“Saving” the Joshua story? An anarchistic reading

Ted Grimsrud—November 13, 2014

One of the more challenging passages in the Bible is the story told in the book of Joshua. God’s chosen people enter the “promised land,” meet with opposition from the nations living there, and proceed—with God’s direction and often miraculous support—the kill or drive out the previous inhabitants. The book ends with a celebration that now the Hebrew people are in the Land, poised to live happily ever after.

Probably the most difficult aspect of the story to stomach is the explicit command that comes several times from God to the Hebrews to kill every man, woman, and child as part of the conquest. This element of the story is horrifying, even more so in light of the afterlife of this story where it has been used in later times to justify what are said to be parallel conquests—such as the conquest of Native Americans and nature southern Africans. So what do we do with it as pacifists? Or, really, even if for those who are not pacifists, how could any moral person want to confess belief in such a genocidal God?

The dismissal strategy

Probably the easiest response to the Joshua story is simply to dismiss it. To say, this is not part of our story. The God of conquest is not the God of Jesus Christ. One way to think of this is simply to say that the Bible here contains stories that cannot possibly have been true. We can’t know why these stories were included in the Bible, but we can know that we need to repudiate them—or at least agree to ignore them.

I hope some time in the not too distant future to reflect in more detail on this problem. There are various strategies to read Joshua in ways that don’t go to the total dismissal extreme but to in fact see some truths expressed there that may be appropriated for peace theology (this may be said to be the strategy taken by Mennonite scholars such as Millard Lind and John Howard Yoder). And there are other strategies, not necessarily with a peace theology agenda, for coming to terms with the story in ways that do not require its repudiation but still allow us to place our priority in reading the Bible on the message of Jesus.

For now, though, I simply want to reflect on a particular reading strategy I just thought of. To me, it’s quite different than the total dismissal strategy, though since I do not accept the historicity of this story, some might see it as pretty close to dismissal. I don’t actually feel much of a need to protect the Joshua story from dismissal—however, I still tend to want to see if we can find meaning in the story that at the least will help us put it in perspective and protect us from the uses that find in the story support for our violence. More than defending Joshua per se, I am interested in defending the larger biblical story of which it is a part—an essential story for faith-based peacemakers.

An anarchistic agenda

I am in the midst of an exercise, to look at the Bible through an anarchistic lens. This fall semester (2014), I have been teaching a class called “Christian Anarchism.” We looked at the “classic anarchists” (thinkers such a Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Goldman—plus a brief glance at contemporary primitivists and post-anarchists) and at various attempts to think about whether there is a “Christian anarchism” (writings by Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, Mark Van Steenwyk, Jacques Ellul, Tripp York, and Ted Troxell). The final third of the class has been a quick run through of the Bible to test whether the Bible makes sense in light of anarchistic sensibilities (thinking especially of two central ideas: the de-centering of the state and the affirmation of the principle of self-organization).

Over the next several weeks, I hope to write a series of blog posts summarizing some of what we discussed. We talked about creation and fall, the exodus, and Torah (the motive clause the precedes the Ten Commandments, Torah’s spirit of empowerment, the concern for vulnerable people in the community, the sense of being over against Egypt, and the Sabbath regulations [day of rest, forgiveness of debts, anti-centralization and stratification, return of land]).

Then we talked about Joshua.

After Joshua, we talked about the Judges, the turn toward kingship, the prophetic critique, the impact of exile, and then the New Testament picture of Jesus in the gospels and apostolic witness in Paul and Revelation.

The discussion on Joshua triggered some new thoughts about how to think about that vexing text. On the one hand, in the Joshua story we may see an emphasis on what Millard Lind called “theo-politics” over against state-politics or power-politics. There is, in anarchist fashion, a de-centering of human power structures in Joshua along with a sense of conditionality concerning the Hebrews’ status in the land that will be based on their faithfulness (or not) to Torah.

