Monday, May 7, 2018

WAS THE CONQUEST OF CANAAN MORALLY JUSTIFIABLE?

There are at least a couple of things about this post and the one to follow that may be unsettling to many, and one thing that for some will be absolutely unbelievable. This entire episode of Biblical history is not an easy subject for me to write about, and one that I have avoided for some time.

The topic is the conquest of the land of the Canaanites by the Israelites under the leadership of Joshua. Because of the current political situation in this region, you can understand one of the reasons that I hesitate to write about the original conquest. However, the events that we are going to be looking at in this post occurred some 3400 years ago and have very little to do with today’s political climate. This especially so since we cannot equate of the nation of Israel in the days of Moses and Joshua with the Israel of prophecy.[1] Because of these reasons, I am going to ask you to consider the events described in the Bible on their own merit only, and to not associate them with current situations.

 The conquest as described in the Bible is difficult enough to write on even without trying to relate it to today’s headlines. It is actually quite a troubling subject and one that is considered morally unacceptable by many today. It is not difficult to see why, for the Israelites did not move into a vacant and uninhabited land, simply waiting for someone to dwell there. When the Israelites crossed the Jordan River to begin to occupy what would become their homeland, the lands were already populated by several nations whom God told the Israelites to drive out and even to annihilate.


We frequently group these other nations under the common name of the Canaanites or, as in the scripture that we will be considering here, the Amorites. The reference to the Amorites in this case is not exactly the same as the term Amorite is used in secular history. The term Amorite as it is used in the Bible refers only to those people dwelling in central highlands of the Palestine region. Although all of these people are called by a single name, they were actually several nations or tribes living in rather close proximity to one another. 

The Conquest

When Joshua and the Israelites entered the land, they waged war and used strong force to defeat the many different nations of people who had already claimed these lands as their own. In many cases, the battles could only be described as massacres.

If any nation would today do that, we would strongly condemn and oppose them in any way that we had at our disposal. But it is not so in this case. Why does the scripture consider these circumstances different? Why does the Bible indicate that the conquest of the Canaanite people of Joshua’s day was the will of God? 

Judging History

The first thing that I need to say concerning this is that it is always a dangerous practice to make too many moral judgments concerning events that happened in ancient history. Certainly, there are many things that can be learned from contemporary writers of that time period, but even with these we must realize that they were most often written with a bias toward one perspective over an opposing perspective. Nevertheless, keeping this caveat in mind, contemporary accounts provide for us the best window into what happened.

Concerning the Amorites, it was not because God hated them that he wanted them removed from the land. There is much about these people that we do not know, and what I said concerning the contemporary writers of the time certainly holds true here. We have quite an extensive written history of the Israelite people, but almost nothing concerning the Amorites and the several other tribes of the area. Nonetheless, even in the historical records of the Israelites, we can catch of glimpse of how God was even trying to reach out to these people in the centuries before he allowed the conquest of their nations. 

Abraham Arrives in Canaan

For instance, the book of Genesis, from the 12th chapter and onward, we learn that in about the year 2100 BC, God told the patriarch Abraham to leave his own homeland of the city of Ur, which was located far to the east, and to go to the land that God would show him. It was also to that very land of Canaan where Abraham eventually arrived. This all occurred almost sixteen hundred years before Joshua and the Israelites began their conquest of the land of the Amorites.

Even in those years of Abraham the land was occupied, but probably much more sparsely than in the latter years. When God sent Abraham there, it was not to conquer it, but only as an inhabitant. Even though Abraham did not come as a conqueror, it is true that there were people even at that time living in great rebellion to the ways of God, and against whom Abraham would be called upon to fight and defeat.

But even in the well-known case of Sodom and Gomorrah, cities and people which were living in great evil, God did not send Abraham to destroy them. In fact, when the cities were unjustly attacked by an alliance of several other kings, Abraham and his own forces went to defend and rescue the city of Sodom, albeit mainly because his own nephew Lot was living there at the time.

It is important to point out that Abraham was not alone in this pursuit of the attacking kings. He was joined by his own alliance of several other men and the forces under their command. These were people of the land, people with whom Abraham apparently had friendly relationships. Among these especially is named one Mamre the Amorite, and also his brothers Eshcol and Aner. These men were among those who had allied themselves with Abraham (Genesis 14:13), and were Amorites, the very people who God would eventually deem condemned only for annihilation.

It is my own opinion that God had originally sent Abraham into the land of the Amorites as an emissary of God’s own words. He was a missionary, so to speak. God sent Abraham to these people in hopes that they would turn to the Lord.

