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Everybody Must Get Stoned

Written by Ted Troxell : May 26, 2008

I recently heard a sermon that used the story of Achan in Joshua 7 as a platform to rail against “sin in the camp”, a phrase that always makes me think of Woody from Toy Story saying “there’s a snake in my boot.” The preacher did not have some particular sin in mind, at least not that he was willing to mention, just some general hunch that there might be some sinning going on, and we’d better knock it off or (I suppose) the next time we try to annihilate a city we might meet with undue bloodshed. I’m not sure what he was getting at. I think I dozed off.

The problem with this kind of reading is that it plays too easily into a scapegoating narrative. It is essentially Pharasaical, concerned with ritual purity and the elimination of sinners so that God can bless us. It also somewhat Puritan, in that the Puritans were fond of reading theocratic principles off the surface of the OT stories in much the same way. For American Christians, the apple doesn’t fall too far from that tree.

The basic elements of the story are rather brutal ones from which to extrapolate community values. Jericho is put under the ban, meaning that every living thing was to be put to death — the young and old, male and female, human and non-human. Everything. In essence, the whole of Jericho (with the exception of Rahab and her family) was to be made a sacrifice unto the Lord. (A lovely sentiment, really.) In the midst of this bloodshed, Achan commits the rather understandable, even practical, sin of trying to make off with some of the forbidden plunder, and for his trouble he is met with execution, not only for himself but for his entire family, in an extension of the logic of sacrifice.

So what do we do with a story like this? The “sin in the camp” reading is available and obvious, and it would be difficult to argue against such a warning as the main impetus of the story. There are consequences for disobedience, and we would be remiss to deny or undermine this. Nor would we want to downplay the importance of moral integrity in communities of faith. Paul himself advocates the expulsion of those who take liberties with their freedom in Christ.

One thing we can do is recognize the socio-historical contingency of a story like this. Without invoking a hardcore dispensationalism on one hand or falling into Marcionism on the other, we can recognize that the the time and place from which this story comes is different than our own and is not informed by the revelation of Jesus. If we are going to hear the voice God, we need to remember it comes to us with an accent. We can read this story through the lens of Jesus in a way that the story’s tellers and preservers could not.

We can also explore ways in which the Cross renders it unavailable for a Constantinian reading that justifies conquest or witch-hunt pursuits of “sin in the camp”. We might start with the meaning of the ban itself, which determined that nothing was to be left alive, and nothing of use was to be taken away from the enterprise, except the land itself. As mentioned earlier, this was essentially a sacrifice to YHWH, an act of trust in the Lord for provision, much in the way that certain sacrifices were to be wholly consumed by fire and thus not available for food.

To use the conquest of Canaan as justification for Christian participation in armed conflict (or worse, as a justification of American “manifest destiny“), the burden of proof would seem to lie in demonstrating that YHWH is directly commanding the action, that no plunder is to be taken, and that the Cross is somehow not the end of sacrifice. The only legitimate extension of the logic of sacrifice admitted by the early church was martyrdom, not conquest (and we might add that being killed in the process of conquest is not martyrdom in any way that someone like Paul would have recognized).

Moreover, if any given battle hinges on the obedience of the people irrespective of their might or military acumen, then the battle indeed belongs to the Lord. Here, too, we can point to the Cross as God’s definitive answer as to the viability of such a response. After the Cross, we are to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, but the bodies of others are not available for that purpose. Caesar’s answer to the problem of the enemy was to crucify the enemy. Jesus’ response to the problem of the enemy — God’s final solution — was to be crucified. When the early martyrs faced the sword as preferable to the betrayal of their faith, they participated in the Cross. When later Christians took up the sword as preferable to self-surrender, they made a mockery of the Cross.

As for “sin the camp”, it is true that moral integrity is important in the community. For Paul, however, the purpose of “church discipline” was restoration, not punishment, and certainly not ritual purity as a hedge against ill fortune for the group. And it is true that there are consequences for disobedience. Curiously, however, most of the New Testament seems much more concerned with the consequences of obedience. We have heard it said that we must rid ourselves of sin in the camp so that God might bless us, but Jesus says to us, “Take up your cross and follow me.” It’s not that we ought to uncritically tolerate moral laxity among believers, it’s just that when we drag the infidel outside the gates for a good stoning, we find Jesus already there, saying things like “it is finished” and “father forgive them” and “let whoever is without sin cast the first stone”.

And we realize that as much as Jesus stands there in our place (a favorite trope in evangelicalism), he stands there as well in the place of the sinner whom we would stone for the sake of purity and the enemy whom we would destroy in the name of conquest.

Author Bio:: Ted Troxell is a PhD student at Michigan State researching Christian radicalism. He is also very grateful for the warm welcome into the JM community.




