One of the lines from The Screwtape Letters which has never left me is where C.S. Lewis writes, “Man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn't think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false,’ but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical,’ ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary,’ ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless.’” Lewis was writing in reaction to the incoherence of the Modernist movement that has become so prominent during his career, but his critique is all the more applicable in the Post-Modern world of 2016. In our time, truth and falsehood generally take a back seat to the importance placed on adherence to our current cultural values. We see this imbalance in politics, entertainment, and art, but I have felt it nowhere more acutely than in the arena of Biblical criticism.
Rarely do I encounter a skeptic of Biblical truth who objects to it on the basis of its truthfulness. Most often, the criticisms target the Bible’s teaching rather than its historicity. These are the attacks we see on issues such as homosexuality, complementarianism, and of course genocide. Many encounter passages such as Joshua 6 and the destruction of Jericho and balk at the descriptions of the entire city being “put to the sword.” It is perfectly understandable why this would give someone pause. It is right that we attach value to human life, and that we would raise our eyebrows at an account wherein much of it is lost. That said, it is entirely unfortunate that these accounts are so often handled clumsily and understood poorly. When placed in their proper context in the entire arc of the Bible’s point, these accounts do something very different from advocating for genocide.
God is just. That simple reality has massive implications. His justice demands that sin be paid for and that forgiveness be bought. But mingled with the perfect justice of God are his qualities of mercy and patience. Nowhere in the Bible do we see a picture of God waiting for someone to sin so that He can eagerly rain down vengeance upon the transgressor. Rather, we see a God of mercy waiting for the sinner to turn, to pursue righteousness, to avoid his own destruction. In fact, when God promises the land of Jericho to Abram’s descendants in Genesis 15, he also mentions that Israel would live in Egypt for over 400 years partially because, “...the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” God was waiting before He delivered the judgment that finally arrives in Joshua 6.
God’s patience reflects His character just as much as His justice does. In Ezekiel 18:23, God asks the question: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” In answer to his own question, verse 32 follows up: “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.” It is God’s desire that the guilty (i.e. everyone) would turn from sin and avoid the punishment that it brings on their heads. But his patience does not last forever; according to his justice, it cannot.
With this in mind, what we find in accounts like Joshua 6 are not the sadistic impulses of an evil God who delights in destruction, but rather a picture of his justice. We no longer live in a literal, physical kingdom, like the Israelites in the Old Testament, meaning there is never any commands to “put to the sword” those who oppose God. However this doesn’t mean that death doesn’t come to those who stand as God’s enemies. These accounts are not advocating for the eradication of “the other” but rather they serve as a warning of what awaits us all, should we fail to turn from sin. And God is still waiting. The judgment pictured at Jericho is merely a foreshadow of his judgment to come-- the very judgment that he died to save us from in the person of Jesus Christ.
On the cross, Jesus took this judgment and death so that we would not have to. And now God waits patiently, freely offering salvation through His Son, but also assuring us that His final judgment will come and will fall on those who have not taken shelter at the foot of the cross. With such stakes, the modern critic would do well to put aside considerations of whether these claims offend his sensibilities, and instead examine whether or not they are true.