Slaughtering the Canaanites, Part II: Switching sides

(Continued from Part 1)

Reading through Joshua in Hebrew several years ago I had to keep putting it down. As a follower of Jesus, the prince of peace, I could not stomach the slaughter I was again encountering afresh. Revulsion is an appropriate response for those who understand God’s loving heart for people; as God said later, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek 18:23, NIV).

But my most recent read through the Hebrew text of Joshua has been different, and also appropriate in another way. Jericho’s walls collapsed, and Israel won battle after battle. Yet other peoples in Canaan continue desperately gathering armies against them. As I kept reading, I found myself repeatedly thinking, “Why are these kings so stupid? Don’t they realize that they cannot war against Israel’s God? Why don’t they switch sides?” (I have to confess, that though I should read from the standpoint of the history of God’s people, I sometimes find myself as a person of non-Israelite descent wishing that more Gentiles in the Old Testament turned to the true God.) These peoples knew the stories about this powerful God fighting for Israel (Josh 2:10-11; 9:24; cf. later 1 Sam 4:7-8; 6:6)!

I found this way of reading Joshua confirmed when I reached Joshua 11:20 (NIV): “For it was the LORD himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally …” God hardening hearts is another question that provokes discussion, but note here the point that God was destroying them through Israel because they waged war against Israel. These enemies had an alternative: they could have changed sides and been welcomed.

How do we know that? Because a few people did just that. To survive, the Gibeonites came over to Israel’s side. Nevertheless, they chose to do it deceptively, and thus ended up with a servile status only somewhat better than typical ancient prisoners of war. But Israel defended them as allies against the other peoples (Josh 10:6-8); later, God himself avenged them when an Israelite king broke the treaty with some of them (2 Sam 21:1-6).

Another approach, however, would have been better: had they embraced Israel’s God, they would have been welcomed among God’s people, as the law commanded (Exod 12:48-49; Num 9:14; 15:15-16), and as the Book of Joshua recognized (Josh 20:9). (See discussion of Rahab, below.)

By giving up condemned practices and proclaiming allegiance to the true, powerful God doing miracles for Israel, they could have lived and should have even found welcome. Israel was forbidden to mistreat a foreigner among them (Exod 22:21; 23:9; Lev 19:33; Deut 24:14; 27:19). Because most foreigners were displaced from their homelands in an agrarian society based on land ownership, their condition was vulnerable. Thus God would watch out for them as for others in need (Deut 10:18), and he commanded his people to do the same (Lev 19:10; 23:22; 25:35; Deut 24:19, 21; 26:12-13). Indeed, Israelites were to love a foreigner among them like a fellow Israelite (Lev 19:34)—i.e., as one of the neighbors they should love like themselves (19:18; cf. Luke 10:27-29, 33).

Justice was to be the same for both foreigner and descendant of Israel (Exod 12:49; Num 9:14; 15:16; Deut 1:16); indeed, Israelites themselves had some foreign blood (cf. e.g., Gen 41:50; Exod 2:21-22). Thus, for example, when a son of mixed parentage was to be executed for a crime (Lev 24:10-14), the LORD made explicit that the same punishment was to apply regardless of one’s parentage (Lev 24:15-16).

The chief example of this strategy in Joshua is the action of Rahab. The Israelite Achan betrayed Israel’s God, hid some of Jericho’s loot under his tent, and brought death on himself and his family (Josh 7:1, 21-26). (Because the family would have known that he hid the loot under the tent, their silence showed their complicity and hope to profit.) By contrast, from fear of the LORD (2:9, 12) Rahab betrayed Jericho, hid Israel’s spies on her roof, and brought deliverance for herself and her family (2:4-6; 6:17, 25). Her descendants continued to live safely in Israel after that time (6:25), and Matthew’s Gospel lists her as an ancestor of King David and of the Messiah (Matt 1:5). Like some of their Jewish contemporaries, early Christians cited Rahab as an example of faith (Heb 11:31; James 2:25).(Some betrayed their people to save their own lives but chose to relocate; cf. Judg 1:24-26.) (Some betrayed their people to save their own lives but chose to relocate; cf. Judg 1:24-26.)

Centuries earlier one people had wanted to unite with the Israelites and intermarry with them. Jacob’s sons posed one condition on this people, the people of Shechem: they had to accept circumcision. Painful as this was for adults, this city agreed. Simeon and Levi, however, betrayed their covenant and butchered the city’s men, to avenge the rape of their sister Dinah and to prevent any counterattack (Gen 34). Jacob, meanwhile, was furious with these young men, his rash sons (34:30), and even cursed them for this years later when giving out his blessings (49:5-7). If the Canaanites knew this story, it might deter them from conversion. This time there had been no rape, however, and Israel’s defense of Gibeon should have made clear that they would now stand by their allies.

(Continued in part 3)


Comments are closed.

Previous Post

Slaughtering the Canaanites, Part I: Limiting factors

Next Post

Slaughtering the Canaanites, Part III: not God’s ideal

Related Posts