Joshua/Judges Week 6
Assistant Professor of New Testament, George Fox University
Read this week’s Scripture: Joshua 7:1–12:24
When I became a graduate student in northern England, my wife and I moved into an apartment building owned by the university that was dedicated especially to international families. Right off of the main entrance of the building was a “common room,” a multipurpose hall for birthday parties, club meetings, movie nights, various “socials” planned by the student life committee, and the like.
When we first moved into this building, the common room had lots of tables and chairs. However, over time these furniture items began to disappear, and they would “reappear” in various apartments throughout the building.
We happened to know someone who had snatched up a table and set of chairs, and we asked him why he had done it. He responded by saying something like, “The university failed to sufficiently furnish our apartment. The table they gave us was too small and we did not have enough chairs. So we took what we felt was rightfully ours.”
Sometimes we feel that we deserve more than we have been given. Those tenants who took tables and chairs from the common room, usually early in the morning or late at night, felt exactly this way. However, rather than challenging the university and requesting more furniture, they simply took it upon themselves to take more. The “powers that be” seem distant and coldhearted, and what I need is right here, right now. It is harmless enough and I feel justified that it should belong to me.
I get a sense that Achan, a major character in our narrative this week, felt much the same. He knew God’s rules, but felt justified in taking plunder for himself, maybe even to help provide for his family. We will come to learn, however, that YHWH does not rule by democracy, and certainly does not put up with self-justified theft.
This reminds me of the story from the New Testament of Ananias and Sapphira. After Jesus has risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, the apostles soon get to work establishing communities of faith. Acts 4:31–5:11 recounts one story in which a church has worked hard to share possessions and renounce personal property to eliminate poverty.
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need (Acts 4:34–35).
A man named Ananias sells his property, as the others did, but brings only part of it to the apostles (Acts 5:1–2). He has plotted with his wife, Sapphira, to keep some of the money, and trick the apostles into thinking that the rest of the money he brings to the community is the full profit of the property (see Acts 5:8). They are both struck dead with divine judgment.
In the three stories mentioned above (my apartment building, Achan, and Ananias and Sapphira), there was a sense of responsibility to authorities and a community, and also a sense of greed and self-entitlement. The problem comes when someone takes the wrong perspective. From a self-focused, human perspective, taking plunder or keeping a tiny bit of the profits seems benign and perhaps even acceptable.
However, Israel was called to a fully committed relationship with YHWH, and disastrous things happen when that trust is broken. Rather, they are continually called to accept YHWH’s approach to war, politics, and life, and to trust his way of doing things, and not their own.
This same problem crops up with the treaty that the Israelites hastily make with the men of Gibeon. They did what naturally seemed right. However, we repeatedly learn that when Israelites as individuals or as a group operate purely on human incentive or logic, the outcome is tragic. The book of Joshua consistently moves us, the readers, to see things from God’s perspective and resist some of our selfishly tainted inclinations of personal gain and self-preservation. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment!” (John 7:24)
We, the readers of Joshua, are called to do the same.
More on Herem, the Ban
In the prior Lectio, we introduced the concept of “the ban.” The Hebrew word is herem, and it represents YHWH’s command that all things in the conquest of Canaan, whether people or property, must be subject to a law of “total devotion.” For objects, that would entail not taking plunder for oneself, but giving all recovered property over to the temple treasury. In terms of the Canaanite people, herem meant dedicating them completely to YHWH as outsiders — as in total annihilation.
Is this genocide? While I do not want to trivialize the complex ethical issues involved in studying the matters of war, violence, and mercy in the book of Joshua, I do not think that what Israel was called to do should be termed “genocide.” According to the 1948 declaration of the United Nations, genocide is defined as killing or harming “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.”
It is true that YHWH mandated the wiping out of the inhabitants of the land of Canaan, but this was not primarily about hatred against one race (as such inhabitants represented a diversity of ethnicities and did not form one nation or follow one religion) — it was about full acquisition of the land. But the land did not belong to the Israelites, as we will see next time. The land was given over into their possession, but it would ultimately be “owned” by the LORD.
The point of herem was not, in the first instance, to kill. Rather, it was the devoting of something entirely and purely to YHWH. If it is a person who is at cross-purposes with YHWH’s saving work and mission, its “dedication” must come in the form of elimination. Again, the Canaanites were given hundreds of years to turn from their wickedness. They were not being condemned as innocent “civilians” in war, as collateral damage.
However vulgar it seems to our sensibilities, Deuteronomy and the book of Joshua both attest to the idea that the great sinfulness of the Canaanites would be a sinfully polluting disease for Israel and would contaminate their community if such people were permitted to remain. We will see, however, that, although herem is a repeated command and “ideal,” it is not the last word.
