Reading Joshua 1: 1- 9, Joshua 2: 1-14, Joshua 3: 1-6
Preacher: Ralph Mangohig
The photo above on the dry riverbed is last week’s Streams with Iona and Wellpsring pilgrims from around the country. It was truly an ecumenical gathering and by chance was attended by some young people from a church in Murray Bridge connected to Shirleen.
Surface level it looks peaceful– and actually most of the time during the retreat it was, but if you go deeper, and generally this is what happens in retreats, there is a crisis that is grumbling under the surface waiting to emerge- and often it comes as people get to know each other’s particularities and engage with scripture and prayer- that is, they encounter the living God. And it is this encounter with each other and God, that leads to kind of crisis of the soul- and it can be painful. One way to avoid his pain, is you stay at the surface level. The alternative is to go deep, sit with the discomfort, and find that the dry riverbed is not dry at all, but is full of turbulent life-giving water underneath.
When Gemma first opened our Bible study in May one of the ways she described the book of Joshua- was that it was dangerous. And I
think that is right. Dangerous, not so much because it contains dangerous ideas (e.g., Genesis 22, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son) but because they are compelling. The words of scripture are what as Celia would put it, catalytic. It sparks a reaction – for good or for ill. Across history, we find that the same Bible used to justify slavery, colonisation, and religious wars, would centuries later, provide a theological frame to support the abolition of slavery and the Civil Rights movement.
You could say, compared to us moderns, the Bible is more comfortable sitting with contradiction, and even conflict. It contains within itself, what Rene Girard would describe as ‘texts in travail’- a reflective grappling with its own identity through conflicting stories. Like Jacob and Esau grappling in Rebecca’s womb.
Someone shared in a group setting this week that the human experience was like ‘living a contradiction’. It reminded me of this
poem by Mary Oliver, “We shake with joy, we shake with grief. What a time they have, these two housed as they are in the same body.”
I think the Bible and Christian Community is no different.
And so let’s dig into Joshua.
Joshua comes straight after the 5 books of Moses- the Israelites have been freed from 400 years of slavery in Egypt, they have been given the law and the tabernacle, and have wandered for 40 years in the wilderness. We pick up the story right after Moses gives a series of departing speeches, songs and poetry to a freed and upcoming generation, a generation born and raised in the wilderness, poised to enter the promised land.
Joshua begins with the declaration of Moses’ death. Today, we are surrounded by death, and hope seems so impossible. But death is not God’s final word to Joshua. The news of death is followed by the command to ‘arise’. Joshua here is vulnerable, exposed, and fearful. Perhaps he was haunted by the past failures of the previous generation, of which he was a few that survived. He had been in this position before- at the verge of entering the promised land and taking part in a spy mission- the same spy mission that lead to his generation rebelling and being disqualified to enter the promised land. Will history repeat itself or is this the moment of change?
They were at the precipice of something significant- the promised land. But in between lay the raging waters of the Jordan and the formidable walls of Jericho. The stakes were high. Their situation was precarious. Holy courage/barefoot courage: It is in this context that God speaks the word to Joshua ‘I will not leave you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous… Be strong and very courageous’
But then the passage turns to a curious turn.Joshua is commanded to remember the law. He is to be careful to do it and meditate on it day and night. It is not to depart from his mouth. And it is to guide his steps, not wandering left or right. The shift in focus is not only towards the study of the law/Torah, but also the priestly and liturgical. The whole nation is to undergo a period of preparation and consecration. The procession is to be led by the priests walking barefoot and bearing the ark. The priests carry the holy presence on their shoulders quietly. But as we find out later- this presence is as ambiguous as it is sacred. The next time we read of someone going barefoot is Joshua when encountering a Man with a drawn sword to whom Joshua asks the question: ‘“Are You for us or for our adversaries?” To which the man responds, ‘No but as Commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” This divine warrior will not be pinned to any side. Instead, he tells Joshua, to take his sandals off because he is standing on Holy ground. This is Burning Bush version 2.0. Joshua obeys, bows down and worships. Again, the leader of the nation is vulnerable, exposed, and perhaps trembling in fear– offering his head to a Divine warrior with a drawn sword.
What does this all mean?
I think this means that the conditions of entry into the promised land have significant theological and spiritual bases. But not for the reason that would see God as some secret weapon that could be coopted through religious method. The conditions of entry were not dependent on the presence of men of war – they had all died in the wilderness. Instead, it depended on a nation with a heart being broken and bowed down, consecrated, courageous and worshipful, and whose claim on land was seen as gift- a gift that could be given and taken away by a Holy God who was not under their control, but demanded their trust and loyalty expressed in covenant.This I think is barefoot courage. A radical submission to a Holy God that would call the shots.
But what about tricksy courage? The bible is full of these people- for example, Jacob, Tamar, Rahab and the Gibeonites. What’s confusing is that the bible doesn’t say much about condemning them. They are tricksy because they scheme to get what they want/need. They hustle because it’s the only source of power available to them and this is disruptive for those in actual power.
Rahab is disruptive for other reasons. Ellen Davis calls her ‘destabilising’ in that she disrupts the line between those ‘inside the covenant and those outside, between the chosen Israelites and proscribed Canaanites’.
Edward Said, a Palestinian-American intellectual wrote of something similar in his book ‘Orientalism’. He says this: ‘Against this static system of ‘synchronic essentialism’ I have called vision- because it presumes that the whole Orient can be seen panoptically- there is a constant pressure. The source of pressure is narrative, in that if any Oriental detail can be shown to move, or to develop, diachrony is introduced into the system. What seemed stable- and the Orient is synonymous with stability and unchanging reality- now appears unstable. Instability suggests that history, with its disruptive detail, its currents of change, its tendency towards growth, decline or dramatic movement, is possible in the Orient and for the Orient… Narrative asserts the power of men to be born, develop, and die, the tendency of institutions and actualities to change… above all, it asserts that the domination of reality by vision is no more than a will to power, a will to truth and interpretation… Narrative in short, introduces an opposing point of view…to the unitary web of vision…’
I think the narrative of Rahab is like this constant pressure. Her story acts against a one-dimensional reading of Joshua which
without her, would be seen as propaganda for conquest and taking of land. Rahab acts with courage and cunning and delivers the spies from death. She shows them, loving-kindness (hesed) and the spies in turn show her loving-kindness (hesed) and faithfulness (emet). These two Hebrew words, Hesed and Emet, are most common ways God’s relationship with the Israelites is described (Psalm 1-00:5) and is often in the context of remembering covenant. I think the same thing is happening here between Rahab and the
spies. And like all covenants, theirs is made secure by appealing to blood symbolised by the scarlet thread. Christ, cross and covenant. This thread runs all throughout scripture, like a fine web, all the way to Christ, and now to us as his church. I think this this thread is Jesus Christ himself.
God has been making covenants since forever, and he always keeps it. The thing about God’s covenant, is that it limits God not only the terms of that covenant, but to the weaknesses and particularities of human partners. God in a way is stuck working with humans.
The fullest expression of this is the incarnation and crucifixion. Jesus’ scars will never leave him. The question for us is do we want to work with him? Jesus invites us to a new baptism in the Jordan, and to continue the work of reconciliation. He is inviting us to carry his cross.
The events of the past weeks and months has shown once again that our world is need of ways to hold across deep divides. I propose no easy answer- but I am convinced that the same power that raised Christ from the dead, dried up the Jordan, and tore down
walls will equip us as his church to continue the work of reconciliation with truth and love.
As Jesus says in his departing words to his disciples: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have
overcome the world.