On the other hand, in the Joshua story we come face to face with overwhelming violence and its celebration. The Hebrews in the story may have been marginalized recently liberated slaves and the “Canaanites” in the story may have mainly been kings and oppressors (see Norman Gottwald’s account in his famous book, The Tribes of Yahweh). Yet the story that was written and then retold became a story that kings and oppressors could use to justify their conquests during the era of Christendom—an utterly devastating story.

Reading Joshua as part of the bigger story

Here is part of what I came up with in our discussion (and in a fruitful after-class conversation with Thomas Millary). How do we understand the Joshua account to fit with the bigger biblical narrative, thinking in terms of something like what Walter Brueggemann has called the Bible’s “primal narrative”, and approaching it with what we could call an anarchistic lens?

We may start with God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah when they are first called to start something new—ultimately, their descendants will “bless all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3). This promise may be seen as the core element of the biblical story. What follows is the path, at times quite tortured, that God’s people take in trying to carry out the vocation implied in that promise. In the Christian Bible, this path leads ultimately to the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21–22 where the nations are healed by the leaves from the tree of life.

Abraham and Sarah’s immediate descendants face various adventures that culminate, by the end of Genesis, with their relocation in Egypt. The settling in Egypt turns ominous by the beginning of the book of Exodus. The Hebrews are enslaved. They have multiplied far beyond the clan of Abraham’s and have little sense of identity. They cry out, God hears, Moses arises, and they are delivered (without any generals or a king!).

After their deliverance, the people are given Torah as a gift to guide their common life as a counterculture in contrast with the ways of empire. Torah details a just and peaceable society with decentralized power and a sense of the value of each person (which involves a special focus on protecting the well-being of marginalized people in the community).

We are given the sense that to live out Torah, the people need a particular place, that this vision of human flourishing must be embodied and lived out in the flesh in order to lead to the promised blessing. However, we are also given the sense that the only way to imagine such an embodiment of Torah would be in a territoried community, a geographical region with boundaries and sovereignty as a people. However, also, from the start we get the sense that this existence in a territoried community is contingent upon faithfully embodying Torah—the landedness is meant to serve the vocation, not to be an end in itself.

As it turns out, to be established in a particular land will require violence. People will need to be displaced, and the community will require coercive force to maintain its borders. There seems to be no way to have landedness without also having violence, even if from the story of the exodus it is clear that this necessary violence is not meant to be the monopoly of a centralized human power structure. Instead, at the beginning the necessary violence comes in the form of God’s direct intervention.

So, when Joshua leads the Hebrews into the promised land, the land of Canaan, inevitable violence takes place—on a large scale, as the story is told. The story makes it clear that this violence is God’s and, at most, the human role is quite secondary. The on-going human leadership in the community is not based on gathered military might but on faithfulness to God’s commands.

The growing problem with territoriality

Throughout Joshua as the people enter the land, Judges as the people settle and establish their on-going community, and the first part of 1 Samuel, the necessary violence remains ad hoc and does not lead to permanent structures of power—no standing army, no collection of generals, no human king.

As it turns out, the tension and sense of insecurity without such structures of power prove to be intolerable for Israel’s elders. These elders (and note in 1 Samuel 8 that the call for a kind is not a popular demand from “the people” but a demand from the elite, the “elders”) make a decisive move to restructure Israel’s politics to “be like the nations.” According to the story, the main representative of God among the people, Samuel, argues vehemently against this restructuring, but he is ultimately told to accept it by God.

There is, earlier in the story, a brief account of how human kingship might work in harmony with Torah—Deuteronomy 17:14-20. This kind of king would be subordinate to Torah and would refuse to centralize military power and wealth in his and his main supporters’ hands.

As the story continues, though, it becomes clear early on that neither Samuel’s warnings or the strictures from Deuteronomy 17 would be heeded. Kingship in Israel does indeed lead to centralized power, wealth accumulation in the hands of the few, disenfranchisement for the many, and a militarized society. The prophets makes it clear that the on-going departure from Torah would have terrible consequences. And when their warnings are borne out, their words were remembered and provided a theological rationale for continued faith.