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    Congratulations Ted. Excelent article.
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    I don’t think we need to look to the New Testament to defend an anti-war stance. This weekend I was reading Deut 9 where God is admonishing the Israelites not to think of their victory in war as something that was a result of their own righteousness –sort of the very antithesis of the “sin in the camp” reading. In Deuteronomy 9, God makes it clear that defeat in war was a form of God’s punishment upon the inhabitants of Canaan. By requiring that the Israelites not take any booty and by requiring that they destroy everything and everyone, God purifies the act of war as a form of justice and mercy. War fought in this manner does very little to benefit the victor. By practicing total destruction, the cycle of revenge is eliminated –there is no one left who will act in revenge. When Canaanite observers see that the Israelites practicing war as without receiving benefit, they will be much more likely to believe that war with the Israelites is a punishment from God and it gives them the opportunity to repent.
    The whole idea of inflicting consequences for poor behavior, is to encourage the offender to change his actions, if not his attitude. The consequences that are imposed are not to the same degree as the true consequences for such actions, thus they are an act of mercy.
    When I read the story of Achen, I realize the grace God has extended to me and my family because I have experienced the benefit of conquest without experiencing the consequences of that greed. I also realize that there is a time limit to God’s grace, that if I and/or my family do not repent of our greed, we will experience the God’s judgement.
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    For me, that's still a bit of a stretch to make, and not one I'd be willing to admit to anytime soon. Even Greg Boyd's multi-blog series on violence in the Hebrew scriptures (inspired/enacted by God), while having some good points, is a far cry from a seamless idea.

    Great article though, and thank you.
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    Which part is the stretch -the Old Testament having an anti-war stance, war used as a form of justice, or war as a means of mercy?
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    d. all of the above. Some more so than others: the justice bit is pretty clear-cut, the mercy bit less so, the anti-war bit really depends.
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    There are quite a number of Old Testament stories which highlight God’s anti-war inclination. Here are a few examples:
    God sends a plague to stop David from taking a census. The census would have given David information about how large an army he could raise in order to conduct military aggression.
    Samuel reminds the Israelite people about the consequences of having a king. A king would require a standing army and would likely perform military aggressive actions. By not having a king, it is much less likely that the Israelites would be involved in war. The book of Judges covers military campaigns over several hundred generations. The books of Samuel cover the military campaigns for about two or three generations. The Israelites were involved in more war over the two generations of Saul and David than they were during the entire book of Judges.
    God saves the Israelites from their invaders without violence on their part in the stories of Sennacherib surrounding Jerusalem, Gideon and the Midianites (Gideon does use violence after the initial battle, but there is no indication that God instructed him to do so), and my personal favorite –Elisha asking God to blind the armies of Aram.
    There are numerous instructions in Deuteronomy that limits armies. And the prophets were continually condemning their kings for the alliances they made with the local political powers. The Israelites were not to use horses and chariots. The kings were to ride on donkeys. Anyone who was afraid, or had a new wife, or house were excused from military service. These admonitions might have been written much later in the history of the Israelites however, they do reflect what God was doing in previous generations like Gideon, Isaac, and Abraham.
    Abraham and Isaac had considerable holdings while they lived in Canaan. We know that Abraham had the capability for war since he rescued his nephew Lot from Kedorlaomer, but he chose not to keep the traditional booty. He also chose to live where others chose not to live, either the Canaanites or his nephew Lot. He was a man of peace, blessed by the king of Peace. Isaac, in a similar way, refused to defend the wells he had his men dig. Moving until there was no competition for the well he dug. God renews his promise to Abraham with Isaac after Isaac has refused to use violence to defend his right to water in a dry land.
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    If I might interject here, I think there's a difference between (correctly) identifying a narrative trajectory of not being in charge (of which Jesus' renunciation of the sword is the culmination) and a fully-orbed "anti-war" position in the OT. I agree with our friend that the latter is a stretch.

    I do think we need the revelation of Jesus as a lens to correctly identify that trajectory as well as a way of narrating that trajectory as God's true intention all along. It's like watching Fight Club for the second time; once you know the twist at the heart of the story, it's hard to believe you didn't see it before. The clues are everywhere.
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    Another excellent alternative OT reading! It reminds me of some thoughts I wrote down last fall on my blog. http://preview.tinyurl.com/5fw6ka
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    BTW, I like the title. Good advice. I think I'll choose a good Belgian wheat ale as my modus operandi. :)
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    Ted,

    This was very interesting (and I got here from Kingdom Grace), especially in light of the series that Scot McKnight is doing on "wrath" and a question he received from parents of a young girl who was shocked at the entire Achan episode. The comments on that thread were, um, interesting, to say the least.

    In case you're interested: http://www.jesuscreed.org/?p=3858

    We could have used you over there a couple of weeks back, bro. ;^)

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