Thursday, 29 November 2018

Joshua: genocide, or a tale of two time-streams? – Part 1 of 3

One of the Old Testament’s more interesting conundrums: the violent, strange Book of Joshua. This post is a precis of Dr Matthew Lynch’s series of blogs on it, in which he seeks to know what the Book of Joshua is telling us. (Links to Matthew’s articles are at the foot of this post.) Matthew teaches at Westminster Theological Centre. I’ve sat in some of his classes at a WTC event. I can only say he is an impressive academic who knows his onions and can “think outside of the box”.

By the way, bear in mind that the Book of Joshua makes no claims about who its author is or when it was written. So, it would not be necessary to put forward an idea that it was written at one particular time or another, or by whom. This should be of interest to all who want to follow the evidence wherever it leads.

Below the surface

Dr Lynch has taken on a difficult task. As he points out, the book of Joshua is disturbingly violent, but it isn’t entirely as it seems on the surface either. It starts out as the story of Joshua being the one to conquer the Canaanites but it splits into two tracks, like two alternative time-streams.

(“Two time-streams” being my analogy, not Matthew’s, and it’s not an analogy I will press too firmly – it’s just to give a frame of reference that I think works to advantage. It’s taken from science fiction where two people can walk through the same door at separate moments and find themselves in two alternative versions of the same reality, as if alternative futures can be entered at the same time. Like I say, I’m not pressing the analogy too firmly into service, but I will use it throughout this article so that it is easy to tell which reality I’m talking about at this or that moment.) So here are the two ‘realities’:

  • In one time-stream, God sends his holy army to war, with one set of expected results – ruthless total wipe-out of the enemy. There’s hyperbole in this, but the story gives the impression at some points that it’s for real: “Thus Joshua conquered the whole country … he let none escape, but proscribed [destroyed] everything that breathed—as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded (Josh 10:40).”

  • In the other time-stream, there is merely a flawed and incomplete defeat of their enemy: “when the Israelites grew stronger, they subjected the Canaanites to forced labour but did not drive them out completely.” (Joshua 17:3) In this time-stream, as we will see, the reputation and strength of Israel’s less than holy army is embarrassed, and God’s will is shown in surprising ways.

This is a riddle. Why would Joshua be written like two versions, in alternative time-streams, overlapping each other? It’s almost as if the warts and all time-stream doesn’t treat the ‘holy victory’ time-stream completely literally. The first time-stream is like a paradigm story. The second time-stream, as it develops, seems to have its own function – to call into question the supposed virtue of us-and-them violence.

Lynch: “I refer to these as ‘narratives’ though they’re at times juxtaposed to one another within the space of two verses. It’s probably most accurate to refer to these as two perspectives on the conquest within Joshua”.

That is, there is a paradigm version, and a realism version, all within the framework of an ancient Israelite worldview.

As we will see, other parts of the Old Testament give due recognition to the second version, so the total wipe-out version shouldn’t be taken for granted. And it’s the non-wipe-out version that Christians tend to prefer. But why two time-streams anyway, so to speak?

What is the book of Joshua doing?

Examining this conundrum benefits from a bit of academic know-how. Dr Lynch, on a proper method for getting to the bottom of it, says: “I’m convinced that navigating the challenging waters of violence in the Old Testament requires a multi-pronged interpretive approach.”

He asks, “What might the book of Joshua be doing?’ This is a question of its function: ‘function, not just content, determines meaning.” Lynch says that “there’s far more at work in Joshua than an attempt to provide Israel with an unambiguous founding story of destructive victory”.

We will need to keep in mind the fact that the book serves a function, and Lynch will argue that the function of its story-telling is liturgical – that is, it’s a story with a certain rhythm, one that is so similar to religious services that it almost mirrors the script for one (without violence in the service!). If its function suggests something liturgical, then we need to factor that in to what we think the book is saying. Function and message, they are the things.

Dr Lynch as a scholar is after an authentic Old Testament reading. He also wants it to be a fair and reasonable Christian reading. He is quick to establish that there is a need for a fresh look at the problem. Joshua’s violence seems contrary to Jesus’ command to love your enemies and can shock us today. Therefore, this is how Lynch sets out the task before him, to “read Joshua in a way that’s faithful to the story of Jesus”. He does so by asking these questions (converted into bullet points by myself, as I will frequently do in this post):

  • “(a) IF Jesus’ story is inextricable from the OT story of God and Israel, and in particular, Deuteronomy, where the command to commit genocide first takes shape (!); and
    (b) IF Jesus is to be the fulfilment of the OT narrative; and
    (c) IF his identity is that of an obedient Jewish Messiah,
    • THEN is there anything in the OT story as a whole that would engender the kind of life Jesus lived and the teachings he taught?” (emphasis added)

Yes, it’s not only about the book of Joshua, but also about Deuteronomy – this is actually the second most cited book by Jesus in the gospels, second only to the Psalms in Christ’s use of the Old Testament, so we can’t factor out books like Deuteronomy when we try to understand Jesus, or when we try to understand Joshua.

