This week’s lesson is essentially a summary of the book of Joshua, which once more, is a lot of material to condense into a single session. The stories varied and interesting, but the indisputable focal point of this book and of this chapter or episode in Israel’s story of self-realization is the uncompromising conquest of Canaan. The uncompromising aspect of the consequence is one of the harder details of the Old Testament for modern readers to navigate. The violence is extreme. The destruction is complete and apparently merciless. And, most disturbing of all, this ruthlessness is attributed to the God of Israel; that this is his will and desire. It is not the purpose of this guide to resolve that particular difficulty. Mostly this challenge is here mentioned as a caution to the instructor because you might run into questions of this sort from reflective students. It is not a deflection of the difficulty to simply respond by saying that the one thing that our Lord does not have patience for is evil. The book of Joshua illustrates this powerfully. Sin must be completely obliterated. There is no compromise with wickedness.
That being said, it is another challenge for us, in real life, to isolate sin or to contain evil for elimination purposes. Like with the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13) there is a lot of intermingling of good and bad. One of the reckless uses to which the stories of the book of Joshua have been employed is the justification for wars and violence in a “righteous” cause. Jesus (the Greek name equivalent of Joshua) clearly indicates a lack of interest in politics. “My kingdom is not of this world.” Using the ideas embedded in the book of Joshua in a non-spiritual/personal manner is a maneuver that might need to be taken up with Jesus.
Moses was dead and gone. He left Joshua in charge. Joshua had been Moses’ faithful aide for 40 years. Moses trusted Joshua. Now, the big question was, would the people of Israel trust Joshua as much as Moses did? It’s always hard to try to step in and to fill the shoes of someone who has been around as long as Moses had, and who had managed to accomplish as much as Moses did.
Joshua needed to get his term off to a good start.
The first thing on Joshua’s list of things to do was to put on a big parade and to cross over into the land of Canaan with a big production. Joshua wanted this event to evoke for the people a sense of connection with the past. Israel had initially come up out of Egypt and of slavery by the very dramatic and well-remembered crossing of the Red Sea. Another water crossing would act as a lovely bookend. So Joshua organized the march and they got the waters of the Jordan River shut off for long enough to make that parade happen. On the way through the river bed they picked up 12 large stones that would have been otherwise submerged, just to prove that they had been there. When they got across, the Israelites, according to Joshua’s commanded, stacked those rocks up to make a cairn (rock-pile) as a memorial. Joshua understood that not only do you want to do big things as a leader, but you want to remind people of what you’ve done.
Once the people had got across the river they were now officially in the land of Canaan–the Promised Land. They had arrived.
“What do we do now,” someone asked?
“Well, we’ve got our work cut out for us,” Joshua replied. “Getting here was only half the challenge. Now we have to lay claim to the land. There are other people living here. We’ve got to get rid of them and every trace of them in order to make a fresh start. And it’s not going to be a walk in the park.”
Somebody said, “That doesn’t sound very nice…running folks off; especially people who were here before us.”
“You’ve got to understand,” Joshua said, “these people living here are really nasty folks. They’re bad neighbors. You can’t make peace with the likes of them. If you let them hang around, do you know what will happen? I’ll tell you. Their bad example will rub off on you and on your kids. There are some things that you can’t compromise on.”
So, the slate was set. Joshua had a whole schedule worked out of road games (Israel was on a long, road-trip) to be played at other people’s home stadiums.
First on the list was, Jericho.
Jericho was an old, old city–very rich; very famous. The city of Jericho featured great big, high walls. Their first game of the season was not going to be a cupcake. Moses, you remember, had tried to get the team’s confidence up with a few pre-season victories back on the other side of the Jordan. But now Moses wasn’t here anymore. And there was a new coach. So, it was kind of shaky. Everybody was wondering whether Joshua would be able to pull the team together.
On the other hand, Joshua figured that if he could pull off a victory right out of the shute then the momentum would be there to carry them forward.
Joshua met with his coaching staff and came up with a game plan. “What do we do best,” Joshua asked out-loud, although he already had the answer in mind? “What are we good at? We need to play to our strengths.”
“Well, we’ve been marching through the desert for the last 40 years,” someone observed, “but I don’t what good that would do us.”
