achan’s stones :: [part two]

by Eric Daryl Meyer

The last post on this theme circuitously raised a thorny question about Scripture and God’s speech. Achan and his kin are put to death, seemingly at God’s command, and the execution seems to placate God’s anger. The blood of the offending man and his family satisfies God’s demand for retribution after his command was broken. This post and the next set out most of the escape routes that I can think of—and offer reasons why they create more problems than they avoid.

Anyone who wants to take the text seriously is faced with the problem: God speaks to Joshua to command the execution of Achan and his family. The last post questioned whether Achan was the sole culprit in all Israel (and thus the justice of his execution); but even if he was, the execution of his family seems barbaric. Does God command murder?

Modus operandi for most of us is to simply ignore these jarring and violent texts and focus on more straightforwardly edifying passages. On the whole, I am not sure that this is a bad thing; it is less than wise to quote Joshua 7 in an attempt to build up the church’s faith. But the existence of these texts subverts my desire to speak of the whole bible as the word of God—it makes me uncomfortable. Whether we ignore these texts or not, the picture of God that they present lurks in the dark cellar of faith—and we worry that he may come up into the light. For many, the problem remains whether or not it is faced explicitly.

There are a number of trapdoors that allow us sneak right out of the problem but most leave a bigger mess on our hands. For example, we might read the text as an object lesson on self-control, honesty, and discipline. Here, Achan symbolizes the part of ourselves that is selfishly sneaky and disobedient—we learn that the solution to vice is to bring mischief to light and put it to death. God’s command in this text is not a seemingly perverse form of justice, but rather a veiled command to self-discipline—let the wise reader understand. While there is certainly some truth in the lesson being drawn here, we must ask whether the death of a man and his family are really necessary for our enlightenment. Spiritualizing the text elides over the ethical problem because it elides over the historical event, and in this case the historical bloodshed. Can a murder be justified for the spiritual benefit it brings to others?

Another way out lies in history itself. So far as I understand the archeological evidence for the conquest (and I make no great claims), it is ambiguous at best. The book of Joshua describes invasion and destruction on a scale that should be fairly plain when shovels hit the sand. But the best evidence suggests that the text is exaggerating the speed, scope, and extent of the destruction. And not to pit history against scripture, the text of Joshua itself is ambiguous about the success of the conquest (compare Joshua 11:23 with 13:1). If the event described here never happened, perhaps our spiritualized reading is valid after all. At the least, we can clear both Joshua and God of the blood of Achan’s children…right?

Even if no historical figure named Achan ever marched into Jericho filching silver shekels and gold bars, the theological problem remains. Our predecessors have given us this text (amidst a much larger canon), and said, “If you read with an open heart you will find truth about God here.” If Achan never lived, we still hold a story that speaks of a God who demands blood when he is crossed. The theological ramifications of this picture are difficult to swallow. That “solution” also raises all sorts of hermeneutical questions about the genre of the book of Joshua and exactly what its author hoped to communicate to its original readers. If the author was not straightforwardly writing history, he certainly appears to us to be doing so. This second problem likely cannot be ignored no matter what our final understanding of this text is, but its resolution lies beyond the bounds of anything that I’m trying to do here.

If these two escape routes are indeed dead-ends for those who want to honor the place of this text in God’s word, then we must look elsewhere. The problem, as we have formulated it, is primarily a theological problem, perhaps we may find some hope of resolution by considering it on theological grounds.

More in days to come…