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The Moral Problem of the “Promised Land”

As we have just noted, the book of Joshua poses a moral dilemma. It appears to present a God who plays favorites, dispossessing one group of people in favor of another that “he” likes better. This is a serious problem, especially since we are more sensitized now to the potentially devastating effects of religious exclusivism.

Bible literalists present the text of the Bible as if it had no historical context, as if every word were timeless and divinely authored. This is a distortion of the Bible’s meaning. The Bible is “timeless” only in the sense of its relevance, not its historicity. The Bible contains no one consistent understanding of God. And that is exactly its point: our understanding of God has changed and evolved over time, and the Bible faithfully records this process.

The Bible’s great strength, often misunderstood, is that it presents human experience as it actually happens. It does not create an ideal world that never existed. At that time - and throughout most of human history, including our own time, as we keep discovering - war, not peace was the norm. Different groups were constantly struggling and clashing with each other for living space and scarce resources. The conquests recorded in the book of Joshua are not unique. Many nations perpetrated them and bragged about them. The Bible does not negate human history. Rather, it describes the search for God within it and in spite of it.

The ancient Hebrews were human and no different from anyone else - except by being involved in this search with its consequent moral self-judgment, only very barely evident in the book of Joshua but becoming far more apparent in later prophetic history. No people, in ancient times or modern, ever criticized itself as harshly and as publicly as the Hebrew people. Joshua represents only the bare beginning of this evolution of conscience, and so must be understood. People did then what people have always done. But these people tried to find God while they were doing it.

At first it is a frightening God, a God who even sanctions genocide through the liquidation of one Canaanite city after another. Imagine how terrified the citizens of Jericho must have felt, hearing the trumpets of the Hebrew army surround them every day for a week until the city walls collapsed. Rahab, the inhabitant of Jericho who sheltered the Hebrew spies, would have been considered a traitor to her people. But the Bible portrays her as a heroine, and Matthew even includes her in the genealogy of Jesus!

But the God people think they know changes as the Bible progresses. At first, as in the book of Joshua, we have a God who is very tribal, the partisan of a single group of people. By the time of Isaiah, God becomes more universal. We have already seen hints of this universality in the idea of the one God who permits no others, but we aren’t there yet, and won’t get there until the later prophets. The people’s understanding of God in the time of Joshua is still quite rudimentary.

As noted in the previous section with the incident of Achan, the people clearly are not ready to live up to the highest spiritual ideals. The Bible itself actually admits this fact! “It is not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you are going in to occupy their land; but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is dispossessing them before you” (Deuteronomy 9:5). This is a statement of a historical truth in religious language: when the moral fabric of a society weakens, it becomes liable to collapse. The Bible records much corruption in the pagan societies of the time, even including practices like child sacrifice (Deuteronomy 18:10). The genius of the Bible, even in such an early stage of its development, is that it does not spare even its own people from the consequences of violating moral standards:

Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled; and I punished it for its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and commit none of these abominations, either the citizen or the alien who resides among you for the inhabitants of the land, who were before you, committed all of these abominations, and the land became defiled); otherwise the land will vomit you out for defiling it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. (Leviticus 18:24-28)

This is precisely what happened later on: Hebrew society also became corrupt, and the people were indeed expelled from their land - and the agents of that expulsion, the Assyrians and Babylonians, were called by the prophets instruments of God! The same fate that befell the Canaanites in Joshua comes upon the Hebrew people in 2 Kings. Moral laxity corrodes a society and leaves it vulnerable to collapse, and there are no exceptions, not even among God’s so-called “chosen” people.

In conclusion, there is no moral justification for what Joshua and his followers did in attacking the land’s inhabitants. These were people who lived as everyone else lived at the time, competing and fighting with other groups. We do not see here a finished product, but only the beginning of an attempt to find God in the workings of human life. Achan’s punishment is an example of this fledgling and often unsuccessful effort to live by a higher standard. Its present failure will not be the only one.

Ironically, Bible literalists and those who condemn the Bible make the same mistake: they read the Bible as a static divine pronouncement, rather than as a process truthfully describing the dynamics of morality and faith in human experience. The critics condemn the divinely sanctioned violation of the rights of others that seems so apparent in Deuteronomy and in Joshua. They believe it invalidates the Bible. The biblical literalists defend it. They believe God wants us to be intolerant of those who are different. Both are mistaken. Both views attempt to remove from the Bible its sense of history. But the Bible has good reason for using history as the background of its spiritual message. The nature of history is change. Our consciousness of God is still evolving. We will never capture the essence of God with complete accuracy. But the picture of God towards the end of biblical history is better than the one in the beginning, and closer to the truth.

Towards the end of the biblical period things are very different. Prophets talk about turning swords into plowshares, about not learning war anymore. And when the people return from the exile in Babylon, they do not reconquer the land as in the days of Joshua. They do not besiege cities and engage in mass displacements. Instead they live in an admittedly uneasy tension with the Samaritans, the people who are already there. This major historical difference is evidence that the way people understood God has greatly evolved.

Another irony: most scholars today do not believe the book of Joshua has much if any historical value or that the conquests it records even occurred. Among other things, the archaeological record does not support them. Nevertheless, the Bible’s inclusion of these events as something God would support poses a moral dilemma. This dilemma can be solved only by taking an evolutionary rather than an absolutist approach to the biblical text and biblical theology.

We need to study the Bible with respect for these subtle changes. A little less concern about the infallibility of every word actually does more honor to the text and gets us closer to its truth. The Bible’s enduring power is not that it is perfect, but that it is so real.

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