Chapters 6-12 of Joshua cover some of the battles that the Israelites faced once they had begun to move into the promised land; years of battles in a few brief chapters. It’s one of those tough parts of the Old Testament with a lot of violence and a lot of bloodshed – but in chapter twelve we read a list of the defeated kings, and Joshua and his men come out victorious. Chapters 6-8 contain two of the main battles that the Israelites faced: first against Jericho, and then against Ai; and then chapters 9-12 are summaries of years of other battles that the men faced.
I’m just going to pause here – because if you are anything like me, the violence that we read in the Old Testament and in Joshua is going to bother you. Why does God set armies up to kill people here, why does there need to be so much death and disaster? Doesn’t Jesus tell us to love our enemies? Why is this OK, when we live now in a world where extremism leads to such horrible tragedies?
Firstly, let’s look at the Canaanites – the people in the land that the Israelites were going to move in to. These people were not innocent bystanders by any stretch of the imagination: they were a people group with practices such as child sacrifice, and they had become extremely morally corrupt – God didn’t want these practices to influence Israel; he wanted them to have an opportunity to set things right.
So did God actually command the destruction of these people, like a genocide; and how is that OK? At first glance, the language that is used to describe the Israelites fighting with the Canaanites is extremely disruptive: they left no survivors, they totally destroyed them. But looking closer, it becomes clear that this language is metaphorical rather than literal: we are told in chapter 10 that the Israelites left no survivors in Hebron, and yet in chapter 15 we see these towns, still full of Canaanite people. So, what we are seeing is the book of Joshua fitting in with other literary accounts of the time – this is the kind of language that stories of that time used – metaphorically rather than literally.
That is – no, this was not a genocide, and God did not order the destruction of an entire people. He loved the Canaanites that turn to him – Rahab was one who turned at the very beginning – and he was kind. The stories of the battles in Joshua are very limited to particular groups of Cannanite people; with all other nations, the Israelites were commanded to pursue peace. The purpose of these stories in the Old Testament is never to tell us as God’s people to bring violence on people in His name. Rather, it is to show God bringing justice on human evil in a unique moment in history; it is to show the goodness of God towards His people.
God’s Faithfulness – Greater than Human Failure
In chapter 6, we see the first of the major battles: the battle of Jericho. Here, we see the Israelites march around the city walls, with God’s presence in an Ark on their shoulders, for six days. There is a hope here, that like Rahab, some of the Canaanites will turn to follow the God of the Israelites when they come into contact with them – but that doesn’t happen. So on the seventh day, as they had been commanded, they blow their trumpets and the wall of the city come falling down, leaving the Israelites victorious.
“Shout! For the Lord has given you this city!” 6:16
Here, we see the Israelites win the battle – not by their own might or power, but by God’s – they literally did nothing other than walk for six days and then blow some trumpets. But God told them what to do, He lined them up, and then when they were faithful in trusting Him, He came through on His promise.
He Came Through on His Promise
I had a conversation earlier this year with my friend Murray, which reminded me of this story. We were sat in McDonalds late at night, bang in the middle of a time that was really tough, eating nuggets (the solution to many of life’s problems); and after I had brain-dumped on him for a good ten minutes about everything that was going on, he thought for a moment, and then said “Wow; you’re carrying a lot that you were never supposed to carry on your own”
The story of the battle of Jericho shows us a lot about God’s character and His faithfulness to us. In Jericho, the Israelites didn’t have to do anything to win the battle for themselves – they only had to trust that God was going to be faithful to what He said He would do. That isn’t easy – it took bravery; it was brave for them to walk for six days and then blow a trumpet, believing that that was going to knock the wall down; other people would call that stupidity.
And the same is true for us: it is brave to believe that we do not have to fight all of our battles on our own. It is brave to trust that God is going to be faithful, and that we can afford to be still. It is brave to keep on going, when other people could call that stupidity. It is brave to know that we do not lose value or hope when we cannot do it all by ourselves; when we step back and let Him win the battles for us, we are letting Him do His job.
Here are three things that I know to be true:
- One person, plus God is always the majority. Human power and might has nothing on God – if He wants to win a battle, He is going to win it – and if we are standing in Him then we are on the winning side.
- The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still (Exodus 14:14) – that is, we can trust that He is working for us and through us – He doesn’t need us to get involved and rescue the situation.
- It turns out, God is good (always) – we can’t often see the testimony until we have reached the other side; until we have blown the trumpets and the walls have come falling down and we have won. But He is in the story with us – He is just, He has the end point in mind and He has never given up on you.