In terms of working out an authentic Old Testament reading, Lynch notes the shift between what I call the two time-streams, away from something we may find most unpalatable towards something that chimes a little bit better with Christian thought (although still quite shocking at times), the second time-stream, the liturgical reading: “while Joshua could be read in such a way that warfare is seen as a form of worship, I’m suggesting that the momentum of the book was in the other direction, toward the idea that worship was a form of warfare.” That is, godly struggle is more effective in singing songs to God, not in swinging swords at people. Warfare fought in unseen spiritual realms.

Bearing in mind those two time-streams, does either of them provide real grounds for a truly fair and reasonable Christian reading of Joshua? If so, it’s not the story of total wipe-out. Lynch: “The book ‘permits’ both readings, but only one leads toward the one who later took up the name Joshua/Jesus.” (NB Joshua and Jesus are different versions of the same Israelite name.)

After my writing this article, and prior to my posting it, Matthew shared with me the following point in addition. This is with reference to what theological scholars refer to as an “already but not yet” theology. This idea means that God’s Kingdom has already come into the world in part, but not yet in full, with a future day awaiting when God will “put the world to rights”, injustice and all. Matthew’s view is that:

“Joshua portrays an 'already' scenario, where the land was completely settled and the people entirely obedient, and a 'not yet' scenario, where the land was not settled and the people were not entirely obedient. Joshua thus gives us a picture of the already/not yet kingdom. That doesn't resolve the violence issue, but at least gives us a picture of what Joshua might be doing.”

What some apologists have said

It’s not possible to just pull a Christian meaning out of the hat, but Lynch seeks out one methodically. Whereas Christian apologists have suggested ways to see the violence in Joshua as less problematic, Lynch (not an apologist) sees shortcomings in traditional apologetic answers. “You can’t just quote ‘love your enemies’ when confronted with the challenge of violence in Joshua,“ Lynch says. Nor can we just look to Jesus’ self-sacrifice. He argues that “We run into trouble when we assume that the cross—or even Christ—reveals all God wants to say about himself and enemies.” Lynch points out how obvious it is that Jesus had a wider-view of dealing with evil than just self-sacrifice: “For instance, he tells his followers to ‘head for the hills’ rather than ‘submit to crucifixion’ when they saw Rome surround Jerusalem (Lk 21).”

Lynch finds further weaknesses in some traditional apologetic approaches, such as:

  • “Ignoring troublesome passages by quoting other verses more loudly and often.”
  • “Brushing aside concerns over violence with moralistic answers: [such as] ‘Of course the Canaanites were all sacrificing their children to Molech, so they had to be wiped out.’”
  • Or settling for a nice meaning, e.g., “Joshua can become a model for leadership in the face of challenges.” (It can be that, but that does not explain away the violence.)

Those approaches do not make the disturbing violence actually go away. So, that kind of approach “leaves problems unaddressed. It also leaves Christians unprepared for external critiques or their own faith crisis… we need to consider how to respond to questions about a God who apparently asked his people to kill every man, woman, child, infant, and animal in the land of Canaan.”

We need to do better than re-using those traditional apologetic arguments. Indeed, on the second bullet point above, Lynch observes that some apologists argue that the Canaanites were so evil that this explains why they should be entirely wiped off the map: “Yet the call to wipe out the Canaanites included children and animals, infants and the disabled. It is impossible—I humbly submit—to maintain any kind of moral argument (based on moral culpability) that includes such groups.” Lynch also clarifies the data in Scripture about this child sacrifice:

“apologists usually assume that the Canaanites were sacrificing their children on a regular basis. Yet, only one text associates child sacrifice with all the Canaanites (Deut 12:31). Every other text associates child sacrifice with the Moabites (to Molech). Yet the Moabites were not one of the 7 nations that Israel was to destroy (Deut 2:9). This leaves the question: Why would Deut 12:31 lump all the Canaanites together in this way? One possibility is that Deut 12:31 is written with a view to the potential behaviour of Canaanites, if left alive, and then influenced by neighbouring peoples like the Moabites. The NRSV captures this potential reading: ‘They would even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods’ (Deut 12:31).”

