When I was six or seven, I learned how the ancient Israelites used fire to cleanse sin.
I sat with a group of young boys and girls a meeting room in a church basement. They were all strangers to me, including the Sunday school teacher, who had short blonde hair, glasses, and dressed conservatively. She liked to speak slow and clear. Sometimes she would nod her head with each syllable, or gesture with her hands as she explained a lesson from the Bible or recited a parable.
On that day, she told us a story: Long ago, armies marched across Israel. These armies were big, she said. The Israelites has just taken Jericho, and they were going to send a small army to attack a small town. This small army only had two or three thousand people, so can you imagine how big the main armies were?
She liked to pause for effect.
But these armies failed, because a man stole some treasure and God ordered the Israelites to stone the man to death. Then they burned his body, his tent, and all of his belongings, including the treasure.
A boy who sat next to the teacher asked, why did they use fire?
Because the ancient Israelites believed fire could cleanse like water and wash away sin, the teacher said. They attacked the small town again, but this time they won.
And they killed everybody in the town and burned it all down.
Meanwhile, a poster of Jesus Christ with a joyous smile hung on the wall.
That Sunday School session sticks out in my mind for three reasons:
- I didn’t often go to church at that age. I wasn’t raised like that. But it was required whenever I visited my grandparents and the visit landed on a Sunday. So there I was, in church.
- That poster of Jesus: Isn’t Jesus supposed to be solemn or in pain? But there he was, with that smile.
- The use of fire, and how the Sunday School teacher explained it to children. So there we were, learning how the Israelites burned and conquered their way across Canaan, the Promised Land.
That Biblical story, for those who don’t know, comes from the Book of Joshua in the Old Testament. I would remember the story itself in my teens as I read Jack Chick’s Dark Dungeons, but I’d forgotten which part of the Old Testament it came from.
The story goes something like this: Joshua succeeds Moses as leader of the Israelites. The Israelites cross the River Jordan, march around the city Jericho and bring down the walls with Yahweh’s help. They killed everybody (except for Rahab the prostitute and her kindred) take all their stuff, and give it to the Treasury of the Lord, but a man named Achan decides to keep some of the loot for himself (some silver, some gold, a beautiful mantle from Shinar).
And because of this, the campaign against the Canaanites could not continue. The little town of Ai would not fall until the Achan confessed and was punished and kill, along with his livestock and family.
Joshua said, Why did you bring trouble on use? The LORD is bring trouble on you today. And all Israel stoned him to death; they burned him with fire, cast stones on them, and raised over him a great heap of stones that remains to this day.
–Joshua 8:25-26, New Revised Standard Version.
How much detail did the Sunday School teacher describe the massacre? I don’t remember. But I can imagine her eyes widen each time she said burned or gesture when she said stoned or stones.
There’s some debate on whether or not the Israelites killed his family, too, or merely brought them to bear witness.
Furthermore, contemporary scholars regard the Book of Joshua as a-historical. That is, it didn’t happen as told. Indeed, most of it is fiction. There are ruins where Jericho and Ai are said to have stood, but other than that, if you take a literal approach to the story, you might be disappointed.
There I was, there we were, as children, learning this story as fact.
Little did I know how this story would influence me for most of my life. It was there, in the back of my mind, as I read Jack Chick’s Dark Dungeons. It was there when I wanted to introduce monotheism into my D&D games. It was there whenever I researched the Holocaust.
And now it has come full circle, back into the light as the starting point for the next phase of this website: War for the City of Peace: an Inquiry into the Military History of Religion.
Why did Achan have to die for the campaign to succeed?
Indeed, why did the Israelites have to kill all the Canaanites? Why couldn’t they conquer the Canaanites, enslave them, tax them, or otherwise exploit them for material gain?
Why were children taught this story? And, in retrospect, why is the story juxtaposed with that poster of Jesus with a smile?
And why all the fire and burning?
To answer these questions there must be further inquiry…
The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Revised Standard Version; New York, Oxford University Press, 1977.
Chick, Jack. Dark Dungeons. Jack Chick LLC, 1984 and 2013.
Coogan, Michael. The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures,2nd ed; New York, Oxford University Press, 2011.