Text: Joshua 5:12-6:27
The Israelites have been camped out on the eastern side of the river Jordan. Now, things have moved on:-
*they have crossed the Jordan, and entered the Promised Land ch 3.
*as a memorial to this momentous event, they have set up at Gilgal a stone memorial, ch 4
*the males have been circumcised at Gilgal, ch 5.
Now we reach 5:13-6, and the account of the conquest of Jericho. I wonder how Joshua and the Israelites must have felt as they faced the prospect of attacking this city, with its seemingly impregnable walls, its fast-shut gates, and its fighting men inside? What chance did they have of victory?
*the mysterious meeting between Joshua and the ‘commander of the Lord’s army’, 5:13-15
*the odd set of instructions regarding the conquest of Jericho; 6:2-5
*the obedient carrying out of these instructions, 6:6-25
*the careful recording of the fact that Rahab and her family were spared
*the solemn curse upon anyone who attempts to rebuild Jericho, 6:26
Thus, in obedience to the Lord’s command, Jericho is completely destroyed, together with all its inhabitants. Look at v21, ‘They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it.’
But there’s a problem here, isn’t there? What kind of God would require his followers to do this kind of thing? It seems to represent the Lord as instigator of needless bloodshed, a God who is cruel, vindictive, capricious. It is all, surely, completely inconsistent with everything that the New Testament teaches about love and compassion. This, after all, was not a war of self-defence, nor of liberation, but of conquest. It has been used down the ages as justification for “wars of extermination” or expelling people from their homeland: we think of the Crusades the Middle Ages; the conquest of native Americans in the 19th century; the exploits of the Afrikaaners and the Great Trek; and of the ideology of the Zionist movement. The destruction of the Canaanites is seen by many as a serious stumbling-block to faith.
Whatever is going on here? To be honest, I’m not sure that we will get a complete explanation just by staring at Joshua 6. On this occasion, we have a special need to go with the flow of the biblical revelation and to take our bearings from a number of points in Scripture.
Here is God saying, “Enough is enough.” Gen 15:16 “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” That’s four centuries of patience; four centuries of opportunity; four centuries to turn from their wicked ways.’ God waited for centuries while the Amorites and those other Canaanite groups slowly filled up their own cups of condemnation by their sinful behavior. God never acted capriciously against them; his grace and mercy waited to see if they would repent and turn from their headlong plummet into self-destruction.
Here is God punishing wickedness of the most detestable kind. Deut 18:10-12 ‘When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you.’
Here is God offering mercy right up until the last moment. Deut 20:10ff “When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates…” Josh 6 dwells on how readily Rahab and her family were spared.
Here is God providing a solemn warning to us all. Let’s move from the OT to the NT. And, of course, things have moved on in many ways.
Certainly, the NT nowhere expects followers of Jesus Christ to take up arms to propagate or defend their faith. Mt 26:51f ‘One of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”‘
Christians are indeed called to battle, but one of a very different kind. 2 Cor 10:3f ‘Though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.’
But though the battle we wage is not physical, but spiritual, in one important respect the NT view is more dreadful than that of the OT. For no longer is the outcome temporal, but eternal. It was Jesus himself who said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Mt 10:28)
2 Pet 3:7ff ‘[By God’s word] the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men… The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’
But although I’ve spent a considerable amount of time dealing with the problem of the conquest of Jericho, I don’t that Scripture intends us to view it simply as a problem to be solved. After all, the Bible does not consign this story to some chamber of horrors, but exhibits it in its hall of fame, as a celebration and illustration of faith.
It was by faith that Joshua reacted to the divine messenger, not by fighting him, nor by running away, but by asking: “What message does my Lord have for his servant?” (Josh 5:14).
It was by faith that the Israelites followed the Lord’s instructions implicitly, even though they must have seemed ridiculous.
It was by faith, says Heb 11:30, that ‘the walls of Jericho fell, after the people had marched around them for seven days.’
What are we doing ‘by faith’? How often do we ask, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?” How willing are we to use the methods that he has deemed best? How committed are we to becoming what we say we want to be – ‘fully-devoted followers of Jesus Christ?’
Like Joshua and the Israelites, we are engaged in a cause which is, in the estimate of the world, ridiculous. Like them, our final victory sometimes looks like a forlorn hope. Like them, the means at our disposal – the proclamation of the Gospel, fervent prayer, and holy living – appear laughably feeble. It all seems, frankly, too much trouble sometimes.
‘Then the LORD said to Joshua, “See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men.”‘ (Josh 6:2) The Lord had secured victory before ever the battle commenced. And your Saviour says to you, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (Jn 16:33)
‘If we look to the present state of the church of Christ, it is as Daniel in the midst of lions, as a lily amongst thorns, as a ship not only tossed, but almost covered with waves. It is so low, that the enemies think they have buried Christ, in regard of his gospel, in the grave, and there they think to keep him from rising; but Christ as he rose in his person, so he will roll away all stones, and rise again in his church. How little support hath the church and cause of Christ at this day! how strong a conspiracy is against it! the spirit of antichrist is now lifted up, and marcheth furiously; things seem to hang on a small and invisible thread. But our comfort is, that Christ reigneth and liveth and standeth on Mount Sion in defence of them that stand for him, Rev 14:1; and when States and kingdoms shall dash one against another, Christ will have care of his own children and cause, seeing there is nothing else in the world that he much esteemeth. At this very time the victory of his church, and the conquest of his enemies, is in working; and Christ will complete his work, and then we shall see that the Lord reigneth.’ Sibbes