Wednesday, October 31, 2007

On the seventh day, which is the sabbath, in it there shall be none. (Joshua 6)

Joshua 6 is the first chapter of Joshua to have a lot of notes in the SAB, but the interesting thing about the chapter to me is something that doesn't appear in the notes, at least as of the time I write this. Perhaps this will be another response that will result in additional notes added to the SAB rather that existing notes taken away. We'll see.

First thing, and most obvious to anyone at all familiar with the story of Joshua and the battle of Jericho is the manner in which the battle is to be conducted. I won't go into full detail, as one can easily read it and see, as the SAB points out, that it's an absurd matter of the Israelites repeatedly walking in a circle around the city. Yes, it's absurd, but once again, this is intended to be a miraculous battle, so that the victory can be clearly God's, and not the Israelites.

The thing that makes this odd even from a miraculous standpoint, however, is a handful of particular details. First of all, the Levites were to lead the march. What makes this odd is that most of the time, the Levites didn't even go to battle. When Moses takes a census to find out how many soldiers they have as they begin their journey, the Levites get skipped. I'm pretty sure that it's widely accepted that it was part and parcel of the whole concept that the Levites received no land in Canaan because they also were not required to fight for it. Here, not only do they participate, which is odd enough, but they lead the way. As a second point, which may be almost like a sub-point of the former, they lead the way while carrying the Ark of the Covenant, which is also very unusual. The Israelites got in trouble for trying to use the Ark in battle in 1Samuel 4, and lost it for a time. The command to carry the Ark into battle like this was peculiar to this specific battle, was was pretty much peculiar all around.

The third and last point I want to make about this battle is one that I'm surprised so few people seem to notice. From the first time I ever read the book of Joshua, it leaped right out at me. They march around the city once for six days, right? Verse three ends with, "Thus shalt thou do six days." Pretty much everywhere else in the Bible, a phrase like this would be immediately followed by a reminder of the sabbath, but here? "...the seventh day ye shall compass the city seven times, and the priests shall blow with the trumpets." Not only is God having them break the sabbath, but He's having them do the most work they've done all week! Now, of course, I don't know for sure that this last day was the sabbath, but the point still stands that certainly at least one of these days was a sabbath day spent marching and carrying the Ark, not your standard sabbath activity.

Oddly enough, I don't have anything to say about these points other than the fact that this battle plan, which was given to Joshua by God, seems very inconsistent with a lot of other scripture, even to the point of violating Mosaic Law, and I don't know why. I'm sure someone out there has an answer to this, but I don't personally. (I suspect the thing about the Levites and the Ark has to do with my point farther up in that it emphasizes God's role in the conquest of Jericho, but sabbath-breaking?)

(A side note of no particular value: When I was reading through this story on the SAB, it apparently was the first time I'd read it in the King James. I thought "rereward" must be a typo. Turns out it's an archaic term that means something like "rear guard", which is the term most modern translations use.)

I am at this point going to skip over the issues of violence, injustice and intolerance in this chapter, and I vow to make my next post the one where I finally address the issue of Holy war as a general topic for the whole book, and pretty much the Bible as a whole, as the topic comes up from time to time throughout the Old Testament. I'm not going to ignore the tough stuff, I just want to make sure I give it its due. There needs to be a whole post dedicated to the issue.

I will address the issue of what is "the accursed thing" mentioned here, although it's a discussion that might belong best in the next chapter. A lot of other translations make it clearer, and in the Hebrew, I think they use a word that is very clear despite being translated differently by the King James elsewhere. This thing that they are not supposed to touch is actually something that had been dedicated to the pagan gods of Jericho. It probably wasn't a specific thing, but just whatever might be found in the temple in that city. Food, livestock, incense, wooden idols, who knows? The only thing they could take would be items made of metal that would have to be melted down and remade into something else. Why was this important? Interestingly enough, it was related to the issue of Holy war. If the Israelites were to utterly destroy the people of Jericho and their culture and customs, then certainly any religious artifacts could not be spared.