The disasters that befell Israel, the destruction of the kingdom and the temple, were not signs of God’s failure but indeed were vindications of God’s warnings. Because of the recovery of the long-forgotten books of the law during the ill-fated kingship of Josiah, the people did have resources to sustain their sense of identity and the sense of the promise given to Abraham and Sarah.

As a consequence of the failures and, at the same time, the sustenance of the core vision, the community was able to respond to the disasters with creativity and resilience. As it turned out, the loss of territory opens the possibility to revisit the initial tension between a community established with decentralized power dynamics and the need for territoriality. This time, the community was able move toward the decentralized power side of the tension instead of the territoriality side.

Beginning with Jeremiah 29 there is an embrace (or at least an explicit acknowledgement) of a vision for carrying on the promise in a way where scattered faith communities would “seek the peace of the city where they found themselves” rather than harking back to a vision of a geographical kingdom as the necessary center for the sustenance of peoplehood and the vocation of blessing the families of the earth.

Though the story line that follows continues to be centered in the “holy land” with its rebuilt temple, it evinces little hope for re-establishing a territorial kingdom of Israel there as the condition for the sustenance of the peoplehood. Though little noted in the biblical texts, the Judaism of this time continued to spread and solidify its diasporic existence.

The politics of the second Joshua

When we get to the story of Jesus, we are introduced to a political vision that takes non-territoriality for granted. Jesus shares with his namesake, Joshua, a message about God’s salvation. And he brings a message about the kingdom of God and is, in fact, ultimately understood as a royal or messianic figure. But his message repudiates the coercion and centralization of power politics that a territorial kingdom would require. In that sense, he becomes a kind of anti-Joshua.

Jesus’s community embodied a politics of servanthood vis-a-vis domination, free forgiveness vis-a-vis the centralized control of access to God, and non-possessiveness vis-a-vis accumulated wealth. He set his notion of God’s rule over against the Pharisaic purity project, the centralized Temple, and brutal Roman hegemony. Rather than the eradication of the impure that we see in Joshua, with Jesus we see the healing of the impure. Rather than the sense that God’s intervention on behalf of the promise requires violence that we see in Joshua, with Jesus we get the clear message that God’s intervention on behalf of the promise is decidedly and necessarily nonviolent.

Victory through suffering love replaces victory through violent conquest. The difference is that now the promise does not need a state with justifiable violence that requires defending boundaries. In fact, what we learn from the second Joshua is that such a state is most likely to be hostile toward God—and in fact such a state does execute God’s true human emissary.

The biblical story concludes with the New Jerusalem, established not through the sword but through the self-giving witness of the Lamb and his followers. Babylon is overthrown by this witness, and the result is the healing of the nations, even the healing of kings of the earth. Politics are utterly transformed.

The role of the Joshua story

The Joshua story is crucial—and what it shows us is that territory is not possible without violence. As we read the movement of the biblical story, we get the sense that what Joshua sets up is a kind of experiment. Will it be possible to embody Torah in concrete life through controlling a particular territory that might be administered in just and peaceable ways? Such an embodiment could indeed serve as a means to bless all the families of the earth. That Israel could envision such a blessing through territoriality is seen in the vision recorded twice, in Isaiah 2 and Micah 4: People from all the earth come to Israel to learn the ways of peace.

As the story proceeds, though, we see that the very means of establishing Israel in the land carried with them the seeds of failure. Indeed, the land could not be secured without violence—but once the land is secured, the dynamics of violence do not disappear. The initial tension between a decentralized, theo-politics on the one hand and territoriality on the other hand came to resolved on the side of territoriality. That is, Israel could not be sustained apart from the centralized authority of kingship and its attendant power politics.

However, as Deuteronomy 17 and 1 Samuel 8 warn, such a politics of domination cannot help but undermine Torah. Such a politics cannot help but be corrupt and violate the very conditions of existence in the promised land. As the story tells us. In the end, after the Babylonian conquest, Israel again is presented with the tension between territoriality and theo-politics. This time, in tentative ways, the tension is resolved on the side of theo-politics. Certainly, the strand of the biblical tradition that culminates in the ministry of Jesus clearly resolves the tension in this way. The result is a political vision that profoundly shares many characteristics with modern anarchism.

