We are studying Joshua 5:13 – 6:27 for Sunday, March 14. That is, that’s the “background text.” The selection of text in our book is Joshua 5:13-6:5, 15-16, and 20. That selection leaves out some of the repetitive ritual material in verses 6-14.
It also leaves out any mention of the “ban,” or “proscription,” or “utter destruction,” or “devotion to destruction,” or however we want to translate the underlying Hebrew word herem. That is, killing everything that breathes, in obedience to YHWH.
That’s the starkest, probably least pastoral, way to say that. It highlights the problem, though. Herem is appalling. And we encounter it in our sacred text, canonical scripture, “authoritative scripture” for those who think of it like that. We read scripture to hear the Word of God, and to learn more deeply about God and about ourselves. What are we supposed to learn here? How do we read a text like this and learn from it what we should, and not what we shouldn’t? [Some questions on the text are here.]
I’m sorry I don’t have a better answer. But, here are some of my notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The theme of the book of Joshua is the Israelite conquest of the land of Canaan – the “Promised Land.”
The book of Joshua is the first of what I learned in Sunday school to call “the history books.” Most scholars, it seems, would question whether these are the kind of “history books” that relate “exactly what actually happened” at an independently verifiable date in the past. That is, they are not “that kind” of history books. [Maybe we could call “that kind” of history “objective academic history.”] Marc Zvi Brettler describes them as texts that create or present a past, a narrative of a past, an orienting mental picture of the past, a way we are given to think about and remember the past.
In Hebrew Bibles, the book of Joshua is the first of the books of “the former prophets.” These books (Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings), along with “the latter prophets” (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Twelve) make up the second major division of the text: the nevi’im, the prophets. Robert Alter says “Joshua was no prophet,” and I think Robert Alter is always right, although according to Wikipedia, Joshua is on the Talmud’s list of Biblical prophets. We might want to keep thinking about what criteria make someone a prophet.
In seminary, we learned to call the book of Joshua part of “the Deuteronomistic history” – a story of Israel’s past with a theological agenda, told from the perspective of “the Deuteronomist.” An insistent theme in the Deuteronomistic history is the paramount importance of loyalty to YHWH.
Our text is early in the book; Johanna Bos, in her recent commentary on Joshua, sees it as the culmination of the first act.
This culmination follows several elaborate preparatory events:
- God’s charge to Joshua in chapter one,
- Joshua’s instructions to the people,
- the mission of the spies to Jericho, who are saved by Rahab, and who promise to save her and all her kin in turn,
- the Israelites’ crossing of the Jordan, accompanied by a miracle, and by setting up a monument of stones taken from the bed of the Jordan River,
- circumcision of all the men born in the wilderness,
- the celebration of Passover in the new Land,
- along with a change in diet, from manna to the fruit of the Land.
Crossing the water – reminiscent of crossing the Red Sea back in Exodus – marks a kind of liberation from the limbo of the wilderness. It also marks Joshua as a leader like Moses, albeit a lesser one. Circumcision and Passover are both markers of Israelite identity, and of consecration to YHWH. God still provides the people with food, but now the food comes from the Land – which belongs to God (see Leviticus 25:23).
Now the text’s attention turns to Jericho.
Jericho is the first “place,” inhabited by Canaanites, that the Israelites encounter in the Land. There will be other episodes of conquest as the book unfolds, but this is the first. As the text presents it, Jericho is a walled city, a first major obstacle.
[Here we can, I think, manage to hold two different versions of events in our minds, not so much “at the same time” as “side by side.” Objective academic historians tell a different story about Jericho at the “time of the conquest,” which they give as “late 13th century BCE.” Jericho looks to archaeologists who are not priorly committed to the Bible being an objective work of academic history to have been destroyed a couple of centuries earlier than that. This seems to me so far from being the hardest thing about this text that it barely registers on the difficulty scale.]
There are three texts from Joshua in the lectionary. This is not one of them. [Those texts are Joshua 3:7-17, Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (A); 5:9-12, Fourth Sunday in Lent (C); and 24:1-2 or 3, 14-18 or 25, depending on whether it is the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost in Year B or the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost in Year C. “Choose you this day whom you will serve.”]
This is one of those things you would never have to deal with knowing about the Bible if all you know is the lectionary. However, this is a popular Sunday school story, especially because there is so much fun action involved in marching the ark around the walls of Jericho, blowing trumpets, and the walls tumbling down. [May all our wars be like the ones we have in preschool.]
CLOSER READING: As our text begins, Joshua has a vision of an armed man. Joshua is literally said to be in Jericho for this vision.
The man stands “opposite” or “in front of” Joshua, as his counterpart we might say. This particular word will repeat a couple more times in the text, in 6:5 (as an instruction) and 6:20 (as an execution).
This is the word used to describe “the helper” in Genesis 2:18 and :20, who turns out to be “the woman.” I don’t honestly think this is a coincidence. I think there is something going on here in the text that reminds us to think about “the image of God,” and where to look for it.
There is a play on words, a homonym in Hebrew, in verses 13-14; Joshua “said to him” “for us or for our enemies?” and the man “said ‘No’” [In Hebrew, “said to him” and “said ‘No’” sound alike.] It’s arresting. And the man’s answer is so strange – as if Joshua is asking the wrong question.
