Joshua: An Enduring Culture of Violence

The chapter below is a part of a series I have been/am still working on in which I retell the Bible stories I loved in Sunday School and explore their applications to my adult life as well as to today’s fractured church and society. 

I find the story of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho fascinating, something that probably has a lot to do with the fact it involves shouting, one of my more pronounced spiritual gifts. Jericho’s demise is the hallmark of Josh’s story but in truth, it was merely one battle in a seemingly never-ending series of wars. Joshua was addicted to war in the same way my freshman roommate was addicted to porn; he just couldn’t stop himself.

Josh’s story begins when Moses kicks it. That had to be quite an act to follow seeing as Moses was basically the savior of the Hebrew world at that point. He turned sticks into snakes, both predicted the plagues and kept his people safe from them, and had the ultimate mountaintop experience. He was even so thoughtful, he brought back souvenirs in the form of a list, in stone, of morality clauses the world still adheres to. But now it was Josh’s turn to do what Moses couldn’t: bring his people to the “Promised Land.”

From the jump, God told Josh to, “be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.” [Joshua 1:7]

As a teenager, my friends and I had a chosen mom-friend we went to with the stuff we didn’t want to tell our parents. During a prayer service one Wednesday night, she told me something similar; to never turn away from God because my gifts were given to me for the sole purpose of pointing people back toward my gift-giver. So I understand what God is telling Josh here because in a way, I was told the same thing. Stay the course, remember what you’ve been taught, shout a lot. Done, done and done. That’s pretty much where the similarities between he and I end though.

Joshua was a military general and as much as the “Promised Land” with all its milk and honey was the end goal, the means of obtaining it involved many battles and much killing, the most famous of which is Jericho. But the Jericho story doesn’t begin with the wall falling, it actually begins with two spies befriending a prostitute named Rahab.

The spies Joshua sent to scout out Jericho apparently weren’t very good at their job—the king knew they were in town—but when questioned about these not-ready-for-spy-time sleuths, Rahab lied to protect them. This is one of those slippery moments when breaking one of the Ten Commandments was condoned by God; something to think about I guess. By hiding them in her roof, she kept the spies out of harm’s way. She didn’t have to do that, it would’ve been far easier to tattle and move on with her life, but word of Joshua’s intention to take over the city had gotten out and the citizens, Rahab included, were spooked. They’d heard the stories of Moses and his people’s exodus from Egypt so they knew better than to underestimate them. They’d also heard that Joshua and Co. destroyed and set fire to everything their path, so yeah, I’d be spooked too.

Maybe it was out of fear or maybe it was out of her gut-feeling that the God from their stories might just be real, but, Rahab aided the spies by giving them a safe home base. In return, she asked only that she and her family be shown kindness. As in, “Don’t kill me because I could’ve had you killed about a hundred times by now and didn’t.” Always hustin’, I respect her game. They promised if she kept them safe, they’d do the same.

Rahab let down a rope through her window—her house was actually built into the side of the city’s famous wall—to lower them to safety and allow them to sneak out of the city unscathed. The spies instructed her to hang a scarlet rope in that window to let Josh and his men know she was the one who helped them. Being a person who loves the intentional use of color in storytelling, I’ll point out that it was red blood above the Israelites doors that kept the angel of death from entering in Moses’ day. This time, it’s a red rope that would do the same for Rahab the hooker. I think this color distinction is literarily intentional and interesting.

It might make some people uncomfortable to know God could use a prostitute in the same way as Moses, but that’s what the Bible says. In church, we’d sing “come just as you are” during altar calls and this moment with Rahab is the literal embodiment of that sentiment. I like Rahab. Her story doesn’t take up much literary real estate but it’s important because nowhere in this narrative is the notion Rahab needed to change in order to be saved or spared. At no point did the spies or Joshua shame Rahab for her profession or for the fact that she was a woman, nor does it imply God would only use her if she turned away from her lifestyle. This is a woman, specifically named as a prostitute, who had a heart and a soul and a sense of whose side she should be on and she’s the hero of those spies’ story. Later, when she and her family were spared, there was no caveat about how she should change going forward. She, doing what she could, was enough.

