JUDGES We Forget

A reading from Judges, the second chapter.

7 And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the Lord had done for Israel. 8 And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of 110 years. 9 And they buried him within the boundaries of his inheritance in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephraim, north of the mountain of Gaash. 10 And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.

11 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. (Judges 2:7–11 ESV)

“And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.”

So it is that we do not know. I am reminded of another place in scripture where someone does know, where things that were done become mere stories we may or may not tell, and because of that, where the reality we face suddenly becomes mysterious and undecipherable, something we are no longer capable of understanding:

8 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us.” (Exodus 1:8–9 ESV)

We forget so easily what God has done for us. A new Pharaoh forgets what Israel did, what Joseph did, to save Egypt, and sees not allies and friends but a threat so large it must be dealt with. Israel has forgotten its redemption from Egypt, God’s provision of manna and water in the wilderness, the guidance of the pillar of cloud and fire. Israel has forgotten that the walls of Jericho fell without effort, how the sun stood still over Gibeon and how the birds came and dropped stones on the army of Adoni-Zedek, and how God gave Canaan into the hands of Israel.

Israel has forgotten. Because it has all faded into memory. It has all become stories.

We forget. We come to not know. We live in the midst of circumstances we have inherited and we do not entirely understand how. We do not remember the gifts our ancestors and forebears received from God, the gifts that got us here.

And so we abandon God.

We do not know the work because it is undone in our midst. Maybe we tell stories, but likely, we do not really believe them. God didn’t actually do any of that, we say.

We forget. We become those who did know. We worship what we find around us — the idols of the people we are conquering, who land and places we are inheriting.

It is easy, this forgetting. Israel forgets even when the acts of God are fresh in its memory and experience — why else worship a golden calf a Sinai when only recently our God drowned the oppressor’s army in sea? It’s a lot to expect that we will remember a generation or two removed from the saving.

We forget. Even when we tell stories. We forget and we abandon God. That’s just our nature.

But there is good news. As we shall see, this forgetting gives God a chance to intervene in our lives, again and again, to redeem us. So that we can become people who know the Lord, and the works he does for us.

JOSHUA A Few Final Thoughts

The last few weeks I have spent reflecting on passages from the Book of Joshua have gotten me to thinking about things. Which is good, I suppose, though some might argue that I think too much.

But I have drawn some conclusions from this little romp through Joshua that are going to stick with me.

First, leading the people of God is a thankless task doomed to failure. By all accounts, Joshua is a successful leader. He accomplishes much, wins most of the battles he leads, and appears to be a faithful a man as possible.

Yet the enterprise he leads is doomed and he knows it. “You are not able to serve the Lord,” he tells Israel. And he’s not wrong. Joshua knows a thing or two about this people. He knows what they are not capable of. Perhaps he paid attention to the warnings given by God through Moses in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. The blessings and curses. He knows that even despite the presence of God in Israel’s midst, fighting its battles, winning its victories, that this endeavor will end in defeat, conquest, and slavery. (“And the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, a journey that I promised that you should never make again; there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.” Deuteronomy 28:68)

Joshua did not worry about Israel’s success, at least not in the long term. He followed God’s appointment to lead God’s people, and he did so faithfully. But he also did so knowing how this would end, that this stiff-necked, faithless people of God would fail and would do so utterly. That everything he accomplished in conquest and building would eventually come to nothing as others would, in turn, conquer and destroy all he’d done. Joshua was faithful in the face eventual failure. He was still faithful.

Nor did God worry about Israel’s success. God laid out the consequences for Israel’s faithlessness, and the history of Israel bears witness to the rise and fall of Israel. God understood Israel would eventually fail, and yet God led Israel into the land of promise, fought for Israel, and gave the land and its cities (and even some of its people) over. God was faithful even in the face of eventual failure.

