Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Innocence of Achan

I’ll wrap up at few things regarding my Achan post. I believe Achan was innocent of the charge against him. The charge being, not so much that he violated the ban, but that he caused the defeat at Ai. I think this text gives us two choices.
  1. Achan, by violating the ban, was guilty of causing the defeat at Ai.

  2. Achan, whether he violated the ban or not, was in no way guilty of causing the defeat at Ai.

The facts as I see them.

1. Joshua made a strategic error. 2000 troops were sent to attack the first time and they were defeated. The second time 30,000 were sent to attack Ai. I believe the author is telling us something very important. You don’t find this kind of candor in pagan myths.

2. The people lost heart. The people began to lose faith in their Holy War. This relatively minor defeat has proven the fragility of the cultural order. As a result of this battle 36 soldiers died, that is out of an army of at least 30,000. Not much of a defeat, at least using ancient standards. Thus the defeat was not so much a military defeat, but a defeat of military morale. “Israel has turned their backs on their enemies…”

3. The initial evidence that the ban had been violated wasn’t the discovery of booty. The “evidence” was that the initial attack on Ai had been a failure.

4. To rebuild military morale, Joshua proposes an Atonement ritual. So Joshua, being the High Priest in this ritual brings each clan before him collecting the sins of the community. Finally the finger points to Achan, and instead of taking responsibility for his own sins, Joshua places not only his sins but the sins of the entire community onto the head of Achan. Achan is then lead off to the proverbial cliff in the wilderness.

5. The casting of lots was a stroke of genius on Joshua’s part. When performing a ritual like this you only want to identify one person. Imagine the intensity of this ritual. Imagine the guilt generated in the community by this ritual. Each member terrified that they may be the one chosen, and then the relief when the finger passes and their sins have been taken away. The mob begins to form as each clan is passed by, the intensity building. Those exonerated quickly begin to close ranks in an ever tighter circle around the “evil one”, because they want to make sure the finger stays pointed at this "evil one". Then Achan is selected after all this life and terrible death intensity. Then in a surprising question and answer session Joshua tells him to “give glory to the Lord God of Israel and make confession to him”, but then Joshua asks Achan to tell him what he has done and not to hide it from him, that being Joshua. Achan, according to the text, rather calmly confesses and gives a full explanation of what he did. Joshua’s messenger are sent to Achan’s tent and bring back the booty and in a great display spread it out before the Lord. (Why would they need to spread it out before the Lord, he would already know. Can’t refrain from asking this. When the text says “Lord”, does it mean Joshua, or the community as a whole?). The mob has formed, the finger must stay pointed Achan, gotta get rid of him quickly. In their hurry they forget that Achan’s sentence was that he was supposed to be burned with fire. They stone him. They stone him good. His entire family, don't want anyway around to feel sorry for this evildoer, just in case the family members begin pointing the finger somewhere else. Everything he owned is destroyed. This Achan dude must not have been very popular or worldly smart. In this world if you’re in his position you learn to point fingers very fast. (Or the passage from Isaiah 53 comes to mind, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth”) Then after the stoning they remember the whole fire thing. Oh yeah, and the pass through fire thing is an old testament euphemism for human sacrifice.

6. A cairn is created where Achan is slain. Then after Ai is decimated, a second cairn is created over the dead body of the King of Ai. These cairns defying all other primitive religions where cairns become religious monuments, do not seem to become sacred. After the defeat of Ai, enjoying an incredible amount of cultural harmony they build a third mound of stones and offer animal sacrifices. Wow. So the system of animal sacrifice, the declining effects of which brought on this whole crisis to begin with has been restored.

So I think I’m concluding that Achan’s death was an act of ritual murder. Like Jesus, Achan was the scapegoat bruised for the community’s iniquity. Joshua was like Caiaphas in the belief that it was better for one man to die than the entire community to be torn apart.


