Gateway to the Classics: Joshua and the Judges by J. Paterson Smyth
Joshua and the Judges by  J. Paterson Smyth


Lecture to the Teacher

I N beginning the study of this Book for the purpose of teaching there are some points which it is important to be clear about.


First, that the Book naturally divides itself into two parts:—

The Story of the Conquest, chs. i.‑xii.

The Chronicle of the Allotment, chs. xii.‑xxiii.

With the Chronicle of the Allotment, or, as is has been called, The Domesday Book of Palestine, our lessons have but little to do. On the Story of the Conquest it may be necessary to make some remarks. Keep clearly in mind that by the Conquest is meant only the conquest of west  Palestine. The closing years of Moses were mainly occupied with the subjugation of the fierce tribes on the eastern  bank of the Jordan. Sihon, King of the Amorites, and Og, the King of Bashan, and the princes of the wandering Midianites, had fallen before the victorious arms of Israel when our story opens with Joshua and his warriors drawn up on the banks of the Jordan. It is entirely with the conquest of West Palestine—ie., Palestine beyond the Jordan—Palestine between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea—that we are concerned in this Book. Show this to the class by means of the map. Be careful, too, to avoid the Common misapprehension that Joshua's conquest was a complete one—a misapprehension which causes a good deal of puzzling about the condition of things at the opening of the Book of Judges. From ch. xv.  63, xvi. 10, xvii. 12, 13, etc., it is clear that portions of the subjugated tribes remained, pretty much like the ancient Britons in England long ago, holding the fastnesses, and sometimes permitted to dwell with the conquerors and pay tribute, and that these were a serious danger and temptation to the Israelites. We shall find in the Book of Judges that the Israelites were themselves to blame for this; but the matter does not further concern us in this Book.


Let us next try to form an opinion about those Canaanite tribes which were driven out by the children of Israel. They are named in different parts of the Bible the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites, Gergashites; but they seem to have had the same language, and manners, and religious customs, and are frequently spoken of under the general name of Canaanites or Hittites.

The bible tells us very little of their history, and very little of their manners, beyond the terrible statements as to their cruelty and impurity, and the unutterable abominations connected with their heathen worship. The very earth itself beneath their feet is represented as unable to bear their filthy and licentious lives. Their sand is said to vomit them forth (Leviticus xvii. 25). But secular history throws a new light on them rather startling at first sight. We have heard of Cadmus, the Phœnician, the inventor of the alphabet; of the Phœnician ships that traded for tin with early Britain; of the Phœnician race the pioneers of commerce—who colonized the Mediterranean shores. We know something of that most interesting period in Roman history which tells of the power and civilization of Carthage, and the wars of its Punic or Phœnician race—the great merchant princes of the world. It is not startling to discover that the polished Phoenician and the accursed Canaanite are the one and the same! The Septuagint translators of the Old Testament actually use the word "Phœnician" in translating the Hebrew term "Canaanite" (Exodus xvi. 35; Joshua v. 1). St Augustine, in his Commentary of the Epistle to the Romans, says that the country folk around Carthage called themselves Canaani. And many teachers will remember the Carthaginian names—Hannibal, Asdrubal, Maherbal, with the title Baal at the end, recalling the dark idol of the Israelite days, and the names Eshball and Merib-baal, even among the children of Saul.

Apart form the interest of the fact that we can identify the Canaanite with the famous Phœnician, there is an instructive lesson here for our senior classes. It is quite true that at this period the Phœnician race had passed its zenith of greatness, and was probably advancing toward demoralization and decay. We know they had not always been so wicked and depraved. There was a time when their "iniquity was not yet full." Yet, even so, there is a lesson in the difference of attitude of the sacred and secular historians, "The Lord seeth not as man seeth. Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart." Power, civilization, knowledge, beauty, win the admiration of the careless world even when covering a mass of moral corruption. With God the chief thing is the man himself —the moral nature within. According as that is turned to the true and noble, or the base and sensual, so are men and nations judged by God. Probably much of the graceful and beautiful in our notions of ancient Greek life would similarly vanish at the Ithuriel touch of an inspired historian, and appear, it may be, in the lurid colours of St. Paul's first chapter in his Epistle to the Romans.


