JOSHUA It’s Hard to Leave Egypt Behind

It’s been a bit since I last blogged any devotionals based on readings from Joshua, and I was so close to finishing! So, here we go, last stretch.

14 “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods, 17 for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. 18 And the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” (Joshua 24:14–18 ESV)

What struck me about this passage, from Joshua’s long valedictory speech (he dies at the end of this chapter), is Joshua’s command to “put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.” I would have thought that by this point, with Israel long into securing the land of promise — or, ahem, taking possession of the land the Lord God is giving them — would have long given up the gods, the rituals, the worship of Egypt. Left them behind, drowned, in the Red Sea.

After all, aren’t these God’s people, pure and sinless, worshiping the Lord God alone, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Have we not renewed the covenant between God and his people several times in this land of promise? Have we not seen the new generation circumcised? Have we not celebrated the passover as we waited outside Jericho?

With all of that, why warn Israel about those annoying false gods of faraway Egypt? Unless, for some strange reason, they were still a temptation?

It’s like the Saudi clerics who regularly issue warnings to good Saudi Muslims not to congratulate non-Muslims in the kingdom on Christmas and Easter. No one would be issuing warnings unless good Muslim shopkeepers were telling their Christian customers, “Merry Christmas!”

All this time, all of this space between Israel and Egypt, the drowning of Pharaoh’s army, and Anubis, Osiris, and Amen Ra are still interesting. Still compelling. Still being served. Still the objects of fierce devotion.

The gods of neighbors. Of conquerors. Of those who enslaved. Still an attractive nuisance. Even after the generation which saw slavery in Egypt has gone. This devotion, handed down, it has survived in the midst of Israel. Despite all that God has done.

Oh, Israel confesses it will follow the Lord God who called Israel, freed Israel, and gave Israel the gift of this land. But like every confession Israel makes — “Just as we obeyed Moses in all things, so we will obey you.” Only they didn’t obey Moses… — this seems half-hearted, a thing Israel knows it’s supposed to say so it can look good before God’s anointed before getting back to the serious business of groveling before statues and sacrificing small children in fires. I’m not sure Israel means it. Not really.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter what Israel means or says. God is still with Israel whether Israelites dance around Asheroth poles or bow down to Anubis or not. Joshua says he and his will serve only the Lord, and we have no reason to doubt that. But even idolatrous Israel is still God’s own people. The failure to worship the Lord God alone will not be a reason for God to abandon his people. Leave them to wallow in their crapulence, deal with the consequences of their idolatry, yes, God will do all of that and then some.

But God never abandons his people. Even as some may have worshiped the gods of Egypt, God still fought for them, took the land for them, drove out the Canaanites and delivered them into the hands of Israel. Israel is not the people of God because of anything they have done — they are the people of God because God gathered them, formed them, blessed them, favored them.

This is God’s doing, and not ours. We cannot undue it. No matter how much Egypt we carry with us into the land of promise.

Fighting Biology, Fighting Purpose

NPR’s Morning Edition had a very interesting little piece about those life-like dolls used to instruct teen girls on the evils of early pregnancy: upshot? The dolls appear to encourage more pregnancy than they discourage — a conclusion that seems to disappoint the authors of the study.

Our global meritocracy demands delaying family creation and focusing, instead, on education and career. Marriage and family are not a step in the direction of adulthood, they are capstone events that come atop other kinds of success. The meaning of human existence is found in paid work, in careers, in employment. That is what it means to belong, contribute, and to be important. It’s a powerful worldview at work here. And it works for many people.

But … it’s also, in many ways, goes against the grain of what many (possibly most) human beings probably want in life. The meaning of existence for many people — nearly all in human history, and I suspect most today — is found not in paid work (which is done and tolerated as part of a larger and wider web of relationships) but in life together. In our relations to each other, in family, in neighborhood, in community.

