The book of Joshua itself is a stirring Boys Own-style story of blood and battle. I’m always a little surprised that Charlton Heston didn’t do a Cinemascope version of it in the fifties. It contains the ancient account of the People of Israel’s entry into the “Promised Land” after the death of Moses, under Joshua, the newly chosen leader, and the settling of the land under their occupation.
When one reads it as a devotional study, it’s best to read it right through, rather than dipping in, mid-plot, to extract a “message for today.” So what is the whole story? Well, it’s a story of war. Let’s face that upfront. And war is hell. The comedian George Carlin once said: “The very existence of flamethrowers proves that sometime, somewhere, someone said to themselves, “You know, I want to set those people over there on fire, but I’m just not close enough to get the job done.”” And, in a more serious way, Chris Hedge – in his book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning -wrote, “War is a drug. . . . It dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language, and infects everything around it.” It raises “fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our place on the planet” and it “exposes the capacity for evil that lurks not far below the surface within all of us”.
And that’s the world we live in too. It’s a world full of fear and insecurity, in which ethnic nationalisms continue to give rise to conflict. And this story –the book of Joshua – has been used to justify colonialism, conquest, occupation, and ethnic cleansing. And so the book of Joshua becomes a warning for us. It warns us not to retreat into a cozy over-personalizing religious introspection and miss the call to take the land. But what does that mean? According to Leonard Thompson in The Jordan Crossing, “Land’ [in Joshua], becomes a cipher for a total social order. The move into the Land is nothing short of that creative change from chaos to ordered cosmos.”
So it’s also a warning for our generation to empower our children to embrace the challenge that faces them; not to “melt away in fear” but to “follow the Lord wholeheartedly” and with their own hands to take the land that He gives them. It’s a warning to us all not to live detached lives of private faith but rather to embrace a public faith that fully engages our society, our culture and our world.
A film would certainly have trivialized that deep truth. But this is, as I said, a war story, and that raises a fundamental issue. Isn’t Joshua seen to condone a form of jihad? While the story charts the success of Israel, what about the tribes they displace? Regina Schwartz comments that “Having long seen the Bible put to uses that one cannot excuse – hatred of Blacks, Jews, gays, women, “pagans” and the poor – I now began to see some complicity, for over and over the Bible tells the story of a people who inherit at someone else’s expense.” (The Curse of Cain). Gary Burge takes up the challenge of interpretation : “The struggle for land is so deeply embedded in the human soul – it is so central to our way of viewing the world – and it has led to so many devastating wars, to rethink land and its value might well be another form of the gospel needed desperately in a modern age” (Jesus and the Land).
But even so, here we sit with the book of Joshua, a text filled with violence and carnage! By God’s command? How can this be the same God that we have come to know in Jesus? In the Message, Eugene Peterson deals with this issue in his introduction to the book: “For most modern readers of Joshua, the toughest barrier to embracing this story as sacred is the military strategy of “holy war,” what I have translated as the “holy curse” – killing everyone in the conquered cities and totally destroying all the plunder, both animals and goods. Massacre and destruction. “No survivors” is the recurrent refrain. We look back from our time in history and think, “How horrible.” But if we were able to put ourselves back in the thirteenth century B.C., we might see it differently, for that Canaanite culture was a snake pit of child sacrifice and sacred prostitution, practices ruthlessly devoted to using the most innocent and vulnerable members of the community (babies and virgins) to manipulate God or gods for gain.”
Peterson is right to put the book into the context of the history of the times. It is also right to understand it within the context of God’s ferocious revulsion against sin in any form. Even so, “Take the land” is distinctly militaristic, and imperialistic. We don’t even view the makers of the British Empire who “took the land” two centuries back as heroes to be lauded. Nowadays, they’re more like distant-but-embarrassing relatives from our past for whom we have to apologize! But the call to “take the land” –following Gary Burge’s hint- is not a call to a new political, cultural or geographical dominance. It is Kingdom of God territory. It is the will of the Eternal God being done on earth, as it is in heaven. Remember that the primary image of the kingdom of God presented by Jesus (our Joshua) was not a giant nail pounded into the earth by a cosmic hammer, but rather that of a farmer sowing seed in the field. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of tiny seeds cast about in the midst of scavenging birds, weeds, and thorns. It is the smallest bit of yeast hidden in the mother of all lumps of dough. It is the most minuscule of seeds issuing in a plant large enough for birds to nest in. “The good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom,” Jesus said in one of his kingdom parables (see Matthew 13:38). As good seed, we don’t root out or evict anyone. We grow where we are planted, right along with the tares. And it is God who harvests. The kingdom challenge – the challenge flung down by both Joshuas – is to be planted, to find where in his world you are meant to be rooted and then to grow where you are planted.
From Dr Ken Baker, What do these Stones Mean? A devotional journey through the book of Joshua.
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