A reader wondered as I began this whether I would read Joshua Christologically, that is, see Christ in the figure of Joshua. It’s hard because I find Joshua a stern and unyielding figure, a forbidding man hard to square with the Jesus who calls “softly and tenderly.” (Though I will be the first to say Jesus mostly doesn’t call “softly and tenderly.”) One place where they meet is in faithfulness. Success is not the creation of a lasting empire — there are no permanent empires anyway — but rather following the call of God, being the presence of God, doing God’s work right here and right now and not worrying about descendants or legacies or the future. Jesus taught and healed and cast out and raised the dead having at least some idea of where it all would end — on a cross, alone and abandoned to despair and death. He set his face toward Jerusalem anyway.

So pastoral ministry and faithful discipleship must always be aware that while there are victories to be had in the here and now (with God as the author of those victories, as at Jericho), God’s people are a ragtag group who are doomed to defeat. Which is okay. We lead them faithfully anyway. Because the victory we have faith in — a victory foreshadowed even in the blessings and curses laid out in Leviticus and Deuteronomy — is resurrection and repentance.

And to rise, we must first die.

Second, Israel’s only real sin is idolatry, and we need to remember that. The sin that gets Israel exiled from the land — that results in Israel’s conquest and exile — is not abortion, or the tolerance of homosexuality, or the creation of a welfare state, or even the failure to properly care for the poor (though the prophets are big on that as a reason for Israel’s doom). Israel’s sin — the sin that causes all the suffering and dislocation — is idolatry. And Joshua makes that clear in his warnings to Israel to “put away the gods of Egypt” and to ignore the gods of Canaan.

Which is something Israel cannot do.

It’s intriguing that Israel finds idolatry — the worship of gods who cannot do and have not done anything for Israel — so attractive. Scripture does not appear to say why this is the case, gives no reason for this constant temptation to idolatry, only that Israel will face this temptation and will fail to resist it. The very tempting gods of the Canaanites were the very reason Israel was to make no covenant with them, and to wage war mercilessly as God drove the people of Canaan out. Because whenever Israel gets a chance, it worships those worthless gods. Without fail.

Why is this? The Canaanites who misrepresented themselves in order to do a deal and seek Israel’s protection weren’t afraid of Israel — they were afraid of Israel’s God. They heard what he had done for Israel in Egypt, and against the Amorite kings. It would seem that, after such works, idolatry would be impossible. We have a God who fights for us! A mere lord of clay or a male fertility symbol or a golden calf ought to be meaningless.

And yet they aren’t. Israel isn’t done in by the mere toleration of sin (David’s entire career of murder and adultery should prove that, though idolatry and sin — especially sexual sin — are to a certain extent linked in scripture), or the acceptance of other religions in its midst (I see few American Christians tempted by Islam), or even the proclaiming of sin as righteousness. Israel is done in by its worship of that which cannot save it. Any conversation about the failures of the church to be a faithful people has to begin here, with the question: If our God is an awesome God who has saved us again and again, why are idols so tempting? Why aren’t we faithful to that God?

Why can’t we be?

Third, we focus on the word/will of God when we should be far more concerned with the presence of God. As God’s people, we tend to focus on the written word that we have – instructions, commandments, teaching, story. It has become for us the law. And adherence to this teaching is what makes us God’s people, is the standard by which God will judge us, and it keeps us safe from God’s wrath.

It’s easy to focus on the teaching. It is words, it seems clear and frequently unambiguous, and this teaching can tie us together. Joshua, however, shows that we ignore the actual presence of God in our midsts at our own peril.

The Lord gives a clear teaching to Israel in Deuteronomy 7 — make no covenant with the Canaanites. Show them no mercy. This is the law, the teaching, the word and will of God for Israel.

And Israel follows it, until the Hivites of Gibeon show up, pretending to be someone else, making a covenant with Israel. Even though Israel discovers the deception, Israel still keeps to the deal, and God then makes the sun stand still and fights for Israel in defense of its newly acquired allies.

Israel makes a covenant with Canaanites, and then God — who commanded Israel to make no covenant with Canaanites — fights the battle with and for Israel to defend those very same Canaanites.

This is the presence of God in Israel’s midst.

