Explaining the Conquest of Canaan: Six Approaches

When it comes to hard passages in the Bible, few cause more readers to struggle with its contents than the Conquest narrative in Joshua. The seemingly genocidal tone which the book takes in describing the destruction of the Canaanites has caused many believers to question or even renounce their faith in God’s word. It has also been a favourite target among skeptics who seek to discredit the Bible. One cannot help but think of Dawkins’ characterization of the God of the Old Testament as “the most unpleasant character in all fiction.” More recently, Dan Barker has written an entire book attempting to point out the moral flaws of the Bible as an argument against its divine origin, with the Conquest his main evidence for this argument.[1]

Because the Conquest has been such a source of controversy, Christian theologians and apologists have spent much effort trying to make sense of it. The past fifteen years been an especially fruitful period, as many works have been published examining, explaining or deconstructing these narratives. Not all of these scholars approach the Conquest with the same methods or arrive at the same conclusions, however. Six distinct approaches have emerged to try to explain the Conquest. My goal is to look at these approaches and see how they shed light on the Conquest. This article will be divided into two parts. First, I will provide an overview of the six approaches and identify their major proponents. Second, I will analyze these approaches to identify their strengths and weaknesses. At the end, I will conclude by noting which approaches I think work best.

It should be stated at the outset that although this article is written from a Catholic perspective, the theologians and apologists cited in this essay come from both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds. This should not pose a problem for Catholics, as most of the scholarship cited below is compatible with a Catholic view of Scripture. Where it isn’t compatible with a Catholic view, I will make note of in my analysis at the end.

The Six Approaches Stated

The First Approach: Conquest as Divine Justice (Main Proponents: St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Gleason L. Archer Jr., Clay Jones)

The oldest and most widespread explanation for the conquest of Canaan was that it was a just war. The Canaanites were exceedingly wicked, and their sins contaminated the Holy Land, which is why God commanded the Israelites to remove them. Furthermore, there was a danger of Canaanite practices corrupting the morals of the Israelites as well, so this had the added purpose of safeguarding the Israelites from moral corruption.

We see this approach advocated as early as the Second Temple Jewish period. The Book of Wisdom (which Catholics accept as part of the Old Testament canon) interprets the Conquest in light of the justice and holiness of God:

Those who dwelt of old in your holy land

you hated for their detestable practices,

 their works of sorcery and unholy rites,

their merciless slaughter of children,

and their sacrificial feasting on human flesh and blood.

These initiates from the midst of a heathen cult,

these parents who murder helpless lives,

you wanted to destroy by the hands of our fathers,

that the land most precious of all to you

might receive a worthy colony of the servants of God.

But even these you spared, since they were but men,

and sent wasps as forerunners of your army,

to destroy them little by little,

though you were not unable to give the ungodly into the hands of the righteous in battle,

or to destroy them at one blow by dread wild beasts or your stern word.

But judging them little by little you gave them a chance to repent,

though you were not unaware that their origin was evil

and their wickedness inborn,

and that their way of thinking would never change.

For they were an accursed race from the beginning,

and it was not through fear of any one that you left them unpunished for their sins.

For who will say, “What have you done?”

Or who will resist your judgment?

Who will accuse you for the destruction of nations which you made?

Or who will come before you to plead as an advocate for unrighteous men?

For neither is there any god besides you, whose care is for all men,

to whom you should prove that you have not judged unjustly;

nor can any king or monarch confront you

about those whom you have punished.

You are righteous and rule all things righteously,

deeming it alien to your power

to condemn him who does not deserve to be punished.

For your strength is the source of righteousness,

and your sovereignty over all causes you to spare all.

For you show your strength when men doubt the completeness of your power,

and rebuke any insolence among those who know it.

You who are sovereign in strength judge with mildness,

and with great forbearance you govern us;

for you have power to act whenever you choose. (Wisdom 12:3-18, RSV-2CE)[2]

In the Patristic period, we see this approach advocated by St. Augustine. In his commentary on the book of Joshua, he explains that the Israelites were engaged in a just war, and all of the actions which they undertook were lawful:

Because of what God commands Joshua, telling him to ambush behind the city, that is, ambush warriors to stalk enemies, we deduce that those who wage a just war do not act unjustly. And for that reason, a righteous man should not think about these matters any more important than making a just war, if it is lawful for him to do it. Because not everyone is lawful. If war is fair, it matters little to justice if it wins in open combat or by ambush. Fair wars are usually called those that come insults, in the event that a nation or a city, which must be attacked in war, has neglected to avenge what their own have done wrongfully or to return what has been taken away by means of insults. But without a doubt it is also just that war that God commands to do, he who has no iniquity and knows what should be given to each one. In this kind of war, the head of the army or the people themselves are not so much the author of the war as the servant of the war.[3]

Further on in his commentary, he defends the actions of the Israelites from the charges of cruelty, and insinuates that those who make such charges have incorrectly judge the works of God:

Joshua did not leave anyone alive in it. As the Lord had commanded his servant Moses and Moses had commanded Joshua in his turn, so Joshua did: He did not let anything of all the things that the Lord had commanded Moses go through. We should not think that this was a cruelty, that is, the fact that Joshua did not leave anyone alive in the cities he conquered, since God had ordered him to do so. Those who draw from this the conclusion that God was cruel, and therefore do not want to accept that the true God was the author of the Old Testament, judge as perversely about the works of God as of the sins of men, ignoring what each one It deserves to suffer and thinking that it is a great evil that is torn down that has to fall and that the mortal dies.[4]

Underlying this judgment is the idea that God, as the Author of life, has authority to take away life as He sees fit, whether through natural means, or through human agency. St. Thomas Aquinas provides this explanation in his Summa Theologica:

All men alike, both guilty and innocent, die the death of nature: which death of nature is inflicted by the power of God on account of original sin, according to 1 Samuel 2:6: “The Lord killeth and maketh alive.” Consequently, by the command of God, death can be inflicted on any man, guilty or innocent, without any injustice whatever.[5]

This continues to be the default explanation for the Conquest in apologetic works up to recent times. The best summary of this approach is given by Gleason L. Archer in the Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. In his section on Joshua, he answers the question of whether Joshua was justified in exterminating the people of Jericho. In his response, he states the following:

The loss of innocent life in the demolition of Jericho was much to be regretted, but we must recognize that there are times when only radical surgery will save the life of a cancer-stricken body. The whole population of the antediluvian civilization had become hopelessly infected with the cancer of moral depravity (Gen. 6:5). Had any of them been permitted to lie while still in rebellion against God, they might have infected Noah’s family as well. The same was true of the detestable inhabitants of Sodom, wholly given over to the depravity of homosexuality and rape, in the days of Abraham and Lot. As with the Benjamites of Gibeah at a later period (Jud. 19:22-30; 20:43-48), the entire population had to be destroyed. So also it was with Jericho and Ai as well (Josh. 8:18-26); likewise with Makkedah (Josh. 10:28), Lachish (v.32), Eglon (v.35), Debir (v.39), and all the cities of the Negev and the Shephelah (v.40). In the northern campaign against Hazor, Madon, Shimron, and Achshaph, the same thorough destruction was meted out (Josh. 11:11-14).[6]

The reason for such radical removal of sinful Canaanites, he argues, was to preserve the purity of the Israelites. If the Canaanites are not removed from the land, they will inevitable contaminate the beliefs and morals of the Israelites, which would in turn jeopardize God’s redemptive plans:

