Anyone who grieves the loss of life through war in Syria today might also lament the slaughter that took place more than three thousand years ago at Jericho when Israelites crossed the Jordan River into Canaan. Israelites “devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys” (Josh. 6:21).
What remains of biblical Jericho today is a tel—a large sandy mound surrounded by the modern city. This tel is one of dozens of such sites in Israel/Palestine where cites were built, destroyed, and rebuilt—in some cases twenty or thirty times. Such mounds kept attracting residents because water usually was available and ready building materials were in the rubble.
Today a deep excavation ditch slashes across Tel Jericho, exposing a stone fortress tower thirty feet wide and almost as tall, with an internal staircase. Dating to 8000 BC, it is one of the oldest human-built structures on earth, symbolizing strength and culture.
The book of Joshua seems to validate Israelite conquest of Jericho and all of Canaan. God “hardened the hearts” of indigenous people in the region so they would resist conquest and “receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses” (Josh. 11:20). I feel a surge of indignation when I read these words, then remember that I live in Indiana, named for peoples my European forebears slaughtered and displaced.
Uneasy as I am about these accounts of ethnic cleansing, I cannot excise Joshua from the Bible any more than I can delete the story of Indian removal from American history books. Regardless of how I interpret the Joshua story, it is an integral part of the “Shalom Arc” of salvation history that stretches from Creation to New Creation. I need to integrate the whole story of my faith and family heritage into wise and faithful living today.
So when I visit Tel Jericho, I go to a vantage point from which to see reminders of two Joshuas who visited the city. The first Joshua was Moses’ deputy, who took command of the conquest and slaughter. In a vision he personally encountered the divine military commander of the army of the Lord (Josh. 5:13-15). The mighty fortress tower now visible at Tel Jericho—a structure already millennia old when Israelites arrived—reminds me that here “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho.”
Then I lift up my eyes to hills overlooking Jericho, to what long tradition calls Mount of Temptation. There a second Joshua (spelled “Jesus” in the New Testament) resisted the temptation to use political and military power (Luke 4:5-8). The first Joshua came to Jericho with a sword, the second came to heal (Mark 10:46-52) and forgive (Luke 19:1-10).
The first Joshua consulted with a divine military commander before undertaking conquest, the second refused the armies of heaven by telling Peter, “Put your sword back in its place . . . Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:52, 53).
At Jericho two Joshuas wrestle in my imagination. In a world where Syrian armies and many others follow the military and spiritual triumphalism of the first Joshua, am I willing to follow the second into what may be costly love, peacemaking, and forgiveness?
© 2016 J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************
In 2018 I plan to lead a Peace Pilgrim walk in Galilee and Jerusalem—an active tour for people with hiking boots, accessible to non-athletes like myself. Tentative dates are May 15-25, 2018. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and possibly hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took the disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls (yes, you can circumnavigate the Old City on top of the walls), trace the Triumphal Entry route, and more. Interested? Please be in touch with me and/or with www.TourMagination.com