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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Joshua 8:1-29 - Wiping out Ai

We saw in our last posting that Israel's defeat at Ai was due to her failure to ensure that all her members observed the command of God regarding not taking plunder-human or otherwise. This does not mean, of course, that Israel did not make other mistakes as well from a realistic military point of view. The Israeli scholar Abraham Malamat has correctly observed:

"From a realistic-military viewpoint, the 'transgression' was a breakdown in discipline at the time of the conquest of Jericho, that is, Achan's taking of loot which was under divine ban. The glory at Jericho resulted in an over-confidence which infected the Israelite command no less than the ranks; in the sphere of intelligence, this was manifest in the gross underestimation of the enemy. However, the setback at Ai had a sobering effect upon the Israelites. But Joshua seems to have been concerned less by the drop in Israelite morale than by an external factor of extreme significance: The fear of loss of image (note the indicative words attributed to Joshua in 7:8-9) led him to react swiftly with a force sufficiently large to assure an overwhelming victory" (History of Biblical Israel: Major Problems and Minor Issues [Boston: Brill, 2001] 78).

This time there would be no overconfidence and no underestimating Ai! Even the fearless and bold Joshua was afraid. Reassurance came from God:

"Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Take the whole army with you, and go up and attack Ai. For I have delivered into your hands the king of Ai, his people, his city and his land. 2 You shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king, except that you may carry off their plunder and livestock for yourselves. Set an ambush behind the city" (Joshua 8:1-2).

No halfhearted measures: Even though God promised to deliver the enemy city into their hands, Joshua is commanded to "take the whole army with you." He is also to use his wits (i.e., military strategy): "Set an ambush behind the city". We moderns think of ambushes as tactics of extremely small fighting forces. In fact, for many of us the very concept comes out of movies about the Old West! Yet ambushes were often employed even by major imperial armies, such as the Hittites. Other tactics known in ancient Near Eastern military descriptions include forced night marches to permit early morning surprise attacks, and even nighttime attacks such as we see in the exploits of Gideon (Judges 7). The Bible's portrayal of military operations is perfectly in accord with what we know from sources outside the Bible and contemporary with the events of the biblical narratives.

This time God would allow the Israelite soldiers to take personal plunder from the enemy city (v. 2). "Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain" - Deut. 25:4; "The worker deserves his wages" - Luke 10:7; both verses cited in 1 Timothy 5:18 to justify the preacher's right to receive support.

The "ban" was not a permanent feature of the Israelite conquest of the Promised Land: it only applied under special circumstances, of which Jericho is a prime example. Nor did wholesale burning of conquered cities apply: Jericho and Ai (v. 8) were among the few exceptions. For this reason it is irrelevant if skeptical archeologists claim no evidence for the Israelite conquest, since the kind of evidence that excavations would show would only be ash layers in the tells, whereas the biblical accounts in Joshua attest burning of only a very few cities.

Rather the norm of Israelite conquest is nicely expressed as follows:

"So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.'" (Joshua 24:13 NIV).

Israel simply took over structures already in existence!

God instructed Joshua to use an ambush, but he allowed the man to develop his own detailed plan, which we read about in verses 3-9.

You may wonder what is meant by "behind the city" (e.g., v. 14). Does a city have a front and a back? Chicago, New York, Boston, Atlanta and Knoxville may not have a front or a back, but in ancient times walled cities such as Jerusalem, Nineveh, Babylon, Troy and Hattusa, had a front, where the main gate was located, and the back was on the opposite side. The king of Ai and his troops marched out of the main gate and headed for the main body of Israelite troops in the valley to the north and east (vv. 14-17). The commando units in ambush were "behind the city" on the west side, where he could not see them!

Once the ambush forces seized and set the city on fire, the troops of Ai were caught in a pincers movement between the two Israelite bodies and were cut down by the Israelites (v. 20-23). Following God's orders, the troops took no prisoners, only delivering the King of Ai to Joshua (v. 24-29).

Ai symbolized a defeat of God's people that needed to be emphatically erased from memory. That was undoubtedly why God gave orders that no one from the city was to survive.

Sometimes we experience moral failures that not only shame ourselves, but threaten to erase our effectiveness as ministers of Christ's love to others. We need not only to ask God's forgiveness for these failures, but also take drastic and extreme steps to prevent their recurrence in our personal lives. Sometimes, if your failure involves another person, you need to make an apology to that person and share with him or her your determination never to allow this to happen again.

It is humiliating to have to admit your failures not only to God and to yourself, but also to another person. God does not ask you to share this information with persons not directly involved. But those who do know, must also know your repentence. Although this can be very humbling and embarrassing, there can also be joy that comes from such asking for forgiveness. New bonds of friendship and even of mutual prayer can arise from the ash heaps of your repentance.

This too is a gift of God's grace. This can be a Joshua moment.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Joshua 7—The Defeat at Ai and the Punishment of Achan

When at the end of chapter 5 Joshua stood before the Commander of the LORD’s army, he saw him blocking the way to Jericho with a drawn sword. Under those circumstances it was logical for Joshua to ask this person “Are you one of us or one of them?” The unspoken message of that stance and position was that what would prevent Joshua and Israel from accomplishing the conquest of the land would not be the Canaanite armies, but a failure to obey the Commander’s instructions. In chapter 6 Israel obeyed the LORD’s instructions by Joshua, and a great victory occurred. But in the aftermath of that victory the real failure occurred also. for as the Israelite soldiers entered the city of Jericho to slay the inhabitants, one of their number deliberately disobeyed the LORD’s orders not to take plunder. And immediately the seed of a terrible defeat was sown.
Joshua 7:1-5 (NIV) But the Israelites were unfaithful in regard to the devoted things; Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them. So the LORD's anger burned against Israel. 2 Now Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai, which is near Beth Aven to the east of Bethel, and told them, "Go up and spy out the region." So the men went up and spied out Ai. 3 When they returned to Joshua, they said, "Not all the army will have to go up against Ai. Send two or three thousand men to take it and do not weary the whole army, for only a few people live there." 4 So about three thousand went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai, 5 who killed about thirty-six of them. They chased the Israelites from the city gate as far as the stone quarries and struck them down on the slopes. At this the hearts of the people melted in fear and became like water.
Verse 1 is inserted before the account of the defeat at Ai in order to explain it. Israel was defeated there because God was not with them, just as they were victorious at Jericho because God was with them.

Why was God with them at one time, and not with them at another?

God was with them at Jericho because they obeyed his instructions; he was not with them at Ai because they did not. To refer to this as “part of the Deuteronomist’s theology”, as biblical critics like to do, masks the fact that it is simply a fact of life, and should be a part of everyone's “theology”! God cannot be a partner in our sinful actions. St. Paul puts it this way in 1 Corinthians:
“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two shall become one flesh.” But he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body.” (1Corinthians 6:15-18 RSV)
Often readers assume that the reason for Israel’s defeat was simply over-confidence after their resounding victory at Jericho. Perhaps. But note that Joshua did take the trouble to send out scouts to do reconnaissance (v. 2-3). This indicates that he did not completely underestimate their foe.

The people simply assumed (wrongly so, as we know) that God would be with them as before. Overlooked sin causes any believer to wrongly assume that he is filled with the Holy Spirit and able to achieve spiritual victories. He is like the shorn Samson, unaware that the Spirit of God was no longer with him to overwhelm the Philistines (Judges 16:20), or like the Israelite armies at Ebenezer, who thought that because they had the ark of God with them, they also had God’s power to defeat the Philistine army (1 Samuel 4).

5 The loss of “about thirty-six” Israelites was not nearly as bad as the people’s total loss of morale: “At this the hearts of the people melted and became like water.” What hope would they have of inheriting the rest of the Land of Promise, if they could be put to flight so ignominiously by the men of Ai?
Joshua 7:6-9 Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the LORD, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads. 7 And Joshua said, "Ah, Sovereign LORD, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? If only we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan! 8 Pardon your servant, Lord. What can I say, now that Israel has been routed by its enemies? 9 The Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about this and they will surround us and wipe out our name from the earth. What then will you do for your own great name?
Joshua had been commissioned by God himself with the vital task of leading the people into the land to inherit what had been promised by God to Abraham. No more important task could be imagined by an ancient Israelite! And he was on the brink of utterly failing. Can you relate to that?

Even if—like Joshua—you believe that God controls everything that happens, and that defeats and calamities that befall you have a reason, there is always the problem of finding out what that reason is. How do you go about finding out? Prayer is an obvious start. This appears to have been Joshua’s first reaction. But how did Joshua pray? Look at his prayer in verses 7-9 and see what things you think were good about it and perhaps what things were in need of correction.

First of all, there is more to Joshua's prayer than the words alone. There is his posture and gestures. He lay facedown and prostrate before the ark, the symbol of God's presence with Israel. And he (and the elders) tore their clothes and scattered dust on their heads signifying both deep mourning (one did this when mourning a deceased relative), repentance, and utter desperation. for this reason perhaps we should not judge them too harshly if we miss in the words they uttered do not include a specific confession of sin.

Joshua was joined by the elders, who represent all the people. Thus, he leads the people in repentance and deep contrition for their sin.

What better way for a man to lead his people than to set the example of deep sorrow for sin and keen desire to make one’s ways right with God? When you pray with your children, do you ever let them know that you too are susceptible to spiritual failure and sin? Do they every hear you confess that failure to God? What do you think the effect of that would be upon them?

