Joshua 10-12, Psalm 68, John 2
Propaganda and boyhood foolishness
Joshua 10 – 12
When I was a boy, I was utterly fascinated by soldiers and war. My grandfather flew as a pilot in World War I and I grew up listening to him tell stories about flying a bi-plane. He was training at the airfields in France and was about to be sent into combat missions when armistice was declared. My mother’s father, who died before I was born, fought in the trenches in France and had his hand injured from tossing a German grenade back in the direction from which it came.
I collected toy soldiers and made my own lead soldiers using molds. During a trip to Europe, I asked my mother to stop at every military installation we passed and to allow my brothers and me to visit the Normandy beachheads, where the D-Day invasion occurred. I listened over and over again to Barry Sadler’s Ballad of the Green Berets. I sang the lyrics and dreamed of becoming one of America’s finest.
Fighting soldiers from the sky
Fearless men who jump and die
Men who mean just what they say
The brave men of the Green Beret
Silver wings upon their chest
These are men, America’s best
One hundred men we’ll test today
But only three win the Green Beret
Somehow instead I became an Episcopal priest. God has a wonderful sense of humor! Today, I greatly admire those who serve in our military, but I am also appalled by all of the wars that occur around the world, and how much of our nation’s economy is devoted to selling armaments and how our world has developed an addiction for weapons of mass destruction. The world is becoming increasing dangerous and the Church has too often been silent. Church leaders skirmish over relatively minor issues while mighty battles and great things are at stake around the world.
Today’s texts from Joshua are disturbing. They remind me of my view of the military as a little boy. During all of the times that I played with toy soldiers in my basement, I never computed the mass destruction and disruption on human lives wrecked by war. It never occurred to me that war brings countless atrocities and no one truly wins. Civilians often pay the greatest price.
Throughout the Book of Joshua war is glorified like it was in my childhood mind. Bloodshed is even seen as the handiwork of God, who acts as Commander in Chief of the military throughout the Book of Joshua. “The Lord said to Joshua, ‘Do not fear them, for I have handed them over to you; not one of them shall stand before you.’” (Joshua 10:8)
But perhaps there is more going on here than meets the eye. We read, “When King Adoni-zedek of Jerusalem heard how Joshua had taken Ai, and had utterly destroyed it, doing to Ai and its king as he had done to Jericho and its king…he became greatly frightened…” (Joshua 10:1) Part of the intent of the Book of Joshua appears to be propaganda. If you mess with the Israelites, you will be destroyed. We read, “And the Lord threw them into a panic before Israel, who inflicted a great slaughter on them at Gibeon…” (Josh. 10:10) The message is clear, when you fight Israel, you must wage war on Israel’s God Yahweh, and you will lose. We even read, “…there were more who died because of the hailstones than the Israelites killed with the sword.” (Josh. 10:11) This God uses all weapons, even the forces of nature, to win.
I have a dear friend, who is a rabbi, who is reluctant to encourage his congregation to read all of the Hebrew Scriptures. I have suggested to him that it might be a healthy exercise. What we find is often an appalling depiction of human behavior that can and will sting our conscience. “Joshua took Makkedah on that day, and struck it and its king with the edge of the sword; he utterly destroyed every person in it; he left no one remaining. And he did to the king of Makkedah as he had done to the king of Jericho.” (Josh. 10:28) The same thing occurs to the cities and entire peoples at Libnah, Lachish, Eglon, Hebron, Debir and Negeb.
Everywhere Joshua and the Israelites go, they “utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded.” (Josh. 10:40) This is genocide and the mass slaughter of men, women and children, the complete decimation of civilian populations. Chapter 11 recounts one final battle. “Joshua turned back at that time, and took Hazor, and struck its king down with the sword… And he put to the sword all who were in it, utterly destroying them; there was no one left who breathed, and he burned Hazor with fire.” (Josh. 11:10a, 11) This is a holocaust.
The author notes, “There was not a town that made peace with the Israelites, except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon; all were taken in battle. For it was the Lord’s dong to harden the harden their hearts so that they would come against Israel in battle, in order that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (Josh. 11:19-20) This is pretty despicable and self-serving theology. God is portrayed here as the mastermind of extermination. This is bad religion as its worst.
