Q&R: Why the Violent God of Joshua? Brad Jersak


Where might I find some good help reading the Book of Joshua? I have spent ten years changing my paradigm, coming to see that God is good. But then I read Joshua and have so many questions. I cannot believe this is a good God. Why the violence? Christians don’t need more excuses for their bad behavior. Please help me find a good book that can explain some of this violence.


Thank you for asking such an important question. While not a commentary, I think you’ll find that our CWR press book, A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel, addresses the bigger problem—particularly the central section, titled “Unwrathing God.” 

However, let’s zoom in specifically on the Book of Joshua—a fascinating and complex book loaded with violent conquest in the name of God. And just as you’ve indicated, Christians have indeed employed it through the centuries to justify atrocities and motivate genocides.    

Credit where it’s due: my approach to Joshua is a synthesis of others’ research, with special thanks to Dr. Matt Lynch (Regent College), though I would not claim to speak for him. But I believe a careful rereading of the text not only redeems the book from its misuse, but actually reveals its importance as a critique of religious violence itself.   

Bottom line: the author of Joshua has stitched together two opposing narratives, side by side, each with its own narrator. I call these voices the “State Press Secretary” and the “Investigative Journalist” (or “Embedded Reporter”). The author of Joshua gives them alternating turns to describe their version of events during Joshua’s regime after the death of Moses—mainly recounting the so-called ‘conquest’ of Canaan. 


What does the State Press Secretary do? What is their role? They deliver the governing party’s political spin—they are spin doctors, brand managers, public relations representatives. They are salespersons who market the President’s talking points, providing an optimistic vision for the sake of approval ratings. They keep a lid on losses and miscalculations, making promises and proclaiming achievements.   

Joshua’s Press Secretary is no different. That narrator’s perspective—the voice of triumphalism—is woven throughout the book, especially noticeable wherever you see grandiose claims, including:

  • God is on our side and against our enemies.
  • God has commanded us to wipe out the enemy in God’s name. Show no mercy.
  • God promises we will always win, win completely, and win quickly
  • God promises that our divinely sanctioned warfare will bring complete peace to the whole land, achieving peace, security, and stability for our families. 
  • AND, in fact, that this HAS happened. We have defeated our enemies and have peace in the land, right to the borders. In fact, the Press Secretary itemizes the victories, including lists of the tribes they had successfully defeated.


But that is not the only voice we hear in Joshua. The author welcomes a second narrator with a very different perspective. This embedded reporter gives readers an account of the facts on the ground. He may be a patriot, but expresses his loyalty through political realism and a bold counter-narrative that doesn’t shy from the hard truth and flag-covered coffins. His voice is interspersed throughout Joshua, often contradicting the Spin Doctor with, “Well, actually… that’s not what I saw…” 

The Investigative Journalist’s biting reports create what Dr. Lynch calls fractures in the Press Secretary’s narrative. In a series of counterpoints, he claims:

  • No, God was not always on our side. 
  • No, we did not always win.
  • There was nothing quick or complete about it.
  • In fact, we have still not completely won.
  • In fact, undefeated tribes still plague the land “to this day.”
  • By the way, he lists the tribes they failed to defeat. And what do you know, there is significant overlap between list one and list two!  

It’s one thing for me to claim this, but it’s another to see the two narrators at work with your own eyes. After all, trust in both the government and the press is so eroded that it’s best to assess what’s there for yourself. I’ll give just a few examples—transcripts if you will—demonstrating the obvious disparity between their two perspectives.


God is on our side! 

Josh. 10:14  14 There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord listened to a human being. Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel!

Got it? The divine Warrior was on the Israelites’ side and even better, God himself fought for them. The first narrator presents this as an unequivocal promise, as follows:

Promises, Promises

Josh. 1:3-5  3 “I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates—all the Hittite country—to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life.

“As I promised Moses.” When was this? In Deuteronomy, we have these firm promises from God to his prophet:

Deut. 7:1-2 When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before youmany nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you—and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.