Yet Joshua is able to speak to God as Moses did, at times seemingly chiding God for foolish behavior that will only backfire upon his own reputation.

In v. 7 his discouragement and near despair expresses itself in the most radical terms possible: regretting ever crossing the Jordan by that spectacular miracle! Discouragement is a normal experience for a Christian. But despair should be seen as a denial of God’s love, mercy and grace. Still, I think that what we see in these words of Joshua is the keen perception that there is something contradictory about being brought into the land so miraculously, and yet failing miserably to follow up. Not a contradiction on God's part, but on Israel's. When we accept so glibly our own failures, despite all that Christ has done for us, not only in forgiving our sins, but in giving us the powerful Holy Spirit to live within us, empowering us for victorious, godly living — when we just brush off casually our sins with an "Oh well! We're all weak", we fail to see the terrible contradiction that Joshua so perceptibly saw!

But in the midst of his overwhelming sadness and discouragement about the fate of his people, can you see what Joshua’s main concern was? (v. 9)

“What will you do about your great name?” he asks. God’s very honor was at stake. God’s honor, as Joshua puts it here, was tied inextricably to the fate of Israel. When Israel flourished and was godly, God’s honor was magnified among the nations. If Israel failed or was destroyed,God was totally discredited. How is God’s honor affected by your life and mine? Do we not also bear His name?
Joshua 7:10-15 The LORD said to Joshua, "Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? 11 Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. 12 That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.
13 "Go, consecrate the people. Tell them, 'Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow; for this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: There are devoted things among you, Israel. You cannot stand against your enemies until you remove them.
14 " 'In the morning, present yourselves tribe by tribe. The tribe that the LORD chooses shall come forward clan by clan; the clan that the LORD chooses shall come forward family by family; and the family that the LORD chooses shall come forward man by man. 15 Whoever is caught with the devoted things shall be destroyed by fire, along with all that belongs to him. He has violated the covenant of the LORD and has done an outrageous thing in Israel!' "
God doesn’t reproach Joshua for some of the things we saw might have been wrong about his attitude and his prayer. Furthermore, although Joshua never in so many words directly asked God to tell him what their sin had been or how to deal with it, God tells him anyway! Isn’t it encouraging, that even when we are so foolish as to not even ask for what we need, God graciously will assume that we did and will answer the requests never made? Maybe this is what is meant by St. Paul’s claim in Romans 8, where he writes: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will” (Romans 8:26-27).

God’s reply here educates Joshua: it was not God’s failure, but Israel’s that brought this defeat upon them. Furthermore, notice that God does not say here that Achan has sinned, but the whole people of Israel. There was a corporate responsible on the part of the people of God to identify and punish offenders within their ranks.

This theological concept can be seen operating in other parts of the Bible, for example, with Jonah on the ship to Tarshish (Jonah 1:1-16). furthermore, it was not unique to ancient Israel: other peoples (and I think here principally of the ancient Greeks and Hittites) believed that a household, village or city that harbored (even unknowingly) one guilty of sacrilege would suffer punishment sent upon the whole populace by the offended god. This principle was part of the way the True God operated in both ancient Israel and the earliest Church.

But here at Ai it was not too late for Israel to act to rectify the situation. There was still hope to turn things around. But drastic measures were necessary: the offender must be identified and punished by the entire people.

God turns Joshua's remark "What will you do about your great name?" into "What will you do about obeying my instructions?"
Joshua 7:16-26 Early the next morning Joshua had Israel come forward by tribes, and Judah was chosen. 17 The clans of Judah came forward, and the Zerahites were chosen. He had the clan of the Zerahites come forward by families, and Zimri was chosen. 18 Joshua had his family come forward man by man, and Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, was chosen. 19 Then Joshua said to Achan, "My son, give glory to the LORD, the God of Israel, and honor him. Tell me what you have done; do not hide it from me." 20 Achan replied, "It is true! I have sinned against the LORD, the God of Israel. This is what I have done: 21 When I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them. They are hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath." 22 So Joshua sent messengers, and they ran to the tent, and there it was, hidden in his tent, with the silver underneath. 23 They took the things from the tent, brought them to Joshua and all the Israelites and spread them out before the LORD. 24 Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold bar, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor. 25 Joshua said, "Why have you brought this trouble on us? The LORD will bring trouble on you today." Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. 26 Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day. Then the LORD turned from his fierce anger. Therefore that place has been called the Valley of Achor ever since.
Richard Hess in his excellent commentary of the Book of Joshua (Joshua, 144) thinks the listing of a four-generation genealogy to Achan was to make a theological point: that his sin was merely the culmination of the sins of these generations of Israelites.

Perhaps. But I am inclined to believe that real reason was much simpler: it anticipates the methodical narrowing of the range of possible culprits used in discovering the guilty party in Josh 7:16-18. Achan was descended from Zerah, twin brother of Perez, sons of Judah by his widowed daughter-in-law, whose birth is described in Gen 38:27-30.

16-18 The method of discovering the offender was a kind of sacred lot, which step-by-step identified
  • first the tribe,
  • then the clan,
  • then the sub-clan,
  • then the family, and
  • finally the individual responsible.
Once Achan was revealed as the guilty party, he was given the chance to confess. But when did he come forward? Actually, he never came forward: only after he was caught was he given a chance to make a clean breast of what he had done! In legal terms (my source is Law and Order!!) what he did was “allocute”.

What good did it do after he was caught?
  • For one thing, by confessing he was able to identify the place where the stolen plunder was hidden, and it could be restored to God.
  • When the hiding place of the contraband was found, it would prove to the people that the sacred lot, guided by God’s invisible hand, had identified the right person as the culprit.
25-26 The capital punishment was preceded by the charge—he had brought calamity upon the entire nation—and then was carried out by representatives of the entire nation. The method was by stoning, which was always reserved for the most serious religious offences. The combustible items he had stolen (the Babylonian cloak) were burned. And a mound of stones was heaped over his and his family’s bodies, which marked their place of dishonorable burial.

Abraham Malamat is wrong to doubt the historicity of the sin by Achan and its use as an explanation for the defeat at Ai, but in a sense he is right when he writes:
“From a realistic-military viewpoint, the 'transgression' was a breakdown in discipline at the time of the conquest of Jericho, that is, Achan's taking of loot which was under divine ban. The glory at Jericho resulted in an over-confidence which infected the Israelite command no less than the ranks; in the sphere of intelligence, this was manifest in the gross underestimation of the enemy. However, the setback at Ai had a sobering effect upon the Israelites. But Joshua seems to have been concerned less by the drop in Israelite morale than by an external factor of extreme significance: The fear of loss of image (note the indicative words attributed to Joshua in 7:8-9) led him to react swiftly with a force sufficiently large to assure an overwhelming victory” (Malamat, 78).
A sad ending for Achan and his family, but a promising turning point for Joshua and Israel. Confession and punishment are never pleasant, but restored fellowship with God is like water on the tongue of a man dying of thirst!

The sin of Achan was violating the so-called "ban" (Hebrew ḥerem). In practical terms this amounted to stealing part of the plunder of Jericho, which had been consecrated to God and therefore belonged to him. Like Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, Achan stole from God by holding back what was vowed to God (or in A. and S.’s case, to God’s people (see my commentary of the Acts 5 incident here).

Thus, when the text says “the Israelites violated the ban”, and therefore were punished by their defeat at the hands of the men of Ai, it refers to their responsibility to detect and punish covenant breaking in their midst by members of their community. Some have called this “corporate sin” or “corporate responsibility”. Once the Israelites identified and executed the offender, God’s anger against them subsided (Josh 7:26).

There is no hint in the Acts 5 account of Ananias and Sapphira that God would have punished the early church in Jerusalem, if they had not judged Ananias and his wife. But we do not know what might have happened, if Peter had not acted promptly. At the very least, the Jerusalem church would have been weakened spiritually, because of its allowing members with known sins to go unreproved and unjudged.

Israel’s sin is described in 7:1 as breaking faith with God (Hebr. ‏מַעַל ma'al). The NIV Study Bible Notes make an excellent point about the juxtaposition of the stories of Rahab and Achan:
“The tragic story of Achan … stands in sharp contrast to the story of Rahab. In the earlier event a Canaanite prostitute, because of her courageous allegiance to Israel and her acknowledgment of the Lord, was spared and received into Israel. She abandoned Canaan and its gods on account of the Lord and Israel, and so received Canaan back. In the present event an Israelite (of the tribe of Judah, no less), because of his disloyalty to the Lord and Israel, is executed as the Canaanites were. He stole the riches of Canaan from the Lord, and so lost his inheritance in the promised land.”
Over Achan’s body we raise the following epitaph, taken from the words of Jesus:
"What good is it for a man to gain the whole world,
yet forfeit his soul?" (Mark 8:36)

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Joshua 6 - Jericho!

(Model of topography of events of Joshua 1-6 from Eshel Biblical Park, Israel)

The city of Jericho was the first walled city to the west of the Jordan that stood in the way of the invading Israelite tribes. God chose it to show to his people his power to help them possess the land promised to them. He did not choose it because it was the largest city west of the Jordan or even the most heavily fortified. Later generations of Europeans and Americans who have never visited the site or studied the archeology of Palestine romanticized the size of the city, much as the terrified spies who returned to Moses in Kadesh-barnea described the fortified cities of Canaan in vastly exaggerated terms:
“They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! … 28 But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there. 29 The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan.” … “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” 32 … “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. 33 We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” (Numbers 13:27-33).
What also has magnified the size of the city in modern minds is the sensational account in this chapter of the walls falling flat without the Israelites assaulting them with battering rams or other instruments of siege. Since Jericho lies on a juncture of tectonic plates and is particularly subject to earthquakes, this collapse of its walls would have been sensational to anyone witnessing it. But that fact does not mean the city in itself was huge.

