Christianity and the Problem of Human ViolenceChristianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 16: Joshua 7
from Guide to Kingdom Living

True Christian living requires us to live according to Kingdom standards which bring Heaven to earth.

Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 16: Joshua 7

By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

In Joshua, we read how the Israelites are conquering the Promised Land. Their repeated triumphs seemed to confirm that God has ordained their land-acquisition. Then, they suffered a humiliated defeat at Ai when Joshua, acting on poor intelligence information, sent an insufficient number of soldiers to the battle. The story relates that the defeat was a consequence of Israel’s sin. We are told that someone violated God’s command not to take the spoils of victory from a previous conquest. Who was responsible? The story relates that God-directed selections identified Achan, and indeed illicit spoils were found in his tent. After he confessed to the crime, he and his family were killed and all their property was destroyed.

One can read this story literally—God has ordained punishment for violating God’s command. Or, one can read this story as a classic example of scapegoating. How does the scapegoating explanation work? Joshua wisely forbade his soldiers from seizing spoils of war, because this could engender mimetic rivalries that would prove divisive and change their focus from land conquest to personal gain. The only way to convince his soldiers not to take the spoils of war was to attribute the command to God. With a disciplined, unified force, Joshua had been riding a wave of popularity, thanks to his impressive string of military victories. However, his forces then suffered a humiliating defeat against Ai, which Joshua had underestimated. As commander-in-chief, he would be held accountable for this debacle (and he might have become the sacrificial victim of the “sacrificial crisis” arising from defeat), unless he could shift the blame. There is a lottery of sorts (perhaps drawing straws), and the text asserts that God directed Joshua to the “guilty” party. Indeed, Achan confessed and gold was found in his tent, but it is possible that the confession was under duress and that the gold was planted by Joshua’s agents.

Achan was stoned to death, and his family was likewise stoned, so there was little chance that anyone would come forward to assert Achan’s innocence. Then, Achan’s belongings were destroyed, eliminating the mimetic rivalries that might have accompanied competition for them.

A literal reading of this story is disturbing. It suggests that God is vengeful, not only against the guilty party but his relatives as well. An alternative reading suggests that Joshua skillfully manipulated peoples’ penchant for scapegoating and sacred violence to shift blame. He attributed the accusation to God (as always occurs in scapegoating), and he utilized the mimetic accusatory gesture to convict Achan. Once Joshua started to blame Achan, others quickly joined the chorus, eager to find the “evil person” responsible for the military debacle.

I think this story illustrates that the ancient Hebrews, like other ancient peoples, engaged in sacred violence. But, the author of Joshua leaves room for speculation as to whether Joshua was indeed at fault for the military defeat. The beginning of the story relates the miscalculation that proved costly, even though later Joshua blames Achan for the disaster. Therefore, we can read this story literally as demonstrating that the Hebrews engaged in God-ordained sacred violence, like all other primal religions. Alternatively, we may consider that this story is starting to reveal that “sacred” violence is scandalous and actually derives from human scapegoating.

Go on to: Part 17: Job
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