Bible God Theology

Israel: conquest, culture and modern assumptions

Part 3 | Israel: conquest, culture and modern assumptions 

Given our conclusion in part 2 that God did not literally command genocide and that Joshua/Israel did not literally commit genocide, we still cannot escape the fact that Israel engaged in some form of “holy war” as part of God’s promise to give Israel the land of Canaan.

The question that arises then is how (and perhaps why) God used war as a way to create sacred space in Canaan for His people. If the solution to the interpretive issues of the conquest narratives is that we read Judges (and not Joshua) literally, than Exodus 23:30 is the most historically accurate description of how this most likely took place: through a gradual conquest.

“Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land” (Exodus 23:30).

This is exactly what we find in the book of Judges; Israel has managed to enter the land of Canaan, but many Canaanites are said to still remain in its cities and regions (Judges 1).

And according to Copan and Flannagan, archaeological evidence “confirms the biblical account [in Judges] of a gradual infiltration rather than a massive military assault against the Canaanites.”However, this gradual conquest of Canaanite land still required Israel “to fight against the Canaanites” (Judges 1:3). Therefore, critics can still argue that God – although not a genocidal tyrant – is still promoting violence and war as a way for Israel to take hold of Canaan.

So why did God use war (or allow it to happen) as a way to create sacred space for His people?

Israel: culturally conditioned people

Of course, only God knows the answer to this question. What we can comment on, I think, is how God works in a broken and fallen world.

God works through people within their cultural and historical context. E. W. Davies explains: “texts of the Hebrew Bible evolved out of a particular historical, social and cultural situation and must be understood in the context of the society for which they were written.”Yes, our modern sensibilities tell us that war, rape and murder (whether mass murder or the killing of just one human being) is evil – and even more so when justified through religion. However, we have to understand that because God works (and speaks) within a broken world that is very much shaped by its culture, the way people understood God and His work in the ANE world was also shaped by their cultural and historical context. Eric A. Seibert explains: “When people wrote about God, they did so through the lens of their own time and place. Therefore, their descriptions of God are, to a greater or lesser degree, culturally conditioned.”3

In western culture today, some of us might not be comfortable (I am one of those people) to say that God is a divine warrior who favors and fights for the nation state of Israel in its ongoing war with Hamas and the Palestinian people. We would be hesitant to say this because we do not condone war or violence of any kind, let alone violence that is initiated and supported by Yahweh or Jesus. However, as Seibert explains:

The divine warrior motif was extremely widespread throughout the ancient Near East and is clearly reflected in the way Israel and her neighbors made sense of their military engagements. They believed that God/the gods commissioned wars and fought them, and they understood victory or defeat in battle theologically, as a result of divine favor or displeasure.4

In the Old Testament, Yahweh is consistently portrayed as the only sovereign force in the universe. “The obvious theological advantage of this assumption,” writes Seibert, “is that it marvellously preserves God’s sovereignty. The disadvantage is that it seems to compromise God’s morality since it attributes evil to God.”5

Just like their ANE neighbors, Israel regarded their land as a gift from God, procured through divine assisted military conquest. It is through this theological worldview that God chose to work in the life of Israel – a culture existing in the real time and space of the ANE world.

Imposing modern assumptions on ancient biblical texts

In modern society, we place a “premium on historical reliability and accuracy.” 6 However, as we saw in the hyperbolic examples of the ANE war reports, this was not the case in the ancient world. Indeed, “Assuming that Old Testament narratives were written to preserve a record of what actually happened is a modern – not an ancient – historiographic assumption.” 7

Therefore, it is important when we read Joshua (and other Old Testament literary genres) that we be “extremely careful not to impose modern assumptions on these ancient texts.” 8 Seibert argues that responsible readers of the Old Testament should understand the genre of the text they are reading and the worldview of its writers. He concludes that “Israel’s theological worldview need not – and in some cases should not – reflect our beliefs about God.” 9

For instance, when it comes to Israel’s theology of God’s sovereignty – that God is responsible for both good and evil – it is appropriate for modern readers (especially Evangelicals!) to approach ancient war texts through through a Jesus-centered hermeneutic (i.e. God is against evil and war because His essence is love). If we fail to do so, it will damage and has already damaged how modern Evangelicals understand who God is and how God acts in the world.

So even though Israel certainly had ANE moral sensibilities — i.e. that rape, killing, war, military oppression and displacement, etc. were commissioned and approved by God — God is certainly not stuck with an ANE moral sensibility. And neither are we who have the good news of Jesus.

