“Joshua fought the battle of Jericho … Jericho … Jericho…
Joshua fought the battle of Jericho …
and the walls came tumbling down … down .. down …”
For those unfamiliar with the biblical story, Joshua was Moses’s successor who successfully assaults and captures the well-fortified city of Jericho through, allegedly, divine intervention. Basically, he leads his soldiers in a march around the city for 7 days straight, 7 laps on the last day, and has all his trumpets blow simultaneously, at which point the thick defensive walls crumble (and all the inhabitants are summarily executed, but that’s apparently incidental).
Joshua is one of the most fun stories in the bible because it’s one of the few where the Hebrews kick ass. 90% of the rest of the bible is spent bouncing from one calamity to another: slavery in Egypt, captivity in Babylon, conquered by the Caesar, etc. But Joshua is 100% “smiting of enemies” style whupping. The god and trumpet and walls enhanced the fascination, but a story in which the team we are meant to identify with kicks butt would have resonated regardless.
Back in Korea, after my startup fizzled out, and after I jumped ship from another guy’s startup, but before I got laid off and ultimately booted out of the country (wasn’t a great 2 years in my life), I found myself working at an ed-tech company in the marketing team (a job for which literally my only qualification was that I speak English).
I’d suggested to my boss that we try selling our education services to Korean churches.
Our product was an Android tablet app for running interactive classrooms, a lot like Nearpod and the recently defunct Amplify. We were looking for markets to sell it beyond the company’s own hagwons (after-school English language school, of which it had some 200 branches). Our focus was the lucrative US market, but with competition cutthroat and the market so encumbered by both red tape and the once-a-year sales cycle, it was a long shot. So I suggested to my boss we try an aim for an alternative market, one that is based in Korea and yet possibly highly lucrative: Korean churches.
I needed to put together a biblical-themed lesson book quickly, and Joshua came immediately to mind, and the only other story that might be comparably compelling for a kids multimedia book might have been creation, which would have been way too much effort to develop. So Joshua it would be: then step 1 was to reread the story.
And that’s where things got interesting – chapter 2 verses 1-3, to be exact. Joshua sends in a pair of spies who hide at the home of a prostitute named Rahab. In exchange for the shelter, the spies agree to spare her from the slaughter (marking her house with a red cord out her window, speculated to be the origin of red-light districts).
The first interesting thing is that, if viewed through a secular lens, the spies were obviously on an espionage mission to sabotage the gates. Which in turn suggests that Joshua’s marching around town were simply antics to distract the defending army away from their sabotage.
It’s a misdirection campaign – one on par with the British building a fake army at Calais to divert Hitler’s attention from Normandy (maybe even more ballsy since Joshua committed actual units to a maneuver that served no practical purpose on the battlefield, not just inflatable tanks).
But the really kicker is how they hid this lesson in plain sight. I mean, imagine you’re a member of the priesthood charged with the maintaining the sacred texts. Your society is decentralized so the books are the main way of preserving institutional knowledge over time. Your military is not as powerful as your many hostile neighbors, so covert ops is exactly the kind of tip you want to ensure future generations receive.
The problem is, it’s also one that would be dangerous if it fell into your numerous, powerful, enemies’ hands. So what to do? You dress it up as a miracle (of a god who distinctly favors your side, no less) so it never occurs to your enemies that they could reproduce the same results. The only people who will bother actually reading the text in full are your own people, who if they work in the military will immediately recognize the significance of Rahab*.
In other words, narrating Jericho as a “miracle” was itself a disinformation campaign. Which holds true of the scriptures/bible in general: a way of hiding valuable, practical knowledge in plain sight to prevent enemy tribes from benefitting. Camouflaging your precious brain child in grimy bathwater in the hopes your enemies will overlook its value and toss it out.
In other words, monotheism played the same role that the patent office does today. It provides a culture an incentive to innovate – nutrition (kosher), ethics, meditation, literacy, covert warfare – without fear that the ideas will be copied by freeloading neighbors.
As a skeptical humanist, this is the most positive case I can think of that recognizes the value of religion at a point in the past while still maintaining its anachronistic status today. Religion was a driver for innovation back before the patent office/IP law existed, but to the extent that the latter does exist now, the former is that much less necessary.
Incidentally, this realization has lessened my hostility to faith as well. Because insofar as, yes, religion is an anachronism, so is the patent office – look at all the calls for its reforms today. Yes it’s outlived its usefulness, but it did serve a useful purpose at one point in the past.
*Incidentally, brilliant bonus tidbit of wisdom: when sending spies into a hostile city, have them hang out at the brothel –
- least suspicious place for out-of-towners to be seen
- great source of intel from off-duty soldiers
- low loyal to the local government