Thursday, December 13, 2007

Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom (Joshua 24)

Here in the final chapter of Joshua, Joshua once again calls the people together for a speech. It may be that this is a continuation of the speech from the previous chapter, or it may be at a later time. While Joshua did say in the last chapter that he expected to die "this day", I have discussed before that the word "day" is often figurative, and not necessarily always a 24-hour period. I suspect that rather than saying he was to die at once, he meant that now that the conquest was complete, a new day was dawning for Israel in which it was to go on without him.

Joshua gives a bit of ancient history, sort of summing up some of the important points of the Bible so far. He reminds the people that back in the time of Abraham's fathers, they lived north of the Euphrates ("the other side of the flood") and worshiped pagan gods. The one true God called Abraham out of that culture to give him a promise that would not be fully realized until the time of Joshua, a over 500 years later. After the passage of years, the growing of the children of Israel into a large nation that was ready to truly possess the promised land, and near-uncountable miracles, God had finally brought this nation into being. Joshua reminds them of all of this, and entreats them to always remember what God had done for them.

Verses 12 and 13 are a reminder of two things, one of which is labeled absurd, and the other unjust. They really go hand in hand, and in a sense, the very point of these is the absurdity and unjustness (from a certain point of view) of the actions. God miraculously caused the very forces of nature, in the form of hornets in particular, to drive out the inhabitants of Canaan, and as a result, there are large portions of the land that they were simply able to take with little or no effort on their part. The only thing just about this is that there were moral reasons of one sort or another for driving out the previous inhabitants; the Israelites weren't reaping the benefits of God driving out the Canaanites because they were somehow such terrific people, just a bit better than the previous tenants of the land. Joshua reminds them of this because they need to remember they are recipients of God's grace, not owners of the land in their own right. If they were to become like those whom God chose to destroy and/or evacuate from the land, they could expect pretty much the same treatment. As I have also said before, this came to pass eventually.

I have addressed the two questions raised in the SAB for verse 14 already, but it's worth a brief revisit here. There exist other entities that people in the world worship as gods, whether they be completely imaginary or some sort of spiritual power. The Bible often acknowledges these entities as "gods" because that's what they are, regardless of their powers or lack thereof. When Joshua tells them to fear the LORD, he is pointing out that all other "gods" are inferior to the LORD, and a wise person will give their respect only to Him.

Can people truly choose to give themselves to God, however? The SAB asks "Do humans have free will?" and this is an important philosophical question that people of all religious beliefs have struggled with. Actually, on a personal note, before I became a Christian, I went through a period of introspection during which I was convinced that free will was an illusion, and surely in a materialistic universe there was no room for free will. Although there are some Christian schools of thought that claim there is no free will, it was Christianity that convinced me that people do have free will, something I still believe despite being a Calvinist. I'm not going to attempt to unpack the issue fully, as it's not an easy issue to deal with, but I do need to address the apparent contradictions.

Honestly, there isn't a uniformity of opinion on this matter at all throughout Christendom, and probably not among Jews, either, but I don't know. My own opinion is that there is no contradiction between free will and predetermination, although it's not easy to explain why. My best attempt is usually something like this: I've got a coin in my pocket. Let's assume, as most people will I think, that free will and random chance exist. That means that the coin can freely come up heads or tails on a toss. There, it came up heads. From now on, the result of that toss is fixed. At the moment I did it, anything could have happened. At the moment you read this, only heads actually did occur. For God, who is omniscient, the future is something He has already seen, so while our choices are as free as the tossing of that coin, if not moreso, God already knows the result. Where is the contradiction? I don't see it. I have no plans to go any deeper into this discussion within this blog, or at least this particular post.

A bit of a discussion ensues wherein Joshua warns the Israelites that while they should serve God, it's not going to be easy. While false gods don't seem to care so much what a person does, the LORD " a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins." At least in particular where it comes to apostasy, He won't. The SAB comments on this little exchange that it is unjust, cruel and intolerant. I would only agree that it's intolerant, and I've already given my opinion that intolerance from the right point of view is a non-issue. As for unjust, the context seems pretty clear that God is giving them the land, and He expects a certain level of obedience in return. I think that is just. Some Jews have pointed out that in fact, God does not demand worship of Him, but rather prohibits false worship. While most Christians clearly do not feel this way, it as not an uncommon belief among Jews that being an atheist is okay so long as you live a moral life; it's being a pagan and reverting to immoral pagan practices that is the real problem. As for cruelty, well, that's a matter of opinion.

And so Joshua dies, having been one of the greatest leaders in the history of Israel. He is buried, and shortly thereafter, the bones of Joseph are also buried. (The SAB points out a contradiction as to the nature of Joseph's final resting place, which I actually already addressed in Genesis.) There is something interesting about the fact that these two men were buried at about the same time, as one of them led Israel out of Canaan into Egypt, and the other led them back.

Although the book of Joshua is at times a bit dry, and often an apt example of violence and cruelty in the Bible that seems easy to pin squarely on God, it is also really a great book that people overlook for these reasons, and miss out on the richness of some aspects of it. As the last few months of comments on this book have examined, there are a number of truly deep questions the book raises, and a number of odd examples of flawed people who can be an inspiration to believers throughout history. If a lying pagan prostitute can find faith and lay hold of the grace of God, can't any of us? If a nation of stubborn unfaithful people who had to be sent to wander for forty years in the wilderness can be reconciled with God to become conquerers of powerful nations, what then could we achieve in our lifetimes through the power of God? As Joshua, whose name in Greek would be "Jesus", says to his people and all of us throughout history:
And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve...but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.

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