Theology of Warfare (in Joshua)

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The starting point for reflection on a theology of warfare in the Bible, and in the book of Joshua in particular, must be the answer to this awkwardly phrased question: “What should the book of Joshua (or the Bible for that matter) be read as?” And a second question is like it: “How do we make sense of Joshua’s contribution to the diversity of expression on the topic of warfare in the Bible?” I began this commentary by resolving that this project would not set out to solve the “problem” of warfare in the book of Joshua. Although I have resisted the urge to attempt partial answers time and again, it is important here to make my response clear. I have read the book of Joshua against the grain for I have called into question the notion that its depiction of warfare ought to be understood as a normative resource for theological reflection. In other words, I have tried to demonstrate, in a close reading of the text, that the book of Joshua is not a conquest account and that its theological center is not warfare but the faithfulness of Yahweh, the one who invites committed attentiveness to divine instruction (Torah). I have also tried to show that those central interests have been the focus of the book of Joshua’s echoes within Scripture itself and the focus of the book’s theological interpretation through time.

Are those interests diminished or clouded by the book’s having been shrouded in the clothing of its ancient conceptualities? Yes and no. We are not reading The Lord of the Rings. We are reading of a geographic location (often called the Holy Land) to which many of us have traveled. For many of those reading Joshua, the book continues to provide the grounding for their claim to the land (Greenberg). For others, because of its use to justify their own marginalization in their own land, the book remains virtually unreadable. Yet we are not reading history in the modern sense of that term. We are reading a theologically informed adaptation, somewhat like historical fiction. I make such an overstatement here in order that we might not miss the point that this writing must be read extremely carefully, with both its cultural context and its rhetorical aim in mind.

Still, we find ourselves drawn to the conquest accounts as though somehow through those texts we will either vilify or exonerate the book of Joshua. After all, as Chris Hedges has stated so well, “War is a drug. . . . It dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language, and infects everything around it.” It raises “fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our place on the planet” and “exposes the capacity for evil that lurks not far below the surface within all of us.” Not only that, but also war “can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living” (3). If only, therefore, we could put warfare in its theological place. Even better would be for us to be able to justify our understandings and our practices based on biblical precedent.

Unfortunately, the problem of warfare in the book of Joshua raises much the same kind of question as Joshua asks the man with the sword in his hand (Josh 5:13). Is war legitimate or is it not? The answer could well be, “Neither” (NRSV), or better, “No. That’s the wrong question.” That is not to deny that the Bible offers guidance about questions concerning “national loyalty and the outsider, about God and our enemies” (J. H. Yoder, Nonviolence: 73). But that guidance cannot come by weighing texts against one another or by rejecting some in favor of others. It must come through a more nuanced understanding of what’s going on in the Bible as a whole (even in the book of Joshua itself!).

Throughout this commentary I have argued that the Bible is a “text in travail,” borrowing a phrase from René Girard (141). The book of Joshua is given literary birth in an ancient world that was familiar with the genre and idiom of conquest stories. The Deuteronomic school, the authorial context for the book of Joshua, drew on that fund of cultural awareness in shaping the conquest accounts within the book of Joshua. In fact, biblical writers lived in a context informed by a “warfare worldview” that assumed divine involvement in earthly warfare. The God of Israel as well as the gods of the nations were warrior gods who were involved in the lives of their peoples (Exod 15:3; Zeph 3:17; Albrektson; Younger). Land was part of the “divine estate”: the god was the king of the estate, and the king granted land to whom he pleased (see Judg 11:23-24; Block; Hess “Joshua”). In the OT, Israel’s primary role is to trust that the Lord will defend and give victory (Exod 14:13-14; Deut 1:30; 20:1-4; Isa 31:1).

