Making God’s Word Unapproachable - thrive UMC Official Blog

Making God’s Word Unapproachable

Joshua took down the camp early in the morning. He and all the Israelites marched out of Shittim and came to the Jordan, where they stayed overnight before crossing. At the end of three days the officers went through the middle of the camp. They commanded the people, “As soon as you see the Lord your God’s chest containing the covenant and the levitical priests carrying it, you are to march out from your places and follow it. But let there be some distance between you and it, about three thousand feet. Don’t come near it! You will know the way you should go, even though you’ve never traveled this way before.”

Joshua said to the people, “Make yourselves holy! Tomorrow the Lord will do wonderful things among you.” Then Joshua said to the priests, “Lift up the covenant chest. Go along in front of the people.” So they lifted up the covenant chest and went in front of the people.

The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to make you great in the opinion of all Israel. Then they will know that I will be with you in the same way that I was with Moses. You are to command the priests who carry the covenant chest, ‘As soon as you come to the bank of the Jordan, stand still in the Jordan.’”

Joshua said to the Israelites, “Come close. Listen to the words of the Lord your God.” 10 Then Joshua said, “This is how you will know that the living God is among you and will completely remove the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites before you. 11 Look! The covenant chest of the ruler of the entire earth is going to cross over in front of you in the Jordan.12 Now pick twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one per tribe. 13 The soles of the priests’ feet, who are carrying the chest of the Lord, ruler of the whole earth, will come to rest in the water of the Jordan. At that moment, the water of the Jordan will be cut off. The water flowing downstream will stand still in a single heap.”

 

Most of us don’t listen to our parents in the same way that we did when we were children.  When we were very young, the voices of our parents were law.  They told us what to do, and we did it –more or less.  But as we got older and began to grow in our understanding and responsibility, we also become more critical. I was powerfully reminded of this when one of my own children, at the age of five, looked up to inform me, deadpan: “Dad, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

And while these moments may not feel good, especially to our parental egos, they are of great and sacred value to our children –for it’s in those moments that they are becoming their own persons. And don’t we all hope our children will become much more than simple, obedient servants?  No, surely we want them to be able to engage in dialogue, and to have thoughts and perspectives of their own, and certainly we want them to be able to discern for themselves –between right and wrong, true and false, and between good and evil.  And those little ways that they challenge us crucial exercises in developing their own integrity.

The same is true, I believe of the Bible: that it does not teach us simply to be mindless drones –in spite of how far too many Christian pastors and leaders have tried to convince us to read like slaves.  But instead, the Bible always calls us into eternal spiritual growth.  We’re done learning when we’re dead –so It will always have more to show, and to teach us.  And thus I am firmly convinced that, while we might read the bible with a spirit of simple obedience as children or while we are yet young in our faith, the ultimate call of the Bible is toward a very mature, and penetrating wisdom.  And the Bible offers us wisdom through its incessant and subtle call to read more closely, as it confronts us with questions and challenges our hearts and minds with details that, at first glance, just don’t quite seem to fit.

For example, you have to admit that it’s kind of strange that in the first chapter of Joshua, God tells him obey the Instruction Scroll, and to recite it day and night, and to never forget it or deviate from it.  Yet, already by chapter 3, the military commanders serving under Joshua are telling everyone about to cross over: ‘don’t come near to the covenant chest!  Stay back from it. Let there be a distance between it and you –about 3,000 feet’ –which is, by the way, more than half a mile!

That should be strange, right?  Because what is the covenant chest?  It’s the pretty, golden box that stores the law of Moses –and also, the Instruction Scroll!  You know, that thing God just told Joshua, very emphatically in chapter 1, to make sure he keeps in front of himself and all the people –and to never stop reciting! That’s what his commanders are telling everyone to keep a half-mile distance from.  Follow it, yes; but don’t come too close.    As a side-note here, I couldn’t find any evidence in any of the first five books of the Bible, which are the core of the Hebrew Bible –the books attributed to Moses, that says anything about the Covenant Chest being dangerous, or too holy to approach.  Instead, if you read about the ark of the Covenant in either Exodus or Deuteronomy, the tone always seems to be one of intimacy: come and know the teachings and the law.  Keep it always on your lips at all times and teach it to your children.  And that seems to be the same sentiment that God has when he talks to Joshua.  ‘Joshua, never stop reciting the instruction that’s been handed to you through my servant Moses,’ says God.

And yet, two chapters later, here we see Joshua’s commanders saying: stand back!  If you can see it, you’re probably too close!  And then, after the people have been instructed to keep their distance from Covenant Chest, what does Joshua say?  Joshua in verse 9 from our reading today tells all of the Israelites this: “Come close.  Listen to the words of the LORD your God.”  Here Joshua is asking the people to gather ‘round himself!  Then he goes on to say, “This is how you will know that the living God is among you and will completely remove the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites before you. Look!  The covenant chest of the ruler of the entire earth is going to cross over in front of you in the Jordan…”

Don’t go near the chest!  Come close…  to me! Joshua suggests –because the words of the LORD your God, are now issuing forth from my lips!  And this is the message: God is going to deliver a sign to show you how God will to remove all of the people who currently live in the land.

Now, this is also interesting, because, if you’ll remember, in Genesis 15: 18-20, when God is first establishing a covenant with Abraham, what does God say?  God, after cutting the covenant by passing through split animals says, and I quote: “That day the LORD cut a covenant with Abram: ‘To your descendants I give this land, from Egypt’s river to the great Euphrates, together with the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.’” Now, in case you didn’t catch it, half of the tribes of those two different lists overlap!

