Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Genocide of Joshua (part 2)

In this post we will continue looking at the genocide commanded by God in Deuteronomy 7 and look at how God can command something that the Church teaches is intrinsically evil and whether those who took part in the killings are guilty of serious sin. Before we get to the text, we have to clear up a few things from the last post.

First, I drew some criticism from my statement that "If God wills the end He must will the means as well." For example, this commentor wrote:

[I]f God clearly "willed" the stopping the Nazi war machine, that He also "willed" the horrific carpet-bombing of defenseless civilians in Germany as a deliberate act of mass terror as a"means" to accelerate the achievement of his primary objective regarding the Nazis?

I need to qualify this statement in two respects: first, when God wills something and wills the means to that end, if human beings are the agents of this actions then the means obviously must be in accord with what is Good and True. So if God says, "Go and fetch a donkey for yourself," we have to admit that the very fact that God commands it is implying that you can't steal the donkey, but must obtain it through licit means.

But secondly I want to qualify this by saying that I meant it with reference only to things that we know for a fact that God has positively willed (i.e., things He has spoken about in Scripture). While we might be able to reasonably affirm that God probably directly willed the defeat of Nazi Germany, it is not something on the same level as the commands He explicitly gives in the Sacred Scriptures. We have to be careful about presuming to know what God wills outside of Divine Revelation.

That being said, we come to our conundrum with Joshua: God explicitly commanding not just the removal but the killing of the Canaanites down to the last person. That's the issue with this text - God apparently commanding an end and evil means to attain it. We have already in the last post swept aside the argument that God did not really command it or that the Jews could have misinterpreted it (both of which end up denying the inspiration of Deuteronomy). This leaves us with only two possible alternatives: either God really is a sheer monster, as Richard Dawkins claimed, or else He is justified in commanding the slaughter of the Canaanites and the Israelites who participated in the slaughter are not to be held guilty of any sin.

Let's review some of the texts from Joshua that pertain to this. We already mentioned Joshua 6 regarding Jericho. In Joshua 10 there is a chronicle of seven cities taken and destroyed by Joshua. It reads pretty much the same for every city with only the names changing:

Then Joshua and all Israel with him passed on from Makkedah to Libnah and fought against Libnah. And the LORD gave it also and its king into the hand of Israel. And he struck it with the edge of the sword, and every person in it; he left none remaining in it. And he did to its kingas he had done to the king of Jericho. And Joshua passed on from Libnah, and all Israel with him, and came to Lachish... (Joshua 10:29-31).

Then the Scriptures sum up the conquest of the seven cities in chapter 10:40:

So Joshua struck the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings. He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the LORD God of Israel commanded.

Another synopsis which is even more explicit, indeed almost startling in its frankness, comes in chapter 11:12-20:

And all the cities of those kings, and all their kings, Joshua captured, and struck them with the edge of the sword, devoting them to destruction, just as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded...every man they struck with the edge of the sword until they had destroyed them, and they did not leave any who breathed. Just as the LORD had commanded Moses his servant, so Moses commanded Joshua, and so Joshua did. He left nothing undone of all that the LORD had commanded Moses...For it was the LORD’s doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the LORD commanded Moses.

This is interesting: the Latin here from the Vulgate for destroyed is perirent, which simply means to be destroyed. The RSV uses the politically-incorrect word "exterminated." God definitely was commanding the killing of the Canaanites, and no argument that claims that the Israelites misunderstood God could possibly hold water if we are to preserve inspiration. For many people this becomes a squeamish topic because there is way too much emotional connection between this idea of herem warfare in the Old Testament and actual atrocities committed in more recent times, sometimes by persons claiming to act on God's behalf. Most people think of the Crusades (though I would hotly contest that), but I would point out that the English Puritan attitude towards the Native Americans was much closer to the Israelite/Canaanite paradigm than anything we saw in the Crusades. The Puritans were wont to view themselves in Old Testament terms and saw themselves as dispossessing a new Canaanite from the Promised Land.

