Though I’ll be addressing the question of Canaanite warfare at the next Shepherds 360 Conference in October and in my book Is God a Vindictive Bully (Baker Academic, Oct. 2022)—which also addresses this and many other Old Testament difficulties—I thought I would give a foretaste of things to come in this blog post.
The Old Testament scholar Eric Seibert takes the view that Israel is portrayed as having cruelly invaded Canaan and harmed these vulnerable peoples. He rejects the historicity of these accounts, but he says that the “God” who purportedly commanded this warfare is the product of the Old Testament prophet’s fallen, culturally-conditioned, violence-prone mindset (the “textual God”)—not the “actual God,” who never uses coercive force (“violence”). While the Scriptures are “generally inspired,” no Scripture involved in divine commands to act violently could be inspired by God.1 Another angle from theologian Greg Boyd, who makes this actual God-textual God distinction too, believes these warfare accounts actually took place—but weren’t commanded by God as revealed by Jesus, who calls us to love our enemies.2
Furthermore, Seibert maintains that ancient Israelites made assumptions about God as a violent warrior—assumptions that “people of faith today should no longer accept.”3 And the notion that God acted on Israel’s behalf to fight against its enemies based on flawed assumptions, Seibert tells us. No, a nation wins or loses battles for all kinds of reasons—troop size, sophistication of weapons, etc.—but it is not because God is on their side.
This leads us to consider another common misimpression about Joshua’s actions—namely, that a militarily superior Israel attacked and crushed the hapless, vulnerable Canaanite peoples.4 But is this what the text tells us? Indeed, we have no hint of such a mindset.
For one thing, the Lord commanded Joshua, successor to his deceased leader, Moses: “Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go” (Josh. 1:9). Indeed, Israel’s task to drive out the Canaanites was a daunting one; it would naturally arouse fear and faintheartedness (Deut. 20:1-4).
Secondly, we have clear indication that Israel lacked martial might and weaponry; Israel’s natural tendency was to be fearful. Fighting in Canaan required remarkable trust in the Lord’s “great power, driving out from before you nations greater and mightier than you” (Deut. 4:37-39; cf. Num. 13:28; Deut. 7:1, 17-21; 9:1-3; Deut. 20:1). This sampling alone from the book of Deuteronomy demonstrates Israel’s evident inferior military might and manpower.
As Old Testament scholar John Goldingay writes, “Attacking the Canaanites required extraordinary trust in Yahweh, because the Canaanites were more numerous and their weaponry was more sophisticated. And trust in Yahweh is a key ethical principle in the Old Testament and a key principle when you are waging war or thinking about waging war.”5
Even God’s command to hamstring horses and burn chariots after victory (Josh. 11:6) reinforces this point. Horses and chariots were like modern-day tanks, and they represented military power and domination. God warned any king of Israel not to accumulate horses (Dt. 17:16), as God wanted Israel dependent upon Yahweh’s power rather than military might (Ex. 15:3; Ps. 20:7).6
So, rather than imagining the Israelites as ferocious aggressors against helpless Canaanites (as Eric Seibert suggests), we should see them as a militarily-challenged, outnumbered, fearful, and easily intimidated nation. Hence, they needed to trust in the Lord rather than in military might and manpower. And assuming the historicity of these accounts (which Greg Boyd does), we have strong indication that the actual God was fighting for the Israelites. After all, the textual God of the flawed, fallen, violence-prone prophets like Moses and Joshua would be impotent against the Canaanites’ superior military forces and manpower as well as their evidently impregnable cities.7
1 See Eric Seibert, The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012).
2 Gregory Boyd, Crucifixion of the Warrior God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017). For a thorough response to Boyd, see Paul Copan, “Greg Boyd’s Misunderstanding of the Warrior God,” The Gospel Coalition, Jan. 29, 2018: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/crucifixion-warrior-god-greg-boyd/.
3 Seibert, Violence of Scripture, 117.
4 Another theological corrective: Israel wasn’t attacking the Canaanites because they were Israel’s enemy; they were understood to be the enemies of God (Goldingay, Old Testament Ethics, 271).
5 John Goldingay. Old Testament Ethics: A Guided Tour (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 267.
6 Richard Hess, Joshua, Tyndale OT Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 233; Gordon G. McConville, Deuteronomy, Apollos Old Testament Commentary (Leicester, UK/Downers Grove, IL: Apollos, IVP Academic, 2002) 212-32.
7 This article is a summary of my Worldview Bulletin article (January 2021): https://worldviewbulletin.substack.com/p/january-issue-of-the-worldview-bulletin-c29.
Shepherds 360 is pleased to welcome Paul Copan as one of the speakers at our 9th annual Church Leaders Conference. Hear Paul further in the Morality of War workshop track.