Joshua receives the same instruction, and responds to it, as Moses does in the presence of the burning bush. The text breaks off – that is, we are left to wonder what transpires between Joshua and the figure, the “prince of the host of YHWH,” on this holy ground.
In Joshua 6:1, Jericho is described, in the feminine singular, with two words that both mean “shut.” Shut. Really closed. Bos translates “shut and shut up tight” (92). YHWH speaks directly to Joshua. “I have given Jericho into your hand,” and the king, and the mighty men.
Then come the instructions: seven priests, seven shofars, the ark, the seventh day, seven circuits of the city. Between here and v16 “seven” or “seventh” will be used fourteen times (2×7). A perfect number, a ritual number, a number that might remind us of God’s work of creation, and of sabbath. Rashi confirms that when Jericho falls, “it was the sabbath.”
Verses 17-19, omitted from our selected text, are Joshua’s instructions to “the people” about what to do after they all shout. The city is under the ban, except for Rahab and all who are with her in her house; the people should stay away from everything, and not covet; all the metal things are holy to YHWH [“holy” is different from being “devoted to destruction”].
Verse 20 has a lot of sound.
Verse 21 is the total destruction, that is not totally total because of the rescue of Rahab, and the preservation of the looted ritual implements. Joshua curses any future rebuilder of Jericho (v26), and YHWH is with Joshua and “his” fame or reputation is in all the Land – Joshua’s, or YHWH’s.
OVERALL: We have a lot to ponder when studying this text. It seems to be mythic memory. It encodes themes of loyalty and faithfulness, obedience, divine power and agency, national boundaries and identity, and even – I would argue – what it means to be human.
The violence in the text is arguably not the main part of the text. It’s description is dwarfed in length by the description of the ritualized treatment of the city walls. As I read it, the violence is neither glorified nor condemned by the text; it appears matter-of-factly, as a part of the story, and not the main part. Maybe we could ignore it – leave it out, the way our Sunday school books do. But the violence also, arguably, hovers over and around the text, an ever-present threat, finally executed. Maybe we shouldn’t ignore it.
Most scholarly readers seem to be confident this particular aggressive violence never took place. Objective academic historical memory teaches us, however, that this kind of violence has taken place in human history. Nor does it seem to be a thing of the past. It does not seem to belong to “other people’s” history, either, no matter how we define or identify “ourselves.” In these senses, at least, this violence concerns us.
It seems this text has been used to justify some of that violence, historically. This is another reason this violence concerns us – at least, those of us who read this scripture as ours, the scripture of our very own historical, national, cultural, and theological ancestors.
Finally, again as I read it, the text presents the violence as having been commanded by God.
This leaves me, as a reader, to take up, examine, and choose among various possible responses to a text that seems to be telling me something horrible about God, as well as about people – myself included. I could insist that this is in the Bible, and embrace it as completely and straightforwardly as possible, on faith, because that’s what I’m supposed to do with the Bible. That leaves me with the problem of explaining, if only to myself, how I bring myself to worship a God like this. I could say “I can’t believe, and I refuse to believe, that God would ever command such a thing,” and reject the text in the name of the God I am able to believe in and worship. That leaves me with a problem to work out about what I mean by “the truth of scripture” or “the authority of scripture.” I could work hard to interpret the text in such a way that the violence becomes less of a problem, following Augustine who says that if we are reading the Bible in a way that doesn’t deepen our love of God and neighbor we are not understanding it properly. I could argue that those verses should be taken out of the canon. Whatever I end up deciding here, there will be consequences.
Whatever we end up deciding here, there will be consequences. As religious readers, we don’t read the text alone; we read it with others, who help us – and who make it harder, sometimes, too, but in any event remind us that we are trying to do something different from simply imposing our wills on the text. We are trying to hear what the text has to say to us. We are trying to hear someone else’s voice in this text. Ultimately, we pray that someone else is God, whom we did not make up, and whose Word we believe, or at least say we believe in our official statements, the text is, or communicates, somehow. If we have ears to hear.
Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible. A Translation with Commentary. Volume 2 – Prophets. W.W. Norton and Company, 2019.
Bos, Johanna van-Wijk. A People and A Land. Volume One: The End of the Beginning. Joshua and Judges. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019.
Brettler, Marc Zvi. The Book of Judges. Routledge, 2002.
AND SOME ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:
Hector Avalos, “The Letter Killeth: A Plea for Decanonizing Violent Biblical Texts,” Journal of Religion, Conflict, and Peace, 2007 (1:1), 1-18. [The title says it. This is an argument for radical rejection of some problematic texts.]
Alan R. Bevere, “Violence in the Old Testament: Pastoral and Theological Concerns,” Ministry Matters [A short summary, that argues against adopting a partial scriptural canon, but admits that’s tough.]
Terence Fretheim, “God and Violence in the Old Testament,” Word and World, Winter 2004 (24:1) 18-28 [Fretheim generally argues we must evaluate scriptural texts, or their implications, carefully in the light of other scriptural principles.]
John Sanders, “God and Violence in the Bible,” OpenTheism [A concise summary of some existing scholarly viewpoints on how to deal with the problem.]