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Joshua is one of the hardest books to read in the Old Testament. It seems to be full of violence and death, and indeed it is the book that the new atheists hold up as being the the evidence that the God of Israel is not a God of love.

However, as with so much of history, we need to ensure that we don’t look at the stories being told with the ‘retrospectoscope’, where we impose our cultural norms and values on a society and then judge it according to those values. We need instead to look at the cultural norms and values of the society we are reading about and understand it within the context in which it is set. We also need to look beneath the surface and beyond the obvious, and dig deep into the text. While it may not calm our emotional and psychological aversion to some of the stories, it will at least help us to see the theological truths underpinning them, and hence understand more clearly what they mean for us today.

David Firth points out in his commentary that an eighth of the book of Joshua is devoted to the story of Rahab and Achan. Rahab, is a Canaanite prostitute, who confesses faith in Yahweh and who with her family is saved from the destruction of Jericho. Mentioned in both Matthew and Hebrews she becomes part of God’s people and is an ancestor of Jesus. Achan, on the other hand, is an Israelite who turns away from Yahweh and disobeys God and as a result suffers the wages of sin, death. Israel is more that an biological group of people, it is those who have committed themselves to Yahweh’s purposes. Those who choose actively to oppose God are excluded. Those who choose to follow God are included. Caleb, the Kenizzite is an example of this, as are the Gibeonites.

If we find ourselves disturbed when new atheists use terms like genocide and ethnic cleansing about the book of Joshua, it is worth doing some more research and reading. As Firth points out, deeper reading of the texts reveals how only combatants were killed and an alternative was always available. ‘Divine judgement will, perhaps, always make us uncomfortable. We would like God, as a loving Father, never to act in judgement - but that would be contrary to his nature. However, what emerges from the book of Joshua is that judgement remains his ‘strange’ work.... it is something he does with a heavy heart, which is why in the midst of judgement an alternative is always available.’