In every case the baneful infection of degenerate idolatry and moral depravity had to be removed before Israel could safely settled down in these regions and set up a  monotheistic, law-governed commonwealth as a testimony for the one true God. Much as we regret the terrible loss of life, we must remember that far greater mischief would have resulted if they had been permitted to live on in the midst of the Hebrew nation. These incorrigible degeneration of the Canaanite civilization were a sinister threat to the spiritual survival of Abraham’s race. The failure to carry through completely the policy of the extermination of the heathen in the Land of Promise later led to the moral and religious downfall of the Twelve Tribes in the days of the Judges (Judg. 2:1-3, 10-15, 19-23).[7]

One final proponent of the Divine Justice approach that must be mentioned is Clay Jones, who advances this argument by highlighting the extent of the depravity of the Canaanites, in his article, “We Don’t Hate Sin So We Don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites.” Three points in the article are worth noting. First, he points to Genesis 15:16, where it states “And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” He argues that “complete” in this context should be understood to refer to the extent of their sins. The Canaanites during Abraham’s day were far less depraved than those living in Joshua’s day, which is why God did not yet see fit to drive them out of the land. This is meant to highlight God’s patience and mercy, as He chooses to allow the Canaanites to remain on the land until their sins reached the tipping point, as it were.[8]

Second, Jones goes into detail explaining just how bad the Canaanites’ sins are. He lists them into the following categories: idolatry, incest, adultery, child sacrifice, homosexuality, and bestiality.[9] Worth noting are the sections on incest and child sacrifice. Initially, Canaanite law condemned incest with the death penalty just like Leviticus. By the time of the Conquest, however, incest had been decriminalized and the death penalty was replaced with a fine. Furthermore, the Canaanite gods were depicted as engaging in incest.[10] As for child sacrifice, we have archaeological confirmation that the Canaanite religion involved sacrificing their children from both contemporary texts as well as archaeological remains found in Phoenician and Carthaginian sites. This sacrifice involved placing the child on the hands of a statue of Kronos, which was placed above a burning cauldron, while flutes and drums played to drown out the screams of the children.[11] These, Jones points out, are the reasons why God saw fit to remove the Canaanites from Israel’s midst.

Third, Jones argues that many of these same sins pervade contemporary western culture as well, and our society either condones them or downplays their severity, by making light of them in music and entertainment. The fact that we are desensitized to these sins goes a long way towards explaining why we don’t understand why they were such a big deal in a Biblical context, as these narratives expose the sinfulness of our own generation.[12]

The Second Approach: Conquest as Inspired Hyperbole (Main Proponents: Kenneth Kitchen, Richard Hess, Paul Copan, Matthew Flannagan, Brant Pitre, John Bergsma, John Goldingay)

Despite the long and venerable history of the Divine Justice approach to interpreting the Conquest, most contemporary exegetes feel that, in light of modern challenges to the ethics of the Bible, as well as new advances in our knowledge of Biblical backgrounds, the classical approach can no longer be presented as standing on its own, and must be supplemented by additional information and explanations in order to make it coherent to readers.

Here, we must bring up the work of Paul Copan, who has done extensive work on Old Testament difficulties and how to address them from an apologetics perspective. His book, Is God a Moral Monster?, is a general book on various Old Testament difficult passages, ranging from statements about slavery, to treatment of women, to war texts. It is the chapters that deal with the war texts that are of particular concern to us, as he advances the argument that many of the Conquest narratives should be understood as hyperbole, rather than literal. This argument is significantly expanded in a later book that he co-authored with Matthew Flannagan titled Did God Command Genocide?. In these two books, Copan makes note of the curious fact that Joshua presents the Israelites as eradicating the Canaanites from the land, only for the Canaanites to resurface only a short time later, as if they had not really been eradicated at all.  Judges 1:1 notes that after Joshua’s death, the Israelites were still contending with Canaanites in the land. We even read in some places that the Israelites did not drive them out of certain areas, and instead put them into forced labour (Joshua 16:10, 17:13, Judges 1:28-35).

In interpreting these texts, Copan draws from the work of Kenneth Kitchen, who is one of the earliest Biblical scholars to compare these narratives to contemporary Ancient Near Eastern war reports. He notes that such reports typically use exaggeration as a rhetorical device, speaking of the other side as having been vanquished even when they have not:

The type of rhetoric in question was a regular feature of military reports in the second and first millennia, as others have made very clear. We can thus be brief here. In the later fifteenth century Tuthmosis III could boast “the numerous army of Mitanni was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally, like those (now) non-existent”—whereas, in fact, the forces of Mitanni lived to fight many another day, in the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries. Some centuries later, about 840/830, Mesha king of Moab could boast that “Israel has utterly perished for always”—a rather premature judgment at that date, by over a century! And so on, ad libitum. It is in this frame of reference that the Joshua rhetoric must also be understood.[13]

Copan adds a number of additional examples to this, and then echoes Kitchen’s argument, stating: “Joshua’s conventional warfare rhetoric was common in many other ancient Near Eastern military accounts in the second and first millennia BC. The language is typically exaggerated and full of bravado, depicting total devastation. The knowing ancient Near Eastern reader recognized this as hyperbole; the accounts weren’t understood to be literally true.”[14] He goes further than this, however. In his discussion of Canaanite cities such as Jericho and Ai, he draws upon the work of Old Testament scholar Richard Hess, who points out that these cities were primarily military installations that were inhabited by political leaders and military personnel, whereas most ordinary Canaanites lived in the countryside. Thus, the goal of destroying these cities was to eliminate the Canaanite leadership and military. References to women and children were stock phrases that do not necessarily mean women and children were actually present in these cities.[15] He then suggests that it possible that non-combatants may not have been present in some of these cities at all (individuals such as Rahab would have been exceptions, as she serviced the Canaanite personnel stationed in Jericho):

Given what we know about Canaanite life in the Bronze Age, Jericho and Ai were military strongholds. In fact, Jericho guarded the travel routes from the Jordan Valley up to population centers in the hill country. It was the first line of defense at the junction of three roads leading to Jerusalem, Bethel, and Orpah. That means that Israel’s wars here were directed toward government and military installments; this is where the king, the army, and the priesthood resided. The use of “women” and “young and old” was merely stock ancient Near Eastern language that could be used even if women and young and old weren’t living there. The language of “all” (“men and women”) at Jericho and Ai is a “stereotypical expression for the destruction of all human life in the fort, presumably composed entirely of combatants.” The text doesn’t require that women and young and old must have been in these cities.[16]

Although one can point to individuals such as Rahab, these should be seen as exceptions to this rule. Rahab in particular serviced the Canaanite personnel stationed in Jericho, so there was a logical reason for her presence there.

