JOSHUA Hanged on a Tree (Part 2)

16 These five kings fled and hid themselves in the cave at Makkedah. 17 And it was told to Joshua, “The five kings have been found, hidden in the cave at Makkedah.” 18 And Joshua said, “Roll large stones against the mouth of the cave and set men by it to guard them…

22 Then Joshua said, “Open the mouth of the cave and bring those five kings out to me from the cave.” 23 And they did so, and brought those five kings out to him from the cave, the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, and the king of Eglon. 24 And when they brought those kings out to Joshua, Joshua summoned all the men of Israel and said to the chiefs of the men of war who had gone with him, “Come near; put your feet on the necks of these kings.” Then they came near and put their feet on their necks. 25 And Joshua said to them, “Do not be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous. For thus the Lord will do to all your enemies against whom you fight.” 26 And afterward Joshua struck them and put them to death, and he hanged them on five trees. And they hung on the trees until evening. 27 But at the time of the going down of the sun, Joshua commanded, and they took them down from the trees and threw them into the cave where they had hidden themselves, and they set large stones against the mouth of the cave, which remain to this very day. (Joshua 16–18, 22–26)

I have, previously, looked into this matter of Israel taking a defeated Canaanite king and “hanging him on a tree” (or “impaling him on a stick,” as the Hebrew reads literally). About the humiliation of a defeated, enemy king implicit in this act of torture, likely mutilation, and then public display of his abused, battered, and dead body for all — Israel and Canaanite — to see.

The humiliation here continues. Like cowards, the five kings flee their doomed and defeated people and hide in a cave. Where they are trapped. Joshua has the stone that trapped them rolled away, the kings dragged out, and adds to the humiliation — he tells their Israelite executioners to “put your feet on the necks of these kings.” They have been subjugated, and they will die, these five Amorite kings who led the alliance against Israel’s fraudulently acquired Gibeonite (Hivite) allies.

“Do not be afraid or dismayed,” Joshua tells the Israelites as he prepares to kill the enemy kings, reminding them that this job of conquering and subjugating Canaan will involve a lot of bloody, brutal, inhumane, and conscience-wracking work.

After which, they are “hanged on five trees” (or, “impaled on five stakes” JPS Tanakh), a demonstration to anyone who would look the lengths Israel is willing to go to demonstrate its seriousness about taking this land.

Taken down at sunset as Deuteronomy 21:22–23 commands (otherwise the presence of the dead body hanging/impaled will defile the land), the bodies are laid back in the cave. Which is then blocked up with stones. And they remain there “to this very day.”

We tend to think of crucifixion something exclusive to the Romans, a punishment doled out to rebels, to those who openly challenged the power of Rome, and a very public punishment at that. But clearly it’s something Israel did too. Here, this very public hanging on a tree/impaling on a stick is saved for the leaders of doomed and defeated enemies. Not rebels, but enemies to which no quarter shall be given and none expected.

For those who hang, it says: “We are willing to do this to any who oppose us. This is what we do to our enemies. Gaze upon our power and despair.”

For those who are hung, it says: “This is the fate of the doomed, of those who oppose power. Gaze upon me and despair.”

And these five defeated, enemy kings … are still entombed. Their bones still lie in that cave.

The allusions in this passage — in the treatment of the king of Ai and the five Amorite kings — to Christ are clear. They are enemies punished publicly, in the most humiliating way possible. This is what we do to enemy kings. We hang them. We impale them. We leave them up for all to see. So that the whole world will know what we’ve done.

What we’ve done.

That the killing was done by one whose name was Joshua — ַיְהוֹשֻׁע, one who saves — makes this even more interesting. Because in the gospels, the one who saves is the one who is killed. We pronounced him our enemy, and demanded his death. And we hung him on a tree.

In his humiliating public death at our hands, he says to us: “Gaze upon me, on what you have done, and see the glory of God, your salvation, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

And … there is a stone tomb outside Jerusalem that, unlike this cave at Makkedah, is empty.

It is empty.

