Sunday, May 20, 2007

Let Him Be Accursed (Joshua 7-8)

Well, here we are. The people are in the land, the evil Canaanites are being slaughtered by the thousands with nary an Israelite casualty to be seen, and the promise to Abraham is coming to fulfillment. Where he was a mere nomad, they are conquerors. So why is it that I don’t feel like celebrating?

I wrote before that there are some passages that I wish weren’t in the Bible (though my faith in God leads me to believe that they indeed should be there despite my feelings.) They mostly have to do with a chilling Hebrew word: Cherem. It means “the ban” or “devoted to destruction” or “set apart for the Lord.” You may think being set apart for the Lord is a good thing, but believe me: you don’t want it like this.

Our story continues after the fall of Jericho. The entire city has been set apart for the Lord, so that every living thing was under the ban. All were killed, both young and old, man and animal alike. The city was burned to the ground, with only the gold being taken for the Lord’s treasury. The people of Israel had been warned not to take anything under the ban – no human being for wives or slaves, no cattle, no valuables.

It’s impossible for me to connect to this, but I must at least try to understand. I remember a passage in book six of the Iliad, where the great Greek hero Menelaus disarms the Trojan Adrestus. Adrestus begs Menelaus for mercy – telling him of the great ransom he will get if he only spares his life. Menelaus has pity, until his brother Agamemnon protests. Agamemnon is horrified that Menelaus lets mercy and personal gain get in the way of his loyalty to his brother and country. Love for Greece means hatred of Troy. And so the righteous Menelaus kicks the bawling man back and skewers him with his spear – a fine example of virtue for generations to come.

So it is with an Israelite named Achan. He sees some fine cloth and some gold bars in Jericho and keeps them for himself. No one seems to notice, until they attempt to attack another city, Ai. Rather than take the city effortlessly, they are routed by the defenders and lose some men.

Joshua is horrified. If the people no longer have the Lord’s protection, the Canaanites will kill every last one of them in no time. So, like Moses before him, he pleads with God to come to their aid. The Lord responds:
Get up! Why have you fallen on your face? Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their own belongings. Therefore the people of Israel cannot stand before their enemies. They turn their backs before their enemies, because they have become devoted for destruction.
By taking items under the ban into their camp, Israel itself has fallen under the ban of their enemies. So Joshua immediately calls the people together and uses a sacred lottery to see who is responsible. All eyes fall on Achan.
Then Joshua said to Achan, “My son, give glory to the Lord God of Israel and make confession to him. And tell me now what you have done; do not hide it from me.” And Achan answered Joshua, “Truly I have sinned against the Lord God of Israel, and this is what I did: when I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar, and 200 shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them and took them. And see, they are hidden in the earth inside my tent, with the silver underneath.”
Joshua seemed so tender, and yet his response to Achan’s confession is terrible. Though he confesses his sin, Joshua is not faithful and just to forgive him his sin, but only to cleanse Israel from all unrighteousness. Achan and his children and all his cattle are brought out and stoned to death and burned – with a great heap of stones piled on him after the fact.

No longer under the ban, the people then have little trouble crushing the city’s defenses, massacring the inhabitants, and burning Ai to the ground. And I am left bewildered. Where is the hope here? Where is there anything but cruel destruction? Where is mercy, when any laxity is a failure to carry out God’s mandate? Where is forgiveness for those who confess their sins?

Let’s look where we would least expect it:
So Joshua burned Ai and made it forever a heap of ruins, as it is to this day. And he hanged the king of Ai on a tree until evening. And at sunset Joshua commanded, and they took his body down from the tree and threw it at the entrance of the gate of the city and raised over it a great heap of stones, which stands there to this day.
Here we see a type of Christ, not in Joshua (his namesake), but in the accursed idolatrous king, set apart by God for destruction, strung up on a tree until evening, whose tomb is sealed in stone. The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.

Thanks for writing. Good stuff.

Interesting and brow-raising connection. If the ban incident is inscrutable and egregious, then the crucifixion must certainly also be. In both incidents, the Creator was "master of evil" beyond a doubt, if not its author. The agencies in both cases are difficult to fathom in their fullness, but the sovereignty remains the same no matter who's doing what.


Why must forgiveness entail exemption from temporal punishment? We don't let criminals off the hook if they confess their crimes. Why shouldn't it be the same with Achan? Surely, the Lord would be merciful to him because he confessed and repented (on an eternal scale), but he still committed a grievous crime, and in those days, the death penalty was much more liberally applied.

Well, of course we can hope retroactively in the resurrection of Christ that even sinners like Achan will be restored. But, unfortunately, that isn't the message the text is telling. As we all probably know, the Israelites at that time had very little notion of immortality or the soul - and so the cutting off of Achan's line was the closest thing to damnation as one could imagine.

It's harsh stuff...

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