As one reads through the book of Joshua it’s hard not to notice that many of its pages run red, as the Israelites fight battle after battle with those who occupy the land of Canaan. And most times the nature of the battles are rather shocking – the death of all involved: men, women, children, and animals. The brutality of much of the book of Joshua can cause us to ask some hard but relevant questions: how can God not only condone, but command, such relentless slaughter? And moreover, when compared to the New Testament, why is it that God seems so vengeful and full of wrath in Old Testament books such as Joshua, whereas in the New Testament he seems to focus on love and goodwill?
Let’s tackle these questions one at a time. First: why did God command and condone the slaughter of the Canaanites? Firstly, We must remember that it was never God’s desire to destroy the Canaanites. In fact, it was God’s desire that they turn from their sin and come to worship and obey him. When God first promised the land of Canaan to Abraham hundreds of years before the Israelites occupied it, he told Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved in Egypt for 400 years before they came back to the land that was promised to them (see Genesis 15.12-16). The reason for this 400 year layover? To give the Amorites (the people who initially occupied the land of Canaan) time to repent. When the Israelites finally do destroy the Canaanites, it’s done as God’s judgment for 400 years of sin and refusal to repent. So, far from being wrath-filled and vengeful, God graciously gave the Amorites 400 years (!) to turn from their sin, but they refused to do so. Thus, God’s judgment of them is just and right.
Secondly, another reason God told his people to obliterate the Canaanites is that he knew that the Israelites would be tempted to adopt their cultural ways and traditions, including their religious practices. Even a cursory reading of the Old Testament reveals that this particular temptation is one that would undo the Israelites time after time. Not only were the Israelites tempted to adopt foreign ways throughout their history, but they succumbed to this temptation many times, often resulting in their own judgment and divine discipline. God knew that if the Israelites left even a trace of the Canaanites, the temptation to adopt their ways would remain, so he commanded them to utterly wipe them out. But although this was God’s command, the Israelites never did obliterate the Canaanites, and they suffered the effects for generations afterward.
Unfortunately, we often times lose perspective when it comes to our impressions of God when we read the Old Testament juxtaposed to the New Testament. We focus on the slaughter, but neglect to recall God’s graciousness and mercy in giving the Amorites 400 years to turn from their sin. We see an angry God in the Old Testament, and a loving God in the New Testament. But this distinction is artificial and forced onto the text by our supposed enlightened, modern sensibilities. But moreover, a simple reading of the two testaments reveals that God has not changed (Malachi 3.6). The same God who judged sin in the Old Testament with physical death, did so in the New Testament as well, as Ananias and Saphira learned firsthand when they lied to God, and were struck dead (see acts 5.1-11). The same God who granted the Amorites 400 years to repent of their sin is patiently giving all people time to come to repentance (2 Peter 3.9). The same God who judged the world in righteousness in the Old Testament will do so again (Acts 17.31), and will do so with fire and vengeance (2 Thessalonians 1.8-10).
Is the book of Joshua violent? Yes. Can it be hard to read sometimes? Indeed. Does it bring up some hard questions? Sure. But when we are willing to search the scriptures to know our God and the story of his salvation, the book of Joshua reveals the severity of sin, and the kindness and goodness of God in light of that sin. Far from depicting a vengeful, wrath-filled God, Joshua shows us a God who is just, kind, merciful, and good – the same God you’ll find throughout the entire Bible.