Much has been made by skeptics of the fact that archaeologists have not been able to identify evidence for the existence of the city as an inhabited site during the century in which we date Joshua’s career. This is indeed unfortunate, but it does not mean we must discount this account as unhistorical. Attempts by well-meaning Christians to justify the inclusion of such a “white lie” as the destruction of a city that did not exist, sugar-coating the claim by calling it "etiological" and "theological" are pitiful, not to say a discredit to the God of the Bible.

A recent example is S. L. McKenzie who lamely suggests the following:
“The story of the flight of the Hebrews from Egypt and their defeat of Canaanite cities may contain genuine historical elements, as scholars from widely divergent perspectives have contended …. But the primary intent of the story is to account for how Israel gained possession of the Land of Canaan. Its explanation is theological: God gave Israel the land of Canaan. … Jericho was the oldest city in Canaan and a legendary symbol of Canaanite might. As such, it symbolized Canaan. Biblical historians saw the fact that Jericho had come to belong to Israel as representative of God's gift of the whole land to the Israelites (see History of Israel I : Settlement Period)” (S. L. McKenzie, “Historiography. Old Testament” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books [Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005], 420-21).
Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Jericho—either in the mid-13th century (Joshua's own time) or in later centuries when the narratives in Joshua were being incorporated into a long history of Israel— was "a legendary symbol of Canaanite might", and thus McKenzie's theory of etiology and theology in this account falls like a house of cards.

Contrast to McKenzie's theory the recently published intelligent and sober assessment of the archaeological situation by Prof. K. A. Kitchen, an eminent British Egyptologist:
“22. Jericho. Of its location, at Tell es-Sultan, near the modern village (er-Riha) that still bears its name, there is no doubt. And the town, though not at all large (about one acre), had a very long history, from before Neolithic times down to the late second millennium. It was obviously very prosperous in the Middle Bronze Age (early second millennium), as the spectacular finds from that period's tombs bear witness. But only traces of this survive on the town mound itself - part of the city wall and its defensive basal slope ("glacis"), and some of its small, close-set houses fronting on narrow, cobbled lanes. But this all perished violently, including by fire, at roughly 1550 or soon after. And for about 200 years the ruins lay barren, before resettlement began in the fourteenth century. During that interval a great deal of the former Middle Bronze township was entirely removed by erosion (our fourth limiting factor); but for the tombs, its former substance would hardly have been suspected. But of the Late Bronze settlement from the mid-fourteenth century onward, almost nothing survives at all. Kenyon found the odd hearth or so (later fourteenth century), and the so-called middle building may have been built and used (as also tombs 5, 4, 13) in the Late Bronze I B/lI A periods, at about 1425/1400 to 1275, in the light of Bienkowski's careful analysis. Very little else of the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries has been recovered - and probably never can be. … The slope of Jericho is such that most erosion would be eastward, and under the modern road, toward where now are found the spring, pools, and longstanding more modern occupation. There may well have been a Jericho during 1275-1220, but above the tiny remains of that of 1400 -1275, so to speak, and all of this has long, long since gone. We will never find "Joshua's Jericho" for that very simple reason. The "walls of Jericho" would certainly have been like those of most other LB II towns of that period: the edge-to-edge circuit of the outer walls of the houses, etc., that ringed the little settlement. Rahab's house on the wall (Josh. 2:15) suggests as much. This ring would have butted onto the old Middle Bronze walling, but its upper portions (and most of it anyway) were eroded along with the Late Bronze abutments. The dramatic collapse of the walls in view of the Israelites may well have been a (for them) precise seismic movement, as with the blocking of the Jordan so soon before. A belt of jointed structures would fall in segments, not as a whole: and so Rahab's small segment may have survived.

There has always been too much imagination about Jericho by moderns (never mind previous generations) and the basic factors have ironically been largely neglected. The town was always small, an appendage to its spring and oasis) and its value (for eastern newcomers [such as the Israelites]) largely symbolic as an eastern gateway into Canaan” (Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament [Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 2003] 187-88).
So, although both McKenzie and Kitchen refer to Jericho as "a symbol" or "symbolic", they use the terms quite differently. McKenzie assumes that we must sacrifice the biblical historical data in favor of an unsupported notion that the Israelite historian used Jericho as a "symbol" of a Canaan that the tribes never truly conquered during the time of Joshua. Kitchen credits the Bible's historical tradition, but questions the validity of the modern reader's picture of that city, which does not fit the historical data available to us.

Kitchen's assessment is much closer to the actual archaeological situation. Many events of the remote past simply cannot be either verified or disproved by archeology, because the ravages of erosion and over-building by subsequent generations at the site have destroyed the evidence. But the Bible itself, as the living repository of genuine historical traditions has survived the ages to tell us what we might otherwise never know.

Many skeptical scholars today regard the biblical record of the taking of Jericho by Joshua as a test case. If this key event, they say, has been shown not to have happened, then it tells us that we cannot trust any of the biblical accounts of Israel's early history. They are, at best, what McKenzie calls "theological" or "symbolic" (read "unhistorical"!).

I too regard the biblical record of the taking of Jericho as a test case. But I use it to test the ability of modern biblical scholars to understand how archeology and ancient historical texts work. All too many of them fail that test.

The real satisfaction that Joshua and his people felt after the fall of Jericho was not in the physical size of its walls or some supposed "legendary" might of the city. It was the satisfaction that a conscientious workman feels, who has done a job he was commissioned to do by his Master. He may be physically exhausted at the end of the day, but he has a glow of satisfaction within him. "I did what I was instructed to do," he muses, "and look how well it worked!"

May you and I also have that feeling at the end of each day we serve our Master.

Total Destruction — and Mercy!

God made Jericho’s defenses collapse. The mental defense, normally provided by the courage and high morale of the people of Jericho, had already been undermined by rumors reaching them of Israel’s march through the Reed Sea and through the Jordan River. Their physical defenses (the city walls) collapsed after the seven days of marching around the city at God’s command.

But God’s continued support of Israel in their appropriation of the land promised by him to their forefather Abraham was dependent upon their meticulous obedience to his instructions. The first of these was what is described as a "ban" (Hebrew herem) against taking any plunder from the conquered city: everything within the walls of Jericho must be devoted to God—living things by being put to death, non-living objects that were combustible were to be burned, and non-combustible (i.e., metal) objects put into his treasury. There was to be no booty (human booty in the form of slaves, non-human in the form of expensive garments or gold) for the Israelite soldiers from what was God’s victory, not their own.

This instruction was not something new, sprung upon the people at the last moment before the walls of Jericho. It had been given long before to Moses, who conveyed it to the people in anticipation of their future campaigns in the promised land (Dt 2:32-35; 3:3-7; 20:16-18). As the NIV Commentary states it:
Jericho was Israel’s first conquest in the land of Canaan, a kind of firstfruits; therefore everything in it was holy—humans, animals, and property—and was to be consecrated to the Lord (cf. Ex 23:31-33; 34:11-14; Dt 2:32-35; 3:3-7; 20:16-18; et al.)
The second instruction was that the Israelites keep the promises they made in the name of the Lord (Dt 23:23). the most important of these was the vow they had sworn to the prostitute-innkeeper Rahab (Josh. 2:8-14), who had believed in Israel's God and showed her faith and loyalty by the risky act of hiding the two Israelite spies from her own people. She and her family were to be spared under the previously agreed-upon condition that they stay in her house and display the scarlet cord in their window, indicating that it was they who had believed in Israel’s God and had protected Israel’s spies.

For further reading onn “holy war” and herem I recommend that people read Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, chapter 5 (pages 258ff); and on slavery in ancient Israel, chapter 3 (pages 80ff, especially page 81).

Dillard and Longman (An Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 117) have pointed out how the New testament counterpart to the Book of Joshua is the Book of Acts:
“Many have also drawn a comparison between Joshua and the Book of Acts. After redemption from Egypt in the Exodus, Israel began the conquest of her inheritance; after the redemptive work of Jesus at the cross, his people move forward to conquer the world in his name. Israel enjoyed an earthly inheritance and an earthly kingdom, but the kingdom of which the church is a part is spiritual and heavenly.”
In view of this comparison, it is worthwhile considering several details in Acts which match conceptually events under consideration here. In consideration of the fact that it was God, and not themselves, who was the true conqueror of Jericho (and similar cities such as Ai), the Israelites were commanded to devote all captured persons and items to the Lord (the erem ban). Failure to do so resulted in ferreting out the individual at fault and allowing God’s judgment to fall upon that individual. In the case of Joshua, the individual was Achan, who was ferreted out, identified, allowed to confess his guilt, and judged by God with death (ch. 7, on which more in a later posting). In the Acts narrative the culprits are Ananias and his wife Sapphira, who failed to carry out the gift of all that they had sworn to devote to the Lord’s cause and his people (Acts ch. 5; see my Acts blog on this story).