After the city is destroyed, Joshua pronounces a curse on it. Now, as this curse comes from Joshua, and I am not sure whether or not he's considered a prophet in the usual sense, I don't know that this curse has any force behind it other than to scare off the people of his own day. There's no record here that God told anybody that the city should not be rebuilt, although He may have and it simply was not recorded. It appears to be simply Joshua saying something on his own. Nonetheless, I did notice that one of the other responders to the chapter has something to say about the matter that might be interesting. Unfortunately, the link doesn't work anymore, so I'm not sure what he's talking about. Maybe I'll follow it up.

Wish me luck for my next post. Or don't. As you wish.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The foolishness of God is wiser than men (Joshua 5)

Oh, I gotta tell you, I've actually been looking forward to this one a great deal. The SAB marks Joshua 5 in two places with the "Absurd" icon, and indeed, this chapter is full of weirdness. This is as excellent a place as any to put forward my personal theory on God's modus operandi when it comes to the Jewish people: God wants the Jews to be "weird" so that other nations will notice them, and thus notice God.

As I said before, there was already a certain amount of fame that preceded the Israelites into Canaan. The people of the land heard about the plagues on Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and a handful of battles that had been fought while they were wandering in the desert. Imagine an inhabitant of Canaan hearing about all this.

So those Israelites? The ones who came up out of Egypt few years back? They're headed this way! What's more, the trick they did with the Red Sea? They did it again with the Jordan River! The river just stopped, and they walked across on dry land! And then get this: they set up camp and all the men gathered together and cut the tips of their penises off! I'm telling you, those guys serve a God who is powerful, and apparently friggin' batshit insane!

Seriously, these guys are being watched, I have no doubt, by people from all over the region who want to see what craziness they will do next. These are a people who, along with their God, mean some serious business, and everybody knows it.

This is an important prelude to the whole issue of Holy war, which we are about to start into, and get up to our necks in throughout this book. This bizarre behavior, this series of miraculous events, it's all a way to send a message to the people of Canaan. It's a message that unfortunately very few of them understood, like Rahab did. Time's up for you people, and you now have to choose from three options: repent, evacuate, or die. While it is not my intention at this time to yet delve into the morality of the book as a whole, I think one thing that should be noted is that those nations which came to be destroyed were all forewarned, and as we later see in the case of Nineveh, God spares those who repent.

With all the miraculous happenings that center around the Israelites, however, one might wonder at the sort of "anti-miracle" that occurred to them. Indeed, it took them 40 years to complete a journey that conceivably could have been done in ten days. Now there are various aspects to consider like the fact that with such a large group of people, travel is difficult; everyone is forced to go the speed of the slowest member of the group. Furthermore, one must remember that they had to make a pit stop to pick up the Law, which must have taken some time to write down. That's hardly enough to slow them by a year, much less forty.

I don't like to say things that will come across as insulting to Steve Wells, who strikes me as a very intelligent and dedicated individual for all the work he's done with the SAB, which as I have said, is really quite an impressive body of work that I actually admire. It's no secret that there are a lot of Christians who haven't put half the time into studying the Bible that he has. Still, there are occasional points in the SAB where I wonder what Wells is thinking. Why do the Israelites wander in the desert for forty years? Because God made them do it as a punishment. It's a pivotal moment in the story of the Exodus that you could hardly miss, (and Wells doesn't miss it, but puts the same note on that passage) and it seems it would be difficult to miss the meaning, either. It's neither absurd nor technically flawed that this should have happened; if any of the SAB's icons really should go there, it might be "Cruelty", but there are certainly worse punishments than having to walk around aimlessly for several years.

Another "anti-miracle" that happens in this chapter is that right after the crossing and circumcising, they celebrate the first Passover in Canaan, at which point God ceases to bring them manna, telling them that they have now moved in, and they will eat off of the land as inhabitants.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge (Joshua 4)

Well, I was going to combine chapters four and five, since chapter four only has one note on it, but then I realized that to do it justice, I ought to devote a whole post to that single note. It's one of the odd things about the Bible and people who believe in it to those who are on the outside of that group, a group referred to by some as "God-fearing people".

