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© 2018, Tony Harwood-Jones
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to reproduce this essay in whole or in part.

Conquering the Holy Land

The Biblical Book of Joshua describes the People of Israel crossing the Jordan River with miraculous help, and from there proceeding to take over the Land of Canaan.  The story of the Battle of Jericho is familiar, even to those who do not care much about Scripture, with the walls that “came tumblin’ down” (which they did, once the Israelite army had gone in procession a number of times around the city).

It is instructive, however, to read the story in context – indeed, to read through the Book of Joshua from beginning to end.  If you do, I would not be surprised if you end up scratching your head in some perplexity.  The events it describes are so violent!  They are even – dare I say – “genocidal!”


Read it and see.

As you will find, the Biblical Book of Joshua clearly states that the people of Israel, in conquering Jericho, were under God’s instructions to leave nothing alive except one woman, the prostitute Rahab, and her family. 1   They were allowed to take high-value physical items, but only to put them in the sacred treasury.  This – killing the people and keeping the valuables – is described as God’s explicit command. 2   In fact, the text asserts that, later on, the Israelites lost a skirmish with the people of Ai, because God was angry that somebody had kept some booty for himself, rather than turning it in to the official treasury. 3   The perpetrator, named Achan, along with his whole family, including children, were violently put to death for this offense. 4

Having executed Achan (and his family) – which the text asserts that the Israelites did in order to put themselves once more in a right relationship with God 5 – they became able to conquer Ai, and burn the whole place to the ground.  They left not one citizen of Ai alive, except, briefly, the king, whom they publicly hanged. 6

On and on it goes.  City after city, region after region, all are destroyed and all the inhabitants massacred.  Joshua “...utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded.” 7   Yes, I think that you would agree that destroying "all that breathed" would constitute a massacre.

In fact, how can we not call this divinely-ordained slaughter a genocide???  A holocaust, even?

The inhabitants of the land were living their lives, and going about ordinary daily activities, when fierce and heavily-armed warriors in the tens of thousands 8  appeared, stormed in, burned their homes to the ground, then killed them, one and all.

Fast-forward to the mid-20th Century, when the world, aghast at the Nazi slaughter of Jews, arranged to take that same territory, which, four thousand years earlier, Joshua and his troops had conquered, and make it once more a homeland for Jews – who are, as no one will deny, today’s descendents of Joshua’s invading armies.

Most of the officials who were trying to restore a peaceful world order in 1947 were from a Christian culture, in which the Bible and its message was assumed to be authoritative.  The Bible states emphatically that the land which Joshua conquered is the “Promised Land,” because God promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that He would “give” it to Jacob’s descendents, and eventually (so it says) God kept that promise by means of Joshua and his troops.

Of course, if you do not see the Bible as an authoritative and divine message, you might be forgiven for noting that the Jews were not the original inhabitants of the land, and had merely taken the place by force!  Not that today’s “Palestinians” were there first, of course, since the original occupants, whoever they were, were entirely slaughtered by Joshua... that is, if the account in the Book of Joshua is to believed.  “All that breathed,” prior to the arrival of the Israelites, had been eliminated. 9 

But to select that part of the Middle East, as a proper place for Jewish people to live and build a nation, is to endorse the message of the Bible that this particular piece of real estate, between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, is the historic “Promised Land,” given by God to the descendents of Jacob (the man also known as “Israel”).

That other people, in the year 1947, were currently living in the region?  Not a factor. 10   God had long since, in the pages of Holy Scripture, declared the place to be the rightful home of the Jewish people.

No wonder there is conflict in the region!  A people’s claim to the land, based solely on the fact that their ancient forebears had taken it by force and by massacre, seems scarcely supportable, doesn’t it?  Certainly not if you don’t hold the Bible to be authoritative!  And, many world leaders of today – Buddhists, Taoists, Confucians, Hindus, atheists, people who follow ancient indigenous spiritualities, and people of no discernable religion – would have great difficulty acting on purely Biblical grounds.  Even Muslims, many of whom are modern Israel’s nearest neighbours, clearly have a hard time with it, even though the Qu’ran says that the Bible is very definitely God’s message. 11 

And yet... if, after WWII the world wanted to honour the victims of the Nazi Holocaust by giving them a place to call their own, where else would it be!??  With tongue firmly planted in cheek, I have sometimes said, “Why not Northern Saskatchewan!?  Or maybe Siberia?  Lots of room there!” But of course, in any part of the world that officials might have picked for a Jewish “homeland,” there were, and continue to be, people already living – and in some cases (eg. the Indigenous peoples of Saskatchewan and Siberia) they have lived there for millenia.  So, there is a certain amount of common sense to picking the place that has so much resonance for Jews – resonance that even the non-religious must acknowledge.

If only the people who were already there had been better treated!  And if only the people who were already there had found a way to honour the arrival of what Islam calls, “The People of The Book!” 12  And if only the state of Israel, as it grew into a nuclear-armed world power, could have found a gentler way to respond to the unwavering anger, resentment and hostility of the Palestinians!  And if only Israel had not annexed Jerusalem and the “West Bank” despite the fact that the United Nations had declared Jerusalem to be under a special international regime, and not part of the state of Israel!  Of course, when seen only from a Biblical perspective, how could the descendents of Joshua’s invaders not include Jerusalem and Bethlehem and Jericho, in their newly reconstituted country!?