The second similarity has to do with God’s determination to save out of the enemy’s ranks all those who recognized him as not only Israel’s Savior, but their own as well. In the book of Joshua this Gentile believer is Rahab the prostitute. In the book of Acts it is not just one individual but a whole group of individual examples provided by Luke, beginning with Cornelius the centurion in Acts 10-11 (here too see my Acts blog) and continuing throughout the rest of the book.

These two aspects of God’s mode of action in both Joshua and Acts reflect two important aspects of the eternal character of God, which do not change over time: (1) his absolute holiness which requires him to judge and eradicate all evil, and (2) his boundless mercy and love for all who will sincerely call upon him to save them.
Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with [Moses] and proclaimed his name, the LORD. 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:5-7 NIV)
These two aspects of God’s nature met at the cross of Jesus, who took upon himself God’s just judgment of the world’s sins. As St. Paul wrote:
"… all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus" (Romans 3:23-26 NIV).
It was at the cross of Jesus that
“Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. ” (Psalm 85:10 KJV).
Whoever does not see these twin aspects of God’s character—his justice and his mercy—does not really know him.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Joshua 5—Circumcision, Passover and the Heavenly Commander

Ancient Egyptians circumcising adolescent boys

Circumcision is a custom observed among various peoples of the world. Almost always it is performed at puberty, when a boy officially becomes a man. That is the way it was observed by the ancient Egyptians of Moses’ day, and by all of Israel’s neighbors except for the non-Semitic Philistines. That is also how it is practiced today among Muslims of the Middle East.

Circumcision was an ancient rite in the Near East. Abraham was not given instructions how to perform it on Isaac, because he was already familiar with it. Its hoary antiquity is reflected in the conservative use of flint (rather than metal) knives for the cutting. But the form of the rite as practiced by Israel was unique in two ways. Other peoples performed (and still perform) the rite shortly after a boy baby is born. The mode characteristic of ancient Israel, performed on the 8th day after birth, was unique in its timing. It was also unique in its purpose, for it did not mark puberty and the entrance of a boy into the male adult community, but the identification of a boy baby with the covenant with Abraham, which covenant also entailed the gift to Abraham's descendants of the land of Canaan (Gen. 17:8). For the best and most complete summary of the biblical and Jewish traditions on circumcision see Nahum Sarna, JPS Genesis, Excursus 12.

A Jewish circumcision by a môhel in Jerusalem

God commanded Abraham and his descendants to circumcise their sons on the eighth day of life (Gen 17:10-14). And in obedience to God's covenant, both John the Baptist and Jesus were circumcised on the 8th day (Luke 1:59; 2:21).

The new generation of Israelite males circumcised at Gilgal (1-9).
Josh. 5:1-9 Now when all the Amorite kings west of the Jordan and all the Canaanite kings along the coast heard how the LORD had dried up the Jordan before the Israelites until we had crossed over, their hearts melted, and they no longer had the courage to face the Israelites. 2 At that time the LORD said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites again.” 3 So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the Israelites at Gibeath Haaraloth*.

4 Now this is why he did so: All those who came out of Egypt—all the men of military age—died in the desert on the way after leaving Egypt. 5 All the people that came out had been circumcised, but all the people born in the desert during the journey from Egypt had not. 6 The Israelites had moved about in the desert forty years until all the men who were of military age when they left Egypt had died, since they had not obeyed the LORD. For the LORD had sworn to them that they would not see the land that he had solemnly promised their fathers to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey. 7 So he raised up their sons in their place, and these were the ones Joshua circumcised. They were still uncircumcised because they had not been circumcised on the way.

8 And after the whole nation had been circumcised, they remained where they were in camp until they were healed. 9 Then the LORD said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” So the place has been called Gilgal to this day

*Hebrew: "hill of the foreskins".
Yet here, in chapter 5 of Joshua, adult men—who had been part of Israel’s fighting force and were neither eight days old nor at puberty—were commanded to be circumcised! Why were they being circumcised at this time?

(1) Because they had not yet been circumcised. The text tells us that, although the generation of males who left Egypt forty years earlier had been circumcised, those boys born during the forty-year wandering in the deserts of Sinai had not.

(2) Because only members of the community of Abraham's descendants and Abraham's covenant were to be the recipients of God's gift of the promised Land of Canaan. God’s promise to Israel of the possession of the land of Canaan, west of the Jordan, was originally made to their ancestor Abraham as part of a covenant that God made with him (read Genesis 17, especially (17:8)). One of the terms of that covenant was that Abraham and his descendants would circumcise their boy babies on the eighth day. Failure to do so meant that the people were no longer heirs of the covenant and its promise of the land.

(3) Because they were about to eat the Passover, which required all male participants to be circumcised. Just as God sent a severe warning to Moses on his way back from Midian to Egypt that he could not lead the people out of the land unless he too circumcised his boy babies (see Exodus 4:18-31), and just as Moses directed that all the Israelite males (including the slaves) in Egypt be circumcised before they could eat the Passover (Exodus 12:43-49), so here — before they ate the first Passover in the land—on the threshold of conquest Israel is commanded to rectify the situation by circumcising all their males, including in this case uncircumcised adult males, a very painful procedure which would leave them vulnerable to attack for a few days (compare the situation of Shechem in Gen 34:25-31!). Had the Canaanites attacked Israel at Gilgal on the day after the circumcision, it could rightly be called “Shechem’s revenge” for what Simeon and Levi once did! But God caused fear to fall upon the surrounding peoples because of the Jordan miracle, so that Israel was safe during the healing period.

In verse 2 many English translations include the words “[for] a second time” (Hebrew ‏שֵׁנִית shenit). But the NIV is probably right to follow the ancient Hebrew manuscripts from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Hebrew manuscript underlying the ancient Greek version (the Septuagint) in omitting those words. All ancient witnesses to the text, however, include the word “again”, indicating that circumcision had been done once in Egypt and would now be done again. It does not mean that these particular men were being re-circumcised. Verses 5-8 argue against such an assumption.

Circumcision in heart. There is a certain irony in this picture. The later prophets referred to stubborn unbelief and disobedience to God’s word as being “uncircumcised in heart” (Jer 9:26; Ezek 44:7, 9). Yet during the wilderness wanderings referred to in this chapter it was the older generation of males, who had been physically circumcised in Egypt, who displayed uncircumcised hearts through their constant disobedience to God and Moses. The boys born in the period of wanderings were not circumcised physically, yet God killed off the older generation and promised to bring this new generation of males into the Promised Land! Perhaps no more vivid illustration can be found of the powerlessness of a religious rite in itself—unaccompanied by genuine faith on the part of the one subjected to it—to produce a godly person. But that the rite itself cannot be scoffed at or ignored is quite obvious from what was now done at Gilgal.

“Rolled away, rolled away, rolled away!” (Song with hand gestures!) In verse 9 God announces that by completing the journey from enslavement in Egypt through the deserts and across the Jordan into the Promised Land he has “rolled off you [plural] the reproach of Egypt”. Since the Egyptians practiced circumcision, “the disgrace of Egypt” (Hebrew ‏חֶרְפַּת מִצְרַיִם) probably means that the Israelites, now re-established as the covenant people in the Land of Promise, had been delivered from their national disgrace of enslavement and homelessness, not that they had been unable to practice this rite in that land (cf. v.5).

If then this verse refers to the culmination of God’s forty-plus years of redemptive actions, the ceremonies at Gilgal clearly mark a successful conclusion and a new beginning.

There is wordplay at work in the use by God of a Hebrew verb (‏גַּלּוֹתִ gallôtî) that sounds like the name Gilgal to denote his “rolling away” of the shame and disgrace of Egyptian bondage.

The stone at the tomb rolled away. I cannot but think of the fact that when God rolled away the stone covering the empty tomb in which Jesus’ crucified body had lain for two days—and the very same Hebrew verb is used for this in the Modern Hebrew edition of the New Testament in Mark 16:3-5; Luke 24:1-3 (‏כְּבָר נָגֹלָּה)—he also “rolled away” the shame and disgrace of the mortal results of the sin of the human race. For as Paul puts it, “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 6:23). And as Paul also explains in Romans 6-8, through our identification by faith with the Lord who died and rose again, we who believe experience the power of temptation and sin “rolled away” as well. Jesus’ resurrection accomplished both the forgiveness from sin’s penalty (eternal death) and the release from the enslaving power of sinful habits in our lives.

In Paul's view, believers in Jesus are spiritually circumcised (“circumcised in heart”) through our identification by faith with Jesus in his death and resurrection:
“In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:11-12).
Thank God that Jesus circumcised my heart the moment I believed in him!

First Passover in the Land (10-12)
Josh. 5:10-12 On the evening of the fourteenth day of the month, while camped at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho, the Israelites celebrated the Passover. 11 The day after the Passover, that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land: unleavened bread and roasted grain. 12 The manna stopped the day after they ate this food from the land; there was no longer any manna for the Israelites, but that year they ate of the produce of Canaan.
Not much is said about the festivals of the LORD in the historical books of the OT. Most of what is said about them occurs in the Pentateuch (the Torah). But the narrator makes a point here of indicating that the Israelites celebrated the Passover (pesaḥ) on the eve of launching their first act of conquest of the land west of the Jordan River.