When Josh and his troops arrived on the plains of Jericho, God’s marching orders (Jericho pun!) were simple. For six days, Josh and his army were to march around the city walls in utter silence while seven priests carried trumpets made out of rams’ horns in front of the Ark of the Covenant—yes the Ark of the Covenant. On the seventh day, they were to march around the city seven times while the priests blew those horns. When they were done with their laps, they’d blow one long blast on their horns, the entire army would shout alongside them, and the walls of the city would collapse.

In the words of Ramesses via Yul Brenner in The Ten Commandments, “So let it be written, so let it be done.” Josh and Co. marched, played, and shouted and wouldn’t you know it, the walls came a-tumblin’ down. The army was then able to rush in and stab every living thing inside the city—men, women, cows, baby sheep, everything. Everyone except Rahab the hooker and her family. They were kept safe as promised and once they were safely escorted out of the city, Josh’s army burned the place to the ground.

This is a sticking point with me. I don’t understand why you’d go through the trouble of taking control of a city, not to mention all the days of miracle marching it took to get there, only to burn it to the ground. But then again, I also don’t understand the appeal of skim milk or Cardi B so what do I know? (I’m actually aware this was a tribe-centric period of history and upon capturing a city, a tribe would then destroy it so it could never rise up again to retaliate. But still, what a waste of a city.) News of yet another miracle associated with the Israelites spread quicker than chicken pox in a Kindergarten classroom and Josh became quite the celebrity among the war monger set.

The men in his army were told not to take anything from the fallen Jericho. They may’ve been war mongers but they weren’t pirates; they didn’t loot or pillage. All of the silver and gold was to go into the treasury (to fund more warring later), but one dude, Achan, didn’t listen. He ferreted away some silver and robes under his tent. God, being the angry and vengeful God He’s depicted as so often, was furious at Achan’s disobedience and thus allowed the Israelites to get attacked. Josh, who thought he was impenetrable, became so forlorn about being attacked and losing men that God eventually had to tell him a la Cher in Moonstruck to “Snap out of it!”

After an all-out manhunt to apprehend the person who couldn’t follow instructions, Achan fessed up. To reward him for coming clean, Joshua’s men took him, his extended family, and all their innocent animals and stoned them before burning their bodies. That’s like the worst part of a Ridley Scott film. You think The Passion of the Christ was gory? Imagine an entire extended family being stoned to death alongside cows and sheep. It’s just people hurling giant rocks at other people with the intention of bashing their bodies into bloody stumps. And this was the punishment on the God-side of things. Just imagine what they did to their enemies.

Sadly, the rest of Joshua’s story isn’t any less gory. It’s battle after battle; killing spree after killing spree.

The violence in the Bible flew past me virtually unnoticed as a kid. We kept more to the larger plot points and rarely dipped into the chapters that surrounded the main stories. Even when we did the year-long challenge of reading the entire Bible in 365 days, those chapters seemed to scroll past my eyes and disappear like the credits at the end of a movie. Now that I’m older and have a much wider context in which to place these stories, Joshua’s exploits post-Jericho have become really cumbersome for me to read. Josh’s conquests killed kings—31 kings to be exact—burned families and destroyed entire people groups. All in the name of God.

Within the Bible, it appears we’re only meant to consider the plight of the identified protagonists. The other people in the stories often serve as props to tell a greater story of how God shows up for the faithful. But reading through chapter after chapter of merciless killing, I was confronted with why it’s difficult for many people to reconcile these ancient crusades of unabashed barbarianism with a pastor down the street at First Baptist telling them about a “loving, peaceful God.” The point of the story isn’t the violence, it’s the redemptive part, but taking the story at face value as a first time reader, it’s a bloody mess.

From a very young age, I became so desensitized to the violence on the page that when I woke up to it as an adult and realized no pastor ever followed those stories by saying, “violence is never the answer,” it became clear why so many American Christians are the most pro-gun and pro-war people in the country.

Since the 90s, our news cycles have been dominated by one mass shooting after another. In the wake of these shootings and the inevitable cries for gun law reforms that follow, many Bible Belters have made impossible statements about the interconnectedness of their guns and their faith. People go on news stations and say things like, “Carrying whatever gun I want is my God-given right,” and well-compensated NRA mouthpieces extol the virtues of gun possession as if it’s one of the beatitudes. I’m not sure where that idea came from since it is, in no way, biblical, but in reading about Josh, I began to wonder if stories like his have become so subconsciously embedded into people’s thinking that they believe violence and faith are somehow intertwined. A look at the history of Christendom shows this isn’t such a stretch. The crusades were a bloody and violent way to convert people who didn’t prescribe to a specific brand of medieval Christianity. People were ruthlessly slaughtered in the name of the same God to whom Joshua gave credit for his victories.

