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Stories of Jesus

Chapter 4: The Stories


Part Two: Easter Jesus in the old stories

An old story: Sacred violence and a man named Achan


There’s a story in the Scriptures held in common by Jews and Christians that you won’t hear in church; at least, it isn’t in the lectionary used by the Catholic and many Protestant Churches. It’s a story with good and bad in it. The good part is the way a people who were defeated, demoralized, and at each other’s throat come together into a cohesive unit that is then able to accomplish great things. The bad part is…well, you’ll see it’s just a horrible story. But it describes very well what humans do to each other and have done from the very beginning. It’s from the Book of Joshua (Chapters 7 and 8). I’m going to tell the story with the help of James Allison, a contemporary theologian. (Jesus, the Forgiving victim, Essay 3, Part 1) I’ll say more about him later.


The Israelites have just come off a great victory. They had crossed the River Jordan into the Promised Land and totally demolished Jericho, the first city in their way. They put the entire population, including animals, to the sword and destroyed everything that remained, as the Lord had told them to do. The Lord allowed an exception. Rahab, a prostitute, gave some Israelite spies good information on the condition of the city and then helped them escape. She and her family eventually joined the conquerors, and her name made it into the Gospel of Matthew as one of the ancestors of Jesus. There were some other important, but unapproved, exceptions, as became apparent later.

Right away we see why we don’t hear this story in church. It’s ethnic cleansing commanded by God. It amazes me that there are people who believe God actually ordered such a thing and still worship that God. On a less religious plane, you might wonder what the practical point of destroying the whole city and everything in it was. The Bible says God wanted to keep the Israelites safe from the polluting influence of false religions. If that’s the reason, then God’s plan failed. The Israelites often went ahead and worshiped other gods anyway. Allison gives a different reason why ancient conquerors might have pursued such utter destruction. It was to prevent rivalry among the conquering horde over the conquered goods, especially the women. Rivalry turns out to be an important part of this story, as Alison helps me tell it, and of the larger story of the human race.

The next town in a God-directed blitzkrieg through Palestine is Ai. It’s much smaller, and the overconfident Israelites only send up a part of their army. The people of Ai put up more resistance than expected and Israel’s army is routed. This is the defeated, demoralized, and at-each-other’s-throat part of the story.


Now God steps in and explains the cause of the problem: “The people of Israel have not obeyed my command. They have kept some of the loot of Jericho for themselves.” (Notice the plurals “people” and “they” here.) The thing to do, God continues, is to cast lots to determine who is responsible. (Notice the singular here.)


This casting of lots is a dramatic, sacred process. It takes a while because it has to go in several stages. You can’t just put a marble for every Israelite in a jar and draw them out one by one until somebody gets the red one. There are twelve tribes, so you start with twelve marbles. One is red. Imagine your relief as your tribe gets one of the blue marbles. You hear more sighs of relief as other “innocent” marbles are pulled. Until one tribe gets the guilty red one, and sighs of relief all around, except for that one tribe. Now the process starts over as we work to identify the guilty clan within that tribe. More sighs of relief. But one clan is guilty, and we need to find the family within that clan, and then the individual in that family. That single individual turns out to be Achan by name. Achan is made to confess his guilt. He might as well; the handwriting is on the wall.


Everybody knows that there is more than one guilty party. (The story doesn’t say that, but remember the plural in God’s original accusation.) We can easily imagine that practically every clan includes some who are guilty of hiding some very tempting loot—a circumstance that makes the sighs of relief all the more heartfelt as each person’s actual guilt is passed over. But to accomplish the purpose of this whole sacred ceremony, only one guilty person is needed, one victim, whose death atones for everyone’s sin. And you can tell that the sin has been atoned for because we now have a fully functional, cooperating community—no longer demoralized, no longer at each other’s throat, except for one throat—as they all rise up together and stone the one unlucky, officially guilty Israelite, along with his family for good measure.


Their unity and strength restored (that’s how they know their sin is forgiven), the Israelites resume their military campaign with amazing vigor, demolishing Ai and several more cities in rapid succession and taking undisputed possession of the land God promised them.

Text Box: Archeological evidence challenges the idea that there was any blitzkrieg through Palestine by early Israelites, as the Book of Joshua relates. Even within the Bible the Book of Judges seems to tell a much more nuanced tale of gradual emergence of Israelite society with both peaceful and warlike relations with neighbors. (See, for example, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Slberman, The Bible Unearthed, pp. 72-96.) At the end of this story my guide, Alison, asks you to imagine this passage as a reading in church, after which the lector proclaims, “The word of the Lord.” And we all respond automatically, “Thanks be to God.” And we sit there wondering, “Are we really thanking God for that!” We just don’t feel right about this story.

Now let’s go back to the disciples on the way to Emmaus and say that this story is one that Jesus interpreted for them.  Which character does Jesus say represents himself? Could it be Joshua, the warrior leader of the Israelites in their victorious run through Palestine? Joshua and Jesus have the same name in Hebrew, but Jesus’ career doesn’t seem much like Joshua’s. Jesus is often referred to as Lord, so maybe the Jesus figure is the Lord God, the one who accuses the people and organizes the lottery. Jesus seems pretty much like the opposite of that. The only figure in the story who is at all like Jesus is Achan, the officially guilty one, the victim, the one whose death brings peace and unity and energy back into the community.

But if Jesus identified himself with Achan, that completely changes the story. In the older scripture the story is told—as all history tends to be told—from the point of view of the victors, the gang that killed Achan and went on to demolish Ai and nine other cities (although  there is that barely noticeable hint at the beginning of something the victors needed to forget. Remember the plurals—there was more than one guilty one.)  Jesus, retelling this story to Cleopas and partner, sees the point of view of the victim in the story; in fact, he is a victim along with Achan. His being a victim is a choice, a lifelong, purposeful identification with the victims of society—quite the opposite of the Israelites of the story, who hid from themselves their real identification with Achan. The story changes from an account of what we always do—find someone or some group who is “other” and dissociate ourselves from that—to a story about a new, crazy, exciting, uncomfortable idea: We all belong together, and Jesus takes a place with the ones most likely to be left out.

If this story helps us figure out the meaning of Jesus’ death, then it must also tell us something about God. And that’s the main point of this essay. So…

Thinking about the main point: What difference does it make if we change the God who merely exhibits boundless good will toward all for a God who actually identifies with everyone, especially the ones we tend to victimize?

On to The Scapegoat