The Passover celebration appears in a context of a major transition in their existence. The crossing of the Jordan serves as an important narrative and historical boundary. Before they were wandering nomads, from now on they will become settlers, albeit first conquering ones. They taste here for the first time the matsos made from the grain of the new land that would be theirs. They say farewell to their former existence, which is here symbolized by the manna, that ceases to be provided for them by God.

When the Passover was instituted in Egypt, it was said to mark the beginning of Israel's annual calendar. So it appropriately marks here their beginning as a nation living in its own land. Like the heap of stones erected in Gilgal, it marks a beginning and also serves as a statement of faith that the battle for Canaan that has now begun will be won eventually by god's power and in fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham and to Moses.

For Christians' too the OT Passover symbolizes a radical boundary in a Christian's life. What is that boundary? Do we too experience a decisive change in our identity at our Passover? What is it?

The Heavenly commander (13-15)
Josh. 5:13-15 Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” 14 “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?” 15 The commander of the LORD’S army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.
This is a very mysterious and difficult passage. Let us look first at some of the details and see if we can make anything out of them. Then we will step back and look at the incident in the big picture of Joshua and ask why it is included at this point and what its function is in the flow of the narrative.

First, the narrator wants us to know where this took place. Joshua was “near Jericho”. Gilgal itself was certainly “near” Jericho, but the text does not say he was at Gilgal; so it must mean that he approached the outskirts of the city alone to survey it. He was acting here as a military commander.

Secondly, there is this “Commander of the LORD's army” who suddenly appears as a man with a drawn sword. A man! Nothing in the text suggests he looked superhuman—no Darth Vader heavy breathing, no light sword, no wings, no big "S" on the front of his tunic. Just a man. But he had a drawn sword! That is threatening, or at least could be. Who is he? And why is he here at this time? Joshua asked the same question that you or I would under these circumstances. His own answer is that he has come as the "commander of the army of the LORD (Yahweh)". What does that mean?

Who is he? In the earliest Jewish traditions this figure was considered to be the archangel Michael, and many modern interpreters—Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, liberal and evangelical—agree. If he is an angel, he is not named, because in the early parts of the OT angelic beings are never given names. This only begins in the period of the Babylonian Captivity (the Book of Daniel) and of course carries over into the NT. Since Joshua would not have known the names of any of God's angels, the commander merely indicates his role: commander of Yahweh's armies. The fact that he receives special reverence, indeed of a type that we usually associate with God, is not unusual. Messengers in the ancient world were accorded the same respect as the kings who sent them.

There is a long history among conservative Protestant Christian interpreters of seeing in this commander the “angel of the LORD" who appears elsewhere in the Old Testament, and who is addressed and treated in the way that one would address and treat God himself. Therefore, it is concluded, this must be God himself. God seems to have visited Abraham and Sarah in the form of three “men”. See also Gen. 18:2; 32:24.

So which is it? Frankly, I don't see that it makes a whole lot of difference to our understanding of this passage. Whether he is an angel or God himself in the form of a man, he speaks for God and acts for God. What he does is in no way independent of God's will. He is simply put an extension of God on earth.

He announces his role with the words “I have come now as the 'commander of Yahweh's army'”. The Hebrew translated “commander of the Yahweh's army” (‏שַׂר־צְבָא־יְהוָה ) can just as well be translated “Yahweh's general” or “the general sent by Yahweh to take the command”, in which case the army commanded did not need to be an angelic one. So what army does this individual command: an army of angels, or the Israelite army assembled at Gilgal? By presenting himself here with a drawn sword is he telling Joshua: “I, not you, am the true commander of Israel's armies”? Or is he here to reassure Joshua: “God's invisible army of angels will be fighting by your side”? It could be either, although any army of invisible angels might help us visualize how Jericho's walls were knocked down. One thing is clear: The purpose is not to put Joshua in his place ("See here! I'm in charge!"), but to reassure him that God will see to it that everything goes as it should.

When Joshua sees him, what does he ask? And what is the angel's answer? It is possible to misunderstand this exchange ("Are you for us or for …?"). Joshua is not asking him, as one might ask a baseball fan, “Are you rooting for our team or for our opponents?” In which case the answer “Neither” would mean the man has no preference. I have no doubt, that in most of the wars of history God has not been on any one side, in the sense that he found all virtue only on one side. But in this case God's angel clearly had a preference, as God himself did. He wanted Israel to conquer Jericho.

So then, what Joshua's question means is “Are you a soldier in the army of Jericho, come to fight against me? Or are you one of our Israelite soldiers who draws his sword because you do not recognize who I am?” The angel's reply then makes sense: “I am neither a solder of Jericho or an Israelite soldier! I am the commander of God's army sent by God. You are to follow my leadership, and the victories will come.”

Why is he here at this time? After the heavenly messenger has identified himself, Joshua bowed before him in a gesture of surrender—“worshiped him” is not a required translation here—and inquired what message God had for him (v. 14). In ancient Near Eastern military contexts—which of course this also is—surrendering enemies prostrate themselves before their conqueror. I believe that is the significance of Joshua's act here. He recognizes that God through this figure (angel or not) is assuming command of the army of Israel, and he concedes that right by this prostration.

But the commander himself is the “message”. So, all that he says in reply is that Joshua must remove his sandals because this place where he meets the commander is holy ground. It is not "holy" because God is standing on it, but because in this place Joshua is receiving God's commission.

What earlier scene in the Bible does this now remind you of? That's right: Moses at the burning bush (especially, Exodus 3:5). That was also a commissioning scene. So although Joshua had already been functioning as Israel's leader, as Moses was, and had received messages and instructions from God, he is here officially commissioned to lead the Holy War for the Promised Land. It is more than a commission to conquer Jericho: like the other incidents in this chapter (the circumcision, the Passover, the cessation of the manna) that signal an end to what had gone before nd a new beginning, this meeting with a heavenly commander and commissioning on holy ground relates to all that will follow in the book and in a sense in the entire OT history of Israel.

When God leads you to a ministry, no matter what that ministry is, the place and time when God speaks to you is your "holy ground". It does not require that you build an altar on it. But it can always be a reminder to you in later times of opposition: it was then and there that I heard God speak to me!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Joshua 4—What do these stones mean?

Young families today have many more convenient devices than my parents did with which to create pictorial records of the years of child-rearing: video cameras, cell phones with built-in cameras. My dad was way ahead of his time in the 1920s and 1930s, when he used an 8 mm movie camera to make home movies of us kids. When Wini and I were raising our small children in the 1960s, I was much more primitive about it than my dad. We have some still photos—and that's all!

(No, the above is not a photo of my family, nor is that me with the "F" sweater"!!)

God wanted Joshua to create a kind of scrapbook entry for the Israelites that in the future would not only preserve the historical record of what happened on the day they crossed the Jordan, but a family teaching moment. That is what the pile of 12 stones on the western bank of the Jordan provided.

Although the twelve men commissioned each one to shoulder a large stone from the river bed were from different tribes, they deposited their stones together in one memorial. And the memorial was intended to attract the curiosity of later generations, who would inquire of their parents or of older members of their villages what was the meaning of this group of twelve stones.

This suggests that there was no explanatory plaque accompanying the cluster of stones. A living guide (in this case perhaps a parent) is always preferable to a mere label. The person consulted can not only explain the monument, but also bear witness to what the memorial means to himself. Israelite families passing the pile could re-live the crossing of their ancestors from the Wilderness into the Promised Land, and the older generation pass on to the younger not only its history, but its living faith.

Notice too, how in verses 1-9 the procedure is described four times: once when God gives the command to Joshua (1-3), a second time when Joshua passes the command along to the people (4-7), a third time when the author describes the people's obedience (8-9), and a final time at the end of the episode (19-24). This is a feature of good story-telling, one you will always find in the technique of riveting story-tellers around campfires. Each time the account is repeated, instead of being bored by the repetition the hearers enjoy hearing how the story-teller will vary his manner of telling. The children in the audience especially will watch for possible additions or omissions and take delight in pointing them out to the speaker. The speaker will sometimes deliberately make a change to see if his audience will detect it and catch him. You will often find this style in biblical narratives. It reminds us of how many of these accounts originated and were passed on.

One such detail in chapter 4, which an alert listener would immediately pick up on as a fulfillment of something touched upon in the earlier narrative in 1:12-18, is the presence of the "men of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh" who crossed over the Jordan armed in front of the other tribes, as Moses had directed them (v. 12-13).

The final time that the transfer of the stones is described (19-24), we are given interesting additional information. We are told the date of the crossing: the 10th day of the first month, which is the date of Passover (v. 19). And we are now told the location of what earlier was simply called "the place where you stay tonight" (v. 3) — it is "Gilgal on the eastern border of Jericho" (v. 19). These two additional details will constitute a thread that is picked up again in chapter 5. The name "Gilgal", which sounds like the Hebrew verb galal "to roll away" will be related to the circumcising of Israelite fighting men of the generation born in the wilderness years (5:1-9), and the Passover will now be celebrated for the first time in the Promised Land (5:10-12). But the place name Gilgal for an alert Hebrew listener could remind him or her of the heap (Hebrew gal) of 12 stones, which Joshua made there (4:20).

The number 'twelve', as the text informs us, was to relate to the twelve tribes which crossed the river under the leadership of the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant.

In Christian hymnody the verbal image of crossing the Jordan usually stands for the believer's crossing over from earthly life to heavenly at the moment of death. A classic example is this fine hymn (listen to it online).
On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand,
And cast a wishful eye
To Canaan’s fair and happy land,
Where my possessions lie.

