I’ve decided to take a short break from The Book of God. I made it as far as the story of Joshua and the wall of Jericho before I got too bewildered and sad to continue. I’ve been plaguing my Catholic educated wife with questions and pleas for explanations enough that she’s relented and agreed to play catch up with me so we can have discussions about some of the things I take umbrage to. Ex/ I don’t get the Jericho thing. I understand that from the side of the folks wandering the desert for 40 years it was like finally getting a bite of the carrot that had been dangling in front of them for so long. But what about the poor people who were living behind that wall? What exactly did they do that they deserved to die violent deaths? They were just going about their business. It’s not like anybody put up a sign on the land that said, “Beware of impending death when we’re back to claim our place in 40 years.” Pretty crummy deal for those folks and I can’t imagine that it won any converts among the displaced. Any Christians out there that can explain this for me? My understanding is that the Old Testament is mostly the history leading up to the dawn of Christianity, but it still bothers me. I’m also having some difficulty understanding what I’m supposed to read as literal and what is supposed to be allegorical. In theory, there’s a good mix of both, so how do you decide what’s what?
After I took a break from that, I picked up The Path of a Christian Witch. Not deviating from Christianity with this one exactly, but I was intrigued at the idea of two such opposing viewpoints merging into a cohesive spirituality. Overall, though, I found the book to be a bit disappointing. The author does find a way to make peace with seemingly disparate belief systems, but not in a way that made a lot of sense to me. I did find it interesting that she came from a Catholic background, because they tend to be a bit more restrictive on thinking outside the box, but I think that same background prevented me from connecting with her. (One of the few certainties I have, religiously speaking, is that I don’t agree with the Catholic doctrine.) All the same, it was interesting to read someone’s story of finding their own path. I’m pretty sure my path is going to include little bits and pieces from everywhere, all amalgamated into my own brand of faith, so it’s nice to read about others who took the same approach and made it work.
I’m branching away from Christianity this week. Currently I am engrossed in “The Buddha Walks Into A Bar” by Lodro Rinzler. I’m not very far into it, but he’s made some key points about being patient with yourself through the process because enlightenment isn’t attained in a day. I feel like that’s important to remember. We live in a one-click world where we can get anything we need/want/desire delivered to us with little to no lag time. We don’t have to wait for letters to know how family is because we just check Facebook. We don’t have to take the time to cook an elaborate meal because we can order in or have it catered. Everything’s easily accessible. So we expect the same from ourselves spiritually. We should take an hour to meditate and that will clue us in on the secrets of the universe and how to be our best selves. Only it doesn’t work that way and Rinzler makes sure to repeatedly state that you have to be gentle with yourself and allow yourself whatever time you need to figure out who you are. He also makes a (deservedly) big deal about staying present in the moment, which is spot on considering most of us can’t last five minutes without some type of external stimuli. And it’s not our fault! It’s just the world we’re in. But being able to stay in the moment is a gift to yourself and everyone you interact with. It’s a powerful ideal to work towards.
I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of “Am I a Hindu?” and “Awakening the Buddha Within.” This whole process has already been incredibly eye opening and I’m excited to see what I learn next.
Jump to the Psalms. It’s all there, from thinking it’s about warfare to finally realizing an army’s no good. You can even get angry with the Holy One and argue, just as you do in any close relationship. Then read through the Psalms again. Hint: I think half of them were written by women.
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Thank you for the advice. I will certainly keep this in mind when I get to them in my reading.
Different schools of thought within theology will give you different answers here. I know certain schools of thought turn large chunks of the Old Testament into allegory or reject it entirely – the latter approach is one that showed up very early on in church history and triggered some of the earliest debates about what was and wasn’t part of the Biblical canon. I’m fairly conservative theologically, so the answer I give will reflect that (for example, inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture will be assumed a priori) – others will give other answers that you may find more or less satisfying. I’ll also mention that I’m coming from a Protestant point of view; I don’t think it plays too much of a part in this answer, but just stating it up front for transparency.
Initial disclaimers given, the first point to keep in mind is that humanity, from the perspective of God, is not neutral. This is one of the most agreed upon things in Christianity; humanity is in a state of condemnation before God. The Flood narrative (whether literal or allegorical) is a demonstration of what man deserves before a Holy God (why would it be necessary for God to promise never to send another Flood unless man would again in the future deserve it?). Anything better than the Flood is a show of mercy and blessing. It can be tempting at times to see humanity as neutral, deserving neither punishment nor blessing until they do something to bias the situation one way or another. Biblically, this is not the case. Fortunately, God is merciful, so we generally get far more than we deserve, but the fact that it is normal to get more than we deserve does not make it deserved.
