Sunday, June 24, 2007

Here Come the Judges (Judges 1-2)

Back in Genesis, we saw God calling powerful individuals like Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph to carry out his redemptive project. These men took hold of his promises and were obedient to his commands. The results were posterity beyond all hope, reconciliation between estranged brothers, and blessings for the nations at large.

The next step was to scale this up from these archetypes to an entire nation. But how is this sort of faithfulness to be maintained on such a large scale? The first requirement seems to be a leader like Moses or Joshua – someone who can stand side by side with the patriarchs while interceding for the masses at large. But there’s also another requirement:
These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
In other words, the devotion to God must so permeate their society on every level that things don’t die off with the subsequent generations. Otherwise, you get this sort of thing:
And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of 110 years…And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel…And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt.
Death is a profound shadow hovering over all plans and ambitions. No matter how well we do, no matter how we beat the odds and get it right, eventually we will die along with everyone we know. The memory will fade and grow cold, and be in the end so much chasing after the wind. (Are we in Ecclesiastes yet?)

So what does the Lord plan to do? As we’ve already seen, though he’s anticipated this and more, he’s committed himself to this people for better or for worse. Well, if these young whipper snappers don’t care to learn their history, they might as well get a taste of it first hand:
The anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them. And he sold them into the hand of their surrounding enemies, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the Lord was against them for harm, as the Lord had warned, and as the Lord had sworn to them. And they were in terrible distress.

Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them…Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them.
Welcome to the book of Judges. It’s the same story of the enslavement and exodus experienced again and again by each subsequent generation. The grand story itself seems to be in a state of limbo. Yet, thankfully for us, it’s a rather thrilling limbo. These “judges” are more William Wallace than Antonin Scalia, so we’re in for a wild ride.

Click Here to Continue Reading this Post...

Monday, June 18, 2007


Under the leadership of Joshua, the sons of Israel finally storm into the land promised to Abraham. It's a story of glorious triumph, with crumbling walls, burning cities, and cosmic signs. Though difficult and troubling for modern readers, the story is a powerful example of God's ability and commitment to fulfill his promises and complete the work he's begun.
  1. Be Strong and Courageous (1-6)
  2. Let Him Be Accursed (7-8)
  3. A Sword for the Lord and for Gibeon (9-11)
  4. Genocide for Jesus (12-19)
  5. As For Me and My House (20-24)

Click Here to Continue Reading this Post...

Sunday, June 17, 2007

As For Me and My House (Joshua 20-24)

The book of Joshua comes to an end, with this satisfying closure:
Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers...Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.
Israel, for its part, seems to be returning the favor as well – keeping the commands of the Lord, distributing the land according to his directions, remembering to set aside cities of refuge and other cities for the Levites – when all of a sudden Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh decide to complicate matters.

These tribes, if you remember, are not technically settled in the Promised Land but in Gilead beyond the Jordan. And now word comes that they have built an alter there – presumably as a rival shrine to the Tabernacle of the Lord. The other ten tribes prepare for a war to end this sacrilege. They send messengers to the tribes in Gliead:
Have we not had enough of the sin at Peor from which even yet we have not cleansed ourselves, and for which there came a plague upon the congregation of the Lord, that you too must turn away this day from following the Lord? And if you too rebel against the Lord today then tomorrow he will be angry with the whole congregation of Israel. … Did not Achan the son of Zerah break faith in the matter of the devoted things, and wrath fell upon all the congregation of Israel? And he did not perish alone for his iniquity.
Israel, it seems, has learned this harsh lesson. It is not enough to keep your own hands clean – you must actively root out evil in your midst. Sins of laxity and omission are punished just as severely.

Thankfully the whole thing turns out to be an honest misunderstanding. The three tribes had only meant it to be an “alter of witness” – proving that, though they don’t actually live in the Promised Land, they were nevertheless part of the conquest and heirs of the promise. Phinehas himself, the priest famous for spearing a compromising Israelite at Peor, is more than satisfied with their explanation. The armies breathe a sigh of relief, and return to their homes.

Then Joshua gives one last speech before his death. It’s the same message as Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy: serve the Lord, remember his blessings, do not get complacent, and continue to be faithful. It ends with this famous line:
If it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond 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.
The people pledge to do likewise, and Joshua and Eleazar die in peace. The last of the great witnesses of the exodus have now gone the way of all the earth. We know, of course, that the peace and blessings will not last – Israel will rebel again as the warnings say. But before this happens we are invited to pause for a quiet, pensive moment, and know that now, in this generation, Israel has chosen to wholeheartedly serve the Lord.

Click Here to Continue Reading this Post...

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Sorry Yanks, I'm on Holiday

So, you're all probably wondering why I haven't posted anything in over a week on Joshua. You're eager to move onto Judges, because you can't wait to hear reflections on that episode with Jephthah's daughter. Or maybe you have better things to do than check this blog all the time, but somehow find yourself reading this anyway.

Regardless, it's time I came straight out with it - I'm in England for a week with my wife celebrating our anniversary. Read on if you want to become insanely jealous (I'm getting jealous of myself just writing it!)

