Thursday, May 24, 2007

A Sword for the Lord and for Gibeon (Joshua 9-11)

The army of Israel continues to storm into the land, leaving nothing but destruction in their wake. No army can stand against them. No quarter is given to their victims. They refuse to intermarry, to worship the local gods, or to adopt the customs of the land. The terror of their God goes before them, and none can stand when he appears. What is a Canaanite to do?

The people of Gibeon decide to try and make an alliance, for their own survival. The tricky thing is that Israel will make no alliances with those in the promised land. They are all under the ban. So the Gibeonites need to be cunning. They dress up their ambassadors in worn-out clothing and pretend to be from somewhere far off. Joshua doesn’t consult the Lord, and falls for it. He makes a treaty with Gibeon, sealing it with an oath to the God of Israel.

When the Isrealites find out that their leaders have been hoodwinked, they are positively mutinous. But there is nothing to be done about it. They must absolutely not take the name of the Lord in vain. Joshua is furious, and (with amazing obtuseness) demands an explanation:
Joshua summoned them, and he said to them, “Why did you deceive us, saying, ‘We are very far from you,’ when you dwell among us? Now therefore you are cursed, and some of you shall never be anything but servants, cutters of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.” They answered Joshua, “Because it was told to your servants for a certainty that the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you—so we feared greatly for our lives because of you and did this thing. And now, behold, we are in your hand. Whatever seems good and right in your sight to do to us, do it.” So he did this to them and delivered them out of the hand of the people of Israel, and they did not kill them.
When the other kings in the area hear about the treachery of Gibeon, all five of them assemble armies to destroy the city. The Gibeonites cry out to their new friends for help, and Joshua comes riding to the rescue.

What follows is a battle of five armies, a battle of cosmic proportions. The Israelites kill them by the thousands, but that pales in comparison to the artillery of hail God sends from his heavens. The sun and moon – the crown of the host of heaven – are the work of his hands. In a display of his absolute sovereignty, the Lord stops the sun and moon in the sky for an entire day, until all five armies are completely destroyed.

The five kings are captured and brought before Joshua:
And when they brought those kings out to Joshua, Joshua summoned all the men of Israel and said to the chiefs of the men of war who had gone with him, “Come near; put your feet on the necks of these kings.” Then they came near and put their feet on their necks. And Joshua said to them, “Do not be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous. For thus the Lord will do to all your enemies against whom you fight.” And afterward Joshua struck them and put them to death, and he hanged them on five trees. And they hung on the trees until evening. But at the time of the going down of the sun, Joshua commanded, and they took them down from the trees and threw them into the cave where they had hidden themselves, and they set large stones against the mouth of the cave, which remain to this very day.
The heavenly hosts are subject to the Lord’s command. How much more the earthly powers? These five mighty kings lay with Israel’s heels on their necks, brought low before the sons of Jacob the nomad. It is God who exalts, and God who humbles.
There was not a city that made peace with the people of Israel except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon. They took them all in battle. For it was the Lord's doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the Lord commanded Moses.
Here again, we see God hardening the hearts of these kings – strengthening their resolve against Israel so that they will be destroyed. And yet Gibeon is spared.

What is hard for me to grasp is how the original authors saw this. Clearly, had Joshua consulted the Lord, he would have found out the Gibeonites were local and then they would be hosed. But there seems to be a sense in which their shrewdness is commendable – not unlike Jacob himself. They will stop at nothing to gain the blessing of the Lord. Better to be a woodcutter in the house of God than a king in the cities of the wicked. This much is clear.

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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.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Be Strong and Courageous (Joshua 1-6)

Enough of the legal contracts and pensive contemplation. Strap on your sword and grab your spear. It’s time for war, slaughter, and plunder!

The Lord gives Joshua his marching orders:
Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel. … Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.
Strength and courage – two virtues that the people of Israel have been sorely lacking. The first time they came into the land, ten of the twelve spies came back cowering in terror, infecting the whole nation with fear. Only Joshua and Caleb had been eager to begin the invasion, but the people’s hesitation put this moment off another 40 years.

Now Joshua sends another group of spies into the land – only two this time. And where else would a group of unsavory nomads who had been in the desert for decades go, at the first sight of civilization, but to the house of Rahab the prostitute in Jericho? She proves even more congenial than expected, and hides the spies from the king’s soldiers. When the coast is clear, Rahab gives them a little glimpse of the morale of Jericho:
We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.
Rahab goes on to beg them to swear to God that they will spare her life in the sack of the city when it falls. They agree. The spies escape and report back to Joshua, who is thrilled to hear the news.

As a reminder that he’s the same God who parted the Red Sea and conquered Pharaoh’s army, the Lord dries up the Jordan river. 40,000 ferocious Israelite warriors pour into Canaan, with Joshua their general in the van. They take care of ritual obligations (this generation hadn’t yet been circumcised), eat their final meal of manna, and prepare for battle.

Joshua is told to march the men around the city once per day for six days, and then seven times the seventh day. Echoing God’s work in creation, the marching is a reminder that the Lord is doing the work here. After the last lap, they all give a shout. The walls crumble as if pummeled by cosmic artillery, the bloodthirsty soldiers roar into the defenseless city, and Jericho burns to the ground.

Their orders are simple: leave nothing alive and take no personal plunder. This city is an offering to the Lord. Only the prostitute and her family may survive.

The people’s spirits are high, their loyalty to Joshua firm, and their confidence in God steadfast. They are a far cry from the sniveling rabble that their parents were at Sinai. They are also a far cry from the wandering sheepherders that their forefathers were in this same place. The God of creation is leading them into a good land: driving out the current tenants with his flaming sword. They have nothing to fear but fear itself.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007


Deuteronomy is the last book of the Law. In Moses final speech to the people, he repeats the commandments with greater depth and perspective while setting the stage for the conquest of Canaan. However, there is also a sense of foreboding and melancholy, as he somehow knows that they conquer only to be eventually banished once again for their disobedience. The book ends with both encouragement to keep the law to enjoy God's blessings and assurance of God's faithfulness even when they rebel against him.

Here are all the posts, with astricks by what I think were the better ones:
  1. The Spirit of the Law (intro)
  2. Heart to Heart With God (1-12)
  3. *You Are My Beloved Son (13-19)
  4. *Oh How I Love Your Law (20-26)
  5. The Curse of the Law (27-30)
  6. They Shall Not Enter My Rest (31-34)

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