12 September 2013

Joshua 9:3-27

“But on that day Joshua made them hewers of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of the Lord, to continue to this day, in the place that he should choose.” (v. 27)


The Bible (like all religious books) can be used to liberate and transform, but it can also be used to oppress and coerce. Much depends on whose interests were originally served by the text in question, and on whose interests are being served by later interpreters of the text. Responsible readers need to be aware of this, not least when reading a passage such as this one, which provides 'biblical' justification for slavery.

The conquest and destruction of the towns of Jericho and Ai, and the wholesale slaughter of their inhabitants, was all done in the name of 'the Lord' and with his blessing. Anything of value was looted "for the treasury of the Lord" (Joshua 6:19). This has been common practice throughout history - nations, tribes and clans have always exploited their neighbours and the strong have always taken what they want from the weak, often attributing success to their superior religion or ideology.

The Gibeonites, fearing that they were next on Joshua's 'to destroy' list, took a calculated risk, based on traditional notions of hospitality towards strangers. It might seem odd to a modern reader, but travellers could expect to be treated rather better than neighbours, as is still the case in many parts of the world. So they pretended to have come "from a far country" (v. 6) and asked Joshua to promise to treat them as travellers. The Israelites were initially suspicious, but Joshua was eventually convinced by their elaborate deception and swore a solemn oath to do them no harm, and welcoming them as visitors.

All was well for a few days, until it became obvious that these 'weary travellers' were, in fact, the Israelites' 'nervous neighbours' and that their towns were not far away. This presented Joshua with a dilemma - was he still bound by their solemn oath not to destroy them, despite the Israelites' prior commitment to, and evident enthusiasm for, violent conquest 'in the name of the Lord'? But a solemn oath was a solemn oath, so, rather than upset 'the Lord' by breaking an oath made in his name, it was decided to make them their slaves instead - "hewers of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of the Lord".

To Ponder

  • This is only one of many biblical passages which endorses the practice of slavery - indeed, nowhere does the Bible suggest that slavery is wrong. John Wesley (in 1774) was one of the first Christian leaders to challenge that view by appealing to 'natural justice'. What does that suggest to you about the way that Wesley read the Bible?
  • Can you think of any other issues where 'biblical teaching' might be seen to be in conflict with 'natural justice'? How might a 'responsible reader' of the Bible resolve that conflict?
  • Allowing that 'slavery' might be preferable to 'slaughter', can obedience to 'the Lord' ever justify the exploitation of others?

Bible notes author

The Revd David Rhymer

The Revd David Rhymer has done a number of things over the last 40-odd years - including teaching (science), publishing (theology), full-time ministry (Baptist and Methodist) and national Methodist Team work (training & development officer for Cornwall). More recently he has been responsible for a part-time theology degree course at Exeter University, and until 2017, was involved with teaching students preparing for ministry in the south-west.