Beyond the Lectionary Text: Joshua 6
by Mary Stegink
I imagine if you were brought up in a faith tradition, at some point in your church education (Church School/Sunday School) you acted out this story from Joshua 6. I have a very vivid memory of lining up with my classmates and quietly tip-toeing around a wall of cardboard boxes six times, and then on the seventh time – yelling with everything we had as the boxes came a-tumbling down. What fun! I also believe when my husband and I taught the first grade Church School class at our church, we did it with our students as well. There is something amazing about a story where the only weapon is the voice of the people. Again, in those early years I learned the song, “Joshua ‘fit’ the Battle of Jericho – and the walls came tumbling down!” I remember hearing about the rescue of noble Rahab and her family – and how she was adopted by the people of Israel. And that’s where the story ended. . . . there was nothing about what came next – the complete and utter destruction of Jericho – including the animals and the people. This is the part of the story we want to shove into the background – because we preach a God of grace, a God of mercy, and a God of love. How could that God command his people to destroy everything and everyone? It hurts our 21st century ears and offends our 21st century hearts. And yet – this difficult reality is part of the story.
But first – before getting into the difficult stuff – here are a few interesting tidbits about Jericho and the walls that came a-tumbling down. Jericho was a medium-sized (Anchor Bible Commentary suggests it was about 8.5 acres), walled city just west of the Jordan River. It had a spring-fed water source, and thus, was an oasis for weary, thirsty travelers. It was also an old city – having already been rebuilt a number of times. According to the NIV Study Bible – Jericho “may have a main center for the worship of the moon-god.” And for the tired, weary Israelites – it was the first stop on their way to claiming the Promised Land. After wandering around for 40 years, eating manna and the occasional quail, it was time to claim the land flowing with milk and honey. It was time to go home. Modern archeology has found many ruined walls on the site where Jericho was – but there is a great deal of disagreement on which set of walls came a-tumbling down when the Israelites crossed the Jordan.
A few notes on this style of battle: at this time in Ancient History – this tactic of marching and yelling wasn’t unknown. Coote (New Interpreter’s Bible) suggests that battle was made up of “guerilla tactics” which involved “feint, deception, display, discipline, and surprise.” He calls the seven day march a “mostly normal military procedure.” But, of course, the Israelites silent procession (can you imagine being in Jericho and watching this happen day after day? I think I would have been thoroughly creeped out by the silent procession of the people of Israel) – anyway – the Israelite’s silent procession had one thing other nations didn’t have – they had the presence of the Lord with them with every step they took. The Ark of the Covenant preceded the marching mass. Instead of warriors – the priest marched, blowing their horns as they went – and then the silent people followed. Until the seventh turn on the seventh day – when they all let loose with a jubilant cry. This cry was part battle cry and part shout of religious joy (Butler, Word Biblical Commentary). And, at last, the walls – they came a-tumbling down. The two young spies run in and rescue Rahab and her family, and then the icky part – the Israelite men rush in and kill everything and everyone, collect the gold, silver, bronze, and iron, and then burn what’s left to the ground.
The Hebrew word for this practice is ‘herem.’ ‘Herem’ is keeping everything devoted to the Lord. (Hubbard, NIV Application Commentary). In order to keep everything devoted to the Lord, some things, some people needed to be destroyed. Now, before we get our backs up on this, we need to recognize that the practice of destroying everything and everyone in a conquered city was not unique to Israel – it was actually common practice in the Ancient Days. The uniqueness of this story is that the Israelites only practiced it on the command of the Lord. And here’s where we have to remember that God was busy building a people for himself – a people that would be different than their neighbors, a people that would worship and honor God above all else. (Yeah, I know, it doesn’t last very long). And we’re talking about a time where being clean and being pure were both necessary to worship God. We are in the days before the Grace of Jesus Christ was poured out on his people. Read through Leviticus and be reminded of the purity rituals, the sacrifice rituals – all necessary for a broken people to approach a Holy God. To be tainted by foreign things and foreign practices wouldn’t work. Hubbard says this case “concerns not judgment on Canaanites for abhorrent practices but protection of the Israelites from their persuasive instruction.” Dr. Hubbard goes on the quote Stone who says this battle is “about obedience to God and not about territory or warfare.”
We also have to remember that these people were incredibly hostile towards the spies. They had an opportunity to welcome these men, listen to what they had to say – but instead they immediately went on the defensive and chased them down and chased them out. Were it not for the kindness and curiosity of the prostitute Rahab, this story may have had a very different ending. And because Rahab risked her own life to save the life of the two spies, because she was willing to listen and hear what these young men had to say, not only her life, but the life of her family was spared. Hmmmm, maybe there was some grace at work after all! Hubbard again: “this (the battle) shows his righteous anger against his opponents and his mercy and compassion toward those who turn to him.”
In the Word Biblical Commentary this chapter is titled, “Faith Fells Fortifications.” The faith of the Israelites and their obedience causes the walls to fall and for the long-held covenant to be fulfilled. At long last they can enter the Promised Land. Okay – we are post-resurrection people – we know that the Promised Land is no longer about a piece of property. We live in the fact that God’s saving grace is about our heart and not about our house. We no longer have to worry about storming the walls of a neighboring city, state, or country. But there are still all kinds of walls out there that need to be broken down. People are extremely good at building walls around their heart. And those walls keep us from being the people God wants us to be. Sometimes the walls are built out of addiction – substance addiction, pornography, addiction to work. Sometimes the walls are built out of doubt, pride, and stubbornness (and let’s face it – these are usually tougher walls to bring down). Whatever the reason, whatever the building material of the walls – they need to come a-tumbling down! Maybe you see a wall in someone you love – or maybe you feel a wall going up in your own heart. Those walls need to come down! The evils of addiction need to be purged, the evil of pride needs to be swept out completely. God doesn’t want to share your heart with anything else – your heart belongs to him and him alone.
I think we can take a few lessons from the Israelites here. To bring down the walls – first they listened to what God had to say, and then they were silent. There wasn’t a bunch of “yeah-butting” (as in Yeah, but that isn’t going to work. Or – yeah, but what if we tried it this way?) They listened and they did what the Lord told them to. Did it make sense to them? Probably not – but they did it anyway. (Did you ever wonder how they kept the children quiet?). Six days of silent marching, silent contemplation, silent remembering of how the Lord had brought them this far. And then, on the seventh day – normally the day of rest, they filled the air with shouts of praise and songs of victory! Then they cleared out the obstacles that stood in the way (and yes, I don’t feel comfortable defining people as obstacles – but in the OT world, that’s what these people were – obstacles that would have gotten in the way of God’s people being who they were supposed to be). What do we need to clear out of the way to be the people God wants us to be? Pray, be silent before the Lord, and then sing with everything you have – and let those walls come a-tumbling down!
Rev. Mary Stegink is the pastor of Ridgewood Christian Reformed Church, Ridgewood, NJ.