Many Christians like myself get introduced to the Conquest story of Joshua innocently enough. I remember singing “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” with abandon at Vacation Bible School. But at Jericho, not only do the “walls come tumbling down,” but Joshua also leads a massacre of everyone but Rahab the prostitute and her family.
When news of Aleppo fills our newsfeed, Joshua may not seem so innocent. The Jericho massacre may resonate eerily with the real-life massacres of today’s Syrians.
The Israelites, recently freed from slavery, receive a Divine mandate to wipe out the Canaanite population that inhabits “their” Promised Land. The perceived danger is that the Canaanites will corrupt Israelite worship with idolatry. The threat is so severe that when the Israelites fail to annihilate a Canaanite city, God’s punishment follows.
The Conquest narrative is not likely historical. The archaeological record does not confirm the biblical account of a Conquest. And Joshua itself was written much later than the historical period it claims to describe. It’s a literary work rather than a historical one by modern standards. However, whatever the Joshua narrative lacks in historical fact, it compensates for in ideological clout. Christians have used Joshua to justify genocide and other types of mass murder.
We’ve proffered explanations for why God “had” to order the massacres: The Canaanites were “irredeemable.” The Israelites were God’s elect. It was all part of God’s plan.
But the question for Christians is this: Do we worship a God who sanctions and even demands the slaughter of innocent people?
The answer for me is, “No, never.” Whether the massacred victims are in Jericho or Aleppo, the God I love and serve weeps over them. The God I love and serve promises justice.
To respond to crises like the Aleppo killings, we Christians need to take hard look at the ground we stand on. Because I regard the Bible as the sacred, divinely-inspired human attempt to put Divine revelation into words, that means acknowledging tensions within the Scriptures. The Bible rarely speaks with just one voice. Most often, I think the biblical writers nailed it. But sometimes, like in the Conquest narratives, I think they got it badly wrong.
But the God I love and serve still speaks from the Bible to moments like the Aleppo crisis. The God I love and serve says,
Open your mouth for the voiceless,
For justice for all the destitute (Prov. 31:8).
For the God I love and serve, whom the Scriptures reveal time after time, defending the voiceless is not an afterthought. It is the agenda. Yet the slaughter of innocents in Joshua stands in tension with the revelation of such a God.
I think our skill in pushing the “mute” button on the voices of suffering innocents in Joshua translates into more than problematic theology. That dexterity may enable us to push the “mute” button on Aleppo, too.