The Joshua Delusion? (Cascade Books) $22
Stories of God’s people carrying out acts of violence and even genocide at God’s command is one of the most intractable problems facing readers who accept the Bible as inspired scripture. Douglas S. Earl’s new book The Joshua Delusion? Rethinking Genocide in the Bible tackles this problem head on, with grace and pastoral awareness rarely seen in Biblical scholarship. What is most commendable about Earl’s treatment of the book of Joshua is that he writes with a keen sensitivity to large group of Christians who will have difficulty with the historical and cultural analysis he presents.
Earl begins by asking, “If Jericho was razed, is our faith in vain?” a clever twist on an earlier question, posed by G.W. Ramsey who asked, “If Jericho was not razed, is our faith in vain?” Itself a twist on Paul affirmation in 1 Corinthians 15:14, Earl’s distinction reflects the changed priority of Biblical scholarship. An earlier age was concerned with how faith could survive the possibility that the narratives of scripture are not historically verifiable in the modern sense of history. Today’s concern is more ethical in nature. Can our faith survive the possibility that Jericho was indeed razed in the way Joshua describes?
Earl suggests that we read Joshua, not as a modern history (which it clearly is not), but within the anthropological categories of myth, symbol and neo-structuralism. The purpose of this text, he argues, is to shape Israel’s communal identity. Putting these insights together with a careful theological reading of the text, Earl comes to the conclusion that Joshua is not a conquest narrative, nor is it descriptive of divinely sanctioned genocide. He says:
Joshua really has nothing to say regarding the conduct of war, either for ancient Israel or for us today. Joshua does not offer a blueprint for colonialism, nor does it offer a blueprint for the postcolonial rejection of such narratives (125).
Nevertheless, while Earl’s conclusions may be appealing, his reading of the text will not convince everyone. It is hard to shake the feeling, especially for the non-expert, that what Earl is doing is textual slight of hand. He addresses some of these concerns in the final chapter, paying special attention to the way in which his reading seems to undermine the larger narrative of salvation. In other words, if Joshua does not describe the conquest of Canaan at the level of history, then what becomes of the larger narrative of God’s people, of which this episode is a significant part. Christopher J. H. Wright will speak for many readers when he, in his very thoughtful 10-page response, says,
I am not persuaded that the assumption of a historically factual basis underlying the book is irrelevant to the book’s theological purpose, or that a concern to understand and affirm that underlying historical founding is merely the product of modernity’s historicist obsession (143).
This back-and-forth exchange between Earl and Wright is one feature that makes this book particularly interesting and useful for individuals and groups who want to wrestle deeply with this subject. Wright’s response not only allows the readers own concerns to be raised within the context of the book but it also models respectful dialogue between two people who, while they disagree in some of the details, nevertheless wrestle with the difficulty which is undeniably posed by Joshua.
The challenge of divinely sanctioned ethnic violence is as important a concern as it has ever been. Books like Earl’s and Walter Brueggemann’s, Divine Presence Amid Violence, are important pieces for contemporary Christian readers to consider as they attempt to live faithful in our world.