I was raised in Dallas and anyone who was educated in Texas will tell you that Texas history was given the same weight and importance as Betsy Ross, Thomas Jefferson and the Boston Tea Party. In those delineated Texas History classes, we were taught over and over how every flag that flew over Texas at one point or another was planted both in the name of a land-grab and a desire to convert people to their specific brand of Christianity. They also did this through violent means, just like Joshua.

(This feels like a prime opportunity to point out that there were six flags that flew over Texas between 1520 and the late 1800s and that this is where the chain of amusement parks got its name. The original park is in Dallas, hence the name Six Flags Over Texas, and within it are areas which represent each of those six nations. That’s not biblical, just bonus. The more you know.)

Back to Joshua. He gave the okay to murdering and burning the bodies of thousands of people and I don’t really know how to rectify or rationalize that behavior; to rationalize the violence I now associate with a Bible hero I once only saw as a horn-blowing wall-crusher. Maybe this bothers you too. For me, when reading stories like Joshua’s, I think it’s imperative to look both back and ahead. We look back to place it in the context of the day, where tribal warfare was ongoing and primitive ways of thinking prevailed. But we also have to look ahead to what happens after the B.C./A.D. break. The violence associated with Josh was in no way associated with Jesus. Jesus wasn’t a proponent of war nor was he a fan of violence. Jesus would, in no way, be a member of the NRA. Again, where Americans got the idea that their guns and their God were somehow linked is beyond me because it’s not written anywhere in the Bible. Rather, Jesus said to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” [Matthew 5:43]

Oh come on Ryan. What about the world we live in today? What about protecting my family? You’re going to tell me I shouldn’t have a firearm because the Bible talks about peace and while that’s the goal, it’s not practical?

No. Jesus isn’t saying to be a pushover, he’s saying to be a peacemaker. There’s a difference. I’m saying that guns and God are not mutually exclusive. When Jesus showed up on the scene, the narrative was supposed to change. In many cases in history, it didn’t, and the stains of those bloodbaths leave unbleachable marks on our faith, but for a group of people who claim to adhere to the peaceful teachings of Jesus, I have to ask which part of Jesus’ teaching many are reading. Christ-followers should be leading the charge against these preventable forms of violence rather than defending their rights to carry. The Second Amendment is not one of the Ten Commandments.

I was in high school when 13 people were killed at Columbine High School in Colorado. In the weeks that followed, we prayed for our country a lot—something that totally worked and everything is super great now right?—but with every news report, I found myself asking: “Where are you?”

Of course, everything is not super great now. Since Columbine, there have been more than two dozen school shootings and hundreds of lives lost. When 20 children and 6 adults were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the only thing I knew to do was to call my mom. I was so broken that I wept on the phone, trying as I might to form words. None of those mommies would get to talk to their babies again. There were kids who were now left without one of their parents. Even after we hung up, I wept so deeply I had to leave my office for a while. I found a doorway on 33rd Street where I stood and cried, my palms to my face, and after a few minutes, I looked up to Heaven and asked aloud, “Where are you?”

Not just gun violence has prompted me to ask that question. After 9/11, when the deaths of innocent American lives were responded to with the deaths of innocent Arab lives, I asked again, “Where are you?” I can also vividly remember being seven years old watching the night-vision videos of bombs exploding over Baghdad as the Gulf War began. Sitting on the carpet near the television, I asked my parents if what I was watching was real war, not movie war. It was of course and though I was too young to process the full magnitude of what that meant, I wasn’t too young to wonder why the loving, good God from my Sunday School class was letting this happen or why the Christians around me were so gung-ho about it.

Our world has always known war. Since the days when the hot Greeks were running around in their little skirts stabbing each other to today when drones are guiltlessly wiping out entire city blocks, mankind has been on a power trip that’s placed them at odds with each other. But that’s not the plan. That’s not the way this was supposed to go. And the fact that the church hasn’t been the leading voice for peace—leading not just by thoughts and prayers but by tangible actions—should embarrass us. It should provoke us to do better and to be better. It should spur us to say, “That may be how it was done in the past, but it can’t be how it’s done in the future.”

