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Politics of Scripture

The Land is Not Silent—Joshua 24:1-18

The witness of the land cannot be escaped. Whether in its memorials of divine faithfulness, or its testimony to our sins, it will not be silent.

1Then 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. 2And 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. 3Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac; 4and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. 5Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in its midst; and afterwards I brought you out. 6When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, you came to the sea; and the Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea. 7When they cried out to the Lord, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians, and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did to Egypt. Afterwards you lived in the wilderness for a long time. 8Then 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. 9Then King Balak, son of Zippor of Moab, set out to fight against Israel. He sent and invited Balaam son of Beor to curse you, 10but I would not listen to Balaam; therefore he blessed you; so I rescued you out of his hand. 11When you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you. 12I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove out before you the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow. 13I gave you a land on which you had not laboured, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.

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. 15Now 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.’

16Then the people answered, ‘Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; 17for 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; 18and 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.’

In renewing the covenant at Shechem at the end of his life, Joshua recalled the children of Israel to the identity they had received through the history of YHWH’s dealings with them and their ancestors. Recounting their story from its first inception in YHWH’s call of their father Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees, Joshua situates them in and orients them through this larger history.

Particularly striking is the way Joshua foregrounds geography and a geographical itinerary in his speech. Israel’s covenant identity is one that is geographically articulated: taken from beyond the River, led through the land of Canaan in promissory anticipation of their possession of it, distinguished from the dwelling place of their brother Esau, brought down into Egypt, delivered from bondage and brought into covenant through the Red Sea, passing through the Jordan and into the land of the Canaanites, given into their possession.

This itinerary is a spiritual passage towards their current identity. It is a movement from idolatry to knowledge of YHWH, from Abram’s promissory pilgrimage around the land, from the bondage and renewed idolatry of Egypt (this is the first time it is made explicit that Israel were idolaters in Egypt), through the testing of the wilderness, into the reception of YHWH’s promise.

Telling their history in such a manner, Joshua presents Israel’s situatedness in the land of Canaan to be a consequence of their journey into the knowledge of YHWH and dependent upon their continued faithfulness to him. On the far sides of the River Euphrates and the Red Sea, idolatry still beckons. If they are unfaithful the Canaanite nations could still rise up and choke the seed of Israel YHWH planted in the land. Neighboring and ancestrally related nations of Edom and Moab, who do not enjoy Israel’s covenant relationship with YHWH, alert Israel to the contingency of their privileged status.

Water crossings play an especially important part in Joshua’s theological geography. The River Euphrates is referenced four times, the Jordan is mentioned twice, and two verses are devoted to recounting the crossing of the Red Sea (verses 6-7). The prominence of these rivers and bodies of water in Joshua’s account is noteworthy. Throughout Scripture the crossings of such water bodies represent transitions from one realm to another and from one existence or identity to another: the river is liminal, a place through which passage can be made from something old into something new.

The river or sea was a boundary and threshold. It was also an enduring testament to a historical passage into Israel’s current identity that had occurred. Israel’s entrance into Canaan through a series of water crossings was something of which they were always to be reminded as they regarded the bodies of water bordering and running through their land.

YHWH’s presence and dealing with Israel at the water crossings underlines this fact. He called them from the other side of the River Euphrates. He wrestled with their father Jacob and gave the people their name—Israel—at the Jabbok. He delivered them through the Red Sea. He brought them into the land through the Jordan. Through these water crossings, or washings, Israel was set apart to YHWH, a royal priesthood and a holy nation.

Although they were uniquely set apart as YHWH’s own special possession and covenant people, Israel was also to recognize that YHWH had given lands to other nations. The descendants of Esau had been given the hill country of Seir as their possession (verse 4). Israel’s peculiar calling was understood in terms of a broader appreciation that YHWH established the times and bounds of habitation for all peoples. The dispossession of the peoples of Canaan was also an act of judgment of YHWH upon their wickedness and, as elsewhere in Scripture, the implicit threat is that YHWH would uproot Israel from the land too, if they proved to be unfaithful.

Historical narratives, myths, and legends of movements towards current peoplehood have a powerful enduring purchase upon our various national imaginations. These narratives can often frame our historical origins at least implicitly in terms of positive divine providential purposes realized in our nations’ establishment.

While not unique in this regard, the providential account of national origins has enjoyed peculiar salience in American history. The entrance into the New World through a watery passage from an old one, the forging of America’s identity against the frontier of its great wildernesses, its elevation as a city on a hill and beacon of a glorious new human society, and the dispossession of former inhabitants is a familiar tale, often told.

Yet in the romantic remembrance of the intrepidity of the Mayflower’s pilgrims, and its encouragement to Americans to fancy themselves a new Israel, the reality of the Middle Passage is easily effaced. The Atlantic’s supposed watery passage to life and its promise of being washed clean of Europe’s bloody history was turned to blood through the Slave Trade, and the New World proved a new Egypt for countless Africans. The entrance into possession of a rich land and the displacing of former peoples was not a cleansing from wickedness, but a polluting of the land with innocent blood that still cries out.

God’s providential hand in history does not simply rest upon us in approbation and blessing, but calls us to a remembrance of sin lest we be judged.

Here, despite the need to maintain crucial differences between America’s experience and that of Israel, there remain points of resemblance to which we must attend. Israel’s presence in and enjoyment of communion with YHWH in the land required a faithful reckoning with the precariousness and contingency of their rootedness within it. As we see throughout the Old Testament, the land of Canaan stood as a witness—a testimony to YHWH’s and Israel’s past dealings and a testimony for or against Israel. Whether soil polluted by innocent blood, or a river testifying to a passage from idolatry and bondage into freedom in YHWH’s service, Israel’s continued life in the land involves a continual grappling with and responsibility to the immediacy of its witness.

Even though, in our modern hypermobility, we may fancy ourselves no longer to be subject to geography and its bitter memories, its witness remains. The truth of past deliverances, memorialized in key geographical locations, must be recalled and faithfully actualized as we live in terms of them in the present. Past sins must likewise be recalled, repented of, and atoned for.

Sins will not remain buried for ever. Either we exhume them and honestly expose them to the light of truthful judgment here and now, or the earth will cough them up at the General Resurrection, when it coughs up all of the crimes committed upon it.

The quest for a truly New World, a land with no witness and shorn of all memory, a land washed clean of the guilt of our histories, is a vain one. The testimony of the land endures and we have no choice but to do honest business with it.

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