SERMON Wounded by God

A reading from Genesis, the thirty-second chapter.

22 The same night [Jacob] arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24 And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh. (Genesis 32:22–32 ESV)

We have here what may very well be my most favorite story in all of the Bible.

Jacob is the trickster, the younger son (of twins) who cheated his older brother Esau out of his birthright and his blessing. Esau was the strong brother, mighty, a man’s man, hunting and fishing and farming and doing all those that strong men have always done. Esau is his father Isaac’s favorite.

Jacob stays inside — maybe he’s clever and bookish and probably a bit of a sissy. He’s certainly a mama’s boy. He is not a man’s man. He has lived by cunning and trickery most of his life (Jacob and his uncle Laban struggled hard to get one over on each other), and now he’s on the road — meeting all sorts of heavenly characters along the way — and he has decided to take his chances with his brother Esau.

Jacob has, after a fashion, done well for himself. And maybe the years of having to try and keep one step ahead of each attempt by his uncle to cheat him have finally gotten to him. “I have sent to tell my lord [Esau], in order that I may find favor in your sight,” he commands his servants to tell Esau.

But he’s scared. He stole everything from Esau. We speak of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Esau. This man is the recipient of the promise of God not by birth, but by fraud. “Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come to attack me …” Jacob prays as he sends his wives and all his children away on separate path so that he may meet Esau alone.

With his offering.

“Perhaps he will accept me.”

Alone, Jacob meets a man, and they fight. That man grabs hold of Jacob, and Jacob grabs back. And the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob… So he fights dirty. And Jacob still doesn’t let go. “Give me a blessing,” he demands in what has to be excruciating pain.1 “Tell me your name. Give me a blessing!”

And wounded, in pain, Jacob does not let go.

This, sisters and brothers, is faith. Our faith. We have come to identify the man — this stranger — as God himself. “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” God meets us in moments of fear, in the pitch black darkness of night, when are most alone and vulnerable, ambushes us and grabs hold of us.

And we grab back. Not knowing who or even what we’ve got ahold of.

But notice … God cannot prevail. The almighty cannot beat us. Omiscience and omnipotence and omnipresence cannot defeat us. Cannot prevail over us. Cannot win in his struggle with us. God himself has to resort to trickery, and even that fails to shake us. We do not let go. “Give me a blessing,” we say of this God who grabbed us in the middle of a dark night, who ambushed us when we were at our weakest, when we were at our worst.

This is faith. To grab hold of God when God grabs hold of you. To not let go. To demand to know who’s got you, to demand a blessing. And realize, God fights dirty. God wants to make the struggle stop.

And yet, frighted and wounded and alone in the inky black darkness, we don’t let go. We don’t give up. We prevail. Over God.

We prevail.

That, sisters and brothers, is our faith.

  1. In seminary, I recall reading a Jewish physician and sometime scripture commentator noting this wound was either physically impossible or such that Jacob would have been in so much pain that he would have been utterly incapacitated. The physician suggested the description of the act itself — putting the hip joint out of it socket — was a euphemism, and that God was possibly raping or attempting to rape Jacob. Which is truly fighting dirty. This is speculation. But consider for a moment what it might mean for God to fight that kind of dirty against us. ↩︎

JUDGES Life Amidst Thorns and Snares

A reading from Judges, the first and second chapters.

27 Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean and its villages, or Taanach and its villages, or the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, or the inhabitants of Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages, for the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land. 28 When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not drive them out completely.

1 Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, I will never break my covenant with you, 2 and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? 3 So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” 4 As soon as the angel of the Lord spoke these words to all the people of Israel, the people lifted up their voices and wept. 5 And they called the name of that place Bochim. And they sacrificed there to the Lord. (Judges 1:27–28, 2:1–5 ESV)

Israel put its faith in its own strength. In its own means. As it faced its enemies, the Israelites no longer believed in the command of God — “I will drive them out before you” — and instead looked its arms and its numbers and its power and said, “we can control you, and we can oppress you, and we can deal with you.”

