Tonight there are gales blowing in the streets of Manchester. Walking home I saw autumn leaves, which had been neatly swept to the side of the streets, surge up like an orange army and dart around. As I watched them dance frantically, and felt them hit me in the face a few times, I was reminded of the irresistible power of God.

As I come to the end of the book of Joshua I get the sense that it is written to remind the Israelites of the same. At various points they are told “not one of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass” (21:45). They are told that it was God, not them that fought and won the battles,  that their success were because of their obedience to and faith in the Lord.

In Joshua’s final speech in Chapter 24 (if the book of Joshua were a film this speech would end it accompanied by some rousing music) he reminds the Israelites of their history from Abraham through to their slavery in Egypt and deliverance to the ‘promised land’. He also reminds them that if they are not faithful to God then they can be cut down just as they were built up.

Although the vision of God who fights battles and obliterates nations is not one I hold dear, I do see the power of this narrative. It is giving the people of Israel an identity in God and ensuring that the Lord is at the centre of their lives. It is reminding them that is not upon themselves that they rely, but upon God; that His power moves through us, but that doesn’t make it our power. Something we could all be reminded of.

So, though Joshua is unlikely to ever be my favourite book, I’ve come a journey since my earlier posts. I’ve realise that me wishing that they had brokered peace-keeping agreements and had group-hugs with their neighbouring nations can led me to look at the cultural context rather than the more enduring message.

The power of God moves through us. Can we yield and dance like leaves in the wind…

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Fair reader, I’m not going to lie to you, I skim read some of the passages in Joshua 16-20. All the:

“the territory of the Ephraimites by their families was as follows: the boundary of their inheritance on the east was Ataroth-addar as far as Upper Beth-horon, 6and the boundary goes from there to the sea; on the north is Michmethath; then on the east the boundary makes a turn towards Taanath-shiloh, and passes along…[yada yada yada]”

and the :

“Now the towns of the tribe of Benjamin according to their families were Jericho, Beth-hoglah, Emek-keziz, 22Beth-arabah, Zemaraim, Bethel, 23Avvim, Parah, Ophrah…[blah de blah de blah]”

just didn’t float my boat this afternoon. And I’m sure it’s all very important for many reasons beyond my understanding (if you know them please do fill me in) but it’s not the kind of thing that puts fire in your belly is it?

However! There are some interesting things going on in all this land-dividing-up business. My favourite serves as a nice contrast to yesterday’s ‘giving your wife to the Pharoah’ debacle. Yes, the bit where the daughters of Zelophehad (pronounce that!), stand up for their rights! Having no brothers to inherit their portion of the land they say to Joshua “the Lord commanded Moses to give us inheritance along with our male kin” and so they get their inheritance. It’s just briefly mentioned in 17:3-6 but this must have been very significant; to give women certain property rights? That’s big. It may not seem big to us, but often women without close male relatives would be destitute in these times, as the plight of Naomi in the book of Ruth shows. So this is pretty right on, and I’m glad to read it. It reminds that though the general tone of the scriptures is pretty darn patriarchal, strong women pop up and are respected again and again. And these women must have been strong to stand up in front of an assembly of men and claim their rights. Go sisters!

Another, more curious, provision comes in chapter 20, with the cities of refuge. These places are created for people to flee to when they need refuge. So far, so good. But they are specifically for those who seek refuge if they have killed “a person without intent or by mistake” and are being pursued by an avenger. Erm, okay…My first question: How do you kill a person by mistake?

Perhaps this is a reference to Moses, who killed someone and fled from Egypt as a younger man. Or perhaps these are just very very different times, when violence is a matter of fact. We forget how cushioned we are, those of us who can sit in front of our computers and read about violence in our newspapers. And although the concept confuses me, I like that there is this provision. That the people of God include refuge in their division of the land and,  importantly, that refuge is for “all the Israelites and all the aliens residing among them.” From the beginning the people of Israel are not an insular self-serving community, as some readings may paint them, but one that also provides for those who live amongst them. So even whilst dividing their conquerred lands, the Israelites retain a sense of justice.

You may be surprised that I have found something positive to say about the book of Joshua at long last, I know I am! But if nothing else then that’s what the Good Book does; it surprises you. For better or for worse.

Forgive me loyal blog readers! I come to you ashamed of my grave failure. A combination of uncooperative internet connection and non-existent inspiration means that there was a great gaping hole where yesterday’s blog post should have been. But fear not; I have returned!

Yesterday around this time I began to write about Joshua 11-15. If you’ve read my other posts on Joshua you know the deal by now. I made dry comments about the rather barbarous tone of this book but tried to restrain from another “what’s going on with all the killing??” rant. I then made a joke about not wanting to ever have to read them passages out in church. They’re full of long lists of unpronounceable names. Then I racked my brains for something more substantial to say…

It was difficult. I tried going down the ‘cultural context’ route; this text would have been important to those who it was written for, affirming their right to the land in which they lived and the faithfulness of their God. But I’ve said that before. When it came to bringing something out for myself, or even better for all of us, I was stumped. So I decided to think it over and finish later. And conveniently forgot.

