It has been a while, but I am slowly thinking about revelation, divine speech in Scripture, and holy violence by attempting to read Joshua 7, the story of the execution of Achan and his family with a theological lens. Part One and Part Two lie a few weeks back in the queue.
The problem that a text like Joshua 7 presents can be expressed as the tension between three generally heartfelt convictions—a solution wrought by denying any of these beliefs raises bigger problems than are solved. Yet avoiding the conclusion that God commands murder seems to necessitate fudging one of these somewhere:
1. The unity of canonical revelation: “Isn’t the Bible God’s Word? Then why does this passage say that God wants sinners dead, while this other passage says that he loves the whole world?”
2. The unity and faithfulness of the God revealed. “God doesn’t do violence…does he? Does God change drastically in history? Why does he seem bloodthirsty here?”
3. The unity of our own reason and ethics. “Murder is categorically wrong, no matter what…right? Can God simply change the rules on us?”
I’ll try them on one at a time…
The first theological escape route for a text like Joshua 7 might be to simply deny that this particular story is revelatory in any positive sense. We might argue that this text does not tell us anything about God, or that what it purports to tell us about God is simply false. The argument might look like this: “While this text stands within Holy Scripture, it is clearly telling a different story than the rest. We can surely recognize the difference. We ought to bracket this text out when we speak of the bible as revelation of God. This text and others like it simply do not square with texts like Luke 13, John 8, Luke 15, Matthew 5. On that basis, we are in a position to discern genuine revelation from the extraneous and contradictory bits which surround it.”
While reading Joshua 7 within the larger canon gives us good reasons to question the theology of this particular text, I’m not comfortable with the answer given above in its simplest form. It represents a big step toward Marcionism—the outright rejection of the “violent God” of the Old Testament and of the texts that portray him. The danger of here is that we bring our own pre-packaged image of God to scripture, and force the text to conform rather than hearing it as revelation. The fundamental posture of Marcionism is that of standing over the text as its judge; but that posture has already precluded the possibility of revelation. In so doing, we always risk making an alliance with a foreign god. In presuming to be wise, we become foolish; in presuming to see clearly, we go blind.
Marcion’s scissored version of scripture finally undermined the very criteria he used to trim scripture to its rightful size. His preconceived notion of Christ simply elided over the historical that Christ placed himself within the tradition of the “Law and Prophets.” The life of Jesus cannot be used as the criterion for editing “offensive” passages out of the Old Testament, because Jesus’ life only has meaning in light of the witness of the Old Testament. It is difficult to take a piecemeal approach to scripture, supposedly prioritizing Jesus, when Jesus himself (by all accounts) accepted the testimony of scripture as a whole.
If Jesus’ own attitude toward the OT means that we cannot bring Jesus-shaped scissors to distasteful OT texts, then it also means that we cannot imagine the relationship between the two testaments in a way that privileges the New at as the total eclipse of the Old. The New Testament does not replace or cancel the testimony of the Jewish canon—it presupposes it. The apostles and the early Church would not have known what to make of their experience of Jesus apart from the OT. The theology of the NT is simply a wholeheartedly Christocentric reading of the OT from beginning to end.
If we are to trust the people who have entrusted us with the faith, and to proclaim the whole faith whole to the next generation, we must take Joshua’s place in the canon seriously. The people who included this text within the Jewish (and subsequently the Christian) canon did so with reasons that we may not understand. We are not the first generation to open our eyes and think carefully about God and violence. When we only accept those texts as revelatory that we already agree with, the god of our faith ends up as a little more than a pallid projection of ourselves writ large in the heavens—complete with all our own flaws and biases.
If our answers are to have theological meaning, our questions of Joshua 7 must come from within the tradition that handed us both the text and the theological tools to understand it. That entails bringing our questions to the text in its canonical location, rather than using our questions to leverage the text out of the canon. The act of submitting to the living tradition of scripture does not silence our questions, rather it places our questions into a context in which they might have positive meaning.
The helpful thing about this line of thinking, despite its inadequacy in its simplest form, is that it helps us to begin thinking about the nature of revelation, about continuity and discontinuity in revelation, and about the possibility of texts being revelatory in different ways. Thinking within the tradition allows deep questions while necessitating creativity and careful consideration.So for all that, I at least, am stuck with this text as a part of canonical revelation. This too is God at work in human authors and human words. The question that remains open is exactly how this text reveals, and how it relates to the rest of the canon.
More on that later…