With this in mind, it could be asserted simply that Jericho was being picked as an exceptional case where people got what they deserved, but then the question arises as to why they were singled out (after all, the Israelites deserved no better; subsequent judgements in their history at the hands of other nations demonstrate this). At times when there does not seem to be a reason behind God’s actions it can be necessary to find refuge in the truth of Isaiah 55:8-9 (“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” ESV), but there are cases when a plausible reason can be ascertained.
Culturally, in the Ancient Near East, there was a basic expectation that deities were associated with locations. If people from one nation entered another, the normal process was for the immigrating to either accept the local deities or, at the least, let accept the local population continuing the practice of their religion. This was because, based on the local understanding of deities, the fact that the people had a history of being provided for by their god in the past demonstrated that their deity did indeed have some power, particularly in that area. Israel, on the other hand, was expected to believe differently. The deities of other nations were false gods; Yahweh alone was to be worshipped. Nevertheless, had practice of other religions continued around them when they settled, the mostly likely outcome would be that at least some of the Israelites would begin practicing those religions. It’s worth noting here that the Israelites didn’t completely remove the Canaanite population when they did settle, and actually did end up worshipping their deities at times, as the accounts in the books of Kings and Chronicles show.
I must now go on a brief tangent to explain something else about ANE culture. As it would so happen, it’s true of pretty much all cultures apart from post-Enlightenment Western culture. Individualism is a uniquely Western concept; the idea that the primary unit of society is the individual, and collective entities are merely the consequence of interacting individuals, would have been entirely alien to the mindset of most ancient cultures. Throughout most of history, individuals have primarily been conceived as a part of a whole, a member of a collective entity (be it a family, a city, an ethnic group, a religion or a nation). Historically, it was completely natural to perform collective punishment, because it was the collective that was the primary identity of the individual (one example that comes to mind is the Roman practice of decimation: a military unit that failed would have one in every ten men killed by random selection regardless of their individual performance). Because of this, corruption from one member of a collective corrupted the entire collective; shame on one member was shame on the whole collective (see many modern Asian cultures for examples of this last point).
We then return to Israel. Whenever their were members of Israel practicing unholiness, the whole of Israel was made unholy (within the ANE mindset). For Israel to have any chance of being who they were meant to be, the Canaanite religion had to be removed from the Promised Land.
Of course, we can perhaps ask why Israel was not simply commanded to purge all signs of the Canaanite religion and to force the Canaanites to live by Israelite law. Here we come back to collective identity. Removing the Canaanites and removing the Canaanite religion would have been equivocated in the mindset of the era; if the religion was guilty and worthy of destruction, so were its adherents. On top of this, the only way to prove that the Canaanite gods truly were powerless compared to God, and therefore prove they were not worth worshipping, would be to show that they were powerless to protect their followers.
In order to be who they were meant to be – a holy nation separated for God – Israel required land somewhere. As mentioned earlier, any city would have deserved the fate that Jericho received. We can’t say what it is that Canaan was the nation God promised Israel; in theory it could have been any nation chosen. However, any nation that was chosen couldn’t claim to not deserve the fate they received. Israel couldn’t merely settle in and among an existing culture, lest they be made unholy, and therefore wherever they went they would have to force out the culture that was there.
Hopefully that wall of text has been of some assistance. As I stated at the beginning, it’s very much an answer that comes out of a particular theological viewpoint; you may find more satisfying the treatment of the Jericho narrative as a historical myth that doesn’t describe actual events but conveys the theological truth that God is more powerful than any foe.
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I really appreciate you taking the time to give such a thorough answer! I also appreciate you being up front about your background. I am trying to gain understanding from a variety of theological perspectives, so knowing how you came to your response is actually great. Your response gives me much more to think about. I am inclined to view the world from the vantage point of the here and now and it’s good for me to be reminded that my point of view is largely irrelevant when I am reading things in a historical context. Thank you so much for taking the time to shine some light on that question.
One more thing worth noting, which I forgot to include first time around, is the difference between Rahab’s response to the Israelite spies and Jericho’s response to the Israelite army. From Rahab, we know that word of the Israelites had reached Jericho; the accounts they had heard were obviously convincing enough for Rahab to realise that the God of Israel was more powerful than any of the deities who were “protecting” Jericho. There was no reason why the leaders of Jericho couldn’t have drawn the same conclusion and responded the same way Rahab did. We don’t know what would have happened if they did – perhaps Jericho would have been passed over and allowed to remain as is on the condition that they converted to Judaism. Rahab, on an interesting note, is one of the ancestors of Christ; this demonstrates quite clearly that the issue here isn’t one of racial purity but religious purity. There would have been nothing stopping the inhabitants of Jericho from worshipping the God of the Jews. The key is that we know they didn’t; they trusted that their walls and their gods were sufficient to protect them and, having made that choice in spite of the reports they’d heard, they suffered the consequences.