In the first five verses of chapter 6 we read the instructions the Lord gave Joshua as they stood together. Now we will read that Joshua in turn gave those same instructions to his commanders and the army followed them to the letter.
It is no surprise that the ark of the covenant is mentioned first in these instructions. It will occupy center stage and be mentioned nine times in the verses we will read. It is Yahweh’s presence indicated by the ark that is going to tell the tale in Jericho as it told the tale at the crossing of the Jordan. As Paul would later observe, God works as he does “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7). [Davis, 54]
The rams’ horns, making their great sound, glorified the ark and the presence of the Lord. [Hawk, 96] You’ll notice that here it is said that they blew their trumpets not before the ark, but simply before the Lord. That’s the point; they are going before the Lord. He is in the procession.
The silence of the people compared to the noise being made by the trumpets before the ark further accents the significance of Yahweh’s presence and the comparative insignificance of the army.
You expect, upon hearing Joshua’s command to shout, that immediately the army would raise a war cry, a great roar. But in a typically brilliant piece of narrative composition, now follow some instructions that Joshua had previously given. In this way the narrator emphasizes what is said here by making the reader wait for the climax. And what is emphasized is the necessity of Israel’s strict obedience to the Lord.
The phrase “devoted to the Lord for destruction,” actually the translation of a single Hebrew noun, herem, refers to the placing of something off limits; giving it irrevocably to the Lord, sometimes for destruction, but sometimes as a gift. The point is that when something is devoted in this way, one renounces any further interest in the object so devoted. [Howard, 181] The point, to which we will return, is that there was something sacred about the destruction of Jericho.
A failure to respect the devotion of something to the Lord would bring upon Israel the same fate; she too would be devoted to destruction.
Since Jericho was devoted to the Lord, what remained of her treasure belonged to him.
Notice how briefly the actual battle is described and how little interest is shown in Israel’s military exploits. The actual battle was an anti-climax. Yahweh had already won the victory.
As you may be aware, there has been for many years and continues to be today a debate concerning the archaeology of Jericho and how it may confirm or disprove the account of the city’s destruction in Joshua 6. When I was a boy we often heard of the report of John Garstang, an English archaeologist, that he had found the walls that had fallen down. Since then Garstang’s conclusions have been subjected to thorough examination and, as is far too often the case, have been both confirmed by some archaeologists and refuted by others. Like most so called science, data from archaeology is susceptible to very different interpretations! There is also the problem posed by erosion. Even some evangelical scholars of the archaeology of Jericho have concluded that the ruins of biblical Jericho were largely eroded by wind and rain and cannot be usefully recovered. [cf. Howard, 177-178]
This final section serves to emphasize that everything was done according to the Lord’s instructions; the people had been obedient to Yahweh in respect both to Rahab — the vow that the spies had made was strictly fulfilled — and the devoted things from Jericho, which were placed where they belonged in the Lord’s treasury.
Rahab and her family were at first put outside the camp because they would have been unclean, ceremonially impure. But obviously that situation did not last. Time came when Rahab, and presumably her family, became full members of Israel. She sought mercy and she found it.
Since Jericho had been devoted to destruction, placed under a permanent ban for the sake of the Lord, any effort to rebuild it would be an offense to Yahweh. Joshua’s curse here, in effect, became a prophecy. We read in 1 Kings 16:34 that Jericho was rebuilt during the reign of the wicked king Ahab but the builder, one Hiel of Bethel, lost both his firstborn and his youngest son as a result.
We are all familiar with this narrative and as children in Sunday School many of us learned to sing of Israel’s victory at Jericho and how the walls came tumbling down. But we ordinarily paid little or no attention to the fact that when the walls came tumbling down the Israelite army killed every man, woman, and child in the city — the old and young alike — and then all the animals as well. This strikes many modern readers of the book as repellant and utterly immoral. How could God have ordered such a thing to be done?
G. Bromley Oxnam, an influential Methodist bishop of the first half of the 20th century, was thinking of events like this when he called the “God of the Old Testament” a dirty bully. And the so-called new atheists, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, and the like, regularly mention Israel’s extermination of the Canaanites as proof that there is no moral enlightenment to be found in the Bible and that Christianity is as bloodthirsty a religion as any other.
