LESSON: from Joshua 23 & 24
Today we come to the books of Joshua and Judges. First, we’ll try to summarize what happens in these books, and then we’ll try to figure out what it all means.
(1) The book of Joshua begins where Deuteronomy ends: The people are on the east side of the Jordan river, waiting to cross into Canaan. Moses had died, and Joshua was the new leader, who would take the Hebrew tribes into what we know as Israel.
But how? There were already people living in Canaan—the Canaanites, you know. In chapter 2, Joshua sent in spies, to scout the land and the people who lived there. Then they cross the Jordan, and come to Jericho, a city that’s still very much on the map, 3500 years later. That leads to the story in chapter 6 about how “the walls came a-tumblin’ down,”—how God made it possible for the Hebrews to take the city.
The next several chapters tell how the Hebrews were able to conquer the rest of Canaan in turn, and how the land was divided up among the various tribes. The book ends with Joshua’s farewell to the leaders, in chapter 23 and 24, as Joshua summarizes the history of what’s happened, and the challenges yet to come.
Then the book of Judges takes over. Israel is not exactly Israel yet, There is no unified nation. It’s more like the United States after the Revolutionary War—a loose collection of independent tribes. Meanwhile, the Hebrews are being attacked by the Canaanites, who want their land back. Pretty much what’s still going on today! So God raises up a series of judges to take charge.
The word “judges” is misleading, because it makes us think of a courtroom judge in a black robe handing down decisions. There’s a particular passage in Judges 2 that sums it up pretty well. It says: “Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. …Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge, and saved them out of the hands of their enemies…. But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their fathers, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways.”
Perhaps the best known judges were Gideon and Deborah—Yes, Deborah: Israel had a woman leader, 3000 years before we bothered to let women even vote.
(2) So that’s what happens in these books. . . But what can we learn from them?
First, there’s this whole idea of a Promised Land. God had promised Abraham that one day, his descendants would have that land. Now that promise is fulfilled.
Maybe we should relate this to our own history. Within the lifetime of some of you—in 1948– Israel became an independent nation. But let’s remember why: For many centuries, the Jews in Europe had been persecuted.
By the late 1800s, many realized that they would never be truly safe until they had their own nation.
That came to a head in World War II, with Germany’s attempt to exterminate them. “Never again!” became the watchword. Many Jews who survived that Holocaust left Europe once and for all, and Israel became an independent nation.
For us, it’s a reminder that we can serve God even under the worst conditions. There are Christians today who are being killed for their faith—in places like North Korea and China, the Sudan, Iraq and Syria and so on.
But God wants his people to be able to serve him fully and openly and safely. That’s why time and again the forces of oppression have been defeated–from Babylon to Rome to the Nazis and Communists of the last century.
Faith in God is not just a psychological experience or emotional feeling. It has real-world, real-life consequences. Just as God gave the Hebrews a land of their own, so too God has given us a land where we have tremendous freedom to serve him. The question for us is whether we use our freedom to serve God or serve ourselves.
Every morning, we make the kids pledge allegiance with a promise of “liberty and justice for all.” Do we meant it? Do we mean “all” or do we really mean just “some”? Do we work to make “for all” really mean all, or do we care only about ourselves?
Sometimes, faith gets down and dirty, into the messiness of land and politics, nations and wars. So God kept his promise. The descendants of Abraham would have their promised land.
But there was that one little catch: The promised land was already full of other people: the Canaanites, and they didn’t feel like moving. If Israel wanted the land they would have to take it by force.
This is where the story gets creepy. For instance, in Joshua 6, when the walls of Jericho fall down, verse 21 says, “So every man charged straight in and…They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living being in it – men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.”
This happens time and again. Joshua is not content to overthrow a king, or defeat an army. The fighting ends only after everyone is dead–politicians, soldiers and civilians alike. And it seems to be God himself who gives the orders. For instance, Joshua 11:6 says,” The Lord said to Joshua,” Do not be afraid of them, because by this time tomorrow I will hand all of them over to Israel, slain. You are to hamstring their horses and burn their chariots.”
Really? Really??? Does God really order up holy wars like this? Is God really that bloodthirsty? And if he is, do we want anything to do him in the 21st century? Haven’t we had our fill of religious extremism? This is difficult material, and we can’t pass it off with snap answers.
(a) First, before we criticize the ancient Hebrews, we should criticize ourselves first. If Israel over-interpreted God’s will, too often we under-interpret it. We practice a moral relativity that makes it hard for us to distinguish good from evil. My husband teaches ethics. He asked a class if they thought slavery was wrong. The students hemmed and hawed. It took several minutes before one brave girl finally said yes, it’s wrong. Now, the other students weren’t closet Confederates. They didn’t like slavery, but they said that the Confederates were very sincere in their beliefs, and so maybe we shouldn’t be judgmental and say they were wrong.
Well, if we can’t even say that slavery is evil, then how can we ever tackle anything else? The Canaanites were not exactly innocent farmers. They practiced human sacrifice —they sacrificed their own children to their gods. That’s why Joshua warned Israel against intermarrying or even associating with them. Evil is evil.
But look at how much evil we tolerate in our own society. Our murder rate ranks us with some of the most savage, uncivilized places in the world. Yet we’re just fine with it. We don’t do anything about it, and we’re barely even allowed to talk about it. Our public health officials aren’t even allowed to add up the numbers.
(b) And sometimes, we just have to be honest, and say, Israel was wrong. Israel went too far. Even if they thought God was telling them to become brutal killers, do we have to accept that at face value? Or is God actually testing us? Is God waiting for us to say, No, it was wrong! This is not the way of Christ, the way of forgiveness, grace, and love. We always make the Old Testament people into heroes and saints. But as we have seen, from Noah to Abraham to David, time and again, the heroes failed. And so too could an entire nation.
Part of their mistake was a mistake made in faith. Israel believed that God was with them every single moment. For them, that meant that if they won a battle, it must be because God chose them to win. And if they used excessive force, it must have been with God’s approval. And in that, without a clear moral compass, sometimes they went overboard, and practiced violence with unthinkable savagery.
But again, if we criticize them, we must also criticize ourselves. Too often, we do the opposite. Instead of seeing God in every part of our lives, we relegate God to the fringes of life. We may recognize his presence only one morning a week, or for a quick prayer at the dinner table. We don’t consider the possibility that God is interested in everything we say or do, 24/7. And when we allow ourselves to push Jesus Christ to the side, that’s when we give in to our own 21st century savagery. That’s when we forget forgiveness, sacrifice, and love, and practice revenge, greed, and hatred instead.
If we can find our way through the gory violence, there’s a true message that comes through loud and clear. Verse 11 says: “So be very careful to love the Lord your God.”
Judges shows the pattern: When Israel follows God, they win. When they fall away, they lose. The real standard is the higher demands of God. As the prophet Micah said, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” Be fair, be decent, and show some humility and trust.
And the words of Micah have not expired. This is still the will of God for us.
So Joshua issued the challenge: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Every day, we make a choice. We vote for God or we vote for something else. The temptation is to follow the gods of those around us; to reduce ourselves to the lowest common denominator; to let our own game drop down to the level of the competition.
“But as for me and my family,” Joshua says, “We will serve the Lord.” We can always choose down. Now is the time to choose up, for the glory of Jesus Christ our Lord.