But that is exactly what Joshua had in mind–a marching strategy. “We’ll walk around their city a bunch of times. Then they’ll feel surrounded and cut-off. Maybe they’ll get dizzy. The people of Jericho will sit there on the city walls and say to each other, “Boy, those guys sure know how to march. Yes, sir. They sure are good marchers.” We’ll march around them day after day…lull ‘em to sleep. They’ll think that that’s all that we’re going to do–just march around. They’ll think that we’re as lost and confused and disordered as the Pharaoh once thought when he went after us just on the other side of the Red Sea, saying, ‘those guys are lost and confused.’ And we’ll be real quiet as we march. They won’t know what’s going on. Then, on the seventh day, we’ll let out a great shout. We’ll yell so loud that it will freak them out.”
And they did. They did exactly that. And the people of Israel shouted so loud that the city walls collapsed; which just goes to show you what happens when you hire your work out to shoddy builders.
Once the walls were down, the people of Jericho didn’t stand much of a chance. Israel rushed in and ran them over. The destruction was complete. There was no mercy rule.
Joshua was very clear too. He told the people: “Don’t pick up any of their stuff or take it home with you. It’s all infected with their nasty-germs. You’ll catch something.”
Some of the folks didn’t listen to him, of course. They had to test the new coach; see if he means business; see if he would really hold them to what he commanded. Sure, Moses would have. Moses didn’t put up with no crud. But this was not Moses. This was Joshua. And he might not feel so sure of himself or so confident in his position and standing so as to flex his muscles. Oh boy were they wrong. When Joshua got wind of the lapse in discipline he was peeved. In fact, the lapse in discipline was immediately evident in its effect. In their second game, right after the overthrow of Jericho, the Israelites went on to attack Ai. They city was named Ai because whenever someone attacked them the people would all yell, “Ai!” Well, in that second game Israel, now riding a wave of confidence after they blew out Jericho, got their clock cleaned. The city of Ai, they were expecting, would be a pushover. Far from it. Israel got the cookies beat out of them. Joshua couldn’t figure out, at first, what had happened to the well-oiled fighting machine that he had marched around Jericho. Well, it was a discipline problem. As soon as you slack off or let up and let your guard down, you’re on your way to being beaten. The pocketing of souvenirs that had occurred at the battle of Jericho, which Joshua had so sternly forbidden, was attributed as the cause of the loss to Ai. Joshua stepped in and quickly identified an offending party upon which to place the blame and to make an example of. And when he did and when he had, Joshua said, “Now, no more of this nonsense. You follow orders or you can forget about winning any more games this season. God’s not going to be on your side if you’re just going to run out there and do whatever you want to do without listening and following the game-plan.”
After that, Israel more or less shaped up. They could see that Joshua meant business and that he was every bit as intense and as serious as Moses had been. After they got their act together Israel went on a winning streak that couldn’t be stopped. Every now and then they’d have a little hiccough or have a bad play and lose yardage. But, overall, it was–onward and upward. The conquest was on its way to being complete and total until, getting a little up there in years himself, Joshua suddenly announced his own retirement. “You can’t fight forever,” he told the team. And they were all starting to get older too. And it had been a long fight. And eventually you want to settle down and to enjoy what you have struggled so fiercely for. So now the next step was–how to live in this newly won territory and be vigilant and yet, content also? How to enjoy what has been given to you and yet not grow complacent?
The very interesting 4th question in the 4th chief part of the catechism (Holy Baptism) urges us to daily die and rise. This daily attentiveness to the spiritual struggles of life causes us to be aware that the conquest over sin and death is promised and yet is engaged in the immediate presence of our lives. It is, on the one hand, frustrating to us that we have to continually and repeatedly fight the same battles over and over again. But, on the other hand, this is what keeps us alert and on our toes.
The living out of this baptismal faith is modeled for us in the catechism in the appendices, especially in the section titled, ‘Daily Prayers.’ There Martin Luther outlines a simple program for morning and evening prayers or devotions, as well as adding mealtime prayers–thereby connecting the everyday and ordinary aspects of daily living with the deeper meanings of life. The fight for faith, in other words, is not reserved to only the most extraordinary events of life, but are embedded in the mundane. And it is within the ordinary and daily that we discipline and exercise ourselves and our faith so as to be able to face the crisis when it arises. Keeping in shape is something that is done so that when the whistle blows and the action starts, we are not found winded, out of shape and unable to keep up.