T’aint Civil War (Joshua 22)

The last few years at St Augustine’s College have begun with an induction day themed on Learning with Difference. We use a variety of approaches to difference in order to shape our identity as a diverse learning community. It falls to me to provide ‘the biblical bit’ and I offer a set of reflections on the story in Joshua chapter 22. It came to my mind quite forcefully last week.

I usually start with a straw poll and at least a third or so of the people present have no prior awareness of this story. The main initial reaction of those that do have an awareness/knowledge of it is usually bemusement at the idea that anything useful could be drawn from it. Those facts could cue a quite distinct reflection on the place of Scripture in Christian discipleship and methods of interpreting it – but that’s for another day.

I commend a careful reading of the story in full. Here’s the background to it and a précis of the salient points:

The 12 tribes of Israel have wandered 40 years in the wilderness and then entered the ‘promised land’ (west of the river Jordan). Along the way, two and a half of the tribes (hereafter ‘2aah tribes’) have taken a fancy to some of the land they passed through (east of the river Jordan) and decided they want to settle there instead of in the promised land. They were nevertheless expected to assist in the conquest of the promised land. They have done so and are now about to go back across the Jordan to the land where they wish to settle. Joshua blesses them on their way.

As they make their way back, they build an altar on the west side of the Jordan , i.e. not on their own patch. The other 9aah tribes hear about this and are affronted and enraged, regarding it as an act of rebellion and apostacy against the ‘correct’ worship of the LORD. So they set out to make war against the 2aah tribes.

Fortunately, they have the wit to send a diplomatic delegation before fighting, to question and challenge the actions of the 2aah tribes. The 2aah tribes are taken aback and explain that their motives have been misconstrued. They (the 2aah tribes), being an unconventional minority, were afraid that future generations of the 9aah tribes would look down on them and not treat them as properly belonging to the LORD’s people. The Jordan, they feared, would become a symbolic separator as well as a physical one. So they built the altar not to be used for illicit worship practices but as a memorial that they do rightly belong to the LORD’s people. Building it on the side of the 9aah tribes symbolised this.

The 2aah tribes provide reassurances that they are not being rebellious or unorthodox; the 9aah tribes are satisfied and return home, swords still sheathed.

I think it works well as a story, and I’m looking forward to the movie. I cannot ever read it without thinking of my aunt, who moved to Doncaster in the old ‘West Riding’ of Yorkshire. When she moved there, friends of hers from the East Riding would warn her of her neighbours: ‘You can’t trust them, they’re all Wessies.’

From a scholarly point of view, the story raises a host of issues around its genre, historicity, textual history, morality and authorial (or redactional) perspective. Those are all issues that are worthy of examination. But much more immediately, any Bible reader can take the story as a realistic representation of what being God’s diverse people might be like. I offer the following simple observations on the story and leave my audience to join up any relevant dots …

  1. God’s people are diverse. They have different priorities, different ambitions, and different ways of doing things. But they remain as genuinely God’s people and part of God’s purposes.
  2. God’s people are capable of being aggressive towards each other. Civil war is a real possibility. Perhaps context influences this: when they have achieved what they have through warfare, then warfare becomes their instinctive response to difference.
  3. Conflict (and all its concomitant harm) arises through misunderstanding (or wrong assumptions) – particularly in this instance misunderstanding/assumption of the other’s motives/beliefs.
  4. Those in the majority tend to see their view as ‘orthodox’, normative and self-justifying. They are inherently suspicious of (or even antagonistic towards) anything that does not fit their expectations.
  5. Those in the minority are aware of this and may well act out of consequent apprehension in a way that appears to accentuate the difference and engenders a bad reaction.
  6. Misunderstanding is resolved through dialogue. Much harm and damage was avoided by finding out exactly what was the other’s perspective, including the motives that lay behind it.
  7. An action which is initially taken to be an agonistic/unorthodox one might turn out to be a supportive/orthodox one, once its motives have been heard, understood and respected.

Finally – and possibly stretching a legitimate reading of the story a little far – we could ponder a group of people who found it harder to trust each other than to collaborate together on what God had called them to.

Several people have found these observations helpful, as a means of opening up a strange biblical story, and as a means of reflecting on their own situation. So here they are for you.

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