Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Justification of God in the Book of Joshua (notes from a sermon on Joshua 7)

On Sunday night I tackled what I think is one of the most difficult issues in contemporary reading of the Bible, namely the 'holy war' of Joshua. Here are the notes for that sermon (and oddly timely it would seem).
The events of Joshua 7 clearly represent a setback for Israel’s conquest of the land. Yet at one level they also seem simple to understand —Israel sinned, as a result, Israel’s enemies triumphed against them, God judged Israel and, as we will see next week, Israel’s fortunes were restored.
Yet at another level the events are quite complex. And they touch on one of the most difficult issues in the book of Joshua itself, namely the picture it gives us of the character of God.
We have already seen some of this in chapter 6 with the conquest of Jericho. In v 21, we read,
They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.
It is, quite literally, a massacre, with the exception of the extended family of Rahab. And it raises serious problems —not least in evangelism, where people who are familiar with this will dismiss the God of the Bible as barbaric.
What are we to make of it?
Accusing Israel
There are, I think, a number of wrong ways to respond to this problem. One is to accuse Israel. What people say is, “God is not really like that. What actually happened was that Israel justified these massacres by claiming that God ordered them, but he didn’t really.”
This gets God off the hook, but it undermines the trustworthiness of the Bible, which says quite explicitly this was God’s doing. In any case, it simply doesn’t work to suggest that this is what Israel wanted to do, as the incidents of chapter 7 show.
Until recently, war was generally regarded as an opportunity for a bit of profit. Sailors in Nelson’s navy got a share of the ‘prize money’ from captured enemy ships. And in the ancient world, the booty from warfare was regarded as a bonus for the winning side.
So the instruction to destroy everything, went against both common practice and common sense. No one would invent a divine command ordering such a thing. As an explanation it just doesn’t work.
Another wrong response is to suggest that Israel misunderstood God — that they thought this was what God wanted, but he didn’t really.
This is a very attractive solution, but again chapter 7 of Joshua makes no sense at all on this reading. The Bible is quite clear —this total destruction is what God ordered.
Accusing God
So the other option is to accuse God, which a lot of atheists do. On the basis of these passages, some of them get terribly angry about God and call God all sorts of things —hateful, vengeful, evil, etc.
The trouble is, of course, if you’re a real atheist, you can’t call God anything. In fact, if you don’t believe in God, but you do believe these actions were hateful and evil, there’s only one thing you can blame —what is that? The human race.
Ironically, the atheist who says that if God is like this, then God must be very evil is actually saying the human race is very evil, whereas a lot of them actually want to claim that, at least compared with God, the human race is very good.
But still, it is hard not to read these accounts and feel there is a problem. Can we accept that God commanded this?
The true God
I have given this a lot of thought over the past few weeks, and I would say the one thing we must not do with this issue is try to get God off the hook. We must not try to say, “God didn’t order this,” or “Israel didn’t understand God.”
And the reason is because our motivation is that we feel uncomfortable about this picture of God. But if we try to adjust the picture of God to suit our feelings, we are actually idolaters —we are making God in our own image, a God with whom we feel comfortable.
Whatever else we do, we have to accept the picture it gives of God even if it confronts, even if it contradicts, the picture we would like to have.
Like Abraham, when God told him to sacrifice his son, we have to accept that God might actually turn out to be not like we imagined, or not like we would want. We have to let God be God. Otherwise we will fall into terrible error.
So with that in mind, let’s turn to tonight’s passage.
An unfaithful act
The opening verse sets the scene, but more than that, it explains the problem. The word used for what has happened is ‘unfaithfulness’ — it is the breach of a relationship. But notice also that although it is the sin of one man, it is attributed to the whole people:
But the Israelites acted unfaithfully in regard to the devoted things ...
Again, we are told that“the Lord’s anger burned against Israel.”
The hint is that what Achan did, anyone could have done. And that is born out by what happened next.
 A devastating defeat
As readers we know something Israel at this stage didn’t. The text intends us to know this —it therefore intends us to read these events and form our own judgement: to see everything in the light of what is actually wrong.
After the conquest of Jericho, Ai was seen as an easy target —only a few people defended it, and it could be taken by a handful of soldiers. But, contrary to expectations, the Israelites were routed and a number of them —about three dozen —killed.
The casualties are really quite light, but the effect on the Israelites was devastating, as we read at the end of v 5,
At this the hearts of the people melted and became like water.
