From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. (2 Cor, 5:16-17)
The story is told that when the Indians sold Manhattan in 1626 to the Dutch for $24.00, they thought they had accomplished a swindle, because as anyone of any sense knew, the earth was not for sale. Which is only to say that possession of the land, promised and otherwise, is a subject that has yet to make us proud.
I love the Holy Scripture. I love these tales with so many meanings that call my soul to new and surprising understandings. I love them so much and believe in their truth so deeply that I actually knelt before the bishop and signed a vow stating that the I “do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.” I do not make vows that I cannot keep. I have been saved from many dangers and snares by the words of this holy book and it has given me life.
That said, (you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?), I balk at the book of Joshua. If Exodus tells the story of a ragtag band of slaves and their struggle for freedom, Joshua is triumphalism at its absolute worst. It is an orgy of destruction. The Israelites made the Promised Land pure for themselves by putting all its inhabitants to the sword, by slaughtering men, women, young and old, children, oxen, sheep and donkeys, by hamstringing horses, all in the name of “devotion.” Jericho, Ai, the Amorites, Libnah, Eglon, Hebron, Debir, Hazor. The list grows with each new victory. They even killed Balaam the prophet with the talking donkey who had called them the favored of God. No one was spared, except the Gibeonites, who became their hewers of wood and bearers of water. How can I, to paraphrase St. Paul above, reconcile all this to a God who reconciles?
The great slaughter begins after Joshua has a vision. A man with a drawn sword appears before him and says he is the commander of the army of the Lord. Joshua falls upon the ground and worships him and asks “What do you command your servant, my Lord?” The answer is both enigmatic and haunting. “The commander of the army of the Lord said to Joshua, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” And Joshua did so.” Interestingly, although slaughter will follow this vision, the vision itself is about holiness, not death. I ask that we hold this incongruity. There is another as well. As everyone knows, one of the main benefits of violence is plunder and wealth. But the Israelites are not allowed to take plunder. These two odd details have all the feel of a story that even though it has been set down on paper, is still a set of thoughts in progress. Yes, it is possible to attribute such contradictions to the fugue states of war. I, however, like to think of Joshua as unfinished. I will not understand Joshua until I understand how God really wants me to live on the land.
Now St. Paul makes the tantalizing suggestion in his second letter to the Corinthians that truth lies beyond what he calls “the human point of view.” We are territorial mammals, yes, and this is good, yes, but this is not all. For as long as Paul saw Jesus from the human point of view, Jesus was an adversary to all the was truest and most holy in Paul’s belief system. Once he went beyond human belief systems, however, everything changed.
I think that the conquest of Canaan is one of those stories that graphically reveals the limitations of a purely human point of view.
Jesus lived with the book of Joshua. Jesus knew the angel with the drawn sword. Jesus came to help us see what these texts meant in waking life. And when his disciple, (John says it was Peter), raised his sword to defend him on the night he was handed over to suffering and death, Jesus said, “Put your sword back in its place. The one who lives by the sword will die by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?”
I have suggested that the Bible is not history, at least in the sense that we read history today, as a chronicle of what happened, written by the winners and promulgating the winners’ world view. The Bible is the attempt, through narrative, to understand what it means to be fully human in the sight of God. Thus the Bible contains our worst reptilian moments, because God sees these. It contains our moments of absolute goodness and transcendence, because God sees these, too. It contains what lies between, when I am neither hot nor cold. There are time in my own journey that I must hate things the Bible says, because I am struggling with those very things. There are moments when I will find the very words that make everything clear for me when I have run out of answers. I stand uncensored before God and so does the human condition depicted in scripture.
So what do I do with Joshua? Joshua is not about how I behave in times of scarcity and trial, but about the time of outward abundance, about attaining the dream of security. It is about how I move toward what God wants for me. I enter this book with great humility for it reminds me that from a human point of view, land, territory, power are very dangerous things that tempt me to inflict death, while God’s point of view is all about life. It is in reading Joshua that I realize that not only is the Bible not to be taken literally, but if I am to find its message of life, I cannot take it literally. Not for nothing is Jesus' Hebrew name Joshua.