Deut. 9:3 3But be assured today that the Lord your God is the one who goes across ahead of you like a devouring fire. He will destroy them; he will subdue them before you. And you will drive them out and annihilate them quickly, as the Lord has promised you.

God then reiterates these same promises through Joshua to Israel:

Josh. 3:9-10  Joshua said to the Israelites, “Come here and listen to the words of the Lord your God.10 This is how you will know that the living God is among you and that he will certainly drive out before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites. 

Mission Accomplished

Josh. 11:20-25  20 For it was the Lord himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the Lord had commanded Moses.

21 At that time Joshua went and destroyed the Anakites from the hill country: from Hebron, Debir and Anab, from all the hill country of Judah, and from all the hill country of Israel. Joshua totally destroyed them and their towns. 22 No Anakites were left in Israelite territory; only in Gaza, Gath and Ashdod did any survive.

23 So Joshua took the entire land, just as the Lord had directed Moses, and he gave it as an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal divisions. Then the land had rest from war.

Josh. 21:43  43 So the LORD gave Israel all the land he had sworn to give their forefathers, and they took possession of it and settled there. 44 The LORD gave them rest on every side, just as he had sworn to their forefathers. Not one of their enemies withstood them; the LORD handed all their enemies over to them. 45 Not one of all the LORD’s good promises to the house of Israel failed; every one was fulfilled.


In stark contrast, flashing his press badge, our pesky reporter fires back:


Josh 5:13-14  13 Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” 14 “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.”


And as for the promise (and claim) of unmitigated, complete victory, how did it go? 

Josh 13:1-5, 13  “This is the land that remains: all the regions of the Philistines and Geshurites, from the Shihor River on the east of Egypt to the territory of Ekron on the north, all of it counted as Canaanite though held by the five Philistine rulers in Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gath and Ekron; the territory of the Avvites on the south; all the land of the Canaanites, from Arah of the Sidonians as far as Aphek and the border of the Amorites; the area of Byblos; and all Lebanon to the east, from Baal Gad below Mount Hermon to Lebo Hamath.

13 But the Israelites did not drive out the people of Geshur and Maakah, so they continue to live among the Israelites to this day.

That’s an impressive list of unconquered tribes and territories. The Bible said they would be conquered and had been conquered. And now, the same book says they have not been conquered. And this is most important: some of same tribes previously mentioned in the victory roll and still on the to-do list.

The truth is (the Bible says!) Israel’s failure to conquer the land extended loooong past the days of Joshua. 

Joshua 15:63  63Judah could not dislodge the Jebusites, who were living in Jerusalem; to this day the Jebusites live there with the people of Judah.

Judges 1:27-36 27 But Manasseh did not drive out the people of Beth Shan or Taanach or Dor or Ibleam or Megiddo and their surrounding settlements, for the Canaanites were determined to live in that land. 28 When Israel became strong, they pressed the Canaanites into forced labor but never drove them out completely29 Nor did Ephraim drive out the Canaanites living in Gezer, but the Canaanites continued to live there among them. 30 Neither did Zebulun drive out the Canaanites living in Kitron or Nahalol, so these Canaanites lived among them, but Zebulun did subject them to forced labor. 31 Nor did Asher drive out those living in Akko or Sidon or Ahlab or Akzib or Helbah or Aphek or Rehob. 32 The Asherites lived among the Canaanite inhabitants of the land because they did not drive them out33 Neither did Naphtali drive out those living in Beth Shemesh or Beth Anath; but the Naphtalites too lived among the Canaanite inhabitants of the land, and those living in Beth Shemesh and Beth Anath became forced laborers for them. 34 The Amorites confined the Danites to the hill country, not allowing them to come down into the plain. 35 And the Amorites were determined also to hold out in Mount Heres, Aijalon and Shaalbim, but when the power of the tribes of Joseph increased, they too were pressed into forced labor. 36 The boundary of the Amorites was from Scorpion Pass to Sela and beyond.

So, now we’ve been reading into the first chapters of Judges. Joshua is dead and the tribes God promised to give to him are still there? Yup. And it got worse: 

Judges 3:5-6  The Israelites lived among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. They took their daughters in marriage and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods.

So, Judges 3:5 includes among the unconquered tribes the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. This directly contradicts—or shall we say, faithfully questions—Joshua 3:10, where we had read “God… will certainly drive out before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites.”


What does all of this mean? Two very, very different and contradictory voices in one book! How does that happen? Here are our options:

  • Maybe we have a single author who is incapable of noticing he’s flip-flopping from one press conference to the next, directly contradicting himself. I doubt that. The different versions don’t trouble me at all. I’ve let go of the ideology that demands I iron out every wrinkle to prove that the Bible never contradicts itself. We just saw it overtly do so. Let the Bible say what it says. 
  • Or maybe have a compositor who has compiled variant histories into one piece of literature, either unaware or untroubled that they’re a cacophonous mess of contradictions. Maybe he’s noticed but doesn’t care. But I doubt that too. The author is never so reckless. I think there’s something much more inspired going on.
  • What if the compositor put both voices in front of his readers, knowing we could see the discrepancies for ourselves? And if so why? What is he up to? Spoiler alert: we’re going to see that the triumphalist and realist voices combine to present the book of Joshua as a critique of religious violence.  

I think the final edition of Joshua may have been redacted during a downturn, after God’s people were defeated, exiled and oppressed, without an army or temple or priesthood. Maybe they were asking, “What happened?” and “Where is our hope?” Narrator 1 is not just a liar. His voice becomes the consoler and encourager who says, “Yes, God really is with us. Despite our defeats, don’t despair. God has not forgotten us.” BUT ALSO, using Narrator 2, the author says, “But our triumphalism was misplaced. In our disobedience, the enemy overtook us. Don’t forget that.”

In the midst of the two voices, we see a trajectory of understanding … they thought warfare was worship, but now instead, begin to see worship is warfare. They thought conquest meant wiping out foreigners, but maybe instead, victory is faithfully resisting the foreign gods of their next-door neighbors. Read this way, I see the author’s intent, not as a glorification of religious violence, but in fact a journey away from the naivety and failure of religious violence. 


I wonder … when Jesus opened his disciples’ eyes on the Road to Emmaus to see how all the Scriptures point to him, what did he say? What would he say about the book bearing his name? (remember, Jesus’ name in Hebrew is YeshuaJoshua).

Perhaps he would have told them, “You have heard it said, ‘God is on our side; pick up your swords and conquer’ but I say to you, ‘I AM the commander of the armies of the Lord; who is on my side? Pick up your cross and follow me.’”

“You have heard it said, ‘Drive the Canaanites, Jebusites and Hittites out of your land.’ But I say to you, ‘Drive anger, greed and violence out of your hearts.”

And perhaps Christ would not merely say, “I resist and reject the religious violence of the Joshua conquests,” but more than that, “The book of Joshua is already doing that. That’s its inspired point. That’s its stroke genius.”  


Rather than cringing at the book from a nonviolent perspective, we can now see how the book critiques religious violence and conquest even today. It’s a direct rebuttal to the religious wars that rage between the ‘Christian’ West and Islamic enemies, or the Russian Orthodox and its Ukrainian neighbors. All too often, the saber-rattling invokes God, where Christian military chaplains (in both the US and Russia) literally bless their troops and weapons in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—where Jesus’ own words are cited at war rallies to fire up the populace and motivate the troops. When Jesus hears the war hawks and death-dealers say, “Greater love has no one than this, that one should lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13), what must he think? This is not what he had in mind when he said, “Follow me.”

So, instead of seeing Joshua as an endorsement of these blasphemies (literally taking the Lord’s name in vain), the book is an assault on the naivety of that approach with a dire warning of the outcomes. 

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