While this objection has been around a very long time, in our day and age it has again become a particularly important one for Christians, especially in the western world, to think it through and to have an answer for those who raise it. The fact is, this argument against our faith is particularly powerful in an effete and comfortable age such as ours. People nowadays feel the force of it in a way they often have not. If, for example, you read accounts of British and American thinking during the Second World War, you will find that there was comparatively little concern for the thousands upon thousands of old men, women, and children who were dying in Germany every night as their cities were drenched with bombs and burned to ashes. You would hear from time to time expressions of pity, but there were no massive protests against the allied bombing campaigns. Americans tended to think that those people were getting what they deserved. There was comparatively little hand-wringing even after the two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. The thought of most seemed to be: them or us. If they didn’t want to be destroyed they should have surrendered.
Now, I am not saying that we should have thought that way, or that there weren’t voices in Britain and America raising concerns about the ethics of area bombing. There certainly were. It is also an interesting fact that of the senior British commanders in the Second World War, Arthur Harris, the commander of the bomber forces of the RAF, a man who was an unrepentant advocate of the nighttime area bombing of German cities, was the only one not to be given a peerage after the victory. After the war was won the British public didn’t want to remember what they had done — in the light of day it seemed unworthy of them — and they certainly didn’t wish to reward the man who had done it for them.
But, today, we live largely at peace. Our wars, such as they are, are both controversial in nature, with many opposing them, and, at the same time, have little effect on the population as a whole. If all of al-qaeda — all the men, women, and children associated with that terrorist movement — were to be found in one city, I suspect there would be comparatively little outcry if that entire city were destroyed by attack from the air. But they are spread throughout the Middle East, are hard to find, and even more difficult to eliminate. And so it is that this particular objection to Christian confidence in the teaching of the Bible has surfaced as a particularly powerful one in our time. The recollection of the holocaust and of the genocides perpetrated in Russia and Communist China have also sharpened our sense of horror at the thought of mass exterminations of human beings.
Now there are a number of important responses that can be made to this objection, some of the most important of which are highlighted in the text itself. But let me begin with some of the less important ones.
- There is first the penchant of the Hebrew language for hyperbole, exaggeration for effect.
We may find this odd — though we English speakers use hyperbole much more often than we realize and it is a daily feature of our public and political discourse as well as the language we use to describe athletic competitions — but it was a commonplace of Hebrew (and, for that matter) Semitic style, as it remains today. We are going to find that many of the summary statements describing Israel’s victories were exaggerated in typical ways, ways that would have been familiar to those who first heard the book of Joshua read. That is, they would not have been misunderstood as strictly literal statements.
For example, we will read in Joshua 10:40 that so far as southern Canaan was concerned, after a string of battles Joshua had devoted to destruction “all that breathed, just as the Lord had commanded.” But that cannot be taken literally for we will learn later that everyone had not been destroyed and that many Canaanites remained in that part of the land. Indeed, in 10:20 we read that in his battle with the five Amorite kings Joshua stuck them with a great blow until they were wiped out, but in the next phrase we read of the Amorite survivors making their way to their fortified cities. Obviously they were not all wiped out. It is the typical ancient near eastern way of reporting a victory to exaggerate its scope. Examples abound both in the Bible and in extra-Biblical ancient near eastern literature. Everyone in those days would have understood that to say that he left nothing that breathed did not literally mean that every person and animal had been destroyed. [Provan et al, Biblical History of Israel, 153; P. Copan, Is God a Moral Monster, 170-173]
So, with regard to the statement in v. 21 it is not by any means certain that every man, woman, and child in Jericho was in fact killed. Some have suggested that “women and children” is more formulaic than literally precise. Others have concluded that it was the leadership of the state and the army that were actually eliminated. [Richard Hess in Copan, 175] We cannot say for sure, but Joshua provides ample evidence that such descriptions should not be read too literally.
That does not mean, of course, that Israel didn’t kill a great number of Canaanites as she took possession of the land. But it reminds us to treat the text seriously and understand it in its context.
- Second, it is a mistake to associate the biblical narrative of the conquest of Canaan with historical examples of ethnic cleansing or religious or secular pogroms.
Richard Dawkins, for example — not someone who can be relied on for even-handed treatment of any issue — describes the conquest of Canaan as an ethnic cleansing, that is, such a program of systematic murder as the Turks conducted against the Armenians or the Nazis against the Jews. He describes Israel’s taking of Canaan as being done with “xenophobic relish.” [In Copan, 163]
But there was nothing racial or ethnic in Israel’s conquest of Canaan. The motivations were very different, as we shall see. The fact that Rahab, a Canaanite herself, was welcomed into Israel’s life together with her family is evidence that the destruction of Jericho had a different reason than that the Israelites saw themselves as a superior race or that they regarded the Canaanites as their genetic inferiors. They never raped women as forces bent on genocide typically do still today and certainly did in the ancient world.
