Watershed Formation Studies

Chapter 6 - Conquest

In chapter 5. God’s people, formerly powerless slaves, became a kingdom of priests in the desert. To seal the deal, God gave them the Torah, or Ten Commandments, to help them live their new identity.

In chapter 6, this nation (minus Moses and most of the adults who had left Egypt) finally entered the Promised Land, the land of Canaan. Like bookends of experience, God once more parted the waters as they crossed the river Jordan. The people of Canaan were terrified of the newcomers, having heard that their God parted waters and defeated great armies.

And so begins one of the hardest to understand parts of the Bible In the story of the conquest of Canaan, we read how God seemingly orders wholesale slaughter. Every Canaanite had to be killed. Only Rahab the prostitute and her family were to be spared since she had protected the Israelite spies.

The girl sitting around the fire in Gladding’s story voices the horrified questions we modern readers have. “How can a God of hesed love order the death of thousands?” The old man narrating the story answers her, and she “understands but does not accept” his explanation. Author Peter Enns calls this one of the “oh-oh moments” of the Biblical Story. What do we do when God acts more like a tribal warlord than the God of unending love? “What are we supposed to do with a Bible like this? What are we supposed to do with a God like this?”

Enns, Peter (2014-09-09). The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (p. 6). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Questions For Discussion

1) Does this story sadden or inspire you?
2) How can a God of love order death?
3) What might the glimmer of a deeper story be?

What Strikes You

As the Israelites enter the Promised Land, things do not work out as hoped. From a literary perspective, are there any aspects of the story that strike, sadden, or inspire you? What might this story tell us about the Israelites, ourselves or God?

Bev Patterson: In terms of what struck me, I realized I have never given a thought to Deborah, the judge. I don't know much about her and I didn't realize she remained faithful to her vocation and never wavered from her loyalty to God and the covenant. In another culture she might have been called Athena - wise and clear-headed judge. Every once in a while the light turns on in that we discover characters throughout the Bible that don't get a lot of press. Joseph (of Mary & Joseph) is another such character.

What irritated me about this story was the idea that Israel, in their impetus to stay pure from worldly cultural influences, lashes out at the offending party, who just happened to be there in the first place. Question: Why is it the Canaanites' fault they can't stay true to their spiritual identity? It's like the alcoholic choosing to walk into a tavern and blaming the barkeep for serving beer, only to come back the next day, blowing the whole place away, killing all the patrons while he's at it. Classic case of passive-aggression.

back to questions

Paul Patterson: In terms of our Wednesday night studies, this chapter in Gladding reminds me of the good o’l days when our group studied 1 Sam. 15 and recognized the resulting ambiguity of the Israelite Conquest Narratives. I like to think that the time in the wilderness was a school for ex-slaves formed in the oppression of Egypt. During this time of development, I would expect them to mature as a people, form a nation under God with structures and institutions that would promote Torah justice and compassion for others. Given my modern assumptions of morality as well as my spiritual expectations of God, I definitely would not anticipate the creation of a warrior people out to annihilate others. But that is exactly what I read about in the Conquest narratives.

This tension places us in a dilemma, either we abandon our sense of morality and assume that God ordered this harem or Holy War or we conclude that the Israelites must have placed these words in the mouth of God themselves to justify their own cultural understanding. No matter which option, there is the outstanding question of what this ugly chapter, at least from our point of view, is doing in the Bible? How does it function? What does it teach? How is it congruent with the canonical Story?

Both Thom Stark and Peter Enns have given me tools through which to see this story. Enns is particularly helpful in correcting our understanding of Scripture as an ancient book written by ancient peoples over an immense time frame from a variety of points of view. We cannot expect the Bible to provide us with a rule book for all time nor can we expect it to be a history or scientific text book. It is primarily God’s way of speaking to us by allowing human beings to tell the story their own way in their own culture … in short, Scripture is incarnational.

As such I conclude that the Conquest Narratives are reports of how ancient people understood God preserving their nation and expressing his love toward them. Thom Stark and others deepen this perspective by concluding that the Conquest may never have happened. But that still doesn’t solve the placement of these stories in the Hebrew Bible. Whether the conquest happened or not they are ancient stories that must be read with an ear to hearing their lesson for us today.

