As we move into the history books (or former prophets) I’m going to take both Joshua and Judges together. First, there are only a couple of readings from Joshua in the Sunday lectionary (and none from Judges), and secondly they make something of a contrast with each other.
Judges – despite its omission from the lectionary – contains some cracking stories about some famous names like Gideon and Samson. These used to be a Sunday School staple despite the sex and violence. However, they tend to be too long for them easily to be used on a Sunday, and perhaps we are more shocked by some of these stories than our ancestors were.
The main reading used on a Sunday (and also in some of the provision for initiation services) comes from the climax to the book of Joshua.1 It is a covenant renewal ceremony that challenges the listeners to make the story of the exodus their own, and worship only the liberating God who has led them into the promised land.
Joshua tells a story about the completion of that exodus. The book narrates a story of conquest, in which the Lord drives out all the inhabitants of the land before them, and gives it to them. The country is distributed among the different tribes of Israel. They are then reminded, in a characteristic echo of Deuteronomy, that to keep hold of this blessing, they need live as God’s people, worshipping him exclusively.
Judges offers a contrasting picture. Instead of a neat story of nations conquered, cities and strongholds destroyed, and tribes driven out, we get given a different picture. Israelite settlements appear to share much the same territory as existing settlements. Instead of a single conquest, there is a pattern of varying skirmishes with different tribes and groups living in the land.
Various strong leaders rise up from time to time, and provide a degree of relief and peace. These judges, as they are called, are portrayed as helping the people return to the worship of YHWH, but the periods between judges are described as times of lawlessness (practically and spiritually) and disobedience. In keeping with the understanding of Deuteronomy, this means Israelites behaving pretty much like all the other tribes around them.
If a time-travelling team of anthropologists had visited them, they would not have seen a holy – a different – people. Instead, almost certainly, they would have seen one people among many similar peoples, whose laws, rituals and customs all shared a family resemblance that might as well be called Canaanite as anything else.
This inconsistency doesn’t overly seem to have troubled the compilers of the Bible. Both the story of conquest, and the stories of a very partially, if at all, conquered land stand side by side. They share an overarching theological emphasis on the call to obedience and worship of the one God, but one presents an idealised – in your dreams, Israel – version of the story, and the other describes the messy reality of endless daily compromises and the ongoing struggle among co-existing tribes and peoples to scratch a living from the land and survive.
Traditional church and Sunday school use of Judges has made it a more masculine story than it actually is. Unfortunately, the most famous woman in the book is the stereotypical Delilah, causing Samson’s downfall through her seductive wiles. This is despite the book also featuring a strong woman leader, Deborah, who is portrayed as a judge, and a better leader than her own general. There is another strong woman, Jael, in the same story, who is portrayed as a deliverer of Israel. She uses her seductive wiles to assassinate an enemy general and demoralise his army. It is a shame that these strong early Israelite women leaders don’t get more time allotted them in the lectionary.2
- Year B, Proper 16, or the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time. The other reading from Joshua 5 occurs on Lent 4 in Year C and narrates the last Passover of the time of wandering. From that time the emergency rations of manna cease, because they can now eat the produce of the land. In many Anglican churches, this will be left out, as alternative readings for Mothering Sunday will be used instead of the Lent 4 readings.
- The stories of Deborah and Jael can be found in Judges 4-5