More recently, Catholic biblical scholars John Bergsma and Brant Pitre reiterate the hyperbole argument in A Catholic Introduction to the Bible. They show that, whereas some passages present an idealized picture of the Conquest characterized by total annihilation, other passages present a more realistic picture where the land is acquired gradually, and while some death takes place, many others simply fled from the scene, while others were assimilated into Israel or forced into servitude. They cite many of the same examples as Copan and Flannagan of Ancient Near Eastern texts making the same hyperbolic statements as Joshua.[17] At the end of the section dealing with this, they conclude, “when we read the text of Joshua carefully in the light of the rhetorical features of ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts, the apparent tension between the passages of Joshua that celebrate his successes and those that reflect the continued reality of continued occupation of the land by different Canaanite populations is greatly reduced, if not eliminated.”[18] They further suggest that most of the Canaanites likely either defected to the Israelites or fled, rather than were killed:

According to the book of Joshua itself, elements of the Canaanite population like Rahab and the Gibeonites did find ways to assimilate with Israel (Josh 2, 8). Indeed, while it is true that the Israelites left no one remaining alive in the cities they captured, there is good reason to believe that untold numbers fled alive before, during, and after the siege. Despite the comprehensive sound of the description of Israelite victories mentioned above (Josh 10:28-41; 11:10-15), large numbers of the inhabitants must have fled and taken refuge elsewhere to return later, because some of the same cities, such as Hazor, arise once more to pose a threat in Israel (cf. Josh 11:10-11; Judg 4:2).[19]

Finally, one other notable proponent of this view is Anglican Old Testament scholar John Goldingay. In his commentary Joshua, Judges, and Ruth for Everyone, he refers to the conquest narratives as hyperbole multiple times. In so doing, he isn’t denying that a conquest happened, but is stating that the story is framed in language that should be seen as exaggerated according to the accepted literary conventions of ancient near eastern historical writing. According to him, the use of hyperbole in the narrative serves two theological purposes: 1) to glorify God for His fulfillment of the promises, and 2) to remind Israel that God gave them the country, and could just as well take it away if they begin acting like the Canaanites as well.[20]

It should be noted that most of the authors cited who hold to a hyperbolic view of the Conquest do not hold to this approach alone, but also hold to at least one other approach in addition to it. For example, Copan and Flannagan[21] both hold to a divine justice approach to interpreting the Conquest as well. Likewise, the Waltons, who hold primarily to the Eminent Domain approach (outlined below) also accept the hyperbolic view, but regard it as ancillary to their main approach. Thus, the hyperbolic view is best seen as a supplement to, not a replacement for, the other approaches mentioned herein.

The Third Approach: Conquest as Eminent Domain (Main Proponents: John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton)

The father and son team John H. and J. Harvey Walton have provided an important addition to the conversation of how to interpret the book of Joshua in their book, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest. This book expands upon the contemporary literature examining the Conquest narratives according to its historical and linguistic backgrounds, and seeks to highlight elements of the text that may be overlooked by most readers. In so doing, they advance the discussion of the Conquest by proposing novel interpretations of key texts. They argue that traditional approaches to the Conquest are wrongheaded because they attempt to evaluate the events according to modern western notions of goodness that are alien to the ancient near east in general, and the Biblical worldview in particular.[22] They also agree with the hyperbolic approach in that the narratives contain exaggerated elements.[23] Furthermore, a large section of their book is dedicated to explaining what the herem is, and point out that it does not mean “to destroy” but “to remove from use,” the focus of which is to eliminate Canaanite cultural identity markers so that they would not jeopardize Israelite cultural identity.[24]

Perhaps the boldest proposition that the Waltons argue is that, contrary to initial appearances, the Bible does not actually teach that the reason for the removal of the Canaanites was because of any moral transgression. They argue that since the Canaanites were not bound by Mosaic law, they could not be held accountable for failing to obey it.[25] They also creatively reinterpret Genesis 15:16, on the basis of a number of words and phrases that could be understood differently from their traditional translation. They argue that it should actually be understood as “It won’t be until after your lifetime is over that your family will return here because the destiny of destruction that has been decreed for your friends and allies has been and will continued to be deferred.”[26] Furthermore, passages that are often taken as referring to Canaanite sin is actually “stereotyping language,” which is meant to contrast with how the Israelites should behave, and is not meant as an accusation.[27]

So if the Canaanites are not being accused of sin, why are they being removed from the land? The answer, according to the Waltons, is simply that God did so because He had the divine prerogative to do so, and that doing so accomplished His goals. They liken this to the concept of Eminent Domain, which is the right of a government to appropriate one’s property for their own use.[28] He points out that other ANE cultures believed that their kings had been granted a similar right of appropriation by the gods, and points to Sargon as an example.[29]

As an aside, should be noted that Goldingay briefly alludes to this viewpoint as well, although he is much less insistent upon this point than the Waltons. In his commentary, he states that Joshua’s portrayal of the Canaanites “admittedly . . . stereotypes people.” His explanation of this only covers a single paragraph however, so the extent to which he thinks the portrayal reflects actual Canaanite practice is unclear. However, he does state that the purpose of this stereotyping is to warn Israel that a similar fate may befall them if they begin to act like the Canaanites as well. Thus, “these stories function as warnings. Later Israel cannot afford simply to identify with Joshua’s Israel. It needs to see the fate of the Canaanites as potentially and actually its own fate.”[30]

The Fourth Approach: Conquest as Giant Eradication (Main Proponent: Michael L. Heiser)

Another element of the puzzle is provided by Michael L. Heiser. In his article, “The Giant Clans and the Conquest” (which is itself a summary of a more developed argument that he presents in his book The Unseen Realm), he argues for a totally novel understanding of the Conquest. Based on his research on the supernatural worldview of the Bible, Heiser focuses on the fact that giants are mentioned in the Conquest, and arrives at the conclusion that the main purpose of the Conquest was to eliminate these giants. He summarizes his thesis as follows:

My view is that it [the Conquest] wasn’t indiscriminate at all, and that wholesale genocide wasn’t the point of the conquest. Rather, the command of to “devote to destruction” (ḥerem/kherem) was focused on the giant clans (denoted by words like Anakim, Rephaim, and, occasionally, Amorites). That is, I believe the rationale for the ḥerem was to eliminate the Anakim, the vestiges of the nephilim (Num 13:32-33), since those peoples were perceived to be (and were, in some way, according to the OT) raised up by rival gods hostile to Yahweh (and thus their own purpose was to prevent Yahweh’s people from kickstarting the kingdom of God on earth). Other people were certainly killed, since the giant clans were scattered among the general population, but I contend the conquest rationale was framed by the urgency to eliminate the nephilim bloodlines. This is textbook “mythic history” (actual historical events framed by, and articulated in light of, theological rationale / beliefs).[31]

In the article, he traces the sites where the major battles took place and where the ḥerem was applied, and then notes that in Joshua 11:21-23, the Anakim were present in many of those same areas. He argues that the text is saying that the Conquest is considered as having succeeded because the giants were successfully eliminated from the land, even if the rest of the Canaanites were still there:

Notice that the summary doesn’t say, “There were no more [fill in the people name] in the land of the people of Israel” because “Joshua had cut off [fill in the people name].” The conquest is defined as a success along specific lines: elimination of the Anakim from the hill country so that none of them were in Israel’s land. I also think it’s why the “mop up” that occurred afterward in the days of Joshua also focused on the elimination of the Anakim by Caleb — again in the hill country (Joshua 14-15).[32]

Why the emphasis on the giants? In his book Reversing Hermon, Heiser contends that one of the larger narrative arcs in Scripture that is frequently overlooked is the sin of the “sons of God” and the subsequent creation of the Nephilim as found in Genesis 6:1-4 (and expanded upon in the book of Enoch). As he explains it: “This book is about the important influence that the story of the sin of the Watchers in 1 Enoch 6–16 had on the thinking of New Testament authors.”[33] He argues that this pivotal event led to the spread of evil in the world, and that part of God’s greater plan involved reversing of the effects of this transgression (hence the book title).

Connected to this, he sees Rahab’s story in Joshua as part of this narrative arc, since her status as a prostitute calls to mind the sexual transgression mentioned in Enoch. The fact that Jericho is one of the cities placed under the ḥerem strengthens this connection. Although such a connection is lost on us moderns, it would have been readily apparent to the Jews living in the Second Temple Period.[34] Thus, Rahab, the Anakim, and the ḥerem all come together to form one complex narrative of giant eradication, and this connects the Conquest to the larger metanarrative of Scripture.