Conquest stories also become part of Israel’s memory of reversal as Assyrian and later Babylonian armies conquer Israel and then Judah. The prophets announce Israel’s and Judah’s defeat by Assyria and Babylon (Jer 5–6; esp. Isa 7:17; 9:11-12; Jer 21:5-7; Ezek 5:8-9). God becomes Israel’s enemy as the warrior God, who through these imperial powers turns the ḥerem on Israel (e.g., Judg 2:14-15; Isa 43:28; Jer 25:8-9). Such reversals are not unique to Israel’s warfare ideology. We find the same principle applied to Moab in the Mesha Inscription.

Alongside that transformation, however, is another tradition about warfare in which Israel’s God alone defeats the cosmic powers Gog and Magog (Ezek 38–39), and where weapons are transformed into agents of peace (Isa 2:2-4) or are destroyed (Isa 9; 11). Israel’s writers and poets present God as one who vanquishes the cosmic and historical forces of chaos (Pss 29; 68; 89:7-18) and maintains order by seeing that justice is done (Pss 82; 96; 97; 99). This One is greater than all the gods: he is Lord of hosts (lit., Lord of armies), who is beholden to no one. That tradition is developed and transformed in the NT, where Jesus becomes the divine warrior who makes peace by defeating the demonic powers, evil, injustice, and death itself.

The point of setting the conquest account into the framework of faithfulness depicted at the beginning and end of the book of Joshua is to nurture a trust in Yahweh, the God of Israel. The point is not whether God alone fights the battle (à la Lind), or whether God participates synergistically with Israel (Craigie: 41), or whether God works within the “political realism” of ancient Israelite life (McConville: 104), or whether Israel fights alone and only thinks they hear God tell them to fight (Eller). Warfare is placed without reservation within the sovereignty of God. Yahweh sets the boundaries of the nations, not only of Israel (Deut 32:3-9). Yahweh creates an exodus for Israel as for the Philistines (Amos 9:7). Yahweh becomes warrior who fights against Israel as he did against Egypt (Jer 21:1-5), even as he uses Nebuchadnezzar to fight against Judah and all the kingdoms of the earth (25:9, 15-38). This God is not simply on one side or another.

What then might be said theologically about God and warfare in the OT? Biblical writers were seeking to articulate a theopolitical vision, a vision that is metahistorical in scope, a vision that places all human strife and striving under the sovereign purposes and care of God. These writers are indeed realists because they write about real events. In using the available language of the day, the book of Joshua along with other OT writings seek to elicit trust in the God who will not be reduced to being a god of the nation, a tribal deity. In the prophetic tradition, this God’s representatives advocated against trust in militaristic modes of nation building (Isa 31:1). They saw salvation as having its ultimate means and end in God, not “by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen” (Hos 1:7). The prophets imagined an alternative way for humankind, one that encompasses all of creation, one in which “the bow, the sword, and war” would be abolished (2:18). Isaiah even imagines a time when God’s arbitration will result in an unprecedented action on the part of the nations: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares; . . . nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (2:4).

The writers of the book of Joshua, by depicting Joshua as one called to trust divine instruction (Torah) and to let God’s word live inside him fully (1:8-9), are positing a source of life outside the autonomous self and nation (Deut 8:3). And by confirming that “it was not by your sword or by your bow” that Israel finds itself where it is, the narrator presents God saying, “I gave you a land on which you had not labored” (Josh 24:12-13). All of this, in other words, is in the service of the embodied call to “choose this day whom you will serve,” either the gods or Yahweh (24:14-15, 21-24). Of course we know that the book of Joshua sets up what amounts to an impossible scenario that anticipates a nearly tragic end when Joshua announces, “You cannot serve the LORD” (24:19). Whether cajoling or prescient, the book of Joshua ends with the affirmation that life may flourish only because of “all the work that the LORD did for Israel” (24:31). The warfare theme has been thoroughly subordinated into the larger project that will, hopefully, reconcile all things into God’s redemptive purpose, a purposeful and peaceful future that God himself has embodied and inaugurated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Col 1:19-20). It is this trajectory on which Jesus draws when he says, “Love your enemies” (Matt 5:43). And if the heart of that vision is to break down the dividing wall between peoples and to end “the hostility between us” (Eph 2:14), then even the warfare texts of Joshua begin to participate in the undoing of the tradition that has assumed, rightly or wrongly, that the Canaanite is to be eliminated from the land. For the narrator of Joshua, Rahab and the Gibeonites on the one hand, and the Transjordan tribes on the other—both become signs that the boundaries of ethnicity and geography cannot limit the sovereignty of God nor the covenant loyalty of the people.