So, let me suggest — most women in the world want to be wives and mothers. (Most, but certainly not all.) Most men want to be fathers and husbands. (Again, most, but certainly not all.) Because we have to understand — most human being cannot have fulfilling, meaningful careers that will leave much of a mark on human history or even be considered “important” work. Meaning and purpose are found in small things — love, children, marriage, friendship, community, work done well and competently to make all that possible. Instead, loving and belonging are what give us meaning and make us important.

While it is wise to discourage teen girls from having babies in a world in which credentials and careers matter and do provide stability and define success, we forget that for many, this very kind of inconvenient caring is what it means to love and be human. To be important. To matter.

You can’t fight biology or purpose with everyone.

In a mediated world, where we are constantly presented images of people more beautiful and successful and important than we are, in which success is getting that degree and then that career that gets you noticed and makes you famous and important (yes, I plead guilty to this), we forget that the most important people are the ones we meet, we make, we love, we care for.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

Some Very Good News for a Change!

Good morning all! There have been times, like the last two weeks, when I kind of lose my will to blog because I get worried about all the other things I have to do. Recently, that meant dealing with — and worrying about — my inability to find a job.

Well, I am employed now, as a reporter for the Columbia Basin Herald in Moses Lake, Washington!

What that means for this blog is that I’m going to focus a great deal more on scripture commentary and a lot of the social criticism I do — which isn’t much — will drop. I still have to finish my reflections on Joshua, and then move on to something else. And I still want to regularly reflect on readings from the Revised Common Lectionary. However, know this: I don’t believe that faith in God is somehow separated or isolated from ordinary, secular life.

But … work! Paid work! So, say a prayer and thank God and pray for courage and strength. The ministry I do with abused kids still continues (I had hoped to get a night a decent sleep Sunday before my first day of work, but God sent several young women my way who needed kindness and the courage to walk away from abusive situations), and my call to what we Lutherans call “word and sacrament ministry” is still as strong as ever. I am, however, committed to this calling reporting and writing in Washington, doing it well, doing it right, and doing it for a couple of years. I’m tired of wandering, and would like a home.

So, we’re here. Thank you all for your prayers and concerns. May the Lord be with you all!

An Update

Just in case anyone is concerned, I want to apologize for not blogging in the last few days. Things have not been going well this week, and it’s taking a lot of energy just to hold myself together right now.

However, just so you know, things are bubbling, and I hope — I really truly hope — to have something resembling good news to report in the next few days. Until then, please, pray, that God has finally heard, and remembered, and acted to deliver.


Conservatism, Good Order, and Protecting the Weak

In a long piece over at The American Conservative on the limits of consent as a guiding ethic for our sexual culture, Grace Olmstead has some very interesting things to say about culture, gender roles, and virtue — something a lot of conservatives have talked about in the last few decades:

The seeds of sexual assault are going to start young, Smith is right about that. But talking about consent to a kindergartener is not going to solve the problem—because a young man like Brock Turner doesn’t care whether or not a woman gives him consent. He’s already decided that his desires trump the needs or desires of anyone else around him. We need to reach beyond sexual politics, and seek to guide the hearts of our children: teaching them what is right, and stirring in them a desire to do what is good.

When I was a young girl, I remember reading Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Say what you will about the romantic, embellished prose or stereotypical characters—it taught me what it looks like to be a lady, and what it looks like to be a gentleman.

Take, first, the character Rebecca: noble, valiant, stubborn, virtuous. She has self-respect and nobility. When others treat her badly, it doesn’t upend her security or confidence. When she’s threatened by a man who wants to her to become his mistress, she firmly, resolutely tells him “no.” It doesn’t matter what the world thinks or what the consequences might be: she knows what is right. And she has the dignity and courage to pursue that unflinchingly.

Then there’s Ivanhoe: a valiant knight, caring son, loyal lover. He also does what is right, no matter the consequences. Near the end of the book, Ivanhoe seeks to rescue Rebecca from her tormenter and be her champion—even though he’s in love with someone else. This is what a gentleman is: someone who seeks the wellbeing and safety of vulnerable people around him, regardless of whether it’s in his own interests.