What I read in the Conquest is not so much that God is on our side and that in order to purify ourselves from other cultures, we ought to annihilate them, but rather that these stories teach us how humans create narratives that justify their political and economic desires. Discerning God’s will for us today is dependent not upon literal views of Scripture but on the basis of following our model of God-in-Christ who is the ultimate source of revelation for those of us in the Christian family. Thank goodness there are other chapters in this progressive revelation toward Christ that increasingly teach peace and spiritual maturity.

What particularly bothers me is the lame excuse made for Holy War, that the Israelites would have been perverted by the surrounding cultures if they inter-married or inter-mingled with them. It seems to me a very immature option to kill those you want to differentiate from rather than to use your own character and values to set cultural boundaries. It seems to me that there is little difference between this modus operandi and that of modern day ISIS.

back to questions

How Can God?

The Israelites obtain the land of Canaan with God instructing them to utterly destroy the city and to kill everyone in it. One cannot help but ask "How can a God of hesed love order the deaths of thousands?” What are we to make of texts like these that seem to have no redemptive value? Could this be a part of our story?

Bev Patterson: I will completely defer to Peter Enns on this one, I have yet to read his take on it. I imagine we will grapple/wrestle with this idea that the God that begat Jesus could be behind this wholesale slaughter and the many slaughters since then. At the time, their tribal roots would have allowed them to go into battle, divinely sanctioned. I wonder what we sanction in the name of God? Perhaps not genocide, as seen in this passage, but are we guilty of using God to establish security at the expense of others? No doubt we are.

back to questions

Verda Heinrichs: Having a bit more time over the summer, I opted to read the reference texts for this week’s Gladding chapter. This included most of Joshua and Judges. I was completely unprepared for what I read. It is the tale of the deliberate and bloody conquest of the land of Canaan. Not just a single chapter or isolated instance but an entire book (Joshua) dedicated to describing the process of taking each city. And the instructions from God are consistent, kill all — men, women, children, even their animals. It brought to mind tribal wars of genocide that we see in the news, and left me feeling sick to my stomach — even ashamed. What is a person supposed to do with this? I was surprised that this part of the story could be this unfamiliar, given its tensions. But it’s been interesting to sit with the texts and to stumble upon the writing of some others who have grappled with them.

Is this our story? It is a tricky thing to discover such distasteful contents within one’s own sacred book (a book you’ve learned to assume is ‘right’ somehow even if you don’t understand it). After all, these chapters follow the amazingly rich stories of the Exodus, the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai, their wanderings through the desert, their daily provisions by God who is teaching them to trust him. These are rich spiritual stories that are picked up again in the texts of the New Testament. So what happened when they crossed the river Jordan into Canaan?!

Actually in some ways it’s been good not to have a satisfying answer immediately (and I don’t know that one is possible). But, somehow attempting to include these chapters feels not unlike the exercise of learning to own the bits of myself that I would rather not include. Maybe what we glean is the greater awareness of our need for someone to save us (“only God can save us now," thanks Paul).

Peter Enns in his book, The Bible Tells Me So, points out how the Bible isn’t what many of us have been taught to think it is — a clear book of answers. It’s not a history book, there is a real absence of consistency in the most major of themes, and it does not even clearly tell us who God is. Rather, it is a collection of stories from people over the centuries, wrestling in different experiences, and trying to describe their faith journey. It’s almost like one needs to ‘grow up’ to read the book, to allow the uncertainties of life so that we too read it through the eyes of faith.

back to questions

Lydia Penner: It’s not the first time we have had to grapple with God's brutality, but maybe the first time in Gladding’s book. Gladding begins to deal with the violence through the characters of the young girl and the old man. The young girl in her empathy is honest about seeing the brutality and viciousness. He explains to her that "God told them to destroy the Canaanites in judgment of their evil practices and so that the children of Israel would not adopt those same practices themselves.” He looks in her eyes and sees “understanding, but not acceptance”, and turns back to the people with a weary sigh.

