How Walls Come Down

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Joshua 6  |  Walls Come Down

Joshua 6 is a simple but powerful story.  It’s one of the most popular ones to teach our kids.  There’s marching and trumpet-blowing and walls falling down.  And behind it all, a message that’s important for both kids and adults:  when God is with you and you’re acting under God’s direction, nothing can stand in your way.  Nothing!  Not even the walls of the great city of Jericho. 

If you look a little closer there are some adult details that reinforce that point – parts that aren’t as interesting to kids, but still important.  The march around Jericho lasts 7 days – which happens to be the length of a Passover festival (Lev 23:5-8).  The people blowing those horns were the priests – and the horns they were blowing were shofars, rams’ horns which were often used in worship.  And then, in the midst of all that was the ark – the ark of the covenant, which held the tablets of the law given to Moses, which was also the seat of God.

7 days like a religious festival; priests like in a temple or synagogue; instruments normally used in worship; the ark itself… all that sounds more like parts of a liturgy than a military strategy.  And that’s the point:  the walls of Jericho don’t fall down because of the military might of the Israelites; they fell down because of our mighty God!

Which only reinforces the same good message:  when God is with you and you’re acting under God’s direction, there’s no wall that can’t come down!

But if the message of Joshua 6 is so great… then why don’t we read it in church more often?

This passage – Joshua 6 – doesn’t show up in our lectionary.  The lectionary is a traditional, three-year cycle of Scripture used by many mainline denominations.  For every Sunday there’s an Old Testament passage, a Psalm, a Gospel reading, and a reading from one of the New Testament letters.  As a United Methodist preacher I’m not required to use it, but I do let it guide me.  And never – not once in the three years – does it suggest I preach on Joshua 6.

This month – what with all the new territory we still find ourselves navigating – I thought Joshua would be good material for us.  It is, after all, the story of how the Israelites made their way through the new territory of the Promised Land.  But I was surprised to learn that out of the 24 chapters of Joshua, only three of them show up in our lectionary.  All the rest is passed over, including Joshua 6.  And why in the world would you want to skip this story?

Well… the reason becomes clear when you dig deeper into the story.  Go beneath the children’s version, and beneath the worship-related details, and you’ll find material that makes most of us adults blush.

15 On the seventh day they rose early, at dawn, and marched around the city in the same manner seven times. It was only on that day that they marched around the city seven times. 16 And at the seventh time, when the priests had blown the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, “Shout! For the Lord has given you the city. 17 The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live because she hid the messengers we sent. 18 As for you, keep away from the things devoted to destruction, so as not to covet and take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel an object for destruction, bringing trouble upon it. 19 But all silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are sacred to the Lord; they shall go into the treasury of the Lord.” 20 So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpets, they raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat; so the people charged straight ahead into the city and captured it. 21 Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.

They killed the men, women, and children?

This isn’t a children’s story anymore.  It’s not even an adult story… not for this adult, at least.

And that is exactly why our lectionary skips a lot of Joshua.  Because so much of Joshua is this kind of stuff.  See, when the Israelites came into the Promised Land there were people already living there.  And in order to take it and be God’s set-aside people, those other folks had to be kicked out or wiped out.

Jericho was the first and very important city they came to.  The act of burning it to the ground was like a burnt offering to God – an offering of the first-fruits of this new Promised Land.  Which is a beautiful sign of the Israelites obedience and gratitude to God… until you remember that there were people inside Jericho.

So what do we do with that?  How do we reconcile the complete destruction of Jericho with the God that we know through Jesus Christ?

This is why a lot of people want to ignore the Old Testament, frankly.  Because if you choose to read it, you’ll find a lot of material like this (and some way worse stuff, believe it or not).  I don’t understand why all of it is in there, but here’s one thing I do know:

It’s honest.

The Bible doesn’t give us a photoshopped version of life on earth.  It talks about all of our gritty realities.  That includes our human proclivity toward solving problems with brute force.  It makes me very uncomfortable that this story ends with killing the people of Jericho, and even more uncomfortable with the fact that it’s done as an act of devotion to God (6:17).  That simply does not reconcile with the God I know.  But, unfortunately, it does reconcile with the world I know.  Still today we humans are trying to find a place for ourselves by violently removing others.  Still today we humans are justifying our acts of violence by saying the means serve an important end.  It’s so hard to watch that it’s tempting to stick our heads in the sand, to turn our backs on the violence.  But we can’t cover our eyes to it – there it is, even in Scripture!  We can’t avoid it; we have to wrestle with it, try to find a way out of it.

And here, in this dark children’s story, there is a little glimmer of hope.

Not everyone in Jericho was killed.  The plan was to off all the men, women, and children – except a prostitute named Rahab.  She had helped the Israelites out when they first came and scouted the city.  So in return, Rahab – and her whole family – are spared.

Now – that’s just one person, one family.  It would have been a lot better if the story went, “And when they spared Rahab, the Israelites realized that all the other residents of Jericho were people, too, and they changed their minds and let them all live!”  That didn’t happen.  But Rahab was spared the violence.

And you know, Rahab has an important ancestor.  Do you know who that is?

Jesus.

When Matthew tells us about Jesus’ ancestors, it’s mostly a list of men – “Abraham the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah…” (1:2).  But Matthew is careful to name a few women in Jesus’ family tree.  One of them is Rahab (1:5).  Jesus is a descendant of Rahab.

Jericho’s story ended in an act of violence.  The walls of Jericho might as well have come down right on the heads of the original people.  Instead, the Israelites finished the job themselves.  Rahab was the lone outsider spared, the exception to the rule.  They thought the means justified the end.

Jesus’s life ended in a way that could not be more opposite.  Jesus ended with an act of self-sacrificial love.  With his death, walls came down.  Walls came down between us and God – the temple curtain tore in two.  Walls came down between human beings, too.  No longer is there a lone outsider included here and there… instead, all outsiders became insiders by God’s grace. 

That reality wasn’t fully realized at the time of Jericho, and it’s heartbreaking to read about.

Unfortunately, that realize isn’t fully realized today, either.  It’s still heartbreaking to read about.

But we – we who follow Jesus Christ, we who believe in Rahab’s descendant – we know different.  We know the walls have been knocked down.  We know the way to keep them down is not violent; it’s grace expressed through acts of self-sacrifice.

Amen.

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