We are studying selected verses from Joshua 5:13-6:27 for Sunday, March 14. This is the story of “the Battle of Jericho” at the beginning of the Israelite conquest of Canaan. It’s a rich text, but also a difficult one in a lot of ways, that puts a lot of pressure on some of our unexamined ideas about scripture, God, and the people of God. [Some notes on the text are here.]
Here are a few questions we might want to reflect on as we study this text:
What do we ordinarily mean by the word “prophet”? How does the Bible seem to use the word “prophet”? How does Joshua seem to fit the model of a prophet? What does he do or say that prophets do or say? What does he not do or say that we might expect a prophet to do or say? Does thinking of Joshua as a prophet change our thinking about prophets in any way? What way or ways? Why?
The episode in Joshua 5:13-15 describes Joshua’s vision of an armed man, which includes a number of strange elements. The encounter is described as taking place “in” Jericho, although the Israelites are camped outside Jericho. The man’s reply to Joshua’s question (“No.”) is unexpected, and questions Joshua’s question. The man claims supernatural identity, describes the place as “holy ground,” and evokes Joshua’s worshipful response.
What is our response to this scene – what thoughts or feelings do we have about it?
The figure specifically denies belonging to either set of human adversaries, the Israelites or the Canaanites. What does that denial mean, do we think?
Where in the text do we think this episode ends? [That is, do we think the episode ends at 5:15, or at 6:5, or somewhere else?] Why do we think that? What difference does our answer make, do we think?
YHWH’s instructions about what the Israelites are to do with respect to the walls of Jericho are presented in verses 2-5; verses 6-21 describe the plan and how it was carried out in more detail.
What do we notice about these instructions? In particular, what is the role of the priests, and what is the role of the “armed men” (who are mentioned once, in verse 7)? Would we call what the Israelites are doing here “ritual” or “worship”? Why, or why not? Would we call it “battle”? Why, or why not? Would we call it something else? What? Why? What do our answers suggest to us about what this story is telling us?
If we notice the repeated use of the number 7, often a symbol of perfection, and also the number of days in the story of creation (Genesis 1:1-2:3), does that give us any additional ideas about what this story is saying? What ideas? Why?
If we notice that the walls of Jericho come down on the seventh day, the sabbath, does that give us any additional ideas about what this story is saying? What ideas? Why? (We might want to review the rationale for the sabbath on the seventh day; for that, look at Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15.)
Does this event symbolize something, do we think? What? Why do we think that?
Who does Joshua instruct the young men to bring out of Jericho (see verses 22-25)? How many people do we think this is? Why do we think that? What difference does our answer make, do we think?
What do we learn about God from this story? Why do we say that?
What do we learn about human beings from reading this story, do we think? Why do we think that?
What do we think is still true about people from the time this story takes place until now? What has changed, do we think, since the time this story takes place? How has it changed? What difference does that seem to make for how we read this story?
What responses do we, ourselves, have to this story? Why? What do we learn about ourselves from reading this story? Why?
[A deliberately provocative question, for the argumentatively inclined.] The story of the conquest of Jericho is one of the stories in the Bible that mentions the herem, “the ban,” in verses 17 and 21. “The ban” is described elsewhere in the Deuteronomistic history as a practice meant to prevent disloyalty to YHWH. [See Deuteronomy 13:12-18, and Deuteronomy 20:16-18.] Hector Avalos, a professor of religious studies, has suggested that we would all be better off if the Bible didn’t contain texts like this, and we should seriously consider taking them out of the Bible altogether. [See Hector Avalos, “The Letter Killeth: A Plea for Decanonizing Violent Biblical Texts,” Journal of Religion, Conflict, and Peace, 2007 (1:1), 1-18.]
Are we ourselves sympathetic to this proposal? Why? How much do we agree with it, how much do we disagree with it, and why?
Overall, I think we will have done well if we can appreciate how challenging, but also potentially fruitful, the questions this text raises really are. I would argue, passionately, that raising the questions, engaging the questions, and taking them seriously is far more important than solving all the problems – certainly not by the end of the average Bible study or Sunday school class.
“We can do hard things.” Those hard things include honest engagement with scripture, as people who are trying to be both thoughtful and faithful. They also include living with the awareness that our best resolutions to some of our dilemmas remain partial, provisional, contested, and troubling. “Now we see in a glass, dimly, but then face to face.” Personally, I am confident that when we do see face to face, we will understand how the real and good God in whom we trust makes sense of all the contradictions we experience here in the dim.
In the meantime, I hope and trust that “holding fast to what is good” includes believing that reading scripture well will not to convince us to imagine that literal acts of genocide are ever a good thing.
Image: “Christ and the Woman of Samaria at Jacob’s Well” John Linnell, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons