And the Lord said to Joshua, “See, I have given Jericho into your hand, with its king and mighty men of valor. You shall march around the city, all the men of war going around the city once. Thus shall you do for six days.”
Scintillating prose it isn’t.1 With the numerous repetitions of phrase, you get the sense that Joshua 6 might be more an exercise in remedial reading than a summary of a pivotal moment in Israelite history. First it records what the Lord says to Joshua. (March around the city!) Then it relates Joshua telling Israel what the Lord told him to tell them. (The Lord says to march around the city!) Then it tells how Israel obeyed what the Lord had told Joshua to tell them to obey. (Israel marched around the city!) Think the seemingly tedious storytelling is over? Hardly.
In verse 10 Joshua does add the clarification that on days one through six, Israel is to say nothing as they encircle Jericho; only on the seventh day are they to erupt with a shout. But the narrative then repeats the very same words in verse 13 about the very same actions spoken of in verse 8. When he gets to what happened on day seven, Joshua (mercifully!) elects to summarize the movement of the Israelite contingent rather than repeat what had been done during each of the last six days. But just when you think the repetition has come to an end, true to form, the account relates what Joshua told Israel to do upon entering the vanquished city—only to follow with an almost word-for-word recounting of Israel doing what Joshua told them to do upon entering the vanquished city.
We can account for Joshua’s narrative style here because he is addressing an oral culture. Words to be remembered were words that had to be repeated. But someone unfamiliar with scripture might find this chapter awfully tiresome in its style. Inwardly, they might wonder if the Lord couldn’t find a better copy editor for His inspired Word in order to strip it of its redundant phrases. Wouldn’t greater attention to pacing, variety of sentence structure, and more evocative language add impact to the story line? Won’t this unimaginative, just-the-facts-ma’am approach to narrative leave the reader so bored out of his mind that he comes away largely unimpressed with the historic significance of its contents?
Why take so much time to recount a simple promise of the Lord upon which He issues a simple command to be fulfilled in simple obedience?
Stop for a moment. What’s the last straightforward act of obedience you felt the Lord was calling you to fulfill, but, for whatever reason, you haven’t followed through? What simple yet significant promise has He made that explains the basis of His command? Why might you have moved onto other concerns without first doing what you know ought to be done? Truth is, we need both simplicity and repetition—the kind expressed in Joshua 6—in order to be faithful. We tend to delight at first in the idea of obedience, but then easily let that moment fade, and with it, the motivation to obey. Consider this episode from the era of the third-century desert fathers:
A certain brother was eager to have a scribe copy a book [of Scripture] for him. The old man agreed to do so, and “wrote, omitting some phrases and [including] no punctuation.” The brother noticed that some words were missing and, wishing to have the text punctuated and corrected, he returned to the old man and asked him to take care of it. The old man, however, must have discerned something in the brother’s manner which disturbed him, for he refused to make the corrections. He simply told the brother pointedly: “practice first that which is written, then come back and I will write the rest.”2
We are that certain brother, often in need of a firm but gentle reminder to obey what we know now. More instruction may come in time, but not before we take care of this matter presently.
The Lord has made us a simple and profound promise: you are His eternally by virtue of the work of His Son. He has issued straightforward commands based entirely on that promise—commands He repeats often in His Word (John 17:17), and which His Spirit brings to remembrance (John 14:26) just as often. What is to be done today? Right now? “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” (James 4:17). It may be entirely without the fanfare of bringing down the walls of Jericho, but it is just as important to God, considering how often He’s brought it to our attention.
Now read this again.
1. What might be interpreted as a critique of inspired scripture should be understood by the reader as a somewhat jocular way of setting up the author’s intended point.
2. Patrologia Graeca [65:320BCD], quoted in Douglas Burton-Christie’s Word in the Desert (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 154.