I thought I had actually already addressed the issue, and actually, it seems I did, back in Exodus right after the presentation of the Ten Commandments. It was there that Moses said that odd phrase (which the SAB did not give a comment concerning, but I did):
Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not.
It's this strange admonition on the part of Moses--that seems almost internally contradictory--that really in some ways summarizes the idea of having "fear of the LORD". The whole idea of needing to be afraid of God is that it is a fear that should inspire you to make right moral choices.

Here at the end of Joshua 4, this moment at which God brings up the topic is right after He has performed a fantastic miracle for the people of Israel as a final warning both for the Israelites and the people of Canaan with whom the Israelites will soon be coming into contact. In my opinion, this is just the period on the end of a warning that God has been speaking to the people of the Middle East for about forty years. The warning is essentially: God's judgment is heading this way, don't you dare fail to take it seriously.

This all goes way back to even before the Exodus, actually. Back when God first promised the land to Abraham and his descendants in Genesis 15, He told Abraham that there was an appointed time for the Hebrew people to return from Egypt "...for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full." The people of Canaan were given over 500 years to shape up or ship out, so to speak, and they refused to change their ways because they didn't "fear the LORD". But I'm veering into a subject for a few posts from now, let me get back on track...

"Should we fear God?" the SAB asks, calling it contradiction. I say there is no contradiction. The answer is a resounding "Yes!" None of the verses given in the "No" column of that page explicitly says that we should not fear God. I suppose the intention is to suggest that the concept is implied in 1 John 4:18, and maybe a case could be made for it, but I tend to think that the real issue is that John does not make clear the object of fear in that verse. (I could be wrong; Greek is a subtle, nuanced language, and I've been wrong about such things before.) I think it is as Moses said, that having fear of the LORD casts out fear of anything else.

Still, the non-believer often looks on the idea of "fear of God" as a distasteful thing. In a sense, I agree; at least with the concept as they no doubt are understanding it. There's an ugly side of religion, even (and perhaps especially) Christianity, wherein people are motivated to belief in God chiefly due to the fact that they've been convinced that not believing in Him will lead to a hearty smiting, if you will. "Why do you follow Jesus?" we ask an imaginary believer, who responds, "Well, I don't want to end up swimming in a lake of fire with little red demons poking me in the ass with pitchforks!" That kind of belief, while it might indeed save a person, is not pretty. It is my belief that the best kind of faith is a faith built on a foundation of love. Perhaps the best illustration I can think of is that for me, to not be a Christian would be something like spitting in the face of my mother. While even she, in her own imperfect way, gave so much of her life for me and my sister, God in His absolutely perfect way, gave His entire life for me. The only fear in that love is the fear that I would take lightly the gift of His blood shed on the cross. For most Jews, the feeling is essentially the same, without the cross part.

Yet there is fear, as I have said, the Bible admonishes repeatedly that we should fear God, that fearing God is good for us, that it leads to wisdom, righteousness and salvation. What of that? As I said in my post about Moses, at least one modern version of the Bible renders a translation of "reverential fear". This is the real key to understanding the concept, whether the translation is technically correct or not. It is part and parcel of proper fear of God that, unlike something such as fear of spiders that makes one recoil and pull away, this fear is such that makes one draw closer. True, genuine and fully understanding fear of God realizes who and what God is, knows that running away is not an option, sees that God is a being of love and compassion (even at the root of fearsome things that He does such as send His people to wipe out a handful of nations from the land of Canaan), and grows closer to God in reverence, awe and respect.

In C. S. Lewis' novel The Horse and His Boy, part of the Chronicles of Narnia, there is a scene where a talking horse named Hwin meets God, who in that fictional world is personified by a great and ferocious Lion named Aslan. At first, she is scared, but then, while her fear does not go away, it changes subtly and she approaches Him to say,
"Please, you're so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I'd sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else."
As is so often that case, I think Lewis encapsulates it well. The fear of God is indeed fear, but in a way that is not at all ugly.

