“God is a moral monster with no objection to the massacre of women and children” – or so the charge goes. But is this really the case? My previous post noted that language in the war texts is predominantly hyperbolic language of dispossession, not annihilation. However, even this reading does not excuse unwarranted brutality and destruction among those who were involved in the battles. In this post, I want to cover what happened to those who remained behind.
If historians are correct, approximately 70% to 90% of the population in Canaan lived away from the cities. As I noted earlier, God’s plan was to displace people ahead of time. Many ran away in response to the foreshadowing, so the civilians were largely gone from the land by the time the Israelites arrived. Those who did battle with the Israelites were the hardcore defenders of cowardice, oppression of others, perverse sexual temple fertility rituals, and the torturous sacrifice of children. It was in the cities or on the battlefield that they made their stand.
We read that when the Israelite spies returned from Jericho, they said to Joshua, “Surely the Lord. has given all the land into our hands, and all the inhabitants of the land, moreover, have melted away before us.” (Joshua 2:24). “All” is certainly hyperbole (they still fought a battle at Jericho) but the general tenor is unmistakable. As historians have noted:
“We have strong archaeological evidence that the targeted Canaanite cities, such as Jericho and Ai, were not population centers with women and children but military forts or garrisons… “all” who were killed therein were warriors – Rahab and her family being an exception. The same applies throughout the book of Joshua.… This is further suggested by the fact that the Amalekites were not all annihilated: within the very same book (1 Samuel 27:8; 30:1) we encounter an abundance of Amalekites. The command allows, and hopes for, exceptions (e.g., Rahab and her relatives).”
We know all of the people in the groups were not killed since they ‘lived to fight/raid again’ in David’s time (I Samuel 27,30) and even in Hezekiah’s time (200-300 years later, 1 Chronicles 4:43). Joshua himself refers to “these [nations] which remain among you” (Josh. 23:12–13; cp. Josh. 15:63; 16:10; 17:13; Judges. 2:10–13). This included Caananites. While Joshua does speak of Israel’s utterly destroying groups, these “annihilated” peoples reappear later in the story; after Judah destroyed Jerusalem, its occupants lived there ‘to this day’ (Judges. 1:8, 21). David had Hittites in his army (2 Sam 23:39) and was friendly with a Jebusite (2 Sam 24:18-24).
The Old Testament does not record that God was unhappy with the fact the the race of people continued. One would expect that if the Israelites disobeyed a command that specific, God would call them on it. He does not. The Bible highlights people like Joshua, who obeyed all Moses’ commands (Joshua 9:24) while leaving plenty of survivors. The Old Testament law in Exodus and Leviticus clearly delineates how the Israelites are to treat immigrants with justice and mercy, even those from the surrounding Canaanite nations.
It’s important that we understand who was involved in the battles, because it helps to contextualize another aspect of this warfare – the principle of “lex talionis.” This “eye for an eye” principle in the Old Testament (a similar principle is found in the Code of Hammurabi) was meant to limit punishment for crimes, not encourage revenge. If someone took an eye, the victim could demand an eye – but not more. The Israelites could and often did settle for less – but that’s a topic for another time.
Not everyone in the ANE was like this. John Wood, writing for Baylor University, notes some characteristics of other kings that contrast remarkably with the record in the Old Testament of Israelite behavior during war :
- Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal claimed that he draped the skin of his dead enemies over the city walls and “cut off their heads…I burnt their adolescent boys and girls.”
- The Assyrian king Sennacherib recorded how he surpassed his predecessors in cruelty. “I cut [the enemy war- riors’] throats like lambs,” he bragged. “With the bodies of their warriors I filled the plain like grass. Their testicles I cutoff, and tore out their privates like the seeds of cucumbers.”
- Carvings in Assyrian palaces demonstrates kings ripping the tongues out of enemy warriors, cutting off hands and feet, decapitating them, and staking their heads for target practice.
This sounds like hyperbolic war text, but the tone shows that the limitations of equal retribution were not embraced by all nations at that time. In God’s judgment of the Amalekites, we see “lex talionis” at work on the battlefield as the Israelites purposefully engaged the cultural leaders and defenders, not the civilians:
- The Amalekites drove out cultures them in previous invasions; they were driven out.
- They caused whole cities to be abandoned; they were forced to abandon their cities.
- They won their battles on military strength; they were defeated by a military strength.
- They destroyed urban centers of other cultures; their urban centers were destroyed.
- They were unreasonable and unwilling to negotiate (Numbers 21.21); God did not allow Israel to negotiate with them.
Reading the texts in this context, we see the following:
- God waited patiently, warning those who were facing judgment for catastrophic evil;
- God was dismantling notoriously bad cultures and their fundamentalist perpetrators, not all the individuals in it – and specifically not the women and children. Most of the individuals relocated into the surrounding cultures, including the Israelites’;
- God wanted to annihilate sin and its catastrophic fallout, not the people who committed the sin. As Ezekiel 33:11 notes, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live”;
- God provided a clear, effective warning that cleared the land of the vast majority of the people.
- The Israelites implemented a just retribution upon the leaders and defenders of these cultures.
- We continue to see favorable reference to people from all nations living in Israel after the wars.
Is it possible that God can hold the attributes of mercy and justice simultaneously? Could they even exist apart from each other? In the conclusion of this series, we will look more closely at these attributes of God.