Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Bible Commentary - Joshua Introduction

This has been a long time coming.  I had to take a 4 month hiatus to deal with various personal situations, and it's possible I'm going to take another break from posting soon as well.  But while I have some time off, I'm going to see how much of Joshua I can get done.  That's enough about me.

As a whole, Joshua is a very close continuation of the Pentateuch.  I can say this for a few reasons.

  1. Joshua appears several times in the Pentateuch, beginning in Exodus 17, and later in Numbers and Deuteronomy.  He isn't a major character at first, but he grows in significance as Moses approaches the end of his life and anoints Joshua to be his successor.  Now that Moses is dead, it is time for Joshua to really take over and lead the Israelites into the promised land.
  2. The story in Joshua is tightly coupled with the story of the Pentateuch.  In the introduction to Deuteronomy, I said that Deuteronomy ends on the eve of the invasion of the promised land, and in this way Deuteronomy leaves the story unresolved.  Joshua is in large part a resolution to Deuteronomy, because without taking the promised land, the promise itself is unfulfilled.  Everything that the Israelites were commanded to do culminates in Joshua, although as we will see the invasion is not completed in this book.
  3. Similar to my prior point, a lot of Deuteronomy is warnings and exhortations preparing the Israelites to invade the promised land.  Without actually invading, these warnings are meaningless.
  4. There are literary parallels, such as the appearance of the LORD to Moses in Exodus 3, cf. the appearance of the LORD to Joshua in Joshua 5.  Another parallel is the crossing of the Jordan river (Josh 3), cf. the crossing of the Red Sea (Ex 14).
In conclusion, it is evident that the writer of Joshua must have been aware of the Pentateuch, while the author of the Pentateuch clearly anticipated the book of Joshua.

As a result of this, much of the authorship and dating information about the Pentateuch also applies to Joshua.  It is exceedingly likely that Joshua is dated in the same period as when Deuteronomy was written, and it is also likely that the author or authors of Deuteronomy were involved in the creation of Joshua.  It's not just that Joshua "fits well" on Deuteronomy, it's that Deuteronomy has narrative gaps that demand resolution, which Joshua provides.

Joshua also returns to the story narrative form of Exodus or Numbers and it does not possess the same legal structure as Leviticus or Deuteronomy.  For my readers, this is probably a good thing because it means Joshua is much easier to read and (for most people) more interesting than Deuteronomy.  There's about six chapters towards the end that contain some administrative information about the proper division of the land (i.e. assigning allotments to the tribes), but the rest of the book should be reasonably entertaining.

Joshua really only has one theme, and that is the invasion of the promised land.  They cross over into the land, engage in war with the inhabitant nations, wipe some of them out, spare some others, and then assign divisions of the land to the tribes.  It's interesting to note that the divisions assigned to the tribes include land that hasn't yet been conquered, so the division was done in anticipation of future conquest (and in accordance with the land promised to them by the LORD).  The story concludes with Joshua giving a speech to the Israelites and dying, just like Moses did.

A topic that always seems to come up when discussing Joshua is the genocide waged against the Canaanites.  This isn't the first time the topic has come up though; we saw a similar command against the Amalekites (Ex 17) and most of the actual commands to wipe out the Canaanites were in earlier books like Deuteronomy.  Nevertheless, I feel it is worth addressing because unlike Deuteronomy, Joshua really is a book about war and not much else.  A common criticism of this book (and really the OT in general) is that the genocide directed against the Canaanites is 1) unjustified and 2) a terrible precedent of God-ordained murder, essentially legitimatizing every murder by equivocation (i.e. "if God ordered the murder of all the Canaanites, why wouldn't he order the murder of all Americans/Jews/dolphins/etc").  I think the first of these two points (that it is unjustified) can be addressed relatively easily, so I will do this first.  The second point is more insidious, and therefore I will address it last.

Is the murder of the Canaanites unjustified?  The basic answer here is that the bible is Israel-centric.  It is written for Israelites, by Israelites, and about Israelites.  The inclusion of other nations is in large part incidental, and their references only exist to the extent that they affect Israel in some way.  In the Amalekites (Ex 17) we find stern hostility and resistance to the migration of the Israelites out of Egypt.  In Joshua, we find the exact same thing from the various Canaanite nations.  In Joshua the Canaanites are strawmen; figures constructed or included for the sole purpose of resisting Israel and most of the time getting beaten by Israel.  Like Pharaoh, they are fodder whose purpose in this account is to provide insurmountable obstacles to demonstrate the surpassing power of the LORD in bringing about his promises.