My own father, interestingly enough, only spanked me once in my entire childhood, and it actually made me respect him all the more. The pain was nothing; I don't even remember it. What I do remember was his look of disappointment because I had done something that was wrong and I knew it. I feared my father, but not because he was going to hurt me. He never spanked me before, nor after, and when he did it, it took me by surprise. I was afraid of him; afraid of being a disappointment. And this fear was not because I thought he would reject me if I disappointed him, but actually because I knew he would not. That's the kind of fear that one needs with God.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Israel came over this Jordan on dry land. (Joshua 3)

There is very little to be said about this chapter, so I'll just write it up quick here. In fact there are only two issues the SAB brings up, and one of them has already been addressed. Whether or not one accepts my explanation, I don't think I have more to add to what I've already said regarding the failed conquest of Canaan.

Actually, the second point isn't exactly a new one to address. So the priests (and the rest of the nation) managed to cross the Jordan River without getting their feet wet. This is apparently absurd, while the concept of water piling up "upon an heap" upstream of them is not absurd? I don't get it. Look, it's clearly a miracle; what should one expect?

Actually, this event has perhaps some interesting significance due to the fact that supposedly very few people who had seen the parting of the Red Sea in person were still alive at this point. This event is a very similar miracle.

Was not Rahab the harlot justified? (Joshua 2)

I was considering giving a bit of the standard talk about how the Hebrew word used here is questioned by some who believe that there is possibility that Rahab was not a prostitute, but an innkeeper. Sure, translation can be difficult at times, and it may be that the ambiguity is real, but then, one still has to wonder about the concept of a woman being an innkeeper in that day and that culture, when women generally did not hold down jobs but were required by their culture to take a husband. Even if she is an innkeeper, it might be by definition a tad shady to have strange men coming to stay overnight at the house of an unmarried woman.

Let's face it, though; Rahab was almost certainly an outright prostitute of some sort, but let's consider a few things in relation to that. First of all, the Bible does not say that the two spies went to her for her services as a prostitute. If the reader would like to imagine they did, I suppose I can't say that the Bible says they did not, either, so speculate away. Secondly, note that whatever it is she does for a living, it's not a secret; even the king seems to know about her.

It's this second point that leads to the third and perhaps most important point. What sort of city was Jericho? They had a prostitute who lived in a nice house attached to the city wall, everyone knew she was there and didn't care. In the end of our story, she comes to be rescued from the city because of her righteousness. Think about it for a minute. Yes, she was a prostitute. Yes, she was a liar. Yet still, she was apparently the most righteous person in that whole city. What does that say about Jericho?

What drives a woman to become a prostitute? Sure, there may be a number of reasons, but don't most of them boil down to the fact that when a society does not take care of its people, then those people will be forced to resort to immoral means of making a living? In my opinion, the real victim of the crime of prostitution is surely the prostitute. It may be that Rahab was sick of the society that had brought her to the state she was in, and that is why she was so very willing to cast her lot in with the Israelites. That's speculation on my part, but it doesn't seem too far out there to me.

What is not speculation is that at least in part, Rahab gives her reasons for protecting the spies. Verifying what I said earlier, back around, oh... here. Rahab informs the spies that everyone in the land of Canaan knows what happened in Egypt (and various other places) and that the God of Israel doesn't mess around. She knows that if Israel is headed this way, Jericho is about to be wiped off the map, and she needs to pick sides now.

This actually makes the moral value of her lies more ambiguous than some other ones so-called "righteous" people got away with, and it makes me want to make a slight backpedal on what I said about the issue in Exodus 2. Sure, Rahab is lying because she knows that it's the easiest way to save the lives of the Israeli spies, but she's also doing it to save her own skin. Furthermore, it is most likely in no small part due to her lies that her family becomes the only one saved from Jericho. I wonder whether turning in the spies might have resulted in more people being saved from the destruction of Jericho? (I've heard at least one pastor suggest that "spies" is not the best term for these men, but perhaps they were sent in to give a last warning to repentance.) I think this edges a bit further into the gray in the matter of lying to protect life.

Rahab helps the spies sneak out of the city, and they return to Joshua with the good news that all the people of Canaan are terrified of them.