The character of this girl embodies our own “understanding but not acceptance” as we encounter the vicious God of this section. The old man’s weary look is no doubt the same one worn by all the scholars and lay folks who have had to figure this thorny issue out. I hadn’t read all the chapters like Paul or Verda, and was taken aback this morning when Paul shared Judges 1:7, where war crimes are committed, such as cutting off fingers and toes. In our day, we hear of those who plot attacks and consider the death of the innocents as “collateral damage”. Who is this God, we wonder? A God that doesn’t worry about collateral damage as “his” people get purified?!! And, considering that “we all have sinned”, as scripture tells us, isn’t every single death unnecessary? From what we know of Jesus, who loved the sinners, it seems crazy to try to wipe out sin with an eye for an eye, rather than forgiving our enemies.

In addition, it is unsettlingly like modern day people who have come to a new land and thought they had to get rid of cultures that were there first just because they thought they had the right. So much wrong has been done in the name of God. What was so good about the incoming culture, or so bad about the culture that was there first? Aren’t we all God’s children? The plot thickens!

My understanding is that this was their understanding of God, not God objectively. Paul, you explained it so clearly in your answer to #1. “Humans create narratives that justify their political and economic desires.” So, it is not God’s character we are reading about, but rather the people and their understanding of God.

I’m sure we do this many times, when we are less than human or faithful, and somehow we think we’re doing God’s will. (“I never told you to do all that!!!” we might hear God yelling to the Israelites.) There are SOOOO many situations in the world, large and small, where injustice and mayhem are committed in God’s name.

Cue Cockburn’s lyrics from the song Justice:
What's been done in the name of Jesus?
What's been done in the name of Buddha?
What's been done in the name of Islam?
What's been done in the name of man?
What's been done in the name of liberation?
And in the name of civilization?
And in the name of race?
And in the name of peace?

back to questions


What do you think the glimmer of the deeper story might be in this period of conquest, the time of the Judges?

Bev Patterson: I know we talked a bit about this when we studied Samuel, in that the Judges and the Kings account is the part of their story when the whole arc of development kicks in. If part of the meaning of the story is about their 'coming of age' this could be their way of separation from father. Wanting to take on the task of determining their outcome without parental authority. Desiring to become the captains of their own ships, wanting to "play with the big boys" and step onto the world stage. Is this the fallout? In this desperate attempt to establish "street-cred", do they create a god who ravages anyone who gets in their way. As former orphans and slaves, desperate for territory they could call their own, they blunder into a phase of blind devastating violence. How many times have we seen this happen on inner city streets and in war-torn areas of the world. The bullied becomes the Bully.

back to questions

Paul Patterson: I read over the book of Judges to prepare for tonight’s session and was shocked to see the sort of memory of Israel’s past that the book re-imagines. My question through the reading was: why is this material important and what is its literary intention? Brueggemann comments on the critical answer to that question. The book of Judges is part of the Deuteronomic history, a major theological commentary upon the royal past of Israel that is designed to show the ways in which Israel lost the land given by YHWH, and ended as a displaced people in the sixth century BCE. (121)

In other words, Judges is part of a history with a purpose and that purpose is to find explanations that would account for the Exile and the failure of Israel’s leadership. There are no Kings in the period of the judges but it seems that Israel’s unfaithfulness involves the people’s rebellion against the leadership it was given. Or so it seems.

Regardless, Israel is committed to the brutality of war not unlike the surrounding nations. This includes war crimes such as dismembering the enemies’ fingers and thumbs and using them as human toothpicks to retrieve droppings from the table. Judges 1:7 One of the most common refrains of Judges points to assimilation of Canaanite practices… the Israelites did not drive out the Canaanites. Judges 1:29

The theological point is that even in the promised land the fullness of the promise is less than perfectly established and is compromised by the presence of ‘anti-promise people’. Judges gives an account of the incessant compromise of its faith and the incessant seductions and threats posed to Israel’s faith by the ‘other’. If as the critical perspective suggests, Judges is written during the Exile when Israel lived among Babylonian others, then this book functions as a cautionary tale not to be seduced by the morals and values of the Empire. The Deuteronomic writers admonished the people to stay loyal and obey the commandments of the Lord precisely. In the case of Judges it is to utterly turn from, even destroy in Holy War the influences of those around them. Judges warns that the repeated breaking of the first commandment not to worship other gods results in a cycle of disaster.