The Fifth Approach: Conquest as Allegory (Main Proponents: Philo, Origen)

A more spiritually-oriented approach to making sense of the book of Joshua comes from proponents of allegory as a method of interpretation. According to this approach, every passage of Scripture has both a literal and allegorical sense. The literal sense tells us the bare facts of what happened, whereas the allegorical sense divulges the deeper spiritual meaning of the text. When the literal sense gives offense to the reader, they may opt to push that sense to the background and allow the allegorical sense to become more central.

The originator of this approach is the Jewish philosopher Philo (ca. 1st century AD). He adopted allegory from the Platonists, who used it to make sense of the apparently unsavoury stories of the Greek Gods as found in the Homeric poems. For Philo, this method held the key to making sense of some of the harder passages of the Hebrew Bible to accept, such as the anthropomorphisms and the morally problematic stories. To quote Gerald Bray: “By using allegory, Philo was able to explain away difficult or unpalatable statements in the Old Testament by saying that they contained a hidden meaning of spiritual value, even if the literal sense was unacceptable to most people.”[35] This should not be taken to mean that he rejects the literal sense entirely, however. In his description of the Biblical stories, he clearly still takes them as literal. Even as he assigns spiritual meaning to the land of Canaan (calling it “where reason is tossed to and fro”),[36] he regards the Conquest as a historical event, and treats it as such in his Apology for the Jews.[37]

This approach was later picked up by Origen of Alexandria, who borrowed heavily from the writings of Plato.[38] He was sensitive to the critiques of Scripture levelled by Pagans in his own day, such as the philosopher Celsus. Thus, like Plato, he adopted allegory as a means to make use of Scripture passages that he found awkward or offensive: “Origen regarded the text of Scripture as an outward and perishable form which both concealed and revealed eternal spiritual truths. A fundamental separation between word and spirit was characteristic of his interpretation, and distinguished it sharply from both the rabbinical and the New Testament tradition.”[39]

We see this at work in his homilies on the book of Joshua. Many of the historical elements of the book are downplayed or outright ignored, and turn into props which he then uses to portray the Christian’s spiritual struggles. Cynthia White explains:

Origen personalizes the fortunes of Israel as he constantly interprets the conquest of Canaan as an image of the struggles of the spiritual life. The crossing of the Jordan is the sacrament of baptism where the catechumens enlist in the militia Christi and are equipped for the battles that lie within. Heretics who reject the violence of the battles are challenged to view that violence as directed against the deadly enemies of the soul.[40]

Likewise, we see the Canaanites transformed into symbols for the vices that perennially assail the Christian’s soul. The text, as Origen reads it, is an exhortation to fight daily against these vices. He explains this in his first homily on Joshua thus:

In the time of Moses it was not said, as it is in Jesus’ time, that “the land rested from wars.” It is certain that also this land of ours, in which we have struggles and endure contests, will be able to rest from battles by the strength of the Lord Jesus alone. Within us, indeed, are all those breeds of vices that continually and incessantly attack the soul. Within us are the Canaanites; within us are the Perizzites; here are the Jebusites. In what way must we exert ourselves, how vigilant must we be or for how long must we persevere, so that when all these breeds of vices have been forced to flee, “our land may rest from wars” at last? It is for this purpose that the prophet urges that we meditate on the Law of the Lord day and night.” This continual meditation on the divine word is like some trumpet rousing your souls for battle, so that you do not sleep while the enemy is awake. Since the day is not sufficient for meditation, night is also added.[41]

Later, in his ninth homily, he uses the battles that Joshua fought as a springboard to talk about the battles Jesus fought through His Church:

The narrative of the exploits is clear, and what is plainly expressed does not need explanation. Nevertheless, out of these visible things that were done, let us consider the wars and triumphs that the Lord Jesus, our Savior, led, although we may also perceive these things to be visibly fulfilled in him. For the kings of the earth have assembled together, the senate and the people and the leaders of Rome, to blot out the name of Jesus and Israel at the same time. For they have decreed in their laws that there be no Christians. Every city, every class, attacks the name of Christians. But just as at that time all those kings assembling against Jesus were able to do nothing, so even now, whether princes or those opposing authorities, they have been able to do nothing to prevent the race of Christians from being propagated more widely and profusely. For it is written, “The more greatly they abased them, the more they multiplied and they increased mightily.”[42]

Even Ephraim’s failure to totally drive out the Canaanites from their allotted land becomes fodder for allegory, as we see in Origen’s twenty-first homily:

But something similar is also written concerning Ephraim, for Scripture says, “And Ephraim did not destroy the Canaanite who dwelt in Gezer, and the Canaanite lived in Ephraim up to this day.” Ephraim means “bearing fruit.” Therefore even the one who bears fruit and grows in the faith is not able to exterminate the Canaanite, that very wicked seed, that accursed seed, that ever inconstant seed, always unsettled; for this is what the word Canaanite means. It is certain that a Canaanite always dwells with the one who bears fruit and grows; for the tumult of temptation never ceases from him. But you, if you truly bear fruit in God, and if you observe someone of such a nature—restless, impetuous, excitable—know that this is a Canaanite. And if you are not able to cast him out of the Church, because the sons of Ephraim were not able to destroy the Canaanites, attend to that which the Apostle warns saying, “Remove yourself from every fellow who goes about restlessly.”[43]

For many centuries, this method of interpreting Scripture became predominant among the church fathers and early medieval writers. It was only with the advent of Scholastic theologians of the 12th and 13th centuries such as the St. Thomas Aquinas, Nicholas of Lyra and the Victorines that emphasis on the literal meaning of the text once again came to the forefront, and became the basis for theological reflection.[44]

The Sixth Approach: Conquest as Providential Errancy (Main Proponents: Keith Ward, Peter Enns, Gregory Boyd, Randal Rauser)

This final approach is taken by a number of scholars and theologians who are more on the more progressive end of the theological spectrum. The term “Providential Errancy” was coined by Randal Rauser in his book Jesus Loves Canaanites[45] to describe a set of closely-related approaches which have in common the idea that the Old Testament has a flawed perspective on God and morality, which the New Testament later moves us away from, but that this can still be harmonized with the inspiration of all of Scripture somehow.

One of the earliest expressions of this viewpoint that I have read comes from the book Is Religion Dangerous? by Anglican theologian and philosopher Keith Ward. In the sixth chapter, “Morality and the Bible,” he devotes several pages to explaining the Israelite conquest. He first mentions two approaches. The first is to simply disregard the conquest as never having happened at all, and is merely later Israel projecting its primitive moral attitudes into the past. The second (what he calls the “conservative” approach) is to affirm that the conquest happen, and that God really did command it, but that it was a unique occurrence and is now obsolete.[46] Then he gives the following as a third approach:

The third general religious attitude is that even the Ban expresses some perception of the divine will – in this case, a will for total devotion to God, and for the renunciation of all private gain from battle. But it was a very limited perception, which involved a distorted view of what God really requires (which is love of, or at least respect for, enemies). As such, it was corrected by developing perceptions of God’s will by the later prophets of Israel.[47]

He goes on to state that this is his own preferred option, and points to the theological ramifications of such a view:

This is the interpretation I prefer, and it entails that there is a developing understanding of God, a very useful record of which can be found in the Old Testament. At first God was taken to be a tribal war God (the God of Hosts, or armies), leading Israel to victory, and being one among many others gods – ‘a great King above all gods’ (Psalm 95:3). But by the time of the major prophets, in the eighth century BCE, God was seen to be the only true God, the creator of all things, whose will is for universal justice. It is the fully developed view that is important, not the primitive beginnings of the prophetic knowledge of God.[48]

This view is later advocated by Peter Enns, who argues for it in The Bible Tells Me So…. In this book, he argues that God did not really command the Israelites to perform the conquest. He merely allowed them to attribute such a command to him. As Enns puts it, “Canaanite genocide is part of Israel’s story of the past – not a historical account of something about God.”[49] In his view, allowing Israel to creatively reinterpret the past and insert God into the picture where he wasn’t really involved was necessary because of divine accommodation.

