The last few weeks I have spent reflecting on passages from the Book of Joshua have gotten me to thinking about things. Which is good, I suppose, though some might argue that I think too much.
But I have drawn some conclusions from this little romp through Joshua that are going to stick with me.
First, leading the people of God is a thankless task doomed to failure. By all accounts, Joshua is a successful leader. He accomplishes much, wins most of the battles he leads, and appears to be a faithful a man as possible.
Yet the enterprise he leads is doomed and he knows it. “You are not able to serve the Lord,” he tells Israel. And he’s not wrong. Joshua knows a thing or two about this people. He knows what they are not capable of. Perhaps he paid attention to the warnings given by God through Moses in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. The blessings and curses. He knows that even despite the presence of God in Israel’s midst, fighting its battles, winning its victories, that this endeavor will end in defeat, conquest, and slavery. (“And the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, a journey that I promised that you should never make again; there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.” Deuteronomy 28:68)
Joshua did not worry about Israel’s success, at least not in the long term. He followed God’s appointment to lead God’s people, and he did so faithfully. But he also did so knowing how this would end, that this stiff-necked, faithless people of God would fail and would do so utterly. That everything he accomplished in conquest and building would eventually come to nothing as others would, in turn, conquer and destroy all he’d done. Joshua was faithful in the face eventual failure. He was still faithful.
Nor did God worry about Israel’s success. God laid out the consequences for Israel’s faithlessness, and the history of Israel bears witness to the rise and fall of Israel. God understood Israel would eventually fail, and yet God led Israel into the land of promise, fought for Israel, and gave the land and its cities (and even some of its people) over. God was faithful even in the face of eventual failure.
A reader wondered as I began this whether I would read Joshua Christologically, that is, see Christ in the figure of Joshua. It’s hard because I find Joshua a stern and unyielding figure, a forbidding man hard to square with the Jesus who calls “softly and tenderly.” (Though I will be the first to say Jesus mostly doesn’t call “softly and tenderly.”) One place where they meet is in faithfulness. Success is not the creation of a lasting empire — there are no permanent empires anyway — but rather following the call of God, being the presence of God, doing God’s work right here and right now and not worrying about descendants or legacies or the future. Jesus taught and healed and cast out and raised the dead having at least some idea of where it all would end — on a cross, alone and abandoned to despair and death. He set his face toward Jerusalem anyway.
So pastoral ministry and faithful discipleship must always be aware that while there are victories to be had in the here and now (with God as the author of those victories, as at Jericho), God’s people are a ragtag group who are doomed to defeat. Which is okay. We lead them faithfully anyway. Because the victory we have faith in — a victory foreshadowed even in the blessings and curses laid out in Leviticus and Deuteronomy — is resurrection and repentance.
And to rise, we must first die.
Second, Israel’s only real sin is idolatry, and we need to remember that. The sin that gets Israel exiled from the land — that results in Israel’s conquest and exile — is not abortion, or the tolerance of homosexuality, or the creation of a welfare state, or even the failure to properly care for the poor (though the prophets are big on that as a reason for Israel’s doom). Israel’s sin — the sin that causes all the suffering and dislocation — is idolatry. And Joshua makes that clear in his warnings to Israel to “put away the gods of Egypt” and to ignore the gods of Canaan.
Which is something Israel cannot do.
It’s intriguing that Israel finds idolatry — the worship of gods who cannot do and have not done anything for Israel — so attractive. Scripture does not appear to say why this is the case, gives no reason for this constant temptation to idolatry, only that Israel will face this temptation and will fail to resist it. The very tempting gods of the Canaanites were the very reason Israel was to make no covenant with them, and to wage war mercilessly as God drove the people of Canaan out. Because whenever Israel gets a chance, it worships those worthless gods. Without fail.
Why is this? The Canaanites who misrepresented themselves in order to do a deal and seek Israel’s protection weren’t afraid of Israel — they were afraid of Israel’s God. They heard what he had done for Israel in Egypt, and against the Amorite kings. It would seem that, after such works, idolatry would be impossible. We have a God who fights for us! A mere lord of clay or a male fertility symbol or a golden calf ought to be meaningless.
And yet they aren’t. Israel isn’t done in by the mere toleration of sin (David’s entire career of murder and adultery should prove that, though idolatry and sin — especially sexual sin — are to a certain extent linked in scripture), or the acceptance of other religions in its midst (I see few American Christians tempted by Islam), or even the proclaiming of sin as righteousness. Israel is done in by its worship of that which cannot save it. Any conversation about the failures of the church to be a faithful people has to begin here, with the question: If our God is an awesome God who has saved us again and again, why are idols so tempting? Why aren’t we faithful to that God?
