I think if you're at all human, there are tensions that come up. The idea of genocide, or of this powerful people massacring innocents, including women and children, is hard to dwell on. This is perhaps one of the most critiqued concepts of the Scriptures by both those inside the church and those outside the church. As we look at this story, I want to help us understand this tough passage of Scripture.
The Israelites come out of Egypt where God's people were oppressed and forced into slavery, they suffered great injustice. God moves them out of that land that was ruled by Canaan. God is going to promise them the land that is west of the Salt Sea or Dead Sea. They go on this journey under the leadership of Moses for decades and decades and decades and decades. They eventually get up to the east side of that Salt Sea. They cross the River Jordan in a miraculous way. No human can strategize this, and certainly not manipulate it. God has led them across the Jordan River onto the west side of the Dead Sea, into what is known as the Promised Land. It is the land of Canaan. Jericho is one of the first cities that they come to. This is a military outpost that they are focusing on. God is going to move them into the land and move these people—or in other words evict these people—out of the land.
When we read this story, they come into Jericho, and we know that they walked around the city. It's kind of this intimidation factor, it's also a time where the people have an option to leave the city. He gives them six days to leave the city. These people know this is coming because the military base is shut up, you can read about it in chapter six. They have blocked all the doors, all the windows, everything is locked up because the people in Jericho know this is coming. The Israelites walk around six days, these people had freedom to leave, they chose not to, they stayed in this military base. But then we come across passages like 6:21, which say this: "Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep and donkeys with the edge of the sword."
Oftentimes this has been criticized and called something like a genocide or this powerful people massacring innocent people. This is one of those things that in the church we deal with in a number of different ways. We say, "Oh, it's a different God, the God of the Old Testament is different than the God of the New Testament." Well, okay, now you've got another set of problems to deal with.
Or the church deals with it like this, "Oh, it's just a total mystery, we don't understand it but God is good." That doesn't help much at all, you are oblivious to reality. Or we avoid it altogether and we don't want to deal with it. It violates us in a number of ways so some of us would then be in this position where now we have this negative sense of doubt in the back of our mind where we really don't understand it and it causes us internal turmoil.
Outside the church we have people that look at this and they not only critique the Bible, but they totally discount God out of their lives. In other words, they would read stories like this and other areas in Joshua and say, "I could never believe in a God that would do that."
So this is a massive issue that we need to deal with. One of the beauties of teaching through books of the Bible is you have to deal with these issues. We can't dodge it. I can teach just on this story and say, "Oh, yeah, they are on holy ground." Then we can celebrate and take off our shoes and sing and it would be a happy day and everybody would leave and think, He didn't address anything. Well, that's not what we're going to do. I'm going to hold a fire hose to your mouth and we're going to tackle this thing. I think in our desire to be intellectually honest with our faith, we need to tackle these things. So let me get two things out of the way first.
Genocide or massacre (or neither)?
Is this a genocide or a massacre? First off, the genocide. Genocide is the oppression or the removal of a certain ethnic group. This is clearly not that. In the area around Canaan they had all kinds of different ethnic groups and God is removing or evicting all of them. So we cannot call this genocide.
Let's talk about the massacre issue. In our understanding of this, you have this militant group, this powerful group going in and rampaging innocent villages and towns and just overtaking it because they're more powerful. Well, this is actually precisely the opposite. Israel was about as far away from a militant group as you could possibly get. This group of people have been literally homeless for over 40 years. So certainly they have some swords, certainly they have some type of weaponry, but they are going up against the most powerful militant group in the world at this point. This is totally different. So we can't call it a genocide because it's not ethnic, and we can't call it a massacre because this is not the powerful oppressing the weak. This is actually God using the weak to overcome the powerful and the abuse of power in the world.
The question now is, if it is not genocide or a massacre, what is happening? We're zeroed in on Jericho. I want to zoom all the way out and get a picture of what God is doing throughout history, and then we'll slowly zoom right back into Jericho, understand this, and I think we'll actually end with some hope.
God evicts evil
So to get us back into the overarching idea of Scripture, you have in Genesis chapter one, God creating heavens which represents the skies and the universe. The idea of God's reign, where his reign is supreme and his design is fully embraced in the heavenly spheres. Then we have him creating what we know as the earth. Where these two collide is in this place called the Garden, where heaven and earth are matched. People have been created and they're put into the Garden, and they are embracing God's reign in their life. They are creating and they are ruling, but they're doing so under God's reign and within his design. Then we see mankind starting to act as if they know better than their Creator, and they start to operate out from under his reign in their life.
