Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.
Remember the scene early in Dead Poets Society when Professor Keating, played by Robin Williams, instructs his astonished class to summarily rip the introduction out of their poetry textbook? In Keating’s estimation, the author’s angular, formulaic perspective on something as majestic as poetry indicated such a profound ignorance that it was best to remove it from consideration entirely. The introduction did not fit with the grandeur of the poetic art.
Marcion, a bishop of the early second century, had a similar notion, but not about poetry. He surmised the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures should be completely excised from the church’s Bible1. In his estimation the character of the God revealed in the Old Testament was so inferior to that revealed in Jesus that it would be best to eliminate from consideration the more ancient rendering of God. His primary rationale: the violence sanctioned therein did not, in Marcion’s view, square with the grace extended in Jesus.
Mark voiced the question we all ask inwardly when we come to a text like Joshua 6:21–27: Is what God did here fair? The complementary question we may ask resonates with Marcion’s issue: Does this text fit with what else we know of God from Christ—the one said to bear the “the exact imprint of [God’s] nature” (Heb. 1:3)?
Christopher Wright does not take on the role of spin doctor when he comes to the conquest of Canaan, but in his book The God I Don’t Understand he does try to set texts like Joshua 6 in context. His several points don’t mitigate the episode’s awfulness, but they do argue for its coherence with the rest of scripture.
In the background of the conquest is not raw imperialism, nor a sense of ethnic superiority on Israel’s part. Wright reminds us of the message from God in Deuteronomy 9:4–5:
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.
The land Israel was to possess had the singular purpose of providing a place from which she was to bless all nations of the world; such was her mandate from Genesis 12. Any prosperity to be found there was expressly for the sake of equipping Israel to serve the nations so that they might know the God who led them to this land.
The cynic might easily counter with, “So, as long as Israel could wrap herself in the flag of magnanimity, she could justify any of her jingoistic urges?” For two reasons does Wright take exception with the cynicism. For one, the instruction to possess Canaan did not typify Israelite foreign policy, so to speak. Once in the land, there is no further instruction to undertake additional sorties into neighboring lands to expand Israel’s territory. This land, and only this land, had been set aside for that aforementioned purpose. Second, whatever perceptions one might have about Israel concocting a divine story to warrant her actions, consider this: What God authorizes against Jericho for their sin He likewise authorizes against His own people for their disobedience. The fact that Israel would in time be vanquished and exiled demonstrates that God had a priority far loftier than merely providing for and prospering His adopted nation.
What priority was that? The priority that sanctioned the conquest was the same priority that sanctioned the slaughter of the Son of God: that the world may know that the Lord is God and that He is holy. What Jericho suffered for its sin, Christ suffered for ours. Justice and mercy would align in both settings. Justice fell upon most of Jericho while mercy came to Rahab and her whole household for her faith. Justice fell on Jesus while mercy fell (and continues to fall) on those whose faith is in Him. The fabric of scripture is mottled with blood but seamless in its story.
We all have to be wary of a subconscious Marcionism seeping into our thinking. It’s a text like this that keeps us from recasting God in our own preferred image. It keeps us from misconstruing the love of God in Christ as detached from the wrath Jesus’ death came to reconcile. God’s love can’t be understood or appreciated without a sense of His wrath. Joshua 6, in context with the whole of scripture whose trajectory takes us inexorably to the Cross, is meant to preserve our sense of the utter holiness of God, to deepen our gratitude for His mercy at Calvary. It’s also meant to inspire greater urgency in speaking, and demonstrating, the truth in love—truth about the salvation found in Christ.
We meditate upon it until it has those effects in us.
1. To be precise, the books comprising the Bible were not validated—or “canonized’’—until the mid–fourth century. Marcion, ironically, catalyzed the church to come to agreement about which documents were most credible.