A couple of weeks ago, I was part of a discussion about neighbors, and how tough it is to love them if the one you have is delusional, cantankerous, threatening, and basically a rotten human being. This discussion led to a much wider conversation about the ongoing, seemingly unsolvable human tragedy: destruction on destruction in the Middle East. With Israeli tanks yet again rolling on Gaza, it seemed like here we were again, back in the trap of unending violence.
So, I decided this was something worth investigating, and I knew just where to look: Joshua. Of the plethora of stories in that book, the best biblical text for looking at senseless city-state violence seemed to me to be the story of the destruction of Ai (A-eye), Joshua 8:1-29. Read it and weep. Really.
We hate this text—well, most of us. There are the warmongers, of course, who seem to like to feel texts like these prove that violence is a good thing. But most of us…frankly…puke at texts like this and skip them. Or we try to make nice with them, something I call “happy face theology.” Very American, I think. I think sometimes Americans think if it’s in the bible, it has to be Good. So then follows the twisting and contortion required to try to make goodness where there is none to be found. We love redemption. But—sometimes there just isn’t any.
We ignore these texts at our peril. I recently preached on this text, but I’m not going to include that here. Instead, I just want to share a few notes. Hopefully, it will help.
Image from coolnotions from The Story of the Bible by Charles Foster. Image by F. B. Schell. Recolor by R. Fairhurst, 2009.
First, is this story factually true? Historians say no. There is no evidence of warfare on this scale during the migration of the Hebrews from Egypt to Israel (the final part of the Exodus journey). Instead, the archeology shows a gradual migration (movement) of people into (within) Canaan, where they settled in and mingled with the peoples of Canaan and regions of historical Palestine. There may have been skirmishes and conflicts, but evidence for large scale assaults on cities and other settlements have not been found.
If it’s (probably) not factually true, then it is a story told for some other reason than to record actual, physical history. This story may have existed in oral form in the earliest days, but this story was probably written down around the time of the Babylonian exile—hundreds of years after the Exodus. This period was one of tremendous suffering and upheaval for the Hebrew people. The Babylonians (the nation next door to them) swept in and conquered their kingdom, killing many, and capturing many more. Warfare at the time was cruel, and the Hebrews were politically and physically powerless. Many died, and of those who survived, many were forcibly separated from their homes and their temple.
When Joshua ‘tells’ us this story, we have to remember that it is likely a tale that comes out of circumstances like these. As such, it is probably a story of emotional truth rather than historical truth. It is a story of empowerment or revenge. Telling this story was likely a way the downtrodden and traumatized Hebrews could claim that they were not always the ones who were murdered or scattered. Once, they could claim, they too had had leaders who led victorious armies, armies so powerful they could inflict injury—tit for tat—against their enemies.
And remember, in those days, people believed it was God who brought victory, regardless of how eager or capable were the generals on the ground. So on the battlefield, though the human armies battled, it was really your God against your enemy’s God, let the most powerful God win. So in this story, the Hebrews want to show that they, too, had once had an army supported by a doting and powerful protector God. This means that, ultimately, that God would find favor with them again, and rise to protect and vindicate them.
Despite the shocking narrative, it is helpful to remember that this story is the expression of rage and pain and grief and powerlessness. It is a story of a people struggling with displacement, hopelessness and grief who had reached into the uncertainty of their world and “remembered” a time when they themselves had been strong and powerful.
The national identity of the Hebrew people (like the other peoples in the region and during this period) had always been strongly in relationship with God. This story is framed to show that relationship, and to show that the Hebrew God is in every way strong enough to battle the Babylonian God (Marduk) and win.
So. It helps to understand this story in this context. We read it today with horror because we know full well how capable human beings are of thinking and acting in this way. We know that we are in a world today where such things still happen.
But we have to remember that these stories in Joshua and elsewhere in the bible are a way of telling larger truths, and a way of recording the human understanding of relationship with God. While some stories in the bible show our goodness, or are tales of how to be Good, this story records our brokenness. The acts of brokenness in this story are not upheld as ‘good.’ Instead they serve as a bitter reflection of what we humans are capable of in the worst of times.
Together in our goodness and our badness, these stories can teach us about ourselves, and about our relationship with and understanding of God. Though they are difficult, there is a lot of value in texts like these. That revulsion you feel is real and justified. For these stories reflect our (at times terrible) humanity. They reflect our brokenness. But they also reflect our deep, deep desire to be God’s people.
So next time you see your rotten neighbor, or hear of violence in the Middle East, say a prayer and ask God to heal our brokenness. We do not want to ride out and be like Joshua. We want to learn from this terrible story to choose healing, and choose peace.