Sometimes when I look back at my days as a Christian, I’m thunderstruck by how absolutely exhausting it was in every single way. For a religion promising peace, rest, a light yoke, and vaguely-defined joy to its followers, Christianity brought precious little of any of it to any of us. Not long ago, I ran across a Southern Baptist Bible study about sin that really reminded me of that exhaustion. It’s about how Jesus sends his followers misfortunes to rebuke them for sinning. What an absolutely exhausting way to go through life!
Set apart in a world of sin, sort of
The Bible study I found is called “Set apart in a world of sin.” It appeared in Baptist Press on March 31, 2022. That’s the official news site for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Their official publishing and propaganda arm, Lifeway, created the Bible study itself. They gave this writeup post about it to Baptist Press. It looks like this is part of some ongoing series.
As we might expect, their post links to a Lifeway shopfront page. There, we find products related to “The Gospel Project.” It’s just a collection of Bible study materials. As you might expect, it ain’t super-cheap, either, especially when we consider that each pack contains only a season’s worth of material. The Summer 2022 group box for adults costs $72.99. If you just want the Leader’s pack from the box, you can get it alone for $31.99, but if you go digital you get a whole dollar off!
Interestingly, this Gospel Project thing is all about discipling. I just wrote about that on OnlySky. If you haven’t seen that post yet, it was about how the SBC is pushing hard for more discipling. So it’s interesting to see that connection here. Lifeway is being pretty subtle, but the product merchandising aspect is definitely there.
If you check out the post itself, it’s not actually about being set apart in a world of sin. It’s really quite a marvel of evangelical retrofitting and shoehorning.
Ferreting out secret sin
These are truly weird, fantastical, even gruesome chapters. In Chapter 7, right after winning at Jericho, the Israelites wanted to conquer a Canaanite city called Ai. They thought Ai was pretty weak, so they didn’t send a whole lot of men to take it.
But Ai prevailed. Joshua got really upset about it.
Then, Yahweh told Joshua that he allowed Ai to win because one of the Israelites had stolen some of the spoils from the successful war on Jericho. These particular spoils were supposed to go to Yahweh’s temple, so the god was pissed. In retaliation, he let the Israelites lose their fight against Ai. This crime needed to be addressed, obviously. So Yahweh told Joshua to have each clan brought forward, then each family within that clan, then each man in that clan. At each step, he’d divinely point out which clan, family, and man was responsible till they narrowed it down.
The thief turned out to be a guy called Achan of the tribe of Judah. At Joshua’s command, all the Israelites stoned him and his entire family to death. That mollified Yahweh’s rage at last. Afterward, he told Joshua exactly how to ambush Ai. At Yahweh’s command, they slaughtered all 12,000 men and women there, then made the murdering of its king a particular spectacle. But Yahweh generously allowed the Israelites to keep the livestock and plunder this time.
After this battle, Joshua built an altar to Yahweh, made various sacrifices, and read the entire Law of Moses to the people in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant.
That’s the actual story of Joshua 7 and 8.
What the Southern Baptists turn these two chapters into is a recommendation for Christians to be hypervigilant for any potential secret coded messages from Jesus about their sin. Cuz you never know when Jesus will decide to wreck you for disobedience.
Punishing others for Achan’s sin
Here is how Lifeway’s writers interpret these two chapters:
God wants His people to pursue holiness, to be committed to living as His set-apart people in this world. And He loves us too much to allow us to settle for anything less.
But do those two chapters sound like a god who just wuvs his widdle ant farm pets too much to let them settle for sinful lives? Does it sound remotely like Yahweh’s big problem with Achan, the thief, was that Achan didn’t pursue holiness or live set-apart from the Canaanites at Ai?
To me, it sounds a lot more like Yahweh was furious that Achan had taken his property. Over-the-top enraged, even. He was so enraged that he let the city of Ai defeat the Israelite force that first time.
Of course, he didn’t tell Joshua ahead of time that they’d lose. He didn’t even let slip that Ai was more powerful than his pet Israelites imagined. Instead, he just let their small force get routed. This battle killed 36 of Yahweh’s people. These 36 Israelites hadn’t stolen anything or done anything wrong. They were just collateral damage for an enraged god.
