Joshua, Judges, and the Early Church

Struggles

Israel’s crossing of the Jordan changed much more than their geographic location. An entire sea change of lifecycle rhythms and an entire new mission lay in front of them. The manna which had fed them from the time of Moses ceased, and their new source of sustenance was the land promised to their fathers many years ago. The survival of the fledgling traveler nation relied on their belief that God would provide as he had in the wilderness in this new set of circumstances, and that Joshua’s leadership as a hand-picked successor to Moses would be stalwart. Total war with the corrupt inhabitants of the land would be necessary.

The land had long ago been promised to Abraham, but this was no guarantee of an easy stroll into the inheritance. The earth had also long ago also been promised to Adam as a place to be fruitful and multiply. The subsequent fall, corruption of the sons of God, the flood, and the scattering at Babel had changed the circumstances. Now, it was necessary to unseat the inhabitants of these lands who had nested themselves into the void left by Israel’s departure. Those in the land now worshipped fallen angels who had become false gods. The evils practiced by the people who dwelt in Canaan now had reached an apex, as it had been written, “in the fourth generation” after going down to Egypt “the iniquity of the Amorites” had become complete.

Joshua’s role prior to Moses being taken from this world was to be his right hand, and he accompanied him part of the way on Sinai when Moses received revelation from God. He was close enough and possessed a unique spirit such that he was able to receive some of Moses’ vision. He would need every shred of it to direct Israel to a successful set of operations in the promised land. It would be very different from his experiences in Egypt or in wandering around with Moses, and Joshua’s diligence to heed the words of warning and advice in the first chapter of the book that bears his name would be paramount for Israel.

As a man who had been immersed in the law as an aide to Moses, Joshua was uniquely qualified to lead Israel’s advance and conquest of the inheritance. In addition to warfighting strategy and training, legal questions, and day-to-day judgments, Joshua would need to place the narrative of the country in the context of the various narratives that came before them such that the culture of Israel would have a firm undergirding to resist assimilation into the surrounding peoples.

Many years before, Joshua and Caleb were the only two who stood against the multitude of people at Kadesh-Barnea in belief that God had brought them to take the land, not to fall back and accept Egyptian dominion. It is the most crucial event following the Exodus because it sealed the fate of most of Israel to die before entering the good land promised to them. However, Joshua and Caleb would lay a foundation that would serve Israel well through the time of David and Solomon in the dual centers of authority in Ephraim and Judah. There would be many early victories, but after the death of Joshua and the elders who followed Joshua, roughly 300-350 years of struggles lay before Israel until centralized rulership and an elevation of the nation’s status would occur.

***

The early disciples were given around 40 days with Jesus where he gave them very plain-sense exposition of the meaning of his crucifixion and resurrection and the next steps for his disciples. However, one can only fit so much explanation and question-and-answer into such a short window of time for such a monumental event.

It can be said that early Christians were essentially an underground movement from Pentecost to around 312 AD. They endured some periods of peace between waves of persecution and were largely misunderstood, particularly in the early periods. Pagan Romans were told they were cannibals or that they believed all sorts of strange things, as well as having Nero blame them for a set of fires in Rome as justification for persecuting them. Many of these struggles were probably in part due to genuine struggles with living their beliefs in a pluralized world. Intense pressure was placed on early believers to survive to the next day, and resources were denied to those who publicly declared their faith. Vetted and approved teaching regarding Jesus and the church was not widely available. The populace was largely  illiterate (at most, roughly ten percent of the population could read), and if literate, whether that information was available in their language added difficulties. This means that we should reasonably expect that early Christians had a widely varying set of beliefs alongside what we consider normative Christian belief, since so much depended on oral transmission and the transmitter giving them information.

This also implies the relative importance of Jesus’ apostles as figureheads of authority in the early church to decide questions of faith, doctrine, and to create a genuinely “Christian” culture that could endure not only Jewish but Roman persecution. The notion of Jesus’ messiahship and divinity was blasphemous to Jews, while the notion of his kingship was offensive to Romans’ view of Caesar as Lord given his reigning status over the empire. The importance of the authority of the eleven who had walked and talked with Jesus – as well as Paul, who had tremendous authority as a highly trained and regarded scholar of the law – cannot be overstated to early Christianity.

Likewise, the apostles of Jesus were given a command to make disciples of all nations, and the continuity of the Christian sect with its Hebraic and Abrahamic roots would need acreage of writings and debate to be more fully understood in future centuries. The apostles were uniquely qualified to lay the foundations for this such that their successors could be expected to continue to grow the branches out of the trunk birthed forth by Christ’s act.

For the early movement, crossing the river that divided Jew and Gentile was a decisive point that would have implications for the rest of Christian history. It increased the potential “market” for the faith from primarily targeting scattered Hebrew communities in the Roman Empire to the entire world, and for the Judeo-Christian tradition represented a complete fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise to bless all nations, in time, starting from the base of Europe and Asia Minor. It also introduced a tremendous number of obstacles since non-Jews were not steeped in the concepts that made Jesus’ acts and teachings so significant. New foundations would have to be laid for those reared among the idols and rhetoric of the Greeks and Romans. Paul, as a Roman citizen, was uniquely qualified to bridge this gap and bind the components of the cultures of the two civilizations together into something that made sense for all Christianity such that it not needlessly fracture.

This is the foundation of western civilization – the union of the Roman, Greek, and Judeo-Christian cultures by the substance of Christ’s own body. It is not surprising that the fault lines of this union were east/west initially in the East-West Schism of 1054 – Roman versus Greek – but eventually also what was essentially Christian versus uniquely Greek or uniquely Roman. The Reformation was an incredibly flawed attempt to get back to what was uniquely Judeo-Christian rather than Roman.

Laying such a foundation was difficult work, not least because most of the early apostles were martyred or brutally tortured. Many unnamed martyrs suffer without a mention in historical texts and are long-forgotten to this world. The work of the precious few who could perform scribal tasks or who used their homes as the base of worship for the new faith was critical for the survival of Christendom – which are things that were not necessary when the twelve and other followers of Jesus were simply wandering around with him around the area of the Galilee. In this sense it was much more difficult of a life – the apostles and followers who witnessed Jesus before his death and resurrection were under far less pressure or persecution than afterward. While the Pharisees did apply some pressure to early believers such that his disciples were kicked out of synagogues, they hadn’t yet been harassed, chased, stoned, or imprisoned by such people as Saul of Tarsus as they would be after Jesus’ ascension.

The new movement’s job was to conquer the world in the way that Jesus conquered death – humility, self-sacrifice, communal living and charity, morality, and preaching and teaching the history and roots of their faith. Jesus had promised them that the entire world would hear the testimony of the gospel and commanded them to fulfill that promise. In this geographical sense, “the Way” that was the new Christian movement differed from their Hebraic roots. Not only was their calling a global one, but the inheritance before them was global and uniquely theirs in which to bear fruit. Instead of “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you…from the wilderness to Euphrates,” there was “…this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come,” as well as “…the ruler of this world is judged.”

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