Updated: Mar 19, 2020
We have established that Israel’s Conquest was not a genocide, it was not a land grab against a weaker adversary, and it was not a self-serving nationalism. What then was it?
To understand the morality of Israel’s conquest, we need to get the big moral picture right. What makes something right or wrong? How do we make a moral judgment? What internal rules are we using when we make our judgments?
Getting the Big Moral Picture Right
Sovereigns and subjects
When we live in a country, we live under the sovereign rule of its government. If we hate a government enough, we may want to move to another country. When we are in the new country, we are under the sovereign rule of our new country. We always live under someone’s rules – whether we like it or not (unless we are the sovereign).
Sovereign states are always based on the geographical boundaries of land. The Singapore court cannot sentence a Malaysian living in Malaysia to death or vice-versa. But the Singapore court can sentence anybody from any country to death if they are living in Singapore. Sovereignty is land bound and land limited.
Sovereignty means the sovereign has coercive power. This power includes power over life and death. The government of a country can execute someone who breaks the laws of that country – regardless of whether we think it is right or wrong. For instance, Singapore places a death penalty on certain drug trafficking offenses. We may or may not agree, but we live under this law when we live in Singapore.
God’s sovereignty over the earth
The Bible starts with the creation story. God created the world, so he is sovereign over the world. He created Adam and Eve, placed them in the Garden of Eden. They did not have any rules and lived freely. That is, with the exception of one rule – they were not to eat from the tree of good and evil. And God, the sovereign, warned them that when they eat of it, they will surely die.
Guess what? They ate. The sovereign God then meted out the judgment, but with great love and mercy. They were banished from the Garden of Eden into the rest of the world. But God clothed their nakedness and shame; then God gave them a promise that the seed of the woman would one day bring them victory over their adversary the devil, and by implication, humanity will return to the Garden of Eden.
We fast forward. God fulfilled that promise in Jesus who would bring redemption to the world. This is available to all who want it. And at the end of human history as we know it, there will be a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1ff).
God is sovereign over the world. That is the clear message of the Bible. From start to end, we live by his rules and he chooses to give us good gifts, but a judgment comes when we disobey his sovereign rule on earth.
God’s sovereignty in judgment
We messed up, and it is clear we cannot help ourselves! The only way the world can be saved from itself is when God becomes sovereign in the world again. It is more of God’s engagement and not less.
God exercised his sovereignty in removing Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. When we choose to reject God’s loving sovereign rule, he respects that choice. God does not remove free choice – whatever the consequences may be. How God dealt with Adam and Eve is how he deals with us. He covers our shame and finds a way for us to return to him and to redeem the world.
Humanity was supposed to find its way back to Eden through righteous living. But humanity failed miserably. “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” (Genesis 6:5). Humanity became so evil that a reset was necessary. He sent a flood that destroyed all the creatures of the earth – with the exception of one family, Noah’s. This is an act of divine judgment and redemption at the same time.
What I find intriguing is that we don’t seem to react as much to God’s judgement on the world in the deluge as we do over the killing in the Conquest of the Promised Land. The Flood killed more people than the Conquest. We need to ask why one troubles us (the Conquest) and one does not trouble us (the Flood). We cannot ignore the Flood when we consider the Conquest.
The real reason why we accept or reject both the Flood and the Conquest is the same: “Can I accept God’s sovereignty over the world?”
If I even accept the idea of a God, I must accept he is sovereign over his creation. Otherwise he is not God. And if he is sovereign, he must act as a sovereign. The alternative is to leave it to sentient but wicked creatures to run the world – that is us humans. But see how we messed up!
The story of the Flood is the story of a patient sovereign God and wicked humans who corrupted the world to the extent that it could not be redeemed except a reset. And even in that reset, God had not given up on humanity, but set out to redeem humanity through one family.
The Flood account is brief, but the Conquest has more details. We will not be detained by the Flood account, but we just need to see there are instances of God’s judgment before the Conquest, and the Conquest is not unique in God’s sovereign judgment.
I will proceed to show that God not only acted sovereignly in the Conquest but he also acted as a patient and loving sovereign.
How God exercised sovereignty leading up to the Conquest
Abraham was living in Ur of the Chaldeans until God told him to move. He obeyed God and moved, and eventually arrived at the strip of land that is generally occupied by the Canaanites, which is later known as the Promised Land or simply the Land.
When God blessed Abraham and gave him the Land, it was not for Abraham alone. Abraham and his descendants were to be channels of blessing to the world. “…and all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:3). We need to bear this in mind: God’s redemption plan was to be carried out through the children of Abraham and through what will happen on the Land.
When God made a formal covenant with Abraham, he gave Abraham some details about when his descendants will possess the Land.
.....Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years .....your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that .....they will be enslaved and mistreated there. … In the fourth generation .....your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has .....not yet reached its full measure.” (Genesis 15:13-16).
The apparent discrepancy of 400 years and 4 generations has to do with time reckoning of when to start counting the 400 years. That is not germane to our discussion here, so we do not need to address it in detail. The point we clearly note is this. They will need to wait either 400 years or 4 generations before they can inherit the land.
The reason for the wait is the vital issue. It is because “the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” God did not wipe out the inhabitants of the land (using the Amorites as a representative term) because their sin has not reached the level which he would impose judgment on them. This tells us three important things.
i. God is sovereign and does not surrender that sovereignty over any nation.
ii. God removed the Amorites/Canaanites because of their sin, and would replace them with Abraham’s descendants in his redemption plan.
iii. God is extremely patient, he is willing to wait 400 years for the Amorites/Canaanites to repent.
