The book of Joshua is about the invasion and occupation of the land of Canaan by the Israelites. This was commanded by God.
And the Lord said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid of them, for tomorrow at this time I will give over all of them, slain, to Israel. You shall hamstring their horses and burn their chariots with fire.” 7 So Joshua and all his warriors came suddenly against them by the waters of Merom and fell upon them. 8 And the Lord gave them into the hand of Israel, who struck them and chased them … until he left none remaining. 9 And Joshua did to them just as the Lord said to him: he hamstrung their horses and burned their chariots with fire … And they struck with the sword all who were in [Hazor], devoting them to destruction; there was none left that breathed. And he burned Hazor with fire. … And all the spoil of these cities and the livestock, the people of Israel took for their plunder. But every man they struck with the edge of the sword until they had destroyed them, and they did not leave any who breathed. 15 Just as the Lord had commanded Moses his servant, so Moses commanded Joshua, and so Joshua did. He left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses. (Joshua 11:6-15)
Such complete destruction seems harsh. It involved children who were too young to have done wrong and painful treatment of innocent animals. But we need to recognize that God had commanded these actions. In seeking to understand the moral difficulties here, the following points are worth noting.
- God is our creator and giver of life. He has a right to judge individuals and nations, and to take away life if he chooses. He has that right whether or not we understand the reasons.
- When a person is seriously ill, radical surgery is sometimes necessary for the sake of the rest of the body. It seems that the Canaanites were sufficiently immoral that God considered it better to destroy them than to persist with them. God’s purpose is creating people who will reflect his character. It was better to have some people with the opportunity to serve him faithfully (the Israelites), then have a situation where the corrupt morality of the Canaanites infected everyone in the area.
- The failure to completely carry out God’s policy of extermination led to the downfall of the people of Israel only a century or two later, as recorded in the book of Judges. Not until the time of David about 400 years later did the Israelites succeed in completing the conquest of the land.
- God required destruction of things or people when they violently and steadfastly prevented his work over a long period of time. In the case of the Canaanites, it had been several centuries (Genesis 15:13-16). His pattern is to give people plenty of opportunity to repent first. But when a nation is burning children as a gift to the gods (Leviticus 18:21) and practising perverted sexuality (Leviticus 18:25-30), God’s patience will run out.
- The situation for Israel in the Old Testament was very different from what any nation faces today. They were God’s chosen people and were responsible to keep true religion alive and pure. All other countries were pagan. Any foreigner who wanted to follow the one true God needed to become associated with Israel. Under the New Testament, believers are scattered across all countries, and there is no command to wage war of any kind against anyone. In fact, quite the opposite: we are to live peacably with unbelievers (Romans 12:18; Hebrews 12:14).