On Sunday at church, we looked briefly at Joshua 6, the fall of Jericho.
I say briefly. This was an all-age service, and we're running through a Bible overview at these monthly services. So my rule of thumb is that the talk should be followable by someone aged about 7, whilst having application and food for thought for those of any age. That means one main point, and the talk has to be brief.
So I hit just one point: God gave them the city. This was anchored in the promises to Abraham we'd looked at in an earlier month: The city was part of God's gift of the land. You'd expect there to be a great siege and battle; instead, these are strangely absent from the account. Instead, you get a series of marches around the city led by priests with trumpets and the ark, symbolising God's presence with them. The army of Israel knew how to fight and was good at it - they'd already won victories in Transjordan to the east, and would later win other victories west of the river. But this first conquest after crossing the Jordan underlined the key principle: It was the sovereign gifting of God that would give them this land, not their military might and strategy. The "battle of Jericho" is one of the most misnamed stories in the Bible.
Talking to people afterwards, there were a number of issues it would have been good to cover, but the all-age format did not allow. In particular, two questions:
- Whilst Jericho fell without a prolonged battle, it was not without violence. The Israelites still had to enter the city and kill everyone within. How does this story fit in the Christian Scriptures?
- Some people would use this passage to give legitimacy to the modern state of Israel, and/or to Jewish settlers occupying parcels of land historically owned by Palestinians. Does this text justify that, or is that a misuse of the text?
Let's look at those questions. There are a number of features about the passage and its context that we must not miss.
Don't Miss God's Patience
Here's what God actually said when he promised the land to Abraham in Genesis 15:16:
In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.
In order for God to give this land to Abraham's family, he had to take it from those already living there. This was a punishment on them. Here's Deuteronomy 9:4:
After the Lord your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, ‘The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.’ No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you.
After God decided to do this, he waited 430 years. Why? The sin of the occupants was not yet bad enough to justify this. When God gives warning, and then delays exacting judgement, implicit is that this is an opportunity for the guilty to repent and be spared. (This is something God makes explicit in prophecies of other judgement events.)
430 years. That's a long time. That's like the people of England being notorious sinners in the year 1590 (in the second half of the reign of Elizabeth I). Rather than punishing us immediately, God decides to give our nation "a bit of time to mend our ways". Instead of getting better, we get worse. Until, finally, around about now, things have got so bad that God moves against us in judgement.
That is extraordinary patience. Things had got terrible by this point, and arguably judgement was overdue. Archaeologists have excavated widespread evidence of child sacrifice across the Ancient Near East. Excavations in 1966 by J B Hennessey showed this to include Amman, Jordan, dated 1400 to 1250 BC.
The modern mind reads Joshua 6 and pictures an amoral God favouring his chosen race, kicking out "those lovely people west of the Jordan" to make space. In fact, God is profoundly moral, and what stands out is not his arbitrary justice but his extraordinary patience towards the Canaanites.
Don't Miss God's Grace
"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." (Joshua 6:25)
Not every Canaanite inside Jericho was killed. Rahab was spared, and it was not because she was the most moral and upstanding citizen in the city. In fact, the New Testament uses her as an example of real faith that shows itself in a transformed life, because her belief God would be victorious led her to change sides (James 2:25). She's used as an example of real faith from which we can all learn (Hebrews 11:31).
It was not just Rahab who was spared. This included her family, and curiously "all who belonged to her". That may mean her servants, if she was especially wealthy. Alternatively, it may mean those who chose to attach themselves to her household at this key moment in Jericho's history.
When Israel left Egypt, Egyptians could have chosen to leave with them. It was not the ethnicity of the Israelites that spared them, but their passover lambs. Egyptians had the option to trust in Israel's God, and attach themselves to him. There is a long line of non-Jews who have done exactly this, including Rahab and her family, then Ruth (who married Boaz), and many others.
Living in Jericho did not lead inexorably to slaughter. The other option was to join sides with the people of God.