Monday, October 15, 2007

So Moses the servant of the LORD died there (Joshua 1)

I realized over the weekend that there was good piece of advice I've given many people over the years that I'm not taking for myself. If you try to work your way through the Bible from beginning to end, you're probably going to come to one or more parts that are boring and/or difficult, and you'll find it hard to proceed. I've always told people that if you're trying to read the Bible, it's good that you eventually read the whole thing, but you shouldn't let yourself get caught up in something excruciating to read, such as the first few chapters of Leviticus, which are description after description of procedures for dealing with sacrificial animals. Likewise in the New Testament, if you read Matthew first, and then proceed to Mark, you might get the feeling that you're reading the same book twice, as the two are very, very similar. (I think I've decided that when I eventually move to the New Testament, I'll start with Luke and include comments on parallel matters in the other two synoptic Gospels. We'll see.)

Anyway, the Mosaic Law is a tough slog, and not as easy to write on as I'd hoped, but in the spirit of moving on with my blog a bit, I'm skipping forward to Joshua. I haven't thought for a long time that I'd go straight through, but it was tough to drop a book midway through it. I will go back to Exodus and finish the books of Moses, but for now, I need something fresher.

Not that Joshua is easier. As a matter of fact, Joshua and Judges are two of the most difficult books to deal with apologetically, in my opinion. Joshua is the story of a massive genocide of the people living in Canaan, and there's no denying it, only examining it to understand whether there might be justification. Judges, on the other hand, is a book filled with more violence and sex than any other book of the Bible, and in fact probably more than most modern mainstream books. If any part of the Bible needs critical examination and questioning, it's these two books.

Before we get into the issue of genocide, however, the first issue that comes up is a bit of confusing prophecy that the SAB points out. Immediately after Joshua takes command of the nation of Israel (as a military commander more than a prophet like Moses), God tells Joshua,
"Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, that have I given unto you."
The implication is clear; God is promising unfettered victory. Move in and crush every nation between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and it's all going to be a piece of cake, right?

Well, it turns out not to be, eventually. The SAB points out many passages where the military campaigns of Joshua failed, and for a long time afterwards, the Israelites simply were not victorious. Eventually, by the time of Solomon, they pretty much had it all, but the words here suggest an easy and pretty quick victory with virtually no setbacks, and that did not come to pass. Why? What does this say about the prophecy in these verses?

Well, there are a couple things that one could say about this, and one of them is a look into the immediate context, actually. Within the same speech, in verse seven, God says
"Only be thou strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest prosper withersoever thou goest."
I suggest that if one looks at this verse, one may see that God is actually giving Joshua and the Israelites a conditional promise. Let me deal with the second part first: God is only going to make them prosper when the people of Israel are doing their best to follow the laws of Moses. Do what God says, and you prosper. Don't do what God says, and all bets are off. We actually see this more explicitly in the second battle of the conquest of Canaan, in which they initially lose because somebody stole something that they weren't supposed to touch.

But note that God is first of all ordering Joshua and the Israelites to be "very courageous". This is actually incredibly important! It relates to the issue that is often raised of God's omnipotence or lack thereof. God is sending the Israelites into Canaan to conquer it, but while God has the ability to simply wipe these people off the face of the earth like He did with Sodom and Gomorrah, He wants the people to do the legwork on this. Once again, the promise says,
"Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, that have I given unto you."
See my added emphasis? God is willing to give them conquest over any part of the land that they're brave enough to go to. The answer to the question of "Can God do anything?" is pretty much, "Yes, God can do anything, but there are some things God will not do for one reason or another." In the case of Joshua's military campaign, and the years of fighting after Joshua was gone, God was only willing and "able" to help those that stepped up and showed their faith in God's promises and took what God had promised to them. As far as I am aware, most Biblical scholars are of the opinion that Joshua's campaign was ultimately a failure not because God couldn't follow through, but because the people just ran out of steam and stopped trying. Jesus didn't heal people in His hometown not because He lacked the power to heal, but because unbelieving people simply didn't turn to Jesus for healing. It's a tough issue that far wiser people than I have pondered, but personal faith is an essential part of a relationship with God on many levels and in many ways.

Last note: For those of you reading this who are not fairly familiar with the story that has come before, I am a bit sad for having skipped ahead if only for the missing of the great irony in verse 17. The Israelites promising Joshua that they'd follow him just the same as they followed Moses is not really a heartening promise.