I’d like to begin this sermon with a definition form modern psychology that will help explain why I’ve been troubled by the book of Joshua. (Slide 1) A Wikipedia article defines “Cognitive dissonance as the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. This discomfort is triggered by a situation in which a person’s belief clashes with new evidence perceived by the person.” I’ve experienced cognitive dissonance with the story of the conquest narrative. When I say “conquest narrative”, I’m referring to when God commands the people of Israel to utterly destroy all the inhabitants of the Canaan so they can claim the territory as their own. We have cognitive dissonance when we read the book of Joshua, because the story of the conquest, destroying a people to take their land, seems to contradict what else we know about God. Elsewhere Scripture tells us that God is love. God is good. God is a Father. God commissioned Israel to be a blessing to the nations. All these images of God seem to flatly contradict the way that God appears to be depicted in the book of Joshua.
I probably won’t resolve this tension perfectly, but we need to wrestle through it nonetheless. We say that all Scripture is Authoritative and God-breathed. That means we can’t just say that God speaks through our favourite comforting Scripture passages. We also need to ask what God is saying through a Scripture passage that we find difficult and disturbing. I hope that if we can lessen our sense of Cognitive Dissonance when reading certain passages of Scripture, we will be able to place deeper trust in the entirety of Scripture as God’s good Word.
When we read the conquest narrative, we need to recognize that there are discrepancies within the narrative itself. Let’s look at Joshua 10:40 again. (Slide 3) “So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded.” The picture presented here is a complete and total conquest of the land. But as you continue reading Joshua you realize that there are still inhabitants to drive out (that’s what it says in chapter 23). This means that the author doesn’t intend us to take chapter 10 literally. We are not supposed to believe that Joshua didn’t leave any survivors. That’s one way of easing the tension in this passage, we can say that the author was expressing bravado that you can find in other Ancient Near Easter accounts of war. Joshua 10 is an exaggeration not intended to be taken totally literally.
This realization provides a really important clue towards figuring out what God wants to say through the book of Joshua. The fact that in chapter 10 we read that everyone was killed, but read in chapter 23 that the nations still need to be driven out of the land, that tells you something important about the type of book that Joshua is. It tells us that we are not reading a modern history book that is trying to just make sure we learn the facts about what happened. The authors and editors of Joshua are teaching us theology. (Slide 4) What I mean by that is that the book of Joshua is trying to teach us a right understanding of humankind, the world, and the way that God relates to it all. So we cannot read Joshua in the same way that we read history book about the relationship between Europeans and First Nations in Canada. Instead, we need to realize that Joshua is written in a way to teach us about God, humanity and creation. The book of Joshua can only teach us about God, humankind and the world when it is read along with the rest of Scripture. This specifically means that in order to understand the conquest narrative, we need to once again review Genesis 1-22.
(Slide 5). Here is a picture of the way things were supposed to be when we read about the world in Genesis 1 and 2. God created us to have a relationship of shalom with God, with others, and with creation. The picture that we get in the first two chapters of Genesis is harmony. (Slide 6) But then those first humans broke relationship with God. They chose to no longer trust God, and as a result a deep rift emerged between God and humankind. This is sin. (Slide 7). The impact of sin in the world not only impacts a human’s relationship to God, but it derails relationships between humans. The result is distrust, conflict, aggression, anger, pain and heartache. But the impact of sin in the world not only impacts a human’s relationship with God and other humans, (Slide 8) it also negatively impacts creation. That theologically explains why a flood comes after “the Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth.” According to biblical theology, sin destroys creation. The presence of sin in the world destroys harmony between God, humans, and creation. This has probably never been as prevalent as in the 21st century. Today in the West, when most people are asked to check the religious affiliation box, they will check the Box ‘none. This last century has been the bloodiest in the history of the world. We’ve seen pollution reach apocalyptic proportions. Biblical theology tells us these things are connected.
Enter Abraham. In Genesis 12 we meet Abraham, and his job is to make these relationships whole again. (Slide 9). God says “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Two weeks ago, we explored the idea that in these first words to Abraham, God is saying that, through Abraham, God will reverse the curse of the Fall. Through Abraham’s people, the nations will be restored to God, humans will live in harmony with one another, and care for the land. God promises Abraham that through his descendants, all these relationships will be restored. But you’ve undoubtedly noticed that part about the curse. Scripture is not naive about the human predicament. There will be conflict, some people will resist the restoration that Abraham’s people have been called to carry out. (Slide 10)
Fast forward five or so decades. Abraham’s descendants now are in the millions, they number like the stars in the sky. God is calling Israel to enter into the Promised Land. There are many indications that the Promised Land, Canaan, was supposed to be like a new Eden, a restored Creation. The Promised Land was supposed to be a place where relationships between God, humans and creation would flourish. God promised that should Israel be faithful to its calling, He would extend His Kingdom from there to the ends of the earth. This would look like harmony between God, humans and creation. But for Canaan to be a restored Creation, the first thing that must happen is that everyone in the land must love God with all their heart, soul mind and strength. (Slide 11) If there are people in the land who refuse to submit to the will of God, if there are people who despise God, then the world will continue in its broken state, disharmony will continue between creation, people and God. If people are living in the land who reject God, creation will not be restored, war and conflict will continue to characterize human relationships, and people will persist in worshiping idols instead of bowing before the one true God.