Chapter 11 concludes by telling us, “So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the Lord had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war.” (Josh. 11:23) In the end, God is portrayed as the great real estate developer who will sacrifice entire populations to benefit his Chosen people. Chapter 12 boldly listed 31 kings that Joshua dispatched along with their peoples, like notches carved on the stock of a gun for each person that a soldier killed in battle.
Throughout history anti-Semites have used texts like these to speak about the “danger of the Jews.” The reality, however, is that these texts speak to the danger of human beings, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or nationality. We humans can do awful things against one another. When we do not function as whole people, we can me merciless with one another. The Greek word for “to save” is soso, and it means not only to save but also “to make whole.” Truly, we need a Savior to make us whole so that we might function in a healthy and loving way, instead of like little boys playing with toy soldiers or thugs who masquerade as presidents of nations now terrifying their own peoples or threatening or seeking to destroy other countries.
The Book of Joshua is clearly an idealized history of the Conquest. When we read through the Book of Judges, we will discover a different account of how the Conquest took place. The Book of Joshua is full of propaganda. Scholars believe that the Book of Judges offers a far more credible account of the Conquest. The Book of Joshua is many ways consists of stories that the Israelites told themselves and wanted to believe and well as portray to others.
Psalm 68 dovetails well with our readings from Joshua. We read,
Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered;
let those who hate him flee before him.
As smoke is driven away, so drive them away;
as wax melts before the fire,
let the wicked perish before God. (Ps. 68)
The ancient Near East was barbaric. It was a dog eat dog world. In this harsh corner of the world, the Israelites were actually an anomaly striving to live by a higher moral order. Looking back on it today, they had much room for improvement, but among their neighbors, the Israelites were actually exemplary in many ways. Underlying the texts of terror such as what we have just read in the Book of Joshua, is a desire to establish a higher moral standard for society. We read,
Father of orphans and protector of widows
is God in his holy habitation.
God gives the desolate a home to live in;
he leads out the prisoners to prosperity,
but the rebellious live in a parched land. (Ps. 68:5-6)
Psalms of thanksgiving such as this were written long after the Conquest. Israel had built a home for itself and had become an established society. The Israelites were free to advance a moral code that called for caring for the least and most vulnerable among us as compared to defeating neighbors who could easily eradicate their population, if they were not strong. The quest for morality is intimately tied to living in situations where fear has been reduced or is minimal and security and prosperity is possible.
Like many Episcopal priests, I do a fair amount of pre-marital counseling. Whenever I prepare a couple for their marriage, we discuss their families, religious backgrounds, what they like to do together, their hopes and expectations for the future, how they communicate and deal with conflict and how to maintain their marriage and get support when needed. We also carefully read and review the wedding liturgy. I explain that the text is like a combination of a beautiful poem laden with great meaning and a legal document that once concluded is binding.
Many clearly joke that officiating at weddings is “the only legal thing that we do.” Indeed, when we baptize or bury someone, it does not change their legal standing. But when we officiate at a marriage, we do so as an agent of the state and it changes the legal standing of two people. In The Book of Common Prayer we read from “The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage” that “our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.” (BCP p. 423). I always pause and ask the couple who is preparing to marry, “What was Christ’s first miracle?” My experience is that grooms who were raised Roman Catholic and attended CCD classes inevitably recall the answer and call out, “He changed water into wine!” Correct answer.
Jesus’s first miracle occurred at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Scholars believe that it may have been a wedding for one of his cousins and that his mother, Mary, may have been put in charge of insuring that there was sufficient wine for the wedding. When the wine ran out, quite possibly because Jesus attended the wedding and brought along his disciples as unexpected guests, Mary naturally turned to her son whose friends had caused there to be a wine shortage and said, “They have no wine!” as if to say, “Look what you’ve done now that you showed up with all of your friends who were unexpected!”
Jesus was not always as mannerly as he might have been. He said, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” Nevertheless, Mary turned to the servants and said, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5) Jesus had them fill the six stone water jars that were used for the Jewish rites of purification. When the water was drawn from these, it had miraculously been transformed into wine.
The servants knew what had happened, but not the steward. He replied, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” (John 2:10) The inference is that the New Covenant with the Gentiles will supersede God’s Old Covenant with the Jews and be even better, more powerful and enduring. God has saved the best and most enduring relationship for last.