To narrate such a trajectory of divine purpose, and Joshua’s participation in it, allows disparate biblical texts to stand side by side without forcing a choice between war-affirming and war-denying stances. A biblical theology of warfare is one that places God’s sovereignty at the center, that creates space for human freedom to engage in warfare, yet that invites participation in a vision of cosmic salvation and transformation that the Bible calls šalom (P. Yoder). This hopeful biblical theology encompasses ancient Near Eastern warfare genres without requiring those genres to become the warrant for warfare as a normative human endeavor. Such a theology is also grounded in a purposeful hope characterized by šalom among the nations, whom God invites and instructs and yet who must, in the end, also participate in the transformation by choosing to beat swords into plowshares.

The book of Joshua is testimony to the fact that God gives birth to a people whose life is shaped by the word of God (Deut 8:3; Josh 1:8; Ps 1:1) and whose tragedies are embraced within the gracious loyalty of God (Deut 4:31), even when they are scattered among the peoples (4:26-27). The book of Joshua does not offer a warrant for ongoing conquests of “our home and native land” (Canada’s national anthem). It offers a crack through which a little light might shine, through which to perceive, in small measure, a vision of the good life in a good land.

What I have sketched above is not a thorough exploration of a theology of warfare in the Bible. It certainly assumes that individual warfare texts are not autonomous, nor can they be read as somehow independently authoritative without considering how they participate in a larger cultural and canonical setting.

The following resources provide a more diverse exploration of these matters: Barrett; Cowles et al.; Craigie; Eller; Hanson 1984, 1987; Hess 2008; Hess and Martens; Knierim; Lind; Longman and Reid; McDonald; Nelson; Ollenburger 1988, 1994; Rad; Rofé; Schwager; Seibert; Swartley 1983, 2003; Walzer; Winn; J. Wood; C. Wright, ch. 4, “The Canaanites: Three Dead Ends” and ch. 5, “The Canaanites: Three Frameworks”; J. H. Yoder 1994, 2010; Yoder Neufeld. See the essays Conquest and Land in the New Testament in Joshua and Genocide and Sacred Violence in Joshua.


