Joshua’s Unholy War

Mormon HereticBible, death, God, history, Mormon, religion, violence, war 31 Comments

Admin Note: This is our first guest post from Mormon Heretic.

When most of us hear the word “jihad” or “holy war”, we immediately know that a jihad is not what God wants.  Most of us feel the same when we hear the word “crusade.”  Really, does anyone think God wants people to fight in his name?

In the book of Joshua, Joshua claims to be commanded by God to destroy everyone and everything in what is now the land of Israel.

“And they utterly  destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and  ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.

So Joshua smote all  the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the  springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly  destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD God of Israel commanded. And  Joshua smote them from Kadesh-barnea even unto Gaza, and all the country  of Goshen, even unto Gibeon.” (Joshua 10:40-41)

In an interesting twist, the prophet Jonah wanted God to destroy the city of Nineveh, yet God felt those people were to be spared.  Were the Ninevites really more righteous than the Jericho-ites?  Does God command genocide, yesterday, today, or in the future?

Orthodox History

First, let’s go back about 400 years or so before the time of Joshua, to the time of Joseph, Israel, and the 12 tribes. Israel and his sons left the “chosen land” of their own free will. They were not forced out of the land by foreign invaders. They were forced out by drought.

As we know, Joseph was sold into Egypt as a slave, and then ended up saving the whole family of Israel. Israel, and his sons freely settled in Goshen, Egypt. They liked the place so much, that they had no desire to leave.

Probably due to changes in the government, and the Israelites growing numbers, the Israelites were later viewed as a threat, and ended up becoming slaves to the Egyptians, so the nation of Israel (which was formerly just a really big family) longed to return to the “promised land.” Of course, this brings up the whole Exodus story, and wandering for 40 years, etc.

So they left the “promised land” for 400 years, which was resettled by 6 nations.  I’d say that if Israel really wanted the land back, they should have returned after the 7 years of drought-they’d have a much stronger claim than waiting 400 years.

Ok, so now the land is occupied by these six “squatters.” Are they are just supposed to get up and leave because Moses/Joshua said so? A modern equivalent would be the Muslims claim that God wanted people to fly planes into the world trade center. Just as Christians and Jews just don’t understand “God’s will,” from the Muslim point of view, these six squatter nations didn’t understand “God’s will” telling them to pick up and leave the promised land.

How did Joshua negotiate? Cleon Skousen justifies Joshua’s actions by saying,

“each city or tribe was given the opportunity to submit peacefully and become citizens of Israel with the condition that they would follow the rules and laws set forth by the new central kingdom, including giving up their idolatry and immorality.”

Excuse me? They’ve lived there for at least 300 years, and now Joshua tells them to submit peacefully? What kind of negotiation is that? It sounds suspiciously like Jihad or Crusader “convert or die” kinds of negotiation. If someone gave me that kind of a choice, I’d probably put up a fight too.

Unorthodox History

Some scholars claim that Joshua and Moses never existed.  The accounts of the Old Testament (especially those of the Pentateuch) were not written until centuries after their narratives had ended. Most of these were carried on through oral tradition and were later compiled into a written and collaborated form.

Scholars, such as William Dever of the University or Arizona, claim that ( the Land of Canaan was not taken over by conquest – rather, the Israelites actually might have been Canaanites who migrated into the highlands and created a new identity for themselves. “Joshua really didn’t fight the Battle of Jericho,” Dever said. These scholars say the Exodus never happened, but was invented to create a new identity for a new group of people, with the new religion of Yahweh.

I know there is some problems of dating the city of Jericho to the time of Joshua. However, in my mind, it seems as if Joshua (or whoever he really represents) is glorifying war. From that point of view, I have no reason to doubt that the Israelites probably used God as a weapon to destroy their enemies, whether they were fellow Semites or the six heathen nations. I see this reasoning as very similar to the Crusades, and Jihad, and have no reason to doubt whether genocide happened in the time of Joshua. It seems that the story of Jericho is a way the Jews used God to justify atrocities.

My take is that Joshua was a prophet.  He felt he was inspired.  However, I do not feel that God wanted all the inhabitants killed.  I do not think God ever commands genocide, and I feel that this action was wrong by Joshua.