Now the important thing is to compare this with 5:1and 2:9. In 2:9, Rahab told the spies,
“I know that the Lord has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you.
And again in 5:1,
Now when all the Amorite kings west of the Jordan and all the Canaanite kings along the coast heard how the Lord had dried up the Jordan before the Israelites until we had crossed over, their hearts melted and they no longer had the courage to face the Israelites.
In other words, Israel has become like their enemies. And what does this mean? It means there is no faith —not even a recollection of the things God had done for them that caused their enemies’ hearts to melt!
A panic reaction
And we see this in the reaction not just of the elders but of Joshua himself. They all fell on their faces before the ark, praying and throwing dust on their heads, which you might think is a good thing, but look at Joshua’s prayer in vv 7-9.
This is not a prayer for help, or wisdom, or guidance, or courage. It is a prayer of panic and it is wrong in almost every respect.
First, in v7, God’s motives are questioned:
Ah, Sovereign Lord, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us?
It reminds us of the serpent’s words in Genesis 2, where the serpent attributed false motives to God. But ask yourself, have you ever done the same —have you ever doubted God’s goodness?
And then, in the same verse, Israel’s failure is put down to being over-ambitious:
If only we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan!
This is ridiculous! They were on this side of the Jordan because of God’s miraculous work. How could this be the result of overconfidence? They’re not even asking the right question.
Then in vv8-9, the failure is compounded by expecting things to get worse:
O Lord, what can I say, now that Israel has been routed by its enemies? 9 The Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about this and they will surround us and wipe out our name from the earth.
But we do the same —we look at our circumstances and assume it’s going to be downhill all the way.
And then, last of all, in v9 it is assumed that God himself will be the final loser.
What then will you do for your own great name?
God here is the ultimate victim —unable to rescue even himself! And as informed readers we are supposed to spot this —we are supposed to be saying, “No, you’re wrong, that’s not it!” But look at our own attitudes, and our own prayers, and we realize we are not much better.
God’s response
And then look at God’s response:
The Lord said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face?”
The good news is that there is no need to panic. But there is very bad news to follow, which the Hebrew brings out by a series of repeated ‘also’s:
Israel has sinned; they have also violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have also taken some of the devoted things; they have also stolen, they have also lied, they have also put them with their own possessions.
Israel has sinned, and the nature of the sin is made clear down to the specific details: they have violated the covenant, they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions.
And so v 12 tells us what we, the readers, already know,
That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies ...
But what we don’t know, which the text now tells us, is the terrible nature of the consequences:
... they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction.
Israel is now exposed to exactly the same fate as the other inhabitants of the land.
The God of Judgement
You see, we know from earlier in the Bible why these nations were to be destroyed. In Genesis 15:16 God said to Abraham, “in the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”
It wasn’t until these nations were ready for judgement that the Israelites would be allowed into the land, as we red in Deuteronomy 9:4, where Moses said to the Israelites
... it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you.
We can easily point to this as one of the reasons for the ruthless nature of Israel’s warfare —it was an enactment of God’s judgement. But it is only as we read the story of Achan that realize what this means.
Israel’s destruction of these nations is not a matter of race —this is not, despite what people say, a case of ethnic cleansing. Ethnicity has nothing to do with it, as 7:12 shows. Israel itself is now liable to exactly the same destruction, and there is only one solution:
I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.
A disgraceful thing
This is why God spoke as we read in v13:
Go, consecrate the people. Tell them, ‘Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow ...
The Israelites are to make themselves holy — and this takes us to the heart of the problem which is in v13:
That which is devoted is among you, O Israel.
It is the accursed thing which is in Israel’s midst. But what ought to be in Israel’s midst? The Holy God is in the midst of Israel, doing great things for her, but instead, there is a ‘devoted thing’. Yet it is not the thing itself which is the problem. The problem is what has brought this situation about. In v15 we read,
He who is caught with the devoted things shall be destroyed by fire, along with all that belongs to him. He has violated the covenant of the Lord and has done a disgraceful thing in Israel!
What has been done is a disgraceful thing —the very opposite of holiness and keeping the covenant.
“I coveted”
