Just now, in my daily Bible readings, one of the books that I’m reading through is Joshua. One of the challenges of reading the Book of Joshua is figuring out its relevance in our times since it is all about the conquest of the Canaanite peoples through complete annihilation. God was giving the people of Israel the land that he had promised to their father, Abraham, so many years earlier (see Genesis 12:7, and then again 15:16). The introduction to the Book of Joshua is about God’s communication to him concerning Israel’s conquest of the land.
Joshua is a fascinating study of how God prepared his people for battle, how he fought for them, and how they miraculously overcame the City of Jericho and the cities and nationalities of that region. Chapters 10 to 13 delineate the nature of this conquest — which can only be described as a kind of genocide concerning the peoples who lived there. So in these times of extreme tolerance and the defence of human rights, it’s not surprising that even many who take the Bible seriously otherwise, might naturally censor this material as being irrelevant to our lives or inappropriate for preaching and teaching. Perhaps the most burning question on the minds of those who read and seek to digest this portion of God’s Word is to ask how what is described here is any different than what is happening just now in Syria and northern Iraq by the hands of militants belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
At the outset of this discussion it’s important to establish that what is happening in Syria and Iraq today is not even remotely related to the conquest of Canaanite lands during the time of Joshua. Though ISIS claims to represent a certain version or understanding of God’s will there is no reason to conclude that it actually does. In defence of Joshua and the people of Israel in his time, on the other hand, it is well-established that Israel’s defeat of the Canaanites was God’s means of judgement upon them for their idolatrous and extremely sinful ways (see Deuteronomy 7:1, 2).
Israel’s conquest of Canaan was not a case of people rising up by their own strength and power to kill another nation. Their battles against these peoples and their complete destruction was completely something that God initiated and commanded. God’s judgment came upon these peoples by this means because the sin of the Amorites had reached a point beyond any further extension of God’s mercy (Genesis 15:16). This is consistent with what we read in other parts of the Old Testament concerning God’s ways, sometimes, of bringing judgement on peoples and nations (including his own people at the hands of Assyria and Babylon many years later).
It is important to establish that there are times that God will use the sword or war to bring his judgment upon people (Romans 13:1-5). However, since the coming of Christ and the establishing of his kingdom, God’s people (that is, his church), are never called to wage in physical battle against sinful peoples. Thus the Crusades of the Middle Ages were never commanded or sanctioned by God. Though individual Christians may, at times, be called to take up arms for the sake of national security, this is not what God calls his people through the church to do, for he has said that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). In Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) he makes it plain that members of his kingdom do not fight through the use of physical force. That is why we know, that what ISIS is doing in the Middle East, is definitely not from God.
But there are significant applications from the Book of Joshua for our lives today:
- God has called his people to do battle against sin and evil through his son, Jesus, whose name is really derived, in part from the name of Joshua. Paul’s words in Ephesians 6:10, 11 are that our struggle today is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers, against the powers of darkness, against spiritual wickedness in high places. We are to see ourselves, as followers of Jesus, very much in a battle against all the places where the Enemy of our souls has flaunted his evil power.
- Joshua also has much to teach us about what it means to be a leader for God’s cause through faith in his mighty Word and Name. The challenge left for us in the Book of Joshua, is that we might similarly be people of faith and obedience to God’s Word. The Book speaks to a church that is anemic and powerless in the midst of the challenges of our times. Instead of overcoming sin and evil as it exists around us, it’s easy for Christians to quickly accommodate themselves to the cultural ways of this world.
- This is a Book that leads us, first and foremost, to consider how Jesus has come to conquer sin and Satan in the world, but also in our own lives. Albert Simpson, the founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, speaks of the slaying of Thirty-one Kings, based on the description found in Joshua 12:9-24. Simpson’s conclusion is that there are many subtle forms of our individual self-lives that must be put to death if we are to live in the fullness of all that God has promised us in Christ. We must come to understand that Jesus himself wishes to conquer these kinds of selfish rulers in our lives if we are to live as he intended.
- God’s people have been empowered by God’s Spirit and the Sword of his Word to push back the powers of darkness and the Enemy as these exist in so many ways in our society. Joshua is a book about the conquest of the kingdom of God agains the powers of sin and evil. The church is commanded to enlarge Christ’s kingdom of light through the power of the Gospel. The church’s power to overcome evil is not really in politics or in physical power and wealth; it is in the spiritual heritage given to us in Christ — his rule, his power, and his authority. Our part is to use the weapons of prayer, the Word of God (God’s truth), love, and a sound mind (1 Timothy 1:7).
So it is that Joshua is a book of great relevance to our lives today. Meditation therein is not about our judgment of others. It is about victory over sin and evil in our own lives, and then in the surrounding community through faith in the power and truth of the Gospel concerning God’s victorious Son.