The Bible is not a mythological work. It has stories which are familiar to real life. The Book of Joshua, a story of battles and conquest, is not terribly different from what we read about ISIS. People enter a land and massacre the inhabitants in a "divinely inspired" quest for a purified theocratic homeland. Now, there may be debates on whose God is the real God (Jew or Islam), but the treatment of the vanquished is unnervingly similar. The impulse to renounce violence in the name of a loving God is strong in me (and you?). Many claim that Jesus has revealed that God loves us all so (heresy alert!) we must leave the Old Testament and its violence behind. "We are in an age of grace; not bloodshed and law!" they say. Yes, love and sweetness rule the day!
But what is love? In the Bible, all these wars of Joshua are an act of love. God loves Israel and gives them this land. Love is at work, even if we think it unfair. That is the problem. We have embraced values and virtues in theory, not seeing how difficult it is to place them in practice in a real, concrete world. We also do not know how to judge rightly. What should God do for His landless people? What should God do with the pagan folk who reject Him? What mode of love's expression can balance the competing demands of these disparate peoples? Does love rule out judgment? [p.s. Jesus' warnings, some parables and some teachings were certainly in line with His Bible, that Divinely Inspired Jewish book we call the "Old" Testament.]
The Book of Joshua confronts us with material which boggles the mind. In chapter 24:1-15 (Sunday Office reading) Joshua recounts to the people that God "took" Abraham. The Hebrew word laqach also means to snatch, to seize, to buy, to marry... So in this Jewish creed (it is a faith declaration and account of salvation history), we hear that God grabbed Abraham and took him away from worship of pagan Gods. It continues quickly through Isaac and Jacob to the deliverance from Egypt. It culminates in a declaration that God Himself has dispatched the enemy with mighty acts and concludes with a choice: Which God will you serve? The Lord God or the pagan deities of this land?
Faith story and choice. We, like them, are confronted with the same question.
We live in a fallen world. We prefer our religion untainted by that, wishing for something pure, spiritual and otherworldly. This is an heretical impulse as well (Gnosticism). The belief that material reality is impure and unnecessary and the wish that the real God is to be found in a disconnected spiritualism is an escape hatch. It lets us spin easy answers because, freed from the constraints of actual reality, we can employ fantasy and magic. "Why," we can ask, "doesn't God just create those problems away?" We think resolution of human conflict should be a simple thing for God to deal with. And it would be, if He were not constrained by the limits of time and space, of free-will and human choice, of the laws of physics and biology---you know, reality in general.
War is a human invention. It was a seed planted in Cain and Abel's up close and personal incident, but eventually blossomed into a cast of thousands (tens of thousands) as ancient peoples grew and multiplied. Technological advances provided for the population increases, but also provided new and improved ways to kill, maim and destroy that growing population.
God's answer to violence, in the end, is the cross of Jesus. But in our real world, adherents of different "faiths" (including secular, non-religious faith) have different opinions which produce conflict. Conflicting desires can only be dealt with by compromise or capitulation. Compromise is hard because it often requires that no one gets what they want, besides often we do not like the other side, so why play nice?
Think of the news stories we have seen the last week:
"Do what I tell you or I will shoot"
"Do what we want or we will shut down your interstate"
"Do what we want or we will make a coup"
"Do what I want or your failed coup will cost the freedom of thousands"
"Do what I want or I will shoot up your night club, your cafe,or run you over in my truck at your celebration, take out my sniper rifle and assassinate you, etc. etc. etc.)
"Do what we want or we will invade, or bomb you."
"Do what I want or I will make this one particular issue (bathrooms) the reason to take away your All Star game."
The news is full of "do what I want or else" stories. Violence is the last resort if you have the power of lawyers and it works, but in the end it is all about resolving conflict by winning. Winning. Winning may or may not be "violent" (and that term seems to be pretty amorphous in the hands of some); but winning is always about winners and losers. Winning is fun. Losing, not so much. And history teaches us that the perennial losers sometimes embrace violence, if only out of despair in hopeless rage.