They start making decisions that bring them outside of his original intentions and desires for human beings. The Bible says that's sin. Because of this there is a wall drawn and the people of God, Adam and Eve, man and woman, are cast, evicted out of the Garden and the wall is sealed. They're in this place called earth. So now you have this separation of heaven, God's reign and earth. Scriptures teach us that actually in this setting Satan's reign is supreme, his ways tend to be followed much more than God's reign and his ways. In this world, there is extreme brokenness. When mankind comes out from under God's reign and says they want to reign by themselves, they want to make decisions, they know better than God and operate outside of his design, what we see from Scripture is extreme brokenness. We see not only the abuse of power but we see great injustice, oppression, slavery, hatred, even murder in Genesis chapter four. There is a complete breakdown between the heaven's ways of God's reign and his design, and the earth.
God's heart throughout Scripture as you read from Genesis all the way through Revelation is to again reconcile heaven and earth so that he reigns in both. Ultimately, in Revelation we see the Garden actually becoming a city where the people of God will live and heaven and earth are again reconciled. God takes action. God then comes to the earth in the form of a human being, we know him as Jesus. Jesus is born of a virgin, and in Mark chapter one he declares the kingdom, or in other words God's reign is at hand here. He comes to the earth, into the broken parts of the earth, and he models what God's reign looks like in the life of a human being, and he does so in the midst of all the brokenness. Jesus says "Look, you're about to see God's reign firsthand." He asks people, calls people to follow his ways. Come, embrace God's reign in your life and we declare that, we model that together. He lives this life that models what it means to be human. He then dies on the cross, taking all of the weight and the identity of this broken world, and he owns it completely. Three days later, he conquers the grave that none of us could have conquered. Not only does he live the life none of us could live, he dies the death we all should have died, and then he conquers the grave none of us could conquer. Then he goes back to be with the Father in heaven where he belongs.
Now we have the help of the Holy Spirit. God coming in the form of a human being, going back and then God sending his Spirit to be with his people, and we—because we have faith that God has accomplished this—we have been reconciled to God and we have been given the ministry of reconciliation as well. 2 Corinthians says it this way:
And this is from God, this is the new identity that we have been given, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. That is, in Christ God was reconciling the world, the earth's ways, to himself, heaven's ways, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.
In other words, what that says is this: As followers of Jesus we too are joining in God's mission of reconciling the world to himself through Jesus. I want to embrace God's reign as supreme in my life, and I'm trying to walk within his design for humanity, and I want to declare that to the world, and I want to invite people into that as well. This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
God keeps his promises
Let's zoom a little bit back into the context of history here, and Joshua and the people of Israel as they're going into this Promised Land. Just as God evicted the evil out of the Garden, it seems as though he is evicting evil out of this land as well. Deuteronomy chapter nine says this, "Do not say in your heart … " So God is setting this pace here and he's telling them, "You're going to overtake this land, and he's going to explain why they're overtaking the land." "Do not say in your heart after the Lord your God has thrust them out before you," so you get this eviction idea out of this land. Don't get arrogant and say, "It's because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land. It is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you."
In other words, look, I'm going to give you the land but don't think it's about you, don't think it's about your righteousness. They're clearly not righteous. They have problems, they're human. What God is saying is, "I'm giving you this land because I'm evicting out the evil in the land." It's the same picture that we have throughout God's story and God's history as the Scriptures teach it. He goes further and he says this: "Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out," again, evicting them out, "from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob."
Remember, this is the same God that created the flood in Genesis chapter six. What was God doing? He was evicting evil out of the world. This is the story of God throughout the Scriptures. This sermon is not going to solve all of the tensions in your life. It's not going to solve all of the mystery. I don't know that we can or should even attempt to do that. But this is giving us a little bit of a framework of understanding what's happening here in Jericho. This is God promising them land.
Let's zoom in a little bit further back into Genesis where God speaks a little bit more specifically about the evil that's present in this region. He says this in Genesis chapter 15, "Then the Lord said to Abram, 'Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs,'" speaking of this land that they're going to get, "'and will be servants there and they will be afflicted 400 years. Egypt, Canaan, under the rulership of the world and abuse of power in the world, your people, and your offspring are going to suffer great injustice and oppression and slavery. For 400 years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, which is Canaan, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.'" We see this coming true in Joshua chapter six. God gives his people Jericho and they come out with silver and gold, and great possessions. So God here is fulfilling his promise by actually evicting evil out in the larger scheme of things.