However, God realized even at that time that Abraham’s efforts would not bear fruition. He would later tell Abraham of some of the future events of Abraham’s descendants living in a foreign land for four hundred years, but then again returning to the land of the Amorite. The reason that Abraham’s descendants would not be allowed to live in this land for several generations was because, as God said, “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:15-16). 

An Offer for the Amorites and for All Nations

We have no written record of just how, but I believe that God was still holding out an offer for these Amorites, dealing with them in unknown ways in order to draw them to him. God even continued in this way for hundreds of years after Abraham. But as is true in every case, continual and relentless refusal of God’s grace leads eventually to judgment. That time had come for the Amorites by the time Joshua and the people of Israel arrived at the banks of the River Jordan.

It was as God had earlier said to Moses, “Do not say in your heart, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land.’ Rather, it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you.”

Then, in case Moses did not catch it the first time, God immediately repeats his words. “It is 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.” (Deuteronomy 9:4-5).

We do a disservice to God by assuming that he has not reached out to all peoples in every period of history. The Bible says of God. “He will judge the world in righteousness; He will execute judgment for the peoples with equity” (Psalm 9:8 NAS).

Even if it may not appear so at the moment, God is perfectly fair and just in all his actions. When we at last will view all movements of history from the perspective of eternity, we will see this to be true.

The Apostle Paul explained this very well to the people of the city of Athens when he spoke to a crowd of people. Paul said of God: 

He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:26-28 ESV) 

The Equity of God

Incidentally, this same question about whether or not God is fair can be (and often is) approached also from the opposite way. The question could also be asked, “Why is it that the wicked people are the ones that often seem to prosper in this life, while the ones who are trying to live righteously suffer? Why do the good die young?”

The prophet Jeremiah in fact asked this question. Here is how he put forth his complaint against God: 

You are always righteous, Lord, when I bring a case before you.
Yet I would speak with you about your justice:
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why do all the faithless live at ease?
You have planted them, and they have taken root; they grow and bear fruit.
You are always on their lips [perhaps referring to curses], but far from their hearts.  (Jeremiah 12:1-2 NIV) 

Testimonies of the Inscrutable Greatness and Goodness of God

The short of it is that God cannot catch a break when it comes to the opinion that men and women have of him. Everyone says that he is unfair. That is why it is important to read words such as the prophet Isaiah has written: 

For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (He is the God who formed the earth and made it, He established it and did not create it a waste place, but formed it to be inhabited),
He has said, “I am the LORD, and there is none else. I have not spoken in secret, in some dark land; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, ‘Seek Me in a waste place’; I, the LORD, speak righteousness, declaring things that are upright.
 
“Gather yourselves and come; Draw near together, you fugitives of the nations;
“They have no knowledge, those who carry about their wooden idol and pray to a god who cannot save.
 
“Declare and set forth your case; indeed, let them consult together. Who has announced this from of old? Who has long since declared it? Is it not I, the LORD? And there is no other God besides Me, a righteous God and a Savior. There is none except Me.
“Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; For I am God, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:18-22 NAS) 

I especially like these verses in the book of the Psalms in their description of the righteousness of God: 

Clouds and thick darkness surround Him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne. The heavens proclaim his righteousness, and all peoples see his glory” (Psalm 97:2, 6). 

The writer of this psalm tells us that God is absolutely just in all his actions: “righteousness and justice are the very foundation of his throne.”

However, his ways are often hidden from us. It is as if we cannot peer through the clouds and thick darkness that surround the motivations for his actions.

It is enough for us to look and see the things that are visible to us. When we look to the immense expanse of the universe and observe how the celestial bodies remain in perfect balance to one another, are not even these an indication to us that the Lord is a God of perfect symmetry and fairness? The very heavens are proclaiming his righteousness! Every person on earth who has vision can see the glory of the ways of God!

The Apostle Paul was another person who was utterly amazed with the deep ways of God, and absolutely humbled when he realized that he could not even begin to understand the profound things of the Lord. He writes: 

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?
Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.  (Romans 11:33-36 ESV) 

Our only response to this can be only to repeat the closing words of Paul: “To God be glory forever. Amen.”

Indeed, the ways of God are unknown to us in very many ways, and nothing illustrates this better than in the case of one of the nations in particular that had originally been under threat of annihilation by Joshua and the Israelites. These are the Gibeonites. We shall look at this in the post for next week, The Curious Case of the Gibeonites.


[1] For my view on this subject, please read my book Watching for the Day

 




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