Michaela Schenkel, preaching
Everybody likes a good story. And, in the Homeric fashion, the Bible was first an oral story. So I’m going to share with you a story that you likely know. But this time we’re going to do it like how we roll in college, which means that we’ll do a bit of analysis at the end of the tale.
Joshua was ready. The angel had given him God’s command and all that was left was to enact it.
On the other side of the wall lay a terrified city, for the reputation of the Israelites preceded them. They had conquered many cities in the land of Canaan and Jericho would likely not be the last. Before the famous march, Joshua’s spies had gone in, and though Jericho was heavily fortified, with walls surrounding the entire city, it would be an easy victory with the assistance of a God that had already allowed Joshua to lead his people through many regions. Whether those regions had allowed it themselves or not. Joshua, 7 priest, and the Israelites marched around the city. Even the Ark of the Covenant was brought and hauled. Not one word was spoken by the entire group of Israelites. No children cried, no people complained of sore feet, no command was given by Joshua. And they did this for seven days, on the seventh day marching around the city seven times with the priest blowing their trumpet each of these seven times. Seven’s the magic number here. The Israelites gave a great and mighty shout and, on Joshua’s command, miraculously, unbelievably, the walls of the city came tumbling down to the ground first with a groan, then with a tremor, then with a downright roar. As the Israelites breached the walls and invaded the city, Joshua instructed that all the precious metals and valuables be given for the glory of God. Anything sullied with the adulation of another god was not to be touched. Everything in the city was to be destroyed, save Rahab the prostitute along with her family who had helped Joshua’s spies. This meant that all the men, women, children and livestock were not spared. Joshua declared that whoever rebuilt the city would lose their firstborn and whoever built up the wall again, their youngest.
This story is familiar. A story of how faith can move mountains or, in this case, tear down walls. The story is symbolic of victory through God and the promise made to Abraham of a land of milk and honey. But to delve deeper into the story, we must acknowledge that it is riddled with theological flaws. Robert B. Coote says “There is probably nothing more offensive to modern sensibilities than God’s sanction of genocide against the Canaanites”. The biggest issue in the passage lies in the fact that God allowed, condoned, and even enforced the killing of an entire people. And why?
As you hopefully know, Moses freed the Israelites from Egypt and post-liberation they trekked through the dessert on their way to the land of milk and honey. To save a bit of time here, basically, through either ignorance or idiocy, a good chunk of the Israelites died and even Moses was denied entrance to the promised land due to his unfaithfulness. After Moses died the new leader became Joshua.
In the time that they had been trekking, the Israelites had passed through many countries, “asking for permission” to pass through. If we take a step back and look at this through a bit more of a historical lens we know that many of these countries decided that the safest course of action would be to attack the Israelites, either to kill them or scare them away, rather than engage in a cordial dialogue over tea and scones.
As the Middle East was and continues to be a place of turmoil, it is safe to assume that this was a normal, reasonable, even valid, response of said country. But when the Israelites were attacked, God granted them victory, as per his promise. And this became true for every hostile country that would attack the Israelites when they tried to pass through, which were many. And this began what is referred to by many theological historians as the Conquest of Canaan.
Keep in mind that although the Israelites were, in essence, wiping out these nations, they did it purely defensively. They were a displaced people, searching for a land in which they could re-erect their culture and start over. But the rules changed when they reached Canaan. Moses had left Joshua one final message from God. He was to drive out all the people in the country of Canaan and to destroy all their idols and worship sites.
Otherwise the land would be sullied and unfit for the glory of God. And so the conquest of Canaan began. And Jericho was first on the list.
There are several different theological reasons that have been proposed as to why God sanctioned the genocide in Jericho. Perhaps it was because the people of Jericho were wicked in that they worshiped other Gods and their hearts were hard therefore God had to kill them all to preserve his reign. But this was true not just for the residence of Jericho, but for all those in the Land of Canaan. And as for the Israelites, it is made abundantly clear that they were not a completely moral, devout and righteous society unlike how they are occasionally portrayed. These people complained, whined, and questioned God at every corner. (Sound familiar?)
But they still followed God’s command (eventually). Those who did not were, through various process, weeded out during the Israelites trek out of Egypt to a new land. These people were, in conclusion, God’s chosen people not because they were less wicked than the others, but because they always came back. So it would be an incredibly grave assumption to conclude that God sanctioned the genocide of a people for their supposed wickedness. We can’t just assume that the Israelites resided on higher ground than the other inhabitants of the land, as they likely followed the culture of the land as well. A culture that, to our modern western sensibilities, seems abhorrently cruel and unnecessary.
Thus, we should probably rule out the reasoning that God was just killing the bad people. But maybe we can look at a potential cultural reasoning. Robert B. Coots says, “Jericho, which lay about four miles west of the Jordan, was the prime urban settlement beside the Jordan where it flows closest to Jerusalem in the high land. Thus Jericho helps mark the boundary of the land to be conquered under Joshua. Jericho also dominated the route south to the rest of the western side of the Dead Sea basin. Here was concentrated the increased production of incense in Palestine.” Jericho not only would have been symbolic to the cause of God’s command to seize the land of Canaan, but there would have been immense strategic advantage to controlling land that was a hub for commerce in the region.