So let's zoom all the way back into Jericho and see how this, God's story, is playing out in the city. It's not genocide, it's not this massacre. God is using weak people to overcome the abusive powers and evil in the world. It's an amazing story. First off, Jericho was a military base. In other words, the people that lived in this city dedicated their life to fighting battles. This is not God sending his people into innocent villages and huts. He's overtaking a military base full of people that are willfully there to defend, in war, this area. This is a depiction of the people of God walking around the city, right? They walked around once a day for six days. The people had plenty of time to leave. But it also says on the seventh day they walked around it seven times, which says that this was not a big city, because they walked around it seven times and conquered it the same day. This is a small military base, that's depicted by these walls that fall down. What you have here is God's people—to use an illustration—going into the Vietnam War with water guns. It's the weak overcoming the most powerful group and perhaps the most powerful city in this area. When the Israelites cross the Jordan River, Jericho is the first place they come to. The Canaanites strategically placed this military base to protect the land, and these people chose to live on this base. I think this settles some of the uneasiness. God's not going in and rampaging these innocent cities.
Secondly, Canaan, the Canaanites expected this and they knew why. You know this because already they're fearful of the God of Israel and they've shut up the gates and all the ways into the city because they know that God is going to give his people their territory. They had six days to walk out, they chose not to. It's not like God wasn't merciful here, right? They're in this area and they knew why. They had oppressed and forced God's people into slavery for 400 years. I wouldn't be okay with you oppressing my children for four minutes. I would not stand for it, I would call you out and pull my children out. It wasn't like God wasn't patient with the evil of these people. He gave them plenty of opportunity and plenty of warning. They knew in their social identity that we as a people have caused great evil and that is why God is evicting them. That's clear throughout the Scriptures. God gave them warning to come out of it.
Through our cultural lens we would look at this and think, Oh, innocent women and children, poor them. Right? The story of God is much bigger. God is constantly evicting evil out, and if we are humble enough to not try to critique the Scriptures but to allow them to critique us, we understand the same story is playing out in our lives. God is in this process when we're converted, when we claim to have faith and we have this conversion experience, we are joining into this continuous process of God evicting the evil ways and motivations and desires out of our own life.
The story of God and what God has been doing throughout history has not changed. So at the end of chapter 23 of Joshua, we see this passage: "For the Lord has driven out," again, the idea is eviction of evil out, "before you great and strong nations, much stronger than you." So it was not a massacre by a militant group, this is God showing his work of reconciliation in the world. "And as for you, no man has been able to stand before you to this day." In other words, what God has set before you to do, you will prosper in and you will have success because this is much bigger than Jericho. This story of God reconciling earth's ways and heaven's ways is what he's doing, this is what he's about. You and I as followers of Jesus now, join in on that work of reconciliation. There is great hope in this passage if we allow it to critique us.
God is faithful to fulfill his promises. That's clear. Even though it took 400 years, God still fulfilled his promises. In other words, I would assume that this was not in the timing of God's people. They probably didn't understand, they probably doubted, but God was and did fulfill his promises, and he will do the same today. I think that brings great hope. Secondly, we see that God is extremely patient with evil, and thank God, right? This story is depicted here where he suffers with his people, his children, for 400 years of extreme oppression. Extremely patient with evil. He is with us as well. Last time I checked, all of us are fighting that battle, correct?
Thirdly, God will reconcile heaven and earth. There is fantastic hope in that. All of the brokenness that we feel and experience in this earth today will be reconciled at some point. Some of us are suffering from that brokenness at greater depths than other people this day, this week, this month, maybe this year, maybe the last decade. We all know what that's like, but we have great hope that God is reconciling heaven's ways and the earth's ways, and we are a part of that, we participate in this. We are a part of declaring God's reign and his design in the world in which we live. Now, we also understand that this story is again playing out in our own lives. So God is evicting evil. We are joining in when we are converted with our faith. We are joining in this process. We are opening ourselves up for him to critique us, and he is evicting out this evil in our own lives. Like the story of Jericho, there is a lot of tension, there is some mystery, and it's really messy. But it's true of the whole story and the history of God and his work.