Thus we have to strenuously declare that the example of warfare found in Joshua is not to be taken as any kind of normative prototype for Christian warfare.
I think too many people are afraid that if we somehow justify the conduct of Joshua it will only be a small leap to justifying like conduct by ourselves. This is a source of considerable opposition to any vindication of Joshua or Israel here. Fear not! As with many other situations in the Old Testament, we have to recognize that ancient Israel was a kind of "special case" and that we are in no way attempting to make a connection between Israel's slaughter of the Canaanites and any type of Christian warfare.

Now we come to the crux of this issue: what we ultimately need to keep in mind when looking at the Canaanite genocide, as some said in the combox, God is the ultimate authority over human life and can take it in any way He chooses. Consider a few things. First, God wiped every man, woman and child off the planet in the Great Flood save those in the Ark - but most of the time, we do not question God on this point because it is more clearly understood that it was God's perogative to punish for sin if He chose. The same goes for Sodom of Gomorrah, in which there was a total overthrow. I never here people saying, "How can a loving God destroy Sodom and Gomorrah?" St. Paul takes up this issue of God's sovereign right to do what He pleases with the lives of men in Romans:

What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: "I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden...who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?" Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? (Rom. 9:14-18, 20-24)

God has power over all lives and can terminate them how He wants - and in the end, doesn't He terminate every single life? Maybe we do not die in war, but we all die. Most of us recognize this fact when it comes to the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc. God can take us out any way He chooses.

The thing that is so disturbing about the situation in Joshua is that God chooses other human beings as His agents of wrath. But this is not unique in the Scriptures, either. Here is an example from Isaiah, in which God says He will use the Assyrians as a "rod" with which to chasten Israel:

Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger; the staff in their hands is my fury! Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets (Isa. 10:5-6).

One further example comes from Jeremiah. This time it is the Medes who are being wielded against the Babylonians:

Sharpen the arrows! Take up the shields! The LORD has stirred up the spirit of the kings of the Medes, because his purpose concerning Babylon is to destroy it, for that is the vengeance of the LORD, the vengeance for his temple. You are my hammer and weapon of war: with you I break nations in pieces; with you I destroy kingdoms; with you I break in pieces the horse and his rider; with you I break in pieces the chariot and the charioteer; with you I break in pieces man and woman; with you I break in pieces the old man and the youth;with you I break in pieces the young man and the young woman; with you I break in pieces the shepherd and his flock;with you I break in pieces the farmer and his team; with you I break in pieces governors and commanders. "I will repay Babylon and all the inhabitants of Chaldea before your very eyes for all the evil that they have done in Zion, declares the LORD (Jer. 51:11, 20-23).

While the warfare mentioned above is not herem warfare, it demonstrates the concept that just as God can use natural forces to chasten peoples, sometimes He also makes use of other nations to be His "hammer and weapon of war." This is what God did with Joshua with regards to the Canaanites.

This brings up the question of why the Canaanites had to be destroyed. This is given for us in two place sin Scripture: Genesis and Deuteronomy. In either case, their destruction is attributed to their manifold sins, the same reason humanity was destroyed by the Flood and why Sodom and Gomorrah were overthrown. The first reference to the "iniquity of the Amorites" comes in a prophecy of God given to Abraham in Genesis 15:

Then the LORD said to Abram, "Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions...and they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete" (Gen. 15:13-14, 16).

Here God tells Abraham that the Israelites will come into their own land only when the "iniquity of the Amorites" is complete - or, when they have sinned so much that there remains no hope for them, only judgment. This is made clearer in Deuteronomy 9, where God reveals to Joshua the reason for the extermination of the Amorites:

Hear, O Israel: you are to cross over the Jordan today, to go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than yourselves, cities great and fortified up to heaven, a people great and tall...Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, 'It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,' whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people (Deut. 9:1, 4-6).

He we have it on authority of God Himself that the displacement is to occur because of the wickedness of the Amorites, which they had apparently been building up since the days of Abraham. Another interesting point is how God repeats to the Israelites three times that they are not possessing the land because of their righteousness.

