June 18, 2017

Maybe I’ll be there to shake your hand
Maybe I’ll be there to share the land
That they’ll be givin’ away
When we all live together
I’m talkin’ ’bout together now
The Guess Who, “Share the Land”

Rumi
We began as a mineral.
We emerged into plant life
and into the animal state,
and then into being human,
and always we have forgotten our former states,
except in the early spring when we slightly recall
being green again…

Joshua 3:10
The Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, and the Jebusites control the land on the other side of the river. But the living God will be with you and will force them out of the land when you attack. And now, God is going to prove that he’s powerful enough to force them out.

Benjamin Netanyahu
This is an insoluble conflict. Because it’s not about territory. It is not that you can give up a kilometer more and solve it. The root of this conflict is an entirely different place. Until Abu Mazen recognizes Israel as a Jewish state, there will be no way to reach an agreement.

Cotton Mather
The New Englanders are a people of God settled in those which were once the devil’s territories.

The Story of Joshua Alicia Ostriker
We reach the promised land
Forty years later
The original ones who were slaves
Have died
The young are seasoned soldiers
There is wealth enough for everyone and God
Here at our side, the people
Are mad with excitement.
Here is what to do, to take
This land away from the inhabitants:
Burn their villages and cities
Kill their men
Kill their women
Consume the people utterly.
God says: is that clear?
I give you the land, but
You must murder for it.
You will be a nation
Like other nations.
Your hands are going to be stained like theirs
Your innocence annihilated
Keep listening, Joshua.
Only to you among the nations
Do I also give knowledge
The secret
Knowledge that you are doing evil
Only to you the commandment:
Love ye therefore the stranger, for you were
Strangers in the land of Egypt, a pillar
Of fire to light your passage
Through the blank desert of history forever.
This is the agreement.
It is entirely
Clear, Joshua,
Said the Lord.
I said it was. He then commanded me
To destroy Jericho.

 

*******

How do you preach a sermon on the Book of Joshua? What would a responsible sermon sound like?

We are making our way through the Bible cover to cover in 2017. If you are visiting with us, you can find the guide I created a few years ago. I am spending Sunday worship services with a focus on a section. Today, the books of Joshua and Judges.

These stories of the Bible are likely more influential than we might think at first glance. We gathered here this morning are inheritors of these stories. How do you inherit something that is at least in part, if not in full, morally compromised? How do we seek to understand our spiritual history, a history that provided the theological momentum for conquest, without justifying it?

We do not reflect on these stories in a detached way from our own histories and our own place today. Our minds are not blank slates receiving these stories as if they are something outside of us or as if there are no geopolitical realities present. The United States would not exist today without the influence of these stories. The modern state of Israel would not exist today without these stories as mythological anchors. We read these stories as inheritors and as shapers of our geopolitical realities.

It doesn’t matter if we are religious or secular, if we “believe” the stories or not, or if we identify with them in some way or not. Even if we reject them as Bronze-Age fables, they still have power. The stories and the deity they champion are more alive than we may think, and this deity is wreaking havoc.

Desperately, we need a vision for our nation. It cannot be a vision drafted by some rich white guys. It must be a collective and collaborative vision that arises from the dispossessed. We need a vision of how to share the land, of how to live with each other, and of how to keep our home, our one planet, Earth, in good repair for future generations.

A step toward that vision is an acknowledgment of who we are and where we are and how we got here and what are our guiding myths. That is the reason behind the Bible cover to cover.

In this spirit is a book I find fun. It was a gift to me by a church member. It is called God Is Disappointed In You. It is written by Mark Russell of Portland with cartoons by Shannon Wheeler. It is a summary of the Bible, book by book. According to the back cover:

God is Disappointed In You is for people who would like to read the bible…if it would just cut to the chase. Stripped of its arcane language and interminable passages every book of the bible is condensed down to its core message, in no more than a few pages each….God Is Disappointed In You is frequently hilarious, often shocking, but always accurate retelling of the Bible, including the parts selectively left out by Sunday School teachers and church sermons.

What does Joshua say? God Is Disappointed In You has its own summary. Here is the basic plot as I see it.