The Plot: One Step Forward, One Step Back
Still celebrating the triumph over Jericho, the Israelites set their sights on the central highlands of Canaan with special interest in Ai, a city not far from Jerusalem. We are told, right away, though, that the battle is doomed to fail because a man of Israel named Achan has stolen Canaanite property and kept it for himself as plunder.
Despite Joshua’s best military strategies, YHWH is not leading the charge. Herem has been broken. About 10 percent of the Israelite forces are killed by the men of Ai, and Israel retreats with its tail between its legs.
After a time of shame and penitence, the Israelites obey YHWH’s command that the herem-breaker must die — he and his whole household. It is found out that that man is Achan, from the noble tribe of Judah.
It may seem like an awful atrocity to put to death this man and his family, but one must take stock of what Achan has done in the first place. He probably would have been well aware that breaking herem would have direct consequences, as YHWH is the real military leader of the people. In that sense, he has risked the lives of his own people (such as the 36 who died at Ai) for the sake of carrying away some money and a robe. Once this situation is dealt with and the religious contamination is contained, the Israelites successfully conquer Ai (8:9–35).
Just when it seems as if the Israelites are back on track, trusting fully in their God, they meet a strange group of bedraggled travelers who want to make a peace treaty with the mighty warrior-nation of Israel (9:1–13).
After their triumph in Jericho, the people of Israel had rushed hastily into Ai on human terms. Perhaps Israel was on a similar “high” after the recent “win” at Ai, causing them to quickly agree to bond with these strangers — for the narrator informs us: “they did not consult the LORD” (9:14). They soon discover that these so-called foreigners are Canaanites of the region of Gibeon who did not want to be killed. With this peace treaty, while they would be the servants under Israel’s authority, they could not be subject to herem.
The conquest of Canaan, though, does end on a high note with Israel’s defeat of the five kings of Canaan, from Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish, and Eglon. It is important to note, despite Israel’s call to take over the land and wipe out the people, that they end up making a peace-covenant with some of the mightiest warriors of Canaan (the Gibeonites, 10:2), and because they are committed to protecting the Gibeonites (10:6), Joshua risked the full strength of his entire army to support and defend these Canaanites who have tricked them!
Have you ever had déjà vu? When you read these chapters of Joshua, I think its set of circumstances, reactions, and themes is meant to seem strangely familiar — similar to Israel’s life under the leadership of Moses. In previous chapters, we saw the similarities between the leadership of Moses and that of Joshua, and also the similar circumstances between the crossing of the Red Sea (Moses) and the crossing of the Jordan River (Joshua).
Even here, in Joshua 7–13, a number of parallels are noteworthy. First, in 7:6–9, Joshua complains to YHWH that YHWH should not have even brought them into this land to be killed, and he wishes they would have settled peacefully on the “safe side” of the Jordan, so to speak.
This is particularly reminiscent of the wilderness grumbling of the Israelites when they were given manna (heavenly bread) to eat and they wanted meat. Though they were slaves in Egypt, they pretended like it was their “good ol’ days”:
We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at” (Numbers 11:5–6).
And, again, when the people wandered in the dry desert, they complained to Moses: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3). It looks as if the children of Israel, now including their leader Joshua, have continued to grumble and complain about their circumstances and have not appreciated the miraculous benevolence of their covenantal God.
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul even uses the wilderness generation of Israel as an example of privileged people who did not know just how good they had it, and took advantage of their God (1 Corinthians 10:1–12).
On the other hand, we have the consistently powerful and generous actions of YHWH. We see the interesting parallel in the second siege against Ai with Joshua and the presence of God with Moses. In Joshua 8:18–19, Joshua is told by God to stretch out his sword and point to the city of Ai — as he did this, the Israelite troops rushed in and conquered swiftly, almost miraculously.
The sword almost appears to be an ordinary tool that has been “charged” with YHWH’s power — like Moses’ (and Aaron’s) staff that could turn into a snake (Exodus 4:3; 7:9–15), transform the water of the Nile into blood (Exodus 7:20), and call forth water from a rock by force (Numbers 20:1–13). However, what seems most similar is the way Moses parted the Red Sea: “But lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground” (Exodus 14:16).
The staff of Moses and the sword of Joshua were not “magical,” but are perhaps better seen as “sacramental” — earthly symbols of a divine reality, that YHWH is almighty, he helps and protects those that he loves, and he always keeps his promises. In the ancient Israelite perspective, the dark waters of the Red Sea and the Canaanite warriors of Ai both represented forms of evil in the world. The raised staff and sword, at the command of YHWH, signal the nearness of Israel’s God and his power over any and every hostile force that stands in the way of his great plan to reclaim his world.
