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Joshua 6: Faith and Violence in the Old Testament

How can we consider the book of Joshua the Word of God? In Joshua, the people of Israel carry out total destruction, or herem, in Canaan. God explicitly commands them to “show no mercy.” After the destruction of these cities, we hear, over and over, the refrain:
“They completely destroyed everything in it with their swords—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep, goats, and donkeys.”
I think it’s important to recognize that the idea of genocide is appalling to us because it’s against our deepest beliefs about what is good. And I believe that our deepest beliefs about what is good come from God himself. By our own nature, there is nothing appalling to us about violence. This week my family was watching Planet Earth, and I learned again the scary truth that when a male bobcat or lion or tiger mates with a female, he also goes ahead and kills her children by another mate, so his own offspring will have a better chance. I think human nature is not necessarily less violent than this. It’s only because of God’s work in our lives that we believe in loving our enemies. It’s only because of God’s work on our hearts that these texts are even disturbing in the first place.
And this brings me to my first point: God works with what He has.
We have to look at the context of these texts. We have seen how far humanity has fallen, and how violent and cruel, idolatrous and immoral humans have become. When these texts were initially written, the language of total destruction of the enemy was standard in any national military conquest account, and it was almost always hyperbole. In Joshua, God is working for the survival not of a race of people, but of a better way of thinking and living. Remember, God chose Abraham and Sarah so that all nations of the earth could be blessed through them. God is calling for the Israelites to destroy these cities in order for the practices of idol-worship and lawlessness to end. As we read the rest of the Old Testament, it will become clear that the God-fearing nation-state is not the best model. Israel does not hold fast to God’s laws. In the fullness of time, God will send salvation to all people, not just one nation. As travel becomes easier, and literacy increases, the sharing of God’s message beyond one nation becomes possible.
We also have to know an important detail that Joshua leaves out, but that modern archaeological study has shown us: at the time of the Conquest, these Canaanite cities were ruled by Egyptian overlords, who continued their forced-slavery ways among the Canaanites.
The Israelites don’t go in and attack little villages and family farms. They attack big cities and they take down the kings. Remember the catalogue listing all the kings Joshua took out in Chapter 12? Scholars tell us, these kings were probably Egyptians, and not good guys at all.
Furthermore, when people ask for mercy, when people desire to make peace, the Israelites grant their request. We see this in the story of Rahab and her family, and also in the story of the Gibeonites. In Chapter 8, we hear that all of Israel, both the Hebrew people and the foreigners, heard the law. Who were these foreigners? I think there were more than just Rahab and her family who became part of the emerging nation.
Finally, we have to look at the context, not only in terms of the time in which it happened, but the time in which it was written down. Most scholars believe that these stories were transmitted orally and were written in their final form at the time when Israel was in exile in Babylon. Knowing this, how do we approach the Book of Joshua? Does anyone here think that the message of Joshua is that we, today, should conquer our unbelieving neighbors? Obviously the answer is no. First, the events described are miraculous. We aren’t dealing with human beings deciding to wage war, like the Crusades. This is God’s action. Second, when we read this book alongside the message of Jesus to “love your enemies,” violence of this type cannot be condoned.
Scholar Matt Lynch of the Western Theological Centre suggests that, knowing this context, we shouldn’t so much ask why God authorized violence, but instead, ‘What might the book of Joshua be doing?’ And when we look closer, we see that there are two important messages.
The first message is: totally destroy your idols.
Reading the Book of Joshua in the context of the Old Testament, the concept of total destruction, or herem, which Joshua undertakes is not the total destruction of people. Throughout the Old Testament, God calls for a herem against idols. When the Book of Joshua was written, its message to the people was to totally destroy their practices of idol worship, sin, and lawlessness, so that they could once again enter into their land and live in peace. Therefore, we should read it today as a commandment to totally destroy everything that separates us from God. As Jesus said, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” (Matthew 5)
The season of Lent is an opportunity to rid ourselves of idols. Why do we give things up in Lent? Not out of some magical thinking that we’ll be blessed because we do, or out of a sense of obligation that we have to, but because sometimes it helps us to get rid of distractions that have the potential to become idols. For that reason, maybe total destruction of the television or Facebook would be a good practice for us this Lent.
