In Joshua, Israel is entering and taking possession of the land. Every battle is against the inhabitants of the land, and they are won through God’s divine intervention. Possession of the land is central to the book of Joshua. More than one third of the book details the division of the land and the allotment to the different tribes. However, In Joshua 9, Israel makes a treaty with the Gibeonites, which God is angry about. This shows that the wars are not simply about inhabitation of land alone. The deuteronomic warning that these nations would turn Israel to worshipping other Gods is an important factor. This is highlighted by the last chapters, firstly in the conflict with the trans-Jordanian tribes over what seems to be false worship (Josh 22), and then Joshua’s stern warning against worshipping the gods of the surrounding nations (Josh 23-24). This final word of God, through Joshua, reminds the Israelite of what God has done for them; he reminds them of his care for the Patriarchs and his mighty works in bringing Israel out of slavery in Egypt. He continues;
8 “‘Later, I brought you to the land of the Amorites who lived beyond the Jordan. They fought against you, but I handed them over to you. You possessed their land, and I annihilated them before you.
11 ” ‘You then crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho. The people of Jericho– as well as the Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites, and Jebusites– fought against you, but I handed them over to you. 12 I sent the hornet ahead of you, and it drove out the two Amorite kings before you. It was not by your sword or bow. 13 I gave you a land you did not labor for, and cities you did not build, though you live in them; you are eating from vineyards and olive groves you did not plant.’ 14 “Therefore, fear the LORD and worship Him in sincerity and truth. Get rid of the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and worship the LORD. (Josh 24:8, 11-14 HCSB)
Israel heeded this warning throughout the life of Joshua and those who had known him. However, in the book of Judges, we see the deuteronomic warnings came true in later generations. Israel failed to defeat the nations completely (Judges 2:3), and they became thorns in their side in two ways; firstly they turned the hearts of Israel to worshipping false gods, and secondly they were the tool that God used to discipline his people and bring them back to faithful worship. The book of Judges describes a repeating cycle of Israel’s relationships to God:
11 The Israelites did what was evil in the LORD’s sight. They worshiped the Baals 12 and abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They went after other gods from the surrounding peoples and bowed down to them. They infuriated the LORD, 13 for they abandoned Him and worshiped Baal and the Ashtoreths. 14 The LORD’s anger burned against Israel, and He handed them over to marauders who raided them. He sold them to the enemies around them, so that they could no longer resist their enemies. 15 Whenever the Israelites went out, the LORD was against them and brought disaster on them, just as He had promised and sworn to them. So they suffered greatly.
18 Whenever the LORD raised up a judge for the Israelites, the LORD was with him and saved the people from the power of their enemies while the judge was still alive. The LORD was moved to pity whenever they groaned because of those who were oppressing and afflicting them. 19 Whenever the judge died, the Israelites would act even more corruptly than their fathers, going after other gods to worship and bow down to them. They did not turn from their evil practices or their obstinate ways. (Judges 2:11-14, 19-19 HCSB)
Here we see a second function of war – God’s punishment. Throughout Judges, God raises nations to attack Israel. The nations attacking Israel is a good thing because it is part of God’s loving, fatherly discipline, and it results in God’s people returning to him. This introduces a brand new concept in our theology of God’s providence: If God wants Israel to win, then he will make them win, often through great miracles. However, if he wants them to lose, then they will lose. The determining factor for these victories and losses is whether Israel is faithful in worshipping God. When they fail, they are oppressed, and once they repent, God sends Judges – often with great miracles supporting them – to rescue his people and defeat the nations once again. We can see that, in Judges, war is not a function of Israel’s national judgement on their neighbours, it is an function of God’s judgement – both on Israel and on the other nations.
Again, we see the important issue of God’s ability to use humanity’s evil actions for his good purposes. We saw this first arise in Genesis, and especially in the Joseph cycle. The simple fact that God uses a thing to achieve his purposes is not proof that the thing is good in and of itself. Nowhere is this made clearer than in the account of Samson, whose constant failures and sinfulness leads him into the centre of a building, surrounded by all the leaders of the Philistines, where God allows him to strike a massive victory (at the cost of his life).