So which is it, then: did God give the land to the Israelites to share, cohabitating with several other peoples –to be a blessing to them as we find Genesis; or did God intend to displace or exterminate everyone who stood in Israel’s way, so that Israel might possess the land by themselves, as Joshua reports? In other words, should we love our neighbor, or shall we kill our neighbor?  And if we should love some neighbors some of the time, and if we should kill some of them at other times, how do when know how and when to act which way, and to whom?  Should we just blindly trust whatever leader is standing at the head of our army, announcing ‘thus sayeth the Lord?’   And what about Joshua?  Is he trustworthy?

How can we know?

This is, of course, something we all still have to struggle with, even today.  And given that a big election is coming up this week, perhaps we have to struggle with it especially today.

I know I’ve been jumping around in the bible a lot already, but please let me share one more bit of scripture that speaks on this topic: Deuteronomy chapter 20 (part of the Instruction Scroll) contains Israel’s instructions for war.  And included in these instructions for war is a command to offer terms for a peaceable surrender, and to kill only the men of a conquered city.  These are war-proscriptions for wars that happen “far away.” But then things take kind of a surprising turn in verse 16, where it says “only in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes.  But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the LORD your God has commanded you…”  and here, to me, is the really interesting part; it continues: “so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods…”

That’s the whole crux of it, according to God in Deuteronomy: you must utterly destroy your neighbors when you can’t stand up to…  the things they teach.

In other words, when we don’t have the fortitude, or the integrity, or the wisdom, to remain faithful to our God, and to who we are, in the face of the witness and example of other people, then that’s when they have to die.  Whoever ‘they’ might be. When their testimony is more powerful –or at the very least more compelling- than our own so that we might end up submitting to it, then that’s when they have to go.

Kill them.

Skewer their children.

Wipe them off the face of the earth.

‘I command genocide!’ says God, ‘because your faith, and your grasp of my teachings and my instruction is so fragile and, and so feeble, that even a small dose of peer pressure could cause you to fold, and completely abandon me!  So since there are obviously absolutely no other options to prevent your seduction into their detestable ways, you’d better not leave a single thing breathing in the whole land! Kill even all their cattle –because, after all, a calf of theirs might moo at you in such a way that it inspires you to make an idol, instead of listening to the voice of your living God!’

Obviously you couldn’t just develop a stronger faith –and out of it an enduring sense of yourself and your integrity.

Obviously you couldn’t learn all my teachings and take them to heart!

Obviously it’s too much to expect you all to actually live and grow into the wisdom I’ve delivered to you on stone tablets, and in the scrolls written by my servant Moses, so that you might discern for yourselves what is a great blessing and what will be a curse to you.

Obviously you couldn’t nurture the intellectual tools that teach you that child sacrifice and stone-worship won’t be helpful, or that temple prostitutes can’t fix your relationships.

Given all of that, yeah, you’d better go smash and burn up everything that could be a bad influence!  And don’t neglect even the puppies.

Don’t you see why Joshua’s commanders had to tell the people to establish distance between themselves and the box that stored God’s teachings?  Don’t you see why Joshua had to draw them all closer to himself, and turn those living teachings of God into a sacred artifact that’s dangerous if you get too close?  Because if he didn’t, then the people might be able to look and see for themselves where the real problem was located –not outside, across that river in the cults of their neighbors, but all along it was within themselves: in their flimsy, feeble, and foolish hearts.

“Look!” says Joshua, “The covenant chest of the ruler of the entire earth is going to cross over in front of you in the Jordan.”   Once the priests’ feet touch the water, God will make a way for them, to cross over.  Just as God partitioned the waters so they could escape from slavery, here God now leads them to a new land.  But still they haven’t resolved the greatest issue: how do we relate to the God who sets us free and brings us home?

When we read this story, we’re invited to journey with these sojourners of the desert.  For we too are trying to trudge our way home.  In this way, their struggles parallel our struggles.  Their questions are ours.

Therefore we too must ask: should we follow God at a safe, reverent distance? Should we view the gifts God has given as holy artifacts of which our dirty fingers are unworthy to touch?  Or do we best honor those gifts by drawing close, giving thanks, and studying them scrupulously and even critically?  Do we treat our holy scriptures like Joshua starts to treat the covenant chest –like a holy object from which we’d best stay back?  Or do we dare to draw close, and to use our minds and hearts to wrestle the wisdom from it?

And what about us, as ourselves?  Are we strong enough in our hearts and in our faith and in our wisdom, to withstand the examples, and the teachings, and the temptations of our neighbors? Or is our tendency to create distance, or even try and destroy the things we fear could overwhelm us?

Like the ancient Israelites, God is calling us forward.  Just as the Israelites had to cross the Jordan to find their home in a new land, we too have to find our new home in a different era.  Time is changing.  The world is changing.  We are changing –hopefully not only growing older, but also growing wiser.  For wisdom is a great gift this world needs.  And the scriptures have a great deal of wisdom to inspire and to offer.  But we must not be too scared to approach it.  We must not worry too much about what it will show us about ourselves or our own weakness.  For if there’s any good news about this strange book called Joshua it’s that God has a history of calling underequipped people to do great things.

So we can be critical of Joshua, but also celebrate him.  For he was called to lead God’s people after Moses.  But unlike Moses, he was born a slave.  He didn’t have access to childhood education or Egypt’s best teachers like Moses did.  He just followed Moses and tried to do as he did.  And in this simple goal at least, Joshua had success: he led the people across the river.  He got them home.  It was a messy path, indeed; but God had no unfavorable judgment to level at him, so perhaps neither should we.

In the same way we celebrate all those who have gone before us.  We should celebrate what they gave, and the trials they endured to bring us to where we are.  In their lives and examples, they have a great deal to teach us.  But our path and our calling is also, in some small ways, unique.  And so is our wisdom and perspective.  Let’s honor that, and celebrate it today, all the while giving thanks to God for drawing close to us, every step of the way. Let’s pray.

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