achan’s stones :: [part two]

The last post on this theme circuitously raised a thorny question about Scripture and God’s speech. Achan and his kin are put to death, seemingly at God’s command, and the execution seems to placate God’s anger. The blood of the offending man and his family satisfies God’s demand for retribution after his command was broken. This post and the next set out most of the escape routes that I can think of—and offer reasons why they create more problems than they avoid.

Anyone who wants to take the text seriously is faced with the problem: God speaks to Joshua to command the execution of Achan and his family. The last post questioned whether Achan was the sole culprit in all Israel (and thus the justice of his execution); but even if he was, the execution of his family seems barbaric. Does God command murder?

Modus operandi for most of us is to simply ignore these jarring and violent texts and focus on more straightforwardly edifying passages. On the whole, I am not sure that this is a bad thing; it is less than wise to quote Joshua 7 in an attempt to build up the church’s faith. But the existence of these texts subverts my desire to speak of the whole bible as the word of God—it makes me uncomfortable. Whether we ignore these texts or not, the picture of God that they present lurks in the dark cellar of faith—and we worry that he may come up into the light. For many, the problem remains whether or not it is faced explicitly.

There are a number of trapdoors that allow us sneak right out of the problem but most leave a bigger mess on our hands. For example, we might read the text as an object lesson on self-control, honesty, and discipline. Here, Achan symbolizes the part of ourselves that is selfishly sneaky and disobedient—we learn that the solution to vice is to bring mischief to light and put it to death. God’s command in this text is not a seemingly perverse form of justice, but rather a veiled command to self-discipline—let the wise reader understand. While there is certainly some truth in the lesson being drawn here, we must ask whether the death of a man and his family are really necessary for our enlightenment. Spiritualizing the text elides over the ethical problem because it elides over the historical event, and in this case the historical bloodshed. Can a murder be justified for the spiritual benefit it brings to others?

Another way out lies in history itself. So far as I understand the archeological evidence for the conquest (and I make no great claims), it is ambiguous at best. The book of Joshua describes invasion and destruction on a scale that should be fairly plain when shovels hit the sand. But the best evidence suggests that the text is exaggerating the speed, scope, and extent of the destruction. And not to pit history against scripture, the text of Joshua itself is ambiguous about the success of the conquest (compare Joshua 11:23 with 13:1). If the event described here never happened, perhaps our spiritualized reading is valid after all. At the least, we can clear both Joshua and God of the blood of Achan’s children…right?

Even if no historical figure named Achan ever marched into Jericho filching silver shekels and gold bars, the theological problem remains. Our predecessors have given us this text (amidst a much larger canon), and said, “If you read with an open heart you will find truth about God here.” If Achan never lived, we still hold a story that speaks of a God who demands blood when he is crossed. The theological ramifications of this picture are difficult to swallow. That “solution” also raises all sorts of hermeneutical questions about the genre of the book of Joshua and exactly what its author hoped to communicate to its original readers. If the author was not straightforwardly writing history, he certainly appears to us to be doing so. This second problem likely cannot be ignored no matter what our final understanding of this text is, but its resolution lies beyond the bounds of anything that I’m trying to do here.

If these two escape routes are indeed dead-ends for those who want to honor the place of this text in God’s word, then we must look elsewhere. The problem, as we have formulated it, is primarily a theological problem, perhaps we may find some hope of resolution by considering it on theological grounds.

More in days to come…

4 Replies to “achan’s stones :: [part two]”

  1. Oh yes…what a model for God’s people. Joshua receives the mantel from Moses to move His people into the “promise land” over the river Jordan only to find it infiltrated with the enemy. The story of Achan seems to personalize the otherwise national caricature of Israel. The theme of the book of Joshua is…keep it holy or you will lose. What’s astounding is that after Achan and his family are stoned a massacre of tens of thousands continues upon the direction of God. What’s even worse is that after such a slaughter and the taking the land and splitting it up between the tribes of Israel, God’s people succumb to the infiltration of the gods of the enemy anyway and are defeated in the long run looking for leadership. A model for God’s people? From “Adam’s Apple” to Achan’s Stone…ok…who is to “throw the first stone”…and where does that lead us. God have mercy, Lord have mercy!

  2. Willy,

    Thanks for dropping off a few words of your own. It was great to talk to you the other day.

    So, is Joshua a model for God’s people?

    I think that the question is a good one. Many of us read scripture with the reading strategy that the main character in the story is automatically a role model. The reason that these stories are in the bible, so this line of thinking goes, is that these characters provide us with an example to imitate.

    I want to make the water quite a bit murkier than that, mostly because I don’t think that scripture intends to portray Joshua, or Moses, or Abraham, as haloed saints who do no wrong. The bible’s figures are compelling because they are ambiguous, just like us. They do right and they do wrong–sometimes egregious wrong. But their ambiguity necessitates our care and attention. The simplistic moralizing readings that most of us were trained into by well-meaning Sunday School teachers are dangerous when we start to actually draw the moral implications. Joshua 7, whatever we make of it, probably can’t be reduced to a flannel-graph.

    And once we see that our basic reading is implausible or morally misleading, we quit taking scripture seriously as the basis of faith and action. So… I’m all for a better reading; whether I’m capable of it is another question.

    Love to you and Karen,
    Eric

  3. Hi Eric…Got some time to offer a little more on this subject.

    Since my flannel graph days I’ve been a little uneasy about the Joshua and Promise Land stories as you have noted are often reduced to “simplistic moralizing readings” or models of heroic leadership where the enemy is eliminated as lead by God. It all seems contrary to the teaching of Jesus. True they are compelling ambiguous characters having traits we are able to identify with.

    With this, what is our understanding of these scriptures? Do we really quit taking scripture seriously as the basis of faith and action?

    The focus is too often on the individual and rarely on the development of biblical theme or the story of God’s people (all people that is).

    So where do we go with this?

    For starters I saw a bumper sticker the other day that read “Humans living as Spiritual Beings or Spiritual Beings living as Humans”. With our focus on the individual we tend to see stories like these in terms of character development – humans living as spiritual beings or at least making the attempt to be spiritual. I think this is fine. A place to begin and learn about yourself.

    However, I believe it’s important to step back from the myopic individualistic focus of evangelical self improvement and some how gain perspective of the whole taking into consideration the broad context as we understand we are spiritual beings living as humans in a world community…God’s community. Our journey to true humanity as intended by God and demonstrated by The Christ.

    What was God offering to Joshua?

  4. Amen!

    Let’s be human beings in the full, not ephemeral denizens waiting around to be vaporized into greater soulishness! And that full humanity involves recognizing the spiritual part of our-selves.

    I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that we should quit taking scripture as our norm, rather, I meant to say that it is really hard to do so when we are stuck with deficient readings of scripture.

    Congratulations on making it up the Kuna Crest!

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