“We can deal with your gods.”

Again and again, Israel is told — make no covenant with the people of the land, make no deals, do net let their altars and their objects of worship stand, lest they “become a snare in your midst.” (Exodus 34:12) We are not told why their gods will be so attractive, why dealing with them and eating with them and making love to their daughters is so dangerous, except that their worship will be so much more attractive than that of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who called us and saved us and redeemed us.

We aren’t told why. Maybe the false idols of the Canaanites demand so little of us, demand only what we are happily willing to give. Maybe the worship of the Canaanites is so sensual, the food of the Canaanites is so delicious, the company of the Canaanites so pleasurable, that we cannot help ourselves.

And maybe we are so enamored of our power that we think, “We have the swords, we make the laws, we are in control, our God is powerful and has given them into our hands. Their labor makes our lives easier. We can bear their company.”

So now, God tells us we have to live with these people, in our unhappy relationship. In the kind of terrible closeness conqueror and oppressor have with those have they dispossesed and enslaved. That relationship changes us, turns us into a callous and brutal people, people who have little problem with the daily cruelties needed to keep others subordinate, to compel their labor, to deny them their humanity.

This will make us people who cannot love our neighbors. Who cannot love God. Who cannot love ourselves.

So we live with the smoldering resentments of those we have conquered and enslaved. We live with their desire for vengeance. It will overtake us a time or two.

We have to live with the consequences of what we have done, and failed to do, and who we have become. A people who trust our means, our abilities, our strength, to protect and save ourselves. And not God. This is our faithlessness, and our sin. Our doom has been set into motion. We have set it into motion. God has told us more than once what the consequences will be.

And so we weep.

How Long, O’ Lord?

A reading from Habakuk, the first chapter.

1 The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.
2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4 So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.
(Habakkuk 1:1-4 ESV)

How long, O’ Lord?

I suspect many of us have cried this, wondered this, whispered this. Words sent into the air, to evaporate, to decay, unheard.

How long, O’ Lord?

The world is full of violence. It is full of wickedness, and it goes unpunished. There is injustice everywhere. “Why do you make me see it?” This is our world.

This was also Habakkuk’s world. He is speaking to the later kings of Judah, kings who failed to follow the law and worship God, kings who put their trust in wealth and power and in the worship of false gods.

10 And the Lord said by his servants the prophets, 11 “Because Manasseh king of Judah has committed these abominations and has done things more evil than all that the Amorites did, who were before him, and has made Judah also to sin with his idols, 12 therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such disaster that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. 13 And I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line of Samaria, and the plumb line of the house of Ahab, and I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. (2 Kings 21:10–13 ESV)

Judgement is coming, and it’s coming because of Israel’s faithlessness. Because of Israel’s idolatry. Because of Israel’s sin. This is God’s message to Habakkuk too, as he stands and wonders how much longer he must see, must live with and bear, the violence and injustice of the world.

5 “Look among the nations, and see;
wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told.
6 For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
to seize dwellings not their own.
7 They are dreaded and fearsome;
their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
(Habakkuk 1:5-7 ESV)

Judgement is coming, in the form of Babylon, to to pluck up and destroy. “They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand.” (Habakkuk 1:9) It is coming, and it is coming in God’s time.

To the question of “How long, O’ Lord,” God answers, soon and very soon.

It’s a judgment Habakkuk says he will wait quietly for.

But it is not a perfect justice that is coming. It is a rough justice, one of violence itself. It is justice because those who live in comfort and ease, who live and profit and get pleasure from brutality and violence, will themselves fall to the sword and will themselves become captives.

Babylon is the means, the hands doing God’s work, but Babylon is not free from that very same judgement. “Woe to him that builds a town with blood” God tells the prophet of the Chaldeans. The cup Babylon has made others drink will itself be passed to Babylon. And the Chaldeans shall be made to drink.