So it is another biblical case of God wiping out a nation or people because of their sins (like Sodom) and using another nation as His instrument to do this (like Assyria to Israel, or Media to Babylon). Really, there is nothing new here. Unless we are prepared to ask why God didn't spare the babies when He flooded the world or destroyed Sodom, we ought not to raise a similar argument here, for His power over life is complete: "See ye that I alone am, and there is no other God besides me: I will kill and I will make to live: I will strike, and I will heal, and there is none that can deliver out of my hand" (Deut. 23:29).

But while we can accept the idea of God meting out this sort of punishment, we might be tempted to ask if it isn't overkill. If the Amorites were heaping up judgment for four centuries since Abraham, is it right for God to punish with death those living in Joshua's time, only one generation, one fragment of the people who made up the sum total of the Amorites since the time of Abraham? Is it right for God to judge a person for somebody else's sin?

We do know fromt he Scriptures that besides our own particular judgment, there is a sort of social or communal judgment, in which whole communities or nations are judged collectively or generationally. In the Gospel Jesus speaks of whole cities being judged:

Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you (Luke 10:13-14).

He also shows that entire generations can be condemned for their faith or unbelief:

As the crowds increased, Jesus said, "This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon's wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here (Luke 10:29-32).

but especially pertinent to the question of whether God will punish a generation or a people for deeds committed by its forebearers, we need only to look to our Lord's words when pronouncing the woes against the Pharisees:

Woe unto you! for ye build the sepulchres of the prophets, and your fathers killed them. Truly ye bear witness that ye allow the deeds of your fathers: for they indeed killed them, and ye build their sepulchres. Therefore also said the wisdom of God, I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they shall slay and persecute: That the blood of all the prophets, which was shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation; From the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias which perished between the altar and the temple: verily I say unto you, It shall be required of this generation (Luke 11:47-52).

Wow! So if we are questioning if God can punish one generation of Amorites for four hundred years of sins, what are we to make of Jesus' statement that one generation of Jews shall be punished for all the blood of the prophets "shed from the foundation of the world?" This is an example of what I said last time about New Testament judgments being stricter than those of the Old Testament.

So, we have established that God does punish a single generation for years of sins. But what does this punishment imply? What it does not imply is the eternal destiny of the individuals involved. Just because God wipes out a people does not mean they all go to hell. Insofar as a person's individual standing before God is concerned, then we ought not to see these judgments as any sort of condemnation regarding to eternal punishment due to sin. That is a personal matter between the person and God. But insofar as that person is part of a social group, nation or generation that God happens to be executing judgment on, then their death is seen as a judgment not on them personally but on the wicked generation.

We also have to keep in mind that it might have been God's mercy towards some of the "innocent" Canaanites and Amorites. We all know the perversity of Canaanite culture: rampant temple prostitution, homosexuality, child sacrifice to Moloch, etc. What would have been the fate of those little ones had they grown up into mature adulthood? St. Thomas Aquinas is helpful here in addressing the question of in what way it can be said that son is punished for his father's sins:

The sins of the fathers are said to be punished in their children, because the latter are the more prone to sin through being brought up amid their parents' crimes, both by becoming accustomed to them, and by imitating their parents' example, conforming to their authority as it were. Moreover they deserve heavier punishment if, seeing the punishment of their parents, they fail to mend their ways (STh I-II:87:8).

Remember Sodom? God said He would spare it if Abraham could find but ten righteous persons in the city, but he was unable to find even that. This idea about perhaps the destruction of the innocent Amorites young being a mercy of God brings us to an element of Catholic social teaching that I think tends to take a backseat due to the emphasis on the right to life in the Pro-Life movement: the manner and time in which we exit our lives on this earth are not the final end nor of ultimate importance to our destiny. Sometimes God snuffing out a life when it is young is merciful if He knows it will fall into mortal sin when it reaches adulthood. Is this not the ideal behind the prayer, "Lord, let me die rather than commit a mortal sin?"

