Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Reading the Bible for Lent: Joshua

{I'm attempting to read the whole Bible during Lent this year, and blogging my way through it. The Bible is an old friend, but we fight sometimes. Ever hear of quitting something cold turkey? Well, this is my way of starting something cold turkey, if that makes sense. I'm facing it head on, with my eyes open, and a new way of reading. My hope is to read the entire text through the lens of Jesus (I'm figuring out what this means as I go along) and attempt a balance of honesty and charity, both of which I've lacked in the past. See also: The Pentateuch.}

I'm about halfway through the Historical Books, and things are still pretty bloody. I was going to write about Joshua, Judges and Ruth but the Joshua section is pretty long in itself, so here it is. Again, this is not comprehensive by any means, just what stood out to me.

Joshua was Moses' successor as leader of Israel. He led the Israelites across the Jordan River into the Promised Land. Joshua is an interesting character. He's an effective, energetic leader (and I would say the book of Joshua has a different energy to it than previous books, largely because of his character) and a person of great integrity within this cultural construct. He calls the people to be "strong and of good courage" repeatedly, stirring them up to take the land their ancestors were promised. In chapter six, they take the walled city of Jericho, sparing no one except Rahab the prostitute and her family and their possessions, as well as the "silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and iron" which go into the LORD's treasury. Rahab and her relatives are spared because she had previously helped two Israelite spies by hiding them (we see Rahab again later in the genealogy of Christ.) We are told, "the LORD was with Joshua, and his fame spread throughout all the country." It's a fearsome fame; if the Israelites could take down Jericho, the other cities know they're not safe.

Joshua, like the books before it, emphasizes the importance of following the LORD's commands exactly. Like I mentioned earlier, within this cultural framework, this is what integrity looks like, and it often means killing everyone the LORD says to kill. (As a side note, this theme often used in sermons as a metaphor for living a life separate from the world, getting rid of anything in your life that's not pleasing to God, taking care who you spend your time with, etc. I would argue that Jesus modeled something very different, but that's another post altogether.) When the Israelites are defeated at Ai  in chapter seven, Joshua cries out to the LORD, wondering why He didn't protect them. The LORD tells him that someone among the Israelites kept some loot for himself, and that they will be cursed until they "take away the accursed thing from among you." They find out that a man named Achan kept a garment along with some silver and gold for himself, and then:
Then Joshua, and all of Israel with him, took Achan the son of Zerah, the silver, the garment, the wedge of gold, his sons, his daughters, his oxen, his donkeys, his sheep, his tent, and all that he had, and they brought them to the Valley of Achor. And Joshua said, "Why have you troubled us? The LORD will trouble you this day." So all Israel stoned him with stones, and they burned them with fire after they had stoned them with stones. Then they raised over him a great heap of stones, still there to this day. So the LORD turned from the fierceness of His anger. Therefore, the name of that place has been called the Valley of Achor (trouble) to this day." Joshua 7:24-26
We see again here that this LORD is not slow to anger. He's pretty much angry right away when someone disobeys His commands. Unfortunately, the punishment isn't only on Achan, but on his children and animals as well.

Israel's military success depends on them keeping up their part of the covenant with the LORD. As a warring society, this means they must destroy everything He tells them to. They fumble again when they make a treaty with the Gibeonites, other inhabitants of the land (chapter 9). The Gibeonites pretend to be from a far-off land, and ask to make a peace covenant with the Israelites, and they do, "but they did not ask counsel of the LORD." Joshua makes a covenant with them, but upon finding out who they really are, says "Why have you deceived us, saying, 'We are very far from you,' when you dwell near us? Now therefore you are cursed, and none of you shall be freed from being slaves--woodcutters and water carriers for the house of my God." (v. 23). Joshua can't break the covenant with them (kill them), so he makes them slaves.

This all leads into an interesting turn of events in chapter ten. The kings of five different tribes decide to attack the Gibeonites because they have made "peace" with the Israelites. Joshua receives word of this, and goes out to fight with his "mighty men of valor", having received assurance from the LORD that they will win. They fight, and the attackers flee, and the LORD drops hailstones on them (the text says that more die from the hailstones than are killed by the Israelites' swords.) Then, Joshua prays quite a prayer: he asks God to make the sun stand still. Then, we are told, the sun does not go down for about a whole day, and Joshua and the Israelites are able to finish killing their enemies. While I appreciate the bold nature of Joshua's prayer, I struggle with the reason for it. But it's in keeping with the commands that this LORD gives, so in this context, it makes perfect sense.

The book contains a few more conquests, along with a description of how the tribes of Israelites divide up the land. Joshua gives one more stirring speech before he dies:
Now, therefore, fear the LORD, serve Him in sincerity and in truth, and put away the gods which your fathers had served on the other side of the River in Egypt. Serve the LORD! And if it seems evil to you to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD." (24:14-15)
Again, we see the emphasis on separation. The Israelites will struggle with this choice, and in the books to come we'll see a scattering and coming together, over and over, as they attempt stability under different types of leaders: judges, prophets, and kings.

So where does Jesus come in? I think what all these events point to is the fickle nature of the human heart. We fail, a lot. There's a certain hopelessness to all our striving. We need a savior. The Israelites, in all their warring and rule-making, point to that, in a longing, hopeful and yet broken way. I feel a sense of connectedness to the Israelites, even though I abhor many of their actions, because of my own brokenness. In this admittedly questionable practice of speed-reading through complex texts, I'm making contact with some of own deep sorrow as I encounter all of this darkness in the Old Testament. I feel in a way like I'm crying out for us all to be delivered. If nothing else, theological issues aside, all of this points to my need for Jesus.

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