Read the passage here.
Last week, we mentioned that a major theme in Joshua had to do with possessing the land, and land, as we noted, is closely tied with nationhood – and we want to understand the notion of becoming a nation as inextricably intertwined with the notion of becoming a people (that is to say, this is more than just a political reality). So, after the Israelites cross the Jordan River, in an episode which is unmistakably reminiscent of the crossing of the Red Sea, Jericho is the first foreign nation they encounter.
And as anyone who is already familiar with this story knows, the battle of Jericho is described as hardly a battle at all. Jericho is described as a city surrounded and defended by a wall. And as any historian of ancient warfare would probably say, this can present a significant challenge for the attacking army.
We’re not going to get into military tactics of the ancient Near East, but suffice it to say that the Israelites’ victory over Jericho is described as – and I think, expected to be understood as – a distinctly supernatural event. Because the Israelites don’t really do much. All they do is walk (to be fair, they obey God, but they obey God by walking). For six days, they walk around the city and on the seventh, they walk around it seven times, then blow the trumpets, and the walls of the city come crashing down.
Now at this point, I feel it’s important to note that after the wall comes down, the Israelites do indeed fight the people of Jericho (i.e. there is a battle). We read in verses 20-21:
[When the walls came down] everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. 21 They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.Joshua 6:20-21
But note that we read that “they took the city” and that they “destroyed every living thing in it.” Passing over (for now) the unavoidable violence of that scene, I simply want to point out that, even though there was clearly battle involved (there must have been), what battle there was is presented almost as an after thought. The Israelites entered the city and just took it.
My point is simply that the battle (inasmuch as it is a battle) is finished when the wall comes down. The outcome is determined. And my larger point is that the outcome is accomplished by what God did, not by the Israelite’s superior forces, cunning, or skill in warfare. The victory at Jericho is presented to us as a supernatural event – God interceding in history.
Now this is going to be an overarching theme in the book of Joshua – that the land is given as a gift by God. More to the point, it is given as the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises. But it is given. Joshua’s proclamation in verse 16 underscores this point:
16 The seventh time around, when the priests sounded the trumpet blast, Joshua commanded the army, “Shout! For the Lord has given you the city!Joshua 6:16
At this point, I think it’s worth having a brief discussion of what most people consider the difficulty in the book of Joshua – which is to say, what’s with all the killing? Though the victory at Jericho is presented as a supernatural event, that the Israelites killed the people of Jericho is not in doubt – indeed, it’s commanded. And I’m not going to attempt to give a definitive “answer” to this problem. I’m not even going to suggest that there is a definitive answer. What I’m going to try to do is give us some things to think about which I hope will translate into tools to help us understand what is (and isn’t) going on in Joshua.
Let’s jump back to vv. 20-21:
20 When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. 21 They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.Joshua 6:20-21
I draw your attention to these verses because of the use of the phrase (in v. 21) “devoted…and destroyed…” You have probably noticed (or will) that this is a phrase that we see repeatedly throughout Joshua. In today’s passage alone, we have:
- 6:16 The seventh time around, when the priests sounded the trumpet blast, Joshua commanded the army, “Shout! For the Lord has given you the city! 17 The city and all that is in it are to be devoted to the Lord….
- 6:18 But keep away from the devoted things, so that you will not bring about your own destruction by taking any of them. Otherwise you will make the camp of Israel liable to destruction and bring trouble on it.
- 6:21 They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it…
The word in Hebrew is herem and it is variously translated as “destroy,” “devote,” “devote to the Lord,” or “ban” (among other things).
Using verse 21 as our reference, let’s take a look at how some of the other English translations render the word.
- (NIV) 21 They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it —men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.
- (ESV) 21 Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.
- (NASB) 21 They utterly destroyed everything in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword.
- (NRSV) 21 Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.
- (KJV) 21 And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.
The word herem is often translated as “destroy,” “utterly destroy,” or “devoted to destruction.” And depending on the immediate context (i.e. the specific sentence), this is often an appropriate translation – one which many English versions try to maintain. However, like in this passage, it can often leave a bad taste in our contemporary mouths. However, the translation of the word as “devoted to the Lord” by the NIV is super interesting to me. Not merely because it avoids the negative connotations of “totally/utterly destroy” but because of the precisely religious connotations involved. To me, there’s a sense of purpose involved here.
Now I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but the point I want to make is that herem seems to me to have something to do with God’s purpose to create a people that is set apart. And that the “utterly destroy” that we see throughout Joshua may have less to do about destroying enemies and more to do about ridding the Israelites about influences that may lead them away from God. In today’s parlance, we sometimes talk about “giving something up to God,” which seems somewhat parallel, but it lacks the fervency and zeal that is described here.
Without spoiling next week’s sermon, this may be what we’re seeing in the very next passage, the story of Achan. Chapter 7, therefore, opens with the words:
7:1 But the Israelites were unfaithful in regard to the devoted things; Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them. So the Lord’s anger burned against Israel.Joshua 7:1
Now we could spend a lot more time here but I want to move on. I’d like to draw your attention to another repeating motif in this passage, specifically the references to Rahab and her family.