When we reread the Joshua story in the light of these later developments, we can’t help but recognize that the violence there is quite stylized and exaggerated. In exaggerating that violence, the story of Joshua helps display the inevitability of the dead end of power politics and the impossibility of the promise being channeled through the state. That is, Joshua itself points toward anarchism by helping to clear away the illusion that theo-politics ultimately could find expression in a territorial kingdom.

“Biblical anarchism”

The story the Bible tells,  then, becomes precisely a story pointing toward a kind of anarchistic politics—decentering the state (rejecting empire and the coercive maintenance of geographical boundaries) and (self-) organizing for shalom apart from the state through decentralized communities of faith that are open to all comers.

“Biblical anarchism,” if we want to try to claim such a term, is not, however, the same as the “classic” anarchism expressed in the thought of such as Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Goldman. The Bible does not underwrite a focus on actually overthrowing the state and doing without human authority—though even more certainly the Bible strongly repudiates the kind of obeisance toward the state all too characteristic of post-Constantine Christianity.

The state, it seems, can be seen most of all in the biblical story as simply existing, for better and for worse. It should not set the agenda in either a positive or negative way. Theo-politics is about peace work is all its forms, generally independent of territorial kingdoms or modern nation-states. There can be some common ground; more often there will be tension and even conflict between God’s people and the nations.

The main point, though, which seems fully compatible with anarchism at its best, is working for human flourishing in local communities and global connections of resistance wherever it may be enhanced. Perhaps this will lead to a whole new global order (we may hope, the current order is doomed). More importantly, is the much more modest affirmation that this is the only way to embrace life in healthy and sustainable ways—or at least it’s the best we can hope to do.

8 thoughts on ““Saving” the Joshua story? An anarchistic reading

  1. Ted, this is an interesting exercise in probing how the divine vision for human life plays out with various models of government or anarchy. You may intend to address these issues in the future, but I find troubling gaps in the argument.

    I like that you root the issue in the Abrahamic promise to be a blessing to all nations—limited in its territoriality to a semi-nomadic living peacefully among the nations. The problem then becomes how the vision for a God-ordained people live out God’s purposes in other societal structures. You grapple with the question as it relates to territoriality but not as it confronts the question of the legitimate function of government vs. anarchism.

    I would find it helpful if you expounded your thesis a bit more with regards to the cultural frames when the Joshua stories were written and what impulse within the Jewish community of that time they respond to. How do these stories as they are now formulated from ancient stories fed into the myths of identity feed the the conceptual needs of Jewish people late in the kingdom era or the time of the Exile.

    If I understand your thesis correctly, you place in tension the human need for territoriality that “requires” violence to establish with an anarchistic utopian vision of peaceful living that eschews centralized government. You dismiss the biblical view as that the state merely exists and thereby bypass the biblical perspective from Noah through Jesus (“give to Caesar”) and Paul to 1 Peter that government is God-ordained. Even in Revelation the kings rend homage to the lamb-lion Messiah. I don’t see how you can dismiss the role of government so easily in the paradigm for a well functioning society.

    You state your purpose to redeem value from the Joshua stories rather than dismissing them. It seems to me that Jesus established a principle that we may follow when he dealt with “you’ve heard it said that you should love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you . . . ” I don’t believe we find any place in the OT where it says, “hate your enemy,” but the Joshua stories make the case. I believe that in Jesus’ “but I say unto you” he basically says the writers of the Joshua stories got it wrong.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, John. I hope I can give a lengthier response soon. For now, though, I want to say that I think you might misread me when you say I “dismiss the role of government.” In my last several paragraphs I try to distance myself from the classic anarchist notion of “overthrowing the state” (I say “decentering” rather than “abolishing”).

      I mention that there may be “common ground” between “theo-politics” and nation-states. I also say “the Bible does not underwrite a focus on actually overthrowing the state and doing without human authority.”

      More to come….

      1. Some more thoughts….

        It strikes me, John, that you might be giving “anarchism” a bit different kind of definition that I am.

