Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Be strong and courageous

How should I react to the book of Joshua? For me, there is no easy way to resolve the issue. Four different "modes" of reaction seem to arise in me, and it's difficult to see how they can be combined coherently. So in this little blog post, I will simply go through these four modes of reaction, one at a time, and leave them all standing in tension with one another. Perhaps, just as musical strings must be held in tension in order to produce beautiful sound, it is necessary simply to hold ideas in tension before they make any music.

Mode 1: Just enjoy the show. Joshua would make an epic movie, in the hands of the right producer. That same visceral energy that drives the movie 300 would carry through in this blood-and-guts epic battle sequence. Make no mistake, this book should be rated "R." It does not shy away from prostitutes, from cities being burned and pillaged, from kings being beheaded, or from the wrath of God consuming sinners in the flame. Without doubt, this story appeals to that instinct in us to be part of a warrior nation, a people sworn to absolute allegiance, willing not only to die but to kill for the sake of God. Who would not be stirred by the words of Joshua? "Come near, put your feet on the necks of these kings. ... Do not be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous; for thus the Lord will do to all the enemies against whom you fight." Who would not be proud to fight for such a man before whom kingdom after kingdom fell? As we read later in Judges 3:1-2, war was a test of Israel's devotion to God, which he explicitly meant for successive generations to experience. I think it is still not so difficult to understand, even in our pampered culture, the appeal of such a life: to forget how to fight, after all, is to become weak, complacent, and unfit for holiness.

Mode 2: Moral outrage. Do the authors of this text seriously want us to believe that these are the deeds of the God of the universe, the source of all perfection and beauty, of all wisdom and knowledge? Perhaps it is simply their limited understanding. They have never experienced World War II. They don't know just how horrifying genocide can be. They don't know how presumptuous it is to take God's judgments into one's hands. They fight with weapons that pierce the flesh, rather than with explosives that can wipe out entire cities. Yet their purpose is to destroy and to purify. It is, though pathetically primitive to modern warfare, a cruel way for human beings to live.

As a Christian reading this book, one can't help but feel a sick sort of irony in Joshua's name. It is the very same name as that of Jesus--"the Lord saves." Joshua is the fulfillment of the Mosaic covenant. This is the redemption Israel was longing for; this is how God keeps his promises in the world: by war? It all sounds like a cruel joke. Jesus tells Peter to put down his sword; Joshua tells Israel to take up his sword and use it in the most merciless way possible. Is this really the vision God has for the universe? To fight, to kill, to purify the land? If so, then when would the killing stop?

Mode 3: Allegory. There must be an allegory in here, somewhere. The point I just made about Jesus and Joshua is worth coming back to. Christians have always read typologically. Well, who could be more a type of Christ than one who shares a name with him? This Joshua, for all of his stark differences with Jesus, is the one sent to complete what Moses started. Surely the law was given through Moses; the fulfillment of God's covenant with Abraham was given through Joshua. It is an allegory for what Christ has truly done, in fulfilling the Mosaic law and leading us into the true promised land of God's kingdom.

Clearly allegorical readings of Joshua help frame the New Testament writers' imagination. One can immediately think of the "put on the whole armor of God" passage in Ephesians, or the violent imagery of Revelation. The repeated phrase, "Be strong and courageous," seems to still apply just as much today as it ever did for the Israelites. Perhaps there is a moral lesson to be drawn out from this somewhere.

Mode 4: Lament. As triumphal as the whole tone of Joshua is, it also indicates in many places where things went wrong. It lists all the places Joshua did not conquer, it gives a story of how the Gibeonites fool the Israelites into an alliance, it talks about Israel's sin--in short, it shows how God's promises were not yet really fulfilled. Whatever we think about the promises with which the text is primarily concerned, it's hard not to feel the same sense of incompleteness. Something is missing.

One could put this in several different contexts. For ancient Israel living after the kingdom had been sent into exile, this story surely would have given reason for lament. Why had they fallen so far from that glorious time in their history when God gave them the land? When would their second Joshua come? One could put it in early Christian context: when would Jesus return? Or one could easily put it in today's context, on numerous levels. Where was God during the two world wars? Where is God in turmoil of today's world? Does the Lord really save? Where is his salvation? Did he really conquer kingdoms long ago? What about the kingdoms which still remain?

And perhaps we may speak of the longing for truth itself. It is not so obvious how to derive meaning from this text, and it is far from clear what the result would be if we did. I only know the book of Joshua raises in me a strange sense of distance, much like Moses must have felt while viewing the land of Canaan from Mount Pisgah. Surely there is something out there, waiting for us; but we will rest with our ancestors before we ever see it.

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