(11) Be strong and courageous … for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go – Joshua 1:9

The account of the settlement of the land of Israel is in the book of Joshua, named after Moses’ assistant who takes over the leadership of the people of Israel. After Moses’ death, God meets with Joshua and tells him three times to “Be strong and courageous” (Joshua 1;6,7,9) as he is to lead the people into the land that God had promised to Abraham and his descendants. He then gives him instructions on how to win his first victory by taking the city of Jericho.

His instructions make it very clear that any military success will come from God’s power and not from the strength of the army. Jericho is a walled city which makes it very difficult for soldiers with swords and shields to break into. The army is told to march round the walls along with the priests blowing trumpets for six days. Then on the seventh day they are to march round the walls seven times, at which point the walls, which had so terrified the spies forty years earlier, will collapse. Only then are the soldiers told to go in and destroy the city and its inhabitants. It is a real test of Joshua’s leadership that the soldiers were prepared to follow his lead as many must have wondered about the wisdom of his actions as they got back to base each evening without any battle taking place.

Israel’s campaign to conquer the land of Canaan raises big issues. How can a nation claim that God told them to carry out what we today would call ethnic cleansing? And when God revealed his name to Moses he called himself, “The Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). How can we reconcile that with a God who wipes out a nation?

The first thing to note is that God took the initiative in toppling the walls and the people followed. He instructed the Israelites to kill all the inhabitants. Abraham called God, “the Judge of all the earth” (Genesis 18:25) and, given that he created all things, it is his right to decide who lives and who dies. When Abraham was in the land about five hundred years earlier, God told him that “the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure” (Genesis 15:16). Although they were a proud, godless and wicked nation – their ‘worship’ included religious prostitution and child sacrifice – God was prepared to let them live for a further five hundred years before he took action to remove their wickedness from the earth. When we see injustice and wicked behaviour we rightly get angry and demand action. This sense of justice reflects God’s anger at sin, the behaviours that cut us off from God and hurt other people.

But God is not only concerned about justice but is “abounding in love” and he delays justice in order to give people time to turn to him. Even in Jericho the family of Rahab the prostitute were spared due to the faith in God she demonstrated in hiding a couple of spies that Joshua sent in. If God didn’t display this patience then none of us would survive for any time at all.

When God decides to act in justice he can deliver it in any way he chooses. In Joshua’s time he used the Israelites to carry out his judgement. This does not provide a justification for God’s people to be at war at any other time. This was a specific occasion and the people were not sanctioned to attack other nations outside the territories that God had given them – see, for example, the instruction not to take the lands of Edom or Moab in Deuteronomy 2:5,9 – other than in self defence.

In the New Testament, God’s people are called upon to engage in spiritual warfare, to take on the arguments against the knowledge of God and fight against our own thoughts that would lead us away from him. There is practical advice on spiritual warfare in 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 and Ephesians 6:12-13. The ‘battle of Jericho’ where the people closely followed God’s instructions remains an example for how we fight our own spiritual battles today.

Note: This whole topic is dealt with in more detail under the title “What about the Geneva Convention” in “Through the Bible in 80 Days”, pages 137-141.

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