  • Albrektson, B. History and the Gods: An Essay on the Idea of Historical Events as Divine Manifestations in the Ancient Near East and in Israel. Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1967.
  • Barrett, Lois. The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament. Scottdale, PA, and Kitchener, ON: Herald, 1987.
  • Block, Daniel I. The Gods of the Nations: Studies in Ancient Near Eastern National Theology. 2nd ed. Evangelical Theological Society Studies 2. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic; Leicester: Apollos, 2000.
  • Cowles, C. S., Eugene H. Merrill, Daniel L. Gard, and Tremper Longman III. Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003.
  • Craigie, Peter C. The Problem of War in the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978.
  • Eller, Vernard. War and Peace from Genesis to Revelation. Scottdale, PA, and Kitchener, ON: Herald, 1981.
  • Girard, René. Violent Origins: Walter Burkert, René Girard, and Jonathan Z. Smith on Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation. Edited by Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987.
  • Greenberg, Moshe. “On the Political Use of the Bible in Modern Israel: An Engaged Critique.” In Pomegranates and Golden Bells: Studies in Biblical, Jewish, and Near Eastern Ritual, Law, and Literature in Honor of Jacob Milgrom. Edited by David P. Wright, David Noel Freedman, and Avi Hurvitz, 461-71. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1995.
  • Hanson, Paul D. “War and Peace in the Hebrew Bible.” Interpretation 38 (1984):341-62.
  • ______. “War, Peace and Justice in Early Israel.” Bible Review 3 (1987):32-45.
  • Hedges, Chris. War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. New York: Anchor, 2002.
  • Hess, Richard S. “The Book of Joshua as a Land Grant.” Biblica 83 (2002): 493-506.
  • ______. “War in the Hebrew Bible: An Overview.” In War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century. Edited by Richard S. Hess and Elmer A. Martens, 19-32. Bulletin for Biblical Research: Supplement 2. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008.
  • Hess, Richard S., and Elmer A. Martens, eds. War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century. Bulletin for Biblical Research: Supplement 2. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008.
  • Knierim, Rolf P. “On the Subject of War in the Old Testament and Biblical Theology.” Horizons in Biblical Theology 16/1 (1994): 1-19.
  • Lind, Millard C. Yahweh Is a Warrior: The Theology of Warfare in Ancient Israel. Scottdale, PA, and Kitchener, ON: Herald, 1980.
  • Longman, Tremper, III, and Daniel G. Reid. God Is a Warrior. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.
  • McConville, J. Gordon. God and Earthly Power: An Old Testament Political Theology. London and New York: T&T Clark, 2006.
  • McDonald, Patricia M. God and Violence: Biblical Resources for Living in a Small World. Scottdale, PA, and Waterloo, ON: Herald, 2004.
  • Nelson, Richard D. “Divine Warrior Theology in Deuteronomy.” In A God So Near: Essays on Old Testament Theology in Honor of Patrick D. Miller Edited by Brent A. Strawn and Nancy R. Bowen, 241-59. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2003.
  • Ollenburger, Ben C. “The Concept of ‘Warrior God’ in Peace Theology.” In Essays on Peace Theology and Witness. Edited by Willard M. Swartley, 112-34. Occasional Papers 12. Elkhart: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988.
  • _____. “Peace and God’s Action Against Chaos in the Old Testament.” In The Church’s Peace Witness. Edited by Marlin E. Miller and Barbara Nelson Gingerich, 70-88. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.
  • Rad, Gerhard von. Holy War in Ancient Israel. Translated by Marva J. Dawn. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991. (This ed. has a thirty-three page introduction by Ben C. Ollenburger and a bibliography on “War, Peace, and Justice in the Hebrew Bible,” compiled and annotated by Judith E. Sanderson. From the 3d German ed., 1958.)
  • Rofé, Alexander. “The Laws of Warfare in the Book of Deuteronomy: Their Origins, Intent and Positivity.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 32 (1985): 23-44.
  • Schwager, Raymund. Must There Be Scapegoats? Violence and Redemption in the Bible. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.
  • Seibert, Eric A. Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2009.
  • Swartley, Willard M. Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation. Scottdale, PA, and Kitchener, ON: Herald, 1983.
  • ______. “War.” In The Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible. Edited by Donald E. Gowan, 524-28. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003.
  • Walzer, Michael. “The Idea of Holy War in Ancient Israel.” Journal of Religious Ethics 20/1 (1992): 215-28. Followed by a response by John Howard Yoder (229-34) and a reply by Walzer (235).
  • Winn, Albert Curry. Ain’t Gonna Study War No More: Biblical Ambiguity and the Abolition of War. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1993.
  • Wood, John A. Perspectives on War in the Bible. Macon: Mercer University Press, 1998.
  • Wright, Christopher J. H. The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.
  • Yoder, John H. Nonviolence—A Brief History: The Warsaw Lectures. Edited by Paul Martens, Matthew Porter, and Myles Werntz. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010.
  • ______. The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Carlisle: Paternoster, 1994.
  • Yoder, Perry B. Shalom: The Bible’s Word for Salvation, Justice, and Peace. Institute of Mennonite Studies Series 7. Newton, KS: Faith & Life, 1987.
  • Yoder Neufeld, Thomas. Killing Enmity: Violence and the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011.
  • Younger, K. Lawson, Jr. Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 98. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990.

Gordon H. Matties