JOSHUA Hung On A Tree (Part 1)

23 But the king of Ai they took alive, and brought him near to Joshua.

24 When Israel had finished killing all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them, and all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai and struck it down with the edge of the sword. 25 And all who fell that day, both men and women, were 12,000, all the people of Ai. 26 But Joshua did not draw back his hand with which he stretched out the javelin until he had devoted all the inhabitants of Ai to destruction. 27 Only the livestock and the spoil of that city Israel took as their plunder, according to the word of the Lord that he commanded Joshua. 28 So Joshua burned Ai and made it forever a heap of ruins, as it is to this day. 29 And he hanged the king of Ai on a tree until evening. And at sunset Joshua commanded, and they took his body down from the tree and threw it at the entrance of the gate of the city and raised over it a great heap of stones, which stands there to this day. (Joshua 8:23–29)

So says the Lord our God:

22 “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. (Deuteronomy 21:22–23 ESV)

Ai is taken by a feint, a rouse, a deception — one of many in Israelite warfare that will give the battlefield to Israel. And the city, and all that are in it — 12,000 human souls — are killed.

All but the king. Who is taken, likely abused and tortured, and “hanged on a tree.” (“Impaled on a stick” according to the JPS Tanakh, also translated that way in Deuteronomy 21) The word here, in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) is “ξύλο,” or wood. Peter will use similar language his defense of the faith in Acts when he preaches in the temple:

“We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.” [ὃν ὑμεῖς διεχειρίσασθε κρεμάσαντες ἐπὶ ξύλου, literally “by your hands hung on a pole.”] (Acts 5:29–30)

This is used twice more in Acts. Here…

And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree [κρεμάσαντες ἐπὶ ξύλου]… (Acts 10:39)

And here…

And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree [καθελόντες ἀπὸ τοῦ ξύλου] and laid him in a tomb. (Acts 13:29)

This punishment — and we will see more of it in a few days — is reserved here for the king of an enemy city. What crime this unnamed king of Ai (מֶלֶךְ הָעַי) has committed we do not know, save for maybe being the king of an enemy city.

So far as I can tell in scripture, this punishment — hanging on a tree, impaling on a stick — is reserved solely for enemy kings. For those Israel, and its commander Joshua —  יְהוֹשֻׁעַ, Ἰησοῦς, “the one who saves” — conquered, defeated, and captured in battle. It is the ultimate humiliation, this public death, this hanging, this impaling, this nailing, the ultimate expression of power and contempt, reserved for the leader of a city given into the hands of rapacious, conquering Israel.

For an enemy — our enemy — given into our hands, one God has delivered up and devoted to destruction.

Jesus Can Take It

Recently, I had a conversation with a pastor about a possible pastoral position in a small, urban church looking to do mission outreach. There was a lot to like about the prospect, but my conversation with them also convinced me to stop looking for ministry calls, or at least stop answering church adverts.

Mostly, I have learned that the churches placing adverts on (or elsewhere) are likely to be much more theologically and doctrinally conservative than I am. And I’m okay with that. A number of them are Baptist in orientation, which is a church culture I’m not familiar with (and I know how important culture is to how we do church, and to doing it successfully, or failing at it miserably), and so it’s just as well they have warned me off. I’m much more “catholic” in my understanding both of church and worship. All of these are importance concerns, and ones I cannot fault anyone about.

But the pastor also expressed some concerns about this short blog entry I posted some time ago (caution, the language and sentiment is pretty foul):

Hello all. I have an essay mostly completed that I started Saturday. But it is not finished, and I just don’t feel like finishing it right now. I just noticed someone who started seminary after me got approved, called, ordained, and has just bought a house. Yet another person moved along smoothly and happily in the process.

And here I am — unemployed, impoverished, and nigh near homeless.

I blame Jesus. Truly. I hate Jesus right now. I hate the fact that Jesus called me to follow him, gave me no real choice, set me in the midst of insular, skittish, easily frightened people who did not know what to do with me and judged me harshly — who condemned me — for it. I don’t want to follow Jesus anymore. I hate Jesus. I hate this call. I hate the gospel. I almost think the gospel itself is a lie. And if not a lie, at least a great cosmic joke, a way for God to get a good giggle at the expense of pathetic losers like me. “Ha! I’ll say you’re forgiven but I’ll also make it clear that being forgiven doesn’t really matter because no one will treat you like it!”

And clearly, no one who really matters can be bothered showing me anything remotely resembling grace.

I wish I could be done with all of this. I wish — I really, really, really wish Jesus would just stay the fuck dead. And leave me fuck alone.

I can understand why someone might have a concern about what I write here. It’s harsh, especially in our Jesus-loving culture, to say something like “I hate Jesus.” That’s a statement of disbelief, or it begins a diatribe on why God doesn’t exist.