Did God ever rescind the command to make no covenant? No. Did God command Israel to remember the law? No. God took the circumstance — Gibeon’s deception, Israel’s agreement — to show his glory and bestow his blessing. To Israel and to the Canaanites (who were already terrified of the Lord God anyway). Is there a consequence for Israel enslaving and covenanting with Canaanites? Of course. Their gods will prove a constant distraction for Israel, and that distraction will eventually lead to disaster.

But God is present with Israel regardless. God works in and with Israel’s disobedience, not merely to impose consequences, but to bless and redeem Israel as well. God acts in new ways in the midst of our disobedience — with our disobedience — to bless and redeem and be present. To show that God’s desire for us isn’t merely words on a paper, but alive in the world all around us.

This is hard for us, because the rules seem so clear, and we believe that by obeying them we will avert disaster. But even in scripture, in this word and will, we have constant examples of God acting situationally in violation of God’s very own commands. Philip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch even though Deuteronomy 23 is clear he cannot be part of the assembly. Jesus heals, again and again, on the sabbath.

This presence is hard to discern, however. Those who focus on the will/word are right to ask — what distinguishes your experience of God’s presence from mere hedonistic law-breaking? There is no easy answer to that question, and no easy way sometimes to point to God’s presence in our midst. I do believe we should “sin boldly” and trust God (“He eats with sinners!”), but that’s not an answer all will find faithful. Or honest.

I’m not saying the law is invalid. We need that law. Maybe to show us we are sinners as Lutherans confess. But more importantly, without those bounds, we cannot know when God is gracious and when God is truly present. The story of Israel is not the story of a people who obeyed God and lived happily ever after sending sacrifices to heaven; it is the story of a sinful people who disobeyed and who constantly needed the redeeming presence of God. Without the law, the will of God, we cannot violate it, and without violating that law, we cannot truly experience the presence of God. We cannot be found unless we are first lost. We cannot be redeemed unless we are first held captive.

We cannot know grace unless we have first sinned. And we cannot know the presence of God — truly know — unless we have first forgotten what that presence is like. And what it does for us.

Israel will forget. And will need frequent reminding.

Lastly, it’s interesting the no one in scripture seems to claim Joshua as their ancestor. I once noted it was curious that no one claimed Moses as an ancestor. The same applies to Joshua, too. He appears in no genealogies, is in no one’s family tree, and no one seems to claim descent from him.

I find this odd. We worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — we know who our ancestors are. Yet this great leader, who speaks of his family, and who has his own inheritance in Israel, is not succeeded by anyone from that family. Perhaps this reflects the early Israelite opposition to monarchy, and perhaps it reflects an understanding of what it means for God to pick Israel’s rulers rather than the Israelites to pick them theirselves. (Though the first of the judges, Othniel, will possess a solid pedigree in his relation to Caleb, who along with Joshua were the only two spies to return from Canaan confident of God’s ability to defeat the Canaanites.)

I would have imagined many would have tried to claim descent from Moses and Joshua in order to procure political, social, and religious legitimacy for themselves. That they don’t — that we have no record in scripture or history of anyone doing so — is curious. And I have no answer for that.

JOSHUA The Stones Won’t Be Silent

So, in Joshua 24, after Israel promises to adhere to its covenant with God — to put away the gods of Egypt and avoid the gods of Canaan — Joshua responds, rather firmly, to this stiff-necked people:

19 But Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. 20 If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good.” 21 And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the Lord.” 22 Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” 23 He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel.” 24 And the people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.” 25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and put in place statutes and rules for them at Shechem. 26 And Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. And he took a large stone and set it up there under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the Lord. 27 And Joshua said to all the people, “Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us. Therefore it shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God.” 28 So Joshua sent the people away, every man to his inheritance. (Joshua 24:19–28 ESV)

I’m not sure I’d like to meet Joshua. He doesn’t seem like the kind of man you could sit down and have a beer with. He seems every bit the stern, angry, and possibly even self-righteous believer and follower of God that I’m certain he was. He scares me, and it’s no coincidence that the folks at The Brick Testament portrayed Joshua with a permanent, angry scowl.