Sorry not sorry, but Yahweh didn’t love his Israelites too much to let them settle for anything less than holiness. In this story, he was just a controlling, brutal, vengeful, even evil god (using Granny Weatherwax’s definition of evil, which is treating people as things). He punished a number of innocent people for the offenses committed by one person.
But those wouldn’t be the only innocent people murdered for Achan’s theft.
Annihilating the sinner along with the sin
In the story, Yahweh identified the thief in an absolutely bizarre winnowing-down procedure. To retaliate against the thief, the Israelites murdered Achan and his entire innocent family–including his children and even his livestock. Y’all, they even confiscated all his property.
This extreme, over-the-top punishment was blessed by Yahweh. Once mollified, he promised Joshua that he’d make the conquest of Ai easy, and even gave the prophet detailed instructions about exactly how to ambush the city.
This punishment is also what we expect from a malignant narcissist. Here are some of the signs of it, by the way, according to a therapy site:
Malignant narcissists tend to display the most severe traits of both [antisocial and narcissistic personality disorders][. . .]
Being extremely arrogant and self-centered
Disregarding the feelings and needs of other people
Having an extreme need for power
Acts of revenge against those who criticize them
Lacking conscience, regret, or remorse for their actions
Being cruel and taking pleasure in the pain of others
High levels of aggression towards other people
Paranoia or mistrust of others
Yeah, that’s Yahweh! Just super-duper loving, right? I bet those 12,000 Canaanites in Ai didn’t mind being genocided. They just weren’t as holy and set-apart as the Israelites were.
A “loving rebuke” for sin
Now that you know what actually happens in these two chapters, get ready for some downright surreal evangelical interpretations of it.
Here are the discussion questions that Lifeway asks regarding these two chapters:
How do human beings typically evaluate the gravity of sin?
Why do we try to hide our sin, or think we can?
How should we view our sin in light of God’s wrath and judgment against Achan, his family and Israel?
And here is their big warning to Christians who hide sin from others:
We all have experiences that don’t make sense to us, moments far more complicated than cause-and-effect thinking allows, moments that challenge our attempts to categorize our lives. Even though life is more complicated than that, this doesn’t mean there aren’t moments when the truth of cause-and-effect applies. [. . .]
While we should not view every negative experience in our lives as the direct result of sins committed, we would be wise to see them as an opportunity to examine our hearts and lives. They just might be a Father’s loving rebuke to His wayward child.
But is a secret, coded message of punishment really a “loving rebuke?”
Let me help the Southern Baptists out here:
No, it isn’t.
Hypervigilance and fear are not the products of love
I used to think this way as well when I was Christian. I knew that sometimes bad things just happen — there’s even a Bible verse that says that the rain falls on the just and unjust alike, for goodness’ sake. But I also thought my god sent messages to his followers through what might seem at first glance to be random happenstance. I also knew that misfortune could indicate divine messages or even punishment for some secret sin.
My Dear Leaders indoctrinated me to think this way. And I took to it naturally, since I’d always been an anxious child anyway. Whenever anything bad happened to me, I had to ask myself if it was a message from Jesus or a punishment of some kind. Every Christian I knew did that same thing, from Pentecostals all the way to Catholics.
That’s a big part of why I freaked out when I accidentally cut a bit of my hair in the shower one day. I had no idea what Jesus would do to me as a result.
If you ever thought ancient polytheistic religions were big on signs and portents, Christians are even worse.
What hypervigilant fear does to people
Like most of my peers, when I was Christian I actually got to the point of thinking something really would inevitably go hideously wrong in my life if I committed any sin. I was always on edge and anxious, because this punishment was never related to the crime, never even close to proportional, and apparently randomly inflicted.
This punishment could happen even if I wasn’t consciously suppressing the sin, or if I didn’t even remember it happening, or if I thought I was in the right but would later realize I’d been wrong.