Words like “lady” and “gentleman” seem antiquated in today’s society; and it’s true, they’re derived from a time in which gender roles were less fluid and sexual mores were more strict. But I’d argue that ladylike and/or gentlemanly behavior needn’t be consigned to the history books, because these words capture what it means to have a virtuous balance of self-respect and deference, dignity and charity. Being a lady has nothing to do with acting “feminine” or wearing frilly clothing. Being a gentleman has nothing to do with lording one’s might or “manliness” over others—quite the opposite. These words describe a person who prizes their own self-worth and dignity, while also caring deeply for the wellbeing of those around them.

I’m deeply sympathetic to what Olmstead writes here. I do think virtue, especially a virtue which puts the well-being of the weak and the vulnerable above self-interest, is a noble aspiration, well worth having and cultivating. I’ve often thought some more old-fashioned notions that might govern bigotry, harassment, hate speech, and microagressions — that such expressions are simply rude and thus beyond the pale in civilized and polite company — would help considerably foster character and create spaces we can all live, work, and love in.

I want to live in this polite, respectful, and highly idealized world of gentlemen and ladies.

And I will even go so far as to note that I think a lot of conservative intellectuals believe that good social order — conservative, christian, traditional order — will do exactly that; it will foster the character of people who will put the well-being of the weak and vulnerable above their own.

As First Things editor R. R. Reno says in an interview about his most recent book, Resurrecting The Idea of a Christian Society,

Our paganism is soft and small, not hard and grandiose. We worship the hearth gods of health, wealth, and pleasure. But it’s a cruel paganism and in the book I detail the ways in which it’s especially hard on the poor and vulnerable. I want readers to see that a concern about traditional morality isn’t “moralistic.” It reflects a desire to defend the weak and vulnerable—a crucial biblical imperative.

I believe he really believes this (because he’s right, especially the nature of American paganism), that traditional morality reflects a desire to defend the weak and vulnerable. It is a biblical imperative.

But here’s the rub — most conservative Christians are probably less conservative than they are authoritarian. Their faith in good social order, and that order itself, isn’t a means to an end — it is an end in and of itself.

Growing up in and around the military, on army bases across the country and then in a very far flung and conservative suburb of Los Angeles, social order was imposed and enforced rather brutally. Conformity was demanded, and non-conformity was rather brutally punished. Men and women who failed to adhere to the norms were beaten, bullied, marginalized, excluded. We weren’t safe. Now, some may say that in conformity is our well-being, but this way of arranging the world — of demanding sameness, compliance, conformity before considering anyone’s well-being — doesn’t put the needs of the weak and vulnerable first. Instead, it attempts to eradicate weakness and vulnerability, and failing to do that, it attemtps to make the weak and the vulnerable “disappear” altogether.

Social and cultural conservatives have only themselves to blame for the collapse of their ideals. Never in the 1980s and 1990s did I hear any social or cultural conservatives even hint they cared about the well-being of the weak and vulnerable beyond their shrill exhortations on behalf of the unborn — exhortations that always struck me as deeply hypocritical since most social and cultural conservatives didn’t much care about the predations of the market, accepted bullying in school, were always quick to support war, and seemed to believe in a harsh social darwinism when it came to the poor, people of color, or people who are queer.

Or simply people who could not or would not conform.

The weak and the vulnerable in America’s conservative authoritarian communities were at the mercy of society’s good order. An order built on bullying, violence, exclusion, and death. The experience of being on the receiving end of that order is, I think, something that holds a lot of the Democratic coalition together — we (because I am a blue state person culturally if not politically) have been the weak and the vulnerable and have found no protection. Indeed, that good order has brutalized, exploited, and marginalized us, and then it has demanded we accept our reduced and excluded status and the violence done to us as social goods and morally right.

As the way things should be.

The social order emerging from the left will, sadly, become just as brutal and authoritarian as the order it is replacing, especially when it comes to the sexual revolution and matters of imposing and enforcing ideas of gender and racial identity. That order will find its own to brutalize and marginalize. Because that’s what social order does.