Refrain: I am bound for the promised land,
I am bound for the promised land;
Oh, who will come and go with me?
I am bound for the promised land.

O’er all those wide extended plains
Shines one eternal day;
There God the Son forever reigns,
And scatters night away.


No chilling winds or poisonous breath
Can reach that healthful shore;
Sickness and sorrow, pain and death,
Are felt and feared no more.


When I shall reach that happy place,
I’ll be forever blest,
For I shall see my Father’s face,
And in His bosom rest.

Undoubtedly, the association of crossing the Jordan with the death of a Christian has something to do with the transference of the concept of the "Promised Land" from a literal geographic location on earth, which it definitely meant for ancient Israel, to an eternal home in Heaven for Christians.

But, of course, the analogy cannot be perfect. For although the land of Canaan was for the entering Israelites, who had lived for 40 years in the deserts, truly a "land flowing with milk and honey", it was—unlike Heaven—a dangerous place, with enemies lurking everywhere, and opponents to defeat.

In our studies of the next chapters we will see just how dangerous it was for the Israelites, and how much they had to depend upon God who had ordered them to conquer and settle this land.

But for now we should ponder, as modern-day believers, the lesson of the stone memorial. When we first chose to believe in Jesus and asked him to forgive our sins and set us on the path of service and fellowship with him, we were like the Israelites who trusted Yahweh-God to bring them through the raging, flooding Jordan. Once on the other side, they faced dangers, but a chance to fulfill God's will and realize an age-old promise made to Abraham. Once we have passed from spiritual death into a new life of walking with Jesus, we too may face dangers. Perhaps not life-threatening, but ostracism by those who do not like us to share the message of Jesus with others in a natural and friendly way. That opposition may even come from members of our own families. It may all too soon come from "politically correct" laws of our governments, federal and state and local. But whatever faces us, we can look back at our "pile of stones", our remembrance of how Jesus brought us out of the life-threatening flood of our own sins, and onto the firm ground of life in Christ. I take pleasure in remembering my experience of finding Christ. I hope that each of you do as well.

Chs. 3-4: Stones of Memory

(Guest columnist: Wini Hoffner)

Today we are covering chapters 3 & 4 of Joshua. These chapters contain two principles continued from chapter 1:
  • That God affirms his appointed leader
  • That God is present with those who serve him in faith and obedience.
Joshua and the Israelites are encamped at Shittim on the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho. The Jordan River is the boundary to the Promised Land. Shittim is their final encampment before they enter the land. They have been there since Numbers 33 where Moses gave them his final instructions before they would enter the land.

In Joshua 3 & 4 Israel crosses over the Jordan River and steps into the land that was their inheritance as promised by God to their father, Abraham.

It was a miraculous crossing, paralleling the crossing of the Red Sea.

The timing of the crossing is what made it a miracle. From v. 15 we see that it was at the time of the spring harvest (April/May) and so the river was at flood stage due to the melting of the snows of Mt. Hermon. The Jordan could have been forded at other times of the year, but not now. God chose a most inopportune time to lead the Israelites across the Jordan.

Chapter 3 begins with instructions by Joshua regarding the crossing and concludes with the words: “all Israel passed by until the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground.” (3:17).

Chapter 4 enlarges upon some of the details of the crossing and puts particular emphasis on the “stones of remembrance”.

I. The Instructions

Josh. 3:1 Early in the morning Joshua and all the Israelites set out from Shittim and went to the Jordan, where they camped before crossing over.

Before they begin the crossing instructions are given:
  • (vv. 2-4)The officers who had been appointed back in chapter one instruct the people, telling them that when the priests bearing the ark set out, they are to follow them.
  • (v.5) Joshua instructs the people, telling them to consecrate themselves. They are about to embark on the Lord’s work.
  • (v.6) Joshua instructs the priests that they are to take up the ark and lead the way.
  • (v.8) The Lord instructs Joshua to “Tell the priests who carry the ark of the covenant: ‘When you reach the edge of the Jordan’s waters, go and stand in the river.’”
II. The Ark

The ark is mentioned 8 times in this chapter. It leads the way. The people are told to follow it (v.2); The priests are told to take it up and lead the way with it (v.6); three times we are told (vv. 8, 11, 14) that the ark entered the river first; and finally, that it remained in the middle of the river until all of Israel had crossed over (v. 17).

In this chapter it is called the “ark of the covenant”, and the “ark of the Lord of all the earth”.

What is the significance of the role of the ark in this miracle?
  • It was the Lord’s throne. The Lord himself went into the river first and led the way.
  • It contained God’s words engraved on the stone tablets. The divine word that would guide them in their battles and daily lives in the Promised Land.
  • It is called the “ark of the covenant”...God, in this act, is being faithful to his promise of a land to Abraham.
  • It is called the “ark of the Lord of all the earth”. This land belongs to him. It is his to give to Israel.
What is the significance of the priests with the ark standing in the middle of the river till all Israel crossed over?

(“the Lord himself remained in the place of danger until all Israel had crossed the Jordan.") NIV Study Bible note on v. 17.

III. The Miracle

In Josh. 3:5 we read: Joshua told the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the LORD will do amazing things among you.”

“Amazing things”. The purpose of this “amazing thing” is 3-fold.
  1. In v. 10 God said he would certainly drive out all the inhabitants of the land. And Joshua has said to the people: “This is how you will know...” This “amazing thing” that is about to occur will show Israel that they can trust God’s guarantee. The ark is the symbol that God, the Lord and ruler of the land, will go before them as they enter the land.
  2. This “amazing thing” will demonstrate to the people who live on the other side of the Jordan that Israel’s God is like no other god. Indeed, the people are already aware, as Rahab confessed in 2:9-10.
  3. And finally, this “amazing thing” will once again affirm Joshua as God’s chosen successor to Moses.
Josh. 3:7 And the LORD said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to exalt you in the eyes of all Israel, so they may know that I am with you as I was with Moses.”

The Lord uses the dramatic event of the crossing of the Jordan, so similar to the crossing of the Red Sea, to demonstrate Joshua’s equal standing with Moses.

IV. The Stones of Remembrance

Twice in these 2 chapters we are told that the whole nation crossed the Jordan and entered the land:

Josh. 3:17 The priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood firm on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, while all Israel passed by until the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground.
Josh. 4:1 ¶ When the whole nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the LORD said ...

All of Israel is united in this venture, including the Transjordanian tribes. All are following God’s command, all have embraced Joshua’s leadership. The unity of the whole nation was essential.

Now that they have successfully crossed into Canaan, in vv. 4-8 Joshua has the people appoint 12 men, one from each tribe to collect 12 stones rom the middle of the Jordan River and carry them to their new camp on the west side of the Jordan at Gilgal. Joshua then sets the stones up as a monument (v.9)

What is the purpose of these stones, of this monument?

Verses 6-7 and 21-23 tell us that they were to serve as a sign so that when their children see these stones and ask what they mean they are to tell them:
Josh. 4:7 “tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”

This “amazing thing” was not just for the current generation; it was for all of Israel to remember for all time (just as Passover would always remind Israel of the Red Sea Crossing and their deliverance from bondage, and just as the Lord’s Supper always reminds us of our deliverance from sin and death through our Lord’s death and resurrection).

Joshua told the representatives of the 12 tribes to collect stones from the middle of the Jordan (v.5).

Why stones from the middle of the Jordan? Why not from the nearby bank? The middle of the Jordan is the place where the priests stood with the ark while the people were crossing - the place where God held back the waters and protected them during the entire crossing.

V. Crossing details

Chapter 3 gave the instructions for the crossing and then summarized the crossing in the last 3 verses. In chapter 4, in addition to the details regarding the stones of remembrance we have the details of the crossing laid out before us in layer after layer, with emphasis again on the ark and the priests’ role.

In v. 10 we are told that the priests and the ark were to remain in the middle of the Jordan “until everything the LORD had commanded Joshua was done by the people, just as Moses had directed Joshua. The people hurried over...”

In v. 11 we read that after crossing, the people watched as the priests bearing the ark come up out of the river.

In vv. 15-17 we see that the priests come up out of the Jordan in obedience to Joshua’s verbal command just as they entered the river at the command of Joshua in 3:8.

This authenticates Joshua’s leadership in the eyes of the people. So we read:
Josh. 4:14 That day the LORD exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel; and they revered him all the days of his life, just as they had revered Moses.
V. Preparing for Battle

Notice that it is the Transjordanian tribes that lead the way as the nation enters Canaan.
Josh. 4:12 The men of Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh crossed over, armed, in front of the Israelites, as Moses had directed them.
Josh. 4:13 About forty thousand armed for battle crossed over before the LORD to the plains of Jericho for war.
They are entering the land that God had promised to their fathers, but it is nonetheless enemy territory. And so they come prepared to do battle. They have come in obedience to the Lord’s commands and so they can expect that he will fight for them.

Chapter 3 began with Israel camped at Shittim on the plains of Moab on the east side of the Jordan. Chapter 4 ends with them camped across the river at Gilgal on the eastern border of Jericho. God has done an “amazing thing” and brought them into the Promised Land. Their days of desert wandering are over.


Finally, this “amazing thing” was not meant just to remind Israel that her God is awesome and powerful; it was also meant as a testimony for the whole world.
Josh. 4:24 He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God.