He furthermore argues that the New Testament authors intended for us to leave behind parts the Old Testament, stating:

They [the Gospel writers and Paul] clearly revered their Jewish heritage and their scripture (what Christians will later call the Old Testament), but they also saw that God was pushing them beyond it. . . . Jesus was God’s climax to Israel’s story, but he was not bound to that story. He pushed at its boundaries, transformed it, and at times left parts of it behind.[50]

A much more detailed exploration of the Providential Errancy view is provided by Greg Boyd in his massive two-volume work, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, as well as his more compact single-volume summary Cross-Vision. In his major work, he explains the conundrum that he was faced with: On the one hand, he feels compelled to say that the Old Testament is inspired, because Jesus taught so. On the other hand, he cannot accept the Old Testament’s portrait of God as accurate.[51] Thus, he has set out to harmonize these two seemingly contradictory affirmations.

In his books, his main thesis is that the all of Scripture must be given a Christocentric interpretation. Thus, the words and actions of Jesus become the controlling factor in how we view Old Testament texts. As Boyd puts it, “the NT presents Jesus not as one revelation among others but as the revelation that culminates and supersedes all others. . . . [furthermore,] Jesus not only supersedes all previous revelations, he is the ultimate focal point of these revelations.”[52] The challenge, as he sees it, “The challenge, I now realized, is about how we can disclose how these portraits, together with all Scripture, actually point to Jesus.”[53] Thus, the life and teachings of Jesus become the paradigm by which we determine whether any given divine portrayal is authentic or not. And as he sees it, the portrayals of the OT fail because they do not fit this Christocentric paradigm. Although God did not command them to engage in the Conquest, He allows them to portray Him as doing so, with the hope of presenting them a better picture later on in the person of Christ.

Of all the events in Jesus’ life, Crucifixion is of particular importance to Boyd. He writes, “the cross forms the thematic center of everything Jesus was about, from his incarnation to his resurrection and ascension . . . everything Jesus was about was orientated around the revelation that God is other-oriented, self-sacrificial, agape-love (1 John 4:8) as defined by his all-surpassing sacrifice on the cross (1 John 3:16).”[54] The significant of the Crucifixion is that, just as Christ taking the sins of the world upon Himself becomes the model by which we must understand God’s bearing of the flawed perceptions which the Israelites project upon Him. As boyd states in his conclusion:

Since the crucified Christ is the perfect expression of how God wants his authority and power used, we must conclude that Elisha’s use of this authority and power to have forty-two young men mauled by two bears does not. Nor does Elijah’s lethal reign of fire, nor Samson’s murderous rampages, nor the deadly displays of power from the ark. The obedience of Jesus to the point of the cross exposes the sinfulness of these uses of divine power while revealing that the same noncoercive God who humbly entrusted his authority and power to Jesus has always been humbly entrusting his authority to his people, and this same obedience to the point of the cross is what makes possible the revelation of the God who bore the sin of these misuses of power, together with the sin of the world.[55]

The implications of this viewpoint are noted by Colin Cornell, in his review of Cross Vision. He notes that this approach may be seen as a form of Sachkritik (“Content Criticism”), which he says, “pivots on the notion that scripture is not wrong just in chronological detail or historical incident, but wrong theologically – bent awry from telling truthfully about the living God.”[56] Thus, he states, “he [Boyd] charges an entire testament of the Christian Bible with pervasive theological deficiency – the Old Testament.”[57]

Finally, the most recent figure to write in advocacy of this viewpoint is Randal Rauser. In his book, Jesus Loves Canaanites, he arrives at a similar conclusion as the above mentioned authors. According to him:

Providential Errantists [assert] . . . that one cannot defend the morality of the texts when read as historical and thus that one must deny the historical reference. While they are open to finding spiritual meaning in the plenary sense . . . Providential Errantists also emphasize the importance of developing a moral critique of the literal sense, while recognizing that this very act places the reader in a prophetic engagement with Scripture which serves the end of becoming like Jesus and loving God and neighbor.[58]

How Rauser’s approach differs from other proponents of the same approach is that he focuses in on the role of human moral intuition in his defense of this view. He states, “the primary distinctive of this book resides in my commitment to identify and defend the central role of moral intuition and moral perception in theology and hermeneutics along with the determination to apply these insights to one specific case: the Canaanite conquest.”[59] Thus, he argues, we may know that the Conquest was not the command of God, because our God-given moral intuitions are repulsed by such a notion. Instead, our moral intuitions point us towards what he refers to as the “Love Principle,” i.e. that any genuine interpretation must be one that fosters love for God and neighbour. Since the classical interpretation does not foster such love (in his view), it is to be rejected.[60]

Another argument that Rauser adds to discussion is the argument that the actions of Joshua and the Israelites fit the criteria for Genocide. Rauser looks at contemporary definitions of genocide, as well as contemporary examples of genocide such as the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, and concludes that the Israelite Conquest do not differ significantly from the definitions and example provided. If the Conquest had taken place in our own day, their actions would be condemned as genocide by the International Criminal Court.[61] The inevitable conclusion which the reader is left to draw is that, since God would not condone acts that everyone would recognize as genocide, we cannot believe that the command to slaughter the Canaanites come from God.

Analyzing the Six Approaches

Having summarized the main points of the six approaches to interpreting the Conquest narrative, we may now proceed to a close analysis of each approach. I will be going through the six approaches in the reverse order, to see what their relative strengths and weaknesses are, as well as their compatibility or incompatibility with a Catholic view of Scripture. At the end, we can hopefully arrive at a big picture view of the best way to explain the Conquest.

Right off the bat, we must reject “Providential Errancy” as a valid approach to the Conquest. If there is one thing that can be said in its favour, it is that it forces us to take seriously the fact of progressive revelation. The stories of the Old Testament are not an end in themselves, but were written to set the stage for the full revelation of God in Christ. As Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch affirm: “Ultimately the ‘dark passages’ of the Old Testament must be viewed in the light of Christ and the New Testament. From this perspective, the historical character of divine revelation is of paramount importance.”[62]

That being said, we must dismiss this view as incompatible with traditional Christian belief in Biblical authority. Both traditional Catholicism and classical Protestantism have historically affirmed the inerrancy of Scripture. This is best summarized in the Vatican II document Dei Verbum, which teaches that “since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.”[63] This statement not be read, as some theologians mistakenly do, as an affirmation that Scripture is merely inerrant when it speaks on matters of faith and morals. As I have argued elsewhere,[64] the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church is that Scripture is fully inerrant, not just when it speaks on matters of faith and morals.

Furthermore, even if one were, for the sake of argument, to restrict inerrancy to matters of faith and morals, the “Providential Errantist” approach would still have to be rejected, because of what it proposes regarding the Old Testament teaching of God. Recall Cornell’s statement about Sachkritik mentioned earlier, and how this approach necessitates accusing the Old Testament of theological error. If we are to accept the propositions of Providential Errantists that the Old Testament authors presented an erroneous picture of God, and that it was left to the revelation of Jesus to correct this errant notion and “bear the Old Testament authors’ sinful notions of God on the Cross” (to paraphrase Boyd), then it follows that the Bible contains errors even on matters of faith. Once one arrives at the point of affirming this, then one can no longer be said to believe in inerrancy in any meaningful sense. Indeed, one can almost sense a latent Marcionism in this approach to Scripture, since its premises would logically lead to the conclusion that the Old Testament may as well be jettisoned entirely.