The second message of herem is: God wins. Get on His side.
If we read Joshua in its context, we see it is a message to the Israelites, living in exile, who
could have given up at any time: God will prevail, and so will we. This is not really a military story: it’s way too one-sided! As any Civil War or World War II buff will tell you, you’ve got to have two great powers stacked up against each other. Here, there’s no real battle: against God, no one will prevail. When your Commander in Chief has the power to make the sun stand still, it doesn’t even matter what kind of earthly weapons you have.
Jericho was the greatest stronghold of the Canaanite kings, and it stood right in Israel’s way. They were confronted with their greatest challenge as their first challenge. They were few in number, without great weapons, and the walls of Jericho, scholars tell us, were six feet thick and about twenty-six feet high. The devotions many of us read asked us, what is your personal Canaan? What is your personal Jericho? What is that seemingly impenetrable wall you are facing today?
You can’t climb over it. You don’t have the weapons to knock it down. And nobody’s about to open the door for you. So what do you do? You walk, and you wait. The battle of Jericho isn’t a battle at all: it’s worship. It’s a seven day march, reminding the people of the seven days of Unleavened Bread, and ultimately, the seven days of creation. The battle starts and ends at the Altar of Gilgal, an important place of worship. There’s music, like in every worship service; the priests lead the people. They carry the Word of God with them: that’s what’s in the Ark of the Covenant. And at the end, people are called to be silent, and to listen for God. This is our model for how to face the six-foot-thick walls in our own life: walk, and wait; be silent, and carry the Word of God with you.
There are several people in my life who annoy me, because when I come to them with a problem, their question is always the same: “Did you pray about it?” But the book of Joshua teaches us that we are to encounter the Jerichos of our lives first and foremost, by prayer. I remember a couple of years ago when we were looking for five hundred dollars to send our young people to a Christian conference. Where would we get the money? Just as I began to get concerned, we got a call from a mission group that wanted to stay at the church. They didn’t have much, but they could give us a little; say, five hundred dollars. This was not surprising to me. In my years at the church, I’ve asked several times if people might come forward to give scholarships for kids to go on mission trips. Whether it’s a thousand dollars or three hundred, the money that comes in is exactly what we need for the trip. Sometimes I wish God would throw in a few extra dollars!
Joshua is not a story about the Israelites’ fighting strength but about their faith strength. I think the clearest evidence of this is the stories of Canaanites who were won over by the power of God. Rahab, a prostitute Canaanite, is the last person you’d expect to be an example of faith; but it’s her faith that’s lifted up in the book of Joshua. She displays hospitality to others; she trusts in God; she places her household in God’s hands, and she is saved. By contrast, Achan is an Israelite by blood, but he sees the battle of Jericho not as an exercise of faith, but as an opportunity for financial gain, and all of Israel feels the consequences of his lack of faith. The story of Rahab, like the story of the Gibeonites, demonstrates that it’s not the Israelites’ race that is important; it’s the faith that God is teaching them in order to save all of the world. God’s plan, all along, was to offer salvation to all people, to break down the boundaries between nations, to break down the walls that divide Jericho from Israel, and to offer salvation to all people. We see this in the most unlikely of people—Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute, who becomes an ancestor of Jesus.
The message is this: God wins. Get on His side. This salvation work, begun in Joshua, is completed by the one who shares his name—Jesus, or in Hebrew, Yeshua, Joshua. A Canaanite person comes up only once in the New Testament. Do you remember where? It’s when Jesus heals a Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:22-28. He engages in this dialogue with her, whereby she convinces him that people outside the nation of Israel are worthy of God’s healing love. But I believe Jesus engaged in that dialogue, not because he really believed she was a “dog under the table, entitled to crumbs left behind,” but because even when you read the Old Testament, you see that God truly wanted to bless all families of the earth.
God wins. When we try to fight our own battles, we will lose, every time. But when we give the battle to the Lord, He casts out the demons, he destroys the idols, he breaks down the walls. So keep walking. Keep waiting. Keep praying. Keep silent. Carry the Scriptures with you. And watch the walls come tumbling down.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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