Why would my parents, completely sane and respectable people, name their firstborn son after a war criminal – worse than that, a genocidal fanatical maniac? My parents have never killed, they are not vicious people – they never even believed in corporal punishment. They are generally of a benign and pleasant nature. So why would they do this to me?
Joshua 6:20-21 (NLT)
When the people heard the sound of the horns, they shouted as loud as they could. Suddenly, the walls of Jericho collapsed, and the Israelites charged straight into the city from every side and captured it. They completely destroyed everything in it – men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep, donkeys – everything.
Well, we can’t have a bunch of heathen cattle running around spreading their heresies to the other cattle – that would result in some pretty nasty milk, to be sure. What were my parents thinking?
Joshua 10:40 (NLT)
So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded.
Like how the Nazis “subdued” the Warsaw Ghetto? Because if so, the word “subdued” is a little underwhelming.
Joshua 11:14 (NLT)
The Israelites carried off for themselves all the plunder and livestock of these cities, but all the people they put to the sword until they completely destroyed them, not sparing anyone that breathed.
Yes, I get it, breathing is bad.
Well, at least they let the livestock live this time. Yahweh must have been in an especially merciful mood that day. Oh, I got a nice kick in the chest recently. As I’ve been doing more and more genealogical research I’ve discovered that some of my ancestors owned slaves – on both my mother’s and father’s side of the family. Hooray for me. Now not only does my first name carry a horrifying legacy, so does my last name – hell, even my mother’s maiden name.
I had long hoped that my family, though having been in the south a long time, would have been too impoverished to own slaves – alas, that is not the case. There are numerous African-Americans in Michigan and North Carolina who share my last name, and not because of blood relation (well, maybe some).
The name Adolf has certainly taken a nosedive in Germany in the last 60-odd years. Why not Joshua in Israel? Well, for one thing he won his war, if you can call merciless slaughter a “win” (though that does seem to be the rubric Yahweh utilizes most).
I’d be surprised if anyone but a handful of staunch conservatives pick up the name George for awhile – though, to be fair, it’s not necessarily a very popular name in the first place.
Let’s put my name, Joshua, up on the metaphorical shelf of shame for a moment.
Ah, there we go.
It sits fairly comfortably between other nefarious n’er-do-wells of history, I think, a little too comfortably. My surname doesn’t shine so brightly either.
I suppose I could go only by my middle name – turn myself into a one name man, walk into my classroom announcing the three syllables that would make up my entire identity.
But I can’t.
Yes, my namesake was an evil, cruel, fiendish little imp of a man who ran around thrusting his pelvis and his self-righteousness at anything the voice in his head ordered him to (oversimplification?) – and yes my last name, even my mother’s maiden name, will forever carry the horrible memory of American slavery.
My entire name seems to be literally ringing with the injustice and fear it has struck into so many innocent people (being a non-believer does not make you a “guilty” person).
So what do I do? Do I change my name completely?
Do I shrug off my surname because of slavery and my first name because of genocide?
My parents are believers, I doubt they’ve ever even read the book of Joshua – but I have, and it’s appalling, disgusting and only proves to me that the Bible is a nasty, perverse little tome that holds very little value.
But still –
My name is the same this morning as it was yesterday. There are so many pet-variants on it that my creative father has crafted over the years.
It’s the name that people, now dead, would have last called me by. They would never know me if they were to see me under another label today.
My wife repeated it on our wedding day.
My teachers rarely called it except to say, “Why’s he so quiet?” But it was there, on the sheets of seating charts.
My first poem publication was under that name.
My first short story publication, as well.
My ancestors, whatever they were, brought it over from the places they’d been – when my father passes away I cannot bear to think of my brother, sister and mother alone with that surname.
And my students – my students look up at me and see the mono-syllabic surname presence walking circles around them, tossing his hands to the ceiling in emphasis or grief, pleading and goading them to be critical, to think, to feel and to have compassion, to trust in themselves and their mental faculties.
Maybe that’s enough to redeem my name, all of it, a drop of clear water (I hope) to dilute even further the blood in those letters.