If you regard the Bible as a holy text, one that has special force and authority in your life, I implore you – Read the Bible using the same approach you would use for any other type of communication. To do anything else (even unintentionally) is exceptionally dangerous. It neuters your holy text and places you (the reader) as the arbiter of meaning.

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In what follows, I'll give a quick argument supporting these claims using Joshua and the Battle of Jericho as an example. If you want a fuller discussion, check out The Pillar podcast. If you want a more detailed explanation of the philosophical arguments involved, a short paper on the subject is also available for download. 

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Two assumptions when attempting ANY communication

When we communicate, we try to take the thoughts in one person's mind and replicate them in the other person. (Of course there are many additional reasons we communicate, but if communication does not begin with this notion, then it's something else entirely). When we engage in this attempt to replicate thought-worlds, we operate with two basic assumptions;

1.     We assume communication could either succeed or fail. 
(Seems obvious, I know, but it's important to note because it colors how we behave).

2.     We assume that if the two parties share a lot of the same context, the communication is more likely to succeed. If they have very little of the same context, it is more likely to fail. 

How those assumptions change our behavior

A simple way to illustrate these two assumptions is to imagine communicating with someone from a completely different culture, especially one who speaks your language as a second language. You hope things go well, and as soon as it goes wrong, you may think, "If only so-and-so grew up on my street, this would be so much easier."

Let's take it a step further. Imagine that you are invited to have a meal at the home of the above "so-and-so." You know your worlds don't line up, so you enter the home with humility and grace. You interact with them in their home like a sponge: You are ready to absorb their world (and absorb any unintended offense); and, when you insert yourself, you do so softly, trying not to be abrasive or offensive in any way.

Here is the point: This is how we are to interact with the Bible. It is as foreign as any "so-and-so" you came up with in the above scenario. It's from a foreign culture and a foreign time and written in a foreign language. So, when you do not approach it with the same active desire to absorb and understand its world, with the same humility you would at the above dinner party, you are not obeying the rules of communication. You are walking into the house making demands about how you should be served. The scary part is that you aren't even consciously breaking or making up new rules. And since the text isn't a person who can tell you how offensive you are being in their home, you just carry right along rifling through the refrigerator looking for the hamburger you came prepared to eat.

Joshua and the Battle of Jericho

Let's take a look at a case where this kind of "rude" thinking gets us in trouble with the Bible.

God did an awesome thing at Jericho. We've all heard the story (see Joshua 6). Joshua led the priests and the army of Israel around Jericho for seven days, and on the seventh day, the trumpets sounded, the walls fell down, and Joshua and the army waltzed right in.

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It's often taught as a case where God takes down these massive walls so Israel could win (see video example here). It's a case where God stepped in when Israel and Joshua needed Him.

But here's the thing, Jericho never had a chance against Israel's army. The city of Jericho sits relatively isolated in the Jordan valley. If you're coming from the east (as Israel was), it's a kind of entryway into the land that would be Israel's.

As for the city itself, the area inside the walls of Jericho was 5-6 acres, with a maximum total area outside the walls of 10-12 acres.1 Using Dever's population estimate of 100 people per acre,2 we can suggest that the population of a fully-occupied Jericho within the walls was between 500 - 600, with a total maximum population of about 1,200. That is no where NEAR what it would take to wipe out the army of Israel, which had just defeated Sihon and Og (terrifying the Moabites and Midianites, Numbers 21:21 and Numbers 22). However, archaeological evidence shows Jericho was not close to full capacity at the time of Joshua. Or put another way, there is no evidence whatsoever that 1,200 people were living at Jericho in the time of Joshua.3

Thus, Jericho was NOT an existential, or even serious, threat to the army of Israel. Period. At no point would an ancient person who had seen Jericho have had that opinion.

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When students learn this, they are often confused. Their unspoken assumption had been that God gives miraculous victory when people are up against an insurmountable obstacle. "So," they ask, "if Joshua didn't need God to defeat Jericho, if it wasn't insurmountable, and everyone in the ancient world would likely have known this, then why would God step in? What is the story supposed to be about then?"

Now we're at the right question! The question the text is directing you to ask!

What's really going on here is Israel was getting a lesson in "God with us." If Israel wanted Yahweh to fight for them, if they wanted to watch him tear down the walls, they had to obey. Significantly, this lesson was given when they were under minimal threat, before they entered the fray of the truly difficult and major battles to come.

We should not read the Battle of Jericho as if Israel was terrified of the city and God stepped in to save the day. Instead, we should read it is a case where God stepped in during the warm-up (as it were) to set Israel up for success for the days to come. 

Remember where it went wrong

As fun as context and a new understanding are, it is important to look at how and where we went wrong in our other interpretation - to call out the goofy thing we did so as not to do it anymore. My claim here is the "other interpretation" is the result of breaking the rules of trying to achieve successful communication. We march in like the rude dinner guest demanding the meal we have in mind, and we're going to get it. And most of the time we have no idea we're behaving that way.

When it comes to texts, the rules for successful communication are even more imperative. It's not a person. The words of the text are already written down. When we plow over the text, it can't protest. It can't in conversation say to us, "Wait, I don't think you understand what I'm saying, let's go back and I'll try a different way to say it." If regular communication requires humility and grace, how much more the written word, and how much more the written word from a foreign and ancient world?

If context fails, your communication fails. So pay attention and be a humble guest when you read the Bible.

As always, I welcome your thoughts, comments, questions, and concerns below.

If you missed it earlier, here is another opportunity to 
download my paper and learn more. Grab it here. 

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1. Garstang, "The Walls of Jericho. The Marston-Melchert Expedition of 1931," PEFQS 1931, p. 186-187.

2. See Dever,The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel [2012], 71-72; Since only page 71 is visible on Google Books, see also Dever'sWho Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?, pg 78

3. This is not the place to get into a full discussion of the archaeology of Jericho. Maybe we'll get into that in another post. For now, I ask those of you who are aware of the archaeology to let the above suffice for the literary conversation I'm trying to have here. For those who want a quick introduction to Jericho and the archaeological findings there, I suggest staying away from online discussions until you've looked at the articles in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East (vol. 3) or The Anchor Bible Dictionary (vol 3), one of which should be available at your local public or college library.

‡ Photos courtesy of Bibleplaces.com

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