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We have witnessed God establish themes of chaos and order in the creation account. We encountered Abraham and then followed his descendents into Egypt where they became slaves and then were delivered by Moses and led into the desert to receive God’s instruction from Mt. Sinai. Then they wandered in the desert for forty years until they reached the banks of the Jordan River about to enter the promised land. In popular culture the crossing of the Jordan River is a metaphor of death and the movement into eternal life. In our imagery the other side of the Jordan brings us directly into peace and rest. This sort of imagery of the land itself is not entirely unwarranted but it is how the land is settled that we will spend time reflecting on this morning. The people are not brought into a land that is already prepared for them. Rather it is a land they themselves need to clear. This is a difficult part of the Old Testament for us to understand. It may not be too strong a statement to say that the stories found here have literally turned some people away from following the faith. This is one of the common commands that God gives to the people in the book of Deuteronomy as they prepare to enter the land, When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD's anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. You must destroy all the peoples the LORD your God gives over to you. Do not look on them with pity and do not serve their gods, for that will be a snare to you. When you enter the land, let it all burn; men, women, children, livestock, wealth, put it to the sword and set it on fire. The word of course in our contemporary vocabulary is genocide, the systematic killing of an entire people group. By the time we near the end of some of the Israelites campaigns we hear phrases like, “Joshua subdued the whole region. . . . He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded.” When we retell the popular story of the battle of Jericho that is even depicted in the well-produced Veggie Tales we tend not to emphasize the ending of that story. We honour the expression of faithfulness in how the people march around the wall of Jericho and how the God brings the wall down at their shouting on the seventh day. Less often do we draw attention to what happens after the wall comes down. It says that the people “devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it – men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys. . . . Then they burned the whole city and everything in it.”
We are setting stones at the front of the church as a reminder of the stories and acts of God in the lives of God’s people in the Old Testament. The main image for this series comes from the beginning of the book of Joshua where the people build a monument as a reminder of how God parted the waters of the Jordan, like the Red Sea, and allowed the people to cross over it. This however was not the only monument the people were to build in the book of Joshua. It became a little chilling as I took note of all the other monuments that were built throughout the book. The next monument of stones is set over the grave of Achan. It is important to remember that in these conquest stories the Israelite’s battles were to never for the purpose of acquiring wealth or slaves. In many of the battles we read in English that everything was to be devoted to the LORD. This was the purpose of destroying everything the people and the possessions. It was so that they were taken out of the realm of the temporal, out of the use of the people, and placed in the realm of God. It something like the old western saying, “Kill em all and let God sort em out.” But after the battle at Jericho we find out that a man named Achan from the tribe of Judah took some of the possessions from Jericho and kept them for himself. Because of this the people lost their next battle because God was not with them. Then after being defeated Joshua seeks out God and finds out that someone had taken possessions for their own. Joshua calls the people out tribe by tribe and family by family until he comes to Achan. Achan confesses to his actions and says that when he saw all the beautiful things in Jericho he wanted them for themselves and so he took them and hid them in his tent. The people then took Achan, the things he had stole, his other possessions and his sons and daughters and then it says that all of Israel stoned them to death and the burned them. It is over this place that they set a large pile of stones. After the people defeated the city of Ai it says that “Joshua burned Ai and made it a permanent heap of ruins, a desolate place to this day. He impaled the body of the king of Ai on a pole and left it there until evening. At sunset, Joshua ordered them to take the body from the pole and throw it down at the entrance of the city gate. And they raised a large pile of rocks over it, which remains to this day.” The Israelites continue their campaign and word spreads about them throughout the land and so the king of one city contacts four other kings in the hope that together they can defeat the invading Israelites. In fighting against these kings it is said that God also sent hailstones from the sky killing more of the people than the Israelites did. The kings fled and hid in a cave where some Israelites trapped them in. When Joshua arrived he said, ‘Open the mouth of the cave and bring those five kings out to me.’ So they brought the five kings out of the cave. . . . When they had brought these kings to Joshua, he summoned all the men of Israel and said to the army commanders who had come with him, ‘Come here and put your feet on the necks of these kings.’ So they came forward and placed their feet on their necks. Joshua said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Be strong and courageous. This is what the LORD will do to all the enemies you are going to fight.’ Then Joshua put the kings to death and exposed their bodies on five poles, and they were left hanging on the poles until evening. At sunset Joshua gave the order and they took them down from the poles and threw them into the cave where they had been hiding. At the mouth of the cave they placed large rocks, which are there to this day.”