We spent the first day or two in York, taking a special look at the largest cathedral in northern Europe. We actually took Communion there, which was a rather strange experience. We sat with a handful of others for the service, while a group of tourists larger than us sat on both sides watching and taking pictures. It must be tough business being an English priest at a cathedral like that - trying to treat something like a church while it is also a museum. Perhaps they hope that it is a ministry to some of the tourists, but I could not help the feeling that they were looked at as a spectacle not unlike a rare and endangered animal at a zoo.

Another thing that bothered me a little was the information that the Archbishop of York was responsible for raising the king's northern army, and even leading them into battle. Now, I can imagine a situation where it would be appropriate for a bishop to lead his sheperdless flock into battle, if they were being attacked by a cruel enemy bent on their annihilation. It might well be the godly thing to do. But the English were oppressing the Scots, who were fellow Christians! Would not the right bishoply thing to do be to meet with the Scottish bishops and together insist that their nobles find terms of peace? I know history is more complicated than this, but it seems to me to be quite a scandal. Any English (or Scottish) history buffs want to correct my ignorant ramblings?

Speaking of scandals, it pains me to tears to see all these empty parish churches in York. There were so many, that it was once said you could worship in a different church every Sunday of the year. Now many are "redundant" despite the fact that the population is much larger. And my own fledgling church back home is meeting in a school cafeteria. We would love nothing more a stone English chapel to meet in, but most likely we will never have this. Meanwhile, the churches fall apart, become museums, or get co-opted into pubs or other use. There is still a vibrant Church in England - may God blow these embers into full revival, so that they must build even more!

After York we visited Durham. I wanted the chance to worship in a great Cathedral that is being used as such, and not just a museum. I was impressed by Durham Cathedral as opposed to Yorkminster. They made it very clear that this is a house of worship first and foremost, and that while visitors are welcome, the building does not exist for their gawking but for the praise and glory of God. Their needs come second.

The worship service was interesting. We got to sit in the chior for Matins, which was quite an experience. My wife was impressed and charmed by the choir boys, and we were both impressed by the sermon (in content if not style - we're used to a more dynamic and less...well..."British" tone I suppose). The Holy Communion service was harder for me to engage, for some reason. I could see why, despite my coming to love high-Church worship, people feel the need to strip away traditional trappings to make the gospel "real" to ordinary folks. There was a distant, austere, dryness to much of it that I didn't really like.

Is this wrong of me? I've experienced Anglican worship rich and full of liturgy and seasonal celebration, yet done with evangelical and charismatic enthusiasm. Is it wrong to wish it all were so? Perhaps this is a difference in culture, and what looks to me to be rote dryness is really reverence and awe. But we had that too. I don't know - I just wish in my heart that more of these services in England (and here) could be filled with enthusiasm and life, without sacrificing the tradition, reverence, and awe. I don't think these need to be polar opposites.

Anyway, much to our sadness, bishop N. T. Wright wasn't at the Cathedral, nor was he waiting in his Castle courtyard just in case one of his drooling American fans would come walking by. I mean, come on! I've bought his books! I even came to hear him speak in Roanoke! A little gratitude might be in order from the world's most preeminent New Testament scholar and third-ranking Bishop in the Church of England. So, with a sad look at the empty windows in the castle on the hill, we left Durham without seeing my idol. I guess no vacation can be perfect in this creation still groaning for the glory of the sons of God. We'll have to wait for life after life after death.

So now we're starting on a three-day walking tour of the lake district, and I must say I am already overwhelmed with the beauty of the British countryside. We had driven through Yorkshire on the way to Durham, and that was near paradise. It was a testimony to the beauty that man can create with centuries of loving care of creation - with wonderful stone churches at every turn giving the glory where it belongs. Now the lake district is some of that combined with absolute grandeur. And we get three days of walking this fine country, stopping at inns and pubs along the way.

I had thought Lord of the Rings was a fantasy, and the Shire some idyllic mystical world - but it actually exists! Walking through the green hill country as the road goes ever on and on, and at the end of the day stopping for a pint and meal while meeting fine friendly folk at a merry inn...this isn't just stuff of legend and storybook. And we even may get the odd chance to stop in for evening prayer at the occasional church. Oh - and they're all Anglican! God has really outdone himself with this country.

Click Here to Continue Reading this Post...

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Genocide for Jesus (Joshua 12-19)

The above engraving of Joshua sparing Rahab is one of the reasons why Gustave Doré is my favorite biblical illustrator. We see the somber Rahab stepping over the mutilated corpses of the citizens of Jericho, as her terrified father peers over her shoulder. The two spies lend a firm and perhaps comforting hand as they guide her towards Joshua. A towering Israelite commander looks like Genghis Khan sitting atop his camel. Crude spears glimmer against a landscape of smoke and ruin. A plainly dressed but imposing Joshua sits atop his mighty horse, pardoning Rahab and her family while crushing a man underfoot.