The story of Rahab should be familiar to some of you. When the Israelites are preparing to cross the Jordan river, they send spies into Canaan, specifically to Jericho (and this is another episode, beside the crossing of the Jordan, which recalls the episodes in Moses’ time). These spies are in danger of being captured but are saved by Rahab. In return, they promise to safe Rahab and her family when Israel defeats Jericho.
And what we see now is the repeated remembrance of this promise.
- 6:17 The city and all that is in it are to be devoted to the Lord. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall be spared, because she hid the spies we sent.
- 6:22 Joshua said to the two men who had spied out the land, “Go into the prostitute’s house and bring her out and all who belong to her, in accordance with your oath to her.” 23 So the young men who had done the spying went in and brought out Rahab, her father and mother, her brothers and sisters and all who belonged to her. They brought out her entire family and put them in a place outside the camp of Israel.
- 6:25 But Joshua spared Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, because she hid the men Joshua had sent as spies to Jericho—and she lives among the Israelites to this day.
Now what we should pay attention to in Rahab’s story is the reason she decides to save the Israelites. In 2:8-11
8 Before the spies lay down for the night, she went up on the roof 9 and said to them, “I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. 10 We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. 11 When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.Joshua 2:8-11
At the risk of over-simplifying, Rahab is saved because she has a fear of the Lord. Which is to say, there is some recognition by Rahab that YHWH, the God of Israel, is worthy of following and worthy of devotion.
Now the main point that I want to draw out of the Rahab references is the simple fact that Rahab is a Canaanite, not an Israelite. And inasmuch as the book of Joshua is about the creation of a nation, the formation of a people (and a people set apart), why is Rahab and her family included here?
Well if nothing else, this should remind us of one of the things that we saw repeatedly throughout the gospel of Matthew. In Matthew, we saw over and over that many who assumed they belonged to the kingdom were judged as not being part of the kingdom by Jesus. Specifically, and to quote Paul, “Not all who are Israel are Israel” (Romans 9:6). In other words, though the book of Joshua involves becoming a people by possessing the land, we’re already seeing that being a real part of the people involves more than that.
This is something that is repeated throughout scripture, both the Old and the New testaments. It should come as no surprise, but it’s something that the people need to be reminded of over and over. And it’s something that we need to remember as well.
Now this leads to our final point for today. For this, we return to the opening verses of our passage, which we’ve skipped over until now. When Joshua and the Israelites arrive at Jericho and before they actually begin the “battle,” we get this episode:
5:13 Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”
14 “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell face down to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”
15 The commander of the Lord’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.Joshua 5:13-15
There are a few things going on here – one worth noting is the “take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy,” comment by the angel (we’re assuming that this is an angel). This should remind us of the words of God to Moses at the burning bush. So perhaps this is a commissioning of Joshua’s ministry and leadership in a similar way that Moses received his?
But, I want to focus on the exchange between Joshua and the angel. When Joshua arrives at Jericho, he must know that he will have to defeat Jericho in order to fulfill what God wants him to do. So when he encounters this man with a drawn sword in front of him, the question, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” seems like a thoroughly reasonable question.
But the commander/angel doesn’t answer Joshua’s question. “’Neither,’ he replied, ‘but as commander of the army of the Lord, I have now come,’”
This response of “neither” is (I think) super important. Because Joshua’s question of “are you for us or for our enemies?”, though completely reasonable contains an important assumption. The assumption being (in short) that the Israelite’s possessing of the land of Canaan, the Israelite’s victories in battle, the Israelite’s becoming a nation, are about Israel. The assumption is that God (or His representative) is there to serve Israel’s purpose, to fulfill Israel’s destiny, and ultimately to provide for Israel’s benefit. According to Joshua’s understanding and assumption, Israel is the main character in this story. You can almost forgive him for thinking that. Because it’s Joshua who leads the people. It’s Israel who walks around Jericho for 7 days. It’s Israel who defeats the city. You can almost forgive them for thinking it’s all about them.
But it’s not. It’s God’s story. God is doing something in history, God is doing something to redeem creation, God is doing something to save humankind. Make no mistake, Joshua and Israel play a part in it. Joshua matters. He’s more than just a pawn, a bit actor in somebody else’s play. God is not asking Joshua to give up his uniqueness or his individuality. That’s not what’s being asked. Joshua is being asked, does he want to be a part of God’s story or his own?
In the gospel, we see that Jesus is committed to God’s story. The religious leaders were committed to their own. The religious leaders sought their own ends through their own means for their own glory. But Jesus walked willingly and faithfully to the cross, for the sake of what the Father was doing in history to redeem the world. Whose story do we want to be a part of?
We’ve covered a lot of material very quickly today. For that, I apologize. But I hope that over the next week we can each devote some time (in the midst of your other devotions, I trust) to think about some of the things we see in the story of Israel at Jericho. I know that not all of the questions have been answered, in this story or undoubtedly in our own. But I hope that we can believe that God is doing something, and He’s doing something good. I invite all of us to become participants in what God is doing for His kingdom.