Why can’t we be?
Third, we focus on the word/will of God when we should be far more concerned with the presence of God. As God’s people, we tend to focus on the written word that we have – instructions, commandments, teaching, story. It has become for us the law. And adherence to this teaching is what makes us God’s people, is the standard by which God will judge us, and it keeps us safe from God’s wrath.
It’s easy to focus on the teaching. It is words, it seems clear and frequently unambiguous, and this teaching can tie us together. Joshua, however, shows that we ignore the actual presence of God in our midsts at our own peril.
The Lord gives a clear teaching to Israel in Deuteronomy 7 — make no covenant with the Canaanites. Show them no mercy. This is the law, the teaching, the word and will of God for Israel.
And Israel follows it, until the Hivites of Gibeon show up, pretending to be someone else, making a covenant with Israel. Even though Israel discovers the deception, Israel still keeps to the deal, and God then makes the sun stand still and fights for Israel in defense of its newly acquired allies.
Israel makes a covenant with Canaanites, and then God — who commanded Israel to make no covenant with Canaanites — fights the battle with and for Israel to defend those very same Canaanites.
This is the presence of God in Israel’s midst.
Did God ever rescind the command to make no covenant? No. Did God command Israel to remember the law? No. God took the circumstance — Gibeon’s deception, Israel’s agreement — to show his glory and bestow his blessing. To Israel and to the Canaanites (who were already terrified of the Lord God anyway). Is there a consequence for Israel enslaving and covenanting with Canaanites? Of course. Their gods will prove a constant distraction for Israel, and that distraction will eventually lead to disaster.
But God is present with Israel regardless. God works in and with Israel’s disobedience, not merely to impose consequences, but to bless and redeem Israel as well. God acts in new ways in the midst of our disobedience — with our disobedience — to bless and redeem and be present. To show that God’s desire for us isn’t merely words on a paper, but alive in the world all around us.
This is hard for us, because the rules seem so clear, and we believe that by obeying them we will avert disaster. But even in scripture, in this word and will, we have constant examples of God acting situationally in violation of God’s very own commands. Philip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch even though Deuteronomy 23 is clear he cannot be part of the assembly. Jesus heals, again and again, on the sabbath.
This presence is hard to discern, however. Those who focus on the will/word are right to ask — what distinguishes your experience of God’s presence from mere hedonistic law-breaking? There is no easy answer to that question, and no easy way sometimes to point to God’s presence in our midst. I do believe we should “sin boldly” and trust God (“He eats with sinners!”), but that’s not an answer all will find faithful. Or honest.
I’m not saying the law is invalid. We need that law. Maybe to show us we are sinners as Lutherans confess. But more importantly, without those bounds, we cannot know when God is gracious and when God is truly present. The story of Israel is not the story of a people who obeyed God and lived happily ever after sending sacrifices to heaven; it is the story of a sinful people who disobeyed and who constantly needed the redeeming presence of God. Without the law, the will of God, we cannot violate it, and without violating that law, we cannot truly experience the presence of God. We cannot be found unless we are first lost. We cannot be redeemed unless we are first held captive.
We cannot know grace unless we have first sinned. And we cannot know the presence of God — truly know — unless we have first forgotten what that presence is like. And what it does for us.
Israel will forget. And will need frequent reminding.
Lastly, it’s interesting the no one in scripture seems to claim Joshua as their ancestor. I once noted it was curious that no one claimed Moses as an ancestor. The same applies to Joshua, too. He appears in no genealogies, is in no one’s family tree, and no one seems to claim descent from him.
I find this odd. We worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — we know who our ancestors are. Yet this great leader, who speaks of his family, and who has his own inheritance in Israel, is not succeeded by anyone from that family. Perhaps this reflects the early Israelite opposition to monarchy, and perhaps it reflects an understanding of what it means for God to pick Israel’s rulers rather than the Israelites to pick them theirselves. (Though the first of the judges, Othniel, will possess a solid pedigree in his relation to Caleb, who along with Joshua were the only two spies to return from Canaan confident of God’s ability to defeat the Canaanites.)
I would have imagined many would have tried to claim descent from Moses and Joshua in order to procure political, social, and religious legitimacy for themselves. That they don’t — that we have no record in scripture or history of anyone doing so — is curious. And I have no answer for that.