Joshua, Jesus, Constantine, and Christ

It’s interesting to me that Joshua and Jesus have the same Hebrew name (יְהוֹשׁ֫וּעַ in Hebrew; Ἰησοῦς in Greek, meaning “Yahweh saves.” The meaning of the name accurately describes both Joshua and Jesus, but their approaches to carrying out God’s salvation were quite different. Joshua is portrayed as a military leader who led the conquest of Canaan, killing every man, woman, child, and animal in cities under the ban, along with those of his own people who did not follow those instructions to the letter. Jesus is the suffering servant and good shepherd who  taught nonviolence  and demonstrated God’s love by “dying for us while we were yet sinners.” The two approaches seem quite opposite to me, and I wrote about this in an earlier post on the book of Joshua. How exactly does God save? Through power and control, or through love and service?

One of the reasons many first century Jews had such a hard time accepting Jesus as the promised Messiah is that he did not fulfill their expectations of a conquering military hero who would toss the Roman bullies out of Israel and re-establish a Davidic dynasty. Instead of using his divine superpowers to control people and perhaps strike a few of them dead, he healed the sick and fed the hungry. Instead of living in luxury in a palace and demanding obeisance from cowed subjects, he lived the lifestyle of a homeless itinerant teacher who told his followers that the first shall be last and “the greatest among you shall be your servant”   Instead of calling down ten thousand angels to rescue him and strike down those who tortured and mocked him, he prayed “Father, forgive them.” Paul makes the contrast clear in his letter to the Philippians when he describes Jesus as someone “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;  rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

It’s pretty clear to me that most of the early Christians tried to apply the example and teachings of Jesus to their own lives and situations.  In fact, that’s where the descriptor “Christian” came from, and it was not originally meant as a compliment. “Christians” were people whose first loyalty was to Christ, not Caesar, and that was a very dangerous thing to do in the Roman Empire. “Christians” also tried to emulate the behavior of Jesus in their interactions with others, and that was considered a very foolish thing to do. In spite of, and probably also partially because of, continuing antipathy from those in positions of power, the faith continued to spread throughout the Roman Empire.

By the turn of the fourth century, political factions threatened to split the Roman Empire into East and West components, with several contenders jockeying for power on both sides. There were two schools of thought on the part of these would-be emperors on how to deal with the exponential growth of Christianity: doubling down on persecution, or assimilation.  In 312 AD,  legend has it that Constantine, one of the contenders for the Western throne, had a dream of a cross and the words “In this sign you will conquer”. He directed his soldiers to paint their shields with a sign of the cross, the battle went his way, and he converted to Christianity. Although the historical jury is out as to whether his conversion was genuine or practical, Constantine made Christianity the official state religion, and assimilation began. The persecuted were now the powerful, and Constantine was their Joshua, the hand of God who saved them and led them into the promised land.

However, in the retrospect of centuries, it seems to me that Constantine’s conversion was one of the most spiritually dangerous things that ever happened to the church. Those in power generally want to stay in power, and the threat of hellfire and damnation became quite a useful  tool to ensure forced obedience. Christianity and Christendom are not the same thing. Christians are followers of Christ, whose ultimate loyalty is to God alone. Christendom is a conflation of Christianity and empire, and its subjects have divided loyalties. The way of Christ is the way of love and service. The way of empire is the way of power and control. Where Christ transforms, empire compels. They are not compatible. There’s a (probably apocryphal) quote attributed to Gandhi, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians.” I can’t help but think that the Christians to whom Gandhi was referring were more ambassadors for Christendom than ambassadors for Christ.

Joshua is recorded as saying in his farewell speech to the Israelite people, Choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my house I will serve the Lord.” Jesus warned his followers, “No one can serve two masters.” Which will it be, the way of power and control or the way of love and service? The way of Constantine or the way of Christ?

As for me and my house, I choose Christ.

 

 

 

 

Joshua: A Matter of Perspective

On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel:

“Sun, stand still over Gibeon,
and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.”
So the sun stood still,
and the moon stopped,
till the nation avenged itself on[b] its enemies,
as it is written in the Book of Jashar.

The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.  There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord listened to a human being. Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel!

To be honest, the book of Joshua is the origin of my descent into apostasy (according to some of my more conservative friends, who think I have one foot on a slippery banana peel and the other in hell). In the Christian Bible, Joshua is considered a book of history, but in the Hebrew Bible, it’s one of the Former Prophets.  It was this book that first set me on the road of questioning the idea of Biblical literalism.  The idea that God would command his faithful followers to kill every man, woman, child, and animal in the cities the invading Israelite armies attacked was a huge theological problem to me, one which could not be resolved by all the traditional apologetic commentaries I consulted, Most seemed to invoke some form of dispensationalistic reasoning; i.e.; those commands were only for that time period and God gave different commands later. I could understand the idea of not wanting the nascent  God-worshiping community to be contaminated by Caananite religious practices, many of which were quite horrible. But killing all the babies? Animals? I cannot square that picture of God with the picture I see in other parts of the Bible, much less in the life and teachings of Jesus.

Then there are the archaeological findings from the excavation of Jericho, Ai, and other cities mentioned in Joshua, which do not support the destruction of those cities by any Biblical or extrabiblical calculation of the time of the conquest. And the book of Judges, which seems to indicate a gradual rather than sudden infiltration of the Israelite people into their promised lands. And the odd passage quoted above, which I do not think can be understood literally. The sun could not have stopped in the sky, because the sun does not orbit the earth. The earth could not have briefly stopped spinning, because the catastrophic geological events that would have followed would have given Joshua a lot more to worry about than the Amorites. I suppose God could have resorted to some kind of timey-wimey relativistic option, but I think there is a simpler explanation, and that is perspective.

From the perspective of Joshua, time stood still while the battle was raging. The brain does funny things to the perception of time when under stress, as attested by those who say “my whole life flashed before my eyes” during a traumatic event. I think that’s what happens a lot in the Bible. From the perspective of the writers of Joshua (which was probably written in hindsight hundreds of years after the conquest) God commanded the total destruction (herem) of everybody and everything in the conquered cities. God in fact punished Achan (and later Saul) for failing to totally destroy what was under the ban. I might point out that this perspective is exactly the one held today by Boka Haram, ISIS/ISIL, and other militant groups, and rightly condemned by the majority of Muslims as not being what God desires.

The way I have come to understand the Bible is that it speaks with many voices, some of them originating from a very primitive time in humanity’s cognitive, social, and moral development. God himself does not change, but the way humans understand God does change. The Bible is not record, but testimony, and testimonies always have an element of subjectivity.Not all the voices in the Bible have equal weight. The question for me is not “what does the Bible say?” for it says many things. Rather, it is “to which voices will I listen?”

As a Christian, the answer for me  is found in the person and way of Jesus, who I might add, was rather selective about the Biblical voices he chose to hear. Jesus is the lens through which I read the Bible. I like the way the writer of Hebrews puts it: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature.” If you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus.

And I think that’s good news.