Earlier in this commentary I said that the OT provides physical demonstration of what the NT turns into spiritual principles, and that is a very important reading of this book.  While this doesn't address the rationale for why the Canaanites deserve death, it does show us something even more important: what the author was trying to convey through this book.  I believe understanding the author's intent is a critical part of biblical interpretation, because it is the author's intent that dictates what information is included and what is excluded from the bible.  Since the bible is a story about the Israelites and not about the Canaanites, the author simply never included a larger discussion of Canaanite history.  Therefore assessing the moral character or legitimacy of Canaanite culture is simply not possible from the source material available here.  In order to understand why the LORD brought judgment on these nations, we would need to read the story of the Canaanites, and that story is not found here.

I think more can be said about the first point, but I will stop here.  For the second point, I think it is a more difficult proposition, but this isn't the first time we've faced it.  There is a similar moral dilemma in Gen 22 when Abraham is ordered by God to murder his son.  I think the fundamental question here is whether God could ask someone to do something immoral.  What this implies is that either God does not obey his own moral system (and therefore sins) or more realistically, God's moral system differs from our own and therefore commands us to do something that he finds moral, but we do not.  This spawns all sorts of hypothetical questions and comparisons to serial killers.  Among other things, I must address the reliability of whether we are actually hearing from God.

In the case of serial killers who sometimes assert that "God told them to do it", the general presumption is that they did not hear from God.  But how do you know?  And how would anyone know if God ever spoke to them?  Not that I believe such atrocities are inspired by God, but there is an inherent unreliability to hearing from God because it's just so unusual in our day and time, and this unreliability troubles me.

The fact that liars or schizophrenics say that "God told them" to do horrible things doesn't erase the fact that God does speak, and sometimes does tell people to do other things.  However, it does give us pause.  Deception never undoes the truth, but it should make us wary, especially when we are asked to do things contrary to our wisdom and judgment.

Even within the confines of our own minds there are many mental and physical conditions that make people hear or see things that do not exist, or not hear or see things that do.  The modernist philosophers of the 19th century wished to construct a world with absolute space, absolute time and a definite knowledge of what is real and true.  The post-modernists of the 20th century eviscerated those dreams and in their place we now have a relativistic universe where time and space change based on perspective, and to most philosophers, morality and truth also change based on perspective.

Does this philosophy accord with the Christian faith?  In large part it does not, because the existence of an omnipotent God results in an absolute morality.  Moral relativism puts man on a level with God, implying that man can create his own morality that is neither better nor worse than that of the bible.  This is the old dream of Genesis 3, to know good and evil and to judge truth according to our own wishes, with no master or king.

However, even if one agrees that an absolute morality exists in the abstract, there is an additional challenge of aligning our own moralities and lives with that absolute, and this is a troubling challenge indeed.

In a separate line of thought, we could ask whether God could ever order someone to actually commit a sin.  I have never met anyone who thought the answer was yes, so most people regard this as a paradox that disproves the reality of the biblical God.  I.e. no true god would ever order someone to commit a sin, and the god of the bible ordered the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites, which is a sin, therefore the god of the bible is not a true god.  This logic seems unassailable, but to it I would simply reply with my analysis above about whether murdering the Canaanites is justified.  I think there are just too many unknown variables to reasonably address whether the Canaanites "deserved" it.

One could raise similar objections to anytime God kills people, such as the flood in Noah's time, the fire and brimstone that fell upon Sodom and Gomorrah, and many other such events.  What is unique about the invasion of Canaan is how the LORD is using human agents to carry out his ordained destruction, rather than supernatural events beyond mortal control.  Therefore I have focused mostly on the issue of human agency.

There are many more such troubles and problems that I could enumerate given enough space and time, but most of them will be of similar character to those listed above.  There isn't really any one thing I can say to address all these points, but I need to conclude this somehow.  Here's what I will say: the Lord's capability to lead us is greater than the devil's capability to deceive us.  There are many difficulties in this life, but I believe that if I genuinely seek the LORD and try to align my morality with his, he will help me and bring that alignment about.  And the LORD will never command anyone to do something contrary to his morality or his truth.  There are a lot more questions one could ask about the justice (or lack thereof) in wiping out the Canaanites, but greater than my doubt is my sense of trust that the LORD has always done the right thing.  I don't trust the LORD because of some theological system, but because of what I've seen him do in my own life.  All these other events, genocides and serial killers and stuff, is all so distant from the realm of my existence I simply don't know if I can say anything about it with certainty.  If you disagree... who am I to question you?

No comments: