Joshua and Jihad: Part II of Joshua, Jesus and Jihad

Is it only the end or purpose of jihad that we want to quibble with Islamic State over, or is it the means as well?

Explosions at Miramar Airshow.jpg
Explosions at Miramar Airshow“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

To address this part of our two-part series, now addressing ‘Joshua and Jihad’, I will interact with an article by Andrew Shead in Eternity magazine from late last year:

“HOLY WAR: Islamic State & Israel in the Old Testament.” Eternity, November 2014, 19-20. Published by the Bible Society. Also accessible online at

I have the greatest respect for Shead’s scholarship, having recently endorsed his book on Jeremiah, A Mouth Full of Fire, on this blog. He is a serious and a spiritual thinker, and an Aussie too, to his credit. But I felt he was too sanguine in his efforts to distinguish Joshua from jihad and to justify what we read there, both the carrying out of the conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua and the program for doing so articulating in Deuteronomy 7:1-6, which he quotes in full. It’s worth quoting that passage here.
NIV Deuteronomy 7:1 When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations– the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you–
2 and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.
3 Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons,
4 for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.
5 This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire.
6 For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. (Deut. 7:1-6 NIV)
Let me tackle this issue by responding to each of Shead’s main points briefly:

“What does the Bible actually say?” Here Shead makes two points quite familiar amongst biblical scholars. The first is that hyperbole was commonplace in the ancient world where achievements in war were being described. A well-known example Shead cites is the claim by an enemy that Israel has completely and utterly perished in war against them. (Shead cites the Mesha Stele here, but I believe it is found on the Egyptian Merneptah Stele, from memory. I’m at home without my books, so I could be wrong). The primary evangelical spokesman for this evident practice is K. L. Younger, and I don’t know of anyone who disagrees. This helps to explain why, as Shead goes on to point out, the book of Joshua can boast total destruction of the enemy in places like the following,

