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.

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