These too are the markers of God’s presence in the stories of Joshua. I suspect you are beginning to get the picture. This is a difficult part God’s story for us to understand especially if we believe that this too is God’s word that still speaks to us today. One scholar has said that in reading this book the “the smoke of burning towns and the stench of rotting flesh hangs over its pages.” We also carry with us the shame that these texts have been used in the founding of law and in dealing with native people here in North America. These texts have been used in the oppression of people in South Africa. Groups of Palestinian Christians and Israelis have at times appealed to these texts in their causes. Contemporary atheists point to these texts and ask how on earth people can allow them to be a part of their sacred scriptures. Is this story in any way a part of our story? Should it be a part of it? In the early church Marcion said we should do away with the Old Testament all together because themes like this one. He asked how the God of love in the New Testament could be reconciled with the God of the conquest. Modern scholars say that much of the text did not happen historically the way it is depicted in Joshua. Some interpreters say that we need to read this symbolically for its relevance. Whatever we do it is important to approach this text with great humility. What does this story tell us about our concept of God? We cannot deny that in this instance God is sanctioning, actually God is commanding the outright killing of a particular people. But we also cannot deny that God is commanding a particular form of warfare. This war is not based in revenge. It is not based on greed. It allows for no immediate profit. As was mentioned earlier this war was devoted to God. Everything in this stretch of land was to be returned to God. I am not saying it makes this story any more digestible only that we need to be clear about what the story portrays. The story portrays a God who is concerned about a people who are enslaved in Egypt, a people whom God promised would bless the whole earth. This people group was delivered from slavery and then promised a place to live and worship. This group of people was to be a singular and uncompromising expression of God’s will. As such the people were to worship and serve God alone and not turn to any false idols. The people then were to erase, destroy any trace and expression of other gods. Now what the book of Joshua makes very clear right from the beginning is that the expression of God’s will is not confined to a biological or ethnic people group. It is not confined solely to the group that was wandering in the desert. At the very beginning of the book we encounter the Canaanite prostitute Rahab who lives in Jericho and hides the Israelite spies so that they are not caught. She tells the men that she has heard of what their God is doing and asks if she be spared. Then in a scene that is reminiscent of the Passover she is told that instead of marking her door with blood as they did in the Passover she is to tie a red cord from her window and then just as in the Passover anyone who was inside of her home would be saved. This foreign woman who was a part of nation that was to be destroyed was accepted into the people of God and it is believed that it is this woman who is referred to in Jesus’ genealogy given in the book of Matthew. Also the people of Gibeon tricked the Israelites into making a treaty with them and so they too became part of the God’s community. And as I mentioned earlier the people of Israel themselves were not immune God’s judgment as we saw in the actions of Achan.