And so we read how Achan was discovered, probably through the drawing of lots. And yet even this reminds us it could have been anyone!
But the words of Achan in v 20-21 reveal something else:
It is true! I have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel. This is what I have done: 21 When I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them. They are hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath.
Quite simply, despite everything, Achan had coveted what he saw. And so we see in v 24, that Achan suffered the same fate as the nations had done:
Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold wedge, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor.
A snare to Israel
There is a message her, but to understand it we need to go back to Deuteronomy 7 and read God’s words there to Israel. In vv 24-25, we read this about the nations Israel was now fighting:
... the Lord your God ... will give their kings into your hand, and you will wipe out their names from under heaven. No one will be able to stand up against you; you will destroy them. 25 The images of their gods you are to burn in the fire. Do not covet the silver and gold on them, and do not take it for yourselves, or you will be ensnared by it, for it is detestable to the Lord your God. 26 Do not bring a detestable thing into your house or you, like it, will be set apart for destruction. Utterly abhor and detest it, for it is set apart for destruction.
Look again at 25,
Do not covet the silver and gold on them, and do not take it for yourselves, or you will be ensnared by it
Or look at 12:29-30,
The Lord your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and dispossess. But when you have driven them out and settled in their land, 30 and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.”
What is the weak link in all this? It is Israel’s inability to withstand temptation. And this is exactly what we have seen in the case of Achan. Why did he take the forbidden things? In his own words, “I coveted them and I took them.”
The Judgement of Israel
And why is this a problem? Because it is not just a matter of material greed, but spiritual failure. We have already seen in this chapter Israel’s collapse from bottom to top —from Achan who took the goods to Joshua who panicked.
Why must these nations be eliminated? Why must Israel show no mercy? Because of Israel’s weakness. Israel is constantly a whisker away from betraying everything —the covenant and God himself.
And remember, the salvation of the world depends on Israel. Our salvation depends on their being an Israel, into which Jesus would be born.
The destruction of the nations is not just a judgement on them, it is a judgement on Israel, because Israel could not be trusted to withstand the temptations they would present.
It is a fearful lesson, not just about God and judgement, but about us and sin. And it is a sobering thought that God took the only way possible by commanding that these nations be shown no mercy, because Israel must be preserved so that the world might be saved.
This is nothing to do with ethnic cleansing, but it is everything to do with sin cleansing. And so we read Achan’s fate, and the fate of his entire family in vv 25-26:
Joshua said, “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The Lord will bring trouble on you today. Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. 26 Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day. Then the Lord turned from his fierce anger. Therefore that place has been called the Valley of Achor ever since.
There really is no alternative. Otherwise, Israel would fall.
But there is finally an alternative. There is another one on whom God’s wrath can fall. There is another one the Lord can bring trouble upon. Salvation is not achieved by our goodness. Rather, another bears our wickedness. And because he has died we can be spared.
But through his death we have a message of transformation for all people. We can show mercy not only because God’s mercy has been shown to us, but because we have a gospel of transformation and forgiveness.
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  1. Very helpful, John. Just commenced reading through Joshua in the ESV Study Bible, which has an informative introduction and pertinent notes.

  2. John,

    I think you're right that "if we try to adjust the picture of God to suit our feelings, we are actually idolaters — we are making God in our own image, a God with whom we feel comfortable" and that that's an important point - but at the risk of contradicting myself, doesn't the Gospel you refer to at the end reveal a God "who is light, and in him there is no darkness at all"? How can such a God command the lynching of Achan - doesn't that make God like Caiaphas, who says something to the effect that it is better that one man should die than the whole nation perish?

    Couldn't a case be made for one or other of the responses you suggest are mistaken in your section, 'Accusing Israel', on the basis that Jesus' teaching, works, and giving of himself over to a lynch death reveal that scapegoating is simply a human thing, that God has nothing to do with it? And if so, this wouldn't undermine the trustworthiness of the Bible... remembering also other places in Hebrew Scripture where God is shown to be on the side of the victim (eg not a few Psalms, the suffering servant passage in Isaiah, Hosea 6:6...). (Indebted to James Alison / Girard here, granted).

    in friendship, Blair (still Croydon)