Sometimes my students complain that what they hear in my Christian Scriptures survey course is repetitive — that I say the same thing over and over again. Good! My plan is working!
That is because the Old Testament bears out this same scheme: God chooses to help the helpless. God’s people enter into relationship with him. They turn away, driven by doubt, fear, envy, and pride, and get themselves into a mess. God disciplines and punishes them, but never abandons them, and reaffirms his love for them.
And the cycle repeats itself. See the sad narrative of Israel’s up-and-down relationship with YHWH in Psalm 78. The psalmist, though, affirms the truth about YHWH’s consistent character: “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made” (Psalm 145:8–9).
Rahab I Loved, Achan I Hated
One of the greatest challenges that the book of Joshua presents to the modern reader is the impression that the violent God of Israel somehow sees fit to take a land populated by one people (the Canaanites), give it over to another people who have no natural right over it (the Israelites), and the former are called to be exterminated. Can the one God of the world show so much prejudice?
The chapters we have read for this week, though, show that such a simple “scenario” is not really borne out in this book.
- First, it should be repeated (as a reminder) that the land never really belongs to Israel. We call it the “Holy Land” because it only and always belongs to the LORD. The people of Israel are never to be more than stewards. While it is “given over” into their care, it is not their private property. When the Israelites forget this reality, they corrupt and abuse their privilege.
- Second, we find an important contrast in the relationships between Rahab and YHWH, and Achan and YHWH. On the one hand, we have a Canaanite prostitute, an outsider to the Israelite covenant who represents the “wicked” and “sin-contaminated” enemy, who is hypothetically subject to herem. On the other hand, we have a male within Israel, in the noble tribe of Judah, which led the people in the wilderness (Numbers 10:4). Also, the celebrated soldier Caleb was from the tribe of Judah, and when the tribes were allotted the land of Canaan, Judah was given over a third of the land (keeping in mind there are 12 tribes).
Achan had all the expected signs of being the ideal insider, and yet his heart and mind were not in the right place. Rahab’s words, actions, and faith in YHWH seem like something an “insider” would say and do, while Achan acted like a Canaanite with his “outsider” behavior.
Indeed, the irony is even more prominent in the Hebrew (original language) text of Joshua, where the three main letters of the Hebrew name Achan (something like “A-C-N”) are almost identical to the Hebrew word Canaan (something like “C-N-A-N”) in slightly mixed order. Looking at this play on words, it is almost as if the sinful actions of Achan the Israelite of the tribe of Judah led him to be “Canaanized,” so to speak, and thus dedicated to herem [see Author’s Note 1].
What does this mean? It means YHWH is not ethnocentric. He never had an agenda to support only one race as supreme over all. His identity as “God of Israel” does not foreclose on his work as God of all people and God over all creation.
We see this emphasized in the New Testament when the Apostle Paul makes an important statement about Jewish believers not taking pride in their “relationship with God” simply because of their lineage. Some Jewish believers were feeling superior over Gentile (non-Jewish) believers. Paul firmly condemns this prideful stance:
[D]o you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality (Romans 2:4–11).
God does not simply want a nation or a land. He wants people who will be holy as he is holy; who do good (Romans 2:6), like Rahab who preserves the spies; who seek the welfare of others (Romans 2:7a), like Rahab who seeks to protect her family; who obey the truth (Romans 2:7b), like Rahab who seems to know enough of YHWH’s covenantal expectations to risk her own life in the hopes that this Almighty God will do what he wills.
In a United Methodist Church that my family attended some time ago, my father (who is a Hindu) discovered that one of the stained-glass windows showed a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi, a Christian saint!? Not quite, but we found an explanation of this surprising depiction.
While Gandhi was not a Christian, this church wished to hold up his benevolence, charity, self-giving nature, and passion for the marginalized as an inspirational lifestyle congruent with the life of Christ and the ideals of Christian discipleship. Whether Rahab or Gandhi, such examples should remind the Church that there is not an “us” and “them,” with God favoring “us” as “us” and condemning “them” as “them.” God wants a people who trust and obey. Thus, Rahab he accepts; Achan he rejects.
Questions for Further Reflection
- Why do you think God called for a herem on the land, property, and people of Canaan?
- Do you think that what Israel did to the Canaanites could or should be called “genocide”? What do you think about how the Lectio writer handles the issue? As a people who are formed by God’s Word, how should we handle seemingly paradoxical issues like herem?
- Chapters 7-12 tell the up-and-down story of Israel and its struggle with letting God lead and showing complete trust in the way that he wants to accomplish his will. In our own context, what does it look like to walk in obedience to God and not merely do what is right in our own minds? Can you think of a time when you struggled with a similar tension? What did you learn from the struggle?
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