But conservatives — especially conservative Christians — hold no moral high ground here. Reno is a day late and a fistful of dollars short. Because many of us experienced a conservative order that pretty well brutalized us. Conservatives wouldn’t be in this position if they hadn’t held so tight to a social order built on racism and segregation, absolute conformity to a certain kind of white, bourgeois ideal, formal and informal violence meted out harshly, and held love of neighbor to be some kind of secondary or even tertiary command from God — a nice idea to be thought of every now and again, but something that ignored the harsh reality of a world in which some people just needed a beating (or two, or three) in order to straighten up and fly right (or held down, or pushed out of the way).

In this, the Trump campaign is probably a far clearer and much more coherent expression of American “conservatism,” the kind of social order conservative Americans believe in and the way conservatives have envisioned and enforced order, than anything said or written by an editor at First Things.

JOSHUA Reaping What You Did Not Sow

Chapter 24, the final chapter of Joshua, begins with Joshua relating Israel’s story to the people as they are gathered to hear his last testament to the people of God gathered at Schechem. And Joshua tells them of the nature of the gift they have received from God:

I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant. (Joshua 24:13 (ESV)

This is a world in which we all strive to make more than we take, in which we admire self-reliance, in which we claim “I built this!” And take great pride in what we build, accumulate, and leave behind. We earn what we earn, digging and hewing and carving it out of the very ground we walk upon.

We earn. It’s what we do. It’s what we strive to. We labor. It is honest, decent, moral. To earn our daily bread. I want to earn. I want to work and draw a paycheck or even sing for my supper. I want to know I’ve done honest labor, can care for my family, and even help support others. An orphanage in India I have been aching to help.

But Joshua reminds Israel that they did not earn this land. And have they not worked it. They reap fruit they did not sow in a land that was full of people they have driven out, killed, conquered, and enslaved. I suspect this strikes many of us as tremendously unjust — especially in a world where war and conquest, occupation and imperialism, are viewed with great disdain, as fundamentally immoral acts.

Western Christians — at least some of us — are repenting of these things, and repudiating church teachings that proclaimed lands already full of people actually empty, places open for conquest and settlement. We condemn this kind of thing, we do not celebrate it.

And we certainly don’t attribute this kind of gift to God.

All this reminds me of the parable of the Ten Minas in Luke 19:11–27. It’s a harsh parable, especially when it comes to the servant who was so afraid that he did nothing with the sum he’d been entrusted with:

20 Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; 21 for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ 22 He said to him, I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ 24 And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has the ten minas.’ 25 And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten minas!’ 26 ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Luke 19:20–26 ESV)

I’ve heard lots of attempts to turn this into a critique of the political and economic system of the empire in which God is not complicit, none of them ring true, I believe the harsh master off to claim the kingdom in another land is Christ1, and he is returning to the judge the church — his followers who have been entrusted with the wealth of God in the absence of our master.

And this brief passage from Joshua bolsters that view. God does, in fact, give to those who have not earned, who did not deserve. God takes from those too frightened to live (and maybe sin) boldly in faith. Many reap who never sowed seeds of wheat, and much sowing is done by those who will never take a scythe to the grain they have planted. Who will never thresh.

Earlier in Luke 12, Jesus tells the story of a rich fool who takes comfort knowing his silos are full of grain, who relaxes to eat and drink, not knowing he will die that night.

But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

Is God just or unjust here? Perhaps because this parable is a critique of wealth, couched in terms of inevitable and inescapable death, that we can accept it. We will all die. We will all leave behind things, the wreckage of our lives, that will become the possessions of others. The parable of the minas is different. It suggests a coming judgment — and like many of the judgment stories in Luke, it’s a harsh and brutal judgment — in which God will actively take from one who has little and give to one who already has more than enough.