Comments 31

  1. I wonder about this story (and other, similar events):

    Could this simply be a way (albeit unorthodox) of putting the conquered peoples in a position where they are more likely to achieve salvation–i.e., the spirit world? We know from the Book of Mormon that all nations have had the gospel preached to them–and especially in light of the active prophet tradition in Judea and Palestine at that time, it seems likely to me that other prophets of whom we have no record may have preached the gospel to the temporary (400 years, I know) inhabitants, who then rejected the message and where ripening for destruction. God always acts as to save his children, and this may have been a bunch who, due to their past sins, were going down a path of damnation.

    I realize that’s a slippery slope for *us* to apply that logic, but used as an explanation for remote events, it seems like it *might* work. It by no means stands in as a justification for our modern wars (of course, we don’t have a theocracy anyway).

  2. Yes, Neal, this is a very slippery slope indeed. If we are to liken the scriptures unto ourselves, it seems that Joshua’s example has (incorrectly) been applied to the crusades, and jihad. I just don’t think God would ever command genocide.

    So, I know Joe P likes to pick fights, so I want to send out a little challenge. So, Joe, are you one who says that God commands genocide, or that the Biblical prophets (like Joshua) make no errors in biblical revelation?

  3. It’s too much of a slippery slope for me. Anti-Semite actions are one natural result, and I’m fairly certain the irony of that is apparent.

    1. Job 1:21 reads “and said, naked came out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave and the Lord taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord. ” I know that Heavenly Father can do whatever he wants! I believe he did command Joshua to destroy Canaan like he commanded Noah to build the ark because he was going to destroy the wicked with the flood. Now, of course Satan will command his followers to destroy righteous people so there’s no comparison in what the Lord commands and in what Satan (jihad /radical Islam Muslims) commands. I’m sure there were little children killed but I think the little ones went straight to heaven which is where we all want to go when we die, way better than the lives they were living with their wicked families they would’ve grown up to be just like them. Just giving my opinion 🙂

  4. If there is one thing in the scriptures that bothers me to the core, it is this event. And we know that it happened b/c Nephi justifies it in 1 Nephi 17.

    I love the scriptures, the Church, the doctrine. The concept of continuing revelation is beautiful to me. But this event? I shudder to think of it. My friend, Matt, was saying that if the apostles ordered executions against apostates in the Utah era, he would be fine with it. Those who know my writing know that I defend Church doctrine to the last blow…but Joshua in Canaan? That’s something I’m waiting on the man upstairs to teach. I haven’t a clue.

  5. Aaron, can you expound?

    For the record, I believe in the LDS standard works. But I don’t believe our leaders are without errors, and in my view this is a pretty significant error by Joshua. I don’t believe this is the sort of thing that should be promoted in lessons as an example of following God’s will.

  6. There is one thing that I don’t think is correct here. You are saying that these people were temporary and that Israel was there first. Those people were Canaanites, and it was the land of Canaan. Those people were there even when Abraham was around. The cities of the plain, as an example, were Canaanite cities. God himself justified the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, or so the scriptures lead us to believe. Are you seriously trying to say that when someone is in a fulness of iniquity that God cannot choose how he wants them to be destroyed? And that God is never justified in destroying anyone in a state of a fulness of iniquity? I mean, put aside the fact that Joshua was the instrument that destroyed them for a moment, and let’s talk about God. Is God never justified in making a judgement and declaring a consequence? Or in other words, is God not justified in committing genocide? Once you answer that one, then we can start to talk about whether Joshua was justified or not. Because the question is not about Joshua. It is about God.

  7. Mormon Heretic,
    It is not heretical to question whether God commanded the murders of innocents. God using violence to cure violence is like Satan casting out Satan – it doesn’t work. God killing and murdering, or ordering the same, would be a God that ceased to be God. What is in question is how we read the record. Do we make the record so sacred that even when it tells us the unbelievable we believe it?

    Joshua’s killing of the innocents has nothing to do with the Jesus of the New Testament. We need to relearn how to read the text.

    Cheryl McGuire

  8. I agree with cherylem and would add that it is much more likely that this is a case of israel either inventing events that did not occur or taking God’s name in vain to justify their actions.

    The clearest example we have of who God is and what he is like is in Jesus of Nazareth, if you have seen me… God manifest in Jesus is nothing like the God of genocide and murder that the histories in the OT would have us believe. I am particularly fond of the way Gil Bailie contrasts the Joshua of the OT with the Joshua/Jesus who we had all waited for.