It should be noted as well that Boyd is rather selective in which Old Testament voices he accepts and which he rejects. For example, he praises those characters who wrestle with God or question the wisdom of God’s actions.[65] But if we adopt Boyd’s Christocentric hermeneutic, should we not be just as suspicious of these portrayals as the ones he criticizes? After all, Jesus never taught us to stand up to God like this.[66] Incidentally, Boyd holds up Job as an example for us to follow, yet the story ends with God rebuking Job for making foolish presumptions about Him, and Job responds by repenting of everything he had said against God (Job 38:1-42:6). Perhaps if there is anything about Job that Pro should be emulating, it is Job’s repentance at the end!

More can be said in criticism of this view. Copan, in a debate with Boyd, brings up the important point that Jesus never backpedals from or calls it into question the Old Testament’s portrayal of God. After all, Jesus taught that Scripture (i.e. the Old Testament) cannot be broken (John 10:35). In fact, the New Testament continues the trend of presenting God as a warrior. This is most clearly seen in the book of Revelation, when Jesus descends from heaven with a sword and the host of heaven to do battle against evil (cf. Revelation 19:11 ff). Thus, Copan argues, Boyd’s “Cruciform” hermeneutic proves to be way to oversimplified, as well as selective in what New Testament data it takes into account.[67] Goldingay makes a similar observation as Copan when he writes:

There is a sense in which the easiest way to respond to such arguments is simply to say that Joshua was wrong, that he misunderstood God, and that the New Testament then shows us a more excellent way. This can make us feel better, but it raises further problems and doesn’t really get us anywhere, because the people who use Scripture in this way view Scripture as the inspired and authoritative word of God, and they aren’t open to the claim that Joshua was simply wrong (and on that, I agree with them). They can correctly comment that the New Testament shows no indication of unease about Joshua’s action. I have noted in the introduction that Joshua is one of the New Testament’s great heroes (see Hebrews 11). The saintly Stephen, about to be martyred and to pray for his killers’ forgiveness in the same way as Jesus did, nevertheless rejoices in the way the Israelites with Joshua dispossessed the nations that God drove out before their ancestors (see Acts 7). For us as modern people, there is a disjunction between praying for your enemies’ forgiveness and rejoicing in the Joshua story; for Stephen there was not.[68]

Also, we must question the argument made by Rauser that our moral intuitions would force us to reject the idea that God commanded the Conquest. As he himself admits, our moral intuitions can often be flawed, and even Christians are not exempt from this. Perhaps his revulsion at the notion of God commanding the Conquest is the product of his own flawed moral intuition, and those who with better moral intuitions would see the Israelites’ actions as just. In fact, I would argue that insofar as one’s moral intuitions do not line up with the Natural Law principle outlined with Aquinas that God has the final authority to determine the time and circumstances of one’s death, we must reject such intuitions as flawed.

His appeal to secular definitions of Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing must be rejected for the same reasons, since these appeals assume that God’s commands can be subjected to fallible human moral intuitions, as though He were subject to the ICC. He objects to the idea that God may have a justification for such commands that goes beyond our fallible reasoning, but this is precisely how Scripture teaches us to view God: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

One cannot help but think of C. S. Lewis’ classic essay God in the Dock, where he observes how modern man has the hubris to think that they are the ones with the right to judge God, when it is in fact they who are to be judged:

The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench and God is in the dock.[69]

His appeal to the “Love Principle” is no less problematic for the simple reason that he quotes St. Augustine selectively in order to arrive at this principle. However, as we have already seen above, St. Augustine was an advocate of a “Just War” reading of Joshua. Whatever else the church father may have thought of the “Love Principle,” he certainly did not regard the Conquest as in violation of it! This just goes to show that different people have different notions of what love is, and rather than trying to impose our own notions of love onto Scripture, we should allow Scripture to inform us as to what love properly is.

One final critique that may be levelled against this perspective is that it not only has a deficient view of Scriptural authority, but it has a deficient view of God’s holiness as well. Rauser speaks of the desire to maintain the Israelites’ ritual and moral purity as if that were an insufficient reason for the Conquest.[70] However, concern for God’s holiness is a running theme throughout Scripture. Over and over again, God stresses for us just how holy He is, and how we must take that holiness seriously (see, e.g. Isaiah 6). Corollary to that is that we must also take God’s command to be holy seriously, because it flows from God’s own holiness (Leviticus 11:44, 1 Peter 1:16). Contrary to this, it would seem that this approach regards holiness as an ancillary or even superfluous issue in Scripture.

This brings us to the Allegorical view of Origen. There is merit to this approach in the sense that allegory has always been an accepted hermeneutical method since the Patristic period, and continues to be so to the present day. The Catechism of the Catholic Church endorses the allegorical interpretation of Scripture as valid, saying: “We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ.”[71]

That being said, however, one should be careful not to reduce Old Testament stories to mere allegory. Although the Catechism teaches the validity of allegorical interpretation, it also teaches that it may never supersede the literal interpretation. Quoting from Aquinas’ Summa, it teaches: “All other senses of Sacred Scripture [including the Allegorical] are based on the literal.”[72] In the same vein, Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis cautions against reducing Old Testament stories to mere myths or allegories, stating that although they are not written the way contemporary histories are written, these books “nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense.”[73]

Finally, it may be said that of the six approaches presented above, the Allegorical approach is probably not a helpful approach when dealing with contemporary skeptics. Telling modern readers that the Conquest of Canaan is an allegory meant to symbolize the Christian’s struggle with sin might help those who already believe and want to read the Old Testament devotionally to deepen their faith, but it is unlikely to assuage the doubts of someone who is questioning their faith, or convert the hostile unbeliever who is looking for reasons to ridicule the Bible. For that, it is necessary to look at the other approaches.

Next, we have the Giant Eradication view. Heiser makes many valid observations about the role of giants in Old Testament narrative, and may be true that part of the rationale for the Israelite conquest was to eliminate the Anakim that were in the land. However, where Heiser’s approach becomes problematic is when it treats the giant problem as the main problem that the Israelites were concerned with, as opposed to a secondary issue. Because Heiser’s biblical research focuses so heavily on Biblical supernaturalism, he often makes more out of this than the texts he is studying warrants (one is reminded here of the saying “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”). Remember that moral corruption was widespread throughout Canaan, and many of the other Scripture texts that speak on the Conquest indicate that this was their primary concern, not the giants. Also, his conclusion about the use of the word ḥerem also goes far beyond what the text warrants, since there are plenty of instances of the word where giants are not at all mentioned in the context (e.g. Joshua 6:17, 7:1, 7:13). More plausible is the Waltons’ understanding of herem as removing Canaanite culture (see below). Finally, eradicating the Anakim would still have left the problem of what to do with the remaining non-giant Canaanites to solve. Because of these considerations, I conclude that while Heiser’s approach may form a valid part of a larger exploration of the Conquest narrative, it cannot be the main point.

Moving on to the Eminent Domain view, we can say a number of things in praise of the Waltons’ extensive research into the historical and linguistic background of the Old Testament in general, and the book of Joshua in particular. They are surely correct in asserting that attempts to evaluate the Conquest through modern western notions of morality is anachronistic and misguided. Ultimately, God does have eminent domain over the Promised Land, and to grant them to His chosen people is His prerogative. Also, their explanation of the meaning of the word herem as “removal from use” with the purpose of removing Canaanite culture is in line with our current understanding of Biblical Hebrew, and helps us to further appreciate what exactly the Israelites were accomplishing in conquering Canaan. They are also correct in arguing that God, as Creator, has the right of eminent domain over the land, and therefore can dispense with it as He wills.

