None but Thine: Joshua 6 and the Ethics of Reading

By Robinson, Robert B. | Essays in Literature, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

None but Thine: Joshua 6 and the Ethics of Reading


Robinson, Robert B., Essays in Literature


O God, thy arm was here; And not to us, but to thy arm alone, Ascribe we all! Take it, God, For it is none but thine.

King Henry V, Act IV, Scene viii

Surveying the wreckage of French forces before him at Agincourt, Henry V could only conclude that victory had been the sole work of God. Ten thousand French dead, scattered short of his own lines where but twenty-five lay. Astounded to piety, Henry gives all honor to God. Yet, from a position only slightly detached, ascription of all to God seems impious. What a fiendishly clever god to induce the French to rush heedless across a sodden marsh into massed and sheltered English longbows. A bloody, partisan god, revelling in the mourning cry of widow and fatherless child.

Is this misreading? Blue-nosed quibbling? Certainly Shakespeare meant no theological lesson. Why this distraction? By what right do we introduce theological or ethical questions into our reading of such a work of literature? The issue is serious for all literature; it is of particular seriousness for literary study of the Bible. Criticism of the Bible, by whatever lights, has been practical criticism. It would demean and misunderstand the rich history of interpretation of the Bible to regard all biblical criticism as simplistic "drawing lessons for life." Yet the Bible has always been read with an assumption of ethical and theological relevance, variously drawn out. An artistic reading that attended only to the aesthetic experience would not

answer readers' interest in the text of the Bible.

Whether it is possible for the reader so to divide frames of significance that any work of literature can be read exclusively for its aesthetic potential is a question worth pondering. For biblical criticism, at least so long as it is practiced within a community of faith, such a division is scarcely an option. At the same time, even given its practical concerns, biblical criticism must avoid naive and stultifying sentimenality that converts complex narrative to moral or theological fable.

The account of the fall of Jericho in Joshua 6 raises these issues in acute fashion. "O God, thy arm was here." Indeed. God reduces the city of Jericho to ashes, the first dramatic conquest in a series of sieges and set battles that ends only when all Canaan is given into the hands of Israel, as God had promised Israel's ancestors. Yet, from a position only slightly detached, events at Jericho are deeply troubling. All the inhabitants of Jericho, save one family, are put to the sword at God's instructions. A bloody, partisan God? Power as first principle of ethics? Is this misreading? Scrupulous meddling in the natural reading process? What must concern us is a reading of the text that does not render it ethically and theologically mute, yet does not overbear its own authentic voice, its lilt and accent, its characteristic interests and themes.

Joshua 6 is, by any account, a difficult case. The totality of the destruction of Jericho rakes wounds inflicted by modern history, the Holocaust, a "New World Order" of blood and "ethnic cleansing." Sensibilities frayed by modern experience press the interpretive process, forcing interpreters to apparent choices between ethically engaged interpretation and textually sensitive reading. Neither alternative seems adequate. Ethically engaged interpretation honors the moral seriousness of the moment but cannot escape a sense of imposition on the text. Textually sensitive reading attempts to do full justice to the richness of the text, but may appear as apology for that which cannot be justified. Any interpretation of Joshua 6 may appear inadequate on one front or the other. Or both. Difficult cases make bad law.

Yet interpretation of difficult cases may not be deferred. Joshua 6 forces us to confess our ambivalences and yet to engage in the roiling torment of conscience that is ethical and theological seriousness. …

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