        I assume you actually would tend to agree that it is a central biblical motif that God’s people should be very suspicious of state power—especially as manifested in the great empires of biblical times. And you, I assume, would actually would tend to agree that the Bible calls upon God’s people to gather together in peaceable communities that are independent from state control and encourage the faithfulness of their people.

        I’m trying to appropriate at least the adjective “anarchistic” as shorthand for these two biblical motives—strong suspicion of the state and valuing self-organizing (as opposed to top-down control).

        It does seem that you may be a bit more sanguine about “the role of government” in the Bible than I am, but in our current setting I have a hard time imagining our views regarding government would be very far apart (I don’t know if you saw my MQR article from a number of years ago, “Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy”?—my point there is that pacifist Christians should not operate with self-imposed limits in relation to involvement in the political world but should go as far as they can while remaining true to their pacifist convictions).

        I do think we should all want the state to shrink in terms of its centralized, authoritarian elements (especially the “national security” apparatus). As well, I think you and I share an appreciation for local government that is humane, democratic, and honest.

        One of the big problems we face now is that it seems like big government is (occasionally) the main counterweight to the hegemony of the big corporations. Yet, the net effect of “big government” surely is to empower the big corporations (see, again, the national security apparatus for only one example). I’m not sure precisely how to think about this dilemma. Like Noam Chomsky, widely seen as an anarchist, I support governmental action that makes things less inhumane and reject Rand Paul-like libertarianism.

        Your last paragraph, on Joshua, is a switch of topics, yes? Following Millard Lind (at least a bit), I’d say rather that Jesus does not (simply) say “the writers of the Joshua stories got it wrong,” More, Jesus gives us tools for appreciating the enduring value in the Joshua stories and for rejecting the non-redemptive parts.

        What I am arguing with my post—and I will be developing this more over the next several weeks if I am able to write my series on the Bible drawn from this semesters class discussions—is that the Joshua stories play an important, even essential, role in the overarching story that culminates in Jesus’s call to thoroughgoing peaceableness.

  2. Ted, I confess that I’m relatively ignorant of the extensive writings you cite that I assume define a classic understanding of anarchism, an understanding you say you disagree with. I encounter anarchistic theories in discussions about the current political situation in the advocates of libertarianism and have wrestled with the issue of governance in society in the context of liberation theology. In the latter context, I once had a conversation with John Lapp in which I posited that Anabaptist witness in Latin America needs to project a vision of a just order in society. He reminded me that this contradicted Yoder’s view of non-involvement of the church in seeking norms for society. It may be that what you are advocating is a view closer Yoder than I am. Anyway, let me push my questions a bit further.

    I understand that “anarchism” designates “without ruler.” As I read the biblical materials, I find support for a necessary role for government to provide order that functions for the well-being of society. I find your statement, “The state, it seems, can be seen most of all in the biblical story as simply existing, for better and for worse. It should not set the agenda in either a positive or negative way” at odds with the biblical portrayal of government as God-ordained. Your use of “state” rather than “government” opts for meaning dependent on nation/states of modern construct rather than the fundamentals of the function of government for human flourishing. I think the referent for a concept of anarchism must deal with the need governing authority. Paul and Peter posit that government’s role is to promote good and restrain evil.

    You and I, I believe, would agree that the spirit of empire conflicts with God’s purposes. However, I do not—as you posit—”agree that the Bible calls upon God’s people to gather together in peaceable communities that are independent from state control and encourage the faithfulness of their people.” I see the community of faith as operating with a different value system and ultimate authority but certainly subordinate to the laws of proper governmental authority. I agree “there will be tension and even conflict between God’s people and the nations.” I do not agree that peoples without rulers is the best design for human flourishing.

    In Latin America, there is a difference in roles of leadership expressed in the terms “caudillo” the leader who functions for the well-being of the community and “cacique” the one who rules the community for personal benefit. I don’t see anarchism but caudillo leadership as the answer to the cacique.