Judges reads much like a series of Greek hero stories. They are as gruesome as the Iliad and Odyssey and exalt military, nationalizing values. These heroes include ambitious warriors such as Abimelech, a left-handed freedom fighter, Ehud, who killed a fat king, and Jephthah, who pledged the life of his daughter to protect military allies. There are nationalistic songs that conflate the peasant triumphs of Israel with the direct working of their warrior god. See the song of Deborah. A woman, Jael, and her action of killing the opposition commander with a tent-peg through the head is depicted as quite valorous. The life of Israel is protected and guaranteed through these various heroic charismatic leaders.

These leaders, however ambiguous, are not unlike later Kings of Israel. Even Gibeon the judge with the chutzpah in negotiating his terms of call (i.e., fleecing God) is portrayed as a violent torturous warrior who enriched himself on the spoils of others. He even attempts to pass on his judgeship in a dynastic fashion. Brueggemann summarizes his legacy:

It is plausible to suggest that Gideon, who ‘rose and fell’ from faithful advocate for YHWH to self-serving practitioner of ambition, is himself a part of the pattern of life in the narrative, a community always needing to be restored to YHWH but a community always seduced into alternative loyalties.

Brueggemann parses out the basic theological assertion of Judges through the passage found in Judges 3:7-11. He suggests four basic lessons:

  1. “The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” 3:7 They repeatedly committed idolatry breaking the first commandment and being disloyal to God. It was not only their devotion to the foreign gods that is at the root of this problem but the adaptation of the socio-economic practices which were anti-neighbourly. (Assimilating the entire social system.)
  2. Deviation from covenant led to disastrous socio-economic life for Israel herself. She became indentured to foreign kings. Judge. 3:8
  3. “But Israel cried out to the Lord” 3:9 Relief came always in the form of repentance and contrition, a cry of desperate need. This repentance of course implied a return to Sinai covenant. It is as though the suffering is recognized as a result of disloyalty, so that the antidote is to renew loyalty, acknowledge primal dependence upon YHWH, and offer a committed resolve to obey the God of the covenant.
  4. YHWH answers by providing a ‘deliverer’ who will rescue Israel from oppression and provide a new era of well-being for Israel. A human agent who is authorized and empowered by God will restore the people.
These theological lessons remind Israel that disobedience evokes punishment. Retributive justice is a centerpiece of Deuteronomic theology (Promise and Curse Theology).

What may have been in the mind of the Exilic editors of Judges was that the prophets just before the Exile warned of the idolatry and disobedience of Israel along with its resulting captivity as a punishment.

The Judges narrative reinforced that truth. Nebuchadnezzar is not unlike the Canaanite overlords of conquest Israel. Through these stories, Israel is being admonished to repentance which would as in the Judges narrative lead to restoration. It is the call to weep and cry in contrition for their disloyalty. The Deliverer that the Deuteronomist had in mind was like the Persian ‘messiah’ Cyrus whose leadership led to their deliverance. See:

The LORD says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whom I have grasped by the strong hand, to conquer nations before him, disarming kings, and opening doors before him, so no gates will be shut: I myself will go before you, and I will level mountains. I will shatter bronze doors; I will cut through iron bars. I will give you hidden treasures of secret riches, so you will know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who calls you by name. For the sake of my servant Jacob and Israel my chosen, I called you by name. I gave you an honored title, though you didn’t know me. I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no God. I strengthen you— though you don’t know me— so all will know, from the rising of the sun to its setting, that there is nothing apart from me. I am the LORD; there’s no other. I form light and create darkness, make prosperity and create doom; I am the LORD, who does all these things.
(Isaiah 45:1–7 CEB)

It is decidedly not a matter of choosing between Kings or Judges since both forms of deliverance and governance are seen from a prophetic point of view inferior to the Kingship of God whose rule is the only hope of genuine life and deliverance. The people cannot keep covenant even with the aide of charismatic leaders or of earthly kings … only God can save us now, they may well have said.

For More on Judges See: http://www.cresourcei.org/conquest.html

back to questions


blog comments powered by Disqus