The truth is I still haven’t thought of anything, nothing genuine. I’m sure Hebrew scholars could tease out a morsel, even a gem, from these chapters. Perhaps you can (please share) but I can’t. But that’s okay. I’m not writing this blog to feign wisdom. So I will share with you that there are parts of the Bible that simply don’t inspire them and even make them think “what is this crazy book?” as a friend of mine put it last week. And I think it’s okay to admit that there are parts of the Bible that leave you cold or confused…though somehow not finding inspiration here still feels like failure.

The poetry of the psalms is even more sublime when contrasted with the drawing of land boundaries and lists of victories in Joshua 11-15. I feel that just by reading Psalms 6-8 I hear the voice of God saying “see, it’s not all bad!”.

In these songs of supplication and praise, beds are drenched with tears, refuge is taken and God’s majesty is praised. Quite a rollercoaster. That such stark contrasts of emotion are established as scripture soothes my anxiety at my own varying responses to the words and promises of God. They show me that I don’t need to choose between showing weakness and confusion and affirming the strength and glory of God. Quite the opposite; in David’s vulnerable, impassioned cries I am exposed to a raw and direct relationship with God. The intimacy of these words beckon me closer, closer to the Beloved to whom they are addressed.

Perhaps this is the problem I have with book of Joshua. It describes the people of Israel when they are invulnerable. It is the story of an unrelenting victory. Though God and his promises are constantly mentioned there is little time for personal doubt,or even rejoicing. These people are on a mission, and they are winning. How can I empathise with that? How can I connect with that? I like my heroes flawed and my plot lines fraught. I like songs of salvation and supplication, not inventories of conquered territory. I doubt I’m alone in this.

And it’s okay. The book of the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament weren’t all written with one purpose. Why do i expect to get the same things from Joshua as I do Psalms? It almost seems arrogant for to expect to be granted a new revelation each day. The scripture is not my servant. I am God’s servant. I am reading the Bible and writing not to be served but to better serve.

So perhaps it is I who needs to move from the ridiculous to the sublime From an attitude of entitlement to God’s wisdom and an openess to God’s words and a willingness to be confused or comforted.

I’ve heard a preacher say that the Bible should read us, rather than us read the Bible. If it was reading me today I think I would be exposed as someone who wants to find something to say about everything, but who is truly blessed when rendered speechless.

“O Lord, our Sovereign,
   how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

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 …

 

The Bible reading plan I’m using (a link to which can be found at the bottom of the page) doesn’t go through the Bible from front to back. Each day of the week focusses on a different section of the Bible; Tuesday (which I’m reading on Wednesdays) is ‘History’, which begins with the book of Joshua. “O goody!” I thought “the one where the Israelites kill everyone else!”

But I am pleasantly surprised to be reminded that the first 5 chapters of Joshua contain no actual killing. Sure, there are more than a few hints that a lot of killing is about to take place; armed warriors are to cross the Jordan first, spies are sent to Jericho, Rahab tells them that “all the inhabitants of the land melt before you.” But the beginning of the Israelites’ return to the promise land has the power of God and the importance of God’ law at its centre. Throughout the Old Testament we are reminded of the Exodus story and here is no different. God brings the Israelites across the Jordan by stopping its flow, just like in the Exodus.

Then in Chapter 5 all those born in the time in the wilderness (which is everyone, all the previous generation have died) are circumcised. This is followed by an account of the celebration of the passover and Israel’s first meal of the “produce of the land”, which must have tasted pretty sweet after all that manna. And finally we are told of an encounter between Joshua and “the commander of the army of Lord”. This chapter, which is directly followed by the fall of Jericho, ends with the command “remove the sandals from you feet, for the place where you stand in holy.” Very Moses and the burning bush; don’t you think?

There are many mysterious and inspiring passages in these early chapters of Joshua, but I must admit I can’t help finding them tainted them by the anticipation of what is to come…”holy war”. Yet if I put that aside this time – I fear it won’t be so easy next Wednesday – I see that this is the home-coming of the Israelites. The climax of exile. A return to where they are willed to be by God. And every chapter revere’s God’s power to do this, through the narrative voice and the voices of Joshua, Rahab and God Himself.

So I try to ask what is this saying to me? I don’t think it’s as simple or cheesy as “God can part seas for you” and certainly not “God wants to give you stuff; just be good and do what you’re told and you’ll get it”. But maybe that there is always a way home, through the wilderness, it may take forty years and a complete change of personnel, but there is a way. And Iguess the problem is that the following chapters and books could be saying that once you’re home you can leave again, forget again. Wednesdays are going to be interesting…