The Hope of Holy War

The following post is written by my friend Joshua Ryan Butler and it’s the last of three that he's written this week (His first two are HERE and HERE)  Josh has written an amazing book titled The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, and the Hope of Holy War. In this third blog, Josh looks at the the whole genocide problem in Joshua. Do we worship a God who commands ethnic extinction?

“How can you believe in a God who commanded the genocidal slaughter of the Canaanites?”


Many today are distressed by Old Testament violence, particularly Israel’s encounter with Canaan. While this is too big a topic to tackle fully in a blog post, I want to share a few paradigm shifts that have been helpful for me.

Weak vs. Strong

We tend to think of holy war as the strong using God to justify their conquest of the weak, but Old Testament holy war works in the opposite direction: God arising on behalf of the weak against the tyranny of the strong when it’s raged for far too long.

Israel is a rag-tag group of slaves going up against the mightiest imperial powerhouses of the ancient world. And it isn’t like there was a stockpile of AK-47s waiting for them in the wilderness after they left Egypt. Israel has whatever they’ve been able to muddle together wandering through the desert.

Canaan, in contrast, has the most advanced weapons of the day. Their chariots can easily take out Israel’s foot soldiers. Their horses can easily knock down Israel’s ground-fighters. Canaan’s swords and spears can do their long-range damage well before Israel’s sticks and stones come close.

As Israel cowers under the shadow of this militarized giant, it is here that she learns to sing,

“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” (Psalm 20:7)

Ancient Israel is a lone kindergartener taking on the high school senior class with a Wiffle bat. Her only hope is that God fights for her.

Ridiculous Strategies

Israel’s strategies are ridiculous. If God doesn’t show up, they are not really strategies at all. Take Jericho, for example, the gateway fortress into Canaan: heavily defended, surrounded by high walls, protected by a river and armed to the teeth. So what brilliant military strategy is Israel going to use to take down Jericho? Fly planes into its walls? Use billions of dollars in international oil money to equip guerrilla insurgents? Joshua waits for instructions and is finally told to . . . wait for it . . .

March around its walls for seven days and blow trumpets.

Seriously? Can you imagine the Allied Forces of World War II storming the beaches of Normandy with—not guns—but musical instruments? Or the Mongols marching up to the Great Wall of China and making—not war—but music?

This is not a battle strategy; it’s a recipe for disaster.

Unless God is the one leading the charge. These ridiculous battle strategies are not the exception but the norm. Apparently it’s part of the point: so they will know God is the one, not them, who is really doing the fighting.

Israel is not taking on the empire for God; God is taking on the empire for Israel.

Her motto is not “We will fight for God,” but the opposite: “God will fight for us . . . if He doesn’t, we don’t stand a chance.”

Drastic Marching Orders

Many people’s greatest concern, however, is Israel’s drastic marching orders: “utterly destroy them,” “show no mercy,” “do not leave alive anything that breathes.” How do we make sense of these? My book goes into a lot more depth, but here’s three quick thoughts.

First, the cities Israel takes out are military strongholds, not civilian population centers. Say the word city today, and most of us think of an urban metropolis with houses, schools, restaurants, hospitals and businesses. But in the ancient Middle East, things were different. Cities (‘iyr) were military outposts defending the roads leading up to the surrounding countryside–where the people were.

So when Israel “utterly destroys” a city like Jericho or Ai, we should picture a military fort being taken over–not a civilian massacre. God is pulling down the Great Wall of China, not demolishing Beijing. Israel is taking out the Pentagon, not New York City.

Second, the Old Testament makes clear it is using exaggerated war rhetoric, what I like to call ancient trash talk. Think of sports trash talk today, when a basketball team says things in the locker room like, “We wasted them! Annihilated them! They couldn’t get a thing past us!” If you dropped into the locker-room and took this post-game talk literally, you’d think the score was 120-0.

When you later learn the actual score was 120-105, you realize it was still a decisive victory, but not anywhere near as drastic as the rhetoric alone would lead you to believe. The basketball team is not telling lies in the locker room. They simply expect you to understand this is an exaggerated way of speaking.

Similarly, this was how people in the ancient Middle East talked about war. Victors made claims that sound sweeping to our ears today but were clearly, in their historical context, exaggerated trash talk. Nations supposedly wiped off the face of the planet one year, were back the next year strong as ever. Such war rhetoric was universally common in the genre of military history.

The Old Testament makes clear it is using the language this way: the drastic marching orders only show up in a few rare places, and every time they do we only have to go a bit further in the story to find the same enemies, who were supposedly knocked out for good, back causing trouble again.

Driving Out

Third and finally, the primary language used for Canaan is “driving out,” not “killing off.” The phrase “drive out” shows up more than fifty times–in comparison to the drastic marching orders, which only show up in a few rare places. Bring driven out is the language of eviction, not murder.

And like a rowdy dancer bounced from a club, if you’re driven out the good news is you’re still alive.

“Drive out” is the language of exile. Similar to Adam and Eve being driven out of Eden by God, now the imperial powers are being driven out from the garden of Canaan. God evicts “larger and stronger” nations, “little by little” over many generations, and hands his promised garden over to his homeless nation of wandering slaves–the last and the least of the ancient world (Ex 23:30; Deut 7:7; 11:23; Josh 23:9).


Later in her history, Israel eventually becomes just as bad and is also driven out by God, into exile in Babylon. – There is much more to be said, but this begins to emerge as a radically different picture from the caricature of Old Testament holy war. In the book, I demonstrate this is actually a source of hope for our world, particularly for the oppressed and downtrodden of our world crushed under the weight of modern empire.

When properly understood, these texts can even be a resource for peacemaking in the world today, as we follow Jesus by loving our enemies and practicing non-violence, entrusting the vengeance we often desire into the patient hands of God while anticipating God’s eventual coming to tear down Babylon and establish his kingdom in fullness upon the earth.

Joshua Ryan Butler is the author of The Skeletons in God’s Closet (free sample chapter, video trailer, and more here) and pastor of local & global outreach at Imago Dei Community (Portland, OR).