Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Massacre of Jericho: Joshua 5:13 - 6

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Ever remember singing the hymn about Joshua and the battle of Jericho? This is where it all happens. In retrospect, that's kind of a dubious hymn, really. How many songs of praise do we have that commemorate the bloody slaughter of the entire population of a large city? To make a comparison: nowadays we get excited when a couple of buildings get blown up by foreigners who claim they're acting in the name of God. Once upon a time, the Israelites were those foreigners - only they didn't stop with some skyscrapers.

In advance of the battle, Joshua is out for a walk and meets a strange man with a sword. He challenges the stranger, who says he is neither with nor against the Israelites, then identifies himself as an angel of God. This is an interesting statement. Are the angels not on the side of Israel?

God proposes a bizarre scheme for sacking Jericho, which brings us to the second reason why the Joshua battle hymn is stupid: Joshua doesn't do any glorious fighting, he just rushes inside in God's wake and starts murdering people. God demands that the Israelites march around the city in silence, once a day for six days; and then seven times on the seventh. After this they should make as much sound as they can, at which point the walls will collapse. Either God is attempting to invent an early acoustic weapon, or he's attempting to prove to the Israelites that he can fight their battles a lot more effectively than they can.

As promised, the walls collapse, and Joshua orders the stunned city taken. He orders Rahab to be protected - eventually she's permitted to come and live with the Israelites - but to kill everyone else. The Bible uses some very strange language to describe what happens next: "they devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it." I guess God isn't a big fan of human life anyways, at least within his "devoted" places, but then, given the amount of blood that's been spilled around the porta-temple since Exodus, probably this comes as no surprise to most readers.

When the Midianites were murdered way back in Numbers, the military and its soldiers profited immensely; only a reduced tithe was given to the priesthood. This time Joshua decides to completely reverse that balance: absolutely none of the "devoted things" of Jericho - gold, silver, bronze, iron - may be pocketed by fighters. Instead, everything must go to "the Lord's treasury" - in other words, to the priesthood.

There's an interesting shift taking place here, and it's not solely about demonstrating selfless devotion to God (though that appears to be part of it as well). The war may be genocidal, but God has ensured that none of those doing the actual fighting and pillaging stand to profit from the venture - unlike in Numbers, where the fighters took immense treasure while the priesthood looked on from a distance. Assuming this trend continues, it seems like an attempt to curb the power of the military-industrial complex. Today we debate whether oil, gas, or various other nefarious economic motives are behind America's military adventures. When God created Israel (at least according to Joshua), he deliberately made it impossible for the nation to profit from war. Except for the priesthood, of course, but they don't have control over the military: at least for the time being, general Joshua does.

It will probably come as no surprise that many of the elitist and usually pro-war contemporary formulations of Christian just war theory make no reference to Joshua's restriction here, though you'd think it would make wars much less likely.