The real lessons from the story of Joshua


The lack of historicity of the Bible is rampant. To take just one example, there is no evidence for the triumphalist story of Joshua leading the Israeli soldiers, just returned from their (also fictitious) captivity in Egypt, in one victory to another over the various towns in Canaan. The most famous battle is the one for Jericho. But archeological excavations reveal that far from being a big fortressed city whose walls fell under a military onslaught that was favored by their god, Jericho was an insignificant little town that was unwalled.

Religious believers naturally tend to be disturbed by new scientific findings that show that almost all the ‘history’ in the Bible is without foundation. But when it comes to the Joshua story they should be thankful that this story is not true because it reveals a god who is truly depraved, ordering the wholesale brutal genocide of an entire population. What the Israelites were asked to do by their god was to kill everyone and everything without exception, and they did so. “They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” (Joshua 6:21) In other words, it was as complete an act of genocide as one can imagine, putting to shame the attempts at genocide by any modern counterpart.

Such stories, even if fictional, are not harmless. Because they are told to children as something glorious (and praised in song about even today), they serve to indoctrinate young children with the tribal mindset that atrocities are acceptable as long as they are done by ‘our’ side (by definition good) against ‘their’ side (evil). As researcher George Tamarin shockingly revealed, young Israeli school children approved of Joshua’s genocidal acts as reported in the Bible but when the identical story was told to them with the setting transformed to ancient China and the killers into an obscure warlord, they condemned it. The differential response of the children based on whether the killers belonged to their own tribe is no different from that of a supposedly sophisticated theologian like William Lane Craig who seems to find it easy to justify any evil action as long as it is done or commanded by his own particular god.

Here is a another website that tries to justify the genocide perpetrated by Joshua and his army.

Killing a person, while often wrong, is not wrong in all situations; for example, it can be justified if necessary for self-defense. That is, it’s not automatically wrong for God to issue an order to kill humans. Since the Israelites had good reason to believe in God’s moral perfection, omniscience and omnipotence, the best choice for them would be to trust that God had a better understanding than they of the situation itself and the moral rules governing it. The only way for them to be justified in not obeying God’s command would be if the command were inherently evil and impossible to justify (though it must be cautioned that humans with their imperfect understanding could incorrectly decide a command was inherently evil).

This passage is a good example of the kind of pretzel shapes logic gets twisted into when you try to justify the unjustifiable. (The irony is that this website is called Rational Christianity!) It says that even if a command from god seems manifestly evil, you should still do it because god is morally perfect and knows more than you and hence your own judgment is worthless. The author seems to realize that most people might find the relinquishing of all personal judgment too extreme because he/she then says that you can disobey a command only if it is “inherently evil and impossible to justify”, seeming to imply that your judgment is not entirely useless but can be used to decide whether to follow god’s command or not. But then he/she immediately undercuts that by saying that we are imperfect because we are mere mortals, unlike god, and thus have only an imperfect understanding, and thus we cannot be sure of our own judgment. So what should we do? Use our judgment and follow the order that we think is “inherently evil and impossible to justify” or not? Alas, the author does not say and, as religious apologists often do when faced with these irreconcilable contradictions, changes the subject. This is because there is no way to justify the evil acts that god commands in the Bible without sounding like a monster.

What is disturbing is that this is precisely the kind of reasoning (“God told me to do it and so it must be good and must be obeyed”) used by religious fanatics of all stripes down the ages when they commit atrocities. How can we say that they are wrong when their supposedly holy books are approving of the same kinds of reasoning?

In Mark Twin’s autobiography that has just been released, he recounts in his bitingly sarcastic style (see here and here) the massacre of 600 men, women, and children of the Moros tribe by US forces in 1906 in the Philippines. Reading this brought back to mind the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam war (see here and here). Both these massacres were excused in the US because they were done by ‘our’ side. Imagine the reaction if the tables had been turned and 600 American men, women, and children were murdered by a foreign force.

The real lesson from the story of Joshua is that people are most dangerous, and can be most cruel, when they think they know the mind of god and believe that he is on their side.

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