And the walls came tumbling down… (Joshua 6-10)

October 20, 2010

If reading Genesis yesterday made me sad, then reading Joshua 6-10 makes me feel utterly shell-shocked. If you don’t have time to read it, here’s a brief summary; the Israelites kill everyone. Everyone. Men, women, old, young, animals too (unless they take them as ‘booty’). Oh, except the Gibeonites, but that’ s only because the Israelites aretricked into guaranteeing their lives by a treaty (9:1-26). Again and again we’re told that the Israelites left no one alive, even those in retreat, even those inside their own city walls. The last passage of chapter 10 is just a list of places the Israelites destroyed and it ends:

 So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded. 41And Joshua defeated them from Kadesh-barnea to Gaza, and all the country of Goshen, as far as Gibeon. 42Joshua took all these kings and their land at one time, because the Lord God of Israel fought for Israel. 43Then Joshua returned, and all Israel with him, to the camp at Gilgal.

I’m sorry, ‘as the Lord God of Israel commanded’ and ‘because the Lord God of Israel fought for them’. I don’t recognise this God. Where’s the mercy, where’s the compassion?

The strangest thing is that in the middle of all this Joshua and the Israel renew the covenant with God on Mount Ebal. As part of this ceremony Joshua reads out “all the words of the law”. How about “thou shall not kill”, did he read that out? Huh, huh??

As you can tell I am rather perplexed. This is the kind of text that is used to justify war, even to call wars ‘holy’. It is the kind of text that seems to say God can, will, does take sides in human battles. I can’t help remembering George Bush and Tony Blair saying that God told them to go to war in Iraq. How is this different? And how can I engage with it as scripture?

They say history is written by the victors, but this isn’t true of the Bible. These stories of Joshua weren’t written at the time he lived, but later when Israel was a weaker people. The tales of triumph, of the power of God being with them, would have bolstered a people who were often invaded and occupied, even exiled. Okay, I’d prefer it if they were bolstered by peaceful and loving stories of God’s mercy, but then I am a bit of hippy when all’s said ans done… Their times were brutal in many ways, and they lived in constant flux, with only a few years of dominance in the land they felt was given to them by God. I can never shout for joy when I read this stuff, but I can sympathise with its original audience. It wasn’t written for white middle-class me who lives in a peaceful land (although it’s a land at war in other lands), it was written for them. But this is my book too now, our book – what does it say to us?

Despite all that follows I still like the story of the fall of Jericho. I love the imagery of the magnificent power of God to break down obstacles. I love that the Israelites are told not to “utter a word” for seven days (6:10), until they all shout at once and watch the walls. I like the feeling of collective empowerment and partnership of God. But I don’t like the killing, and I hope I never will. But that’s okay. I knew reading the Bible would be challenging, I knew that writing about every bit of it – not just those that resonate with me – would be even more so. For me if this blog is nothing then it has not at least be honest.

Still, there’s something rousing about the story of Jericho, something exciting and strengthening. So I leave you in the capable hands of Mahalia Jackson whose preformance here helps me to forget the all my reservations and enjoy for a moment the wonderful, all-prevailing power of God …



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