It is a lack of imagination on the part of modern Americans, together with their ignorance of what the Bible actually says, that make them so susceptible to the misleading rhetoric of Christianity’s critics and cultured despisers. This was not genocide. And once in possession of the Promised Land, Israel never did this again. Nor indeed was she allowed to. In fact, in 2 Kings 6:22, the prophet Elisha enunciated for Israel what we may regard as an early specimen of “just war” ethics. When the King of Israel asked him whether he should kill the enemy soldiers whom the Lord had delivered into his hand, Elisha replied,
“Do not kill them. Would you kill men you have captured with your own sword or bow?”
It’s a rhetorical question; the answer is, “Of course not.” The conquest of Canaan was a different case and it was handled differently. That leads us to the more significant considerations and responses to the accusation that Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land was a horrible act of political mass murder.
- The Bible is very careful to say that Canaan got what it deserved; nothing more and nothing less.
As we have already noted, the Lord withheld the Promised Land from Israel for four and a half centuries because the iniquity of the Amorites was not yet full. But when Israel finally crossed into Canaan, the Lord’s patience with that people had been exhausted. He had been very patient, extraordinarily patient, but that patience had led to nothing on the part of the Canaanites.
Canaanite culture was debased. It may not have been the worst the world has ever seen, but it was bad by any standard. Their sexual ethics were atrocious; incest, bestiality, and cultic prostitution were commonplace. And child sacrifice was also practiced. By the standards of most subsequent human cultures, Canaanite culture was particularly ugly. [Howard, 185; Copan, 159-161]That is not to say that they were not an intelligent and able people. They were great builders, inventors, artisans, and enterprising merchants. They are directly responsible for what is, perhaps, the most influential development in human history: the alphabet. So they were a very able people who lived deeply wicked lives. Remind you of anyone? No doubt they saw that life as perfectly normal and acceptable. But, then, we are well used to human beings growing comfortable with deeply perverse behavior.
But what is emphatically taught in Deuteronomy and Joshua is that Canaan was taken and the Canaanites were destroyed — to the extent they were — as an act of divine judgment. The Lord used Israel to execute judgment on a people that deserved, richly deserved that judgment. Proof of the nature of this conquest as moral judgment is most powerfully provided in v. 18 when Israel herself is threatened with precisely the same punishment that befell the citizens of Jericho if she should likewise betray the Lord. As it happened, of course, that punishment would eventually befall Israel precisely because she herself become morally and spiritually like the Canaanites around her. No distinction would be made between the Canaanites and the Israelites if they lived in the same way and if they were equally indifferent to the law of God!
And remember this: as Rahab shows, any Canaanite that sought mercy from Israel’s God could have avoided the catastrophe that befell the rest of his countrymen. The fact that few sought that mercy even after it became obvious that they could not withstand the Israelite invasion is some evidence of the hardness of their hearts and the depravity of their lives. Indeed, it is striking to read in 11:19-20, “There was not a city that made peace with the people of Israel except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon. They took them all in battle. 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 destroyed.” That seems to suggest, does it not, that, had the Canaanites been willing, treaties might have spared them the destruction of their cities and populations; but they remained unwilling to submit because God was determined to judge them. [Copan, 180-181]
Nowadays we hear people say,” if God exists, let him show himself.” But, of course, he had shown himself. If the plagues of Egypt, if the parting of the Red Sea and the crossing the Jordan River on dry land are not the Lord showing himself, pray tell, what would be? Rahab had drawn the obvious conclusion. One may argue that none of that is historically credible; that those miracles never happened. But the entire biblical account presumes that they did! To judge Yahweh unjust because of what one reads in Joshua 6, one must at least read what comes before and after!
- And that leads us to the most important consideration of all and the most categorical reply to the complaint that the conquest of Canaan was immoral.
As the text is at pains to emphasize, it was not Israel but Israel’s God, Yahweh himself, who destroyed Jericho and its population. The critics imagine that this is proof that there is no such God since no true God would do such a thing.
But, of course, in logic that is known as the fallacy of petitio principii or begging the question. The criticism of Yahweh’s determination to destroy the people of Canaan assumes that such a thing ought not to be done, by God or anyone else. Therefore God, should he exist, would not have done it. But that is precisely what has to be proved. It can’t be made the basis of the objection or the complaint.