    “Ultimately, then, it was another Joshua – the Yehosua about whom the Gospels were written – who stepped into the Jordan in a truly decisive way, not “opposite” (neged) his hated enemies, but “in the presence of” (neged) his God. This Joshua/Jesus became the victim of the kind of sacrificial violence over which his ancestral namesake presided, and, to make the parallel complete, he left behind him no “cairn” that might be turned into yet another sacrificial shrine. They went to the tomb and found it empty.”

  9. Of course God occasionally has commanded genocide.

    If God says “kill”- you kill.

    If God says “do not kill” then you don’t kill.

    I don’t get what is so hard about the concept. God is God, and I figure he has a better understanding of the morality or not of such issues.

    The difference between Joshua and the crusades or modern jihadists, is that Joshua killed when God said “kill”. The others killed when God said “do not kill”.


    Might I ask- what is the inherent value of life anyway? All men die. Why should we value life?

    The reason life has intrinsic value is because God values life. If He in His wisdom decides that some men need to die that’s His right. After all, He created us and gave us life. It’s His to take back whenever He chooses.

    I get the feeling that some people around here only want a God that’s “safe” and never does anything that they don’t feel good about. Or maybe you people think that God is an imaginary being that we create in our heads, and we can change His attributes by thinking of Him a certain way.

    God is God, whatever you want to think about Him does not change His attributes one bit. He exists independent of man, and therefor we must deal with Him as He is- not as we might wish Him to be.

  10. Cicero, I think the question is if this really is something that God commanded, or if it is a case of “as far as it is translated correctly” – where what we have is not an accurate “translation” of what actually happened. Within denominations that preach the Bible is the infallible word of God, that question is heretical; within Mormonism, it isn’t.

  11. “For I know that after my death (Moses) ye will utterly corrupt yourselfs; and turn aside from the way which I have commanded you
    Deuteronomy 31: 29.

    Just hours/days after the aggressive, murderous, non just, non God authorized invasion of Gaza where 2,000 innocent civilians were killed in an act of revenge, the Israeli fundamentalists were employing God’s name, his authority, their virtue, etc. in doing so. If they could twist their narratives in days, think what 500 years of oral traditions could do. For me the war narrative of the Israelites into Palestine by Joshua is the ULTIMATE TAKING OF THE LORD’S NAME IN VAIN. They may or may not have done these despicable deeds, but if they did the God that came among men in the meridian of time sure as hell did not command it–and if He did , he is not the God I know–the same God that kept repeating “it has been said of old” such and such but here I am to tell you all that your nationalist bullshit is dark and corrupt to the core. I despise these narratives because they are the same narratives we use to murder millions in Viet Nam and Iraq and suggest somehow God’s will is caught up in it. I am sick to the core of murderous, christian/mormon jihadist. Sure, let’s kill all men, women, and scurrying little children–oh, except the whores who gave us comfort and intel—and say God told us to do it–employing the same Asiatic calling card pattern of “kill them all and let God sort it out. THe same crap we heard in Viet Nam and the Popes used when they killed all the inhabitants of Carcassone. Thanks for the topic. History and facts are stubborn things but make believe “god told us” is really easy

  12. Cicero,

    based upon your assertions, what makes God, God? I assert its his virtue which is his power. Can God be immoral or is morality entirely a function of whatever God commands?

    In the context of this conversation, I also think its highly relevant to ask what actions what cause God to cease to be God. I would suggest genocide would be one of them.

  13. Aboz,

    I stand corrected. You are correct in saying that the Canaanites were there before Abraham. Seemingly there was no conflict between Abraham and the Canaanites, as he purchased land from them, for the burial of his wife near Hebron. It seems relatively peaceful from Abraham through Jacob. Things change during the time of Moses/Joshua.

    Are you seriously trying to say that when someone is in a fulness of iniquity that God cannot choose how he wants them to be destroyed? And that God is never justified in destroying anyone in a state of a fulness of iniquity?

    Of course God can choose to act the way he wants to. If God wants to destroy a city, I’m much more comfortable with his method in Sodom and Gomorrah, than this method in Jericho. Man of all religions, has shown a propensity to commit atrocities in the name of God, and this bears too many similarities to the Crusades and Jihad to be passed over. Man fighting in the name of God is endemic to the human race, whether it be the God of Asherah, Zues, Ra, Thor, or other diety.

