Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
Today I want to reflect on the book of Joshua, from which our Old Testament reading comes.
Joshua was Moses’ assistant and then his successor as leader of the Israelites. Moses led the people out of Egypt, across the waters of the Red Sea and into the wilderness. Then it fell to Joshua, after Moses’ death, to lead them out, across the waters of the river Jordan, into the land of Canaan, where they were to settle and become a nation.
So there is a parallel between Moses and Joshua: both lead their people through waters which are parted for them, into a new life, a new world.
Both also have an epiphany at the start of their journey. God speaks to Moses through the burning bush, and Moses removes his sandals. Joshua also sees a vision: He sees a man before him, with a drawn sword in his hand, who announces he is “commander of the army of the Lord.” And Joshua also removes his sandals.
The two parallel visions offer us a reflection on two different vocations. Whereas Moses leads the people away from the violence of the Egyptian army, Joshua leads his people into conflict. They cross the Jordan in full view of the city of Jericho and prepared for battle: the objective of their crossing is to take the city by force.
So we come to the theme of violence in Joshua. For the book tells the story of a conquest, a series of battles and sieges through which the Israelites take over a land which God has promised them but which is until that point populated by others.
And the manner of their conquest is brutal. Joshua instructs his forces not only to conquer, but to kill every man, woman, child and animal, and destroy every sign of human habitation – to lay waste to what was there before. This is presented as God’s express command.
Not an easy book, Joshua! It is perhaps for this reason that it features rarely in our Sunday readings, and then none of the more violent parts.
But should we not, at least initially, try and understand it on its own terms? The book probably came together several hundred years after the events it describes. As a story of the formation of the Jewish nation, it is painted in black and white whereas the reality was likely more grey, a more gradual emergence of 12 tribes becoming one nation.
The book’s main purpose it seems is to emphasise two truths about Jewish identity. First, that what they have, in terms of place and ancestry, was given to them by God, achieved wholly through his initiative, not theirs. And second, that if they wish to continue under his freely-given protection, they must remain faithful to their God only and obey the laws he gave to Moses.
If that is the structure, the skeleton of the book, then it is still the case that what is draped over it are stories of terrible brutality – genocide, no less.
And yet we can also see in the narrative a faint scepticism, a careful chronicling which exposes what was done and the justification given. The story says “This is not human violence, God commanded it, so it is sacred!” And the writer lets this record stand, for posterity to weigh.
Perhaps we can see Joshua in the wider context of the dialogue in the Hebrew scriptures about power, between the rulers and the prophets, those who wield secular power but are corrupted by it, and those who hold them to account and call the people back to God.
For all that we respect this book in its own time, we cannot help but relate it to life today.
And there is a bitter irony, that we should be discussing Joshua in the midst of the conquest, or re-conquest, of Afghanistan by a group motivated by religion, who I imagine believe that God has given them back the land.
So I reflect on how religion and political violence have been intertwined throughout human history, just as much in Christianity as in other faiths. The stories in the book of Joshua make up some of the early pages of a long history, reaching through every century to the present day, a gallery of violent stories from which the next generation inevitably draw inspiration. We cannot look at the Taliban and say, “we have never done anything like that!” We are complicit.
And yet we can look forward from Joshua to another parallel, which is to Jesus, whose name in Hebrew, Yeshua, is derived from Joshua.
Jesus also has an epiphany, at the start of his ministry. Moses saw flames, Joshua a man with a sword: Jesus saw a dove.
Unlike his earlier namesake, Jesus carried no weapon and commanded no army. He chose a different path. But more than that, in his crucifixion and his resurrection, somehow we find the way of violence is both exposed and emptied of its ultimate power.
As Christians we see a continuity but also an evolution from Joshua to Jesus. As Brother Roger of Taize put it, “from being all powerful, God becomes all loving.”
So we pray today for the people of Afghanistan, and all those in that troubled region of the world who face hardship, suffering and a coercion which denies their full humanity.
And we ask God to bring peace, to the people, in the hearts of the fighters, and in our own.
Richard Young (Rector)