The LORD said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction. (Joshua 7:10-12)
I’ve been avoiding this.
But it’s not working.
I’m winding my way through the Bible cover to cover. I ditched the 90-day speed reading thing a long time ago in favor of a more purposeful (and drawn out) study when my friend Chris sent me the Chronological Bible. And I love it.
But when I got to Joshua 7 some weeks ago, I got stuck. I was doing great when all of a sudden plodding turned to slogging.
And firm ground turned to muck.
My feet sunk in up to my knees and try as I might, I couldn’t move forward.
Now, as luck would have it, I got myself stuck in a place with all kinds of distractions. So I’ve been twisting and turning and looking at all kinds of other interesting things. Calvin and basketball, goofy nieces and computers, Medicare and time changes. But when the distractions fade, as distractions do, I realize I’m still in clay up to my knees. Clay that hardens a bit more each day.
And so I remain stuck.
Before the clay grows more firm, let’s look at Joshua 7. I’ll try to set the scene. Israel has crossed the Jordan and begun the long awaited possession of the land. In their first conquest, they took Jericho and burned it to the ground, following God’s outrageous plan of marching around the city for days and then screaming and yelling and blowing trumpets. Crazy plan, but it worked perfectly. The walls tumbled and they took it.
Still breathing in the fragrant victory, they prepared to take Ai. The spies reported that taking Ai would be a piece of cake. No need to send the whole army, for Ai had only a few guys to worry about. Two, may be three thousand men would be more than sufficient.
Three thousand men stormed off to confront Ai, only to turn tail and run while the enemy struck them down. Ai chased Israel back to the quarries, killing a number of the Hebrew fighters along the way.
Poised for victory against a much smaller army, suffering instead a crushing defeat.
The people melted. Fear and discouragement overtook them.
The land was theirs for the taking.
What on earth went wrong?
Joshua did what any God-fearing mighty man of valor would do when faced with such a staggering defeat.
He tore his clothes and fell on his face.
He stayed there on his face until nightfall.
Finally, he cried out. Why did you do it, God? Why did you bring us here to be destroyed? Why didn’t we stay on the other side of the river? Everyone will hear of our defeat. There will be nothing left of us.
Then what will people say about Your great name?
Here is where I get stuck. Listen to God:
Stand up! What are you doing down on your face?
I don’t like God talking like this. I don’t like it at all. Joshua dropped to his face.
Humble, contrite, desperate.
He didn’t go to the war room with his generals and draw up new and better battle plans. He fell flat and poured out his heart to God.
What God wouldn’t love this?
What God snaps Stand up! at a guy who is so contrite?
I know from Sunday School why Israel lost this no-brainer battle against Ai. It all started with a knucklehead by the name of Achan. Even though God was crystal clear about what they could and could not take as spoil when Jericho went down, Achan was greedy. He took some of the “devoted things” and kept them for himself – things that were to have gone straight to the treasury of the Lord.
God had warned that if anyone did such a terrible thing that they would put the whole nation at risk of destruction. Achan let his greed prevail and kept what was not his.
And so the destruction came.
Achan and his family were ultimately destroyed in a gruesome act of justice. And so we learned in Sunday School that sin has terrible consequences.
But I think there’s more.
I know that God was terribly upset about what Achan did. Even so, I don’t like God talking this way to Joshua. That’s when the mucky ground caught hold of my feet and sucked me in. I couldn’t square this story up, but it seemed I couldn’t move on to the rest of Joshua either.
So here’s what I’ve come up with. I have a couple of theories.
First, I wonder if Joshua was really so contrite. Yes, he tore his clothes. And yes, he spent the better part of a day face down in the dirt. But listen to what he had to say. He took an approach with God that we heard Moses use before. He put God’s actions up against His own character. “What then will you do for your own great name?” God, how will You defend Your own honor in the face of this defeat?
But while this worked for Moses, Joshua went further. He put the whole thing back on God – why did He bring them across the Jordan just to be destroyed? They’d have been better off not coming to take the land He promised.
Was this true humility? Was this really contrition?
