In this “classic post” from my CP days I explore the thorny issue of how Christians introduce the darker parts of the biblical narrative — in particular the Joshua genocide — to a young readership. The answer seems to be: not very well.
I recently bought my seven year old daughter her first complete Bible: Zondervan’s “Adventure Bible”. The Bible is beautifully packaged, replete with a jungle safari theme and the NIrV text (a simplified version of the NIV), which is great for young readers. But while the book is accessible and engaging, some passages remain as perplexing as ever.
Take for example Deuteronomy 20 where Yahweh outlines the guidelines by which Israel is to go to war with her neighbors. God’s directions begin with the cities of the more distant nations. When Israel marches on these cities they should first receive an offer of peace (v. 10) followed by enforced slavery to the Israelites (v. 11).
Given that I have been instructing my daughter in the horrors of slavery (along with the fine work of International Justice Mission, a group that works to liberate slaves from around the world), this text immediately raises some difficulties. Why does God subject people to slavery?
But then it gets worse, for if the city refuses to surrender to the Israelites, all the men are to be slaughtered (v. 13), a practice condemned by the Third Geneva Convention and universally renounced by civilized nations today. Needless to say, the taking of women, children, and livestock as plunder (v. 14) is also universally rejected. How can I explain God’s directions here to my daughter?
As terrible as the chapter is thus far, it gets immeasurably worse when it turns to the cities that God is handing over to the Israelites. Here God lays out the guidelines for a staggering genocide which extends not only to all human beings in the region, but indeed to everything that breathes (v. 16).
In contrast to this carnage, in verse 19 the Israelites are instructed to spare the trees because, after all, “The trees of the field aren’t people. So why should you attack them?” Fair enough. But this pro-environmental policy stands out in broad relief with the carnage that goes before. If trees are to be spared then why not spare children and infants as well?
So these are some of my questions. Does Zondervan’s “Adventure Bible” provide some special insight for how I, as a parent, might handle this horrifying text with my seven year old?
Let’s see. The page with Deuteronomy 20 features a factoid bubble with a green parrot which informs me that Israelite men could be exempted from having to fight if they had been newly married, had recently built a home, or were just plain scared. That’s sort of interesting. But I know that my daughter will ask not about who didn’t have to fight, but rather why those who did fight killed babies and children. After looking through the slickly produced “Adventure Bible” I’m still waiting for an answer.