Saturday, September 30, 2006
Seeing Joshua Differently
Last night I got to hang with Doug Pagitt - founder of Emergent, pastor of Solomon's Porch, and author of Church Re-Imagined - at up/rooted, the Emergent cohort I lead here in the Chicago area. You can read my recap of the evening at the up/rooted blog.

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.


posted by Mike Clawson at 12:35 AM | Permalink |


At 10/02/2006 06:11:00 PM, Blogger Waters of Time

Dear Mike,
I think that another important thing to keep in mind comes from a book that you recommended to me a while back, "A Generous Orthodoxy" by McLaren. In recounting his own struggles with Joshua, he offers the following insight:

"We must begin with the recognition of how violent the world of the ancient Middle East was. The violence of the Jews entering Canaan in 1400 BC was not extraordinary; it was typical of their day. And so we ask: In that context was God commanding the people to do, not what was ideal or ethically desirable for all time, but what was necessary to survive in the world at that point?...if God is going to enter a relationship with people, then God has to work with them as they are in their individual and cultural moral development. And back in those days, that meant that any group of people, if they were to survive, had to fight" (186).

I think what Brian is trying to say here is that in order for God to ultimately bring about His salvation plan through Christ, He had to protect His people, and that meant helping them to survive in a violent and harsh world. Though this does not make reading Joshua any more comfortable, it does provide new insight into what the Israelites faced entering the promised land.

Another point to remember is what God said to Abraham in Genesis 15:14-16 about the future of his descendants, the Israelites. He tells Abraham, "But I will bring judgment on the nation that they [the Israelites] serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete." Though the Old Testament follows Abraham and his descendants, we see that God was concerned with other peoples including those who lived in what would become Israel. Here He tells Abraham that He will hold off fulfilling His promise to him because He wants to give the Amorites more time because their sin has not warrented the punishment that would later fall upon their descendants. I think it is safe to assume that, though the rest of the narrative focuses on the Israelites, God, in His mercy, was in some way trying to work in the hearts of the Amorites and others living in Canaan and does not bring down His judgment upon them until it is absolutely necessary.

While some might consider this a stretch, I do not think so. We see throughout the Old Testament that God was always willing to grant people, even non-Israelites, as much time as possible to repent and change. We see this in the story of Jonah, in the life of Rahab, in His conversation with Abraham over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Though Joshua is still hard to read, we once again see that God sought to act merciful, even while upholding justice. Anyways, I just thought I would share that as an added insight.


Nick Price


At 10/02/2006 11:50:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Excellent points Nick! Exactly what I would have said myself. And I think these insights really complement what Doug was saying about reading the text from the perspective of an oppressed and dispossessed people group rather than from our own perspective as powerful, oppressive Westerners. We typically don't begrudge starving, out-numbered freedom fighters the use of violence as much as we do the oppressive, evil empire they're fighting against, do we?


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