In the movie "What"s Up Doc?" a series of madcap events leads to a final scene in a courtroom in which an overworked and frazzled judge tries to make sense out of the chaos. In trying to determine what he is dealing with as he hears various characters offer their explanations, he says several times "I think I want to skip over this part." As we have been making our way through the book of Joshua, you may have had a similar thought. These are not the portions of Scripture from which Precious Moments draws its source material. In particular our passage from a past Sunday dealing with Achan's sin and punishment causes us to recoil as an entire family, including children (although ages are not given) is stoned for the sin of the father. In addition there is the second instance of a city (Ai) being slaughtered to the last person at the command of God. In my messages the last two weeks, I have not attempted to offer a thorough apologetic for these stories. Rather I have suggested a starting point that our discomfort with them is most likely rooted in a failure to fully appreciate two things: 1)the honor that is due to God and 2) the depths of our sin and rebellion against him. That is certainly the message of these passages and to the extent we focus our attention there, we will glean much spiritual benefit from them. That being said, it is helpful to consider a few things as we seek to understand how a good and great God stands behind these stories. I will confess that at the end of the day I still feel a degree of discomfort with these stories. And I am not uncomfortable uttering along with Abraham the confession of faith in God's ultimate justice "Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" (Gen. 18:25)
With that as a prologue, here are some thoughts to consider as we encounter stories of humans commanded to exact this sort of violence at God's command either in war (Jericho and Ai) or in judicial settings (Achan).
1) I addressed the idea of "cherem" or being devoted to Yahweh in a message. It calls to mind that everything and everyone in the universe ought to be directed towards God's glory and mankind is tragically fallen by rebellious choice. Thus, everyone has forfeited life and rendered ourselves "cherem".
2) This comes at Yahweh’s command found in Exodus 23:20-33, so this is not Moses’ or Joshua's idea, but God’s given at Sinai. It represents a continuity of his character and actions in the flood, at Sodom, and in the plagues against Egypt.
3) The cause of the command is a judicial sentence against the wickedness of the Canaanite nations (Gen. 15:16; Deut. 9:3-6) and not the superiority of Israel’s character or strength.
4) The purpose of this action is to secure a safe space for Yahweh’s covenant to be lived out as a witness to the world of his redemption.
5) The purposed outcome of the commandment was evacuation rather than total annihilation.· A survey of the passages shows a heavier use of words such as "drive out" or "removed" than "killed" or "destroyed".
6) Regarding the taking of people as booty, it seems odd to us and the death of every male seems harsh. These were, however standard practices in the ancient world and reflected the need to protect from future attacks from the men of a conquered city. It constitutes God’s gracious provision for his people of a land that is not barren but settled, built up and productive.) This is not a divine sanctioning of one nation against every other. There are limits and restrictions placed on their warfare, they are agents of God, he is not their agent.
7) The above point is illustrated in the distinction between "cities nearby and cities far away" in Deut. 20. Cities far away were to be offered peace before being attacked. The offer of peace is not a peace with Israel but a peace with Yahweh whose land this is and he is giving it to Israel. There is thus opportunity to participate in covenant life. The story of Gibeon in Joshua 9 illustrates this concept.
8) The fact of threatened reciprocity against Israel (Deut. 8:19-20) as well as internal policies against faithless Israelite cities (Deut. 13:12-18) prove the above statements and also indicate that the issue is not ethnicity. This is further proven in the Rahab narrative.
9) Rahab demonstrates that Canaanites can move from being devoted to destruction to being devoted to Yahweh. Acahan demonstrates that Israelites can move from being devoted to Yahweh to being devoted to destruction. It is worth noting that in each case their family shares their fates without a clear statement that they agreed with the choices of those who represented them.
10) It should also be noted that the commands given in the conquest regarding both the Canaanites and Achan do not become normative practice for the Israelites. In future wars, except the case of the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 13-15, these principles are not commanded or followed. In no other case is a family punished for the sin of the leader. The time of the conquest represented a fragile phase of God's redemptive program that required drastic measures to protect the people of Israel from having their nascent faith in Yahweh corrupted by competing agendas. This is not to say that God is employing unjust punishments in a utilitarian way. We are organically connected and identify with groups such that we cannot distance ourselves totally from the sin of others, nor can we prevent our sin from impacting others.
11) Yahweh’s love drives him to redemptive judgment in such a way that his judicial hatred and wrath does not negate nor is it negated by his merciful love. This is best reflected in the cross where we often see mercy but frequently forget judgment. Jesus himself is a divine warrior-king so to think of Him as only gracious and merciful is to forget the portrait of him in Revelation 19:11-18.
Marcus Little is the Senior Pastor of Berean Baptist Church. This blog is a place where he can share his thoughts and reflections on how Scripture intersects with life, work, community, culture and the events of our times.