Scripture tells us why sin was the reason for God removing the Amorites/Canaanites. It was not because Abraham’s descendants needed a place, even though they did need a place. Their need for a place would be delayed 400 years because the sins of the locals did not merit their displacement! The descendants of Abraham would inherit the land only at a future time when the Amorites have disqualified themselves from the land. The reason for displacement was the sin of the people in the Land. The result of the displacement is that Abraham’s descendants will occupy it.
To understand reason and result, let us use an analogy. You want to place your child in a good school, but there is no vacancy, your child is on the wait list. Sometime later, a child in the school was expelled for misbehavior and your child gets in. These two events are related, but your child did not cause the expulsion of the other child even though your child was the beneficiary of what happened to the other child.
At this stage nothing was said about how they would be displaced. It could have been a coronavirus infection, a bubonic plague, etc.
The account underscores God’s patience. At the time of the Promise, the level of wickedness was within his mercy. While God is holy and without sin, he makes provisions for our sin. As sovereign, God had the right to be tough with the people of the Land. But as the God of mercy, the inhabitants of the land will be removed only when their sin had reached an intolerable level.
We also need to be reminded that while the descendants of Abraham waited, they would have a really tough time. They would become refugees. They will die as refugees. There will be no deliverance for 400 years.
How God exercised sovereignty during and after the Conquest
Killing everyone is not killing everyone
The objective of the Conquest was to possess the Land. Hypothetically speaking, if there was nobody on the Land, there would be no displacement or killing.
The reality was that there were people in the Land, but from the onset, at the city of Jericho, Rahab shows us the people of the Land need not be enemies. If they accept Israel’s God, there is no more enmity.
When you say, “My feet are killing me” what do you mean? Do you really mean your feet are causing you death? When you “make a killing in the market,” what does it mean? When you say, “I have no money” you are probably not saying you don’t even have 1 cent. “Carb coma” does not mean a real coma, only sleepiness after eating carbs. These are hyperboles, or overstatements for a stronger effect, not overstatements intended to deceive. The language that calls for the total destruction of the people of the Land was hyperbole.
Let’s examine some references in the Bible to see for ourselves that killing everyone could be a hyperbole.
.....Deuteronomy 7 1When the Lord your God brings you into the land you .....are entering to possess and (God) drives out before you many .....nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, .....Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you
.....—.....2and 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. 3Do not intermarry with .....them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters .....for your sons, 4for 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.
Notice what was going to happen when the Israelites were to take over the Land. They will possess the Land, because God will drive out the nations occupying the land. The objective was to possess the Land. But the inhabitants will not give it up without a fight. That is where the fight will come from – those who would not leave. Here, again, we see no fundamental enmity, but the people had to leave. The one who will drive out the occupier out was God. The Israelites were God’s means of doing it. “when the Lord has delivered them to you” affirms that God is the one doing the work.
“you must destroy them totally” is where the issue lies. But it is apparent that this does not refer to annihilation. We know this because Israel was to “make no treaty with them.” You cannot make treaty with those you have annihilated. Israel was also told, “do not intermarry with them.” The prohibition to intermarry makes no sense if the people are dead.
This was God’s command on what the Israelites were to do during the upcoming Conquest. So how did it pan out?
.....Joshua 10 36Then Joshua and all Israel with him went up from Eglon to .....Hebron and attacked it. 37They took the city and put it to the sword, ....
.....together with its king, its villages and everyone in it. They left no .....survivors. Just as at Eglon, they totally destroyed it and everyone in it.
.....38Then Joshua and all Israel with him turned around and attacked .....Debir. 39They took the city, its king and its villages, and put them to the .....sword. Everyone in it they totally destroyed. They left no survivors. They .....did to Debir and its king as they had done to Libnah and its king and to .....Hebron.
.....40So 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.
These texts leave us with the impression of an annihilation of the population. Note the Israelites totally destroyed the following cities: Eglon, Hebron, Debir, Libnah, and the region called the Negev. Hebron was probably the most important city there.
When the major conquests were done and the land was divided, Caleb asked for Hebron, which was supposed to have been annihilated of people. But Caleb had to drive out the inhabitants of Hebron who were supposed to be no more! (Joshua 14:6-15).
We also note the time indicator, “just as the LORD promised, he has kept me alive for forty-five years” (Joshua 14:10). This would be at the end of the major conquests. Caleb would be kept alive forty years at the start of the conquests. Forty-five years tells us this was the tail end of the Conquest. So there is no anachronism here.
This is further affirmed in Joshua 15 which describes in detail Caleb’s conquest of Hebron and the area around it.
.....Joshua 15 13In accordance with the Lord’s command to him, Joshua .....gave to Caleb son of Jephunneh a portion in Judah—Kiriath Arba, that .....is, Hebron. (Arba was the forefather of Anak.) 14From Hebron Caleb .....drove out the three Anakites—Sheshai, Ahiman and Talmai, the sons of .....Anak. 15From there he marched against the people living in Debir
.....(formerly called Kiriath Sepher).
Not only was Hebron re-conquered, Debir was also reconquered. That would be impossible if the place was already annihilated.
It is therefore best to understand total destruction as a hyperbole.