October 21, 2012
Text: Joshua 1-3 (The Story, Ch. 7)
Have you heard the story about the Sunday School teacher who begins a lesson about Joshua with a question: “Who knocked down the walls of Jericho?” An energetic five-year-old threw his hand up and blurted out, “I don’t know who it was, but I swear it wasn’t me!”
So who knocked down the walls? That’s an important question in Joshua. Was it Joshua…the Israelites…was it God? It is an important question because not only do the Israelites walk around the walls of Jericho until they fall – they also kill every man, woman and child who lived within those walls. Every battle the Israelites wage in the book of Joshua ends with massacre. In Joshua 10:40, it says that thy “utterly destroyed all that breathed.”
What are we to make of that?
Some people argue that the people in those Canaanite towns were so evil, so depraved, that they deserved to be crushed. But – does every child, every grandparent, every person in any city really deserve to die by the sword? And doesn’t the Bible show many examples of people who did deserve such punishment, but were offered grace and forgiveness? (The people of Nineveh, for an Old Testament example!) So why not here?
Others explain that the deaths were a necessary evil, in order to purge the land – to protect the Israelites from falling prey to the immorality of their neighbors. But – could not God have protected them some other way? And – don’t they fall into idolatry down the road anyway? So why such brutality, if it proves ineffective in the end anyway?
There are other ways of understanding Joshua’s conquest, too. But the best explanation that I have heard from scholars is this: The book of Joshua reflects the time and place in which it was written. This is how people waged war in those times: they killed everyone and destroyed entire cities in the name of their gods.
Joshua’s conquest shows some mixture – in what amounts, I can’t begin to untangle – of following God and adhering to human “ways of doing things.” There are moments in this part of the story that show great courage and faithfulness; there are other moments that show that they don’t quite get it yet.
Sometimes, in our lives, we act out of a true desire to follow God faithfully – and yet our actions are still misguided. In this election season, for example, I think most reasonable Christians seek the right outcome: a godly leader who will govern with integrity and justice. But in seeking that outcome, how often do we use ungodly means? Don’t we throw words around that are intended to cut our opponents out of the picture entirely, to completely destroy their position and their interests? Perhaps Joshua’s battles are something like our political mudslinging, but set in a time when political disputes were settled by the sword. It is a sobering thought.
Of course, it would be tempting, in the face of the violence, to throw out Joshua completely (and perhaps much of the rest of the Old Testament!). People have tried to do that throughout the church’s history – to pick and choose what parts of the Bible they will accept. And throughout church history, the wider community of faith has affirmed that these stories and passages cannot be thrown out. That despite their difficulties, they are still part of our sacred text; they still convey truth; they still challenge and confront us in ways that strength our faith.
And so we wrestle with these passages, but we don’t throw them out. And when we wrestle with them, we begin to find our place in them.
What I find when I wrestle with the story of Joshua is a fiercely courageous story of transformation.
God affirms to Joshua and the Israelite people, again and again, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, for I am with you.”
They have reason to be frightened, of course – they are going into battle. But I think their fear is more than a fear of war. I think their fear is, at its roots, a fear of failure.
After all, they have failed before. They have been in this exact place before: standing at the edge of the Jordan, preparing to send spies into the land that God has promised will be theirs. Standing, in other words, right where they stood 40 years before, when Moses sent spies into the promised land in Numbers 13. And 40 years before, they failed miserably, and then suffered the consequences.
I have to imagine that as they stood on the banks of the river again 40 years later, their failure weighed heavily on their minds.
It was hard to forget, after all. Moses – the only national leader the Israelites had ever known in their lifetime – has died. And not just Moses, but a whole generation is gone – all the pillars of the community. The ones they knew and relied on to make the decisions, to pay the bills, to set the course. The people-in-charge were gone. Can you feel the Israelites trembling as they look to the future, wondering how it is that they came to be the grown ups, the ones in charge?
And if you remember the story, this whole situation was a direct result of the people’s failure to obey God. The death of Moses and his generation – the wandering in the wilderness – it was their fault, brought about by past failures.
No wonder they are afraid.
But what we find in Joshua is a beautiful new beginning. The community that grumbled and complained to Moses years before now tells Joshua: “All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go” (Joshua 1:16). And the report of the spies this time around? Well, instead of exaggerated claims of giants in the land (see Number 13 again), they say with great conviction: “Truly the LORD has given all the land into our hands; moreover all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before us” (Joshua 2:24).
They are a transformed people. The misdirected, disorganized gang of former slaves who huddled at the bottom of Mt. Sinai and begged for an idol to worship now stands up tall and proud behind their leader, ready to lay claim to their promised homeland.
Can we see ourselves in this story? Standing at the edge of the river banks, reminded of our own past failures?
All of us, I think, have places where we get stuck – times of lamenting past mistakes and fearing an unknown future. We find ourselves wandering like the Israelites in the wilderness.
Joshua’s story gives us hope, first of all, that God doesn’t leave us in the wilderness forever. The Israelites came back to that Jordan River 40 years later as changed people, ready to continue the journey. I believe God also brings us back to missed opportunities – or messed-up relationships – or places of failure – as changed people, ready to continue the journey.
For Joshua, the first step was to face reality. God doesn’t beat around the bush; he tells Joshua right off the bat, in Joshua 1:2, “My servant Moses is dead.” There it is: the stark consequences of past decisions.
But then: “Proceed to cross the Jordan…to the land I am giving you.” God gives Joshua permission to move forward, to write a new future that is not defined by the mistakes of the past.
And finally: “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, as I promised to Moses.” God invites Joshua to reclaim the promises of the past; they were not destroyed or forgotten in the wilderness. There were consequences, yes; but the promises of God’s provision and care outlast the consequences of sin. That is the truth of grace – that God’s promises always extend beyond our sin!
Everything has changed, yet nothing has changed. We change – transformation is possible. We can be restored, made new. God does not change. God’s promises remain. God’s grace continues. God’s love never fails.
Invite you to think of those stuck places – the places you’ve been before, and lost your way; the things you’ve tried before, and failed; the journeys you’ve started but thought you’d never be able to finish. And then ask God if it is time to end the wandering and come back to that place. To acknowledge the consequences of past decisions; to move forward as a changed person into a future not defined by the mistakes of the past; and to reclaim God’s promises for you.
Now hear God’s invitation to a new journey:
Now get ready to cross into the future I am about to give you. Be careful to obey my law; do not turn from it to the right or to the left; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.