Joshua/Judges Week 5
Assistant Professor of New Testament, George Fox University
Read this week’s Scripture: Joshua 5:1–6:27
The sixth chapter of the book of Joshua may be the most well-known chapter of the Bible among Americans in general. When I was in choir in high school, we sang Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho, the rich and sonorous black spiritual.
Martin Luther King Jr. hailed this song as his favorite and drew inspiration in his social struggles from the biblical message. He wrote this, in reference to the song and the biblical text, in a speech in 1965: “The battle is in our hands. And we can answer with creative nonviolence the call to higher ground to which the new directions of our struggle summons us.”
King Jr. no doubt saw his task, in the fight against prejudice and hatred, as impossible without the strength of the LORD. From beginning to end, the book of Joshua reminds God’s people that his own power and ways are stronger than human will and manmade weapons.
Chapters 5 and 6 narrate a series of key moments in the life of the Israelites as their faith and loyalty are tested and they dare to take hold of God’s promises in the face of seemingly impossible odds. Chapter 5 presents the necessary preparations for “doing battle” God’s way. The “battle” itself takes place in Chapter 6.
“Forgetting What Lies Behind …”
The Apostle Paul once said, “this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:13). This is, essentially, what the Israelites are called to do in Chapter 5: to leave behind them the days and ways of the wilderness and to direct their attention to their new home. Two key rituals are performed as marks of this transition: circumcision and Passover.
Circumcision was the rite commanded to Abraham in Genesis 17:1–27. Every male was to be circumcised on the eighth day (including slaves and foreigners in the household); this was a “sign” of God’s everlasting covenant with his people. Failure to be circumcised was a breach of the covenant, and such a person would be cut off from God’s people (Genesis 17:14).
The explanation is given in the text regarding why these adults were being circumcised. While the generation that left Egypt with Moses was circumcised, the new generation that was born in the wilderness needed to be properly dedicated to God’s service before engaging in holy war with him.
It should be noted, though, that this wasn’t just a randomly chosen ritual of commitment. It was important that Abraham had to dedicate that part of his body that was related to the promise of God — that in his old age he would still be able to father a child with Sarah and be the “father of many nations” (in accordance with the meaning of his name). Thus, circumcision was a sign of trust in the promises of YHWH— a sign that the Israelites believed he could do the impossible.
The second ritual that the Israelites perform is the feast of the Passover, commemorating the time when Israel in Egypt was “spared” (passed over) by YHWH when he killed the firstborn of Egypt (Exodus 12:1–13:10). Thus, to celebrate Passover was to remember the (fatal) dividing line set between those who honor YHWH and those who stand against him.
However, it was also an important reminder of redemption and freedom from slavery. Israel was called out of slavery and called to be a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6). They would need this reminder to know that they could defeat the intimidating Canaanites with the leadership of their God.
The text is quite emphatic in pointing out that the day after celebrating Passover, the Israelites ate food produced from the ground of Canaan. Prior to that day, for 40 years (!), they ate manna, that strange heavenly bread that was their daily provision in the wandering period (see Exodus 16:1–36). That day, the manna rain ended.
The idea of the land producing food for the people of God to eat reminds me of the serene setting of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2:9:
Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food .…
Before the Fall, in the Garden, Adam and Eve’s home, the first son and daughter of God ate from the land; so Canaan produced food for the Israelites, the adopted children of God, to welcome them to their new home.
Friend or Enemy?
Before Israel takes on Jericho, we have this unusual brief scene where Joshua encounters “the commander of the army of YHWH” (5:14). When he is asked if he is “for us or for our enemies,” he simply answers “No!” This was probably an angel of the LORD who represented God’s divine presence in this war that was going to be waged. But this scene offers a nice reminder that YHWH engages in battle not for human commitments, but only for the sake of furthering YHWH’s own initiatives.
Joshua responds appropriately, bowing down with humility before the heavenly messenger, and asking for guidance. Like Moses, he is told to remove his sandals and acknowledge he is on holy ground. However, the ground is not a cave in the mountains. The holy ground is the “Holy Land” — the ground of Canaan that God was giving over to his people. They were receiving it not because of their own worthiness, but because God had great plans for this one special place to be the center of operations for a wider purpose of redemption and salvation for the whole world (see Isaiah 66:14–24).
With this encounter and reminder, Joshua and the Israelites were ready to take on Jericho.
Holy War and All That Jazz
I can see the scene in Jericho from the perspective of the locals, seeing the Israelites coming:
Hey, I see them marching towards our walls.
What are they holding? Axes? Don’t tell me axes. Knives? Swords?
This was some military strategy. The nation was called to send the priests and the Ark of the Covenant at the head of the troops, and they were to encircle the city blowing horns. Then they were supposed to go back to their camp and go to sleep. They did this for six days! On the seventh day they circled the city seven times, trumpeting a loud tune, and then with a great scream the walls of the city crashed down. Wow!
This episode is fraught with important symbolism:
- First, we have the use of horns. Aside from being a musical instrument that Israelites could use to praise God (Psalm 98:6), and a signaling trumpet for war, it was used during religious ceremonies (2 Samuel 6:14–17). The sounding of the horns in Jericho was an announcement of the presence and power of the LORD.
- Second, the seven-day march is also significant. This is reminiscent of God’s work in creation where his formative act was completed in six days, and the day of rest was instituted on the seventh day. While Israel climactically shouted and took over Jericho on the seventh day, this was the equivalent, so to speak, of God’s seventh day of rest where he finished his work building his temple-universe and “settled in” — made it his home. So the conquering of Jericho on the holy seventh day was the transfer of ownership from the Canaanites to the children of Israel, so to speak.
