Reading through the Old Testament is both beautiful and disturbing. On the one hand, we get a glimspe of our amazing covenant God. So faithfully he promises his goodness and declares his love for his chosen people. His power in creation and in fighting for Israel is awe-inspiring at times.
On the other hand, there are stories and commands that make me squirm and unsettle my sense of who God is. Is this really the God I know, commanding his followers to slaughter entire people groups--every man, woman, child, and animal? Is this the God I know, who in one place says that no one but the individual is responsible for his sin, and elsewhere kills entire families because of the transgression of one? I am there right now, right in the middle of an endless list of brutal conquests, as Joshua leads the people of Israel into the long-awaited Promised Land. The stories unsettle me as they always have. Those of us who have chosen to follow the God of Israel, revealed to us in Christ, must grapple with such texts. They are not allegorical. They belong to the genre of history. I cannot deny that.
Yet, as one who lives on the far side of the New Testament, where I read that my battle is no longer against flesh and blood, I find that there is much to learn in these passages. Again and again, God provides the Israelites with strong guidelines and principles for overcoming their enemies and enbracing his promises. His standards for taking the land are high, calling his people to hold obedience--and his holiness--in the highest regard.
One of these principles is indeed total destruction. God warns his people to carry out their conquest fully. He knows that by allowing bits and pieces of the old land to remain among them, they leave the door open to be drawn away from the One who led them there: "You must destroy all the peoples the LORD your God gives over to you. Do not look on them with pity and do not serve their gods, for that will be a snare to you" (Deut. 7:16). The truth of this prediction bit the people of Israel in the proverbial butt many times, as when they killed all but the women, only to find themselves suckered into idolatry by their newly acquired wives. In that place, the blessing of victory falls victim to the curse of a half-assed obedience.
Reading through Joshua this week, a new command regarding taking the land stood out to me. It was one that I had not noticed before. As the Israelites move into the land, beginning with the famed Jericho, God gives them this command:
"The city and all that is in it are to be devoted 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. 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. All the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron are sacred to the LORD and must go into his treasury" (Joshua 6:17-19).
Keep away from the devoted things. As God has continually told the people to distinguish between the common and the holy (Leviticus 10:10), he calls them here to acknowledge that which is set apart for him. And as usual, the Israelites fall a bit short. A man named Achan takes some of the consecrated items for himself, and the victorious conquest becomes a humiliating retreat at the city of Ai. When Joshua falls on his face before the LORD, disappointed and confused, the God of gods repeats:
"Hidden among you, O Israel, are things set apart for the Lord. You will never defeat your enemies until you remove these things from among you" (Joshua 7:13).
I am sobered by the words: "You will never defeat your enemies until..." I spend so many days--and especially those of late--longing for victory against the enemies I fight, those which are not flesh and blood. There are times when I find myself victorious, but many more when I fall on my face after an embarrassing retreat. This passage brings me before the LORD with a new question: What does it mean to hold onto that which is set apart for you? What does it mean to remove it? I write this post without the answer. Yet as a woman who longs to follow Christ and to claim the land he promised me, I seek to embrace the question. May we all run hard after the God of victory, and eagerly lay aside that which keeps us in defeat.