Like the parable of the minas, however, this gifting of the land — a land already populated with women and men, old and young, full of cities and fields — is conditioned upon Israel’s adherence to the covenant. And we are about to reach that moment in the biblical narrative in which the Israel will begin to reap the consequences of its failure to do as God commanded when the gift of this land was made. God will stop fighting for Israel. Eventually, this land will vomit Israel out. Just as God said it would.

  1. I believe the allusion here is to Vespasian, the Roman general who in the midst of the Jewish War, left with a legion to seize power in Rome, placing his son Titus in charge of besieging Jerusalem and destroying (accidentally, if press reports are to be believed) the city. ↩︎

JOSHUA God Fights for You

1 A long time afterward, when the Lord had given rest to Israel from all their surrounding enemies, and Joshua was old and well advanced in years, 2 Joshua summoned all Israel, its elders and heads, its judges and officers, and said to them, “I am now old and well advanced in years. 3 And you have seen all that the Lord your God has done to all these nations for your sake, for it is the Lord your God who has fought for you. 4 Behold, I have allotted to you as an inheritance for your tribes those nations that remain, along with all the nations that I have already cut off, from the Jordan to the Great Sea in the west. 5 The Lord your God will push them back before you and drive them out of your sight. And you shall possess their land, just as the Lord your God promised you. 6 Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left, 7 that you may not mix with these nations remaining among you or make mention of the names of their gods or swear by them or serve them or bow down to them, 8 but you shall cling to the Lord your God just as you have done to this day. 9 For the Lord has driven out before you great and strong nations. And as for you, no man has been able to stand before you to this day. 10 One man of you puts to flight a thousand, since it is the Lord your God who fights for you, just as he promised you. 11 Be very careful, therefore, to love the Lord your God. 12 For if you turn back and cling to the remnant of these nations remaining among you and make marriages with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, 13 know for certain that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you, but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the Lord your God has given you. (Joshua 23:1–13 ESV)

Joshua’s valedictory — his final message to the people he was called and chosen to lead — is a reminder: It is the Lord your God who fights for you. Israel can only stand against Canaan, take this land, because God is fighting for and with Israel.

One man beats a thousand not because of Israel’s strength, or purity, or righteousness, but because the Lord God of Israel fights there, with Israel.

(This is the faithfulness of Joshua’s namesake who gives himself up to death to take away the sin of the world.)

But we have a promise here too that if Israel turns its back on its God, fails to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,” God will stop fighting for Israel. God won’t abandon Israel. God will just stop fighting for Israel.

Note well what sin is at stake here — idolatry. An idolatry made flesh in the form of the Canaanites remaining in their midst. An idolatry made real in the tempting flesh of those very same Canaanites, who loom as a threat to Israel’s “rest” and well being. Everything that will put Israel at risk, that will eventually make Israel “perish from off this good ground” begins with idolatry. With the gods of Canaanites and with the Canaanites own fleshy existence.

Everything begins with idolatry.

This biblical story is a metaphor for us, a way for us to understand who we are, our history, our present, and our circumstances. The church in West faces an enemy not in Islam, but in the very modernity and enlightenment we birthed. The decline of Christendom — in all its forms — is a judgment upon the church, for our faithlessness and our idolatry. For our failure to love the Lord our God with hearts and souls and might. For our trust in these very fleshy and corporeal gods beside us, gods who promise us reason and answers and enlightenment.

But as much as we want to read this history as giving us a way out — that this time, we can obey — we cannot read Joshua’s warning without knowing and understanding what comes next: Israel does not love God mightily with hearts and souls. Israel clings to Canaanites (in part by enslaving them), to their gods. Israel is given an if/then, else/then, but there really is no successful outcome. There’s just a falling away.

So, if we think that somehow we can love mightily with hearts and souls, we are mistaken. This history tells us who we are — people who cling to false gods out of of lust, love, devotion, compulsion, power, the desire to dominate. Israel is not saved because a tiny remnant of Israel is faithful; Israel is saved because God hears, knows, and remembers, and is faithful to his promises.