God of Mercy or Misery?
The question that has been lingering in the minds of many readers of this text concerns the ethics of this whole scenario: “The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction” (6:17). By the “edge of the sword,” this command was carried out against “all in the city, both men and women, young and old,” even the animals (6:21). Prominent atheist Richard Dawkins wrote this:
The ethnic cleansing begun in the time of Moses is brought to bloody fruition in the book of Joshua, a text remarkable for the bloodthirsty massacres it records and the xenophobic relish with which it does so.
The God Delusion, 248.
Is God a God of mercy, or a bloodthirsty God of misery? While I make no claims to solve all the tensions and perplexities of this issue, I hope to bring some theological and contextual considerations to bear on this subject to understand better why and how this is included in Christian Scripture and why the New Testament writers even celebrate and affirm it (Hebrews 11:30).
First, it should be noted that the Canaanites were not arbitrarily destroyed so that Israel could have its own land, like taking a toy away from someone else’s innocent child and giving it to your own. Deuteronomy holds many keys that unlock the context of the book of Joshua.
In Deuteronomy 9:5, Moses states,
It is not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you are going in to occupy their land; but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is dispossessing them before you ….
In Leviticus, the land of the Canaanites is considered “defiled” (or impure) because of sins such as sexual immorality and child sacrifice, abominations before the LORD (Leviticus 18:1–30). Rather than their holy warfare being a slaughter of the “innocent,” the Israelites were engaged in an act one writer calls “counterviolence” [see Author’s Note 1], bringing to justice what YHWH considers worthy of their condemnation.
Now, far be it from any nation or army in our time to decide which people should be slaughtered and shown no mercy. Again, the book of Joshua depicts this war as “holy war,” led by the Ark of the Covenant of the presence of the LORD.
A second factor to consider in all of this is the reality that the Canaanites were killed also because of the weakness of Israel. No person or valuable could be spared, because these would inevitably entice Israel to idolatry and false worship. The LORD committed everything in Canaan to a special “ban” (which included the annihilation of the people), “so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 20:16–18).
It is interesting that in Deuteronomy, before anyone had stepped foot in the land, the Israelites were told two things: (1) show them no mercy [kill all of them] (7:1–2) and (2) do not marry any of them (7:3). Why would he give them a second prohibition against intermarriage when he just told them to kill everyone? One suggestion is that while the ideal image was one of total annihilation to preserve Israel’s purity, the reality was that God’s primary interest was Israel’s holiness and not the death of others. In that sense, if Canaanites were not killed, the focus should be on separation and total devotion to the LORD.
In fact, Dawkins does not mention, in his gruesome reference to Joshua, the key instruction given in Joshua 6:17b: remember to spare Rahab [the Canaanite] and her family. In the end, Rahab the Canaanite prostitute is remembered (as a relative of Jesus even!) as the one shown mercy by the Israelites.
What about the New Testament? Sometimes Christians feel that reading the New Testament is more comfortable and palatable than reading the Old Testament. Well, that is not because the God of the New Testament is any different. It is the same God (e.g., Exodus 3:14; Malachi 3:6a; James 1:7; Hebrews 13:8). Part of the difference is certainly the appearance of Jesus.
But another key difference is the kinds of texts we have in the New Testament. The Old Testament is full of national-history kinds of stories that take a view of the life of Israel from a bird’s eye view and over many, many years. In the New Testament, we have a focused set of texts, many of them letters and none of them national chronicles. We should not presume, though, that the New Testament is light on war.
- While it is true that Jesus did not carry weapons and chose to die on a cross rather than fight, he also said, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).
- The Apostle Paul calls his fellow leaders “soldiers” (Philippians 2:25; Philemon 2).
- And when it comes to the language of blood and battles, the book of Revelation has plenty of it.
What is the difference? In the New Testament, war and violence are still in view, but it is not a war waged against “blood and flesh”; rather, it is a cosmic conflict that involves God reclaiming his world. The weapons are not swords and spears, but the cross, the Spirit, and the Word of God.
If Joshua does have a message for Christians, it is to remind us that the world is not a peaceful and neutral place. It is the site of a great contest of power, and YHWH has been at work for ages, implementing his foolproof plan of redemption and restoration. We are called to bow down like Joshua before the angelic captain of the divine army. We are called to follow the lead of God like the priests and the Ark. We are called to sing and shout for victory and bring strongholds down.
Of course the land of Canaan eventually becomes the site of the temple of the LORD, the axis mundi — the center of the universe for Israel, the capital of the world. Later on, as Israelites went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and visited the glorious temple of the LORD, they would sing a new song of celebration. When the temple doors opened for the people to come in, it reminded them, no doubt, of the land itself yielding to the rulership of the King of glory. So they would sing Psalm 24:
The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it;
For he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.
Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.
They will receive blessing from the LORD, and vindication from the God of their salvation.
Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob.
Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle!
Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory.
Questions for Further Reflection
- Have you heard this story of the battle of Jericho from younger years? What were your feelings towards it? Was it an inspiring story? A confusing story? A disturbing story? Do you have any new thoughts after reading through it once again?
- Why do you think the story of the “angel of the Lord” who appears to be a military general (5:13–15) is included at this point in the story? What does the Lectio writer have to say about Israel’s definition as a Holy Land?
- What can be learned from this narrative of the conquering of Jericho when we reflect, from a Christian perspective, on Jesus’ own peaceful and nonviolent approach?
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