Where the Waltons’ thesis fails to pass muster, however, is in their suggestion that the Canaanites were not being driven out of the land due to sin. First while it is true that the Canaanites are not under the Mosaic Law, they are nonetheless accountable to the general moral laws that God expects of all people, by virtue of His being the Creator and Lord over the whole world. We see this in Amos 1-2, for example, where God pronounces woes upon all of the nations, each of whom has their own sins that they are culpable for. Second, we have plenty of historical evidence that would contradict the idea that the Israelite accusations of Canaanite sin were merely “stereotyping.” We already saw in Clay Jones’ article that there were many sins that the Canaanites were guilty of that would cause the land to be polluted, so it is incorrect to say that the depictions of the Canaanites as wicked was merely stereotyping language.

The reinterpretation of key texts such as Genesis 15:16 is also unconvincing, insofar as they rely on ambiguities in specific words and phrases to posit an alternate translation. While this is possible, it is neither certain nor even probable, and it certainly does not have better explanatory power than the traditional view. Furthermore, Koowon Kim, in his review of their book, notes some major problems with their exegesis. For example, he notes that the semantic distinction which the authors make between khata’ and ‘avon “is not as clear-cut as the authors make us believe. The Hebrew terms . . . are used with respect to the pagans outside the covenantal order, contra the authors (Lam 4:22; Zech 14:19).”[74] He then notes two weaknesses of their reinterpretation of Genesis 15:16. First, the explanation that the conquest was being delayed so that Abraham’s Amorite allies would not suffer does not account for the fact that other contemporary Canaanites also escaped the violence of the Conquest. Second, it is more logical to connect “the fourth generation” to the four hundred years after Israel’s slavery in Egypt, since verses 13-14 indicate that this must take place after their slavery.[75] The Waltons’ argument, that “to the fourth generation” means “after you are gone,”[76] does not impact the overall interpretation of the text, since the general time period denoted also encompasses four hundred years later.

One final critique of the book is its claim that we must not look at the Conquest in moral terms. Yet this is precisely what St. Paul encourages us to do when he says regarding the Old Testament stories that “these things took place as examples for us” (1 Corinthians 10:5).  As Kim notes, the authors’ claim that the Bible does not give us universal moral principles comes dangerously close to moral relativism.[77] This is perhaps the most serious problem with the Waltons’ approach, which is why it is worth highlighting.

Next comes the Inspired Hyperbole view. It probably be said that Did God Command Genocide? Is one of the best, most well thought out treatises on how to make sense of the Conquest. Some conservative Christians may be bothered by the suggestion that the Biblical stories contain hyperbolic statements, thinking that this undermines the inerrancy of Scripture. However, such a fear is totally unfounded, since the Biblical authors cannot be said to have erred as long as we bear in mind that they are writing according to accepted literary conventions of their time. Furthermore, one of the fundamental rules of Biblical hermeneutics is that we are always supposed to read the text with the authorial intention in mind. An exaggerated claim might be considered erroneous if the author intended the reader to take it as a literal statement. However, if we recognize that the author is clearly exaggerating, and is does not intend what he says to be taken literally, then no error is made.

That being said, however, the explanatory power of this approach should not be overstated. While the extent of the destruction of Canaanite civilian lives and property may be exaggerated, but they were not absent altogether. Inevitably, some Canaanite civilians were killed, and their properties destroyed, and that should be taken into account, rather than handwaved by a recourse to hyperbole alone. For this reason, Copan and Flannagan do not stop at asserting hyperbole, but spend a significant portion of their book also defending the Divine Justice viewpoint, stating that whatever actions God commanded, He must have morally sufficient grounds for doing so, even if we do not fully comprehend what those grounds are.

Finally, we cannot conclude a discussion of the Conquest without examining the Divine Justice view. This is the oldest and most widely held explanation, and for good reason, as it is grounded in centuries of thinking in theology and exegesis. As such, it should be a core component of how any Christian reads through the book of Joshua. However, at the same time, it should not stand on its own as an explanation for the Conquest. My biggest criticism of older apologetic works such as that of Archer is that they rely on the Divine Justice approach alone to explain the Conquest. The other approaches analyzed above should also be taken into consideration, and the Divine Justice approach should be nuanced accordingly, to account for other factors such as hyperbole, the presence of giants, etc.

Summary and Conclusion

Ultimately, it is up to the individual reader which approach(es) they choose to adopt as their preferred way of making sense of the Canaanite Conquest. As I have indicated, one need not be boxed into one single way of explaining the text, as many of the approaches outlined are quite compatible with each other. Not all of them are, however. The “Divine Justice” and “Providential Errancy” approaches, for example, are clearly mutually exclusive, and one will have to choose which one of them does better justice to the text.

In my opinion, since all of them emphasize different elements in the narrative, the best approach would be to simply adopt aspects of all the approaches (minus the last one), discarding whatever in them does not make sense of the text. This holistic approach will provide the most coherent method of explaining the Conquest narrative, with all its nuances and complications. Personally, I find the first and second approaches to be the most helpful in explaining Joshua to those who struggle with the Bible. While the third and fourth other approaches give some helpful background information to further contextualize the narrative, and the fifth approach helps to explain its devotional value, I treat them as supplementary explanations that add additional layers to one’s understanding of Joshua.

Finally, a note should be made regarding the modern application of Joshua: Some critics of Christianity think that the presence of Conquest narratives in the Bible could result in violence in the present day. Needless to say, no responsible exegete could look at the book of Joshua and conclude that it provides a blueprint for present day divine warfare. Goldingay summarizes it best in his commentary, which is the note on which I would like to conclude:

The other issue is that the Old Testament sees God as using the Israelites as the agents of judgment. I’m not sure why we don’t like this idea, but the concern people often express is that it could become the basis or justification today for making war against other people. But Israel itself never saw God’s commission to dispose of the Canaanites as a precedent for its relationships with other people. Nor does the book of Joshua imply that Joshua’s action was a pattern for Israel’s future practice. Occupying Canaan and being the means of bringing God’s judgment on the Canaanites was a one-time event from the beginning of its story.[78]


[1] Dan Barker, God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction (New York: Sterling Publishing, 2016). A quick perusal of the Bibliography at the back or this book would indicate that Barker did not read any of the authors that I mention in this essay, or take any of their arguments into account, so one should not expect to see a rebuttal to any of the points made here in Barker’s book.

[2] I would like to give credit to my friend Hasan for pointing out this Scripture passage to me.

[3] St. Augustine of Hippo, “Questions on Joshua,” Patristic Bible Commentary, https://sites.google.com/site/aquinasstudybible/home/joshua/augustine-of-hippo-questions-on-joshua

[4] St. Augustine of Hippo, “Questions on Joshua.”

[5] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II.94.5. Cited in Trent Horn, Hard Sayings: A Catholic Approach to Answering Bible Difficulties (San Diego, CA: Catholic Answers Press, 2016), 256.

[6] Gleason L. Archer Jr., New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), 158-159.

[7]Archer, New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, 158-159. From the Catholic side, the same arguments are given by Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch in Joshua: With Introduction, Commentary, and Notes, The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2017), 24-25.

[8] Clay Jones, “We Don’t Hate Sin So We Don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites,”  57-58.