So while this answer — “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins” — is just that kind of stern and unyielding, it’s also absolutely correct. Israel can’t serve their God. And the history shows … they won’t.

And yet Israel swears it will serve. It will obey. It will worship. Big words from Israel. A big promise from Israel.

But I’m interested in this stone Joshua sets up as a witness of all that Israel has promised. All Joshua has said they cannot and will not do. And I am reminded of a passage from Luke:

37 As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, 38 saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:37–40 ESV)

The stones would cry out. Would bear witness to who Jesus was, would shout “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

We know stones cannot cry out. This stone will stand under this terebinth tree bear mute witness to Israel’s proclamation — “No, but we will serve the Lord.” And Jesus weeps over the city, over those very stones that would proclaim him Lord and King. “And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:44)

Stones bear better witness when they testify to what was rather than what is. Think of a ghost town, or an abandoned building, or the ruins of a lost and ancient civilization. It is the emptiness, the decay, the ruin, the disuse, that testifies. In silence, such things speak powerfully to what is no more.

This stone, underneath this tree, speaks of what is to come — failure, defeat, conquest, destruction, exile. Israel cannot know that, though I suspect Joshua has been given some insight. He may have some idea of what is coming.

And perhaps that is why he is such a stern and angry man. He has been given a thankless and unpleasant task, of faithfully leading and shepherding a faithless people. God’s people, whom God has called and formed and loved, but a people who will tread a hard and difficult path because they cannot do as they promise.

Joshua and his family follow the Lord, and all he gets for it … is the very same death every one of God’s people will die. Gathered to his fathers, to decay in the ground. The fate of the righteous and the sinner alike.

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.

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.

JOSHUA An Altar of Mute Witness

With the eastern tribes of Israel having returned to their inheritance, their land, across the Jordan, Joshua 22:10–34 tells the story of a giant altar that the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh somewhere along the Jordan river in Gilead, the hill country of the East Bank.

This giant altar is a cause for war, and all Israel gathers at Shiloh to make war against the Israelites in Gilead, and to ask them why they risk dividing Israel with the kind of idolatry Israel experience at Peor, when Israelite men and women cavorted with the Moabites and worshiped their gods (Numbers 25).

16 “Thus says the whole congregation of the Lord, ‘What is this breach of faith that you have committed against the God of Israel in turning away this day from following the Lord by building yourselves an altar this day in rebellion against the Lord? 17 Have we not had enough of the sin at Peor from which even yet we have not cleansed ourselves, and for which there came a plague upon the congregation of the Lord, 18 that you too must turn away this day from following the Lord? And if you too rebel against the Lord today then tomorrow he will be angry with the whole congregation of Israel. 19 But now, if the land of your possession is unclean, pass over into the Lord’s land where the Lord’s tabernacle stands, and take for yourselves a possession among us. Only do not rebel against the Lord or make us as rebels by building for yourselves an altar other than the altar of the Lord our God. (Joshua 22:16–19 ESV)

The fear here is that the Israelites of Gilead will engage in idolatry, and thus will put the entire assembly of Israel at risk.

Christians have, I think, lived for so long in the land of personal piety and moral rectitude — the kind that sees no smoking, no drinking, no gambling, no cursing, and no dancing as signs of virtuous living — that they have forgotten the sin Israel struggled with, the sin that God held Israel truly accountable for, was idolatry. Even sex was primarily about idolatry, about the worship of foreign gods, and not so much about sexual behavior in and of itself. As Stanley Hauerwas wrote, the second table of the decalogue which outlines prohibited behavior makes no sense without the first table, which is all about Israel’s relationship to its redeemer God.

So when the tribes of Gilead build an altar, the fear is they are preparing to worship — to sacrifice and bow down to — other gods. Gods who did not redeem them. Who did not deliver them. Who did not make them a gift of land.

Whether this was intent of Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh, they are quick with the really clever answer. “Who, us? Why, we would never! We built this so we could remember, because there is this river between us and you, and our children might forget that we belong to you. That we belong to the Lord our God.”

26 Therefore we said, ‘Let us now build an altar, not for burnt offering, nor for sacrifice, 27 but to be a witness between us and you, and between our generations after us, that we do perform the service of the Lord in his presence with our burnt offerings and sacrifices and peace offerings, so your children will not say to our children in time to come, “You have no portion in the Lord.”’ 28 And we thought, ‘If this should be said to us or to our descendants in time to come, we should say, “Behold, the copy of the altar of the Lord, which our fathers made, not for burnt offerings, nor for sacrifice, but to be a witness between us and you.”’ 29 Far be it from us that we should rebel against the Lord and turn away this day from following the Lord by building an altar for burnt offering, grain offering, or sacrifice, other than the altar of the Lord our God that stands before his tabernacle!” (Joshua 22:26–29 ESV)

The answer is good enough for Phinehas (of the spearing cavorting Israelites fame), who says that the words of the Israelites of Gilead is enough to spare the entire people the wrath of God.

32 Then Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, and the chiefs, returned from the people of Reuben and the people of Gad in the land of Gilead to the land of Canaan, to the people of Israel, and brought back word to them. 33 And the report was good in the eyes of the people of Israel. And the people of Israel blessed God and spoke no more of making war against them to destroy the land where the people of Reuben and the people of Gad were settled. 34 The people of Reuben and the people of Gad called the altar Witness, “For,” they said, “it is a witness between us that the Lord is God.” (Joshua 22:32–34 ESV)

An unused altar standing as a silent witness to this people’s unity. A monument. Whether Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh really meant to use this altar or not, this clever answer (as clever as the Hivites of Gibeah pretending to be someone else in order to save their cities and their lives) saves the situation. While it may seem all that work was for nothing, if everyone takes what happened here at Shiloh seriously, then this altar really does perform an important function, doing nothing, sitting unused underneath sun and stars. It bears witness. But only because everyone who sees it knows, and remembers, and understands.

JOSHUA Fighting Faithfully and Loyally

With peace established in Canaan, It is time to send the eastern tribes of Israel — Reuben, Gad, and part of Manasseh — back to their land across the Joran River:

1 At that time Joshua summoned the Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh, 2 and said to them, “You have kept all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you and have obeyed my voice in all that I have commanded you. 3 You have not forsaken your brothers these many days, down to this day, but have been careful to keep the charge of the Lord your God. 4 And now the Lord your God has given rest to your brothers, as he promised them. Therefore turn and go to your tents in the land where your possession lies, which Moses the servant of the Lord gave you on the other side of the Jordan. 5 Only be very careful to observe the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, to love the Lord your God, and to walk in all his ways and to keep his commandments and to cling to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.” 6 So Joshua blessed them and sent them away, and they went to their tents.

When Joshua assumed command of Israel upon the death of Moses, the second thing he does is command the people of Reuben, Gad, and Mannaseh, who have all been given land east of the Jordan River, to send their “men of valor” (גִּבּוֹרֵי הַחַיִל) across the Jordan to fight with the other tribes of Israel (10 tribes, because Manasseh has land in the middle of northern Canaan too) to take possession of the land.

When peace has come, the men of Manasseh, Gad, and Reuben will get to return to their allotments when the war is over, when all Israel has taken possession of Canaan.

Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh respond enthusiastically: “All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go.”

This is loyalty. This is solidarity. This is Israel fighting together, for Gad and Reuben have no share in Canaan between the Jordan and the Great Sea itself, and Manasseh has enough of a share in the east to ignore the fight for its share in the west. They are fighting for their brothers, and not for their land.

We see something similar here when Israel fights for its newfound Canaanite allies in Gibeon.

