Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Joshua: And the Walls Come Tumbling Down

Hello, and a grateful welcome to those of you who may be reading. Hope you’ve been enjoying yourself so far. And more importantly, hope you’ve been thinking about things so far, whether you agree with my interpretations or not.

Today we are inaugurating our discussion of the Book of Joshua, which describes the Jewish invasion of Canaan (aka “the Promised Land”). Over and over up until now, God has been promising this land to the Israelite people, and commanding them to utterly obliterate (down to the women, children, and livestock) the people who already live there. So now we shall see how the people carry out that commission.

We start out with God commanding Joshua to lead the invasion, promising that they will claim all the land of Lebanon and the wilderness, and the land of the Hittites from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean. He further promises that “no man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life.” Joshua then commands the people to start making ready, because in three days’ time they are going to cross the Jordan and start to take possession of the land.

While they’re getting ready, Joshua sends a couple men to spy out the land they’ll be coming to first. And the process starts out with hilarity.

Jos 2:1 And Joshua the son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying ‘Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” And they went and came into the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab and lodged there.”

Go on… tell me that’s not hilarious! He sends some guys out, and the very first thing they do after getting out of sight is shack up at a whorehouse? Bwahahaha!

Although, to be fair… nothing in any of the draconian sexual laws presented so far actually forbids men (married or otherwise) from seeing a prostitute. For that matter, nothing prevents a divorced or widowed woman from seeing one either. It’s just that Israelites are not allowed to be prostitutes.

Anyway, somehow the king of Jericho found out about the spies, and sent men to arrest them. But Rahab hid them in the thatching of her roof, and told the would-be captors that the men had already left the city. So they took off in hot pursuit. Since it was nighttime, the city gates were closed after them.

Then Rahab went to the spies and told them that the people of Jericho had heard all about how God had given the land to them, and that all the men were afraid of the coming invasion. And how she was eager to sell out her own people. So she asked them to promise that if she helped keep their business secret, the Israelites would spare her and her family when they invaded the city. The spies agreed, and told her to tie a scarlet ribbon in her window when the invasion started, so the Israelites would know to spare everyone in the house. Then Rahab advised them to head into the wilderness to avoid the king’s patrols, and helped them get out of the city by lowering them from a rope out of her window (since her house was built into the city wall).

So… remember how God ordered the Israelites not to make any deals with anyone in the promised land, or to allow any of them to live? The invasion hasn’t even begun, and that command is out the window. Rahab didn’t even promise to start worshipping Yahweh exclusively or anything! But, y’know… who won’t go that extra mile for someone who gives them sex (even if it is for money)?

Anyway, the spies then hid out in the wilderness for a few days until the patrols had stopped, then crossed back over the Jordan to report to Joshua. So Joshua told everyone that they’d be marching across the Jordan the next day.

In the morning, Joshua sent a group of Levitical priests ahead of the people carrying the ark. God promised Joshua that he’d start doing miracles to prove to everyone that Joshua was in charge, and that to start with he should have the priests with the ark walk out into the Jordan. As soon as the priests’ feet touched the water, the flow was cut off upstream of them, so that the water raised up in a heap behind the cutoff point and the people could proceed across just by walking over the dry river bed. The priests stood in the middle of the river with the ark while everyone else trooped across.

Once they were across, God told Joshua to have a man from each tribe pull up a river stone from the place where the priests were standing, and take that to their encampment to set up as a memorial. They did so, and then the priests followed them up out of the Jordan. As soon as they were clear of the riverbed, the water started flowing again.

Now for some odd reason, although it had been the custom of the Israelites to circumcise their sons all the time they were living in Egypt, none of the boys born on the trip through the wilderness after the exodus had been circumcised. There had been no order to that effect, heck it wasn’t even mentioned anywhere in the four books written to describe that journey, but here we are told that the whole people had apparently abandoned the practice for no particular reason. And because of that, once they crossed the Jordan, everyone had to be circumcised.

The people remained in camp until they healed, and from then until Passover. And the very next day after Passover, they started to live off the food of the land and the manna ceased to fall.

As they approach Jericho, Joshua comes across a man with a drawn sword in his hand. So Joshua demands to know whether the man stands for them or against them. I’m certain the ensuing exchange is meant to be meaningful, but I think it falls under the heading of unintentional hilarity. The fellow answers:

Jos 5:14 And he said ‘No; but I am the commander of the army of Yahweh. Now I have come.’ And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshipped and said to him ‘What does my lord say to his servant?’ 15 And the commander of Yahweh’s army said to Joshua ‘Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so.”

That’s it. That is the whole conversation between them. God sent the commander of his army to tell his chosen prophet on earth to take off his damned shoes. And that’s where Chapter 5 ends.

Then we jump into Chapter 6, and by verse 2 God is speaking directly with Joshua again. So what the hell was even the point of having the commander as the intermediary two verses earlier? Was God just unwilling to put in an appearance in the presence of unholy sandaled feet?

Sometimes I feel like the author put shit in here for no other reason than to make the reader do double takes.

But anyway, when God speaks to Joshua he lays out the battle plan for taking Jericho. You all may be familiar with this – they made us sing the song in Sunday School. Though both the song and the Sunday School lessons left out a few details (not least of which is the fact that the people of Jericho had never done a fucking thing to the Israelites).

The people are supposed to line up in front of the ark, with seven priests bearing rams’ horns directly in front of it. For six days in a row, they’re supposed to march around the city once, with the priests blowing on the horns. On the seventh day, they’re supposed to march around seven times, and after the last time the priests are supposed to give a long blast. When they hear the long trumpet blast, everyone is supposed to shout as loud as they can, and the walls will fall flat.

