Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my clients, Joshua ben Nun and his co-defendant, God, stand accused of violent war crimes against the peoples in the land known as Canaan, or as the people of Joshua call it, The Promised Land. We will present evidence today that those accusations are exaggerations blown out of proportion and truly not in keeping with the Divine Character. The defense seeks to convince you that my clients are innocent of these accusations, and you must return a verdict of ‘not guilty as charged.’
Joshua ranks as an upstanding citizen of his people. They revere him as standing in a direct line of importance from Abraham through Moses. Some, who peer into the distant future, even say he points the way toward Jesus of Nazareth – whose name by the way is a form of the name Joshua. The fact that Joshua assembled the people in the town of Shechem to establish the new covenant with God directly links him to Abraham who had his first encounter with God at Shechem years ago.
Joshua deserves recognition for his leadership. He picked up the mantle of Moses who died before entering the Promised Land. Joshua led the people as they crossed the river Jordan into the Promised Land. The language used to describe that crossing alludes to the people in Moses’ time walking through the parted waters of the Red Sea. This testifies to the fact that God intervened to help these people enter into the land promised them.
Yes, Joshua then engaged in battles. Here, the defense submits that object of those battles, the language used to describe those battles, and the actual facts behind those descriptions contradicts the accusations that Joshua is guilty of violent war crimes and God is a God of violence. New evidence shows that the Canaanite culture of the time engaged in worship of various gods by engaging in sex acts that were tantamount to sexual slavery and sex trade. Furthermore, part of those religious practices involved sacrificing children to their gods.
When God commanded Joshua to drive out the Canaanites, it was to drive out their social and cultural practices that used people as sexual objects in distorted form of worship of divinity, and that threw children into burning sacrificial fires. If you read the accounts carefully, the facts show that even though the reports say the Canaanites were completely annihilated and abolished, many Canaanites continued to live among the people of Joshua. Even in the public ceremony at Shechem committing to a covenant with God, they promised not to worship the Canaanite gods or do business with the Canaanites among them. Why would they even mention the Canaanites if they had all be exterminated? To even think that God wanted that is to take a very short-sighted view of the Divine character.
In the long-term view of the biblical story, the clash between Joshua and the Canaanites is one particular moment in that story. The overall theme of the bible story deals with God’s care to restore the unity between God and humanity, to call all people into a reign of peace and justice where all can flourish. Consistently God opposes oppression, condemns slavery, denounces human inhumanity. God always works with specific humans like Abraham, Moses, Joshua and many others after them, and within the culture and customs of any given time. In the case of Joshua and the Canaanites (and all those other tribes with those difficult to pronounce names), God directed Joshua to stamp out the practices of the Canaanites and others that so defiled and demeaned human dignity, but not the Canaanites themselves! In the long-term view, God has been continuously working to build a large, multi-ethnic family of people who trust the divine plan to restore creation to its original harmony.
Also, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we need to take into account how the accusations against my clients don’t understand the language styles of the time. It was quite common to exaggerate the accomplishments of the leaders in order to emphasize their importance. It was quite common to describe victories in superlative glowing terms. We call this technique hyperbole – to exaggerate in order to make a point. We have to understand those figures of speech used at that time rather than interpret them literally. What would happen if years from now, reading the court transcripts of this hearing, I would be quoted as saying, ‘If this trial goes on much longer, I’ll be so hungry I could eat a horse.’? Or, if I said, ‘Should you come back with an acquittal for my clients, I’ll be floating on cloud nine.’? The literal meaning of those words would totally miss the actual meaning of the phrases. So, I submit to you that the accusations made against my clients may be based on a literal interpretation of the words and don’t account for the hyperbole used to express an underlying truth. Without that understanding it would be easy to convict Joshua and God of violent behavior and war crimes.
However, that would be too easy and dangerously superficial. Again, let’s take the longer view of the divine-human interaction. In ancient times God chose certain humans to intervene with the people on his behalf. Yet, as history progresses, God doesn’t just choose a human being, God becomes a human being. That descendant of the style of Joshua, my client, also invited the people to leave behind the idolatrous, oppressive customs of his time. Jesus formed a band of followers and modeled for them ways of compassion and mercy, of solidarity with the outcast, and forgiveness for the sinner. In Jesus, history can see the true will of God to have all people live in the reign of God, a reign of life in abundance, of joy in its fullness, and love without limits.
Jesus didn’t turn to violence, even when human violence turned on him and executed him for disturbing the status quo. He became obedient, even unto to death, death on a cross.’ That’s the real character of the God that my client Joshua followed. God does not order destruction and death even though our limited human language and flawed human metaphors may sometimes make it look so.
In conclusion, look at one of the final actions of my client, Joshua’s life. He assembled the people and invited them to make a public, communal commitment to God’s ways, to following God’s mandates that provide for an orderly, just, society that cares for the orphan, the widowed, the oppressed, and the alien. He wrote these on a large stone – like his forebear Moses wrote the law on tablets of stone. He set that stone up under an oak tree as a sign of encounter with God – a remembrance of Abraham who was sitting under a tree when God first called out to him. As Joshua offered the assembled the chance to commit to the covenant, he also warned them of the consequences of choosing to follow other gods and the consequence of not living faithfully the covenant with God. Joshua called out, ‘Will you incline your hearts to the Lord?’ To which the people cried in unison – ‘AMEN’
Good people of the jury, your very name, Emmanuel, means God with us. As you are dismissed to deliberate your verdict of guilty or innocent, please consider the following questions carefully:
- How do you see violence at work in your community? Is it God’s handiwork or the work of human hands?
- Considering God’s character of truth, justice, mercy, and love, how does God want you, people of God-with-us, to restore your community?
- How will your verdict about my clients affect the life of faith in this area?
The defense rests.