Overlooking Joshua

Most Christians read Exodus as a story of liberation, but many Native Americans view it from the perspective of the Canaanites.

By Miguel De La Torre

Among Christians, one of the most powerful biblical stories is the Exodus, where God enters history and guides God’s chosen people toward the Promised Land. The trek of former slaves toward liberation resonates with many who today are dispossessed.

Unfortunately, what we usually ignore is that this Promised Land was already occupied by the Canaanites, who first had to be slaughtered before God’s chosen could take possession. [The Hebrews] enforced the ban on everything in [Jericho]: men and women; young and old; ox, sheep and donkey, massacring all of them (Joshua 6:21).

While most marginalized Christians read themselves into the story of the oppressed slaves marching forward, many first-nation people see themselves as the modern-day Canaanites. 

An honest reading of the book of Joshua should lead us toward restless nights. When God’s chosen people entered the land of Canaan, they found other people living there. How do you claim a land when it is already occupied?

According to the text, God commanded that everything be put to death: men and women; young and old; ox, sheep and donkey. The spears of God’s people were thrust through babies. The swords of God’s people lopped off the heads of children. Pregnant women were disemboweled. Families were decimated before each other’s eyes. A gory bloodbath took place that has more in common with some diabolical scene from the depths of hell than the glories of heaven.

Today we call God’s command a war crime. Today we call God’s command genocide. Today we call God’s command crimes against humanity. Does the book of Joshua depict a non-biblical God?

Some might argue that the Canaanites worshipped false gods and did despicable things. Do we then have a right to kill everything that does not recognize the true God, with the true God being how we as Christians define God? Should we then invade and decimate all non-believers who in our eyes do despicable things? Think of the crusades.

The Hebrew’s (European) dream of religious freedom and liberation became the Canaanite’s (Amerindian’s) nightmare of subjugation and genocide. Like the Canaanites before them, Indians were viewed as a people who could not be trusted, a snare to the righteous and a culture that required decimation.

Robert Allen Warrior provides a re-reading of the Exodus story from the Canaanite perspective, questioning if it is an appropriate biblical model for understanding his people’s struggle for dignity. He calls for a Christian reflection that places the Canaanites at the center of theological thought and that considers the violence and injustice rarely mentioned in critical works concerning Exodus. 

Leading Native American scholar George “Tink” Tinker argues that even though Christian missionaries, who attempted to “Christianize the heathens,” may have had the best of intentions, their religious endeavors contributed to the oppression of the indigenous people and eventually led to their downfall.

It is important to recognize that those who brought the gospel to Indians did so at a terrible cost. Individuals like Bartolomé de las Casas (Catholic) or Henry Benjamin Whipple (Protestant), heralded as defenders of the Indians, still contributed to their ultimate annihilation, in spite of their heartfelt convictions and intentions. Las Casas was responsible for creating the “reduction” paradigm for missionary conquest, which physically separated Indians from their families and communities, while Whipple engineered the stealing of the Black Hills from the Sioux nation, bringing an end to their resistance.

Scholars like Vine Deloria Jr. are quick to remind us that the conquest of Indian land by “God’s chosen people” ended their liberation, understood as communal and personal harmony and balance. Hence, any discussion of liberation and freedom among indigenous people must be understood as liberation and freedom from European Christian invasion and its consequences. 

These consequences are witnessed today when we consider that American Indians are the poorest of the poor in a “Christianized” North America, a poverty maintained by systematic oppressive structures that politically, socially, psychologically and economically suppress.  

True liberation among Indian people, according to scholars like Vine Deloria and Tink Tinker, begins with a firm “no” to Jesus Christ and Christianity, the source of Indian bondage. Can any student of history blame them for saying no? Wouldn’t you if you shared their decimation? 

Instead of the violent missionary conquest brought about by Christians, Indian scholars focus on the ceremonial structures that promote a pre-1492 harmony and balance. A societal and political re-centering of ancient ceremonies, along with their traditional communitarian value systems, returns to a world-view of an intimate connection to the whole of creation.

For those of us who hold on to our Christian faith, Native people force us to think more critically about our faith and the history of imposing that faith. For you see, either we repudiate God’s command concerning the genocide of the Canaanites, or we conclude that there exist circumstances when ethnic cleansing is acceptable. 

Or maybe, there’s another alternative. Maybe God did not order the massacre of civilians. Maybe Joshua projected his desires upon God to provide religious justification for taking another person’s house and land.

This, of course raises complex questions. Are there parts of Scriptures that are not from God but projected onto God? Are their parts of Scripture that must be rejected so that we can remain faithful to the gospel?

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.