Humiliation and Humility: Joshua 8:13-29, especially vs. 17: “Then the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Stretch out your hand with the spear in your hand toward the city, for I have given it into your hands; and the ambush will rise up quickly from their place.’” Few of us relish the chagrin of a defeat as humiliating as the one Israel endured at Ai. If, however, we bring the right mindset to a tough problem, the result may be true spiritual gain – especially if we learn from the Lord the cause of our earlier loss. Addressing our bitter humiliation with Him may yield genuine victory, but only if we choose humility as the viable pathway. As Saint Nikolai of Zicha says, “The first exercise for a recruit in Christ’s army is practice in obedience and humility” (Homilies vol. 1, p. 13).
Israel’s first foray against Ai results in devastating humiliation. The death of thirty-six warriors and the flight of a seasoned military force before the advance of the enemy is the price God’s people pay for acting apart from the commanding leadership of God. In directing Israel to return to Ai, the Lord gives his people an opportunity to grow from humiliation into true humility. Every disciple of the Lord needs to realize that we cannot grow in humility unless we overcome deadly pride in ourselves. By following this sure path we grow in every virtue pleasing to God.
Humiliation and humility are not the same thing, although both derive from the root word humus, which means “earth.” The defeat and subsequent victory at Ai illustrates the difference. The thirty-six who fall before the defenders of Ai are a grievous humiliation for Israel and lead God’s people to His footstool. Up until that time the people had been consistently victorious. We recall Israel’s joyous psalmody as the people exulted in their victory at the Red Sea – “horse and rider He has thrown into the sea” (Ex 15:1) – and after He “smote great kings” (Ps 135:17). Just before Ai, Israel had seen the miraculous collapse of the walls of Jericho, the taking of that fortress, and its offering to God as a holocaust. Yet Ai brings defeat and humiliation.
The sequence of events reveals that pride is the sinful passion that leads to the people’s defeat in the wake of their Jericho triumph. Pride works their undoing, for they mindlessly attacked a spiritual foe without being grounded in the Lord’s will – the true source of every victory. Even Joshua, God’s own prophet, is lulled into complacency by the tide of successive victories and sends spies to Ai without first seeking the Lord (Jos 7:2). Even worse, he deploys a three-thousand-man combat team based on the advice of these spies, who are mere men. When pride is the invitation, humiliation follows swiftly, “so the hearts of the people were terrified and became as water” (vs. 7:5).
That Joshua and Israel then humble themselves is evident from their actions after their defeat. He and the elders “fell to the ground before the face of the Lord . . . and they put dust on their heads” (vs. 7:6). With the sprinkling of dried earth they acknowledge the sin of pride in their hearts and come before God with a life- giving humility.
This passage reveals the great value of humiliation, which encourages Israel to follow the Lord’s plan in humility and to find a gracious outcome through obedience. When the people execute the Lord’s tactical ruse, they defeat their pagan enemies (vss. 8:14-24). To bless them in growing spiritually, the Lord then gives “the cattle and the spoils in the city
“The beginning of the mortification of both the soul’s desire and of the bodily members is much hard work. . . .Only when [the disciple] sees himself doing his own will does this blessed living corpse feel sorry and sick at heart . . . of using his own judgment” (Ladder of Divine Ascent 4.4, p. 21).
O Thou Who resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble, enable us to humble ourselves under Thy mighty hand, be clothed with humility, and cast all our care upon Thee. – Based on 1 Peter 5:5-7