Anyhow, at one point Doug was describing how their church goes about collaboratively preparing for the Sunday sermon each week at their Tuesday night bible studies, and he got off on a tangent (one of many that night) about how we view the book of Joshua. If you're not familiar with the book, it's the story of how the Israelite people, recently escaped from Egypt, enter into the Promised Land and conquer (and nearly exterminate - seemingly at God's command) all the Canaanites currently living there. To be honest, it's a part of the Bible that has never sat well with me. I don't like the idea of God commanding genocide, and it disturbs me to think of God simply allowing his people to go in and violently steal the land from its rightful inhabitants. Indeed, I have sometimes said that if there were anything in the bible that could lead me to stop believing in it as a divinely inspired document, it would be the book of Joshua.
However, Doug pointed out that this is a very 21st century way of looking at the story of Joshua. Through our lenses, Israel, as God's Chosen People, seem like the big, powerful nation, and the Canaanites like these poor helpless innocents that just happened to be in the way of God's plan for Israel. It seems this way to us 1) because Israel in our day is a strong military power that violently oppresses the original inhabitants of the land; and 2) because we know the "end of the story" in the Bible already - i.e. that Israel does win and conquer the Canaanites. However, this is not how the story would have appeared to the people living it, or to the weak and oppressed Jewish nation reading it centuries later in contexts of diaspora or subjugation.
Instead, Doug suggests we need to read the story of Joshua through the lens of a weak, oppressed people group - former slaves - standing up to the strong, violent and cruel oppressors in the land - the Canaanites (both the Bible and the archaeological record confirm that the ancient Canaanites were an exceedingly corrupt and oppressive people, exploiting the poor, and practicing forced ritual prostitution and infant sacrifice as part of their religious ceremonies, among other atrocities). Doug suggested instead thinking of dispossessed groups today like the Native Americans in North America, or the Palestinians in Israel, or the Sudanese in the Darfur region. See the Israelites of Joshua's time as if they were one of those oppressed peoples, and imagine what it would be like to hear a story about how those people rose up against the evil powers that were oppressing them, and, against all odds, somehow overcame them by the power of God. In other words, rather than seeing Israel as the powerful oppressors in that story, instead see them as the weak and the oppressed seeking to bring justice to the land. Through this lens Joshua is not so much about genocide as it is about liberation.
This doesn't do away with all the disturbing issues raised by this book, but it does do a lot to help us put the story into a better, more historically accurate interpretive context. It helps us see God again as the god of the weak and oppressed, rather than as a violent genocidal maniac god. It helps me at least come to terms more with this difficult book of Joshua.
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