Week of June 26: How do we know if it is our battle or the Lord's battle?


Scripture: Joshua 6:2-3, 4, 12-20
          "Joshua fought the battle of Jericho,/ Jericho, Jericho,/ Joshua fought the battle of Jericho,/ And the walls came tumbling down!" Remember that little song? One verse of it says: "You may talk about your men of Gideon,/ You may talk about your men of Saul,/ But there's none like good old Joshua,/ And the battle of Jericho!"
          But the emphasis is wrong. According to the Book of Joshua itself, it's not Joshua who is due the credit for the fall of Jericho's walls. It is the Lord instead.
          Jericho was located about 15 miles northeast of Jerusalem and about five miles west of the Jordan River. It was nearly 850 feet below sea level, one of the lowest inhabited cities in the world. Archaeologists have determined that people have lived in Jericho, in one development after another and at times with intervals between those developments, for about 9,000 years.
Jericho in peril
          Jericho's claim to fame - or rather its doom to destruction - was due to its standing in the way of the Israelites' entrance into the land they believed God had promised them. Jericho was there, and it had to be dealt with. But as Joshua contemplated that task, he had a vision of a man standing before him with a drawn sword and identifying himself as "commander of the army of the Lord" (Joshua 5:13-15). In the brief conversation that ensued, it was made clear to Joshua that someone else was in charge of the battle about to be fought. It was not to be his or his people's victory; it was to be the Lord's victory. Indeed, before the battle, the Lord said to Joshua: "See, I have handed Jericho over to you . . ."
          The story of the fall of Jericho is one of the most dramatic narratives in the Bible. But it doesn't sound militarily sophisticated, does it? Here you have a motley crew of ex-slaves marching around the city once a day for seven days, some blasting away on trumpets. A box called the Ark of the Covenant is carried reverently in the procession. On the first six days, they encircle the city only once per day, remaining silent as they walk, except for the blasts of the trumpets (though it is not clear if the trumpets were blown every day). On the seventh day, they march around the city seven times, and at the appointed time the trumpets sound, the people shout, and the walls come tumbling down!
          Then, at Joshua's command, the Israelites begin killing every person in the town. No one is spared except Rahab the prostitute and her family. And both Joshua and his people believe they are following Divine instructions: The Lord has told them to do this!
A Godly victory?
          When you read this story today, what questions come to your mind? Do you ask, did God really order the destruction of a city and all the people in it, and did certain other cities experience the same fate at God's command? Does that mean that God was a perpetrator of genocide, a mass murderer?
          Really, have you never heard of people in other times, including our own, crediting God with military victories that involved the killing of numerous persons? Have you never heard of people going into another country- maybe such as America! - and displacing, by killing if necessary, the native inhabitants of that country and thinking that they are pleasing God?
          It's not uncommon at all for people to ask for and claim God's approval and assistance in its wars. That's what some call "the divinity factor" in war. Considering its own interests alone, a country concludes that God is on its side, thus in effect crediting God with making possible whatever killing is done. In time of war, when we pray, do we ask for protection for all or only for those on our side? Do we want all to be spared death or maiming, or only those who stand in the way of our interests? If victory is won and we give thanks to God for the victory, are we implying that God was responsible for or at least involved in the killing that resulted in the victory? You see, others than the ancient Israelites have credited God with victories that have resulted in vast numbers of deaths.
God's kind of victory
          There, certainly, are things to be said for the theory of "just" wars. But, thankfully, a God of war is not the only God we learn about in the Bible. For instance, Psalm 46:9 speaks of God making "wars cease to the end of the earth." The prophet Isaiah envisions a time when people "shall shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (Isaiah 2:4). Jesus himself wept over a Jerusalem that had never learned "the things that make for peace" (Luke 19:41-42) and he declared, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God" (Matthew 5:9).
          How then are we to know when God is victorious? Is it when every opponent of ours - or even of God's values and purposes - is defeated? Or is when earth's inhabitants have come truly to believe that "God is love" (1 John 4:8) and so are seeking to "love one another" as Christ has loved us (John 15:12)?