The whole world has been watching in horror as Russia invades Ukraine. Whether it be the mass refugee crisis or the heart-wrenching loss of innocent civilian life, it all is so deplorable. We don’t endorse these kinds of travesties, and we are rooting for there to be a swift resolution to such conflict.
Yet, the Bible has stories of God’s people “invading” the land of Canaan, and we can ask: What’s the difference? What makes it okay for Joshua to take the Promised Land but not okay for Russia to invade Ukraine?
First, the Israelites had divine orders, which were part of the bigger picture.
We are not experts on foreign policy, and so it is hard to speak to Russia’s motive in invading Ukraine. However, we can see that it has to do with very self-serving motives. What about Joshua and the Israelites? Their motive was carrying out a commission by God-himself. Notice how the land is even attached to this idea of promise. It became known as the promised land because it was the specific place God would lead His people to. It is promised not only in speaking prophetically that they will obtain that land, but also in that it is a gift from God.
Israel had been living a nomadic life for the last 40 years. What is a nation without a land with borders and boundaries? A nation cannot be truly mobile all the time. When you are constantly on the move, there is no way to have a consistent place to grow crops. There was no way to have a vineyard. Being a culture dependent on agriculture, you needed to be somewhere where you can take the time to sow, and wait for the harvest; because it doesn’t come overnight! The book of Joshua is the narrative of God keeping His word to give His people a land of their own, a place where they could be protected, provided for, and experience His blessing.
But this was not all about Israel. Whenever God did something to bless Israel, He did it to ultimately bless the world through Israel. This principle has not changed with God.
By being where the “promised land” was, Israel would be in a position to truly be “a light to the nations,” and a blessing to the world (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6). That was the point! By being in that plot of land every nation around them would be forced to go through Israel for trade routes, travel, etc. Israel would be influential to all the world at that time, for better or for worse, just because of their location! They would be a lighthouse where they were located.
Second, the Israelites were not a powerhouse taking advantage of weaker nations.
Russia is far stronger than Ukraine and are using their invasion to take advantage of a weaker people. On the contrary, the Israelite people were weaker than the Canaanite peoples. Remember, the Israelites were a rag-tag group of recently ransomed slaves from Egypt. They had more experience camping than they did with battle. The mobile people who had no place to call home had the odds stacked against them to “invade” (if we want to use that word) the established and fortified people groups of Caanan.
Third, the nations in Caanan were not neutral or innocent.
We cannot picture them as people who were just going about their business before Israel entered the scene. They were creating chaos and ruin for enough years until God finally said: “Enough is enough!” God makes it clear and tells His people that the nations in the land are so bad, and that is why they, the Israelites, are getting the land, not because they are so righteous, because they aren’t. But they certainly are not like these wicked nations! Anyways, it really cannot be exaggerated.
Anything heinous that we would consider deplorable and worthy of divine intervention, these nations were doing it, and proudly.
To name one example, they had a god (one of their many idols) named Molech, and Molech was supremely worshipped through infant sacrifices. Yes, that is how this “god” took delight. As a parent, you would pay homage to Molech by laying your firstborn child (while still a helpless infant) on the hands of this idol, which was a scorching furnace. Basically, the child would die from sizzling and would melt into the furnace of the idol Molech. The Canaanites would purposefully play loud music so that it would drown out the sound of the child’s agony with the joyful shouts of music. They celebrated this. And the priests would console the parents, telling them that this act brings the utmost joy to Molech, and the whole nation will be blessed for it. Archaeology has only affirmed this to be true as thousands and thousands of charred remains of children have been dug up and found. This was a prevalent practice throughout these nations. And the women were not exempt from participating in such things. Thus, if they were willing to do such things to little children, imagine what else these people did!
This was no secret. Many nations in this land were doing acts like this atrocious one. And the Israelites knew about this. God even makes multiple comments in the Torah, especially Leviticus and Deuteronomy forbidding such a detestable act. God hates the oppression and torturous murder of innocent children. And all these nations were guilty of such practices for hundreds of years prior to the conquest in Joshua.
God even says the evil of the Canaanite nations was the reason why He was driving them out of the land (Deuteronomy 9:3–5).
So the only way the Israelites could actually have a place in the land is if God truly acted as the Divine Warrior and fought on their behalf. And immediately it becomes clear that this is not like a radical religious person or people taking up arms today. The Joshua conquest is God saying, “Hey, I will fight for you, because you are weak” (e.g., Joshua 1:5, 9).
Where do we go from here?
At the end of the day, this is bigger than what happened in Joshua’s day or what is happening in Ukraine. Make no mistake, these are important things, but these are not just issues to think rightly about. We need to also see how thinking Christianly about these issues challenges us to live Christ-like. In this case, the concept of seeing ourselves as part of the ancestral faith of Abraham is key. As we have touched on above, the point of the Israelites receiving the promised land was to be the people where God’s promises can flow from out into the world. The land was a means for the people to be conduits of God’s blessing to the whole wide world, something Genesis 12:1–3 importantly posits. And many biblical passages pick up on this.
6 “I, the Lord, have called you to demonstrate my righteousness. I will take you by the hand and guard you, and I will give you to my people, Israel, as a symbol of my covenant with them. And you will be a light to guide the nations. 7 You will open the eyes of the blind. You will free the captives from prison, releasing those who sit in dark dungeons. (Isaiah 42:6–6, NLT)
Isaiah 42 is not just informative for understanding ancient Israel’s commission, it is instructional for us as we take inventory of God’s blessing in our own lives, whatever shape or form that takes. God’s providential blessing is never directly to you; it is directly through you. He wants to do great things that bring more of His manifest goodness into the world through us.