Joshua picks up after the death of Moses and follows the Israelites as they enter the promised land. In the first chapter God tells Joshua “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you” (Joshua 1:5). This phrase strikes me as slightly ironic because the sole reason Joshua is leading the people is because God forbade Moses from entering the promised land in the first place. God shunned Moses at the end. God’s message to Joshua most likely serves as encouragement for the people, establishing Joshua as the leader and one who God works through, as he worked through Moses. But the other side of the coin seems to imply God will be with Joshua as long as, and only if, he obeys.
Joshua’s first conquest is Jericho. He sends spies into the city who stay with a prostitute named Rahab. Rahab hides the spies when the king’s men come looking for them, in exchange for her and her family being spared from what she rightly expects to be a slaughter. The spies agree, telling Rahab to bring her family to her house and they will live. Rahab then lets the spies out of her house in a unique way: “So she let them down by a rope through the window, for the house she lived in was part of the city wall.” (Joshua 2:15).
This becomes an important detail when we learn how Jericho falls.
“When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys. Joshua said to the two men who had spied out the land, ‘Go into the prostitute’s house and bring her out and all who belong to her, in accordance with your oath to her.'” (Joshua 6:20-22).
Now, the spies told Rahab to bring her family into her house, which we learn made up a part of the city wall. That wall collapses. Then the Israelite army goes in and kills “every living thing.” And then spies get Rahab and her family? How was her house not destroyed?
Simply, the entire Rahab element of this story makes little sense. Joshua doesn’t send spies to any other city. Joshua orders the spies to “look over the land” and the next sentence states they entered a prostitute’s house. The only information the spies gain is that the whole land fears the Israelites because of their wholesale slaughter of cities. Then they leave, Israel destroys Jericho using none of the information gained, and they spare one family out of tens of thousands who eventually die by the Israelites’ hands. Sparing lives goes against nearly the entire rest of the book. Joshua doesn’t show mercy, as we learn soon after Jericho.
When Jericho falls, an Israelite named Achan steals a robe, gold and silver from the city. Because of this, when the Israelites attempt to take the next city, Ai, they fail. “So about three thousand went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai, who killed about thirty-six of them” (Joshua 7:4-5). Losing 36 men out of 3,000 hardly qualifies as a route, but I think the point here is that with God angry at Israel, Israel will fail. So Joshua calls the people together and discovers Achan stole from Jericho. To turn God’s anger away, “all of Israel” stones Achan, his family and his livestock then burns them. Another example of women and children dying for the actions of one man.
With Achan’s sin atoned for, the Israelites move again on Ai. Here’s the account:
When Israel had finished killing all the men of Ai in the fields and in the wilderness 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. For Joshua did not draw back the hand that held out his javelin until he had destroyed all who lived in Ai. But Israel did carry off for themselves the livestock and plunder of this city, as the Lord had instructed Joshua.
So Joshua burned Ai and made it a permanent heap of ruins, a desolate place to this day. He impaled the body of the king of Ai on a pole and left it there until evening. At sunset, Joshua ordered them to take the body from the pole and throw it down at the entrance of the city gate. And they raised a large pile of rocks over it, which remains to this day. (Joshua 8:24-29)
Slaughtering whole cities isn’t new in the Old Testament. However, two specific and unique details regarding Ai stood out to me to make it worth exploring further. First, Israel plunders Ai immediately after stoning a man and his family for plundering Jericho. The only difference being God forbade plundering Jericho, and apparently instructed the Israelites to plunder Ai. It seems fickle, and cheapens any sort of message that God wants to get across, unless that message is “I am God so do as I say.”
Second, the additional brutality. If losing 36 men in a battle served as a route for Israel, what would they call murdering 12,000 civilians? Impaling the king on a pole sends a message of violence and mercilessness, like an Israelite Genghis Khan. But this too was apparently done at the request of God, or at the very least he allowed it. The idea of God instructing and even wanting total destruction comes up again later: “For it was the Lord himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the Lord had commanded Moses” (Joshua 11:20). So we have God, helping a ruthless warlord in Joshua destroy every human life he comes across, forcing those people to stand against him just to die, sending a message of fear throughout the whole land by way of merciless violence. And yet the Bible continues to call these acts good.
“Not one of their enemies withstood them; the Lord gave all their enemies into their hands. Not one of all the Lord’s good promises to Israel failed; every one was fulfilled” (Joshua 21:44-45). Over and over I read God wants to kill everyone and everything. Joshua 12 simply lists 31 cities and kings destroyed by Israel, all with the populations massacred, many with their kings impaled. Every person in every city dies. But, for Israel, this was the fulfillment of good promises. I contest that definition of good.
Thank you for reading,