And now that the land is at least temporarily subdued (hint: it won’t last), and there rest on all sides for Israel (interesting that Joshua does not use the word “peace” here to describe this, as the Book of Joshua does not shy away from using the word peace שָׁל֔וֹם), Joshua is fulfilling his promise to the people of Gad, Reuben, and East Manasseh. They fulfilled their obligations — they fought for the patrimony of others while theirs was already secure — and so they will be allowed to go back home to their wives and children and land with

… much wealth and with very much livestock, with silver, gold, bronze, and iron, and with much clothing. Divide the spoil of your enemies with your brothers. (Joshua 22:8 ESV)

The three eastern tribes have kept their promises, and Joshua is keeping his. Because God has kept his promises.

The only condition they have been given is to remain steadfast in their worship of Israel’s God — a command given to all Israel, not just those who are going back their homes across the river.

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 Cities of Refuge

1 Then the Lord said to Joshua, 2 “Say to the people of Israel, Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, 3 that the manslayer who strikes any person without intent or unknowingly may flee there. They shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood. 4 He shall flee to one of these cities and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and explain his case to the elders of that city. Then they shall take him into the city and give him a place, and he shall remain with them. 5 And if the avenger of blood pursues him, they shall not give up the manslayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbor unknowingly, and did not hate him in the past. 6 And he shall remain in that city until he has stood before the congregation for judgment, until the death of him who is high priest at the time. Then the manslayer may return to his own town and his own home, to the town from which he fled.’” (Joshua 20:1–6 ESV)

The cities of refuge are laid out for Israel in Numbers 35:9–12 and Deuteronomy 19. Six cities in all are set aside for those who kill without pre-meditation or malice, places to flee and find safety from family members seeking vengenace:

9 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11 then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there. 12 The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment. 13 And the cities that you give shall be your six cities of refuge. 14 You shall give three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. (Numbers 35:9–14 ESV)

It’s important to remember that the teaching given to Israel in the wilderness — especially the punishments for sins — are not carried out by some abstract state and its uniformed agents, but by family members, relatives of those aggrieved. This is why the protection of orphans, widows, and wayfarers (to use Qur’anic language) is so important in both the Torah and the prophets — because they have no family, no kin, to act as a deterrent to wrongdoers, no kin to seek revenge, to avenge the blood that has been purposefully or accidentally shed.

So it makes sense that these six cities of refuge — three east of the Jordan and three in Palestine proper — would be set up. Because some who kills isn’t fleeing the state, but a kinsman seeking vengeance.

Because of this, most of the laws about retribution given in the Torah (“But if there is harm, you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” Exodus 21:23–25, also Leviticus 24:17–23 and Deuteronomy 19:21) are designed to limit the damage done by vengeance-seeking rather than encourage retribution. You can take no more than was taken in order to avenge the wrong. No one-upping the damage, no scorched earth in response to a slight. Even Deuteronomy’s command “your eye shall not pity” is a reminder that this vengeance, that this “purging evil for your midst,” is a divine commandment. We may be inclined to flinch — taking limb and life is no small task, and we should never be comfortable with it even when we are right doing it.

This reminds me of story from time at The Saudi Gazette in Jeddah. In the far southwest of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the mountains of Asir province along the mountainous border with Yemen, came a report of a murder. A young man from one family killed a young man from another family. The police, however, were not called, in part because the writ of the government doesn’t run very deep in that part of the country.

Instead, the patriarchs of the two clans agreed to work it out the value of the murdered man’s life according to long-held custom. The murderer was held safely by his family and the clans sat down to deal. Eventually, as I recall, the dead man’s life was determined to be worth two pickup trucks, six camels, and an unspecified number of goats. The negotiations — which everyone in the murdered man’s clan had to accede to — were capped off by big, public feast to solemnize the arrangements.

This is the kind of law that scripture is. Not statues for states, but customs for clans and tribes and an entire people, Israel’s sunnah if you will, it’s way of doing business that limits how much and what kinds of vengeance are acceptable. These are statues for human beings, that remind us who and what we are, rather than the impersonal and mechanistic laws of states and nations.

And the cities of refuge are part of this. A reminder that not all killings, not even all murders, are the same. That everyone is entitled to be heard, and mercy … mercy may not be an entitlement, but there is room for mercy.

There is room for mercy.