Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Sunday Sermonette: Not very spiritual

Joshua 6 is one of the better known chapters in the Bible, probably because it is the subject of a famous and much-recorded African American slave song, usually titled "Joshua fit the battle of Jericho,"  fit, of course, being dialect for fought. It is interesting that the subject matter of most slave songs with Biblical content, conventionally called spirituals, is Old Testament. That suggests that the slaveholders' religious instruction of their slaves focused heavily on OT stories, or perhaps that the  slaves found the OT more inspirational. The symbolic meaning of the song to its creators and the people who sang it would have been quite different from what the slaveholders wanted; the same must be said of other such songs such as Go Down Moses.

There is a good deal more about this chapter that is notable so it merits some exegesis. First of all, this is entirely fictitious. There was a human settlement at Jericho as long as 10,000 years ago, in other words at about the earliest time people made settlements at all. Because there are springs there, it is a desirable location in an arid land. However, the city was destroyed by an Egyptian invasion in the 15th Century BCE, and the site was unoccupied in the 13th Century, when these events purportedly occurred. A Judean city was built there later, in the 10th Century. As I have noted before, this account was written during the reign of King Josiah (d. c 609 BCE), and later revised. 


There is quite a bit to be said about the content of this story. The elaborate ritual the invading army is made to perform in order to bring about the miracle of the collapse of the city wall makes up a good half of the tale. God presumably could have knocked down the wall any time he wanted, but this reinforces the main content of the Torah, that is the essentiality of strict adherence to ritual, and the immense power of God to perform miracles. 


The morality of the Israelites undertaking a war of aggression in order to steal the land from its inhabitants is obviously not in accord with contemporary standards, although it is fully in accord with standards at the time of, say, the European invasion of the Americas. Nevertheless, the reason for this particular action is not clear, even in that context. If the idea is to occupy the land and exploit its resources, why kill all the animals and destroy the city, as well as massacre all its inhabitants? The soldiers are ordered to murder all of the children and women, as well as the men, and to plunder only the precious metals, which are to be given to "God," i.e. the priests; but the city is to be burned down and all other potentially useful objects must be destroyed. 


Finally there is the curious matter of Rahab and her family. They are saved because as you will recall she concealed the Israelite spies from the authorities. One must suppose that this is here as a suggestion that others among the enemies of the Israelites might benefit from betrayal. Since her house was built into the wall, that they somehow survived the collapse uninjured is presumably a miracle, though this goes unremarked. The modern Christian moralists who I just discussed will presumably have difficulty with the uncritical acceptance of Rahab's profession. If you know any, you might want to ask them about that.

Now the gates of Jericho were securely barred because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in.

Then the Lord said to Joshua, “See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men. March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have the whole army give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the army will go up, everyone straight in.”

So Joshua son of Nun called the priests and said to them, “Take up the ark of the covenant of the Lord and have seven priests carry trumpets in front of it.” And he ordered the army, “Advance! March around the city, with an armed guard going ahead of the ark of the Lord.”

When Joshua had spoken to the people, the seven priests carrying the seven trumpets before the Lord went forward, blowing their trumpets, and the ark of the Lord’s covenant followed them. The armed guard marched ahead of the priests who blew the trumpets, and the rear guard followed the ark. All this time the trumpets were sounding. 10 But Joshua had commanded the army, “Do not give a war cry, do not raise your voices, do not say a word until the day I tell you to shout. Then shout!” 11 So he had the ark of the Lord carried around the city, circling it once. Then the army returned to camp and spent the night there.

12 Joshua got up early the next morning and the priests took up the ark of the Lord. 13 The seven priests carrying the seven trumpets went forward, marching before the ark of the Lord and blowing the trumpets. The armed men went ahead of them and the rear guard followed the ark of the Lord, while the trumpets kept sounding. 14 So on the second day they marched around the city once and returned to the camp. They did this for six days.

15 On the seventh day, they got up at daybreak and marched around the city seven times in the same manner, except that on that day they circled the city seven times. 16 The seventh time around, when the priests sounded the trumpet blast, Joshua commanded the army, “Shout! For the Lord has given you the city! 17 The city and all that is in it are to be devoted[a] to the Lord. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall be spared, because she hid the spies we sent. 18 But keep away from the devoted things, so that you will not bring about your own destruction by taking any of them. Otherwise you will make the camp of Israel liable to destruction and bring trouble on it. 19 All the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron are sacred to the Lord and must go into his treasury.”

20 When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. 21 They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.

22 Joshua said to the two men who had spied out the land, “Go into the prostitute’s house and bring her out and all who belong to her, in accordance with your oath to her.” 23 So the young men who had done the spying went in and brought out Rahab, her father and mother, her brothers and sisters and all who belonged to her. They brought out her entire family and put them in a place outside the camp of Israel.

24 Then they burned the whole city and everything in it, but they put the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron into the treasury of the Lord’s house. 25 But Joshua spared Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, because she hid the men Joshua had sent as spies to Jericho—and she lives among the Israelites to this day.

26 At that time Joshua pronounced this solemn oath: “Cursed before the Lord is the one who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho:

“At the cost of his firstborn son
    he will lay its foundations;
at the cost of his youngest
    he will set up its gates.”

27 So the Lord was with Joshua, and his fame spread throughout the land.


  1. Joshua 6:17 The Hebrew term refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the Lord, often by totally destroying them; also in verses 18 and 21.

1 comment:

Don Quixote said...

This story is just weird. I will say that the sound of the shofar is truly an awesome one.

They kill the donkeys? The innocent animals? It's like the city itself was a sin in the eyes of the Hebrew god. Can't be rebuilt, under penalty of infanticide?

Psychopath indeed. This sounds like bullshit.