    I find the actions in the book of Joshua to be incongruous with Jesus who told us that if we say ‘Raca’, then we sin. Now this post isn’t out to be an anti-war rant, as I believe that there can be proper justifications for war. However, these justifications are for defensive war, not offensive war. Joshua’s war was a war of conquest, not defense. Same goes for the Crusades. Jihadists targeting innocent civilians is reprehensible–even though they try to claim nobody in America is innocent.

    Cheryl – I agree. I’m trying to come up with a better reading from Joshua, and would love to hear a better way to interpret this story.

    J Madsen – interesting quote. I must say I’m not fond of the “inventing” scenario, as I believe it casts too much doubt on the Bible. Regardless of which theory you prefer, Joshua is seen as following God’s directions to wipe out entire cities, which I view as incongruous with Jesus gospel. People who fail to see these similarities, are doomed to repeat them, as Ron has pointed out.

    Cicero – The difference between Joshua and the crusades or modern jihadists, is that Joshua killed when God said “kill”. The others killed when God said “do not kill”. Are you saying that Bin Ladin believes he is going against God’s will? Did the Pope believe he was going against God’s will? I believe that in both of these cases, these men truly feel that God is inspiring them to kill. They are doing these things specifically in the name of God. Just because you don’t agree with the crusaders or jihadists makes you an infidel, worthy of God’s wrath. Are you here to tell me that if you lived in Canaan, worshipping Asherah, that you would converted to Judaism just because Joshua told you so? Why haven’t you converted to Islam because Bin Ladin told you so?

    If God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, what’s preventing him from wiping out Las Vegas, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Pyongyang, Baghdad, Darfur, Chechnya, or Bosnia? Perhaps some of you believe that God is carrying out these orders. Even Pat Robertson said the WTC attacks were a result of the US wickedness, seemingly agreeing with Bin Ladin. So, pick your favorite leader: Robertson, Bin Ladin, Thomas Monson, Rick Warren, Billy Graham, the Pope, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch… If ‘he’ declared Holy War on wicked city of your choice, and specifically wanted you to kill livestock as well as men, women and children, because God declared that the city was ripe in iniquity, would you participate? What makes you different than Ron Lafferty, Jihadists, Eric Rudolph, the Crusaders, or anyone else who justifies mass extinction in the name of God? Frankly, I just don’t know what the livestock did to deserve to die.

    I agree that the idea of a “safe” God is appealing. However, it is apparent to me that life is not safe at all. All of us experience our share of hardships. Yes, God’s ways are not our ways, and he allows all sorts of things that cause us to scratch our heads. However, I do not believe God condones mass slaughter. If God wants to do it, he certainly has the power, and precedent in Sodom and Gomorrah. But I would rather die, believing that mass murder is wrong, than follow along with an order to exterminate an entire group of people. These orders have proved not only disastrous, but uninspired by God. I dare anyone to name a mass murder inspired by God in the last 2000 years. If God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, why has he quit using men as his instruments for the extermination business?

  14. Aboz and Cicero:

    I am skittish about your line of reasoning. Yes, God can dictate “genocide” (must we use the word? I feel like I would rather be in the Clinton White House during the Rwandan “g-word” right now). However, I feel far more comfortable with him using agents (weather, floods, fire) that *have not been given the gift of human agency* (and let’s not let Cleon Skousen’s talk, “The Meaning of the Atonement* muddy the waters here).

    Otherwise, if we too easily/quickly say that Joshua was an agent in God’s hands, then we have opened up a line of argument can quite literally explode in our faces (in the case of suicide bombers or dive bombers, depending on which side of the Israel-Palestine conflict one is on).

    So let’s not take an entire destruction of a people too lightly–unless, of course, we are willing to begin defending the Mountain Meadows Massacre. I, for one, am not willing–and will happily wait on the Lord to provide further light before I dare view the lives of an entire nation as expendable.

  15. One thing that no one has mentioned, is what the Canaanites were like. Considering how strongly we all feel about the Holocaust, let’s take a look at these people’s religion.

    It involved, if not human sacrifice, then certainly child sacrifice, especially but not exclusively with Chemosh. According to some sources, they would heat a large iron idol red-hot and then drop the child into the idol’s out stretched arms.

    And we mustn’t forget Baal and Ashtorah – who would just won’t love to have sex-priestess at church? It would make for quite a different sacrament meeting! In any case, sex with the priestess was part of the religion. Their creation recitals were also particularly immoral and lead people to “play the harlot”.