It is an extremely thorny mess, but I do accept that the nation of Israel should be where it is.


While I do not think that God has ever endorsed a massacre, 13  and I question the means whereby the Children of Israel took over the Promised Land, I am capable of accepting that they did carry with them a unique experience of God.  Moreover, as a Christian, I hold that God deliberately created, through their many years in that conquered land, a social environment, with a culture, a morality, and an understanding of the Creator of the Universe, such that Jesus, the Christ, could be born and raised there.  Believing, as I do, that God was fully in Christ, living as a completely normal human, from helpless infant to increasingly famous adult preacher and teacher – a person with no unfair superhuman advantages – means that such a normal human had to be born into a culture already deeply steeped in human-divine interactions.  Only by being born and raised in such a community, could that human child of Mary grow up with an appreciation of his divine calling, ministry, and identity.  Hence, I accept that the ancient Israelites were in some very real sense the “chosen people” – the people chosen by God to host the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah.

So... they had once attacked and conquered the people of the land – that land which the faithful now call “The Holy Land.”  Did God help them to do that?  Did God demand the slaughter of all those conquered peoples?  All that I am willing to affirm is that the invaders already had a rudimentary sense that God is alive, that God cares for them, that God expects obedience, and that they are to put God first, ahead of their own needs and desires.  And I most certainly believe that the community and culture that they began to make, after they had conquered the region, was divinely moulded into the homeland of the Saviour of the world.  But, I am not prepared to say that God demanded the genocide of the people who lived where the Israelites wanted to settle.  God could have taught them how to bring Jesus to the world, wherever they had made their home.

And I hope that all who profess to be Christian, will help find a way to make the modern reality of Israel work – with love and generous accommodation towards the Arab and Muslim people of the region.

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Tony Harwood-Jones
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
August 1, 2018


1    See Joshua 6:21.  Rahab had given shelter to Israelite spies when they were checking out the city defences.
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2    Joshua 6:19
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3    Joshua 7:11-12 and 19-26
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4    Translators of one English version of the Bible, the Revised English Bible, were apparently so uncomfortable with the idea that all of Achan’s people were killed together with him, they seized on an ancient Greek translation of verse 25, which omits the killing of the family, and used that, rather than the Hebrew text, which clearly says, “they burned them with fire, cast stones on them.”  A bunch of people (“them”), not just one, were put to death for the felony, according to the very possibly original, Hebrew, text.
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5    Joshua 7:26
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6    Joshua 8:29
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7    Joshua 10:40
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8    Joshua 4:13 tells us that there were forty thousand warriors in the Israelite forces.
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9    While, in Joshua 23:1 we read that Joshua’s leadership had obtained security from “all” Israel’s enemies – thus supporting the idea that every last one of the region’s inhabitants had been slaughtered, the next book in the Bible, “Judges,” clearly states that there were a number of communities that remained alive – living, in fact, in and among the new Israelite settlements.  See, for example, Judges 1 and 2, especially Judges 2:12.  Were these communities the ancestors of those who were living in “Palestine” in 1947?  It’s unlikely.  With the number of times, over the millenia, that invading armies have conquered the area in question, modern Palestinians’ ethnic descent from the original “Canaanites” is very, very, difficult to prove.
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10    Actually, the United Nations, and those who were responsible for creating the new Jewish state, did consider the local inhabitants, to some degree.  They retained Jerusalem and its surrounding area as an international, UN-administered place; and they assigned the quite densely-populated “West Bank” to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.  These places were partly conquered by the Israelis in 1948, when Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt attacked.  Jerusalem and the West Bank were conquered, and annexed, by Israel in 1967, during the the Six Day War.
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11    In Surah Five of the Qu’ran, we hear God’s voice saying that the Jewish Torah is divinely revealed (v.44), and, a few verses later, that the Christian Gospel is equally divine (v.46).  Indeed, the Qu’ran frequently demands respect for the “People of the Book,” meaning both Jews and Christians.
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12    As stated in Footnote 11, the Qu’ran commends respect for Jews and Christians, calling them the “People of the Book – both being faith groups that are guided by Scripture.  But, the relationship between Muslim and Jew is complex, since, in the lifetime of Muhammad, there was terrible conflict between the Banu Quraiza Jewish community of Medina and the nascent Muslim community.  Hence, although the Qu’ran urges respect for the “People of the Book,” Arab Muslims harbour enormous hostility towards the Jewish state.
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13    Some wag will no doubt say, “What about Noah’s flood, when the Bible says that God massacred the entire population of the world, except for Noah and his ark-load of humans and animals!?”  To which I respond, “That story does not represent God authorizing humans to massacre one another.”  The notion that God might allow, or even create a natural disaster, is a question outside the bounds of this essay.  I simply do not believe that God has ever, or will ever, authorize one group of humans to annihilate another.  Period.
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