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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Learning Obedience: A Textual Study


The Book of Joshua is a story filled with conquest, covert operations, and political intrigue. But as such, the book has a very odd beginning. Joshua does not begin with warfare or engaging action, but rather in chapter 1 with 3 speeches from 3 different speakers.
         These speeches are given on the heels of the expected—yet still tragic—death of Moses. Moses led the people of Israel in a way that no other had, and likely no other ever would. It is common among nations and governments during this time in history, that at the death of such a great leader, that the people would be plunged into revolution or civil war. It is at this fragile time that we find the introductory chapter of Joshua. Moses has passed on, and the younger Joshua has been charged to take up his mantle. The Lord begins his speech in verse 2, “Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them—to the Israelites.”
         God leads off with a stirring speech directed at his people, specifically Joshua. He tells them that he has already given them the land. But this is where it gets interesting, because God sets the task of the Israelites out before them. Their task is not to defeat the Canaanites, but rather they must meditate on and be obedient to God’s Law. To only be strong and courageous.
         In verses 10-15, Joshua has heard the word of the Lord and, in turn, faces his own people and gives his own speech. You may notice if you read the text how elements of God’s speech cascade into Joshua’s. Joshua readily accepts the land given to the Israelites and calls for obedience.
         Regarding the final speech in the chapter, it is ambiguous as to who gives it. While likely the 2 ½ tribes of the Transjordan are responding to Joshua, I think it is reasonable to read it as representing a response from all the children of Israel. Here, the Israelites accept the charge of the Lord and accept the charge of Joshua, and, at the end, again call for Joshua to be strong and courageous and to be obedient. You’ll notice that everything in these three speeches is not about the war to come, but is about maintaining obedience to God’s law.
         With that said, if you read verse 17, you notice that the Israelites said, “Just as we fully obeyed Moses…” Obedience has never been their strong suit, so coming from the children of Israel, this is not very reassuring. In fact, looking back on Israel’s recent history, we find them wandering the in the wilderness for 40 years because they were unfaithful, grumbling about food and water, building an idol as the Lord writes the 10 Commandments, giving rise to multiple rebellions, and ending off the whole desert trek by fornicating and worshiping false gods at Peor.
         Obviously, the Israelites aren’t very good at obedience. So when they say to Joshua and the Lord, “We will follow you just as we did Moses,” we already have our doubts. But even with those doubts, we are not prepared for what we find when we turn to chapter 2. There we have the famous story of the Israelite spies hiding up on the roof of Rahab, the prostitute’s house. It is interesting to note when reading the story that Rahab, a foreigner and a prostitute is given a name, while the spies are not, showing us who this story is really about.
         After Rahab has saved the spies’ lives, she approaches them with a request. Notice her courage and faith here, the qualities that the children of Israel were told to exhibit. She comes before the spies and requests mercy. She knows of the power of God and all he has done; she simply requests his grace on her and her household. She asks the spies to swear this promise by the name of the Lord. (As an aside, it is interesting that the spies repeatedly say in this section, “We shall be guiltless if…” as if to show their lack of faith compared to Rahab’s.)
         By this deed of submission to God, Rahab instantly joins into the conversation of 3 speeches delivered earlier in chapter 1. She becomes a 4th voice where there was previously only 3. She answers the call of obedience and requests obedience and mercy form the part of Israel and their God.
         The spies agree to her terms, and we actually don’t see the prostitute again until after Israel has conquered Jericho at the end of chapter 6. Joshua tells all of the warriors to storm the city, devoting all of its inhabitant to destruction, except Rahab. Joshua, instead, directs the spies we saw in chapter 2 to enter the city and retrieve Rahab and her family. In both of the paragraphs that reference Rahab in this section, she and her whole household are referenced alongside all of the precious metals in Jericho that are to be saved and devoted to the Lord’s treasury. It seems as if the same thing is to be done to Rahab. She is to be brought into Israel, to be a part of God’s people. Verse 25 tells us, “She has lived in Israel to this day, because she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho.” Because she was obedient.
         Finally look at chapter 7, the story immediately following that of Rahab. Verse 1 begins, “But the people of Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things, for Achan the son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of the devoted things. And the anger of the Lord burned against the people of Israel.” Obviously, the Israelites are unaware of this, because they try to take the city of Ai after this. When they are brutally beaten, Joshua cries out to the Lord, asking why he has forsaken his covenant. The Lord says he has done no such thing, but rather Israel has been disobedient and has stolen from what is rightfully the Lord’s.
         The Lord aids Joshua in locating the perpetrator, Achan. Notice that the method used to identify Achan, as well as verse 1 and verse 18 emphasize the full lineage of Achan. According to one scholar, Achan’s pedigree is impeccable. In a way, while Rahab was the ultimate outsider, a gentile prostitute, Achan is the ultimate insider, a full-blooded Israelite from the largest tribe Judah. But it is Achan, who upon discovery of his disobedience of God’s Law, is taken outside the camp to be stoned. In a way, he is stripped of his identity as an Israelite. And he is killed.
            The juxtaposition of the story of Rahab and the story of Achan and the irony within them is almost certainly purposefully done by the author. More time is allotted to telling these stories than is given to the collapsing of the walls of Jericho—what many have thought to be the focal point of the Joshua narrative. The irony is that those we would not expect are actually a part of God’s chosen people, while those we would expect from their very name are often not a part of God’s people. Identity in the Lord is based on nothing else but our submission to the will of the Lord.
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