A Preacher’s Review of Joshua: Believers’ Church Bible Commentary by Gordon Matties (Herald Press, 2012).
Reviewed by Frank Ramirez
A few years ago when I was the junior partner, with Christina Bucher and David Leiter, co-editing the book The Witness of the Bible Scriptures for a New Testament Church, I was cornered at Annual Conference and angrily scolded for doing any such thing. The Old Testament, I was told, was antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.
Needless to say, stories from the Book of Joshua were Exhibit Number One. That was the case not only with this one per
son, but with several others over the years, whenever I admitted my enthusiasm for the Hebrew scriptures. Never mind the poetry of Ecclesiastes, the thunder for justice from the prophets, the slight of hand by the Chronicler (Now you see Bathsheba, now you don’t!), or those pesky lions in Daniel’s den – it usually gets back to Joshua when it comes to all those Marcionists who have no patience with the thick half of the Bible.
So I picture all those Mennonite and Brethren scholars the day they handed out the assignments for the Believers Church Bible Commentary series, hanging back when, echoing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, someone said, “So who wants to write about Joshua? Anyone. Joshua? Joshua? Sixth book of the Bible. Joshua?”
Well I don’t know if Gordon Matties, professor of biblical studies at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, volunteered, felt the call, or was drafted, but his commentary on Joshua is an exceptional tool for enthusiast and Old Testament skeptic alike. This volume is not only a valuable tool for pastors who may have to address the rare lectionary texts from Joshua every three years or so – it is a well-crafted apologia for an essential part of the canon, the pivot between Torah and the Deuteronomic history, and a powerful part of our family history we dare not ignore.
One quote, in particular, encapsulates the necessity for challenging ourselves and others with this Biblical book. Referring to some of the horrors described in Joshua 10 Matties writes:
I suggest that we live inside the conversation generated by this text, not inside this text alone. The text is part of a conversation within which the church wrestles, argues, and challenges. It is a text of terror that we dare not emulate; yet if we re
fused conversation with it, we run the risk of repeating the violence of which the text tells (247).
Matties encourages us to wrestle with the very different pictures of ethnic cohabitation, conflict, and accommodation presented not only between Joshua and Judges, but within Joshua itself. He also refuses to restrain the arc of this historical narrative into an archaeological straight jacket in order to bring us on board.
God is the central figure of the book, while Joshua, who only truly becomes “servant of Yahweh” after a long life of service, is revealed as one who receives the instruction of God, but is willing, such as in the mistakes made in what the author presents as the humorous encounter between the Israelites and the Gibeonites, to improvise and compromise.
The author doesn’t explain away tensions and contradictions within the book. In this way Joshua is quite like life. The peopl
e are to keep themselves pure, for instance, yet Rahab and others (including Caleb) are revealed as outsiders who become insiders. There is bloody warfare, yet the author insists it is not at its heart a conquest book, but a book of hope in the midst of darkness. The Book of Joshua reflects the best in us and the worst in us. And there is always hope, always a way out of the box that threatens to constrict and restrict us.
Matties grounds the book in our world, calling up stories and images from his own experiences in churches, the books he’s read, and from movies he’s seen. The Road Runner and Bugs Bunny, Apocalypse Now, the haka practiced by New Zealand rugby teams before an important international match, the scouring of the Shire in The Lord of the Rings, Veggie Tales, Bob Dylan’s “You’ve Gotta Serve Somebody,” and old Mennonites insisting “Es steht geschrieben,” (“It is written”) are cited in turn, as is the relatively new translation The Common English Bible, all to good effect.
On a personal note, as one who has always been awed and attracted to the encounter between Joshua and a Divine Other in 5:13-15 (I think I wrote an article for Messenger titled “Who Goes There?” on the subject decades ago), I especially enjoyed Matties’ willingness to let the mystery be.
The BCBC like all commentary series has better and worse volumes. This is one of the very good ones. I highly recommend it for p
ersonal study and sermon preparation. And since, as I’ve mentioned, the lectionary selections from Joshua are few and far between (you can preach about being strong and courageous from the first chapter and how you and your house are going to serve the Lord in the last chapter, and that’s pretty much it), perhaps this book will inspire some Brethren and Mennonites to preach a summer series on the book.
Matties’ dissertation Ezekiel 18 and the Rhetoric of Moral Discourse was published by the Society of Biblical Literature. He has contributed to The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, and has published articles in church periodicals and contributed essays to collections.
Frank Ramirez has served as a Brethren Pastor for thirty-four years, and currently serves the Everett congregation in Middle PA. He and his wife Jennie share three children and three grandchildren, and enjoy travel, gardening, and totally different programming. Frank is the author of several books including The Love Feast, Th
e Meanest Man in Patrick County, and Brethren Brush with Greatness.