Sunday 12 November 2017
The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 32A
When we are reading a story that recounts events from the past, it is always important to consider the context in which they occur. When we are reading the stories of Jesus, it’s important to remember that Jesus’s time was very different from our time and that the place Jesus lived was very different from the place that we live. Understanding the difference between our context and the context of the events related in the story can help us better understand what is going on in the story. For example when Mary and Joseph take Jesus to be dedicated in the temple, they make an offering of two pigeons. If we know that the expected sacrifice was one lamb and one pigeon, but poor people could offer two pigeons, then we know that Mary and Joseph were poor, and that tells us something about who Jesus is. That’s the kind of help that context can give us.
Sometimes, though, we don’t just need to know the context of the people in the story; sometimes we also need to know the context of the people writing the story. Take as an example the 1970’s television show M*A*S*H, starring Alan Alda, Loretta Swit, and others. The comedic drama tells the story of a US Army field hospital during the War in Korea. And it can be helpful to know something about the Korean Conflict in order to understand the show. But M*A*S*H isn’t really about Korea and the early 1950’s. M*A*S*H is about what was happening when the show was written, in the 1970’s. M*A*S*H isn’t about Korea, it’s about Vietnam. And if you don’t know some of the history of the Vietnam War and the social struggle that was happening in the United States at the same time, you won’t really understand the show. You don’t just need to know the context of the story, you need to know the context of the writers.
And the same is true for the lesson we have this morning from the Book of Joshua. The context of the story is the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites. It’s after Moses has led the people out of Egypt, after the people have received the law in the wilderness, and after Moses has died. Joshua tells the story of the Israelites invading the Promised Land, the land of the Canaanites, with Joshua as their leader and general. The passage we read is from the end of the story, near the death of Joshua.
And we could try to study more about that early time, find out how the archeology matches up with the story in the bible. But it’s much more useful to find out something about the people who wrote the Book of Joshua centuries after the events that it describes.
Joshua is part of a larger work that we call the Deuteronomistic History. It’s called the Deuteronomistic History because it seems to be produced by the same community that produced Deuteronomy. It includes the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. And it’s not written in the time of Joshua and the invasion of Canaan about the 13th century BCE. It’s not written in the time of the judges, the 11th and 12th centuries BCE. It’s not written in the time of King Saul, King David, and King Solomon, around the 10th century. It’s not written in the time of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, in the 9th century, nor is it written in the time of Amos and Hosea and Micah, in the 8th century. It isn’t even written in the time of Isaiah, in the 7th century. No, the Book of Joshua is written in the 6th century, around 700 years after the events it describes. To put that in perspective, if we were writing such a history today, the events we would be recording would be things like the Mongolian Empire, the black plague, the journeys of Marco Polo, the establishment of the Ottoman Empire, the reign of Robert the Bruce, and the founding of the Ming Dynasty, hardly events of recent memory.
Joshua is alive when the Israelites are entering the land, but the Book of Joshua is written 700 years later, when the people have been kicked out of the land and are living in exile in Babylon. And so the writers of the Book of Joshua have some difficult political and theological issues to grapple with. They need to know why the Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrian Empire. They need to know why the Kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonian Empire. They need to know why the descendants of King David had been removed from the throne, even though God had promised that the Kingdom of David would last forever. They need to know why Jerusalem was destroyed, why the temple of God was destroyed, and why the leading people of Judah had been deported, moved against their will nearly 900 miles away from their home. Why were they forced to live as exiles in a foreign land? Why could they no longer practice their religion? Why could they no longer govern themselves? In short, why had God abandoned them?
And they seem to have decided that all of these bad things had happened because they were being punished by God. God was angry with them, and so God had broken God’s promise to protect them.
But why was God punishing them? It must be because the people had broken some kind of promise. It must be because they weren’t faithful to God. It must be because they weren’t pure. It must be because they allowed their neighbors to worship other gods. It must be because they intermarried with other tribes. It must be because they allowed people to worship God in places other than the temple in Jerusalem. That was the problem. If they had just destroyed all of the other temples and shrines, except the one that was in Jerusalem, if they had just annihilated all of the people living in the land who weren’t Israelites, if they had maintained their genetic and religious purity, then God wouldn’t have abandoned them, then they would not have lost their king, their temple, and their land.
It is from this perspective that the writers of the Book of Joshua looked back on the stories of their ancient ancestors, the stories of when they had first come into the Promised Land. In the passage from today, we here the story they wrote about the last acts of Joshua. He has already led them to victory against the Canaanites, he has already established the people in the land, and now, shortly before his death, he summons the people together at the sanctuary at Shechem.
