I’m blogging through our sermon series, “Living God’s Story” and this message focused on the story of Joshua, entitled “Taking the Land” (Josh. 1-6). You can listen to it here.
The book of Joshua is a fun read … if you are an Israelite. They take the land that God had first promised to Abraham and they start settling … finally. The captivity is over, the wandering is over – the Israelites have land! And now they can begin this essential next chapter of becoming the nation and people that God has called them to be.
All is good, right? Well not exactly. The problem is that people were living in Canaan prior to the Israelites. They would be called the Canaanites (and of course there were countess indigenous sub-groups that would be identified throughout Joshua, Judges, and pretty much the rest of the Old Testament. Make no mistake, it’s a violent story and we as present-day readers cannot imagine how this is God’s will.
Which seems like a fitting time to introduce this particular week’s question on the back of the “scrapbook page” (which is really cool. Each week we have one. One side offers you a place to take notes and on the back as a variety of things including that sermon’s “storyline”, links for further discussions and reflection, suggested readings and it offers some type of response). So this week’s question was ￼”When has God asked you to do something you were afraid to do? How did you respond? What situation in your life today requires courage?”
I think confronting the violence issue in the Old Testament takes a lot of courage. Many “reading the Bible through the year resolutions” reading plans have stopped over the questions created from these texts. For most, they seem to contradict our idea of the God of love that we’ve been accustomed to hearing. For others, like the New Atheists, these texts confirm their suspicions that religion is inherently violent. I think many life-long believers choose to skip over this passage because we’re afraid of what giving strength to possibly lingering doubts. In some sense, we choose to remain in the wilderness of confusion or in the captivity of doubt.
Now, I cannot claim that we will able to resolve all our doubts … in this life. But I do think we can encounter God in a more beautiful and personal way when we have the courage to engage them. Regarding the seemingly divinely-appointed violence in the Old Testament, theologians have offered a number of insights but in my opinion, the most helpful has been the thoughts that this is part of the mystery of God. It’s mysterious to us for at least two reasons: one, we simply do not have all the empirical knowledge of the world at the time and two, I have always appreciated the notion that “God’s ways are higher than our ways” which leads me to outline a couple of the responses generally given to this issue.
It is usually said that the ancient world was more violent and immoral than we can comprehend. When God uses Israel to destroy these wicked civilizations, it was not only to fulfill the promise to Abraham but also to judge the wicked. I’ve warmed up to this thought over the years and Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God has ironically helped me in understanding the ancient world (If you could not tell from the title, it is not a “Christian” book).
I cannot help but think of the wickedness of the world. I find myself thinking of the poor Afghan woman who was raped by her husband’s cousin and jailed for adultery! I find myself thinking that she is sadly among many who face these types of injustices. I think of trafficking, bondage-labor, political corruption, church corruption, collegiate sports corruption and I am afraid to imagine the scandals that we will never know of. I also cannot help but think of how I contribute to it as well, whether by intentional action or lack of involvement. It’s a scary though if it is true that the ancient world had even less accountability and even more wickedness.
Another explanation usually mentioned is that just as God chose to send a flood, the plagues, the snakes, similarly, God chose to send the Israelites to destroy the wicked Canaanite civilization. This is part of God’s divine sovereignty for this specific time. Certainly I am not saying that we should pray that God would send something like a sci-fi movie doomsday scenario like a conquering alien species to “judge us” but it’s good for us to remember that evil has has existed all throughout human history. Further it’s good for us to remember that God is at work somehow in all of this and He works in these “mysterious ways.”
I can tell you that every seminarian, pastor, academic and countless others has wrestled with the issue of the violence in the Old Testament among many others. My point is to challenge all faithful readers of Scripture to seek the courage that God gives Joshua to keep thinking, learning and praying on these difficult matters. I do believe God has some type of a “promised land” that will satisfy our questions, skepticisms and curiosities and further will give us the peace, joy, truth and love that we seek. And I believe that is found in the hope of Jesus.
As always feel free to comment, push back, add or express your thoughts here.