Okay, how did this story about a wall falling down turn into a diatribe against gun violence and your thoughts on pacifism which are more appropriate for the It’s A Small World ride than for reality? I think you’ve lost the plot.

I haven’t. The pages of Joshua’s story extol employing violence as a means of obtaining what you believe is yours. Per our Sunday School reading of the stories, we want to focus on the shouting and the trumpets and the miracle of a city wall imploding so it’s understandably uncomfortable for us to contend with the fact God told Joshua to massacre and murder countless humans not just in Jericho, but in many, many cities. Today he’s viewed as a biblical hero but to every person who lost their life at the hand of his army, he was a war monger and a bit of a terrorist.

Today, the chief physical weapons of violence aren’t swords and spears like Josh used; they’re firearms. Actually, the most pronounced weapon of violence is other-ness—the method of forcibly oppressing minorities (including women, LGBT people, and anyone who isn’t white in America)—but the CDC reports that more than 36,000 people die from firearms each year in America. 36,000 people who died and didn’t have to. That’s a small city’s worth of souls slaughtered, so forgive me if that’s where I correlate Joshua’s killing an entire city with today’s American violence that’s doing the same thing.

It’s true God was with Joshua. After doing what God told him to do, the walls between where Joshua was and where he was supposed to go fell down. That’s a good moral to the story: Do what God says and your path will be cleared in front of you. But the truth is found in the allegory of it, not the practicality. The American church is as addicted to violence today as they were when Joshua was in charge, the proof of which is seen in the wake of every gun-related tragedy when instead of calling for reforms or an outright cleansing of these instruments of suburban war, they defend their “God-given” rights and blame-shift onto any number of factors or statistics to prove their point.

If you question this or think I’m off my rocker, consider the life of Jesus. Jesus reached people by giving them water when they were thirsty, by feeding them when they were hungry, and by helping them when they were sick. Jesus showed that the way you truly tear down walls is by being kind without condition. Jesus led with peace and cared for the people who were being hurt by the politics.

When I’ve asked “where are you” either aloud or to myself, I’ve been reminded of something a Sunday School teacher told me when I was in college. He said, when you’re looking for Jesus, look for the “least of these” and that’s where you’ll find him. Don’t look to a talking-head defending the right to carry instruments of violence. Look for the children, the poor, the disenfranchised, the hungry or the sick. Anne Lamott says, “look for the helpers.” Look for the peacemakers. Look for the Rahabs. That’s where you’ll find God.

The biblical story of Joshua, Rahab, and Achan can be found in the book of Joshua.


Ryan’s book of essays, I Feel God in This Cab, is available here. 

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2 thoughts on “Joshua: An Enduring Culture of Violence

  1. I appreciate this. The war and violence in the old testament are things I struggle to reconcile too.

    Two tangential things it brought to mind –
    This podcast about moral aspects of war. One point that stuck out to me was that we have a small number of people in our society(soldiers) that harm themselves morally (by killing someone, etc) so that the rest of society doesn’t have to be morally harmed. I had not thought of it in terms of moral harm or of that being part of the “service” military members provide. Obviously wars and military things are very complicated, but I’ve been chewing on that particular idea and how that affects my thoughts.

    Also, I was reading 1 Chron. 22 the other day. David was wanting to build a permanent temple for God and God tells him his son will build it instead. He says the reason is that David has shed much blood and fought many wars. It indicates there are some moral consequences to war -even if the wars were led by God. So, maybe it at least feels like God doesn’t totally disregard the harm done in military actions like these.

    Thanks for furthering my thinking about this and for bringing up the possibility that it is a source for the God/guns connection. Interesting things to keep thinking about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for this! I’m going to check that out. This is a work in progress piece for sure and your feedback is super helpful. It’s been tough to sift through this topic which is ultimately why I posted it, to open it up and air it out. There are, of course, aspects of faith that will never be fully worked out on the tangible side of things, but when I was reading/retelling this story, I kept coming back to the issue of violence. I’ve rewritten others and some of them didn’t bring up topics that were quite so heavy but I just went with my gut. Thank you, again. I so appreciate your input.


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