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Politics of Scripture

Choosing God, Choosing Lands, Choosing Peoples

Choosing God, choosing lands, and choosing the peoples one lives with, both then and now, is no easy task. Nevertheless, the good news, while not always easy or comforting, is that the borders of our identities and lands have always been permeable. Could that be our embodied witness?

1 Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel, and they presented themselves before God. 2 And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. 3 Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many. 14 “Now, therefore, revere the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt and serve the Lord. 15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living, but as for me and my household, 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 ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along 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.” 19 But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot 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, 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 hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” 24 The people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” 25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.”

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 (NRSV)

The text from Joshua 24 presents an intriguing dialogue between Joshua and the tribes of Israel. The context of the text tells us that they are surrounded by a variety of “foreign gods” (Joshua 24:20). Joshua challenges the people to choose which gods they will follow, and the people choose to “put away” (Joshua 24:23) their foreign gods. In the end, the people make a decision—“The LORD our God we will serve” (Joshua 24:24)—and a covenant is made. What’s intriguing about this dialogical exchange, for me, however, does not have to do with the covenant. It is rather the us-them theological logic that pervades the text in which gods and lands are key subjects. Gods and lands and people. The choice before the tribes of Israel, then, is not simply a choice of gods, but a choice that could determine which people groups they will choose to be surrounded by and whose lands they are on.

In Joshua 24:8, a verse excluded in the lectionary’s framework, the text reads, “Then I brought you to the land of the Amorites, who lived on the other side of the Jordan; they fought with you, and I handed them over to you, and you took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before you.” In another excluded verse, we hear, “When you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against you, as well as the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and I handed them over to you” (Joshua 24:11). The sense we get from these two excluded verses is that the tribes of Israel, with God on their side, destroyed the peoples of the land that they conquered and possessed. But there is more to the story. It is in this context that the intrigue arises in the lectionary text from Joshua.

We hear in the included set of verses two seemingly opposed viewpoints. On the one hand, in Joshua 24:15, in Joshua’s admonition to the people, we read about “the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living.” Here, the reader gets the sense that the land they are on is not just theirs. There are people, the Amorites, already living there. In the people’s response to Joshua, on the other hand, they refer to the Amorites in the past tense when they note how “the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land.” In this tension between two kinds of references to people of the land—as ones among whom they are living or the ones who lived once upon a time—there emerges the question about the relationship between peoples and lands.

I thus come to these verses—the ones that are included and excluded from the lectionary—to think about what it means to hear God say, “I gave you a land on which you had not labored and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant” (Joshua 24:13). Critically considering what it means to live on lands in which one has not laboured and eating fruits that one did not plant is a settler privilege that many, including me, often take for granted as a non-problematic position. Let me say a bit more to flesh out what I mean.

I write from Winnipeg, Canada, heartland of various Indigenous peoples’ movements. I am a brown settler originally from south India in a land that does not belong to me. The land in Winnipeg also does not belong to the settlers who came before me. Truly, the land only belongs to the Anishinaabe, Cree, Dakota, Métis and other people who have cared for the land long before colonization and dispossession. This realization does not come to me as a new surprise. In my country of origin, India, Indigenous people are similarly subject to colonizing logic in which the lands they have cared for forever are taken over as private property by settlers of various stripes who now claim the land they have occupied is theirs. What happens to the people in whose land they are living?

Our origin stories about where we live, how we came to live somewhere, and the things that we hold sacred are parts of giving an account of ourselves. While these accounts are worth telling, I wonder what it would mean to retell and relive our stories in ways that don’t posit problematic us-them logics. In our current time, we are witnessing a brutal war in which gods and lands are key subjects of deep disagreement and conflict between the peoples of Israel and Palestine—a people who have more in common than not. They are both peoples of the land.

Chapter 24 is the last chapter of the Book of Joshua. There is a strong sense of looking back, giving a proper account, and setting things right by re-establishing the covenant with God. And yet, the fundamental question about how we tell our stories of land, people, and God while living in others’ lands remains potent. Bible scholar, John Goldingday’s commentary and questions are worth noting: “In this historical context of the location of the event at Shechem raises the question of the relationship between Yahweh and the indigenous peoples of Canaan. The chapter is discrete about how the Israelites could be having their meeting at Shechem as a major Canaanite city. Are the Shechemites at the meeting? Is Rahab’s family there, and the Gibeonites, and some of the other people among whom Israel has settled and not killed or driven out”?

While genocidal impulses have characterized history and continue to characterize the present, we continue to live with those very peoples that such genocidal impulses have sought to kill or drive out. We live in what Gloria Anzaldua has referred to as “Borderlands”—“a place of consciousness that is in-between worlds; or, put another way, a consciousness that is born from living within (and in-between) multiple worlds at once.” I note Gloria Anzaldua’s insight in connection to Joshua 24 because it is important to note a scholarly consensus within biblical studies, namely, that the so-called “conquest” of Canaan was not in fact all-out bloody conquest as portrayed in Joshua. The reality is more of gradual co-existing with different others in which people lived, as Susan Niditch notes, “side by side,” a picture that emerges in the account offered in the Book of Judges.

In an article titled, “Telling Stories about the Emergence of Israel” (Bangalore Theological Forum, 2014), I flesh out some of the ethical implications of giving an account of ourselves in this way. Since the Amorites, the Moabites, and the Canaanites, among others in Joshua 24 are sidelined— and often derogatorily—in the self-narration of Israel’s story of its emergence and covenant making, a responsible retelling of such stories is an urgent task.

Norman K. Gottwald (37), in an essay titled, “The Interplay of Religion and Ethnicity in Ancient Israel” argues that as bystanders and interpreters in the present, we need to “expose the groundlessness of scapegoating groups, who in fact are not the cause of the hard conditions” that people suffer. What Gottwald proposes instead is a responsible retelling that “uncover[s] and address[es] the corporate self-doubt and low group esteem that underlie aggressive lashing out aimed at restoring lost pride and sense of self-worth” that characterizes the longings of many today. Returning to the text in Joshua 24, it seems important to note another element in the intriguing dialogue between Joshua and the people. Joshua begins by asking people to “choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15). The people respond that they choose God. Joshua now begins to goad. Joshua’s zeal for re-establishing the covenant with God makes him want to maintain neat categories of us-them despite the reality that the people to whom he is talking are living in others’ lands who have their own gods. Choosing God, choosing lands, and choosing the peoples one lives with, both then and now, is no easy task. Nevertheless, the good news, while not always easy or comforting, is that the borders of our identities and lands have always been permeable. Could that be our embodied witness?

One thought on “Choosing God, Choosing Lands, Choosing Peoples

  1. Thank you for this, John. I believe a repetition of this sort of inner processing lies below the Jewish/Samaritan conflict following the return of some Jews from Babylon, and the enduring slur against Samaritans into Jesus’ contemporary society. May your “if only: one day be a reality!

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