That is not holy. It’s not just. It’s not divine, and it’s definitely not loving. If a parent treated a child that way, we’d call it cruelty. We’d say it constituted physical and emotional abuse. We’d expect that child to grow up with a lot of problems that’d need professional help to untangle. If a government treated its citizens that way, we’d think their country was a totalitarian hellhole and we’d want to liberate its people.
But it’s presented in the Bible and attributed to Yahweh/Jesus, this abuse instantly becomes proof of holiness, love, and paternal care.
You’d think Christians would realize that terrified hypervigilance is not a sign of real love. Their love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, sure doesn’t include that quality in its description of love. But this isn’t the only place where Christians compartmentalize.
It’s scary as hell to imagine an omnipotent god who entirely lacks morality, compassion, or even justice as humans define it. Joshua 7 and 8 make clear that Yahweh lacks those qualities. And so Christians compartmentalize that information away from their conceptualization of Jesus.
What does a god need with coded messages?
For all that, too, we could wonder aloud why an omnipotent god–one whose followers insist talks to them every day in prayer–needs to send anyone coded messages to rebuke them for offending him.
Is Jesus just that confrontation-averse? Is he that incapable of communicating? Why can’t he just tell them up-front that he’s angry with them, say why he’s angry, then provide guidance regarding whatever he wants them to do to make it right?
And for that matter, why can’t he come up with responses that actually work to change his followers’ behavior? Punishment isn’t actually a behavioral modifier in any good way. Back in 2016, researchers in Austin, Texas finished a meta-study of 50 years’ worth of studies about spanking. They discovered that spanking not only didn’t work to help children learn and grow, but it also hurt them emotionally throughout childhood and even after reaching adulthood. Perhaps even worse, it did not actually have any effect on children’s immediate or long-term compliance with the parents’ rules. They concluded:
The upshot of the study is that spanking increases the likelihood of a wide variety of undesired outcomes for children. Spanking thus does the opposite of what parents usually want it to do
Obviously, murdering a guy’s entire family and 36 innocent soldiers is arguably on another level from spanking, but both represent punishment. It isn’t discipline, that’s for sure, though Christians like to use that word as a nicer-sounding alternative to punishment. For one thing, Achan, his kids, and those 36 soldiers are dead at the end of Yahweh’s punishment, so none of them were building better behaviors as a result of Yahweh’s ragestorm.
Discipline does good things for those experiencing it. They learn and grow afterward. They think throughout it.
Punishment, which is what Yahweh does in Joshua 7 and 8 and what Jesus does to his followers today, triggers only fear, pain, distrust, and avoidance.
Watching Christians try to shoehorn Bible stories into lessons is hilarious, though
We started today with looking at how Lifeway took Joshua 7 and 8 and turned these two chapters into a stern lesson about how to view misfortune as a potential rebuke from Jesus. It reminds me of what we talked about recently, some evangelical trying to turn the Book of Revelation into a conflict-resolution guide!
But the lesson they draw from those chapters doesn’t even remotely sound like anything that happens in them. Achan, the thief, got to see Joshua describe the theft, and then he got to watch Joshua call forward each tribe, then each clan, then each family, with each step coming closer and closer to him.
Finally, Joshua strong-armed him into confessing. It almost sounds like Joshua hinted at mercy in his demand for a confession, calling Achan “my son” and advising him to glorify Yahweh beforehand. But when Achan confessed, he received only the most brutal punishment imaginable. The only thing the Israelites didn’t do was force him to watch the murder of his children and livestock before getting killed himself–they got him first, then the children and animals.
Once that was done, Israel marched on Ai, defeating them thanks to Yahweh’s helpful strategy guide. And then, they brutally murdered every one of Ai’s people.
It’s just baffling that Lifeway chose the lesson they did from these chapters. It doesn’t even halfway make sense. Absolutely nothing in Joshua speaks to suffering misfortune due to some unconfessed sin against Jesus. Or of being rebuked by a just, loving parent.
What this story does speak to instead is just what a monster Yahweh really is, and how desperate Christians are to find something, anything, new in their sourcebook to talk about after all this time.