Moses is dead. Yahweh promised a piece of real estate to his chosen people. The one inconvenience is that there are people living there. No problem. Yahweh will lead Joshua and his band of twelve tribes and they will kill all the people who are in the way, burn all their stuff, destroy their gods and their culture and take the land for themselves.

There is a condition. In order to live in the land without trouble from enemies, they must obey all the laws that Yahweh gave to Moses and the most important is that Yahweh is a jealous god and so there can be no foreign gods to share mantle space.

So Joshua leads the merry band across the Jordan River. The first city is Jericho. The Israelis bring down the walls by marching around them, blowing trumpets, and screaming. It is a demonstration that the Israelis did not take the land. It is a gift to them from Yahweh. That is very important.

Yahweh instructs the people to destroy everything. Kill everyone. Leave nothing. One exception, they will spare the life of Rahab the helpful hooker. She assisted the Israeli spies when they were scoping out the city. Rahab gets incorporated into the family and becomes an ancestor of King David and Jesus Christ.

That was easy enough. The next city is Ai. This one does not go well. The A-ites are tougher than expected and the Israelis are defeated. Joshua learns from Yahweh that Achan, one of the Israelis took a few nice things from Jericho against the command. Achan and his whole family are thus stoned to death and burned. Then the Israelis defeat Ai and kill everyone. Praise be. Let that be a lesson for looters.

The rest of the story of Joshua is more of the same. Yahweh turns out to be quite helpful in battle by sending hailstones at opportune times and even making the sun stand still so the Israelis have enough daylight to kill everyone. The Israelis destroy city after city until they control the land and it is divided among the twelve tribes. Joshua gives an impressive speech at the end, reminding everyone that Yahweh is jealous. No other gods or trouble will follow.

That is the story.

Now the next story is the book of Judges. It is a bit different. It has them in the land but besieged from enemies without and within. Joshua didn’t kill all of them. There are twelve judges but they really aren’t judges. They are people Yahweh chose at the last minute to help them out.

The basic plot is that the Israelis have done bad things. They have worshiped other gods usually, so Yahweh allows an enemy to smite them. Then after they have learned their lesson, Yahweh raises up a judge defeat the enemies again. Then there is a time of peace.

The story of Ehud is fun. Eglon is the bad king and he is very fat. Ehud takes a knife and stabs him. Eglon is so fat that his gut covers the whole blade. That is a wonderful children’s story. Nice before bed.

Jael is another good one. She takes a huge blunt instrument and pounds a tent peg into the head of Sisera. That finished him.

Gideon. He threw out the lamb’s skin to see if it would be wet or dry and thus get a sign from Yahweh. He had a big army but Yahweh whittled it down to about 300. The point of why Yahweh does these kinds of things is to show that Yahweh is the actor. The people are not responsible but Yahweh gives the land to the Israelis, the chosen people.

There is Abimelech, Gideon’s son. He thinks he should become king. But he doesn’t do a very good job.

Then there is Samson. A lot of press devoted to Samson. He is not much of a guy. He is ethically-challenged and kind of dumb. He is deceived by Delilah and allows her to cut his hair and he becomes weak. He is blinded by his enemies and taken in chains. But eventually, he becomes the first suicide bomber. He prays to Yahweh for one last boost of strength and with his bare hands brings down the Philistine temple upon his head killing himself and according to the text,

he killed at his death more than those whom he killed during his lifetime.

The Philistines are important as they become the bad guys in the next stories we have with David. Judges ends with a horrible civil war with the tribe of Benjamin following a brutal gang rape and killing. Judges descends into chaos of violence and anarchism. Judges concludes:

Everyone did what was right according to their own opinion.

It is the set up for Samuel and the selection of a king. Here’s a question: Are these stories historically accurate or even close? Is there any evidence outside the biblical account to support any of this? The answer is no. Recent scholarship since the 1950s, especially with the aid of archaeology has uncovered 300 sites of Israeli villages. They have discovered there is no evidence at all for any of Joshua’s conquests. Jericho and Ai were cities that had been long abandoned before the supposed time of Joshua. Joshua, the book, probably Judges too, are likely complete fabrications.