The miracles in this Book of Joshua have often raised doubts and disturbance in men's minds. That the waters of Jordan should part for their crossing—that the walls of the city of Jericho should fall to the ground—are events that would in ordinary circumstances  seem so improbable that a man feels half justified in hesitating to believe them. But be it remembered that these were not ordinary circumstances.  What was at stake was not, as skeptics sneeringly assert, the fate of a few thousand Jews, or the "mastership of a little province about the size of Wales"—no, but the fate of the Torch-bearers who were to bear the light of the truth for the whole human race. The issue of the conquest of Palestine belongs to all time. The Jews were a people miraculously used for the sake of humanity. Their history must be read, as the historian wrote it, with an awful sense of God's immediate presence pervading it right through. We feel no difficulty about miracles in the days of the Apostles. We feel that they are extraordinary, but that they are for an extraordinary time. Let the same thought place in reading about this period.

This does not mean that we must accept each statement unquestioningly as an exact literal explanation of what actually happened. Something wonderful did  happen at the Jordan and at Jericho which made a tremendous impression. Here is no questioning of miracles, of what God could  have done. But some accounts may strike us as improbable as to what God would  have done. It is not wrong to think of other possible explanations. The stories of these miracles are not as regards evidence on the level of these recorded in our Lord's day. They belong to far remote antiquity. They came down for generations in the legends of the people. We must allow for the possibility of exaggeration and poetical expression. But there is no escaping the conviction that the whole period was felt by the actors in it to be a time of the extraordinary and supernatural. God was very near to them. We find the statement that the natives were terrified at the invaders as men helped supernaturally, so that all "heart did melt, neither did there remain any more courage in any man because of them." We find the simple, artless historian before us fearlessly appealing to the monuments existing, he says, "even to this day" in which he wrote. He never seems to have troubled himself about proving or persuading—he seems to have never a thought of anyone questioning his story. Simply and straight-forwardly he tells his tale, utterly unconscious of what seem difficulties to us. And, what is a much more important fact, we find the whole subsequent history and prophecies and psalms of the nation deeply stamped with the memory of this miraculous time. The existence of the miraculous is the only explanation. It will be noticed that I have not here included the mention of the sun standing still. What I have just said about the miracles of the Book does not equally apply to this, so I leave it for separate treatment in its appointed place in the Lessons.


There is no room in this brief note to do more than touch the main difficulty of the Book—the slaughter of the Canaanites.

First of all, get rid of the thought of FAVOURITISM, which underlies much of the difficulty. The Israelites were not  pets and favourites chosen arbitrarily for their own sakes to a favoured life. They were a race elected to great responsibilities and terribly severe training, not for their own sakes, but for the sake of humanity.  The Israelites were the trustees of religion and morality for the whole world. If they had lost their sacred deposit in the abominations of Canaan, the whole human race might have sunk to the level of Sodom. They were used to punish terribly the unutterable abominations of Canaan; but they were punished as terribly themselves when they committed the same abominations. Nothing could impress the horror and hatefulness of sin so strongly on the Israelites as the solemn experiences of this early period in their history. They were taught to look on themselves as God's executioners performing a judicial act in His name. It was that which saved them from the brutalizing effect that their destruction of the Canaanites must otherwise have produced. If we are to understand their history we must never think of them as mere marauding tribes going forth to win land and booty for themselves. They were God's crusaders consecrated to an awful mission. Other nations have gone out to fight for their own glory or for increase of territory. "There is one  nation which is taught from the first that it is not to go out to win any prizes for itself, to bring home the silver or gold, the sheep or the oxen; that it is simply the instrument of the righteous Lord against those who were polluting His earth and making it unfit for human habitation." The awful catalogue of abominations, too horrible to read in Lev. xvii. to xx. are distinctly said to have been those committed by the men of the land so that the land was defiled therewith that God abhorred it.

