My Least Favorite Book of the Bible
Posted on October 14, 2018 | Posted by Pastor Daniel
Joshua. I hate this part of the Bible. If it were up to me, it might not have made the Biblical cut. But there it is. Joshua tells the story of the Israelites moving into the promised land, land other people were already living in, people who were conquered and killed by the Israelites. It’s a book about holy wars and I don’t like it. The God who leads the chosen people in killing off other races and taking their land is not the sort of God the rest of the Bible seems to paint.
These days I like it even less.
In the last year or two, the Rocky Mountain Synod of the ELCA has committed itself to repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery and understanding its causes and implications, and I’ve slowly begun to take part in this commitment. Briefly, the Doctrine of Discovery is the idea that governments which occupy land own that land, so long as it was not first claimed by subjects of a European Christian Monarch. In other words, lands don’t belong to anyone until folks of European descendants “discover” it. The doctrine justified colonialization and later westward expansion in our country. It dates back to the time of Columbus, and became part of official US law in a Supreme Court case in 1823.
Now, without the book of Joshua, without this piece of false “discovery” in our own faith history, we’d still conquer and subjugate people and kill our way to owning land. That’s human nature. But we wouldn’t be able to point to scripture to justify it. As far as I know the Supreme Court case didn’t reference Joshua, but it was definitely part of the wider thought. You can add the Doctrine of Discovery to the list of sins humans use scripture to justify: slavery, subjugating women, exploiting the earth.
So what do we do about it? I’m not sure. I can’t offer any theological acrobatics that can turn the story of Joshua around for us and get rid of all the yucky parts. The yucky parts are part of it. I can’t change that.
But here are a few thoughts moving forward:
1. Joshua is a story, but it isn’t a calling. It’s descriptive of the past, not prescriptive for the future. God never tells us to replicate what happened in Joshua. Not during the crusades. Not during European colonialism. Not during westward expansion in the US. Not in the middle east today.
2. There is more to the Bible. And the rest of the Bible paints a picture of a God who breaks down the dividing wall between the chosen and the rest of the world, a God who sees all peoples as beloved children, a God who calls us to be part of the one body of Christ, a God who cares for the least of these not for the empires that seek to conquer them.
3. So, we need to repent. Fact is, most people reading this are likely beneficiaries of the doctrine of discovery. Perhaps our ancestors got land through the homestead act, or wealth through mineral or water rights that were never discovered. Almost all of us live on land that was stolen or obtained unethically. It’s easy to think the powerful got it wrong a couple centuries ago, but when they used our scripture to get it wrong and we benefit from their injustice, we need to move to repentance.
4. We need to learn more, connect more, and be part of efforts that seek to right wrongs. God would call us to do that.
There are some central truths about God and what it means to be God’s children in the book of Joshua, but taking another’s home is not one of them.
– Pastor Daniel
(The occasion of this post is our reading for October 14, 2018. Pastor Daniel’s completely different sermon on that text should be available online soon.)