    I guess the difference I have with Yoder’s theory—and I’m in way over my head here—that appears to me to say that the church takes responsibility only for itself and witnesses by example rather than by advocacy. Liberation theology and the Christian socialist democratic movement in L.A. advocate that the structures of governance in society have a role in promoting the righteousness justice of God. In this, I suppose, I diverge from the classic two-kingdom theology of Anabaptism. Albert Outler pushed me on this and I have gone in the direction of seeing God as sovereign in the political sphere as well as the ecclesial. That doesn’t say that God’s will is perfectly done in either but is the reality we seek.

    Which brings me back to the Joshua stories. I can accept that a wrong understanding of territoriality can be adverse to God’s purposes, but I think God’s frame for human well-being can include having a geographical home in the midst of the nations. The issue is how that space is acquired and how it is occupied. It may be as a prior nomad finding space in Canaan or as the exiles seeking the well-being of Babylonian, or as the church in pilgrimage in the nations seeking the city without foundations. I have not found Lind’s framing the Joshua stories in the context of holy war to justify them satisfying—I still believe they got it wrong. I don’t find in them a foundation that anarchism is the answer to conquest but just rule. I await your further posts to convince me otherwise.

  3. I like your article Ted, and I think you are right. Jesus not only shows this clear tendency by not trying to make the roman politics just, but instead by focusing on organizing and creating a new community, starting with his disciples. I think we must also remember that the bible tells many stories and from many different perspectives. In the case of Joshua I feel the story coming from the privileged and powerful, not from the prophets, so their side of the story obviously talks about how they are right and God is on their side. You speak of this propping up the overarching aim of the bible, a new and different peaceable kingdom. I agree. And every (one) neath their vine and fig tree shall live in peace and unafraid!
    Looking at the aftermath of the mix of liberation theology with the state in Nicaragua also strongly pushes me towards this anarchistic view which is focused on local organization and change as opposed to systemic overthrow. Local change, which is born of personal change (conversion some might say) is the only means which is consistent with the creation of the kingdom of the lamb.

    1. Ted, I’ve been following your blog for some time and the recent reflection on Joshua pulled me in, but I have questions, specifically on how we understand “territory” and whether less social structure is inherently better. There are two parts to my hesitancy to very quickly embrace an anti-territory argument, even as I may share what I sense is a desire for distance from how the Biblical Joshua story has been used. One part of my hesitancy comes from rather long experience in Africa, and recent experience in East Africa, and another from reflecting on Steven Pinker’s writing on violence and Paul Collier’s comments on peace. Pinker (The Better Angels of our Nature …), a sociologist, holds that violence today is less and less a part of our human experience. He points to violent deaths/population as his lens, so of course when population is smaller, violent activities have much more impact than when, like today, populations are huge. He also suggests that territory (land for a nation, tribe, clan, etc.) is part of a core human need (to raise children, have food, care for those who cannot do this for themselves, etc.). From more recent empirical research, he suggests that smaller “territory” has proven to be more violent than larger “territory” so a critique of larger “territory” should respond this. Collier (The Bottom Billion, among other books) an economist, tracks what he notes as the seemingly disruptive and violent nature for an economy (he focuses most on African economies) when many frontiers are involved, requiring constant negotiation. We should be suspicions of the old notion that smaller is better, he suggests.

      This basic orientation sits with what I have observed in places where clan, ethnicity, sometimes even race or religion are basic arenas for identity and social organization. As clan or ethnic “territory” gives way to larger multi-identity territories (nation, etc.) we move from violence to less violence, according to both Pinker and Collier. And again the strength of their arguments rest on claims about empirical observation.

      It seems to me this challenges Pacifists on what makes for peace, especially if we want to find some ground for anarchism in the Biblical record. I understand Millard Lind’s argument for Judges rather than Kings, and John Yoder’s comments on the experience of Jewish exile and our Christian pilgrim identity. But, in the light of some more recent comment, I’m not so comfortable when this too quickly causes us to be suspicious of larger social organizational structures. Some elements of Pinker and Collier’s work conforms to what I have observed. So does an interest in small, dispersed organization, if this aims to resist larger social organizations (nations, multi-national entities), leave us open to the possibility of more violence, not less?

      Bob Herr, Lancaster, PA

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