 40 So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded. (Josh. 10:40 NIV)

…while then going on to describe the problems encountered with those who survived (Josh. 13:1, 13; 15:63, etc.). This is plainly true and just a matter of getting used to an ancient historical genre. The book of Joshua at times describes partial victory as total victory.
What is more troubling here, though, is that the Deuteronomy passage articulates the ideal of total annihilation, or sounds as though it does. Maybe it was not practical to complete, but frankly, like Hitler’s goal of annihilating the Jews in the middle of the last century, logistical difficulties do not save this program from questions about its nobility.
Shead’s earlier point under this heading is also familiar within scholarship: that the Deuteronomy 7 text wouldn’t prohibit intermarriage if by extermination it really meant extermination. But I have seen other cases in the Bible where a positive command is accompanied by the prohibition of its opposite, as a way of strengthening the edict. There is no comfort to be had here, in my opinion.
“How did Israel justify what they actually did?” Shead’s answer here is “that the Canaanite were guilty of criminal atrocities far beyond anything Israel did in expelling them.” That’s really saying something, if Israel at least attempted a top-to-bottom extermination of towns full of people from babies to old people. The Canaanites apparently practiced child sacrifice in their religious worship, and this remained true of their relatives as far away as Carthage, to judge by the altars and other evidence that remains. As with Incas and Aztecs, I think child sacrifice for religious purposes is just about the lowest of the low, and signifies a deeply decadent society. But I’m not sure how attempted extermination delivers a kind of moral lesson in religious ethics.
This is indeed mollified by another thing Shead points out here: Deuteronomy says more than once that Israel is not herself a paragon of virtue, and her possession of the land is conditional on her covenant obedience (Deut. 9:4, 6). An important theme of the whole book of Deuteronomy is that sin before God will see Israel experience the same fate as she was to inflict on the Canaanites: loss of the land. I do find some help for this difficult issue at this point, because it demonstrates a certain kind of level playing field. Israel does not have a blank cheque for her own conduct. She, like the Canaanites, is responsible to live rightly before God.
I would add that I think we can well defend, amidst a theology developed from the Bible, God’s sovereign authority over human life, its giving and its taking. Genesis 2:7 well pictures the quality of life as the breath of God. God breathes, and we live; God inhales, and we die. Life is his gift, and He decides when ours should end.
But if God were to decide that one culture’s breath should be withdrawn, I would prefer it be done directly, as an ‘act of God’, so to speak, than be entrusted to the edge of the swords of another culture not itself known for steadfast righteousness. I don’t wish to question the ways of God here. Whatever God has done, at any time, I trust was righteously done. If and where it was done by God, and wasn’t a human idea.
Shead points out in this section that surrounding nations were quite bloodthirsty themselves, and says, “By contrast, Joshua and his army targeted political leaders and enemy combatants.” I would add, “and, ‘all who breathed’,” which destroys the point being made (Deut. 20:16; Josh. 10:40; 11: 11, 14). Let me add, though, that Deuteronomy 20 clearly limits this program to the Canaanites alone. It was never applicable to the nations outside the borders of the land bequeathed to Israel in these pages. That’s as ‘targeted’ as it gets, though.
“What sort of God did Israel actually serve?” Shead points out what I think is a wonderful biblical statement of the nature of God, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness (Exod. 34:6 NIV).” There’s even more like that that Shead doesn’t quote: “…maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (34:7a). A brilliant and wonderful word that reappears in different forms more than a dozen times throughout the Old Testament. But Shead has been a little selective, I feel, in not quoting the other side of the coin of God’s character in that passage: “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation” (34:7b). I don’t deny its truth, and I am not eager to edit out the ‘severity’ from God’s character and leave just all the lovey stuff. But it does look a bit selective in the article to just mention the first part.
What is virtually Shead’s conclusion comes at the end of this section:
For a specific, relatively short, and strategic period, God sought to establish Israel in the land with a view to fulfilling this long-term (indeed, cosmic) plan of redemption. God would simultaneously punish a wicked people ripe for judgment. Not doing so would have erased humankind’s only hope for redemption.
Again, I am in accord with a biblical-theological approach to our Christian Bible, that is, finding described therein, like a thread running from book to book, God’s redeeming program for humanity. That’s a wonderful and noble end. But do we want to be found saying, or implying, that good and great goals justify whatever means are required to achieve them? Does the image of a blood-soaked army surrounded by corpses in great piles inspire us to praise? It’s only that this is ‘out of sight’ that makes it at all palatable. We object violently when we see similar scenes perpetrated by others on our own TVs.
“What actually lives in the Christian closet?” Shead says here that Christians have at times engaged in wars of conquest, but never rightly so, and without taking Joshua’s conquest as a precedent for their actions. I haven’t researched that last point, and can only hope and trust that it’s mostly true. He is right to conclude that the sword can never be the instrument of advancement of the Christian Gospel, citing John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight…” (John 18:36 NIV) I said the same thing in part I, “Jesus and Jihad.” Exactly true.
But I fear that we are sending mixed messages. It is not a good look to have a precedent like Joshua’s conquest enmeshed in our own religious heritage without making our attitude towards it clear.
My Conclusion
We who are Christians are New Testament people, followers of the way of Jesus, and His way was clearly not the way of the sword, as I hope I’ve shown in part I. What do we do, then, with Joshua? It was, indeed, a different situation, where the redemptive plan of God involved a physical nation rather than a spiritual community. At best, we might say with John Bright (in The Authority of the Old Testament, 244), that Joshua is “ancient history–leave it there. It is not–and in Christian theology, and in Christian theology, is not intended to be–a model for the church to copy.” If that seems too strong for you, I’m tempted to say it more strongly. We need to make it clear that the way of Joshua is not our way. Our Master told us to love our enemies rather than kill them. And His word is our command. We don’t emulate Joshua’s way in our world, and I think we should not even admire it or, I say reluctantly, even endorse it.
Because it is too close to jihad. It may be done in honour of an inaccurate conception of God. But it is not just the end and purpose that we ought to be criticizing. It is the means. Should I be saying that spreading general terror, violence and death was ever the right way to advance God’s cause in the world? Where then is the moral high ground from which we can criticize Islamic State? Do we really want to say that their goal of a caliphate is bad, and their quest for regional domination is greedy and unjust, but that we don’t really have any issue with their method?
I will say no such thing.


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