For the literalists out there, where in the text does it say his sons and daughters are guilty. Where is his wife? Anyway what I see happening is that Achan is standing there and his sons and daughters see what is going on. They run to him, crying, weeping, begging the mob for mercy and pity, but all the crowd sees is their own fear of the finger being pointed back at them. So these children, who are standing around Achan, between him and the crowd, must be shut up, their voices must not be heard. All that crying and weeping must be stopped before it becomes contagious and spreads and the Israelites lose heart again and the whole thing becomes an accustorial free-for-all, so one must hurry and throw the first stone, to quiet them. So in a spontaneous mob lynching, a fireball of human anger and fear consumes not only Achan, but all his sons and daughters.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Jesus: The Living Interpretive Principle

The big words in conservative evangelical circles regarding Biblical interpretation are inerrancy and literalism. Even during my most conservative period I could never quite figure why it was so important for the Bible to be inerrant, or what was meant by interpreting the Bible literally. It never made much sense to me and it contradicted reality.

Well anyway, a couple days ago I was reading this post over at Mainstream Baptist, particularly some of the comments. It got me thinking about how we should interpret the Bible, or for that matter any kind of text or situation.

I submit an article by Rene Girard, Are the Gospels Mythical.

Jesus is the “Living Hermeneutic Key” or the “Living Interpretive Principle”. A Bible passage cannot be taken in isolation or separate from the light of Jesus Christ. If you do not interpret the Bible from the standpoint of Jesus, or use Jesus as your interpretive principle, you will come up with some horribly wrong conclusions.

Example: The Story of Achan, Joshua 7:1-26

These two entries are examples of the mythological interpretation of the story.
Example #1
Example #2

It is a testament to how far the Gospel of Jesus Christ has penetrated our culture, that people who don’t call themselves Christians can see the injustice that was done to Achan. (But the corollary of course is the retrogression or neo-paganism of certain segments of evangelical conservatism that must hold on to the idea of Achan’s guilt.)

In summary the story goes like this. The Israelites under the leadership of Joshua are coming off a great victory over Jericho. Immediately following their conquest of Jericho they attacked a nearby Caananite town called Ai, but in this first attack Israel was defeated. They had this whole manifest destiny thing going and this defeat came as quite a blow. Remember the numbers listed below.

3 When they returned to Joshua, they said, "Not all the people will have to go up against Ai. Send two or three thousand men to take it and do not weary all the people, for only a few men are there." 4 So about three thousand men went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai, 5 who killed about thirty-six of them. They chased the Israelites from the city gate as far as the stone quarries [c] and struck them down on the slopes. At this the hearts of the people melted and became like water.

The story tells us that the reason the Israelites were defeated was because a man named Achan had violated the Ban. Israel believed that their God was invincible and that defeat could only be explained by the assumption that this God had found some kind of fault with His people.

You have to believe that after this defeat Joshua was feeling some pressure. After defeats the competency of the leader is always questioned. There was conflict and turmoil among the Israelites, they were looking for someone to blame.

Joshua decides that what the Israelites need is some kind of sacrificial rite or ritual that would restore order. A scapegoat ritual. A ritual that would transfer all of the community's anxieties and guilt onto a single victim.

Supposedly the lottery is done at God’s command. So through this lottery that Joshua devises Achan is identified as the sole violator of the Ban. Hard to believe that in a large army Achan was the only person to violate the Ban. After Achan is identified he and the rest of his family are taken out and stoned by the angry lynch mob. Very important that his whole family is killed. Don’t want any children talking about the plunder they saw in someone else’s tent. It would destroy the unanimity and the resulting peace. Achan must be seen as totally guilty. He is the scapegoat that carries away the sin of the community. Must also destroy all his property, don’t want anybody fighting over it after Achan has been buried in a pile of stones. After the stoning of Achan the community/Lord turned from their/his anger. Achan was murdered because of the failure of Joshua’s military strategy and the resulting bloodthirst of an angry community. Notice the numbers at the beginning of the next chapter.

So Joshua and the whole army moved out to attack Ai. He chose thirty thousand of his best fighting men and sent them out at night

Who in this story is in the position of Christ? Who represents the precursor to Christ? Who is killed in an act of collective violence attributed to the will of God? The killing of Jesus was murder, and the killing of Achan was murder. Joshua represents Caiaphas, who also understood the idea that it is better for one person to die than that the whole nation should perish.
Biblical passages cannot be taken in isolation. They must taken in the light of Jesus Christ. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is absolute truth. Jesus is the “Living Interpretive Principle”.
I didn’t really go into Mr. Girard’s paper, but I think the above story illustrates the difference between Gospel and myth. Might look at it closer at some later date. Two young children can make running a blog kind of an adventure.