people. Some individuals, such as the prominent atheist Richard Dawkins, have condemned these stories and any God who would order them, accusing such a deity of commanding the morally reprehensible act of genocide. You can even find a number of Christians who occupy the liberal end of the theological spectrum agreeing in some way with these prominent atheists. I have read statements from people who claim to be followers of Christ who label the command to exterminate the Canaanites as genocide. I have also known people who profess to be Christians who reject such stories as true accounts. Some people even believe that the command to drive out the Canaanites reveals a God different from the one revealed by Jesus Christ, and thus we should view the Israelites’ actions as a primitive and incorrect view of the nature of God.

If Jesus is not embarrassed about something and if He and His Apostles see no ethical problems with a particular event or issue, then neither should we.

I know that my experience is not unique, that you likely have encountered such arguments as well. In wrestling with this issue and in teaching courses on Joshua, I have found that there is much misunderstanding about the invasion of Canaan not only outside the church but also within the covenant community. Moreover, there are a number of issues that the invasion of Canaan raises that we must think about deeply if we are to better understand our Bibles and be able to give an answer for the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15–16). So, in this series of articles, my goal will be to consider the invasion of Canaan from an ethical and theological perspective so that we might better respond to questions about this important period in Israel’s history.

A Basic Starting Point

I want to conclude this first installment with a basic starting point for our discussion: whatever concerns and questions we might have about the conquest of Canaan, it is clear that the New Testament accepts the events of the book of Joshua as true history and does not have any ethical reservations about the Israelites’ invasion of the promised land. Just consider the following evidence:

  1. The name Jesus: Those who think Joshua’s actions in leading the invasion of Canaan and the destruction of its citizens are incompatible with the message and ministry of Jesus must reckon with the fact that the name Jesus is simply the Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua. The incarnate Savior is named after Joshua himself, and this was not the choice of Mary and Joseph. Instead, God Himself, through His angelic messenger, commanded Jesus’ earthly parents to give Him the name Jesus, or Joshua (Matt. 1:21, 25). Just think about that for a second—God Himself wanted the name of our incarnate Lord to be the same as the one who conquered Canaan and put many Canaanites to death. Surely, this suggests there is nothing inherently incompatible with Joshua’s actions and the ministry of Christ. If there were, why would God choose such a name when there were so many other possibilities open to Him?
  2. The presence of Rahab: Rahab, who emerges in Joshua 2 and 6 as one of the heroes of the Jericho episode, is mentioned by name three times in the New Testament. Matthew 1:5 tells us that she was part of the earthly lineage of Jesus. How remarkable is it that Rahab, whose actions protected the Israelite spies and ultimately helped to facilitate the conquest of Jericho and the destruction of all of its inhabitants except her and her family, has a place in Jesus’ family history? From a human perspective, we could even say that Jesus could become incarnate precisely because Rahab acted in such a way to preserve the Israelites and help ensure their occupation of the promised land. Hebrews 11:31 and James 2:25 point to Rahab and her action of hiding the spies as proof of her faith and her obedience. In other words, what Rahab did in protecting the spies so that Israel could succeed and the “disobedient” (Heb. 11:31) citizens of Jericho be punished with death was a good thing. If there were any doubt that the New Testament approved of the invasion, these positive mentions of Rahab and how her actions facilitated the judgment on Canaan should put them to rest.
  3. Casual references to Joshua: In the New Testament, we also find two casual references to Joshua and the invasion of Canaan. Stephen mentions Joshua and the fathers of Israel dispossessing the inhabitants of Canaan (Acts 7:45) and Hebrews 4:8 references Joshua giving the people a measure of rest, but not the final rest for God’s people, through the conquest of the promised land. Notably, these references are made “casually,” that is, in passing as statements of historical fact without any hint of embarrassment. There is no evidence that these significant New Testament figures had any ethical problems with the destruction of the Canaanites.

We could pursue other lines of evidence from the New Testament, but the basic point should be clear: neither Jesus nor the Apostles believed that the destruction of the Canaanites was wrong. That must be our starting point as those who profess to follow Christ. There are still issues that we can and should address, but we must take our direction from our Lord. If He is not embarrassed about something and if He and His Apostles see no ethical problems with a particular event or issue, then neither should we. To contradict Him on this point would be an act of hubris that would be almost impossible to surpass.
Editor’s Note:This post is part of a series on the conquest of Canaan and was first published on September 25, 2017. Next post.

Practicing Amazement

The Character of Cain