Reading the Book of Joshua is a challenge. Not only is the text, in its contemporary English translations, frequently a dry, uninteresting read (especially the book’s latter half), but it can produce a great deal of moral and spiritual unease, especially if the reader is a faithful Christian or Jew committed to promoting peace throughout their local and global communities. Further, there are several historical, archeological, and theological problems associated with the text. According to esteemed Hebrew Bible scholar John J. Collins, the current archeological consensus is that the major battles and events of Joshua did not occur! Or rather, we lack any evidence that would sway us to affirm the validity of those conflicts. He writes, “In light of the available evidence, we must conclude that the account of conquest in Joshua is largely if not entirely fictional.”[i] (I feel that Collins’ usage of the phrase “fictional” to be overly broad; we can only speculate—although with sound reasoning—about the authorial origins of Joshua and a better term to describe the text could potentially be “legendary” or “mythological”).
In one sense, the “fictional” accounts of Joshua might be somewhat of a blessing for Christians and Jews committed to an ethic of peace, non-violence, and reconciliation. In fact, to sweep Joshua under the historical-canonical rug might make the message of peace in the Bible stronger! I’ll be the first (and not last) to admit that the grisly stories of Joshua, involving the slaughter of every man, woman, and child within a captured Canaanite city, are difficult to read especially in conjunction with the totality of the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament.
Yet, I wish to use Joshua as a starting point for an investigation into the character of Yahweh as revealed within the Hebrew Bible. I believe that, even amidst the violence in Joshua, there is a remarkably strong position in the text against systems of power and domination, wherever they exist. Maybe instead of rejecting Joshua because of its immediate problems, we should look to see how it functions as a message for liberation in ancient Israel and the contemporary world.
Joshua 11 features an explicate use of genocide by the Israelites, seemingly with divine legitimation. In vv. 1- 5, the Canaanite kings join forces to fight the oncoming Israelite army. Yahweh says to Joshua in v. 6, “Do not be afraid of them, because by this time tomorrow I will hand all of them, slain, over to Israel. You are to hamstring their horses and burn their chariots” (Joshua 11:6, NIV). Joshua then meets the Canaanite army and, thanks to Yahweh, handily defeats their opponents. Afterward, Joshua leads the Israelite forces to the city Hazor, where they “totally destroyed them [the residents of Hazor], not sparing anyone that breathed, and…burned Hazor itself… as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded” (Joshua 11:10-12). There is no other word than horrifying to describe the scene as it unfolds.
An immediate question might be: why does Yahweh command Joshua to do such a violent act? A possible answer: He does not command Joshua—in the context of chapter 11—to slaughter everything that breathes. Yahweh states that the Israelites must “hamstring their [Canaanite kings] horses and burn their chariots.”
In the Hebrew Bible, horses and chariots are a signifier for monarchical military mobilization. Truly, horses and chariots are an Ancient Near East state’s primary means towards protecting their monopoly on economic, political, religious, and military power. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, there seems to be a firm opposition to “horses and chariots,” both explicitly and implicitly. Solomon, for example, collected a massive amount of horses and he became the divider-in-chief of Israel. Isaiah prophesied doom for those “rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many, and in horsemen because they are strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord” (Isaiah 31:1 NRSV). Simply put, our God is against the usage of chariots and horses, the utilization of violence in order to control order and propagate the interests of the elite. Thus, he tells Joshua to hamstring them!
As per Brueggemann, “Yahweh gave permission to Joshua and the Israelites to act for their justice and liberation adversary.”[ii] There is no mention of Yahweh commanding the destruction of every breathing thing, but “a very lean mandate that addresses the simple, most important issue, the military threat of monarchical power against…[an] alternative community lacking in military technology.”[iii]
I find the socio-historical context of Israel at the time of supposed conquest to be pertinent: they are a people recently liberated, having lived under oppressive slave labor at the hands of a tyrannical, genocidal Egyptian pharaoh. They do not live in cities, they do not have horses (that we know of), and certainly they lack chariots—a military innovation that was very new to the Ancient Near East in the second millennium. Israel has lived as mobile refugees, wandering the wilderness for over 40 years. The Israelite army is merely a collection of former slaves who were mostly born in the wilderness, living off the manna and quail Yahweh graciously supplied them from the heavens.
Further, Israel has no monarchy. Their only experience with monarchy (if any have lived long enough) was the severe pharaonic rule of Egypt. Following the anthropological and textual analyses of brilliant Old Testament scholars Norman Gottwald[iv] and Walter Brueggemann, I think it is reasonable to assert that the Israelites during the conquest were “anti-monarchical.” In Brueggemann’s words, Israel was “a peasant movement hostile to every form of concentration, surplus, monopoly.”[v] Israel practiced a social system antithetical to the political structure of the Canaanite kings. Surely, these monarchs—who ally amongst themselves to preemptively attack the Israelites—would have been opposed to the radical sociopolitical alternative of Israel.
What is to be gleaned from this analysis? Maybe God’s mandate is the only kind of legitimate divine authorization of violence for collective (and potentially individual) emancipation: violence against the tools of violence. However, one wants to exegetically parse it, I believe that, at its most evident, this reading of Joshua points to God’s steadfast association with the oppressed and perpetual enmity toward the ruling elite. In our time, in which people of color are systematically mistreated by organs of white supremacist power, Joshua can be used as another example of the Biblical denouncement of unjust hierarchy and the mechanisms by which that hierarchy seeks to maintain the status quo. While we need not embrace the stark violence of ancient Israel, we might embody their values which are as radical now as they were over 3000 years ago.
The Book of Joshua is always going to be a bloody (and boring) text. But, the violence within it must be properly contextualized and the words of Yahweh must be carefully scrutinized, especially with divine revelation given elsewhere in Joshua and the rest of the canon. I like what feminist theologian Carolyn Sharp once wrote about Joshua, stating that it has “important potential to draw contemporary communities of faith into reflection on their own subjectivity, the power dynamics that energize and fracture their common life, and their need for robust and ongoing reformation. Joshua remains a disturbing book, and the first step toward ethical appropriation of its truth is to acknowledge that.”[vi] Hence, the Book of Joshua (and the entirety of the Bible itself) is not a conclusion, but a never-ending opportunity for further interpretation and imaginative, liberatory application.
[i] Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2018), 124-125. Emphasis mine.
[ii] Walter Brueggemann, Divine Presence and Violence: Contextualizing the Book of Joshua, 23.
[iii] Walter Brueggemann, Divine Presence and Violence: Contextualizing the Book of Joshua, 22.
[iv] See Norman Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250-1050 BCE (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979) and Walter Brueggemann, Divine Presence and Violence: Contextualizing the Book of Joshua (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009).
[v] Walter Brueggemann, Divine Presence and Violence: Contextualizing the Book of Joshua, 20.
[vi]Carolyn J. Sharp, “‘Are You For Us, or For Our Adversaries?’: A Feminist and Postcolonial Interrogation of Joshua 2-12 for the Contemporary Church,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 66 (2):152.
Jackson Reinhardt is a graduate student studying theology at Vanderbilt Divinity School. His academic focus is on hermeneutical strategies which seek to disentangle the Bible from interpretations and ideologies of oppression, violence, and coercion.