`This is the theological reason why the conquest must take place. The people who were currently living in Canaan refused to love and worship the one true God. The result was that their relationships with each other and creation were filled with injustice. In Genesis 15, when God promises to give Abraham the land of Canaan, (Slide 12) God says to Abraham, “As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And your descendants shall come back here (Canaan) in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” God then mentions nine other nations along with the Amorites that are full of iniquity, or sin. When you read the book of Joshua, its these nations that Israel is at war with. War against the inhabitants of Canaan is God’s judgment against a people who have given themselves over to injustice and refused to submit to the one true God. This had been the case for over 500 years, and as Genesis 15 tells us, their sin had not yet reached its fullness, but it had by the time of Joshua. (Slide 13) This means that as long as there are people in the land who despise the Lord, the Canaan would forever be in disorder and human relationships would be characterized by conflict. So when Israel goes to war against the people inhabiting Canaan, its an act of God’s judgment. God is destroying a people who are intent on blocking God’s shalom from restoring this world. That is how the people of Israel are to be a curse to those who are cursing them, the land, and God. By removing sin from the land, relationships can be restored between God, humans and creation. That is the theological idea behind the conquest.
Yet this certainly is not a theological reason to justify Israel’s oppression of other nations simply because it's Israel. Israel is just as accountable as any other nation. If Israel acts in a way that breaks faith with God, humans and creation, they are held accountable. This is true in Joshua as it is true today. In Joshua 7, an Israelite named Achan broke faith with God and violated his commands. As a result, he was put to death. In chapter 23, Joshua warns the Israelites by saying, if you turn your back on God, (Slide 14) the nations shall be a snare and a trap for you, a scourge on your sides, and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land that the Lord your God has given you.” God has no favouritism. At the beginning of the conquest, Joshua runs into one of God’s angels, and Joshua asks, “Who’s side are you on? (Slide 15). The angel responds, "Neither; but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” God is on the side of restoring the world to justice. God is on the side of those who loose the bonds of injustice. God is on the side of those who let the oppressed go free. Those who share their bread with the hungry. Bring the homeless poor into their home. Clothe the naked. God is on the side of those who bind up the brokenhearted. God is forever an enemy of injustice and oppression and the havoc that sin wreaks upon the world.
But Israel never had a hope of fulfilling this calling. Already at the end of the book of Joshua things have begun to unravel. In the very next book, called Judges, Israel plunges into a cycle of chaos, and then Israel is the one under God’s judgment. That’s why reading the Old Testament can sometimes be scary, we realize that everybody has been touched by sin. Everyone is infected with the disease of sin. That’s part of the human condition, and God will hold us to account.
The story of the conquest of Canaan forces us to take seriously the impact of sin, injustice, cruelty and idolatry. We may be tempted to say, can’t “God look the other way?” “Can’t God just forgive?” “What’s the big deal?” Scripture agrees with any history book that the effects of sin upon the world is horrific and chaotic. Read the history of any nation, china and Tiananmen Square, Canada and residential Schools, the U.S. and slavery, Germany and the Holocaust, Myanmar and persecution of Muslims. I’m not even touching on the slavery that goes into making most of our clothes or the pollution that fuels your and my prosperity. These are stories of how sin destroys lives, ruins creation, and demolishes harmony with God. Sin creates Hell on earth. A good God cannot turn a blind eye. If God did turn a blind eye to the rank corruption of sin, we could never call him good, we could never call him just, we could never call him righteous, we could never call him locving, we could never hope for God to do anything in the face of evil. But the entire arc of Scripture proclaims the good news that God will judge injustice and put the world to right, even if that means killing those who are hell bent on putting this world wrong.
That means we all must die. All humans have been infected with sin, and he will hold all to account. So we thank God for the one who “was pierced for our transgressions; crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that brought us peace, by his wounds we are healed.” Jesus took on himself the death that would otherwise have bore down on us all. When we read the book of Joshua, we are invited to realize that without Christ we would be no different than the Canaanites in the land and the sword of judgment is coming. In reading Joshua, we are invited to picture the Commander of God’s army charging towards us with the sword of judgment. Yet at the fatal moment, at that precise and fatal moment, the Father sends His Son, His only Son, to step in and shields you with his body.
He saved your life. He took your punishment. But you still must die. After all, how can this world be restored if people are still infected with sin? So Jesus calls you to die with Him. (Slide 16) In Romans 6, Paul says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” We still die, it’s just a different kind of death. It’s a more precise death. It’s the death we undergo in Baptism. When we die in Christ, we die to our sin, our selfishness, our brokenness, our hatred towards God, our hatred towards one another. We die to sin through baptism with Jesus. And just as Christ rose from the dead, we are raised to newness of life. Now, with the Holy Spirit, living a good life is possible, it’s a reality! As we grow in the Spirit, we learn how to live in restored relationship with creation, restored relationship with each other, and restored relationship with God.
And our own story of rescue helps us to realize that Christians have a different battle strategy than those who fought in Joshua’s army. Our own story of being rescued from sin should help us realize that we don’t need to fight a Holy War or start a new Crusade. We don’t need to shoot or stab any infidel or heretic who refuses to bow their knee to Jesus Christ. The Christian way of dealing with sin isn’t a gun or lethal injection. The Christian way of dealing with sin is through prayer. The Christian way of dealing with sin is to ask the Holy Spirit to crucify sin in the sinner, so that they die with Christ and find true life. Prayer is our weapon and our gift. We pray that the most hardened criminal will be restored to relationship with God, humans and creation. We pray the same for the person who seems to have it together but is 10,000 miles from God. We pray that sin might die so they can live. That is why we are called prayer warriors. We are part of a spiritual army through which God brings forgiveness, restores a people to their true and good self, and brings glory to God. We pray for this to happen throughout the land, so the land might be restored, so that humans can live in shalom, so we can all love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.