In Joshua’s Footprints

This blog has been short of visual media for a while, so here’s Joshua, looking implausibly Caucasian and worryingly well armed.

Still harping on Joshua? I hear some people ponder. The Book of Joshua matters. For one thing, I am part of a community named Joshua Generation, and consequently need to understand what a Joshua-like calling is meant to be. For another, more generally, it’s important to know what kind of strength and courage is required of Christ’s followers.

The points made most often in Joshua-related preaching are these: that he loved the presence of God (Exodus 33:11), that he had to be strong and very courageous (Joshua 1:6, 7, 9, 18), and that he led the people into what God had promised them. Intimacy, courage, and leadership ability are all things that I’ll gladly ask for when praying for people. Sunday school kids, meanwhile know Joshua as the one who brought down the city’s walls by loud shouting, and although this possibly constitutes an unhelpful example, as far as Sunday school discipline is concerned, it’s also an excellent metaphor for worshipful intercession. But there are reasons to think carefully about the book of Joshua: it is unavoidably a book about conquest, and the church has a bad history of dodgy thinking about conquests.

Pope Innocentius III excommunicating the Albigensians; Massacre against the Albigensians by the crusaders

Exactly what inspiration are we meant to take from the fact that Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho, and the walls came tum-bl-ing down?

It seems that somebody writing or editing the book wanted to teach Joshua’s descendants that they were not to glory in themselves as conquerors merely, or even as conquerors in the Lord’s power. Israelite readers would have had to remember their history—not only the history of the conquest, but the history of their original rescue from slavery in Egypt. Their identity was in being saved, more than in being victors.

It is Rahab that makes the difference in the account of the Battle of Jericho. Chapter 1 deals with the Lord’s call to Joshua, and some cheery shoulder-slapping between Joshua and the 2½ tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh; in chapter 2, the storyteller follows two spies into Jericho, where a prostitute named Rahab protects them from discovery and helps them escape. They arrange that she and her family will be spared when Jericho is taken, if certain conditions are met:

Behold, when we come into the land, you shall tie this scarlet cord in the window through which you let us down, and you shall gather into your house your father and mother, your brothers, and all your father’s household. (Joshua 2:18)

So as the Israelite army approaches Jericho, we know that there is one family waiting in their house in the city wall, with a scarlet cord tied in the window. Their situation parallels that of the Israelites who gathered in their homes, the scarlet marks of a lamb’s blood on the doorposts, through the night of the tenth and most devastating plague. And the scarlet mark rescues Rahab from the people who themselves were rescued by scarlet marks.

So the young men who had been spies went in and brought out Rahab and her father and mother and brothers and all who belonged to her. […] And they burned the city with fire […] And she has lived in Israel to this day, because she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho. (Joshua 6:23-25)

The survival of Rahab’s family repeats the pattern of the Exodus, a pattern which God seems rather to like: redemption out of the midst of destruction. Israelite readers of the book are prevented from feeling too comfortable in the idea of themselves as conquerors, as justicers, as those who dispense judgement: they are not to forget that they were and always will be rescued ones.

Here’s another passage with the same message. Just before the battle, Joshua has a peculiar encounter:

When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No …”

Very literal-minded.

And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” (Joshua 5:13-14a)

Apparently it’s not quite the case that the Israelites are fighting the Lord’s battle: there is another battle going on at the same time.

And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” And the commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. (Joshua 5:14b-15)

Once again, Joshua, and the readers of the book, are reminded of the story of the Exodus: Joshua is told to take off his sandals just like Moses was.

There’s humility in Joshua taking off his sandals, and trust, and a reminder that before the Israelites were an army they were a rag-tag band of fractious former slaves led by a man with a stutter. This reminder applies to all generations of God’s people. It is not that He plays whack-a-mole with us, holding our weakness over us in condemnation;—and not that we should not seek maturity (Hebrews 5:11-6:3):—but that we never have to move on from the wonder of our first salvation, the joy of it: we never stop being wet behind the ears: it’s always the day we arrived on the planet, and blinking stepped into the sun… Son.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation … Ps. 51:12

“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it …” Mark 10:15

“…you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen…” Rev. 2:4-5

Let me clarify something: I know that the Bible says that we are more than conquerors (Romans 8:37), and that, if Ephesians 6 is anything to go by, God’s people have some part to play in the ‘wrestle … against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places’ (Eph. 6:12).

But I think this is the only sense in which we can imagine ourselves as one battle formation opposing another. ‘We’ in that last sentence should, I’ve decided, in a sudden sweeping generalisation, be understood to refer not just to Christians but to anyone. Whether we’re conducting a Christianity vs. atheism debate, a war on terror, or a vigorous campaign against excessive enthusiasm for first-person-present-tense novels, the important thing, according to the story of the Battle of Jericho, is not, as such, to be the winners, but to rescue and redeem what is good, knowing that we are likewise rescued and redeemed ourselves.

So the young men who had been spies went in and brought out Rahab and her father and mother and brothers and all who belonged to her. (Joshua 6:23)

A battle

Not a battle

It is a curious fact that Joshua is mentioned by name only twice in the New Testament, and not with any special praise:

“Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers…” Acts 7:44-45

For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. Hebrews 4:8

It would be an argument from silence to conclude that the New Testament writers actually disapproved of Joshua. Rahab, though, is praised twice for her faith:

By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies. Hebrews 11:31

And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? James 2:25

Rahab stands as an example of faith, faithfulness, bravery, salvation and restoration, so that being a Rahab generation sounds like quite a good idea.

But the name of Joshua has its own special place in the New Testament. One could say that, although the Old Testament Joshua was promised every place where he set his feet, his bare-footed footprints eventually become faint, and instead, there is another trail of footprints for us to walk in.

“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)

Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua, which means the Lord saves…’ (NIV footnotes)

Here’s another curious fact: the New Testament Joshua took upon himself the same punishment that the original Joshua had assigned his enemies.

[…] they took the king of Ai alive and brought him to Joshua. […] He impaled the body of the king of Ai on a pole and left it there until evening. At sunset, Joshua ordered them to take the body from the pole and throw it down at the entrance of the city gate. And they raised a large pile of rocks over it, which remains to this day. Joshua 8:23, 29

Then Joshua put the kings to death and exposed their bodies on five poles, and they were left hanging on the poles until evening. At sunset Joshua gave the order and they took them down from the poles and threw them into the cave where they had been hiding. At the mouth of the cave they placed large rocks, which are there to this day. Joshua 10:26-27

Sounds familiar.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” Galatians 3:13

Odd. Yes. It feels like there is more to be said here, and questions to consider, if I knew how.

Here’s the battle scene from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe… just in case the picture above made anyone wish they were watching it.

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One Response to In Joshua’s Footprints

  1. it feels like i have heard about 6, 241 worse sermons than this

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