John’s Gospel has been labeled the most anti-Semitic of the gospels. There might be good reason for it. By now, most Christians have been expelled from the synagogues. Faithful Jews grew intolerant of members of “the Way” as the early Christians were called of telling them that they refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah and were misguided and blinded because they did not recognize what God had done for them. It was time for the two groups to part ways. Christians must never forget that our roots are in Judaism. Jesus was a devout Jew. The Jews are our cousins. Without the Old Testament we cannot understand and appreciate the New Testament and the gift that God has given us.
The text shifts to focus on Jesus’s first visit to Jerusalem. The time is Passover. It is the first of three journeys that Jesus makes to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, according to John’s Gospel. This clearly separates the Fourth Gospel from the Synoptic Gospels. Mathew, Mark and Luke record Jesus making only one visit to Jerusalem, when Jesus celebrated the Last Supper and was crucified. Their timeline for Jesus’s ministry was therefore only a one-year ministry. According to John’s Gospel, Jesus had visited Jerusalem on two previous occasions to celebrate the Passover when he returned and was betrayed, taken prisoner, tortured and crucified. John offers a three-year timeline for Jesus’s ministry, which most scholars believe to be more accurate.
Another major difference which separates the Fourth Gospel from the Synoptic Gospels is the dating of the cleansing of the Temple. Matthew, Mark and Luke all depict the cleansing of the Temple to have occurred in the final week of Jesus’s life. (Matt. 21:12-13, Mark: 11:15-19 and Luke 19:45-48) John gives the longest and most vivid account of this story, taking nine verses to tell what the other evangelists told in two, four and three verses respectively. John alone tells us that Jesus made “a whip of cords” before “he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.” (John 2:15) One can imagine the holy fury that he unleashed on the vendors and money changers.
Why did Jesus do this? The Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection, controlled and directly benefited from the monetary flow of the Temple. They made their livelihood by insuring that only unblemished animals furnished and sold by them could be used for sacrifices on the altar. Roman coins could not be used to purchase the animals used for sacrifice. Hence, Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem had to exchange their Roman coins for Temple coins, at a bad exchange rate. The Sadducees had a monopoly and no other option existed. The cost of buying an unblemished animal was also very expensive.
Jesus was furious that God’s House of Prayer had been diminished and transformed into a sort of commercial exchange at the expense of religious people and especially the poor. Note how Jesus “…told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:6) Jesus is furious. Recall that two turtle doves were the appropriate offering that a poor family would make for the purification of the mother and thanksgiving for the birth of a child. Did Jesus know that this is what his parents had purchased to obey the law and celebrate his birth and insure the purification of his mother? Many scholars believe that the Jewish law was now being used to exploit the poor, rather than to support and protect them. This led to Jesus’s indignation.
Most scholars, however, believe the timeline for this event occurred as the Synoptic authors tell the story, noting that it took place not during Jesus’s first Passover visit to Jerusalem as noted in John’s Gospel, but on Jesus’s last visit to Jerusalem, which nearly created a riot in Jerusalem. Jesus’s clash with the powers to be who oversaw the synagogue and the potential threat to their livelihood generated from exchanging money and selling unblemished animals for sacrifice led the Sanhedrin, the chief priests and scribes to condemn Jesus and seek his death.
Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. (John 2:19)
Have Christians been silent in a world that is becoming increasing hostile and violent? Can Christians love weapons and God? If we do not have military strength, our world may actually become more dangerous. What is a Christian to do and to believe? How important is economic prosperity and security for a society to evolve to a high moral level? Jesus transformed water into wine. How do you think he can take ordinary things in your life, like marriage, family, parenting and friendship, and transform them into something exhilarating and extraordinary? What do you believe Christians have a right to exercise holy fury about? What is God’s house mean for you?
How and Gracious God, you have set aside each church as a house of prayer for all people. Help us be faithful to your call and allow our prayer to encompass all people and to ask for your blessing upon them and to seek your guidance for all leaders and peoples, especially those in the most troubled parts of the world, where injustice and atrocities are occurring and redemption is most needed. Expand the things for which we are concerned about and inspire us to do something concrete to strengthen the lives of those who are suffering. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania