Whenever I think of the Book of Joshua I remember a seminar that I went to at Soul Survivor many years ago. The seminar was about answering difficult questions of faith. The leader (who’s name I forget) took any question from the group and talked through the often multiple ways in which to answer each one.
A difficult question was posed: ‘If God is all loving and wants to bless all people, why, in Joshua, do we hear God commanding genocide?’
A good question!
The leader of the seminar approached this question in rather refreshing way for me. He spoke about the impact of human free will on God. He began by outlining God’s plan from Exodus for His people; God calls His people out of Egypt to enter into His promised land of Canaan. The Exodus consisted of several major act of God’s power and might. Straight after that Egypt and the neighbouring nations were scared of Israel’s God. If they had walked into Canaan after that then, the seminar leader suggested, the nations would have stepped aside and allowed them to take possession.
The issue arose when the Israelite’s grumbled, lacked trust in God and got scared about the promise land. God, in order to keep His people and to teach them faithfulness, had to keep His people in the desert. This lead to the neighbouring nations questioning the power of this Hebrew God based on the faith of the Israelites. The Israelites questioned their God’s power and provision and sovereignty over all the earth and so others saw God in that way.
When it comes to taking possession of Canaan, the occupants didn’t fear God but saw a weak people who might be able to be defeated. To enter and live in the promised land in safety, they were going to have to fight and win. They required, not just a win but a definite and complete win that will enable peace from that time on.
What the leader of the seminar was suggesting was that the entry into the promised land was not in the original intended way. God had planned to enter the promised land in a particular way at a particular time. The Israelites, out of free will changed that. By their actions it was no longer feasible to do it in that way. God had to adapt and change. There is, obviously, nuances to that last statement but for now it stands.
This complex question about genocide is actually about God’s providence. Providence comes from the same word for provision; pro meaning ahead and vision meaning to see. We talk about providing for family, of seeing what will be needed and putting something in place. There’s an element of guess work in that task. God, however, is all knowing, all seeing, there’s no chance for guessing. The paradox comes when we suggest that God is open and respects our freedom to choose. This cannot be a forced choice. If there is no options it is not choice it’s cohersion.
What we see happening in the book of Joshua, particularly at the entry into Canaan, is God changing and adapting His sovereign plan to enable the free participation of His people. God is bigger than any choices we make. It’s like He says,
“Oh. I see you’ve made that choice. I can work with that.” His provision is knowing the outcomes of choices and being able to catch us.
The even greater thing we now can see with God is that he not only works despite our bad choices but he also redeems them and weaves them into His story. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to suffering.
Suffering is never from God. I resent it went people suggest God, in order to teach a lesson, chooses pain and suffering as His tool. God is always in the business of building His Kingdom where there is no tears, no sorrow. He allows suffering which will come our way and He allows it because He has proved, ultimately in the death and resurrection of Jesus, that He can use it to bring great signs of His glory and power; redemption, pure and simple. When we look back we glory at how, despite suffering, God has held us and even uses that suffering to bring great healing to ourselves and even to others and furthering His Kingdom. I have big questions when we assume He always meant that to happen; that it was His will for us to suffer. It leads us to big questions about His character. I’m not sure what’s good news about a God who wills suffering on those He ‘loves’.
With redemption suffering is accepted but not feared because God takes the sting out of it and has a bigger view of the world than the limited concept of reality we have. Consider us, still, on the whole, conceiving of the world within Newtonian physics. This world view assumes that there is cause and effect and that it’s a simple equation that if you do A, B must follow. Over the last century our concept has changed and Newton’s laws of physics don’t always apply. We have entered Einsteinian physics. Cause and effect is more web like and there’s an understanding of the ‘butterfly effect'; that a butterfly flaps its wings in Rio and there’s a hurricane in Taiwan. This is not always true but it helps to illustrate this interconnected and complex understanding of how the world works. This is similar to compare our thoughts with God’s.
What I want us to reflect on is how we sometimes limit the power of God to one plan, un-changeable, singular, all eventualities taken into consideration. If this is the case then the genocides in Joshua were pre-meditated and, therefore, pose difficult questions about God. If we have a concept of God’s redemption working through our free will and His provision encompassing our freedom, God begins to be seen as more powerful than we could ever imagine; more creative, more dynamic.
How big is our God? To what extent will He allow us to fall if we choose? How much is He willing to allow us to stray before He can no longer make it come to good? The truth, it seems, is we can go to the very limits and, even there, He will catch us and work it out for good for those that love Him. He can take any mess, any situation and redeem it and not just despite of but work through that very thing. He never erases the past forcing us to forget but rather changes the very nature of our past by making it something we are thankful for, despite not being of His will. He claims the pain and changes it into joy. Even if it requires a massive intervention and the short term impact is painful and difficult.