That approach poses this question: was Canaanite life meant to be cut short before its full horror could unfold, like the sort of cutting short that some people wish God had done to the Nazi party in 1930s Germany? Maybe, but apologists should think twice before making an argument that Joshua doesn’t, as Lynch observes:

“the book of Joshua itself does not make a moral case for the conquest. In fact, as Ellen Davis points out, ‘[T]he only recorded sins in the Promised Land are those committed by Israelites.’ Instead, within Joshua itself, the rationale for the conquest is religious. Because the Canaanites worship other deities Israel was to wipe them out. Granted, their worship of other deities may have involved immoral practices, but Joshua focuses instead on the disloyalty [among Israelites] their worship would entail.”

That is, there was a risk down the line of Israel becoming disloyal to their God. Is that a right interpretation of the book’s justification of the violence?

Context: The Exodus

We need to take a fresh look at the context of the violence. As uncomfortable as it makes us feel, we need to get closer to its meaning. It should first be remembered that these stories are a continuation of the Exodus story. The Israelites have escaped the land of Egypt but not its far-reaching influence. In the Exodus story, it’s not just about what the Israelites do. It’s about what Egypt (especially Pharaoh) does too. The Egypt-Israel tension was not over: “so the Canaanite kings are judged on the basis of their response to Yahweh. In this way, the conquest was seen as a continuation of Israel’s liberation from the royal power of Egypt. This is not surprising, since the Canaanite city-states were themselves strongholds of Egyptian colonization, set up to drain all local resources.”

Context: following Deuteronomy

And context also brings us back to the two time-streams issue. The fact that Joshua reads like two time-streams doesn’t appear out of the blue. But you wouldn’t know that unless you read Deuteronomy first. That is, as well as Exodus, a wider context is found in Deuteronomy, one of the other books in the Torah. It is found after the Book of Exodus, and before the Book of Joshua, and in it you read divine orders for war. And here’s the thing. Deuteronomy first gives the impression that invasion will be slow progress and not a total wipe-out of the enemy in battle - but it later gives an impression that it will be a quick and total wipe-out. Both time-streams are already in the story, before we get to the book of Joshua. It seems to be a riddle that is meant to be there to make us think. So, first, a prediction of not being total wipe-out in battle– Deuteronomy chapter 7:

  • “The LORD your God will drive out those nations before you, little by little. You will not be allowed to eliminate them all at once, or the wild animals will multiply around you.” (Deut 7:22)

Lynch points out that “This passage, and those like it, expect a slow and gradual conquest whereby the Canaanites are displaced and not destroyed (‘drive out’).” Yet only two chapters later, Moses tells the people that invasion will mean a quick total wipe-out of the enemy:

  • “the LORD your God is the one who goes across ahead of you like a devouring fire. He will destroy them; he will subdue them before you. And you will drive them out and annihilate them quickly, as the LORD has promised you.” (Deut 9:3)

What a contrast! Lynch comments, “This text uses the language of driving out, but also envisions destruction and annihilation. Which were the people to expect? Surely slow and steady displacement and quick annihilation are incompatible!”

To be clear, in the total wipe-out narrative, which Lynch calls the “herem” narrative:

  • “the promise was that God would utterly destroy the inhabitants of the 7 ‘-ite’ (e.g., Hivite) nations singled out for destruction”
  • “the result of the herem wars was total settlement of the land and total military success“
  • “Thus Joshua conquered the whole country … he let none escape, but proscribed [destroyed] everything that breathed—as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded (Josh 10:40).”

The Hebrew word ‘herem’ signals that the destruction of the enemy is as complete as any ritual sacrifice. And that’s the total wipe-out ‘surface narrative’, as Lynch calls it.

So, it does read rather like Deuteronomy is expecting a two-time-stream story in Joshua, a riddle indeed. Thus, as Lynch says: “the Torah seems to envision two kinds of invasion.” And in Joshua, that’s what we get.

It would not make sense to presume that Deuteronomy is just contradicting itself, any more than in the case of Joshua. These two time-streams run continually side-by-side. That is why we need to work out what the function of the text is.

So what is Lynch on to? On the violence, he admits that “we are still not going to make the problem go away. Sometimes we have to simply admit that such texts are deeply disturbing”. However, there is a ray of light. He suggests that, for understanding the book of Joshua, each of the two time-streams “has its own function in the book, and each says things that couldn’t be said otherwise with just one narrative.”

How it’s done

There are a few things to look at here in a little more depth - how the second time-stream

  • transforms a still dangerous story into a safer liturgy story
  • tones down the violence of the story
  • undermines the image of a holy army
  • undermines us-and-them stories

In my following post, I will show how Lynch sets about doing this.

Here are links to those posts by Matthew Lynch, around which my article has been drawn:

Here are links to my three posts in this short series on the Book of Joshua:
You are here - Part one