So they do all that marching around and blowing trumpets stuff. And just before the final trumpet blast, Joshua pauses to give some instructions about what they’re supposed to do once the walls fall. Which is kill everything that moves, set aside the gold, silver, bronze, and iron stuff for the Lord’s treasury (i.e. Joshua) because they are holy to God (i.e. valuable), and burn everything that’s left.

So then they give their mighty shout, the walls fall flat, they storm the city, and they kill everything: “men and women, young, and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys…” Except for Rahab and her household, whom the men are instructed to retrieve from her house (you know… the house that was built into the walls… that had just collapsed… but whatever, poor storytelling is poor). And Rahab and her family are allowed to live happily ever after among the Israelites.

Then Joshua lays a curse on the remains of Jericho that anyone who tries to rebuild the city will do so only at the cost of his children’s lives. ‘Cause if you’re already being a dick, you might as well piss on people too.

Oh, but then a problem arises…

Jos 7:1 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 Yahweh burned against the people of Israel.”

The “devoted things” here refers to the stuff they were ordered to destroy when sacking the city (i.e. anything other than the precious metals). Achan, one guy, secretly kept some of that stuff as plunder, so everyone is considered to have broken faith with God.

But before any of this comes to light, Joshua sends some spies to a nearby town called Ai. And when they come back, they tell him there’s no need for everyone to go all the way there – about two or three thousand men should be enough to take Ai. So Joshua sends a force of three thousand me. But when the people of Ai come out to fight, the Israelites suddenly turn chicken and run, so the people of Ai give chase and kill thirty-six of them before the Israelites make good their escape.

When Joshua hears about this, he turns into a little bitch, wailing and crying to God about how now they’re all doomed to be destroyed. God then basically tells him to quit his whining, the Israelites sinned by taking some of the stuff they were supposed to destroy in God’s name, and they won’t be able to stand in battle anymore until Joshua finds that shit and actually destroys it. Oh, and burns the person responsible to death along with all he has.

So God tells him that he’ll find the culprit by drawing lots, first to narrow down to the tribe, then to clan, then to household, and finally down to the man. ‘Cause, y’know, God couldn’t just say a fucking name or anything. Or, for that matter, maybe mentioning something about it before getting a bunch of men killed in battle as punishment for it? Less theater that way, I guess.

The next morning Joshua gathers everyone around, and goes through the rigmarole of drawing lots until he finally gets down to Achan. Confronted, Achan admits that he’d taken a cloak, a gold bar, and some silver and buried them under his tent. Joshua sends messengers to dig them up and bring them back to complete the proof of Achan’s guilt.

Jos 7:24 And Joshua and all Israel with him took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver and the cloak and the bar of gold, and his sons and daughters and his oxen and donkeys and sheep and his tent and all that he had. And they brought them up to the Valley of Achor. 25 And Joshua said ‘Why did you bring trouble on us? Yahweh brings trouble on you today.” And all Israel stoned him with stones. They burned them with fire and stoned them with stones.”

Now, I gotta say, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for Achan. After all, as a participant in the sacking of Jericho, he is no doubt a murderer of women and children several times over in addition to being a thief. But so is everyone who’s stoning him. Nobody here seems to give a flying fuck about the child murder, though, because God ordered it. Whereas stealing against God’s command is a capital offense.

Also, it’s rather strongly implied up there that his children were stoned and burned as well. Which, in addition to being abhorrent, is explicitly prohibited even by the fucked up moral sense of Mosaic law which states that a child shall not be put to death for the sins of his father (Deuteronomy 24:16).

It’s shit like this that makes it hard to take seriously the claims of Christians that they have an objective moral basis. Because even if you were to buy into the moral laws presented in the Bible, God overrides them all the fucking time. Which means the only consistent law here is “obey,” and “obey” is not a moral basis – it’s the complete abrogation of personal moral responsibility. To say nothing of the fact that no one can even objectively demonstrate that they receive any communication from this God thing in the first place, which boils all of it down in the end to “do whatever arbitrary shit you can convince yourself to believe strongly enough to think God wants you to do.”

Ok, rant over, and back to the story. Now that they’ve killed the sinner, the Israelites are ready to take a second crack at Ai. This time they take their full fighting force of 40,000 men, and God orders them to lay an ambush by hiding the large majority of their fighters on the other side of the city. Joshua takes a smaller force toward the gates, then has them turn and run away just like they had done the first time. The fighters from Ai, seeing them run and thinking this will be just like the first fight, stream out of the city to give chase.

So while the fighters are away chasing the decoy force, the ambushers bust into the city and kill all the undefended women and children. They set the city on fire, and at this signal the decoy force turns back to attack their pursuers. Then the ambushers came out of the burning city to catch Ai’s fighters between the two groups and slaughter them. Finally, everyone returns to the city to make sure they kill any remaining women and children, and to loot the place (this time, arbitrarily, they’re allowed to keep plunder). They hang the king, but then take him down and bury him beneath a pile of rocks at the city gates by nightfall (sure, that law they follow).

Seems a little odd that earlier in the story, Joshua’s spies tell him that a force of 3,000 men should be all that’s needed to take Ai, but his full army of 40,000 needs this elaborate ruse of an ambush to pull it off. Methinks I detect the gently wafting scent of bullshit on the air. Not sure where it is, so we’ll just let it float on by as we bring today’s post to a close.

So there we go. Through sheer, wanton brutality mixed with a bit of whoring about and internal injustice, the Israelites have gained their first foothold in the promised land. Can’t wait to see what they do next!

Until then, you all take care.

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