So by the time that the Israelites had reached Jericho, news had already spread fast about the Israelite army of unbeatable power. Their reputation preceded them and the citizens of Jericho were quaking in their sandals. And then something amazing (or terrifying) happened to the city of Jericho. Something almost unbelievable.
Modern science has given us the helpful tool of archeology to unearth the past. Which we have. And we have found something surprising. What we have unearthed has showed us something almost unbelievable in itself: that the traditional conquest model of the conquering of Canaan by the Israelites described in Joshua probably didn’t happen. It could, likely, be like this sermon; a narrative. Remember the Bible was originally passed down orally. And who doesn’t like a good story. The story of Joshua’s belief LITERALLY knocking down walls as tall as cities without laying so much as a finger on it? This practically unbelievable story would likely hold listeners rapt with attention, making believers out of the hardest cut of skeptics. So is it a bad thing that the story could be just that? A story. Fictitious as the Harry Potter novels themselves.
Definitely not. There is still much to be learned from this passage. To be questioned, mulled over. To doubt.
James Barr asks, can we accept the divine sanction of genocide and remain moral at the same time? My guess would be probably not. Do we have to? Also, probably not. Many historians and theologians infinitely more qualified than I can give well thought out and well based arguments as to why God would allow the murder of a people and the significance of this mandate. Did God himself sanction this? If so why? Does this mean that God is wrong or is my religion wrong? Did this even happen? If it didn’t happen, but it’s still in the Bible, what can I learn from this?
Is there something to learn from this?
To the last question, of course.
In the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, three runaway prisoners, Everett, Pete, and Delmar, go on an epic journey that runs parallel to the Odyssey. The goal of the trip: retrieve the 1.2 million dollar treasure Everett claims to have stolen and buried before being arrested. A treasure that turns out to be entirely fictitious. Along the way, the runaways encounter varying situations, each one more comic than the last. One of the funniest scenes has to be when our three travelers happen upon a baptism. Pete is the first to rush into the water shoving aside others in his desperation to be baptized. Delmar follows shortly after, believing Pete’s claim that he will be absolved of all sin. For the next 40 or so minutes of the movie, Pete and Delmar are “men of God”. Despite the fact that neither had the faintest idea what the baptism actually entailed they believed whole-heartedly that they were clean and their sins were absolved. And while this speaks a great deal about their faith, I don’t believe it speaks highly of their character. Their faith while fervent, is in the moment. There was no thought, no consideration behind their decision. They wished to reap the rewards of their crop without actually planting any seed. In other words, they planted their seed on the rocky soil and the birds ate the seed easily. They literally (yes proper employment of the term) rushed into things, without thinking about what the significance of their actions might mean, or really anything for that matter.
In order to have a strong faith, we must ask questions. Hard questions. Questions that you have no answer for. Questions that you will find no answer for. Questions that you may never get an answer for.
You are a teacher and one of your students, a young boy no older than ten, is obviously not getting enough food to eat at home. The act of you telling anyone about this will most certainly lead him into a group home, where he may come out more scarred than if you had left him at home. If you send food home with him you risk losing your job. What do you decide to do?
You are a young woman walking alone at night and as you reach the parking lot where your car is parked an unfamiliar man approaches asking if you could help him jump start his car. Do you help him?
You see another senseless act of violence splashed across every major news source. Maybe it was a church. Maybe it was a nightclub. Maybe was a school. And you know that you don’t want to hear the persons’ name, because you don’t want to know anything about the kind of person who
could do such a thing. But my question for you isn’t about forgiveness. Would you still invite this unknown person to eat dinner with you? In your house? With your family? Just as Jesus did?
Life is not black and white. And neither are real life questions that are applicable to us as modern Christians. Neither is the bible. When Joshua looked back upon the city, he probably did not rejoice at all the suffering he had caused. In fact, probably quite the opposite. There wasn’t a triumphant John Williams track playing in the distance. Imagine how quiet it would be in a city devoid of it’s residents.
The fact of the matter is we don’t know why some things in the Bible pan out in the way they do. We are supported by thousands of years of hindsight and so many advances in technology, medicine, forward thinking, and enlightened attitudes to name a few. But there’s a reason we come to Sunday School in the morning for dialogue, rather than just receiving the monologue that is a sermon. We ask each other questions because we don’t understand God’s reasoning or actions most of the time or probably
even a little bit of the time. So the people in the Bible definitely didn’t understand God’s motive or purpose ALL THE TIME at the time that it was happening. Joshua, Moses, Noah, Abraham, David, Hagar, Rahab, Mary, Ester and many more were all forced into tough situations where they could really do nothing but have faith in God. But don’t you think, maybe, they asked questions too? Do you honestly believe they had all the answers?
Questioning what you know will test your faith. Questioning what you don’t know will pull at the very fabric of it. These questions will cause you to doubt. They will lead you down the road less traveled.
These questions will define your faith.
And they will make your faith strong.
Because when we don’t ask questions, we are selling ourselves short. Short of the knowledge and wisdom that we can gain by tough questioning. Because sometimes, your pastor can be wrong. And maybe the Bible can be wrong. And a lot of the time, you yourself can be REALLY wrong. So leave your all-knowing answers at the door. Because there is no place for them in God’s kingdom.
And because faith shouldn’t be easy.