The serpent’s first question to Eve is an attempt to get under her skin, fomenting second thoughts about God’s gift and command. “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The serpent calls the content of God’s speech into question by twisting the command and putting a harsher edict in its place. Eve is sharp enough to set that twisted serpent straight–for the most part. “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say…”
The story is centered on controversy among God’s creatures as to what God actually said, and what was meant when he said it. The snake and the human bring different versions of God’s command–and different gods. The god of the serpent is a restrictive fellow who hoards all the garden’s fruit to himself (even though there is plenty to go around) and threatens transgressors with death (even though he doesn’t really mean it). Adam and Eve have another God’s breath in their veins; they know his generosity and his character, but in their naivete they act on the serpent’s sermon and fall into the serpent’s world. Adam and Eve claim the fruit for themselves, and awake to find themselves shamefully bent. This story is our story.
This post, however, is not about Adam and Eve per se. I want to look at a few other Old Testament representations of God’s speech, and eventually raise a few questions about the nature of revelation, inspiration, and our relationship to scripture.
In 2 Kings 18, a passage repeated in Isaiah, the Assyrian King Sennacherib sends his field commander to Jerusalem to intimidate the populace with a batch of bombast. His tirade concludes with several claims intended to dishearten the Israelites. “Didn’t King Hezekiah get rid of all the high places where you used to sacrifice to YHWH?” He turns Hezekiah’s attempted faithfulness against him, relying on what we can only assume must have been a popular sentiment with some substance. More importantly, he concludes by telling the Israelites that they cannot depend on their God to save them, because God is on the side of the Assyrians.
At first the field commander’s vitriol looks like transparent propaganda. He is clearly trying to scare the Israelites into insubordination against Hezekiah, or at least sow the seeds of panic in anticipation of the Assyrian army’s arrival. But the field commander’s words are not so facile as they seem. The prophets clearly saw Assyria as the instrument of God’s judgment against the northern kingdom, just as the Deuteronomistic history regards the Babylonians as the instrument of God’s judgment for idolatry in the southern kingdom one hundred and fifty years later. The field commander speaks the words of the prophets, transferred into the mouth of the enemy. God raises up nations in judgment, and the field commander proclaims that he has arrived to dole out the punishment that Judah has “earned.”
We read on, and it turns out that the field commander was lying all along. He claimed to have heard God’s command, and to be acting on it. Isaiah sets Hezekiah straight after the twisted words shouted from the wall. “This is what YHWH says, do not be afraid of what you have heard.” Rather than aid the Assyrian’s incursion against Jerusalem, God turns the Assyrians back with a frightful sign.
This example is perhaps a bit simple, few of us take the field commander at his word when he claims to speak for God. Bu at the least, this passage communicates the need for careful interpretation, even where scripture says plainly, “God said.” The text does not present these “sayings” to us as flat assertions to be accepted blindly. Or rather, in the fashion of good Hebrew narrative, it presents them to us flatly in hopes that we will read them with a careful eye and prayerful critique. Here is the last passage.
In Joshua 7, wandering Israel has just been repulsed by the army of the city of Ai when they expected an easy victory. The narrative of the conquest is freighted with ethical problems all its own, but occupying the center of this chapter is Achan’s plight. Achan is singled out as the scapegoat for the defeat. The text of this chapter, from beginning to end, presents Achan’s disobedience as the reason for the failure of Israel’s attack on Ai. While Israel plundered Jericho, Achan pocketed some of the gold and silver that he found–this personal profit had been forbidden.
Without rehearsing the story at length (the link to the full text is above if the story is unfamiliar), I would like to raise a few questions. Given that Achan’s sin is exposed by the casting of lots, essentially a game of chance, how likely is it that he was the only one who had taken some of the “devoted things” from Jericho? His quick confession and self-condemnation do not convey him as a particularly sinister character. If God was “steering” the lots, as it were, are we to assume that Achan was the only culprit, or merely an example to the others?
Second, in the subsequent raid of Ai, the Israelites are allowed to plunder. All Israel now participates in the act for which they have just finished stoning and burning Achan, Achan’s wife, Achan’s daughters, Achan’s sons, and Achan’s animals. Is there any way to understand this without seeming arbitrary?
Third, note that the text puts the command to stone Achan and the command to plunder Ai in the mouth of God. The entire narrative episode is built on the premise that Israel’s defeat is due to God’s anger, and that someone must pay up or the anger will remain. This then is the payoff question:
Did God really say…?
He who 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 a disgraceful thing in Israel!’
“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”
I approached this question through the first two passages very intentionally. When I recognize the lie in the field-commander’s mouth, I feel like a good Israelite, a theologian who recognizes false prophets. When I start to question Joshua I start to feel more like the serpent. I learned to read the Word of God in a straightforward manner. Therefore, when the Word of God says, “This is what God says, “…” my first inclination is to take the text at face value.
But the text of Joshua offers its holes for all of us to see. The arbitrariness of the commands strikes even the most naive reader, and the nature and proportion of the violence galls us all. Achan’s stoning looks more like a lynching than a semblance of military discipline, and the stoning of his family looks more like murder than justice. The text begs for an ethical interrogation; it begs for a theological interrogation. A surface reading of this text seems to point us to the serpent’s god–a deity marked by irrational jealousy and unnecessary violence. Might the text communicate more?
Part two of this post will be an attempt to talk about Joshua 7 as the word of God. In the mean time, does anyone have a gut reaction to these texts?
I am indebted to John Linton of the Oregon extension for a more nuanced reading of Joshua.