Joshua, ironically, is not really a book about winning. Even with God on their side the 12 Tribes never really quite win. They subdue the inhabitants of the land (or so it seems, in the Book of Judges things are less rosy). Yet, Israel will always face new threats from outside, and more importantly, the pagan faith of the inhabitants of the land inside. The reason God cleaned out the Promised Land was to cleanse it of the pagan gods and their abhorrent practices. From Exodus to 2 Kings we read over and over that those same gods and practices are embraced by God's people on a regular basis.
How to deal, then, with the horrible violence in the Book of Joshua? I think its helpful to remember that the "historical" purpose of the writer was theological. In other words, there is deeper meaning here. Perhaps the best option is to read it metaphorically (metaphors are no less true than facts, so the truth of the Scripture is not at risk). Without getting into all the archaeological debates, suffice to say that the simple picture painted by the biblical books is too sparse to cover the wide ranging content of these many years of conflict and invasion. However, the stories as stories do provide us with stunning parables for life. [side note, when Jesus told His parables (like the Sower and the Seed) I think He was often pointing at things that were currently present to His audience and He used to illustrate a deeper point.] The actual story of the rise of Israel is compressed into several short vignettes really, and like the life of Jesus, much, much more is left out than is included.
So how to read Samuel? As a template for life it reminds us that we must choose our God, but that choice is in response to being chosen beforehand. Say what you want, God is free to do His thing and we are all bit players in a wider, more encompassing production. Much of what happens is done by us, but there are always the times and places where we are acted on, receiving benefits (or suffering losses) as an Invisible Hand has its way in the world around us.
Would ISIS recant if ten thousand Pacifists were to show up in their theater of operation, offering love and understanding? We don't know because around here there are few volunteers, but it seems like it wouldn't work. Will shooting random police officers make the other policemen less likely to shoot those they are arresting? Will Turkey have peace now after the coup failed, and are the 100,000 enemies of the state going to make things better for everyone? Is the NBA the best arbiter of public morality in our difficult societal debates?
We embrace God (or try to) and with open mind and heart try to discern where He would have us go and what He would have us do. In a fallen world, none of us is infallible. And even if you claim the Bible is, whatever else we learn from reading it is the role of Joshua leading an army is countered by Jesus (Joshua in Hebrew!) carrying a cross. Kill or be killed? Which Jesus/Joshua is the true one? If we know they were each right in their own choices, can our Bible give us infallible certainty on what we should do in our time and place?
So Sunday we will pray over and discuss the reading from the Book of Joshua. We may also pray over Psalm 24 & 29. We may also toss in some Mark 2:23-28 where Jesus tells the Bible Thumping Pharisees (their mantra was, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it") that the Bible may say working on the Sabbath is a sin, but you have to read deeper to understand what is really there. And that, in the end, is the beginning and end of the discussion. We need Jesus to be the Final Arbiter of the Interpretation. We are at risk, all of us, because thinking we are "obedient Joshua" fighting a holy war for God (even metaphorically) we could end up being ISIS, producing sins against humanity for the sake of an error (at least from my perspective).
War, love, violence... God is only encountered by us in real life. Real life is messy because of the Fall and Sin. Real life is filled with half truths, contradictions, mysteries and conundrums. We can't sit on the sidelines and wait for it all to be sorted out before we act. The action is all around us and even refraining from action can be a great evil. Yet, if we seek to truly choose God, the God who already chose us, is it not safe to hope that somehow He will make it all right in the end? If the Cross is God's answer to the violence of the real world, then resurrection is the remedy. Resurrection is our hope, a flickering candle in the darkness. The Book of Joshua reflects our violent, conflict riddled, winner-loser world. Facing such darkness, our only light is hope. And the Second Joshua, Jesus, is that light.