Don't Miss God's Judgement
The hardest hitting words on judgement come from the lips of Jesus himself:
"If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where “the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched." (Mark 9:43-47)
The book of Revelation pictures people in futile efforts to hide when Jesus wrath comes in full force:
"Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?’" (Revelation 6:15-17)
Hebrews 10:31 warns Christians not to turn their back on the Christian gospel which alone can save them:
"It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
The fate of the inhabitants of Jericho is but a pale foreshadowing of all this. If God's judgement against the Canaanites seems excessive, it can only be because we have not fully grasped just what our own sin deserves. If we miss God's judgement, we will struggle to understand what God does at Jericho. Once we start to sense the depths of our own sin, it will no longer seem out of character.
At this point, we need to remember the previous two points. God's justice is not out of character or excessive. What would be out of character was judgement without him also showing grace and mercy. But we've seen that God delayed his judgement for 430 years, and then gave any who would the chance to join his people and be spared his judgement.
This God is our God. The day of his wrath will be dreadful, but there is a long delay with plenty of opportunity to shelter amongst his people before that day comes.
Don't Miss God's Son
Lastly, we mustn't forget God's Son, Jesus. The God of the New Testament is the same as the God of the Old, but the fact we are under the new covenant does affect these matters. In particular, it affects how we see the land of Israel and it affects how we see God's judgement being enacted.
Let's start with the land of Israel. God promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and his seed. In the old covenant, the land of Israel had two foci: the city of Jerusalem, and the temple. In the new covenant, we see a new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven, symbolising the entire new heavens and new earth (new cosmos) God will create for his people. The temple itself is no longer needed, because Jesus' perfect sacrifice fulfilled all the sacrifices of the old temple, and because God is now present in his people by his Spirit. Accordingly, Jesus prophesied that, within one generation, the temple and the city would be destroyed (Mark 13:2). They no longer have a purpose.
Jesus is the one true Israelite, and the heir to that promise to Abraham. Satan promised Jesus would have all the kingdoms of this world if he bowed down and worshipped Satan. Jesus rightly refused, and instead died on the cross and rose again to say the words: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." Jesus, whose name in Hebrew is Joshua, has fulfilled the conquest of the land by conquering the whole earth.
All who trust him are now part of the true Israel, whether they be of Jew or Gentile ethnicity (Ephesians 2:11-22). In the old covenant, the people had to possess the parcel of land that was especially theirs. Stories of conquest of the land do not lead us take up arms to conquer any holy land for ourselves. Instead, they lead us to Jesus, the new Joshua. In the new covenant, we call people from every land to follow the Jesus in whom they inherit the entire earth (Matthew 5:5).
The new covenant also changes the locus of God's judgement. The old covenant was temporal. God executed judgement on nations using other nations as agents of wrath. Sometimes, the nations being used by God did not know that he was behind their military campaigns (Habakkuk 1:5-11). But Joshua 6 is an example of God commanding his own people to act in this way.
In the new covenant, God may use the ebb and flow of world history to shape world empire and to judge sinful people in a temporal way. However the canon of Scripture is now closed, and his people are no longer those of a particular ethnic race. We will not therefore have a fresh word from God commanding one nation to war against another, as an explicit instrument of his wrath. Instead, the final judgement is when Jesus returns to wrap up history. God the Father "has entrusted all judgement to the Son" (John 5:22). Acts 17:31 says the same thing. Romans 12:19 specifically says that we are not to be the instruments of God's judgement, but to leave it to him: "Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord."
The change to the theme of "land" led us to tell others of Jesus, that they may inherit the land. The change to the theme of "judgement" also leads us to tell others of Jesus. We are not instruments of judgement, but messengers of the good news how judgement can be avoided.
There is no mandate here for personal vengeance, for one nation to go to war against another, or for one people group to claim any particular piece of land as God's gift to them. (This is not the place to discuss Just War Theory - that's a whole other topic. I'm just saying there's no mandate for war in this chapter.)
So, we need Joshua 6 in our Bibles. It reminds us that God is not tame, and that it is a dreadful thing to fall into his hands. It reminds us that our sin is worse than we realise. It also tells us that God delays judgement to give people time to repent, and that the delay includes the opportunity to join God's people and so move to a place of safety when judgement falls.
The new covenant tells us that these same principles will play out on a universal scale when Jesus returns. He is the true judge, but he also calls those of every nation to follow him. Those who heed this call will enjoy living with him on a renewed earth, for the whole earth has been conquered by him.