This is little comfort, however, when you live in the time of violence and injustice. When what you see all around will not stop. Cannot be made to stop. In which no one who wrongs you or anyone else will ever be held accountable. But perhaps knowing those who wrong you will themselves eventually fall by the sword — a sword which itself God will avenge himself upon — is enough.

… the righteous shall live by his faith. (Habakkuk 2:4)

We live by faith, in the promise of God, that this violence is not all there will be. Habakkuk did not live to see the promises of God fulfilled. But he trusted God. And waited “for the day of trouble” — knowing he would likely die waiting. Sometimes that is all we have.

It’s a terrible answer. To know that you may never be rescued, may never be redeemed. It is a terrible faith.

But the faith we have, the faith we confess, isn’t quite so hopeless. “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus says to the repentant thief dying with him. We believe in a redemption so real that we do not have to wait for it. We are saved, redeemed, right now, even if we can hold nothing in our hands and see nothing in our world that shows us we are redeemed.

We live, as Christ lived. We die, as Christ died. And we will rise, as Christ rose.

That is the only answer I have in the face of the violence and injustice of the world. It is the only hope I have. It is the only truth I can confess.

It is the only thing I know that’s real.

The Point of God’s Power

1 Praise the LORD!
Praise, O servants of the LORD,
praise the name of the LORD!
2 Blessed be the name of the LORD
from this time forth and forevermore!
3 From the rising of the sun to its setting,
the name of the LORD is to be praised!
4 The LORD is high above all nations,
and his glory above the heavens!
5 Who is like the LORD our God,
who is seated on high,
6 who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth?
7 He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
8 to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.
9 He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.
Praise the LORD! (Psalms 113 ESV)

Our God is an awesome God. We know that. We praise and acknowledge the glory and power and might of God in worship — in word, in song, in feeling.

Why? What is the point of God’s power and might? This psalm tells us — God’s power is to raise the poor from the dust, to elevate them from the place where they have been cast off, discarded, put aside. Where they are not important.

These cast off, discarded people have been raised — to a place of honor among those who rule, among the wealthy.

And those who have no family, no children, no safety, no protection, no one to make a home with — God gives them the children who will care for them, protect them, and make them a home.

When we praise God’s mighty saving acts, especially that primordial act of redeeming captive Israel from Egypt and drowning Pharaoh — who dared compare himself with God as one worthy of being served (עבד) and compelling service — we forget this was God’s act on behalf of a powerless, dispossessed people. A people who could not save themselves, weren’t entirely sure they wanted to be saved, and once redeemed, appeared to regret almost every minute of it.

It’s easy for us, as American Christians, to forget this. Or worse, to think we understand it when we we don’t. Because, generally speaking, we are not a powerless, dispossessed people. (Regardless of what our politics or culture tells us.) We may feel powerless, but we aren’t. Not like Israel was in Egypt. God acts not to confirm the order of the world, an order all too often built on someone’s exclusion or subjugation, but to upend that order, to take those we have crushed and cast aside and raise them to a place of glory and honor. To take those lonely and alone, ignored and unwanted and unprotected, and surround them with children, descendants, with those who love and value them.

This, and this alone, is the point and purpose of God’s power. This alone is what Jesus does on the Cross. And in rising from an empty tomb.

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.

JOSHUA God’s True Promises

1 Then the heads of the fathers’ houses of the Levites came to Eleazar the priest and to Joshua the son of Nun and to the heads of the fathers’ houses of the tribes of the people of Israel. 2 And they said to them at Shiloh in the land of Canaan, “The Lord commanded through Moses that we be given cities to dwell in, along with their pasturelands for our livestock.” 3 So by command of the Lord the people of Israel gave to the Levites the following cities and pasturelands out of their inheritance. …

45 The cities of the Levites in the midst of the possession of the people of Israel were in all forty-eight cities with their pasturelands. 42 These cities each had its pasturelands around it. So it was with all these cities.