And Joshua tells them it is time to make a choice. They have to choose between YHWH, the God of Israel, and all of the other gods of the other peoples around them. Will they choose to worship only the one God of Israel, or will they do what everyone else does, and worship several different gods?
Joshua recounts to them the history of their experience with YHWH, and does it in the voice of God. “Long ago, I took your ancestor Abraham from his home on the other side of the Euphrates River…” Joshua says. And he continues through the whole story, although some of it has been cut out of the reading for today. He talks about Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Esau. He talks about Moses and Aaron. He talks about how God freed the people from slavery in Egypt. He talks about the parting of the Red Sea and how God defeated the Egyptian army. He talks about the time in the wilderness, and about the many battles that God won for them against their enemies. He talks about how God led them into the Promised Land, how God defeated all of the peoples living there in order to give the land to the Israelites.
And it all leads up to Joshua’s question for them: will you choose YHWH, the God of Israel, or will you choose the gods of Mesopotamia? It’s a question that doesn’t make any sense in the context of Joshua. In Joshua’s time, Israelites might have been tempted to worship the gods of Canaan or the gods of Egypt, but no one would have worship the gods of far-off Mesopotamia. The question only makes sense in the context of the exile in Babylon 700 years later. Joshua isn’t so much speaking to his contemporaries, he is speaking to the readers of the book, 700 years and 900 miles away, the exiled Jews living in Babylon, that is in Mesopotamia. They are the ones who have to choose between the God of Israel and the gods of Mesopotamia. Not Joshua’s people, the people who wrote and read the Book of Joshua.
But in the story, the people do answer. Along with their leader, Joshua, they choose the Lord, they choose YHWH, the God of Israel. They recognize everything that God has done for them, and they make the conscious choice to remain with God.
Joshua isn’t satisfied with their answer, though. And this is the part of the story where we really need to remember the context of the people writing the Book of Joshua. Because this is what Joshua says to the people:
“You cannot serve the Lord, because he is a holy God. He is a jealous God. He will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you leave the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn around and do you harm and consume you, in spite of having done you good in the past.”
Wow. Those are harsh words. And they sound nothing at all like the God I know. Joshua describes God as angry, jealous, unforgiving, cruel, abusive, and heartless. And while there are people who still try to preach that God, I am not among them. Nor were the pastors who came before me in this congregation, nor were John Wesley and Martin Luther, for that matter. That is not the God we know and serve.
For the Jewish people in exile in Babylon this made sense, at least for some of them. It brought some sense of order to the extreme chaos of their lives. It explained why they had been defeated. The natural thing to think was that they had been defeated by Babylon because their God had been defeated by the God of the Babylonians. But this theology of a God who would not forgive any people who strayed allowed them to think that God had not been defeated when Israel was defeated. Israel had been defeated because God had turned away from Israel, and God had turned away from Israel because Israel had turned away from God. The thing to do now was to turn back to God.
And the way to turn back to God was to make themselves pure. No worshipping other gods. No tolerating people who worshipped other gods. No intermarrying with people who were not Israelites. And when they did make it back to the Promised Land, they could not allow anyone to live who was not Jewish and who did not worship God in the prescribed way. Kill the non-Israelites. Destroy every temple and shrine and worship center except the temple in Jerusalem, even if those other worship places were dedicated to the God of Israel. No, everyone had to be united. One people, one genealogy, one temple, one priesthood, one king. Everything else must be rejected. Only then would God show them favor again, only then would God fight on their side, only then would God forgive them.
It’s important to say that this isn’t just a New Testament vs. Old Testament problem. There are plenty of books in the Hebrew Bible that preach a gospel of good news of a forgiving God who is always reaching out and trying to be in relationship with the people. And there are parts of the New Testament that seem to preach an unforgiving, angry, bloodthirsty God like the God we meet in Joshua. The Book of Revelation comes to mind. This is not a Jewish vs. Christian problem. It seems that in every age there are followers of God who think that God is gracious, forgiving, and loving, and there are other followers of God who think that God is angry, vicious, and vengeful.
And so I want to suggest to you that each of us has to face the words of Joshua 24:15: choose this day whom you will serve. Which God is it that you serve? Is it the God who calls people to come together or the God who drives people apart? Is it the God who sows hatred or the God who sows love? Is it the God who refuses to forgive or the God who calls us back again and again, even when we have strayed, and welcomes us home like a loving parent? Is it the God of every man for himself or the God who cares for the poor and the weak? Is it the God of guilt and shame or the God of forgiveness and reconciliation? Is it the God of death and destruction or is it the God birth and rebirth? Choose this day whom you will serve. Choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord of Life.