1 Then Joshua rose early in the morning and they set out from Shittim. And they came to the Jordan, he and all the people of Israel, and lodged there before they passed over. 2 At the end of three days the officers went through the camp 3 and commanded the people, “As soon as you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God being carried by the Levitical priests, then you shall set out from your place and follow it. 4 Yet there shall be a distance between you and it, about 2,000 cubits in length. Do not come near it, in order that you may know the way you shall go, for you have not passed this way before.” 5 Then Joshua said to the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.” 6 And Joshua said to the priests, “Take up the ark of the covenant and pass on before the people.” So they took up the ark of the covenant and went before the people. (Joshua 3:1–6 ESV)
It’s easy for us to think, most of the time, that we are the doers of our own deeds, the workers of our own wonders, and masters of our own fates. If there’s work to be done, a world to be saved, a victory to be won, then we do it ourselves. With our own hands, our own hearts, and our own minds.
This is a very human thing, this belief. I’m reminded of a joke I heard a Mormon farmer tell at a county planning and zoning commission many years when I worked as a reporter in Northern Utah:
A farmer stands leaning on a fence, admiring his neighbor’s wheat, ripening in the summer sun.
“The Lord has certainly been good to you!” the first farmer said.
The second farmer shook his head and spat angrily.
“The Lord!?! The Lord had nothing to do with it. If it had been up to the Lord, this field would be nothing but weeds and thorns. I did all this work.”
And to the extent that this is true, it is true. My grandfather could never have simply trusted God to yield wheat and barley on the hills of his farm without sowing and tending and reaping himself. As Lutherans, we say God uses “means” — simple material things like bread, wine, and water — to convey the grace and promise of God. While we do believe in the miraculous provision of God — manna to gather in the morning, water from bare rock, thousands fed by five loaves and two fish — we also believe, and preach, that the work of God needs (if that isn’t too strong a term, because I do not like to impose necessity upon God) our hands in order to be incarnate in the world.
But that’s not what’s going on here. This is not about Israel doing the work of God, its own hands acting out the command of God. Joshua walks among the Israelites, preparing them for the battle to come. Make yourselves holy, he says,
… for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.
He further tells Israel, as they are setting out behind the Ark of the Covenant to cross the Jordan River and enter Canaan
“Here is how you shall know that the living God is among you and that he will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, and the Jebusites.” (Joshua 3:10 ESV)
I suspect the task Israel is setting out to start here — war without mercy to a take a promised land already inhabited by a myriad of people — troubles us. It is, to us, the worst of kind of religious violence, genocide sanctioned by God (Deuteronomy 7). We will see, however, that what happens in Joshua and Judges, is not that simple.
Our hands are at work, holding swords and shields, bows and arrows, hacking and piercing and killing. This is holy work, this conquest.
But it is not our work. It is God’s work. And God alone does this work, no matter how we bloody our hands. It’s as if we’re solely along for the ride, pantomiming at war while the real work is being done be a heavenly army in our midst. (Pay attention…) At the beginning of this book, we have the command to fight, to show no mercy, but we also have this prediction of utter failure given to Moses at the end of Deuteronomy, taught to us in song, and the promise that God — and God alone — will do wonders among us.
Will do the hard work so long as we are faithful.