    When Nephi says those people were ripened in iniquity, he wasn’t joking.

    Now that we have this with a bit of context, please continue your discussion.

  16. Most modern scholars and archeologists dispute human sacrifice as being anything close to a major part of Canaanite religion. It’s possible that it occurred (also contested), but most archeological evidence points towards Canaanite religion around the time of the “Conquest” to be very similar to the neighboring Egyptians and Babylonian religions. A lot of what is told about the Canaanites refer to much later and more foreign cultures. It’s actually quite difficult to distinguish Israelite sites from Canaanite sites because everything about them, even the remains of their sacrifices and altars, are so similar.

    Does this conversation actually need context? This is troubling to me because, in a sense, it is just like saying “Well, the Fancher party was poisoning cattle and bragging about killing Joseph Smith.” Even if it were true (I don’t believe it is), how does that mean that they somehow deserve what they got?

  17. David,

    Assuming they were guilty of sacrificing children (which is in dispute–see Nocoolname_tom), wouldn’t it make sense to save the children from sacrifice, instead of killing the children? It seems ludicrous to me that you are going to kill the children to avoid them being used in human sacrifice, doesn’t it?

  18. David,

    Do you have any sources for the bad behavior of the Canaanites that aren’t based on Biblical accounts? Since it’s quite common for perpetrators of genocide to point to the filthy sexual habits, human sacrifices, and cannibalism of their victims as justification for killing them, Biblical accounts of what the Canaanites were like need to be taken with a grain of salt, IMO.

    And as MH points out, it doesn’t really make sense to say “The Canaanites killed some of their children, so the Israelites were justified in killing all of their children.”

  19. MH, I think I may have brought this up back when we had this discussion on your blog, but I’d like to hear what all the others think. Why does God need anyone to do his “dirty work” for him? If God decides that he needs to liquidate an entire population, for whatever reason he sees fit, then he does. He did in in many instances throughout the scriptures, on the grandest scale by drowning the entire world in Noah’s time. If he truly wanted all these people destroyed — including innocent women and children — why not just do it himself? He could have sent them a plague or a famine. Why leave it up to Joshua to get the job done? God must have foreseen that having such an occurrence recorded in scripture would have resulted in rationalization, or worse yet, even justification, of future holy wars committed in his name. And how many of those have ever been justifiable?

  20. Every discussion needs context, if only to understand it better.

    Yes, there is some dissent about whether they were child-sacrifices, or just burned remains of dead children, but ancient sources all indicate it was the former. Decide for yourselves. As far as I can tell, that is where the evidence points most steadily.

    There are also plenty of sources for their sexual practices. One easy example, look at the worship of Aphrodite, who was an imported version of Ashtoreth and/or similar goddesses.

    And yes, God doesn’t need anyone to do His dirty work for him. But for that matter, He doesn’t need us to do any work for him. He can do his own work. But sometimes he asks us to do things we can do for ourselves.

    As for leaving the children alive… I suppose He could have asked that. Not that it was so successful when we did it to the Native Americans.

    Why did God ask Joshua and Moses to do this? I don’t know. But most people need very little help justifying bad things.

  21. Not that it was so successful when we did it to the Native Americans.” What? I’m not following you here. Are you saying we should have exterminated Native Americans?

  22. By way of clarification, what was not successful was taking their children away and attempting to rename and re-educate them. Indian boys and girls would be taken away from their families and the state tried to have them raised as the rest of us Americans. They were not allowed to act “Indian” at all. But as I said, it was pretty unsuccessful.

  23. I think you guys are all not in a position to judge whether Joshua was justified or not. You are not God to know whether God commanded him to do it or not. Similarly you are wrong to say that God should not have destroyed Canaanite lineages. The fact of the matter is, many Canaanite lineages are present in modern day populations of both Arabs and Israelites. Many Israelites intermarried with Canaanites, and these marriages were accepted by God in the cases when the Canaanites were converts to the Israelite religion, but rejected when they were not. I can pull out a dozen and one scriptures to prove it if you like. Ephraim’s mother, whom most of the Church members would trace their lineage through, as an example, was Asenath, daughter of the High Priest of Heliopolis. Yeah, that’s right. You are Canaanite/Egyptian lineage if you are from Ephraim. And many other examples can be cited. So much for the blood of Cain not having priesthood. We all have the blood of Cain.

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