How different from the images I grew up with in illustrated Children's Bibles, with the kind smiling faces of the Israelites cheering at the collapse of the walls! These dark themes are a constant reminder that the Bible is first and foremost a book for grown-ups.

I suppose it's time I deal directly with what is without doubt the most troubling part of the Bible. What are we to make of the merciless slaughter of the inhabitants of the Promised Land, by God's people, following God's clear direction?

I’ve said before that I don’t think the kind of mental gymnastics necessary to justify the annihilation of entire peoples is good for the modern soul. We are horrified by genocide, and rightly so. What Joshua did to Jericho should never be justified in the abstract, and even trying to do it in the particular ends up becoming rather embarrassing.

But this, even this, is Holy Scripture, and so we’re stuck with it. If we cannot justify Israel’s atrocities, we must at least try to understand the part they play in the story the Bible is telling. And to see this clearly, we need to clear away the debris of modern prejudice.

Dehumanizing the Enemy

We are told, quite clearly, that the people of the Promised Land are being destroyed as judgment for their horrible wickedness – especially their custom of burning their children as sacrifices to their gods. The modern audience immediately responds that this is rationalization. To justify such atrocities, the perpetrators always need to somehow dehumanize their victims, or convince themselves that they are so evil as to deserve such cruelty. The Israelites no doubt made up these outlandish tales of barbarism to ease their conscience. This is so obvious to us that it hardly needs saying.

Nevertheless, we’re wrong. The Israelites wouldn’t have felt the need to conjure up justifications for the conquest, for the very simple reason that they were ancient and not modern people. In the ancient near-east, might really did make right. A powerful conqueror would have said the following, without a hint of shame. We will level your cities, kill your people, smash your babies against the rocks, desecrate your sacred temples, and take your land and property, simply because we can. If we spare some of you, it is only because we find you useful as slaves or curiosities. If you have any objections to this and wish to keep your honor, feel free to kill yourself.

The ancient victims would obviously be upset about all this, but not in the same way that we would today. A person drowning in the ocean swims his hardest to stay afloat, and cries desperately for help. But he doesn’t say “curse the properties of air and water and human biology that make drowning possible!”

I think we can safely conclude that the description of just how low the Canaanites had sunk in their idolatry is quite real. After all, there truly were cultures whose gods were specifically designed to be as ugly and horrible as the craftsman could fathom. We have stories of huge hollow metal idols, where sacrificial prisoners are locked inside, a furnace is lit underneath, and the human screams echoing out of the mouth of the idol embody the hellish voice of the devil they worship. Such things were done in the ancient world, at the heart of bustling cities, under the clear light of day.

The Sins of the Fathers

Even if the culture as a whole is said to be under God’s righteous judgment, what about individual justice? Surely the babies, if nothing else, should have been spared and cared for. What good is it if they are rescued from the furnaces of the idols only to have their throats cut by Israelite swords? I have no argument against this, and I shudder at the thought of those little ones.

Yet if we cannot (and must not) give up our firm convictions on individual justice, we must at least try to understand the ancient notion of collective identity. Nations and peoples were defined in terms of the strong personalities of their archetypes – Jacob, Esau, Anak, Amelek, Midian, Hercules, Romulus & Remus, etc. Sometimes their founders were even worshiped as gods. The cultures were very conservative, with their distinct character being passed from one generation to the next.

I sometimes wonder whether there is more to this than we like to think. Isn’t it curious that so much of what see as our own personal tastes, ideas, and opinions seem to fit key trends and movements (or counter movements) of our time? Even our personal individualism is an expression of a key American archetype. Most other cultures even today understand this better than we do, and hold individual Americans accountable for the actions of their country. Why shouldn’t they? We certainly benefit from our country’s actions – why should we not share the responsibility?

I am haunted at times when I find an old Indian arrowhead on my parents’ land. These are the artifacts of the people who were once here – peoples all but destroyed today. I can say it’s not my fault, but like it or not, I enjoy the lush beautiful land that their great grandchildren will never see. Is this just? Were the former inhabitants wicked enough to warrant their dispossession? If not, is there to be a reckoning? Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Reading these Stories

In the end, as hard as it is, we must try to read Joshua with ancient eyes, if we are to see what God would have us see. We have the sons of Jacob, who were once slaves, now hammered into a nation. The former inhabitants have grown fat with injustice and idolatry, and their time is at an end. The creator of Heaven and Earth, in his wisdom and justice, has chosen to give the land of Canaan to the twelve sons of Israel as an inheritance.

They are encouraged to be strong and courageous, even though they have no earthly reason to be. They are a rag-tag disorganized rabble. But God gives them the power to annihilate powerful armies and tear down imposing city walls. And he requires them to leave nothing alive. To do otherwise would imply that they are conquering out of their own strength, and showing mercy at their own whim.

It is not because of their righteousness or power that they are given the land. It is because the Lord is faithful to his promises to Abraham. It is because he has a plan to bless all nations through the nation that Israel is becoming. And it is because the nations currently there no longer deserve their place under the sun.

Click Here to Continue Reading this Post...