Cassy Benefield and Janine Warrington are both Christians who take the Bible seriously, but they approach the reading of Scripture in different ways. They are both writers for SpokaneFāVS and have decided to collaborate on some columns to demonstrate the ways Christians of diverse backgrounds can understand the Bible differently and still have productive conversations about it.
For this column, they will each address Joshua 6:20, which says, “When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city.” (NIV)
Janine Warrington’s Interpretation
This verse is extremely violent. Not only does God destroy the city’s infrastructure, but also commands the Hebrews to destroy all the people and animals in the city in dedication to God. It doesn’t take long before this violence is directed toward other Hebrews, as the community stones Achan and burns his body for keeping some of the spoils in 7:25-26.
People often express concern with the events detailed in the Bible and whether they are historically accurate. I am not concerned about the historicity of this account. If it did not happen this way (and archaeological evidence suggests it didn’t), that would not necessarily mean God is incapable of such displays of might. In fact, humanity must rely on story and imagery to discuss God, and this could be a story meant to convey God’s might rather than recount a historical event.
Further, if it did not happen this way, that would not necessarily invalidate the rest of the biblical record. The Bible is a library of writings of many different genres, and if Joshua is not meant to be read as a literal historical account, that does not mean that there is no truth to be found in it or that nothing in the Bible is historically accurate. But if it did happen this way, that would suggest that God is violent, partial, and greedy. This violent portrayal of God is terrifying and incongruous with biblical commands against violence and conquest, such as the commands against murder in Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17, and the critiques of empires such as Egypt in Exodus, Babylon and Assyria in the prophets, and Rome throughout the New Testament. Though, to be fair, as Cassy will point out later, Joshua is not the only biblical text in tension with biblical anti-violence messages.
As I have written previously, understanding a text’s genre and historical context is crucial to understanding what it means. Likely, the stories of Joshua and his army conquering Jericho and other Canaanite cities came into their final form while Israel was in exile under Babylon, the world’s major empire at the time. Therefore, the story’s intended audience would have been a group of people ethnically and religiously united under foreign rule with no land or power. The seizure of land and violence toward its native people portrayed in Joshua is reflective of typical imperial behavior, which portrays Israel as “equal to the mighty Babylonians, who dominated the world at the time,” in the words of Old Testament scholar Jerome F. D. Creach. In other words, the story of Joshua is likely a story that was told by an oppressed group of people to envision themselves, their ancestors, and their God as more powerful than their oppressors. We might categorize its genre as survival literature or revenge fantasy.
As Cassy will elaborate below, the Hebrews in this story were not properly equipped for a battle, and their victory is unexpected (compare Gideon’s victory over the Midianites in Judges 7). It is the story of underdogs victoriously overtaking a major power. And, as Cassy references, Joshua reports the hearts of the Canaanites melting in fear of the God of the Hebrews (Joshua 2:8; 5:1), which would be an effective literary device. If you wanted to tell a story about how the great feats of your ancestors and the mighty hand of your God, you would include details about the reputation of your God reaching your ancestors’ enemies and rattling them with fear. While Cassy and I may disagree on the historicity of these details, we agree that the text highlights for us the might and capability of God.
Cassy Benefield’s Interpretation
As someone who interprets the Bible through the literal interpretive lens, I take the story of the battle of Jericho with the miracle of its impenetrable walls crumbling at shouts and trumpets blasting, at face value, as something that happened in history through God’s power and Israel’s obedience. Nothing in the story is outside God’s ability to do, nor is the reason for the conquest outside his character or his sovereign plan.
Unlike Janine, it is very important for me to believe that the events the Bible describes did happen as they were written. From my point of view, the Bible stands or falls depending whether or not it is all true or just partly true. In my mind, if one part is in question, all parts are in question.
So, despite there being many scholars who see this story in the Bible as a complete fabrication, there are Bible-believing scholars who wrestle with the Bible’s chronology and the archeological evidence to harmonize it to verifiable history. (See, for example, Gerald E. Aardsma, who moves the date of Israel’s Exodus back 1,000 years due to archeological evidence, as well Bryant G. Wood, whose interpretation of archeological evidence makes a case that the battle of Jericho was fought as the Hebrew Bible says within the traditional understanding of the chronology of the Bible.) One can even find secular sources online that defend the Biblical view of the battle Jericho, such as the 1990 article, “Believers Score over the Battle of Jericho,” printed in the New York Times.
With that said, I want to share with you some insights that I glean from this story when I do view it and its violence from this literal interpretive lens.
The ease with which the Israelites conquered Jericho is ironic, especially when considering how most of the first spies (all except Caleb and Joshua) sent over into the Promised Land, about 40 years prior, thought the land and its people would devour them. They thought God was sending them there to die. God was so upset at their complaining and untrusting hearts that he waited to conquer the Promised Land until all who rebelled against him died off during their 40 years of wandering in the desert. Had they had faith and taken God at his word initially, surely he would have accomplished Jericho’s defeat in the same manner then. (This story is found in Numbers 13 and 14.)
As to the portrayal of violence in this story, I agree with Janine, this account, as well as many others, is very difficult to square with what we read in other parts of the Old Testament (OT), but especially when viewed through the teachings and life of Jesus Christ in the New Testament (NT). Still, I find at least three ways I am able to harmonize this violence and other portrayals of violence in the OT with the overall teachings of the Bible.
First, Israel was a theocracy under God, which meant there was no separation of church and state, as we understand it today. All matters—state, civil, and religious/ceremonial—were to be submitted to the Law. In this instance, Joshua operated within the commands of God to cleanse the Promised Land of its inhabitants and their sinful acts that defiled the land. This included sexual immorality in all its forms, as listed in Leviticus 18, as well as the practice of sacrificing children to gods. In doing so, the Israelites were not only to cleanse the land, they were to be God’s arm in judging these nations of their sins. I glean from this that God takes sin very seriously, and because he is holy, he is the only one who can perfectly judge sin. Interestingly, Israel was not immune to God’s judgment, either, as we find in the rest of the OT story of their nation.
Second, I learn from my reading of this passage that God is patient with sinners, whether they are his followers or not. I find this understanding in Genesis 15:16, when God speaks to Abraham in a vision about the Promised Land: “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” In other words, it can be interpreted that God was giving those nations time to repent from their sins and to follow him. We see this theme of God’s kindness, tolerance, and patience in judging sin also in Romans 2:4 and learn this was his way of leading mankind to repentance of their sins and ultimate belief in him. In fact, we see this played out in the battle of Jericho when the Israelites were ordered to protect Rahab the prostitute because she chose to believe in Israel’s God (Joshua 6:17).
Finally, the main way I find peace with this passage is the Bible’s teaching in Hebrews 13:8, which says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Because I believe the Bible to teach that God is triune in nature and is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit (e.g., Genesis 2:26—“let us make man in our image, in our likeness”), I believe the God in the Old Testament is the same God we read about in the New Testament. More than any other defense, this one convinces me the most. Namely, God is the same and changes not down through human history, even if the administration of his plan and justice (e.g., OT Law through Israel’s theocracy vs. NT grace and truth through his church) does change.
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