[9] Jones, “We Don’t Hate Sin,” 55-66.

[10] Jones, “We Don’t Hate Sin,” 57-58.

[11] Jones, “We Don’t Hate Sin,” 61-62.

[12] Jones, “We Don’t Hate Sin,” 68-72.

[13] K. A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2006), 174.

[14] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011), 171.

[15] Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, 175. For a more extended discussion of the evidence for hyperbole, and a response to objections thereto, see Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan, Did God Really Command Genocide?:  Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2014), 84-124.

[16] Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, 176.

[17] John Bergsma and Brant Pire, A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament (Ignatius Press, 2018), 299-301.

[18] Bergsma and Pire, A Catholic Introduction to the Bible, 301.

[19] Bergsma and Pire, A Catholic Introduction to the Bible, 306.

[20] John Goldingay, Joshua, Judges, and Ruth for Everyone: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, Old Testament for Everyone (Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011), 55–57, 59.

[21] Copan and Flannagan, Did God Command Genocide?, 141-258.

[22] John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017), 7-29.

[23] Walton and Walton, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest, 176-178.

[24] Walton and Walton, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest, 169-192. For a corroboration of this argument, see Leon J. Wood, “744 חָרַם,” in R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 324–325.

[25] Walton and Walton, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest, 30-47, 75-136.

[26] Walton and Walton, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest, 50-63, esp. 62.

[27] Walton and Walton, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest, 137-156.

[28] Walton and Walton, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest, 70-71.

[29] Walton and Walton, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest, 163.

[30] Goldingay, Joshua, Judges, and Ruth for Everyone, 56–57.

[31] Michael S. Heiser, “The Giant Clans and the Conquest,” Michael S. Heiser, published online January 18, 2016, https://drmsh.com/the-giant-clans-and-the-conquest/

[32] Heiser, “The Giant Clans and the Conquest.”

[33] Michael S. Heiser, Reversing Hermon: Enoch, The Watchers & The Forgotten Mission of Jesus Christ (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017), 181.

[34] Heiser, Reversing Hermon, 78–80.

[35] Gerald Bray, Biblical Interpretation: Past & Present (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 82-83.

[36] Philo, Philo, trans. F. H. Colson, G. H. Whitaker, and J. W. Earp, vol. 2, The Loeb Classical Library (University Press, 1929–1962), 163.

[37] Philo, Philo, 419–421.

[38] Bray, Biblical Interpretation, 78.

[39] Bray, Biblical Interpretation, 83.

[40] Origen, Homilies on Joshua, translated by Barbara J. Bruce, edited by Cynthia White, The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, vol. 105 (CUA Press, 2002), 20.

[41] Origen, Homilies on Joshua, 34-35.

[42] Origen, Homilies on Joshua, 107. As others have noted, this exegetical switch is facilitated by the fact that “Joshua” and “Jesus” are actually the same name in Greek (Iesous). Thus, Joshua by virtue of his very name becomes a type of Christ.

[43] Origen, Homilies on Joshua, 186.

[44] Bray, Biblical Interpretation, 140-143.

[45] Randal Rauser, Jesus Loves Canaanites: Biblical Genocide in the Light of Moral Intuition (2 Cup Press, 2021), 238-268.

[46] Keith Ward, Is Religion Dangerous? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006), 113-114.

[47] Ward, Is Religion Dangerous?, 114. Emphasis mine.

[48] Ward, Is Religion Dangerous?, 114.

[49] Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So… : Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 70.

[50] Enns, The Bible Tells Me So…, 27.

[51] Gregory A. Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross, 2 vols., (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017), xxviii-xxix.

[52] Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, xxx.

[53] Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, xxxii.

[54] Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, xxx.

[55] Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, 1248.

[56] Colin Cornell, “A Testament of Violence?,” Christian Century, November 8, 2017, 32-33. Emphasis mine.

[57] Cornell, “A Testament of Violence?,” 33.

[58] Randal Rauser, Jesus Loves Canaanites: Biblical Genocide in the Light of Moral Intuition, (2 Cup Press, 2021), 16.

[59] Rauser, Jesus Loves Canaanites, 13.

[60] Rauser, Jesus Loves Canaanites, 143-146.

[61] Rauser, Jesus Loves Canaanites, 31-33.

[62] Hahn and Mitch, Joshua, 25.

[63] “Dei Verbum,” §11, The Holy See, https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.html

[64] See my article, “Does the Catholic Church Teach ‘Partial Inerrancy’?,” https://reasonandtheology.com/2021/06/17/does-the-catholic-church-teach-partial-inerrancy-by-j-luis-dizon

[65] Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, 9-13.

[66] Someone might counter this by pointing to 27:46, where Jesus says “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” I reply by pointing out that Jesus is invoking Psalm 22, which, if one reads it all the way to the end, is actually an expression of trust in divine providence. Jesus is not questioning God’s goodness, or accusing Him of actually forsaking Him here.

[67] “Greg Boyd & Paul Copan debate Old Testament violence and Boyd’s new theology in Crucifixion Of The Warrior God,” Premier Christian Radio, published online January 20, 2018, https://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable/Episodes/Unbelievable-Greg-Boyd-Paul-Copan-debate-Old-Testament-violence-and-Boyd-s-new-theology-in-Crucifixion-Of-The-Warrior-God

[68] John Goldingay, Joshua, Judges, and Ruth for Everyone: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, Old Testament for Everyone (Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011), 51-52.

[69] C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, (1972), ch. 12.

[70] Rauser, Jesus Loves Canaanites, 28.

[71] “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” §117, The Holy See, https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__PQ.HTM

[72] “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” §116. See also Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, 1, 10, ad I.

[73] Pope Pius XII, “Humani Generis, ” §§38-39, The Holy See, https://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_12081950_humani-generis.html

[74] Koowon Kim, “The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest: Covenant, Retribution, and the Fate of the Canaanites,” Themelios 43.1 (April 1, 2018), https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/review/the-lost-world-of-the-israelite-conquest-covenant-retribution-fate-canaan/

[75] Kim, “The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest.”

[76] Walton and Walton, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest, 58-60.

[77] Kim, “The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest,” citing Walton and Walton, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest, 100.

[78] Goldingay, Joshua, Judges, and Ruth for Everyone, 4. Virtually every other author cited in this article agrees with this statement, although to quote all of them would be superfluous.

3 thoughts on “Explaining the Conquest of Canaan: Six Approaches

  1. Judith Loubet

    On your final note regarding the Canaanite Conquest being a “one-time” event and not something prescriptive for later times is the primary fact that ‘herem’ warfare was part of the Mosaic Law given to the Israelites because of the hardness of their hearts, which was abolished with the coming of Christ. If Biblical inerrancy is understood in the traditional Catholic sense, then the first approach has to be the main approach to understand God’s command to Saul as related by Samuel.

  2. Solomon Svehla

    Overall a quite helpful introduction/summary.

    One question I would have is whether or not there should be a 7th view placed before Enns and Boyd (or perhaps more detail within it).

    Specifically you do not engage the broad archaeological consensus on there being no conquest of Canaan that matches the biblical record. And as connected to other discussions of literal vs legendary historicity of the entire Torah narrative, there is no engagement with the dominant view that Israel arose out of Canaanite population itself without conquest (or potentially even an exodus from Egypt) as traditionally assumed from a literal reading of the OT narratives. This might be distinct from the final position you have now in how it is more agnostic about the details of the historical events because of the discrepancies we have in the material record and from the hyperbole, literary features, etc.

    Given your analysis in the article I don’t expect that you will agree with such a position, but it would strengthen the discussion to further nuance it in this one critical area.

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