A sermon by Margaret Hall
One of the songs our grandchildren love to beat out is Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, especially the line ‘And the walls came tumbling down’. It has a very sing-able tune, but it’s worth pointing out that the words don’t quite fit the facts.
What happened was that Joshua did no fighting at all – at least not until after the walls had come down. Their collapse was God’s doing. That was the point of it. Some suggest there was an earthquake, which is certainly more believable than vibrations made by marching feet, trumpet blasts, and loud shouting. But no explanation is necessary, if we believe an all-powerful Creator can work out his purpose in whatever way he sees fit.
I have no difficulty in believing that. It’s harder to get my head around what followed – the slaughter of every man, woman and child for whom Jericho was home. Was that really necessary, and how do we reconcile it with the biblical truth that God is love?
The city of Jericho, a few miles west of the River Jordan, has a very long history of coming under attack by invaders, the best-known being the descendants of Abraham, some forty years after coming out of slavery in Egypt, and when they’d come to the end of their wanderings in the desert.
God told their leader Joshua that he’d deliver Jericho into their hands. Joshua may have had some doubts as he looked up at the city walls, described by Israel’s spies years before as ‘up to the sky’. Jericho’s soldiers might rain down spears on them, or come streaming out of the city gates.
There was no going back across the Jordan. Behind the city, the hills rose to the central ridge of Canaan where the Israelites were hoping to settle, as God had told Abraham they would. Jericho stood in the way, and they had nothing they could use to attack a walled city – no battering rams, no moving towers.
But Joshua knew enough about what God could do not to question what he said. Without delay he set about organizing the Israelites for the part they had to play.
Their part was bizarre – all of them marching round the walls, armed men in front, priests blowing rams’ horns, the ark symbolizing God’s presence in the middle, and the rearguard. They were to do that once a day for six days and seven times on the seventh, finishing with a victory shout – which was going to sound a bit silly if nothing happened. Hardly the kind of strategy Israel’s fighting men were used to. For the Canaanites peering down from the wall, it was either unnerving or quite possibly some sort of joke. After all, a ram’s horn isn’t all that big, so in the open air the sound they produced can’t have been too impressive.
But none of that mattered to Joshua. As far as he was concerned, God had given his orders and they would be obeyed. Perhaps he understood why God’s orders, strange as they were, were necessary – that from the outset, both Israelites and Canaanites needed to know it was God who was bringing Israel into that territory.
Each detail made that clear. The ark to symbolize his presence took pride of place. The trumpets used in worship and warfare also symbolized God’s presence, and their continuous blowing was the only sound allowed. The repetition of the perfect number – seven priests, seven trumpets, seven days, seven circuits on the seventh day – was a reminder of the perfection of God’s ways.
On the seventh day, after silently circling the city seven times, Joshua said to the people, “Shout! For the Lord has given you the city. The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction.” So the people raised a great shout and the wall fell down flat. They charged ahead into the city and destroyed everyone in it, both men and women, young and old.
In the days of Joshua, wholesale destruction was the regular procedure when one people conquered another. As true as that is, it doesn’t help us moderns with our dilemma – that the destruction of the Canaanites, in Jericho and elsewhere, took place at God’s command. How can it be the will of a loving God to exterminate people?
When we think about God ordering wholesale destruction, it may help to remember that what we see as our life is actually God’s gift, as is everything that makes it enjoyable. Human life is God’s idea, and is ultimately in his hands – despite our tendency to think we should control our lives, even to the point of deciding when we die.
The fact is, God had pronounced judgement on the tribe of the Amorites long before Joshua, back in the days of Abraham. Mercifully he delayed it for more than four hundred years, even though they continued on with things like cult prostitution, bestiality and child sacrifice – vile and degrading customs driven by the desire for material prosperity – the love of things. The essence of the idolatry practiced by all the Canaanite tribes was greed for whatever the fertility gods might provide. Those gods, being figments of their own imaginations, reflected the worst of human nature, and the debased society that resulted wouldn’t have been pleasant to live in.
