As I write this it’s 1.40am and I can’t sleep. So, as you do, I decided to do a little bit of light reading to while away the sleepless hours. In this case I read the jolly tale of bloodshed and genocide which is the book of Joshua.
Well, I actually only read the first two chapters. No bloodshed or genocide yet, but it’s clearly on its way.
There’s an awful lot of violent, nationalistic language here. You know, the type of thing regularly used to denounce the Bible and religion itself as backwards and a force for evil. There’s lots of talk of fighting and taking of land in God’s name. There’s talk of blood being shed and striking fear and dread into other nations. There’s talk of destroying kings. Lovely, lighthearted stuff for a late night, insomnia driven read.
Now, I’m no biblical historian. I am looking to do some theological training very soon, so I hope to put that right. However, it seems to me that this stuff, if looked at through the eyes of the readers it was aimed at rather than 21st Century eyes, would not appear in the least bit barbaric. I can’t say for certain, though, which is why I want to learn more.
However, it does look, when read as part of a much wider narrative, to be a bit easier to swallow than we may imagine.
“Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:7-9 NIV)
God’s promise to go with the Israelites relied on them following his law, living it every second of every day. Their success in battle, in winning land and nations, depends on their ability to live within God’s law as given to Moses. As time goes on, however, this changes from laying waste to other nations into prosperity and peace for themselves and between Israel and other nations. They move on, they grow up as they learn more and more about the very nature of God.
Finally, the law which they struggle so hard to live with, which is such an impossible burden for the Jews, is fulfilled in Jesus. In Jesus we finally go from conquering nations by force to conquering hearts with God’s grace. It’s no longer about a chosen people and military might, but God has fully revealed himself and shown that his Kingdom on earth is won by his word and people living under the new covenant. Hearts, minds and souls have become the objects to win for God, not military and political domination.
In God’s command to Joshua we see something which appears unpalatable to our eyes, but is near the start of a journey which sees him move his people away from the usual way of barbaric warfare to one where all people can be reconciled through him. It seems unpalatable to us because it’s unpalatable to God, but he’s moving his people forward, step by step, to peace, love and grace.
Sadly, this has been lost by many who feel that literal translation is the way to look at these things. Fundamental believers from Crusaders in the Middle Ages to many on the Christian Right in America (and a few in the UK too) seem to think that conquering military forces, destroying the bastions of “heathen” religions and setting up systems more acceptable to Christian (or a Western version of it) sensibilities.
On the flip side of the coin there are those who use verses like this to attack religion. They say that it demonstrates a bloodthirsty, psychopathic God and his sheep like followers being a danger to society as a whole and a cancer on the Earth.
Both of these views misrepresent the nature and law of God. They say that you can’t know where you’re going until you understand where you’ve come from. That’s what stories like Joshua do, they show a developing understanding and relationship with God. They show the start of the revelation of his true nature, which points to and culminates in Jesus. They show our own journey from people lost and blind to those found and sighted by his amazing grace. They are just the beginning, not the whole story.
God’s story is far bigger than one moment in history. It’s far bigger than one book of the Bible. It’s bigger than the Bible itself. Unless we try to see as much of the story as we can we run the risk of reading individual parts badly wrong and acting in ways which he never means us to. But when we try to look at the bigger picture we are constantly amazed by his love and patience for us and for all of his people.