God of War: The View from the Battlefield
by Anthony Weber
“God is a moral monster with no objection to the massacre of women and children” – or so the charge goes. But is this really the case? My previous post noted that language in the war texts is predominantly hyperbolic language of dispossession, not annihilation. However, even this reading does not excuse unwarranted brutality and destruction among those who were involved in the battles. In this post, I want to cover what happened to those who remained behind.
If historians are correct, approximately 70% to 90% of the population in Canaan lived away from the cities. As I noted earlier, God’s plan was to displace people ahead of time. Many ran away in response to the foreshadowing, so the civilians were largely gone from the land by the time the Israelites arrived. Those who did battle with the Israelites were the hardcore defenders of cowardice, oppression of others, perverse sexual temple fertility rituals, and the torturous sacrifice of children. It was in the cities or on the battlefield that they made their stand.
We read that when the Israelite spies returned from Jericho, they said to Joshua, “Surely the Lord. has given all the land into our hands, and all the inhabitants of the land, moreover, have melted away before us.” (Joshua 2:24). “All” is certainly hyperbole (they still fought a battle at Jericho) but the general tenor is unmistakable. As historians have noted:
”We have strong archaeological evidence that the targeted Canaanite cities, such as Jericho and Ai, were not population centers with women and children but military forts or garrisons… “all” who were killed therein were warriors – Rahab and her family being an exception. The same applies throughout the book of Joshua.… This is further suggested by the fact that the Amalekites were not all annihilated: within the very same book (1 Samuel 27:8; 30:1) we encounter an abundance of Amalekites. The command allows, and hopes for, exceptions (e.g., Rahab and her relatives).”
We know all of the people in the groups were not killed since they ‘lived to fight/raid again’ in David’s time (I Samuel 27,30) and even in Hezekiah’s time (200-300 years later, 1 Chronicles 4:43). Joshua himself refers to “these [nations] which remain among you” (Josh. 23:12–13; cp. Josh. 15:63; 16:10; 17:13; Judges. 2:10–13). This included Caananites. While Joshua does speak of Israel’s utterly destroying groups, these “annihilated” peoples reappear later in the story; after Judah destroyed Jerusalem, its occupants lived there ‘to this day’ (Judges. 1:8, 21). David had Hittites in his army (2 Sam 23:39) and was friendly with a Jebusite (2 Sam 24:18-24).
The Old Testament does not record that God was unhappy with the fact the the race of people continued. One would expect that if the Israelites disobeyed a command that specific, God would call them on it. He does not. The Bible highlights people like Joshua, who obeyed all Moses’ commands (Joshua 9:24) while leaving plenty of survivors. The Old Testament law in Exodus and Leviticus clearly delineates how the Israelites are to treat immigrants with justice and mercy, even those from the surrounding Canaanite nations…
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