This has been a long post, so I'd like to do a little recap. I think we can vindicate God of any wrongdoing in the genocide of the Amorites in these respects: first, that He is the ultimate Lord over all human life and can dispose of it as He pleases. We understand this to be the case if He uses a flood, brimstone from heaven, earthquake or some other natural means, but it is equally as true if He decides to use other humans. Second, it is common for God to use other nations as the instruments for judging a wicked people or generation. Third, that God does indeed judge persons collectively by their membership in a particular group. Fourth, that sometimes the judgment of these wicked peoples is brought down in a single generation to account for centuries of sins. Fifth, though many may die in these judgments, we ought not to see any one person's death as indicitive of their personal eternal destiny. Sixth, ultimately the manner in which we leave this earth is not of ultimate importance: God ultimately wipes out not only the Amorites, but also every single human person since everyone dies.

There is only one element left, which I will take up next time: how can the Israelites who did the killing have participated in the slaughter of babies, elderly and women and not be guilty of sin?

Click here for part 3 in this series.


Margaret said...

I've enjoyed reading this series of posts. I do hope that you will also expound on the convenant nature of the relationship of God and Israel. I believe that plays a major role in His purpose for war. In recent dialogues with others on Numbers 31:17-18 and Isaiah 13:14-16, I've found some have a hard time understand that God had to preserve the Israelites for their own sake in spite of their self-destructive behaviour and because He made a promise to Abraham. I'm not suggesting this cause is in lieu of what you are expounding on of course, I believe it is in addition to your current line of thinking. Thanks for a great blog!

Enbrethiliel said...


This series has also been very riveting and educational for me. Thank you!

Bobby Bambino said...

Great. Good stuff so far. Looking forward to the answer to the final question. God love you.

Anonymous said...

I am not sure you have adequately considered the question of the meaning of God's being said to "command" something. You suggest that if God did not "really" command the killing, then Deuteronomy is not inspired, and again, if God did command it, then "the Israelites who participated in the slaughter are not to be held guilty of any sin."

What would you say about these parallel passages from 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles?

Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, "Go, number Israel and Judah." ... But David's heart smote him after he had numbered the people. And David said to the LORD, "I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O LORD, I pray thee, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly." ... The word of the LORD came to the prophet Gad... Gad came to David and said to him, "Shall three years of famine come to you in your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days' pestilence in your land? Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to him who sent me." (2 Samuel 2:1, 10,11, 13)

Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to number Israel.... Gad came to David and said to him, "Thus say the Lord, take which you will: either three years of famine etc." (1 Chronicles 21:1, 11-12)

So did God command the census, or not?

The meaning of God's saying "Go, number Israel", or of commanding the census, may simply (or at any rate primarily) be that it was in God's plan. Something similar can also be said about other instances of God employing human beings as instruments of his wrath.

There are other considerations, of course, such as the fact that in the case you're speaking of, they were punished for not carrying out the "word of the Lord". But I think we have to be careful not to simply assume a univocal use of God's "command", but to argue for (or against) it.

Boniface said...


The issue with David and the census is not as cut and dry as this case. If you read the commands from Deuteronomy and Joshua, you will see that God unambiguously unequivocally commands genocide. I plan to address the census issue in a further post, but I think it is a closed case that God in fact commands genocide: added weight to this command is the fact that the order appears in the same discourse that the Ten Commandments are given, making this a declaration of the utmost seriousness (in my opinion).

Keen Reader said...

"We all know the perversity of Canaanite culture"

Do we? I don't. There's no evidence it was any more perverse than any other similar ancient culture, including the Israelites themselves.

In any case, the final redaction of these biblical accounts took place many hundreds of years after the events recounted (or supposed), so how would they have known what the Canaanites were like five hundred years earlier?

Boniface said...

Because God Himself says that the reason He is wiping them out if because of their immorality. "The iniquity of the Canaanites", is what the Scripture tells us, unless you are throwing out the Scripture as a historical witness.

Canaanites practiced male cult prostitution, human sacrifice, homosexuality and many other things absent from Israelite culture.