Final Thoughts

There are many fundamentalists who read the Old Testament with a lens that is rigidly (and rabidly) literal and devoted more to the philosophy of inerrancy (that all Scripture is equally authoritative, inspired and inerrant) than to Jesus-centered theology and cross-shaped witness in the world. This unfortunately has skewed the message of the Bible and created confusion about who this God of Christianity really is. But I’m still perplexed that those who read a literal genocide into Joshua can actually believe this given how much the Old Testament talks about God’s unfailing love and kindness. But I suppose that’s besides the point.

But I think it’s fair to say that if we’re ever in doubt of who God is and how He works in the world, we simply are to look to Jesus. Why? Because God looks like Jesus. Jesus is the concrete “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). If you want to know who Yahweh is and how He works in the world, you look at Jesus. Jesus’ testimony is greater. God makes this clear in Jesus’ Transfiguration.

Russ Hewett, pastor of The Meeting Place, explains on his blog, “Bible-based or Jesus-centered?”:

Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain and Jesus is transfigured before them. His face shown like the sun and his garments became as white as light. Then Moses and Elijah appeared as well. Peter, thinking he’s doing a good thing blurts out, “Lord, if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But while Peter is still speaking, God speaks audibly saying, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!” Peter thought he was doing a good thing by offering to build three tabernacles, elevating Jesus to equal status with Moses and Elijah (the Law and the Prophets). God interrupts that train of thought and tells Peter that Jesus is his beloved Son, and to listen to Him! Moses and Elijah then fade away into the mist. This is God telling us…to give more weight to what Jesus says than to all the Law and the Prophets.

And so if we listen to Jesus like Yahweh tells us to, our moral sensibilities need to be rooted in the character, worldview and politics of Jesus—the crucified God of compassion and enemy loving mercy.

To root ourselves in any other hermeneutic, especially eschatological continuity and a literal interpretation of Joshua, is to deny that Jesus’ testimony is greater. In doing so we deny God’s clear direction to listen to Jesus above all else.

Next up: Part 4 | Reading Revelation with a Jesus-centered lens. Stay tuned and thanks for reading! 


[1] Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan, “The Ethics of ‘Holy War’ for Christian Morality and Theology,” in Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem, eds. Heath A. Thomas, Jeremy Evans and Paul Copan (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2013), 221.

[2] Eryl W. Davies, “The Morally Dubious Passages of the Hebrew Bible: An Examination of Some Proposed Solutions,” Currents in Biblical Research 3, no. 2 (April 2005): 205.

[3] Eric A. Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behaviour: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 171.

[4] Ibid., 160.

[5] Ibid., 161.

[6] Ibid., 92.

[7] Ibid., 105.

[8] Ibid., 105.

[9] Ibid., 164.

Josh is an award-winning faith and culture writer and the author of the upcoming book, God Incognito: Bonhoeffer's Theology of the Cross for the Trump Era and Beyond. He holds a master's degree in theology from Tyndale Seminary in Toronto and is the recipient of the Dr. Ross and Carol Bailey Theology Award. He lives in Murillo, Ontario with his wife and their two adorable daughters and has a column at ChristianWeek.org.

  1. Another nice post, Josh.

    The elephant in the room, however, is our underlying hermeneutic of scripture. I don’t think the question of the terror texts can be resolved until that hermeneutic is addressed directly. Specifically, as long as that hermeneutic is remotely predicated on some degree of divine authorship, even an understanding based on “gradual conquest” is problematic, for the reasons you outlined in the post.

    Conversely, as soon as we adopt a hermeneutic within which we see the scriptures as very human writings *about* God (and about humans and their relation to God), this problem disappears, for we can see that this ancient, culturally conditioned people made assumptions about God and then depicted God and his supposed actions based on those assumptions.

    I think this is the key paragraph:

    “However, we have to understand that because God works (and speaks) within a broken world that is very much shaped by its culture, the way people understood God and His work in the ANE world was also shaped by their cultural and historical context.”

    The emphasis being that the text tells us “the way people understood God”, and not the way God actually operated.

  2. Great post.

    I agree with Rob, too.

    We HAVE to start reading OT scriptures as primarily from MAN, who was attempting to understand and express that understanding of God, while GOD furtively “invades” the text/narrative from time to time to make Himself known through the writings of these culturally blinded men.

    It isn’t GOD’S book that men wrote and made some mistakes, but MAN’S book marrying his culture to God that God “broke into” with His truth or used to point to the greatest truth, Jesus, sometimes consciously but just as often unconsciously.

    Believing this is not an easy thing, and something that 90% of Western Christendom isn’t likely to even consider.

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