Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls came a tumblin’ down.
If it had only been that easy, that child-friendly. The biblical book of Joshua is a deeply disturbing read. It’s the story of holy war. It is savage and brutal, a story of violent conquest and destruction of the people who already occupied the land. They are listed there: “The citizens of Jericho who fought against you, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you,’ said the Lord.” This is not an image of God, or of God’s will and working, that we want to claim – although, it is the American narrative, too. It is the story of all colonizing, conquering nations. They act with the conviction that God is for them, with them. Lord, have mercy.
The book of Joshua ends with this chapter. At the end of his life, Joshua summons the people of Israel to obedience to the God who has brought them thus far along the way. The stakes are high: Joshua has been their leader since Moses died. He has led them into the promised land and into the battles that won them the land. Now he is about to die. It’s a time of transition. He prays that transition will not bring forgetfulness. The people are getting comfortable, enjoying the milk and honey, the fruits of orchards and vineyards and olive groves. But in the background of their domestic scene stands the covenant between this small people and the mighty God who demonstrates power both in saving and in destroying. Israel must remember, and commit to their promise. “Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee; lest, our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee; shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand, true to our God, true to our … well, their squatter’s land.” They must remember and say, ‘I do’. And mean it.
I’ve noticed that in wedding ceremonies, puppy love drains out of the couple’s faces when we get to the public, spoken intent to take and keep and cherish for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others as long as they both shall live. Their lips quiver, their eyes take quick flight over family members and friends – noting the various conditions of ‘better and worse’ evident among those smiling encouragement … eyes suddenly cognizant, calculating – in their last moment – the risks involved in covenantal union.
So far, they’ve all gulped, and, trembling, have said, “I do.”
Buying a house causes this kind of trembling, as I recall. I’m guessing retirement does, too. Bringing home your first newborn. Deciding on risky medical treatment or hospice care. There are events in our lives that take on momentous, sobering, life-will-never-be-the-same consequences. There is a strong impulse to turn and run. But something calls us to stay. To say, ‘yes’; to pledge our troth and see it through, to be faithful and trusting, even though there is no guarantee that things will go smoothly or that we will be happy or safe.
I’m betting Joshua felt this. He was trying to convey the danger as well as the promise of a covenant with the Almighty One.
Reading these Old Testament texts are good for us. That’s why I keep dragging you through them. For one thing, Joshua asks a good question. We’ll come back to that.
Another benefit is that they cause us to deal with the dissonance created between the God portrayed in these readings and the cozier, friendlier, more majestic images of God we prefer – those that feature divine love and forbearance and welcome – eagles wings and star-lit mangers. This is the same One God who established the world, and took to the evening breezes to wander in Eden with his earthlings; who invited Abraham out into the desert night to count stars; who provided for Hagar and Ishmael in the desert and created another nation through them; who huffed and puffed on Mt Sinai, but forgave the stiff-necked people and agreed to try again; who, thousands of years later, came to be known in Jesus. All of the various stories and images of God in scripture are facets, human understandings of the one God whose love we still claim.
The God we attempt to worship and serve isn’t known to us, not really, and we must accept the way God is – mysterious, unfathomable, grand and wrathful, judging and just, merciful, steadfast… forever God of all, not only God of us. It’s important, I think, to have a constantly changing image of God set before us so that we don’t worship an idol of our own design and our own limitations. It’s good to be reminded that the God we believe in – that image or concept – is probably true, but not in any way complete. It doesn’t rule out our neighbor’s truth. Walking humbly with God surely must include that realization.
Related to this, the Old Testament readings might lead us to consider the many and various ways we misrepresent God. I obviously don’t know if the ancient Israelite authors are correct in their historical claims or their interpretations of God’s involvement in battles – but we do know from our own nation’s history that we remember ‘facts’ from our vantage point and assign meaning to events based on our narrator’s privilege. We, too, have claimed God’s favor in the conquest of native people who occupied this land before us. We, too, have taken slaves as rightful and righteous property. Manifest Destiny was our version of occupying a land of milk and honey by divinely established right. If the stones were to witness against us, what would they say?
Our on-going racial entanglements, religious intolerances, class struggles, Christian Right extremists – these and so many other examples claim God’s favor of one group over against another. Sometimes we need the distance of scripture in order to see clearly into our own lives.
And so, we come back to Joshua and his implied question.
“Choose this day whom you shall serve.” This is an invocation we would do well to consider.
To serve God is to worship, discern, obey, trust. Serving the gods of the Canaanites meant sacrificing babies, virgins, I don’t know what else. There may or may not be records – cave drawings, cuniform tablets – of how the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites served their gods, but there are always rules, rituals that must be obeyed to ensure successful harvests, plentiful rain, numerous children, and victory over your enemies.
How do we, how do you serve God?
Are there rules and rituals that must be followed?
Who is in charge of that list?
What end result you are expecting for your faithfulness? Success? Well-being? Assurance? Eternity?
What are the risks in serving God or in walking away?
I imagine that things are going through your minds. A checklist might be comforting – but misleading.
I don’t believe there are simple answers to difficult questions. The Bible argues both sides of most issues. God changes his and her mind. The gospel writers depict Jesus in different ways and record him saying opposite things, at times. The apostle Paul wrote that he tried to be all things to all people because the context changed and the context matters.
The life of faith is nuanced. Subtle.
The life of faith is nuanced and subtle. Modern American Christianity tends to be neither of these things.
Above all, I think, the life of faith needs to be fluid. Our beliefs change with maturity, they change as we encounter obstacles or overcome difficulty, when we experience or live with tragedy. Faith changes when we are transformed by joy or love. God becomes different, come to us differently. That’s spiritual growth. It’s also true that our spiritual life may shrivel up for a period of time.
But if you stay engaged, if you keep considering the God you serve in all of these various times and situations, I believe, I hope, you will come to be grateful that God is not a flat character with simple answers and clear rules or proofs – or a Santa Claus character who checks his list twice to see if you’ve been naughty or nice. I hope that seeking, listening, remembering, wondering is a richer, more life-giving experience than being told.
Joshua took a large stone, and set it up under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. I love that detail – that the sanctuary of the Lord is under an oak tree.
“This stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoken to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God.”
That stone in the sanctuary of the Lord has had a lot to say as the years have rolled on. The people of God… well, it’s a long story and we can see patterns repeat themselves. It would be a satisfying legend if this were to be the stone rolled away from Jesus tomb. The stone of witness against us, rolled out of the way. And maybe it was.
“Whom will you serve?” Joshua asks. That’s your homework. We serve lots of idols in our daily lives. Do they fulfill you? Do they challenge you? Can they transform you? Time spent honestly considering Joshua’s question for yourself, reviewing your life in God’s litany of mercy, will be time well spent. I promise.
“Choose this day whom you shall serve.”