But, now, think about this. What do we believe about God; indeed what do most Americans still believe about God, however vaguely and ignorantly?
- Well they believe that God is the giver of life and that he has the authority both to give it and to take it. Indeed, at the time of death, a great many Americans who hardly take God seriously at any other time, speak as if they really believed that it was God’s will that this person should die at such and such a time and in such and such a way. In other words, God is taking life every day. He is taking it from old people and he is taking it from the very young; he is taking it from men and taking it from women. He is taking it by disease, by accident, by war, by famine, and by violent crime. Human life belongs to him. It is his because he made it. He has an absolute right to do with it as he will. Who will or can deny to the God of the Bible absolute authority over the life of every human being if that life is his own creation. So, if he chose to judge and punish and execute the Canaanites, by what principle could anyone charge him with a fault, all the more when the Canaanites so richly deserved their punishment.
If Richard Dawkins and the others had said that they do not wish to believe in a God who gives and takes life, we could accept that as the statement of a man who knows his own mind. But such a statement tells us nothing about God, about who God is, or how he thinks, or what he is like. It would tell us only about Richard Dawkins and how he thinks. [cf. W.B. Green, “The Ethics of the OT,” Classical Evangelical Essays, 219] The fact is every single man, woman, and child in Jericho was going to die eventually; as the Scripture says, “it is appointed for man once to die and after that comes judgment.”
- Further, most Americans expect God to be just, to be fair. That is, they expect that God will punish sin and reward righteousness. And that is precisely what Joshua tells us that God did at Jericho. He punished sin and he rewarded the righteousness of that generation of Israelites. Remember, he had severely punished the previous generation of Israelites by denying them entrance into the Promised Land; some of them you remember he swallowed up in an earthquake immediately or burned with fire. And he forced Israel to wait to receive her inheritance until that entire generation had died off. That was also God’s judgment. But this generation was faithful. They not only believed in God but readily obeyed his commandments. A great point is made of that here in Joshua 6. The chapter is as repetitive as it is in large part to emphasize that Israel did precisely what the Lord told them to do.
The fact is, what happened there at Jericho happens every day all over this world to countless human beings. Their sin pays a wage and they suffer judgment because of it. The punishment might be prison (remember, the Bible says that the magistrate is a servant of God in punishing the law breaker), it might be public humiliation, it might be venereal disease or cirrhosis of the liver, it might be bankruptcy, or divorce, or alienation and isolation, or it might be death. But it is happening all the time everywhere. We tend to notice it more when it happens all at once to many, but the fact is judgment is woven into the fabric of human life and cannot be removed from it.
To be sure, God does not always judge sin or reward righteousness in this world. The Bible is very candid about that. The judgment of some awaits the next world as does the reward of others. But that there is such a judgment and reward is not only a fundamental article of biblical faith, it is an observation of life that can be made by anyone at any time who will just think about what he or she sees. No one escapes punishment, no one ever has, no one ever will except those who find mercy with God by trusting in him, as did Rahab the Canaanite prostitute.
If the critics of our faith had said simply that they did not want to believe in a God who punished sin or that they would not believe in such a God, we could understand that well enough. We have felt the same reluctance to face the solemn fact of divine judgment ourselves. But not to want it to be true is hardly the same thing as proving God to be unjust, still less proving that he doesn’t exist! Human beings have an unbelievable capacity to want things not to be true that are obviously true and so to deny unwelcome truth. There is judgment everywhere we look. It takes some faith to believe that there is no Judge!
And, finally, do you really want a world without judgment? Are you ready to face the consequences of that? Do you want God not to be a God of wrath? Wrath in the Bible as you remember, with reference to God, is the execution of his justice. Here is Yale theologian Miroslav Volf.
“I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. … How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil.” [Cited in Copan, 192]
If God is holy and God is love, there is and must be by rigorous necessity, judgment of the wicked; like it or not. We see it everywhere we look in this world and we are warned in a hundred ways to expect it in the next. In whose hands would you rather that judgment be: some implacable and impersonal force that cares for neither you nor anyone else or the God whose ways are altogether righteous and who delights to show mercy to those who seek him? It is the only comforting fact in the face of human evil that the one who judges that evil is the sort of person who stands ready to forgive if only people will genuinely seek that forgiveness from his hand!
The lesson of Jericho is most definitely not that there is no God. The lesson of Jericho is: do what Rahab did and prepare to meet your God!