So how did they get there and how did they make these stories up? There are many theories. One is that the Hebrew movement was one of countryside rebels revolting against the city-states. These new rebels create their own identity as people of Yahweh. Although, this theory doesn’t quite explain the connection with Egypt and the escape from slavery. The point is that there is no consensus about the origins of Israel. There is no evidence outside of what the Bible says and the Bible is not historically reliable as it is primarily a theological library of books.

But Joshua as a story has had a life of its own. We see the influence of Joshua most recently in the modern state of Israel. Long before that, Joshua was a Christian story and an American story.

Steven Paul McSloy wrote an article forIndian Country Today entitled: “Because the Bible tells me so’: Manifest Destiny and American Indians.”

The year is 1823 and the Johnson-McIntosh Supreme Court Case affirmed “The Doctrine of Discovery.” Supreme Court Justice John Marshall wrote it. This is from the article by Steven Paul McSloy:

The Johnson case is the foundation of all United States law regarding Indians, and what it says is that by virtue of discovery, the Europeans (and by succession, the Americans) have dominion and sovereignty over Native peoples, lands and governments. The New World, on paper, was legally “vacant” – …. Title to all Indian land is thus held by the discoverer, and Indian people are subject to the overriding political sovereignty of the discoverer. How was this justified? In Chief Justice Marshall’s words:

“[T]he character and religion of [the New World’s] inhabitants afforded an apology for considering them as a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendancy. To leave them in possession of their country was to leave the country a wilderness.”

Justice Marshall is a secular guy. The separation of church and state exists and so the judge cannot be overly religious. Nonetheless, the foundation for this decision goes back to the land of Canaan. Again from the article by McSloy:

Marshall, writing as a secular judge, was careful in enshrining the Discovery Doctrine as the basis for United States Indian law to avoid explicitly endorsing its religious and covenantal roots. But that was all he left out. All the other ideas about vacant land, savagery, lack of civilization, heathenism, nomadic hunters without a conception of property, all were deployed to strip Indians of their rights. Americans were the new “chosen people,” with a “manifest destiny” to own the continent.

Now we are in 2017. Joshua would be astonished at the size of the armies of Yahweh’s chosen peoples. This is from the Nation. 2015:

While there are no freestanding foreign bases permanently located in the United States, there are now around 800 US bases in foreign countries. Seventy years after World War II and 62 years after the Korean War, there are still 174 US “base sites” in Germany, 113 in Japan, and 83 in South Korea, according to the Pentagon. Hundreds more dot the planet in around 80 countries, including Aruba and Australia, Bahrain and Bulgaria, Colombia, Kenya, and Qatar, among many other places. Although few Americans realize it, the United States likely has more bases in foreign lands than any other people, nation, or empire in history.

Why is that? Why no foreign bases in the United States and why do we have bases all over the world? Many reasons may be offered and are offered.

But the ultimate reason, how do we ultimately justify this, goes back to the Bible and the idea of a chosen people and manifest destiny. We are chosen. We are exceptional. This is why it is difficult to be critical of America. People can be heretical and talk about all kinds of things regarding God or Jesus, but criticize the religion of American Exceptionalism and that is over the line. It was pretty much toast for me two churches ago when criticizing the Iraq War before it started, I was told my a major member that “I had done it now. I had insulted the red, white, and blue.”

That is our real religion. American nationalism and American exceptionalism. Why is that? I suggest it goes back to our biblical roots that are in our cultural DNA.

There is no more land to discover. There are resources under the land and under the seas. The most significant resource for “the American way of life” is oil. We consume about 20 million barrels a day and we produce around 8-10 million. The rest comes from foreign countries, many in the middle east.

I offer these sermons because I think it is time to tell the truth and to seek the truth. To be honest. We now live in a time in which our leaders lie to us and they don’t even try to hide it. I think it would be nice to have a little honesty now and then about what it means to be an American today and what it means to inherit these stories. What it means if we are courageous enough to say maybe it is time to let go of some of these stories and write some new ones.

Conjuring up enemies such as ‘the radical muslim’ in order to justify the stealing of wealth from other nations is no virtue.

Is it time to close the book on Joshua and Judges? Not close it in terms of not reading it. No we need to read it. Then we need to say, “Can this story be ours any longer?” Can there be any chosen people? Could we ever reach a point to say and actually mean through our actions that all human beings are either chosen or none are?