Many times in the Bible we see Israel reviewing her past history, remembering God’s power and God’s work in their lives. These past victories would encourage them for the present and renew their trust in God. That was the purpose for these “stones of remembrance”. They would encourage Israel in the face of the battles ahead, both immediately and far into the future.

What “stones of remembrance” do you have in your life? Times that you can look back upon where God empowered you to overcome, where you were strongly aware of his presence, where he did “amazing things” in your life that kept you and upheld you?

As you and I face the challenges, difficulties, and tragedies that seek to overwhelm us, we should look back on those “stones of remembrance” and be reminded that our faithful God is still present with us and will see us through.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Joshua 2—Is there a Mistress in the House?

American Indian Scouts

Scouts of the Union Army

Josh. 2:1 Then Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim. “Go, look over the land,” he said, “especially Jericho.” So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.
Sending out scouts to do reconnaissance work in advance of an invading army has been standard military practice for thousands of years. In the ancient Near East there is textual evidence for the use of advance scouting of an enemy in Egyptian, Hittite and Assyrian military annals. During the Battle of Kadesh (c. 1350 BC), the Hittites completely deceived Egyptian advance scouts into thinking they had retreated from Damascus, allowing Ramses II to lead his first division unguarded into the city, where the Hittites ambushed it. Scouts are also mentioned in the letters between Hittite kings and their commanders during the age of Moses.
In Moses’ and Joshua’s time army commanders took two equally important advance measures to ensure military success:
  1. They consulted their god (or gods) by means of divination (oracles, etc.) to determine if he was willing to grant their armies victory, and
  2. They sent out scouts to reconnoiter the land in order to determine the location and strength of the enemy.
In other words, while they acknowledged the crucial role of their god’s will, yet they did everything humanly possible to ensure themselves a victory. In a way, this was an ancient equivalent of the World War I soldiers’ song “Praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition!”

God had given a specific promise repeatedly to Moses—beginning in the land of Midian, when God called him, and continuing in Egypt and in the 40 years of wandering in the deserts—that he would bring the nation into the Promised Land and defeat their enemies for them.

Still—Numbers 13 (especially vv. 17-20) records that at the command of God, Moses sent out twelve scouts from Kadesh-barnea to determine the strength of the Canaanites living in the land that Israel intended to claim as its own inheritance from God.

You might wonder: “If God promised them victory, why was it necessary for them to send out those scouts from Kadesh-barnea?” In that particular case it was God’s way of testing the nation’s faith in his promise.

Each of the 12 scouts sent sent out by Moses from Kadesh-barnea was chosen from a different tribe, so someone from each tribe could express faith or unbelief. Of those 12 scouts who went on the mission and returned to Moses in Kadesh-barnea, only two—Joshua (of Ephraim) and Caleb (of Judah)—were in favor of proceeding. The other ten admitted that the land was all that God had described it to be in terms of desirability. But in their opinion the enemy was too powerful and numerous. Ten our of twelve tribes, through their representatives, failed the test of faith in God’s promise, and consequently God instructed Moses to delay the mission for another 39 years, so that this unbelieving generation would die off in the deserts, leaving only their sons to do battle in faith in the conquest of the Promised Land.

The twelve men sent by Moses probably operated in pairs, so that the fact that exactly two of them (Joshua and Caleb) diverged from the majority opinion may not be a coincidence, since Joshua and Caleb could have been a team and had discussed the issue and reached a mutual decision while still in the field.

In Joshua 2, Joshua sent only one pair, indicating that the purpose now was different. These two scouts do not seem to have represented different tribes: we are not even told what tribal affiliation either of them had! Nor was the purpose of the mission to test their faith, although in fact they did return encouraged by what they saw, and their report when it came was an encouragement to Joshua and all the warriors.

At the outset Joshua himself undoubtedly conceived their mission to be to gather as much strategic information about Jericho and its surroundings (“the land”) as possible. Jericho was the most prominent walled city in the direct path of the proposed invasion of the land. If, as is the view of most evangelical scholars, the goal of Joshua’s campaigns was not a total obliteration of the pagan population of the entire land, but the breaking of coordinated resistance among the Canaanite centers, then one would expect that after consulting God, Joshua selected only a few major points in the land to attack and subdue. The first and most obvious of these was Jericho. If the Israelites were successful against Jericho, it would send a message to the other centers that would demoralize the opposition.

Scouts wore no “uniform” or distinctive dress that would identify them as agents of an outside group. Their dress might have been different from that of the citizens of Jericho, but then any visiting traveler from, say, South Arabia would have had a distinctive dress. The language spoken by the descendants of Jacob was certainly not much different from the Canaanite dialects. They could easily infiltrate enemy territory without giving themselves away immediately.

Jericho was on a western offshoot from a major North-South trade route called "The Kings’ Highway", and merchant caravans and individual traders must often have passed through, each speaking a pidgin (or ‘Berlitz’) Canaanite, commonly used by travelers from other countries. Visitors with such foreign accents didn’t surprise or disturb the security-minded rulers of the city.

Whole merchant caravans might camp in the open country. Individual travelers visiting relatives in the city would lodge with them. But individual travelers just passing through would stay at inns. The principal guests of such inns were soldiers and merchants.

Ancient Near Eastern “inns” often contained brothels. We know this from Hittite and Babylonian texts from this same era. Such inns were usually located—like the "roadhouses" of my childhood in the South—on the outskirts of the city. In the case of walled cities, such an inn might actually abut the city wall (see Joshua 2:15), making it an easy point for escape by rappelling down the outside of the city wall.

The innkeepers in those days were often women (compare the Old Babylonian sabītum 'female inn/tavern-keeper'). Rahab, who is called a “harlot” or “prostitute” (Hebrew zônāh) therefore, was not just an ordinary prostitute, but the proprietress of the establishment. The building was also her (and her family’s) residence.

Although shocked rabbis tried in vain to dilute the meaning of the Hebrew word “prostitute” (zônah) used of Rahab, since she is obviously the heroine of the story, it is better to add her to the list of so-called “disreputable” women, who came to faith and became true heroines (see Hebrews 11:31). According to the genealogy in Matthew 1:5, Rahab became the wife of Salmon and the mother of Boaz, ancestor of David.

Regarding the scouts’ choice to lodge in an inn, Herzog & Gichon have written the following:
“Inns have always been excellent sources of information. The careless talk of guests and the sharp ears of hosts have combined to make them a coveted intelligence objective. Frederick the Great [of Prussia] advised his heirs to have an innkeeper in their pay in every region of interest. One of the subjects learned from listening to conversation in inns is the true morale and opinion of the population. Thus the report of Rahab's words—'For we have heard ... what you did unto the two kings of the Amorites … whom you utterly destroyed. And ... our hearts melted, there was no courage in any man because of you' (Josh. 2:10-11)—must have strengthened Joshua in his conviction that the proper psychological moment for the attack upon Jericho had come” (Battles of the Bible, p. 45).
Josh. 2:2-3 The king of Jericho was told, “Look! Some of the Israelites have come here tonight to spy out the land.” So the king of Jericho sent this message to Rahab: “Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house, because they have come to spy out the whole land.”

2-3 It was probably not the custom in those days, as it is in European inns and hotels today, to send registration lists of the night’s guests to the local gendarmerie. But somehow, perhaps through agents of the king sent to the various inns, the information that two of Rahab’s guests were Israelite scouts reached the king (v. 2-3). The king and all the people had excellent information about the Israelites from the day that the pharaoh’s chariot corps was drowned in the Red Sea! They may have learned of those events from traveling merchants would have brought the news from Egypt to Jericho and other urban points along the caravan routes.

So the king immediately sent to Rahab and asked her to “bring out” the suspect men. Why didn’t the king just send soldiers into the inn to fetch them? Perhaps because he did not want a pitched battle, with the possibility that in the confusion of a struggle and other milling guests, one or both of the scouts might escape. Perhaps he had in mind that Rahab would think of some excuse to bring the two men he sought outside alone—a ruse.

4-7 Rahab’s ruse.

Rahab's roof

Josh. 2:4-7 But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. She said, “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from. 5 At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, the men left. I don’t know which way they went. Go after them quickly. You may catch up with them.” 6 (But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax she had laid out on the roof.) 7 So the men set out in pursuit of the spies on the road that leads to the fords of the Jordan, and as soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut.

Rahab was a clever woman, like other clever women celebrated in the Bible. She would indeed use a ruse, but the ruse would not be against the Israelites — it would be against the king of Jericho. Can you think of any other clever women of faith in the Bible, who by their cleverness saved God's people? That's right! The two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah in Exodus 1, who by a clever invented story ("disinformation") explained away their secret refusal to kill all the boy babies of the Hebrews.

What did Rahab do? She lied to the king’s messengers (v. 4-5). She too used “disinformation”! What parts of her statement were probably true, and what parts false? (I won't give you the answers to this one!)

Did she violate the Ninth Commandment (Exod. 20:16; Deut. 5:20) by lying to the king’s men? No, the commandment against “bearing false witness” does not apply to a war situation. In a war there is no neutrality: no decision that does not harm one side or the other. Whatever response Rahab gave to the king of Jericho would have harmed either Israel or the people of Jericho. Rahab chose, because she believed in the God of Israel and in his will to give victory to Israel in the invasion of Canaan. Her choice to protect the scouts, even at the cost of the lives of the people of Jericho, was morally right in both her own eyes and in God's eyes. In 1 Kings 22:19-23 God himself sent a "lying spirit" to wicked King Ahab in order to make him think that God would give him victory in battle, so that he would lead his army and be killed.