43 Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. 44 And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands. 45 Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass. (Joshua 21:1–3, 41–45 ESV)

The land is taken. The promise is fulfilled. God has acted, and delivered his people, and brought them to the place of promise. This is a moment when everyone in Israel can breathe easy, relax, say “thank you,” and enjoy the peace and the quiet of God’s good provision.

But just remember, Israel did not take this land — The Lord gave it. Israel did not defeat their enemies through cunning, guile, and brute force — the Lord gave them into Israel’s hands. Some were expelled, some were killed, some were subdued, and some made peace on fraudulent terms. But they were given. Land and enemies — all of this was a gift to Israel, and Israel took that gift. Because that’s what you do with gifts from God, you grab hold of them and you take possession of them. They are gifts, unearned and even unasked for. This one is clearly conditional, as Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 and 30 emphatically show, but right now, at this place in Joshua;’s story, we reside in that moment between receipt of God’s gift and our response to giving.

It’s also important to remember that in this moment of peace, when the writer of Joshua acknowledges that none of the Lord’s promises to Israel have failed, and there is peace and rest across Canaan, the land is still full of Canaanites — enslaved, conquered, subject, foreigners. The rest Israel enjoys on all sides is also a gift from God, and not something Israel secured for itself.

Soon enough, this victory and peace will come to nothing. (Though the promises of God will never fail.) Because as we will see, the most human response to the gift of God is not thankfulness, but ingratitude. And a callous expectation of merit and entitlement that comes from forgetfulness.

JOSHUA No Land for Levi

1 Now Joshua was old and advanced in years, and the Lord said to him, “You are old and advanced in years, and there remains yet very much land to possess. 2 This is the land that yet remains: all the regions of the Philistines, and all those of the Geshurites … 6 … I myself will drive them out from before the people of Israel. Only allot the land to Israel for an inheritance, as I have commanded you. 7 Now therefore divide this land for an inheritance to the nine tribes and half the tribe of Manasseh.”

33 But to the tribe of Levi Moses gave no inheritance; the Lord God of Israel is their inheritance, just as he said to them. (Joshua 13:1–2, 6–7, 33 ESV)

So, all Israel gets land. All Israel gets the ability to sustain and care and provide for themselves. All Israel gets an allotment in the land God long-promised to Abraham and his descendants. Even Simeon, who joined Levi in his brutal assault on Hamor’s people in Genesis after Hamor the Hivite seized their sister Dinah and “lay with her and humiliated her” (Genesis 34:3) — and paid for that assault by being disinherited when a dying Jacob blesses his sons at the end of Genesis. Simeon gets a big circle of land in the middle of — surrounded by — Judah.

All Israel gets land. Except Levi.

The sons of Levi (the tribe of Moses) had been set aside to carry the Ark of the Covenant and “to stand before the Lord to minister to him and to bless his name, to this day.” (Deuteronomy 10:8) They are Israel’s priests, and are utterly dependent on the gifts given to God for their own survival (Deuteronomy 18:1–8).

They will receive their own patrimony — cities and pastures — later in Joshua. But mostly, the Levites have to depend on the goodwill gifts of the rest of Israel. They eat of the sacrifices given to God. While the manna stopped falling for Israel once they crossed the Jordan, the Levites are still dependent upon God for their sustenance.

For their daily bread.

This is what it means to do the work of serving God, as the priests of God’s people, to carry the physical embodiment of the covenant God has with his people, to keep the incense fires lit, to keep and tell and transmit the story of God’s people.

I believe in tent-making ministry, because our professionalized clergy have become a bourgeois “helping profession” where we are somewhere between community organizers and social workers, just another career that helps maintain good order in a democratic capitalist society. There is a place for that, I suppose, but, it is not all we are. We do a strange work, this lighting fires of incense, this proclamation of grace over bread and wine, this leading of prayers, this being the presence of God in the midst of sorrow and joy, terror and suffering. It is an odd thing we lead, this worship of God. It is particular work, this, and the community of God’s people have an obligation to the Levites called out of their midst to lead those prayers, keep that story, and proclaim that presence.

