Violence, Holy War and Us

At Westminster Reads, my church’s Bible reading blog, we are reading the book of Joshua. For many Christians the violence in the book of Joshua (as well as other parts of the Bible) is troubling. After the walls of Jericho fall we read, “Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.” (Joshua 6:21, NRSV). And this is not the only time in Joshua the text tells us this happened.  “When Israel had finished killing all the men of Ai in the fields and in the desert where they had chased them, and when every one of them had been put to the sword, all the Israelites returned to Ai and killed those who were in it. Twelve thousand men and women fell that day- all the people of Ai.” (Joshua 7:24-25, NRSV).  “That day Joshua took Makkedah. He put the city and its king to the sword and totally destroyed everyone in it. He left no survivors…The city (Libnah) and everyone in it Joshua put to the sword. He left no survivors there. ..(Joshua 10:28,30)  We read over and over again, there were no survivors, he totally destroyed everyone in it.

Why? Why all this destruction? Why all this death?

Christians have wondered about and wrestled with these passages for centuries. Sadly, we have also used these passages to condone continued death and destruction.

Why? Why all this death?  What can we say?

We have said a lot of different things. The scholars give us many options.

Some simply ignore the presence of the text.

Some try to uncover the “good” in the story.  For example, the stories show that we can rely on God who will not fail God’s people.

Some say that, historically speaking, we do not have good evidence that events happened just as the book of Joshua describe them. So perhaps all this killing did not actually happen. This book in the form we have it, was written in the time of the Exile and presents the exiles’ theologically shaped telling of the story. The exilic writers were concerned with obedience and disobedience and the consequences for Israel.

Some say that these stories reflect the times. This is how battles were fought in those days and Israel was no worse or better than any other nations. In fact, Israel’s dedication of all the “spoils” to God serves to end the plundering and exploitation commonly practiced at the time.

Some suggest that Israel’s actions were justified because Joshua was to set up a better, more just society. Similarly some believe that Canaanite tribal practices were evil and abhorrent and they needed to be eradicated.

Some use these stories to contrast the “mean” Old Testament God with the “good” New Testament God.

There may be some truth in several of these options. And while they might make some intellectual sense; for me they don’t make these stories less horrific.

What can we say? How can these biblical texts have meaning for us in our times?

It seems to me that these stories ought to make us uncomfortable and unsettled. For us that may be their role.  They make us think about violence in our society- where it occurs, how we encourage or support it, why we so easily rely on it. What do we accept and do that will horrify future generations? The world is not a simple place with simple rules and neither is the Bible. We approach these stories with ambiguous feelings. They are complex stories about imperfect people and societies. We, if we are honest, may find ourselves in these stories. And that I hope, is an uncomfortable place for us to be. These stories keep us from accepting simple rules with easy answers. They keep us unsettled and pondering. They keep us seeking God. They keep us seeking God’s ways in the world.

I’d like to know, what do you think?

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