But at the same time, I do not understand why anyone would have a concern over that. Essentially, the pastor said such a sentiment suggested — especially if read all by itself, without looking at anything else I’ve ever written — I was not ready for a position of leadership.

And that … THAT I don’t understand.

Life is hard. Unpleasant. Sometimes unending suffering and misery. Frequently, our lives feel pointless, empty, and without meaning. Eventually, we all die, some of us slowly and painfully. We have to, as pastors, as followers of the crucified and risen Jesus, be able to look into the face of the suffering of the world, of its misery, its violence, its seeming inherent meaninglessness, and hold out hope. Not platitutdes, but real hope.

A couple of examples. I have been doing an online ministry with teenagers — it began by responding to posts on an app called Whisper — that has allowed me to walk with and be present for some amazing but incredibly troubled young people.

One young woman, just barely a teenager, had been regularly and repeatedly abused by a foster family. After escaping from that situation, she was abducted and held captive for a little more than 48 hours before being found by the police and freed. (It is, of course, a great deal more complex than this, but I don’t want to reveal too much.) I have gotten to know this young woman a bit, and she has a remarkable faith. But after being freed, even she asked:

Why didn’t God protect me?

Now, I was able to engage her in a bit of ocnversation, because I knew she had a faith. I don’t know why God didn’t keep you safe from harm, I said, but Jesus was there, suffering with you. Because that’s what Jesus does — he suffers with us. She eventually did decide that God did protect her, that God was there, with her. And that was good.

Another young woman, not yet 18, who has been the recipient of much violence and abuse in her life, just lost her baby, who had gotten sick with pneumonia and was in the hospital. The conversation that night was a stream of broken hearts and crying, of wailing and the metaphorical ripping of clothes, of profanity and pain and hopelessness. This young woman does not believe, and when I asked if I could pray, she wailed:


And I wasn’t going to argue with her. I was going to sit, in silence, with her, holding her sorrow and her anger and her despair. Because silence sometimes is all we have. And silence, sometimes, is all we need.

I’ve been told a lot, mainly by people who have been wounded by the church, that I have a very grown up faith. I do not seek answers, meaning, or even much solace in biblical platitudes. Yes, God has got it, and I have a future, and the Lord knows his plans for me and my life, knew me even before I was born, and Jesus is the truth and the truth has set me free.

But I also know we live in a world of real pain, of real sorrow, of real doubt, of real, gripping, life-numbing despair. “My God, My God, why have you foresaken me!” Jesus says from the cross, feeling that very human sense of despair and abandonment, a feeling that must be real or the whole crucifixion, including Jesus’ death, is all an absurd game is which nothing is really risked and therefore nothing is really gained.

He had to wonder whether God would really raise him, he had to not know how it would end, he had live with the fear that maybe death really is the final answer we think it is. Jesus, on some very important and very real level, had to not know.

Like we don’t know.

So, okay, maybe I’m not leadership material if church leaders need to have happy faces, perfect faith, and all the answers. If the expectation someone will look to me to see if life is going to be okay, well, my life isn’t quite the best example of God materially blessing one’s faithfulness. I wouldn’t, at 48, be sleeping on a mattress on a floor in someone else’s apartment if God really did materially bless everyone’s faithfulness. I’d really and truly be the failure I’m sometimes convinced I am.

I have found, however, that too many pastors do not know what to do with such despair, such pain, such suffering, and even such hopelessness. (Mostly from personal experience, sad to say.) This is what the happy face gets us — clergy who cannot handle the suffering of the world, who retreat to the nonsense of piety and lectures on doctrine because they cannot look upon that suffering without flinching.

Without doubting.

I have never doubted. Even the words of that blog entry — I wish Jesus would stay dead — betrays my real understanding. Because I know he isn’t. Because I do trust in the resurrection of Christ. That’s my hope. It is the only hope I know is true. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. I know this to be true. And whatever happens to me in life, I know that Jesus rose from the dead, and in him, I shall rise too. We are already dead, and therefore, already risen to new life. I know I’m part of that, in baptism, in my call to follow and feed sheep.

Even if that leads me … well, nowhere.

That feeding sometimes includes letting people know faith is tough, painful, and in this world, sometimes doesn’t end well. But Jesus can take our anger, our pain, our rage, even our lack of faith. As Shusako Endo wrote in his novel Silence, about Christians in Japan, when a Portuguese priest refuses to walk upon an icon of Christ, Jesus tells the priest:

“Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”

Jesus can take it. Which means we can too.