5–11 August 2018.
Though we often call the Book of Joshua a “historical book”, we have to remember that it isn’t really what we think of today as history. It is more of a national story or myth. That becomes clear to us again as soon as we open the Book of Judges. The story of Joshua ended with Joshua successfully defeating all the Gentiles living in the land. But the first chapters of Judges tell us that in reality most of the promised land hadn’t been conquered at all.
This leaves the Bible writers with the difficult problem of explaining why Israel’s military conquest of the land never happened. Here the writers give us three different suggestions. The first (in 2:20–21) is that God didn’t let the Israelites win because he was punishing them for their sins. Then in 3:1–3 we read that God needed these Gentiles to stay in the land to help the Israelites learn how to fight and wage war. But in 2:22–23 and 3:4, we find still another idea: that God actually never intended for the local people to be destroyed. In that way, having the Gentiles live side-by-side with the Israelites would be a constant test of Israel’s faithfulness to God.
The problem is that looking back in time, the writers knew that the Israelites badly failed this test over and over again. The people constantly abandoned God and disobeyed him. As a result some of the writers actually lay the blame for Israel’s failures on those non-Jewish neighbours, and argue that the Israelites really should have murdered all those local people so they couldn’t lead Israel astray! The writers in this tradition imagined that even God would have wanted this genocide (this mass killing of all non-Jews in the land) just so there would be no one to lead the Israelites astray – because maybe without those local people around, maybe Israel could have actually managed to pass the test of staying faithful to God. This is really a very problematic idea!
First, killing all the non-Jewish local people in order not fail a test of faith is like trying not to fail a maths test by killing your maths teacher! You may skip the test that way, but that’s hardly the point. The point was for the Israelites to stay faithful to God despite all the temptations around them – not to commit genocide in some hope to bypass the test.
Second, while the writers imagine this idea of genocide comes from God, Jesus confirms for us what we already suspect: that this idea isn’t godly at all. In Matthew 5:27–30 when Jesus talks about the temptations of adultery, he tells the men around him that if their eyes or hands cause them to sin by looking at other women, the answer is not to go kill all the women to avoid temptation! Instead Jesus tells the men they should pull out their own eyes or cut off their own hands to stop themselves from sinning. Of course Jesus doesn’t mean this literally. But what he means here is that temptations are our own responsibility, and we have to be strong enough to control ourselves in avoiding them.
None of us like to admit that we have failed, so it’s always tempting to find other people to blame instead for our own failings. The men around Jesus wanted to blame women for their own temptations to adultery, and the ancient Israelites wanted to blame their local neighbours for Israel’s own lack of faithfulness to God. But Jesus reminds us how wrong that is. All of us need to take responsibility for our failings, and do our best to grow and change, becoming better people. Our task isn’t just to find other people to blame.
Pastor Stephen Lakkis