Friday, May 02, 2008

War Profiteering Outlawed, and Early Jewish Militarism: Joshua 7

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

Joshua's prohibition against war profiteering doesn't last long. One of the Judeans, Achan of Carmi, took some of the relics from Jericho. He took a sum that was a little more than piddling, though not immense - a few pounds of gold and silver, and a fancy Babylonian cloak. Unfortunately for Achan, God performed a pre-emptive audit on the loot, and knows something's missing from his treasury.

God makes his displeasure with Israel apparent through defeat on the battlefield: a small force of several thousand men goes to slaughter the people of Ai and are defeated by a small defence force. Joshua, like the average Israelite spoken of in Numbers, immediately concludes that God has betrayed them and that they should never have followed him across the Jordan river. (This despite the fact that the grand defeat in question saw the death of only 36 Israelites out of 3000, a pretty meager sum in any real battle.) The Lord seems almost disgusted by Joshua's whinging, telling him to get up off the ground and go back to work. He promises to reveal the sinner the next day.

God's method for finding the wrong-doer is long and probably nerve-wracking. The Israelite tribes are brought into assembly by Joshua and they choose one from their number - the method isn't clear but it's probably one of their usual divination methods, like drawing lots or using the Urim and Thummim. Whatever the method, apparent random chance - i.e. the hidden hand of God, who guides nations and D&D games alike - selects Judah, then the Zerahite tribe, then the Zimri family, and finally Achan's family from out of the Zimlis. Joshua demands an instant confession, and gets one. After they confirm that Achan did indeed steal what he said he did, Joshua orders the man's family and livestock brougth together and executed.

Remember when Moses said in Deuteronomy that God didn't want sons executed for the sins of the father? (Or daughters, presumably?) Guess Moses was wrong, because Achan's entire family is killed by stoning.

Beyond the context of this particular battle and the failure of the anti-war-profiteering system, Joshua is moving us to a new way of looking at God. In Exodus, Numbers, and Leviticus, God interacts with the people through the priesthood, and when he is angry, he punishes them directly, through plagues, snakes, fires, earthquakes, and the like. Now, we are expected to see God in the success and failure of military operations. It's a hint that the priesthood-centered social order is moving towards a state- and military-centered one, under cover of divinely willed conquest.

Maybe this was to be expected, but it also implies a further separation from God. God may speak to military commanders, but now, it seems, he need not speak even to priests if necessary. Obviously a priesthood can be fraudulent, too, but the Joshua approach leads at best to mere fatalism about military affairs, and at worst to an ideology which cloaks the success of the martial king in the language of divine blessing - in other words, we are spinning from theocracy into militarism. I didn't really like the first, but I doubt I will like the second either. Now the Israelites are to relate to God through battle and the slaughter of humans rather than animals? This is not an improvement. It seems like a useful pretext for making the military government structure permanent, i.e. by establishing a king or something similar - which is precisely what God tried to avoid in Numbers, and which Moses regarded as an unfortunate, sinful inevitability in Deuteronomy.