Because they rely on the Lord for all they have. They have to trust in ways the rest of us do not. They have no sustenance of their own, and no inheritance, no patrimony, except the promise of God. They show the rest of us what it means to live on the ragged edge, and in the midst of God’s amazing blessing.

The Children of the Barren One

Whenever I read this passage in Isaiah, I cannot help but think of this ministry I do, all the hurt, wounded, broken, and abused kids who have made their way to me over the last year — most of whom needed just a word or two, but a few have grabbed tight and will not let go.

1 “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,” says the Lord.

2 “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes.

3 For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities. (Isaiah 54:1–3 ESV)

And so, I sing. For my children, for the children of my heart that God has sent to me. For the children I find — and who find me — along the way.

“And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” So said the Lord to old, childless Abram as he sojourned in a land that was not his.

Abraham (neé Abram) never settled down. Never had a place to call his own. And yet… we all — Jews, Christians, Muslims — claim him as our ancestor, and struggle with what God’s promise of a patrimony means to us now.

He is my ancestor. He is yours. His tent is our home. His tent makes us a family. And my tent (such as it is) … is home to souls I’ve not even met yet. Broken human beings who need to know love and grace and healing and the promise of redemption.

My tent. My promise. My people. My tribe. My descendants.

JOSHUA Heeding the Voice of a Man

1 As soon as Adoni-zedek, king of Jerusalem, heard how Joshua had captured Ai and had devoted it to destruction, doing to Ai and its king as he had done to Jericho and its king, and how the inhabitants of Gibeon had made peace with Israel and were among them, 2 he feared greatly, because Gibeon was a great city, like one of the royal cities, and because it was greater than Ai, and all its men were warriors. 3 So Adoni-zedek king of Jerusalem sent to Hoham king of Hebron, to Piram king of Jarmuth, to Japhia king of Lachish, and to Debir king of Eglon, saying, 4 “Come up to me and help me, and let us strike Gibeon. For it has made peace with Joshua and with the people of Israel.” 5 Then the five kings of the Amorites, the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, and the king of Eglon, gathered their forces and went up with all their armies and encamped against Gibeon and made war against it.

6 And the men of Gibeon sent to Joshua at the camp in Gilgal, saying, “Do not relax your hand from your servants. Come up to us quickly and save us and help us, for all the kings of the Amorites who dwell in the hill country are gathered against us.” 7 So Joshua went up from Gilgal, he and all the people of war with him, and all the mighty men of valor. 8 And the Lord said to Joshua, “Do not fear them, for I have given them into your hands. Not a man of them shall stand before you.” 9 So Joshua came upon them suddenly, having marched up all night from Gilgal. 10 And the Lord threw them into a panic before Israel, who struck them with a great blow at Gibeon and chased them by the way of the ascent of Beth-horon and struck them as far as Azekah and Makkedah. (Joshua 10:1–10 ESV)

This is where the sun stood still, where stones fell from heaven and obliterated the fleeing army of the five Amorite kings as the birds destroyed Abraha’s army as it laid siege to Makka in Surah 90 of the Qur’an.

This is a battle Israel fought not on behalf of itself, but of its newfound Gibeonite allies — Hivites who signed a covenant with Israel, who sought Israel’s protection because they feared Israel’s God, who lied about who they were, and how far they came, in order to make that covenant with Israel.

A covenant Israel had no business making. A covenant forbidden in the Torah because the people of Gibeon are Canaanites.

Israel did not have to wage this battle, to fight this fight, as the five Amorite kings lay siege to Gibeon. Joshua did not have to take his mighty men of valor up from Gilgal to save this people who lied their way into a covenant with Israel. And God, who had forbidden even the idea of Israel cutting covenants with Canaanites, did not have to favor Israel in this battle.

