The Book of Joshua - ethnic cleansing then and now?

A brief personal perspective

Few people today apparently accept the account of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis as being an accurate record of an absolute historical event. The Biblical Book of Joshua may have to be viewed in a similar light.

For example, literary (including some of the contradictions in the Book of Judges1), archaeological2 and sociological3 evidence, as well as common sense4, throw doubt on whether the events set out in the Book of Joshua actually happened precisely as described. This is further supported by the texts which reveal there were not always victories5 and, where there were, they were not always easy, quick or outstanding6.

The Book of Joshua - written, as is most history, by the victors - is probably prone to exaggeration and hyperbole. It was penned well after the time depicted therein with the apparent aim of glorifying the Israelites' activities and glorifying God, because the Israelites believed that God was always with them in their battles. Certainly their drive and motivation they seem invariably to attribute to God.

If nothing else, therefore, the writings reflect the power the Israelites believed God had in their lives. This power is also manifest in the writings of the Prophets, yet unlike the events depicted in the Book of Joshua, few seem to question the righteousness or otherwise of the judgements inflicted by God which are set out in the prophetic texts.

It should also be added that there is evidence from the Bible that the Canaanites were to be judged for various wrongdoings7. Thus the overthrow of them by the Israelites could well be this judgement being fulfilled.

Parallels with our own time are difficult to draw. Whilst wars have been engaged in because it was "the right thing to do" in the particular circumstances, possibly not since the Crusades has a nation claimed to act on an explicit command from God. Further, few conflicts in recent times have been undertaken specifically to overthrow countries so that they may expressly be colonised.

Thus the Book of Joshua has to be seen in a much wider context and this includes the time when the story takes place and the period in which it was first set down. To dismiss it outright as purely an account of ethnic cleansing is to overlook the above points and, most profoundly, the important theological messages it contains.

1 e.g. Judges 4.2, King Jabin having been apparently killed much earlier in Joshua 11.10

2 e.g. there is no evidence of a large walled city existing at Jericho in the thirteenth century BC

3 e.g. Ancient Israel may have arisen out of a struggle for freedom from oppression or the "conquest" may have been more like a gradual infiltration

4 e.g. the nomadic Israelites may have been too weak to gain control over walled cities

5 e.g. Joshua 15.63

6 e.g. Judges 4.24

7 e.g. Genesis 15.16

Richard Farquharson, Maulden, Bedfordshire April 2016