1 On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. 2 They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. 3 Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: 4 You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”
1 Then God spoke all these words:
2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me.
Recently my six-year-old daughter has been obsessed with age. As we were discussing the Fourth of July and the age of the United States, she responded, “WOW—America must be the oldest country in the world!” I explained that it wasn’t—not by a long shot. But it got me thinking about how we count the “age” of countries in terms of their independence from colonial powers or victory in war, rather than in relation to the age of the civilizations whose residence in the same lands predates the colonization/resistance/etc. by centuries.
Most modern colonial and post-colonial governments are based on the premise of land ownership. People, generally, and governments specifically, are understood to “own” and “control” the land on which they reside. It is part of the American Dream for a single family to own a small plot of land on which they can build and maintain a home.
However, in our Scripture text today, God has something else in mind. God tells Moses and the Israelites—whom he has just freed from slavery in Egypt—that they are to be God’s “treasured possession” (19:5). “Indeed,” God continues, “the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (19:5-6, emphasis added). When God later delivers them to the promised land, God does not give the Israelites land to own, to preside over and do with as they will, but rather, land—and all that is in it!—as a trust. They are to be stewards of this great possession that is first and ultimately only the possession of God the Creator.
This comes closer in many ways to the Native American theology of land that caused Tecumesh to respond to the colonial practice of bartering for land, with the incredulous question, “Sell land? You might as well sell air and water!” (Clara Sue Kidwell & Homer Noley, Native American Theology, 135). And, of course, we know how we as colonial ancestors have fulfilled that prophecy. Sadly, while we live on a planet that is 71% water, there are people who die of thirst and dehydration every day. The pollution and abuse that we have brought to God’s land have made the production of healthy drinking water a costly privilege. And in too many places, clean air to breathe has become a privilege in a similar way.
The story of the Israelites’ exodus and acquisition of the Promised Land can and has been read as a narrative of conquest, and in our post-colonial world, it is important that we acknowledge and resist this. At the same time, threatened as we are by both the domination of people and the domination of natural resources, it is equally important that we also hear in this text the call to resist the narrative of ownership and domination as a whole.
As Christians, what would it mean to truly believe that we own nothing—that everything we have is not only a gift from, but truly still the possession of God the Creator? To believe that we, too, are such a “treasured possession”? What would it mean to live accordingly? In describing Native American theology, Kidwell and Noley claim that “their relationship with the land is an on-going process that sustains their spirituality” (Native American Theology, 134). This might suggest a good starting point. Exodus reminds us of what as human beings we have in common with the land and all of its resources—we are all both creations and possessions of the eternal God. In light of this, as we recognize and respond to our own needs and desires, making claims on the land as a result, we must also recognize the land as possessing its own distinct claims, dignity, and integrity. Rather than effacing these by subjecting the land to the unrivalled claims of our human mastery, possession, and control, a theology recognizing our status as “treasured possessions” of God in our own right might respond to this trust that God has placed in us by honoring and upholding the integrity of the land as its inhabitants.