Anyone who grieves the loss of life through war in Syria today might also lament the slaughter that took place more than 3,000 years ago at Jericho when Israelites crossed the Jordan River into Canaan. Israelites “devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep and donkeys” (Josh. 6:21).
What remains of the biblical city today is a tel — a large sandy mound surrounded by modern Jericho. The tel is one of dozens of such sites in Israel/Palestine where cites were built, destroyed and rebuilt — in some cases 20 or 30 times. Such mounds attracted residents because water usually was available, and ready building materials were in the rubble.
Today a deep excavation ditch slashes across Tel Jericho (see photo), exposing a stone fortress tower 30 feet wide and almost as tall, with an internal staircase. Dating to 8000 B.C., it is one of the oldest human-built structures on Earth, symbolizing strength and culture.
The Book of Joshua seems to validate Israelite conquest of Jericho and all of Canaan. God “hardened the hearts” of indigenous people in the region so they would resist conquest and “receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses” (Josh. 11:20). I feel a surge of indignation when I read these words — and then remember I live in Indiana, named for peoples my European forebears slaughtered and displaced.
Uneasy as I am about these accounts of ethnic cleansing, I cannot excise Joshua from the Bible any more than I can delete the story of Indian removal from American history books. Regardless of how I interpret the Joshua story, it is an integral part of salvation history.
So when I visit Tel Jericho, I go to a vantage point from which to see reminders of two Joshuas who visited the city. The first Joshua was Moses’ deputy, who took command of the conquest and slaughter. In a vision he personally encountered the divine military commander of the army of the Lord (Josh. 5:13-15). The mighty fortress tower now visible at Tel Jericho — a structure already millennia old when Israelites arrived — reminds me that here “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho.”
Then I lift up my eyes to hills overlooking Jericho, to what long tradition calls the Mount of Temptation. There a second Joshua (spelled “Jesus” in the New Testament) resisted the temptation to use political and military power (Luke 4:5-8). The first Joshua came to Jericho with a sword. The second came to heal and forgive.
The first Joshua consulted with a divine military commander before undertaking conquest. The second refused the armies of heaven by telling Peter, “Put your sword back in its place. . . . Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than 12 legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:52-53).
At Jericho two Joshuas wrestle in my imagination. In a world where Syrian armies and many others follow the military and spiritual triumphalism of the first Joshua, am I willing to follow the second into what may be costly love, peacemaking and forgiveness?
J. Nelson Kraybill is a pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Ind., and president of Mennonite World Conference. See more of his peace reflections at peace-pilgrim.com.