Mixed into this extreme expression of clear and decisive judgment is a caution for us to not assume who is actually part of this community. One foreigner of low standing is brought in because of her virtue and one Israelite of high standing is expelled because of his greed and one group is admitted in because of their cunning. There is a clarity even within these cases. The community of God allows space for people to come into the community who embrace the God of Israel. But conversely the community of God rejects people already in the community who adopt the expressions of other gods. The conquest narrative is ultimately about establishing a space where people are living with singular trust in God and the rejecting the former idolatries in the land. As Moses prepares the Israelites to enter the land he makes the temptation to stray from God clear. He says that “the images of their gods are [to be burned] in the fire. Do not covet the silver and gold on them, and do not take it for yourselves, or you will be ensnared by it, for it is detestable to the LORD your God. Do not bring a detestable thing into your house or you, like it, will be set apart for destruction.” Wise words for our economy today, do not covet gold and silver or you will be ensnared by them. According to Moses idols are to be destroyed and if you attach yourself to idols then you also will be led into destruction. Now this is a message we are a little more familiar with. The conquest story is a rigorous and searching destruction of all that is apart from God. The only possible analogy I can think of for this part of the story is in relationship to how God had made a covenant with Abraham and his descendents. God’s covenant is often expressed in intimate and even marital terms. In some ways I see the land of the Israelites as representing the marriage bed or at least the home for God and God’s people. From God’s perspective there can simply be no compromise in establishing this. There are many aspects of life in which we are able to be flexible or where choices and expressions are not as critical but this is not the case with the marriage bed. It matters what we do and with whom we do it in that context. God simply would not allow an idol to be part of their union. God is an interesting spouse in relationship with Israel. There are certainly moments of fireworks like at the Passover and at Mt. Sinai but in the wilderness their relationship is about daily trust. This daily trust is not meant to change when the people enter the land. The people however, find it difficult to live by this trust. Achan is lured in by the wealth of the Jericho. Later it says that the tribe of Manasseh was not able to drive out the Canaanites in their region and so they simply used them as slaves. Then when we get to the book of Judges which comes after the book of Joshua we find out this actually happened all over the place. Most of the tribes did not end up driving out the local inhabitants. And by the time the book of Judges is over the tribes of Israel are fighting each other and many of the stories are of depravity to the point where it would be difficult to distinguish them from any Canaanite who may still have been living in the land. This story carries an intensity that we are not used to. The Holiness of God that we see at work in other stories is concentrated and deliberate here. If you are not in communion with or in some way turned towards God then God’s presence is a terrible reality to encounter. Though the circumstances and expressions changed the call against idolatry has remained constant in the Bible. Idolatry will lead towards death while faith in God will lead towards life. We are often quick to tell people who question the conquest story that it only happened once and that God never called the people to this
type of warfare again. And it is true I can find no justification for a Christian to claim that God is on the side of a particular war. The relevance of this story is not to justify warfare. But that does not mean that the conquest is irrelevant. The relevance of this story for Christians is how the conquest is transformed in the Gospel. In many ways Jesus re-enacts the conquest story. His ministry begins at the Jordan River and with 40 days (instead of years) in the desert. Jesus gathers twelve followers, like the twelve tribes of Israel, and travels from town to town conquering and exposing. But now he is not conquering to acquire land. Land was never the most important thing. Now Jesus is claiming bodies creating space there for the presence of God. Jesus, like Moses and Joshua gets up on hill and proclaims blessings to all those who are not driven by their idols. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are those who do not grasp at the power and control that idols offer to us. And make no mistake the stakes are just as high in this conquest. Jesus does not qualify his statement that it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus calls down curses on those who keep up outward appearances but are full of selfishness. To the religious leaders, to my profession, Jesus asks how they will escape from being condemned to hell. Many earlier Christians took note of the fact that Jesus’ name in Hebrew is the same as Joshua. This is how Jesus transformed the expression of creating an uncompromising space for God. The message is the same. We may live longer but life apart from the living God will lead to death and destruction for all. There is no compromise. God will allow no other gods to the wedding table or marriage bed. There were times in the church’s history when the church embraced mission and crusades. Often, but certainly not always, these movements did not fully account for the transformation in our mission that Jesus demonstrated. We must again be about the mission of the church. The mission of the church, like the conquest, is to create space for the presence of God and in so doing to destroy the idols that reside within. Our bodies now represent the land of Canaan and so each body is sacred and not to be destroyed but to be redeemed by the presence of Christ. These bodies, gathered and scattered, then also redeem the land. This is our call this morning to receive again the word and presence of God and allow God’s strength to overthrow and smash the idolatries within us whether they are driven by fear or desire. We then carry that presence and bring it to every area of our lives, wherever God may call us. This is the famous call that Joshua made before he died at the end of the book of Joshua. "Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD." Then it says that on the day that the people made that commitment and renewed their covenant with God Joshua set a large stone and set it near the holy place of God and said that this stone will be witness to us in our commitment to God.
May we seek and receive the strength of God to be faithful to the mission of God’s presence within us and around us. May we be granted the strength to overcome any idols that stand our way. Amen.
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