The invasion of Canaan commanded by God and carried out by the Israelites under the leadership of Joshua has raised issues for Christians and non-Christians alike. Non-Christians have been quick to label the destruction of the Canaanites as an act of genocide. Yet, as we have seen in the first four parts of this series, this allegation cannot be sustained. One cannot honestly speak of the destruction of the Canaanites as a genocide.
Many Christians have also been troubled by this story. How could the same God who commands us to love our enemies order such a thing? Parts 5 and 6 of this series were dedicated to considering aspects of the story that help us understand how God showed grace and love even in the invasion. We were also reminded that the Bible warns us of the coming day of wrath on which all of God’s enemies will be cast into the lake of fire. This helps us understand that the love God has for His enemies is not the same kind of eternal, fatherly love He has for His children. It is a love that manifests itself primarily as patience, as a restraint that will not last forever but that is present so that He can call His enemies to repentance and change many of them into His children (2 Peter 3:9).
The love God commands us to have for our enemies is similar. We are not called to have the same love for our enemies that we have for our families and for the church. In fact, we should love our brothers and sisters in Christ above all others. After all, we must “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). Our love for our enemies is manifested primarily as patience, as showing kindness to them in the hopes that God will use our witness to drive them to repentance. But this patience, like God’s, is not eternal. One day we will be separated from our enemies, and at the day of judgment, we will delight in the manifestation of divine justice as the impenitent are condemned eternally.
The Gospel and the Conquest
When we think about the invasion and conquest of Canaan, it will be easier for us to see its compatibility with the New Testament when we understand that the gospel itself is a message of conquest. True, this conquest is accomplished not by physical means but by spiritual ones, but the fact remains that the gospel goes forth as God’s means of conquering His enemies. In fact, the way that Jesus commands us to proclaim the gospel is parallel to how the Israelites were commanded to do battle against the nations outside of the promised land.
Deuteronomy 12:10–15 instructs the Israelites that when they draw near to an enemy city outside of Canaan, they are first to offer terms of peace to it. The cities that agree to the terms and to serve Israel are not to be utterly destroyed. Instead, the people are to become servants of Israel. Those cities that will not agree to the terms of peace are to be conquered with the sword and the Israelites are to enjoy the spoil they get from defeating their enemies.
Looking to Matthew 10:11–14, we see a similar pattern. Jesus tells His followers to go house to house and to offer their peace. All those who are worthy—who receive and heed the message of Christ’s servants—get to keep that peace. Those who will not receive or listen to Jesus’ disciples, however, are to be passed by, and the disciples are to shake the dust off their feet as they leave the city. Ancient Jews typically did that when they left a gentile area in order to get anything defiling off of their bodies, as it was believed that contact with even the dust in gentile regions could be defiling. By shaking off the dust from their feet, the disciples show that they are undefiled by the world and should not be treated as those who reject the gospel. Jesus then says that the judgment of the town that rejects the disciples and the gospel message they preach will be worse than the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah.
The main difference between these two plans of warfare is that judgment is more immediate when the Israelites do battle whereas it is delayed in the case of the Christian proclamation. We can depict the parallels as follows:
- Israelites announce peace, demanding the surrender of the city to Israel.
- Israelites warn of the destruction that will ensue if there is no surrender.
- Those who surrender become servants of Israel and end up sharing in God’s blessings on the nation.
- Those who do not surrender are destroyed, and their spoils go to Israel.
- Christians announce that Jesus is Lord, demanding that people surrender in faith to Jesus, the true Israel of God.1
- Christians warn of the eternal judgment to come in hell if there is no surrender to Christ.
- Those who believe in Christ become servants of Christ, the true Israel, and end up sharing in God’s blessings on Him.
- Those who do not believe are destroyed eternally in hell, and their spoils go to Christ, the true Israel, and by extension to all who are in Him.
Weapons of Spiritual Warfare
There are other ways that Scripture tells us the gospel is a message of conquest as well. Romans 10:14–15 contains Paul’s admonition that people cannot be saved apart from the preaching of the gospel, and he quotes Isaiah 52:7 to prove his point. In its original context, Isaiah 52 is part of a series of oracles announcing the defeat of Israel’s enemies and the return of the nation from exile, God’s rescue of His people from those who have terrorized them (see 45:1–7; 47:1–15; 52:5–6). This redemption required military action; specifically, God used Cyrus the Great of Persia to conquer Babylon and bring the Jews back to the promised land. This was ultimately a foreshadowing of God’s defeat of sin, death, and Satan in the person of Jesus Christ. Our warrior God accomplished a military victory at Calvary against the forces of darkness, so Paul applies the good news announcement of the Jews’ rescue from Babylon through the Lord’s conquering might to our rescue from evil through the conquering might of the Son of God. The gospel is an announcement that God has conquered His and our enemies.
We also find conquest and warfare imagery used in passages such as Ephesians 6:10–20. Paul tells us to put on the armor of God, including spiritual tools such as faith, prayer, and the Word of God as we fight against the devil. Like the ancient Israelites, we are called to do battle against the enemies of God. Like the ancient Israelites, we are to conquer our foes. Unlike the ancient Israelites, we do not do this with physical weapons and warfare. In this era of redemptive history, we wage war with spiritual weapons to bring the enemies of God into submission. As we preach the gospel, God conquers the hearts of those whom He has chosen, bringing them to faith in Christ.
The End of the War
From the beginning of history, God has done battle against His enemies, enlisting His people as His army to conquer His foes and spread His righteousness. During the old covenant, many of these battles were physical, and they included the mandate to destroy the Canaanites who would not repent. As the divine Judge and Creator, God was well within His rights to order that.
Though the war has been decisively won by Christ Jesus, God has not yet wiped out all His enemies, and we as His people continue to battle. We conquer in the Lord’s name with the weapons He has given us, just as the ancient Israelites did. But during this period when the church is not a geographical or national entity, our battles do not involve the raising of physical armies to fight physical foes. We fight with spiritual weapons, but our goal is the same as that of ancient Israel—the defeat of God’s enemies and the spread of righteousness. Only now, unlike the case of the Israelites under Joshua, judgment is delayed. Those who reject the Lord are not put to death immediately, but they will enter into eternal death and suffering on the last day if they remain impenitent. Those who surrender and bow to the God of Israel, however, will become part of the people of Israel, that is, the church. That was true in the days of Joshua, and it is true today.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on the conquest of Canaan. Previous Post.
- Jesus is revealed as the true Israel of God in several places. We will note just two examples. First, Matthew 2:15 applies Hosea 11:1 to Jesus, although the text was originally about the nation of Israel. This is Matthew’s way of telling us that Jesus is the true Israel. Second, Jesus refers to Himself as the “true vine” in John 15:1. The prophets frequently note that Israel is God’s vine or vineyard (Isa. 5:7; Jer. 6:9; Hos. 10:1), so in applying this image to Himself, Jesus is saying that He is the true Israel. ↩︎