All this does not make it necessary for you to justify to yourself the whole attitude of the Israelites to the people of Canaan, or to think that it would be the fitting attitude for Christian men in the same circumstances now. You must remember God's gradual progressive education  of humanity. Think of the world as God's great school, with its gradual training, and these Israelites as His early scholars in the lower classes of that school. The religion of the Old Testament days, noble though it was, was far lower than the religion taught to us by Christ. He clearly lays down the difference Himself. (see Matthew v. 17, 21, 27, 33, 38, 43.) These Israelites were in the lower stages of the Divine teaching. They had learned to hate sin with a great hatred; but they had not learned to distinguish between sin and the sinner. Even in the Psalms, with their lofty moral teachings and aspirations after God and holiness, we are frequently startled by the fierce prayers for punishment on the wicked. They are the prayers of stern, faithful servants of God, claiming that He should vindicate His justice. But they belong to an age when moral indignation against evil showed itself in invoking vengeance on the evil-doer as the enemy of God. That was the important element in Israel's religion—a very important element, indeed, in all men's religion—fierce indignation against moral evil—against oppression, and impurity, and idolatry, and wrong of every kind. It was a grand religion for a lower, rougher, fiercer age than ours. The Gospel added to it the duty of distinguishing between the sin and the sinner. But be it remembered that that Gospel teaching was of later date. Keep that fact in mind. Try to put yourself in the place of the stern Israelite leaders, feeling themselves as the agent of Jehovah to sweep oppression and impurity from the earth. Try to keep in mind the Bible accounts of the awful abominations of Canaan. Not many years ago, England was sending out soldiers to Benin, to punish and, if necessary, destroy, and utterly abominable race; and the English newspapers were loudly praising the object of the expedition. Many good people had the same feeling with regard to the Turks, as the accounts came in of the Armenian massacres. During the Indian Mutiny it is recorded that an officer wrote home: "The Book of Joshua is now being read in the Church Lessons. It expresses exactly what we are feeling. I never before understood the force of that part of the Bible."

Let such things help us to understand the position of faithful men in ancient Israel, with God's inspiration of righteousness stirring in their souls. Let us remember that the fuller teaching of Christ was not theirs; "Many prophets and righteous men have not seen them, and to hear the things which ye hear, and have not heard them."

Above all, impress on yourself and on your class the conviction which you have learned from the whole Bible, and especially from the New Testament, that the Judge of all the earth must do right. Therefore, even if there be no record to convince you of it in the present history, be sure that there is no unfairness with God. If there was unfairness or cruelty in the half savage Israelites, it need not surprise us if we realize their low moral stage at the time. Nor even that they should believe such to be the will of God. Then believe in God's patience. Four hundred years God had waited, "for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full." (Genesis xv. 16). He had waited to see if they would do better. He had helped them to do so. We find one great Canaanite teacher at least, Melchizedek, priest of the Most High God, and we know not how many successors he may have had, and who were sent in God's good Providence to help the people. Perhaps, in later days, too, God had given them teachers, as to other heathen nations, like Jethro or Balaam or like Jonah in Nineveh or like Gautama Buddha in India. He had certainly helped them by His "law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness." (Romans ii. 15.) In all nations we find the stirrings of conscience and the dim yearning for better things. And the Bible (e.g.,  John i. 9, Acts xvii. 23, 26, 27) fully confirms the beautiful creed of Longfellow:—

"That in even savage bosoms

There are longings, yearnings, strivings,

For the good they comprehend not;

And the feeble hands and helpless,

Groping blindly in the darkness,

Touch God's right hand in that darkness,

And are lifted up and strengthened."Hiawatha.

We know little about the Canaanites and their "fair chance" in this life. But we may rest in the firm belief that God condemns no man without his "fair chance". When you shrink from the thought of these Canaanites with their little and their great sins, being cut off suddenly, men and women and even little children, do not assume hastily that that must inevitably mean for all of them eternal damnation. Remember that, after death, as before death, men are still in the hands of the same just loving God who "willeth all men to be saved." Remember that the Canaanites are waiting still in the great Hades life for the final judgment at the coming of the Son of Man. They are not yet judged, not yet finally condemned. And as you think of the indication given us (1 Peter iii. 19, 20, iv. 6) of that Son of Man appearing in the Hades life to preach the "good news" to them that were dead of the antediluvian world, why should you not hope the same thing for the Canaanites if they had no fair chance on earth of knowing God? True we can only guess at the mysteries of the Unseen Life. But we can know with positive certainty that "the Judge of all the earth will do right."

Be sure then that neither the heathen of Canaan in olden days, nor the heathen of India and China to‑day, have any unfair treatment meted out to them by God. The real cure for Old Testament difficulties, as for all the difficulties of life, is this:—HAVE FAITH IN GOD. Faith in God means faith in a Person, faith in a character, faith in an infinite love and nobleness, generosity and unselfishness—faith in One to whom it would be absolutely impossible that He should be unfair, or ungenerous, or unkind to any man. Learn that faith yourself. Resolve, God helping you, to teach that faith to your class, and, if you do nothing more, your work in that class will be well worth the doing.

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