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Politics of Scripture

The Ethical Ambiguity of Divine Entitlement—Joshua 5:9-12

The innate ambiguity of the political themes raised by this week’s first lectionary text should lead us to hold together both our desire for cohesion as the “people of God” and that same desire’s potential for exclusion—exclusion that we must diligently recognize and actively hold in check.

Joshua 5:9-12
9The Lord said to Joshua, ‘Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.’ And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.
10 While the Israelites were encamped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho.11On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. 12The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

This week’s lectionary text from the Hebrew Scriptures alights briefly (only four verses) on a narrative pinnacle, a turning point in Israel’s big story. After their forty-year layover in the deserts south and east of Palestine, the Israelites had finally forded the Jordan River and entered the land. As they stood poised to sanctify the land by military expulsion or extermination of its current inhabitants, they paused to perform two meaningful ceremonies.

First, the men of the company were circumcised, for all of them had been born en route and had not been circumcised like their fathers (verses 5–7). Circumcision was a sign of the Israelites’ unique covenantal relationship with the God who delivered them—even more, it was a renewal of the covenant as their ancient ancestors had purportedly practiced it in the land. Indeed, old-fashioned tools were crafted especially for the occasion (verses 2–3).

On the heels of this ritual, our lesson begins with a declaration by the Holy One, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt” (verse 9). The declaration is tied via wordplay to the name of the place where it occurred, Gilgal (on the shared Hebrew root galal, “rolled away” with gilgal, “wheel”), but how the circumcision ceremony connects to the “disgrace of Egypt” is left unstated. Perhaps we are meant to understand that with the re-circumcision of the Israelite men, encamped inside the boundaries of the land of Canaan, the whole 400-year detour in Egypt had come to a decisive close.

The second ceremony on the verge of conquest was the celebration of the Passover, via sacrifice and ritual meal (verse 10). This holy festival, like the circumcisions that preceded it, was particularly poignant in the land, bookending the great exodus from Egypt. Just as their parents ate this meal on the eve of the first day of exodus, now they ate it on the eve of the final day of exodus. These two rituals communicated to the people (and to hearers and readers of the tale), through the symbolism of covenant and deliverance, that entering into the land of Canaan meant the dawn of a new era, in a new place, for a new generation.

While the rituals in themselves could be termed “religious,” their timing and geography highlight the political significance of their symbolism. The ritual alteration of the male reproductive organ always carried connotations of fertility, and as a covenant symbol it bore witness to the divine promise of descendants, that is, the development of a people, an ethnic nation set apart from other peoples. The performance of this ritual just inside the boundary of Canaan ties that symbol of peoplehood to the territory they intend to occupy. Likewise, the Passover recalls the power of their God, who battled on their behalf against their enemies—even when that enemy happened to be the great kingdom of Egypt! Now, in the land, the Passover is an assurance to the people (and a threat to their enemies) that God is prepared to fight again.

Our brief text is at pains to emphasize that with the Passover meal, the people began to eat the “produce of the land” (stated three times in the space of two verses, 11–12). During their exodus, the people ate manna, divinely-provided sustenance. It was found on the ground but was not a “crop.” Its provision spoke to the transience of the wilderness epoch—a bit like the way my family tends to eat fast food on road trips. We wouldn’t do that at home (not often, at least), but when we are passing through places that are not our own, we eat a transient diet. In the desert, the Israelites were beyond nomads; they were aliens. But when the Israelites ate the crops of Canaan, on that very day the manna ceased (verses 11–12). While the settlement of Canaan did not happen instantly, the author wants us to know that from this moment on, the people were “home.” Eating the produce of Canaan stakes a claim in the soil, says, “This land is our land.”

These political ideologies may not be as straightforward as they first appear, however. They carry inherent ambiguity within them, which ought to give interpreters pause as we consider the implications of a text like this for our own social locations. This passage is preparing us to understand the invasion of Canaan as a divinely sanctioned campaign, along with the brutal extermination of its settled residents, both combatants and noncombatants. The ethical problems with this ideology hardly need rehearsing. But isn’t it intriguing how the theme of holy war is bolstered in our lectionary text by the arguably positive themes of communal solidarity (circumcision) and deliverance from oppression (Passover)! We don’t need to look too far back in world history to see, for example in post-WWI Germany, how even in modern times the drive toward communal solidarity and rescue from real or perceived threats is often rolled into a toxic nationalist ideology. In my own context, that of Trump-era (white) America, we also play this dangerous game: in the name of national cohesion and national security (mixed with a widespread sense of divine entitlement to the land we occupy), the ideologies of supposed “unity” and “greatness” are mustered to foment violence against perceived outsiders—whether those “outsiders” are refugees, noncombatant residents of the land, or even fellow (albeit, non-white) citizens.

In light of such features at work in our political moment, it is worth returning to the text to nuance the political resonances within it. The claim to the land in this week’s text is productively read in conversation with the pericope that immediately follows in Joshua 5:13–15, in which Joshua is confronted by the captain of God’s (angelic?) army. On the one hand, this encounter reinforces the divinely-sanctioned violence that follows in Jericho and beyond—Joshua is given instructions for the conquest and herem or “ban” of the land (Joshua 6). On the other hand, the “right” of the people to possess the land is checked by the declaration of the captain (speaking for God) that he is neither presumptively on the side of the Israelites nor the side of their enemies (5:13–14). This encounter complicates the Israelites’ claim to the land. It is not “theirs” after all, but God’s alone. They are merely tenants. Just as the prior tenants are about to be evicted, Israel must take care not to put themselves in a similar predicament. In Deuteronomistic perspective, as these stories were retold on either side of the Babylonian exile, this nuance of humility with regard to divine entitlements would have been extremely salient.

Community cohesion and the symbols that reinforce it are good and worth celebrating. But they are never free of the inherent ambiguity they carry in a world marked by difference. We witnessed both sides of this coin in the recent massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand. A sense of white cohesion, exceptionalism, and divine entitlement inspired the murderer. The cohesiveness of the Muslim community in Christchurch is what marked them as a target. But at the same time, that very cohesion empowers the Christchurch Muslim community to respond with resilience, and a national cohesion drives New Zealanders to rally around them as “their own.”

The innate ambiguity of the political themes raised by this week’s first lectionary text should not lead us to eschew all moves toward cohesion, joy in being the “people of God,” or celebration of divine provision, including the land we enjoy. However, that same ambiguity should lead us to expect that (this side of final redemption) our celebration of specialness will always have a bleak side of exclusion that we must diligently recognize and actively hold in check, to the best of our ability.

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