Sure, Joshua was eating sand while he lay on the ground crying out. But blaming God for bringing them there, that smacked of a whole lot of pre-crossing Israel. “Why did you bring us to the desert to die? We should have stayed in Egypt.” Joshua was crying out in the way that had always provoked God to steaming anger. The fact that he did it while prostrate at God’s feet didn’t change the tone of his accusations.
So, sure. God might just want to snap at him. I can live with that.
But the other theory I have is the one that is harder for me to swallow. It’s the one that contributed most to my stuckness. It’s the theory that says that as much as God wants us sprawled out in abject dependence at His feet, some days He’s just going to tell us to suck it up.
Deal with it.
That’s what I didn’t like hearing God say. Joshua! Get up! What are you doing on the ground?
Someone among you has done an abominable thing. I told you bad things would happen, and they did. Why are you surprised? Why are you lying there bawling?
Get up and deal with the thing.
Does God still talk to us like this sometimes? Do I hear God speaking to me this way?
Do I put on the appearance of humility and contrition and desperation and cry out to God about something He’s already told me how to fix?
Do I only want that part of God that feels really good?
Do I play dumb at God’s feet and think that He will not snap at me?
I don’t like when God talks like this.
On the tenth day of the first month the people went up from the Jordan and camped at Gilgal on the eastern border of Jericho. And Joshua set up at Gilgal the twelve stones they had taken out of the Jordan. He said to the Israelites, “In the future when your descendants ask their fathers, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the LORD your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The LORD your God did to the Jordan just what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God.” (Joshua 4:19-24)
Joshua had no sooner taken over the leadership of the people of Israel when he faced the impossible. If they were going to take the land, he had to somehow get these people across the Jordan River. Tens of thousands of people. People with a long history of being whiny and disagreeable, especially when staring down the throat of impossible.
This was no entry level position. And while Moses had been grooming Joshua for just this moment for much of his life, he couldn’t have been prepared for what awaited him.
God’s commissioning words, “Be strong and very courageous,” still rang in his ears as he looked out over the Jordan. He looked at the water, rushing high and fast. It was harvest, and the water was still running at flood stage. He looked back at the people amassed at the river banks. Tens of thousands. Seemed they were running at flood stage too.
Be strong and very courageous indeed.
He had his orders. He went with it. He sent the priests in first, carrying the ark. And as soon as water felt the soles of their feet, the rushing flood held back. The water stopped upstream in a heap, waiting for an entire nation to go across on foot. The scene was familiar. They’d seen something like it before, but when they were much younger. Only then it wasn’t a flooding river, but the whole of the Red Sea opened up a path and let them through.
The people hurried across. They recalled how the walls of water had come crashing back down and drowned the Egyptians. Somehow, stopping to marvel at those walls seemed like so much dilly dallying. They scampered across and out of harm’s way before they dared look back in wonder.
And when the whole nation reached the other side, Joshua sent twelve men, one from each tribe, back into the river. Each picked up an enormous stone, heaved it onto his shoulder, and hauled it back to camp on the other side.
The people safely across, and the stones drawn out from the river bottom, the priests stepped out of the river at Joshua’s command. The river resumed its rushing and was immediately at flood stage again, as though no miracle had split it in two just moments before.
There was no sign of any tampering with the river. No evidence it had been stopped up.
Nothing but a gigantic crowd of people who had moments ago stood on the opposite side.
But they wouldn’t be there forever. They had a world to explore. A land to possess.
They would not stand here to marvel and tell the tale for long.
But stones, they would stay around. They would outlast time.
They would tell a story.
The twelve who pulled the rocks from the river brought them to camp. Knowing that people move on and forget even amazing stories, Joshua formed a memorial from the stones. And he told the people that the stones would remind them of the amazing thing God did.
One day in the future, their children and their children and their children would want to know. They wouldn’t know to ask, “Grandpa, how did you all get across the river back in the day?” But they would see the rocks. And then they would ask, “What do these stones mean? What’s this pile of rocks for?”
And then, the people who had seen God’s mind-bending faithfulness firsthand would tell them.
Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.
Israel did an impossible thing because God made it possible.
That’s what they would tell their children. They would tell them because the rock pile would make them ask.
When the moment has passed, we soon forget God’s goodness. That’s how we are.
Leaving a pile of rocks helps us remember the things that God has done.
What’s your pile of rocks?