But Joshua leads the army to Gibeon. And Israel’s God is there too, fighting for Israel, in a battle on behalf of a people Israel was absolutely forbidden from cutting a covenant with! God, who gave the law and said no mercy and no covenant with the Canaanites, now telling Joshua “do not fear!” as Israel prepares to do battle on behalf of dishonestly acquired Canaanite allies.

So much for the law. I’m not saying it isn’t important. But it isn’t all there is. God meets Israel in its situation — a situation that has careened completely out of control, if obeying the law were all that mattered. And God meets Israel in that situation, where Israel is, in what Israel has done, and fights for Israel.

God is fighting for Canaanites here. The very Canaanites God commanded merciless war against.

I wrote yesterday that it seems, at least here, that the words of God’s people are at least as important as the words of God given to God’s people. The author of Joshua, in speaking of the sun standing still over Gibeon that day, said it this way:

There has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded the voice of a man, for the Lord fought for Israel. (Joshua 10:14)

Except that there have been many such days since. Not when the sun sat still in the sky. But when the Lord heeded the voice of a man, and fought for his people.


1 As soon as all the kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan to the west, and all the kings of the Canaanites who were by the sea, heard that the Lord had dried up the waters of the Jordan for the people of Israel until they had crossed over, their hearts melted and there was no longer any spirit in them because of the people of Israel.

2 At that time the Lord said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the sons of Israel a second time.” 3 So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the sons of Israel at Gibeath-haaraloth. 4 And this is the reason why Joshua circumcised them: all the males of the people who came out of Egypt, all the men of war, had died in the wilderness on the way after they had come out of Egypt. 5 Though all the people who came out had been circumcised, yet all the people who were born on the way in the wilderness after they had come out of Egypt had not been circumcised. 6 For the people of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, until all the nation, the men of war who came out of Egypt, perished, because they did not obey the voice of the Lord; the Lord swore to them that he would not let them see the land that the Lord had sworn to their fathers to give to us, a land flowing with milk and honey. 7 So it was their children, whom he raised up in their place, that Joshua circumcised. For they were uncircumcised, because they had not been circumcised on the way.

8 When the circumcising of the whole nation was finished, they remained in their places in the camp until they were healed. 9 And the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” And so the name of that place is called Gilgal to this day. (Joshua 5:1–9 ESV)

I don’t know whether Israel is faithful or foolhardy here.

Or both.

This is a faithful act, renewing the covenant of circumcision with those born in the wilderness, who had apparently not been circumcised, becoming part of the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 17:

9 And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you:Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (Genesis 17:9–14 ESV)

So, Israel hadn’t kept the covenant, but it could be that Israel wasn’t really Israel as long as they were wandering in the wilderness, as the curse that none who were afraid of the Canaanites (Numbers 13–14) was in place. As River Tam said in an episode of Firely, “They weren’t really cows in the ship. Then they saw sky, and remembered what they were.”

Israel doesn’t really become Israel, doesn’t really shake the curse of wandering, isn’t fully a people of the covenant, until they are in the land.

In this, the reproach of Egypt, of slavery, of fear, is gone. Rolled away. Now they truly know who they are — God’s people, called to do God’s work.

But this circumcision is a foolhardy as well. For had the kings of the Canaanites but known, Israel was at its most vulnerable in the days following this mass cutting of foreskins. In Genesis 34, this is a ruse by the sons of Jacob to put the Hivites both at ease and make them easy prey. Which they are, Simeon and Levi kill every last Hivite man on the “third day” after their mass circumcision.

So, by doing this, Israel is defying the kings of Canaan, taunting them, and — more than anything else — trusting that God, who took the spirit out of the Canaanites with his miraculous act of stopping the Jordan and letting Israel cross dry shod, will protect them.

Sometimes the most faithful act we can do is to become utterly, completely, and totally vulnerable before our enemies. And trust that our God will protect us, and keep us safe.