Abraham’s descendants were constantly at risk of making their neighbours’ gods their own, and copying their wretched customs. They were constantly at risk of extinguishing the light God had lit in the mind of their ancestor Abraham – the truth that the one all-powerful Creator of everything that’s good, whose will is to bless his world, is worth trusting and obeying.
So eventually God allowed justice to run its course. He ordered the Israelites to destroy the Canaanite settlements – an event in history that was never intended to be a model for what we do.
We can trust that God’s judgement on evil is just – and necessary. All of us instinctively hate injustice. Victims of evil, in particular, long for God’s judgement on it. So the real question is whether a God who can overlook evil – a God who thinks it doesn’t really matter – is worth believing in. A God who won’t deal with evil is no help at all in a world that’s overrun by it.
The God who’s revealed his love through the death of his one and only Son has not overlooked what’s caused the state the world’s in – the ways we set him aside, and the damage we do to each other. We’d like to think that damage is small, but God is the better judge of that – and small or not, it has to be paid for. The never-ceasing wonder is that God’s already paid for it on our behalf, through Christ.
The removal of the Canaanites and their abominations was not merely just. It was necessary, if God was to fulfill his bigger purpose of blessing the whole world. The truth about sin is that it’s horribly contagious. If Israel was to have any success in showing the surrounding nations what God is like, they needed a place where they could live according to his commandments – free from the influence of those given to the worship of gods they made for themselves. The false gods’ standards were easier to live up to, but living with the resulting disorder would have been harder.
God continued to use Israel as his instrument, despite their failings – until there emerged from among them the Christ, the light of the world. So in the end, passing judgement on the Canaanites in order to fulfill his bigger purpose turned out to be a part of his mercy, as well as being perfectly just.
We see God’s mercy in the opportunity the Canaanites had to choose to believe in him – an opportunity I suspect comes to everyone at some point, in some form or another. We find instances of non-Israelites choosing the God of Israel dotted throughout the Bible – Ruth the Moabitess, Naaman the Syrian, the widow of Zarephath in Sidon; in the New Testament the Syro-Phoenician woman, and more than one Roman army officer. In the story of Joshua, it was Rahab and her family, who lived in a house on the city wall.
Years before, she’d said to the two Israelite spies she’d protected, “I know the Lord has given this land to you… We have heard how he dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt …. The Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.”
Rahab and her household surely weren’t the only ones in Jericho who’d heard about the God of Israel – his people’s mass exodus from Egypt, their survival in the desert, and so on. Everyone there knew about their miraculous crossing of the flooded Jordan. The city, we’re told, was tightly shut up – in siege mode – ‘because of the Israelites’.
Everyone who’d heard about Israel’s God had the choice to trust him rather than their idols – just as every soul today who’s heard of Christ has the choice to believe in him. As the poet John Oxenham wrote:
To everyone there openeth a high way and a low,
And everyone decideth the way their soul shall go.
In that opportunity we see the glory of God’s mercy.
We who live after that day Jesus hung on a cross know how the glory of God’s judgement and the glory of God’s mercy came together, on that little hill not all that far from Jericho – and how the world was changed as a result.
How could a loving God order the extermination of a whole city? Precisely because of his boundless pity for a world suffering under the power of evil. Love that ignores the long-term welfare of the beloved isn’t the love that lasts.
One of the saddest mistakes a parent can make is to think they’re being loving when they let their child do as he or she pleases, when they heap undeserved praise on them, or do everything for them, or allow behaviour that disregards what’s fair and right for others. Children who aren’t corrected for assuming they’re the centre of the universe become self-centred adults, who run the risk of making life miserable for those unfortunate enough to live with them.
The model of a truly loving parent is God – the Father of our Lord Jesus, whom we can now call our Father. He loves us with the real love that pursues what’s best for everyone, that confronts the evil that seeks to destroy his world and passes judgement on it – all for our eternal good and his eternal glory.
Father, thank you for your just judgement on everything that’s wrong. Above all, thank you bearing the pain of that judgement yourself, in the person of Jesus. Amen.