When the text says that the Israelite scouts were hidden on Rahab’s roof, we should not picture a modern American sloped roof! Israelite and Canaanite roofs were flat, and the perfect place for spreading out flax to dry in the sun, and for cool sleeping by the family on summer nights. Remember that this incident took place in April, when flax was harvested in Israel. The beds of flax would not only provide the spies with a comfortable bedding, but could be piled over them to conceal them in emergency.

Why did Rahab take this risk of hiding the scouts? One answer involves the ancient custom of hospitality. A host was responsible for the safety of his/her guest(s). Can you think of other stories in the Bible where hosts risked their own safety to protect guests? Right! Lot protected visiting angels from the men of Sodom (Gen. 19). And Jael ‘protected’ Sisera (in Judges 4).

The Israeli archaeologist Oded Borowski has this to say about the role of hospitality:
“That the custom of hospitality was practiced not only by Israelites but was part of ancient Canaan's Sitz im Leben (setting in life) is reflected in the biblical story of Rahab and the Israelite spies. When the spies sent by Joshua came to Jericho, Rahab hosted them and protected them against the locals who wanted to capture them (Josh 2:1-8). Protection of guests, which was emphasized in the stories of Lot and the concubine in Gibeah, is also the background of the encounter between Jael and Sisera (Judg 4:17-22; 5:24-27)” (in Daily Life in Biblical Times, 23).
But while the host’s obligation to protect a guest may have played some part, it is clear from Rahab's subsequent bargain with the spies that another more powerful motive drove her. What do you think that was?

She believed in the God of Israel, and knew that she could only secure her own safety and that of her family who lived with her by coming to terms with the God of Israel through these two emissaries of his. In verse 11 we learn how advanced was her concept of Israel’s God, for she calls him “God in heaven and on earth”, which means there is room for no other god. This is a statement of pure Monotheism. Hebrews 11:31 places Rahab in the “honor roll” of Old Testament heroes and heroines of faith.

8-14 Rahab strikes a bargain

Josh. 2:8-14 Before the spies lay down for the night, she went up on the roof 9 and said to them, “I know that the LORD has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. 10 We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. 11 When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. 12 Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign 13 that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and that you will save us from death.” 14 “Our lives for your lives!” the men assured her. “If you don’t tell what we are doing, we will treat you kindly and faithfully when the LORD gives us the land.”

It was still not too late for Rahab to betray the spies, once the king’s commando unit returned from the fruitless pursuit. The spies were still at her mercy. Rahab, therefore, proposed a deal. It was not a dastardly deal: it grew out of sincere faith that Israel’s God was the only God, and that her city was doomed, despite its seemingly impregnable walls. If she wanted to save herself and her family, she had to secure the promise of these men that they would spare her. Rahab’s course of action was threefold:
  • First she showed her willingness to put her own life in jeopardy by hiding the spies and sending the king’s men on a wild goose chase (vv. 4-7).
  • Then she told the scouts what the city had heard about Israel’s God & its demoralizing effect (vv. 8-11).
  • Finally she showed her willingness to trust the promise of the scouts: if she would help them escape and return to Joshua with valuable information, they would spare her life and lives of her household when they invaded the city (vv. 12-14).
Furthermore, she ensured the compliance of the scouts by making them swear by Yahweh, their God. Rahab knew that no one who wished to continue living would violate his oath to the God of heaven and earth. And she required that they give her a sign (v. 12), which they eventually do in vv. 17-20.

15-21 Rahab lets the scouts escape

Josh. 2:15 So she let them down by a rope through the window, for the house she lived in was part of the city wall. 16 Now she had said to them, “Go to the hills so the pursuers will not find you. Hide yourselves there three days until they return, and then go on your way.” 17 The men said to her, “This oath you made us swear will not be binding on us 18 unless, when we enter the land, you have tied this scarlet cord in the window through which you let us down, and unless you have brought your father and mother, your brothers and all your family into your house. 19 If anyone goes outside your house into the street, his blood will be on his own head; we will not be responsible. As for anyone who is in the house with you, his blood will be on our head if a hand is laid on him. 20 But if you tell what we are doing, we will be released from the oath you made us swear.” 21 “Agreed,” she replied. “Let it be as you say.” So she sent them away and they departed. And she tied the scarlet cord in the window.

The several requirements which the scouts put on Rahab were not intended to give them wiggle room. Rather they were to protect themselves and the Israelite soldiers from mistakenly killing her or a member of her family and thus falling under the curse of oath-breakers. She and her family must stay in her house and the house must be clearly marked by the scarlet cord. This reminds us also of the function of the blood mark on the doors of the Israelites in Egypt on the night of the fateful Passover. It saved them from the Angel of Death who passed through Egypt that night, killing the firstborn in every house not so marked (Exodus 12).

Rahab’s reward

Josh. 6:24-25 Then they burned the whole city and everything in it, …. 25 But Joshua spared Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, because she hid the men Joshua had sent as spies to Jericho—and she lives among the Israelites to this day.

Matthew 1:5-6, 16 Salmon was the father of Boaz by Rahab; Boaz was the father of Obed by Ruth; Obed was the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse was the father of King David. … 16 And Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called the Messiah.

Rahab eventually married an Israelite named Salmon (or Shalmon, see Matt 1:5-6) and became part of the royal line leading to King David, and even further to the Messiah Jesus (Mat. 1:5-6).

The acceptance of Rahab into the “family” of Israel illustrates how we must understand the so-called “ban” (Hebrew ḥerem) imposed by God: that the Israelites, when they captured a city which resisted them, were to exterminate “everything that breathes”. It was apparently acceptable to spare the life of a Canaanite who left his city and came to the Israelite camp to convert to faith in Israel’s God. But in cities that offered armed resistance to Israel even non-combatants forfeited their lives. This “ban” was imposed only on the key centers of armed resistance: Jericho, Ai, and Hazor. People in the other cities captured by the Israelites were not killed, if they surrendered. So this was not what we call today “ethnic cleansing”.

If this seems “unfair” to modern audiences, it is because we do not credit God with the ultimate wisdom, justice and love which we know that he has.

Before us in the case of Rahab we see how a “righteous Gentile” (Hebrew gôy ṣaddîq) behaves, when confronted with evidence of the Living God. Even at the risk of death for “treachery” such a person realigns himself or herself with God and God’s people. This “realignment” we call “repentance” and “conversion”.

Does it give you some hope for the world to think that even among the groups most outspokenly opposed to the Christian gospel—atheists or Muslims—there are such “righteous Gentiles” as Rahab? When you are tempted to give up praying for someone whom you think will never yield to the gospel, remember our good friend, Saul of Tarsus! In his day he would have been seen by most of the early Christians as an Osama bin Laden figure!

There is another question to ponder: If the scouts had not come to her house in Jericho, would Rahab, solely on the basis of what she had heard of Israel's God, have had the courage or opportunity to leave the city of Jericho and go throw herself on the mercy of Joshua in the Israelite camp? Most likely not, don't you agree? Her "conversion" was the result of those courageous Israelite "scouts" who dared to penetrate the city of the enemy.

This certainly speaks to us of the need for Christians to "penetrate" social, business and educational circles that are openly hostile to the gospel in order to make friends with people in those groups who, despite their "disreputable" outward appearance, are in reality inwardly hungering for the gospel of the King of Kings?

Ask yourself what groups you have access to but have hesitated to penetrate? Do you have a neighbor, whom you think is too hostile to befriend or invite to a church event? A church-sponsored golf outing?

Ask yourself what steps you can take to “penetrate” an apparently hostile person’s life?
  • Prayer.
  • Genuine acts of kindness (offer of a ticket you “can’t use” to some desirable sporting or social event; inviting over for a backyard cookout at your house; offer to plow his driveway, while you are plowing yours).
22-24 Encourgement to Joshua and all Israel

Josh. 2:22 When the scouts left [Rahab], they went into the hills and stayed there three days, until the pursuers had searched all along the road and returned without finding them. 23 Then the two men started back. They went down out of the hills, forded the Jordan river and came to Joshua son of Nun and told him everything that had happened to them. 24 They said to Joshua, “The LORD has surely given the whole land into our hands; all the people are melting in fear because of us.”

The final lesson of chapter 2 is the effect of the scouts’ report on Joshua and the Israelites. What word in verse 24 shows that the experience confirmed God’s earlier promise to Joshua and the people? Right! NIV “surely”, NRSV, RSV, ESV “truly”.

What lessons do you think the scouts learned from this experience? Perhaps you can add others, but here are a few that occurred to me:
  • Not to be afraid: God would be with them and protect them within the very camp of the enemy.
  • God’s promises can be relied upon.
  • Appearances can be deceiving. Do not look down on or despise a person because of circumstances that can be changed by God’s grace entering their lives. (Rahab the harlot!)
  • Don’t underestimate the possibility of finding a potential convert or turncoat among the enemy. Remember Saul of Tarsus, who became St. Paul, the great Apostle and Missionary to the Gentiles.
  • Appearances can be deceiving. Don’t overestimate the morale of the enemy or underestimate the intimidation that God’s acts can produce on an opponent of the Gospel.
  • God is full of pleasant surprises for those who will run risks in order to obey and serve him.