Scripture: Joshua 24:1–18
How many of you have ever used the direction app on your phone? It tells you in live time turn by turn directions. Where to go and what to do. And yet, how many of you have still taken a wrong turn anyway? I do all the time! But when you do, the faithful map app does what? Recalculates. It makes no judgments, does not say “I told you so,” figures out where you are now, and what your new route should be.
I saw a comic a few years ago that the Exodus story is just like the map app on your phone: one of constant recalculating. It is filled with wrong turns and revamped routes. Last week, when we last left our intrepid explorers, the Israelite people were three months into their journey of freedom. They had narrowly escaped the hand of the Egyptian Empire through the Red Sea, and had received the Torah covenant on Mount Sinai.
But that journey was just beginning. Moses and the people of God wandered through the wilderness for forty years, coming to terms with the covenant that they had received on Sinai. There were ups and downs, which we read about through the rest of the book Exodus, and the entire books of Leviticus, and Numbers, and Deuteronomy. At the end of that book, Moses died just as the people were getting ready to enter the land that God had promised them.
He handed the reins of leadership over to a man named Joshua, who led the people into this land where they could settle. It was a violent process, finding armies and chariots and fortified cities wherever they went. But eventually, God led them into the land of promise, where they could settle and find peace. Finally, today at the end of the book of Joshua, the leader of the people delivers a goodbye speech soon before his death. It is yet another example of a recalculating journey, as they discern how they will live in the days ahead. So listen now to that speech, from Joshua 24…
1Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. 2And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. 3Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac; 4and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. 5Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in its midst; and afterwards I brought you out. 6When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, you came to the sea; and the Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea. 7When they cried out to the Lord, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians, and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did to Egypt. Afterwards you lived in the wilderness for a long time. 8Then I brought you to the land of the Amorites, who lived on the other side of the Jordan; they fought with you, and I handed them over to you, and you took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before you. 9Then King Balak, son of Zippor of Moab, set out to fight against Israel. He sent and invited Balaam son of Beor to curse you, 10but I would not listen to Balaam; therefore he blessed you; so I rescued you out of his hand. 11When you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you. 12I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove out before you the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow. 13I gave you a land on which you had not laboured, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.
14‘Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.’
16 Then the people answered, ‘Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; 17for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; 18and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.’
As a child, our family had an annual tradition of attending the Feast of the Hunters Moon. I know I have talked to many of you about this tradition over the years. The Feast of the Hunters Moon is a historical reenactment, kind of along the lines of a RenFest or a Civil War battle reenactment. But it is not about war, nor is it meant to cover a long period of time and culture like a Renaissance Festival. What sets this reenactment apart is that it demonstrates a specific historic moment in time in which native peoples, and European traders, gathered together in peace. Each year, they would celebrate this annual feast where they would trade, and eat, and camp, and even play games together for several days. So this reenactment highlights the history of this moment, around 1750, by playing period music and dancing, and serving period food, and canoe racing in in the Wabash River. What sets it apart from other reenactments is that instead of demonstrating conflict, the goal is to demonstrate peace between the native tribes and the Europeans. As a child, this is the picture that I got of the ways that early Europeans and indigenous tribes interacted.
But then I grew up. And I grew to understand that our nation’s history is more complicated than playing dress up and eating turkey legs. Perhaps this moment in time in 1750 was a peaceful one between native tribes and Europeans, but as I grew older, I learned that there was more to the story. I came to learn about the Trail of Tears. And the forced relocation of tribes and peoples. And the violent battles that took place as one people invaded and displaced another. I learned more about Christopher Columbus and the ways that he treated the native tribes that he encountered, not quite as innocent and picturesque as I understood as a child. The older I got, the more my heart broke in grief in memory of a people who looked like me and the way that they treated people who didn’t look like me.
Then I read the book of Joshua, and found myself in a crisis. This book is the story of one group of people, entering into a land and violently displacing the people because they believed that God told them to. And that story has been used by European Christians over the years, as a justification of forced and violent relocation of indigenous Americans. When we read about the language of “manifest destiny” or the “doctrine of discovery,” it is Joshua language: “God has blessed us like the New Israel, given us power to defeat the heathen peoples just like the heathen Canaanites were defeated by God. We will enter our Promised Land in America and annihilate those who stand in our way.”
I’ll be honest. This is probably the hardest book of the Bible for me to read. It feels like it presents a version of God which is most unlike the God revealed in Christ. There are times when I just don’t know how to respond to the stories of violence that I read in this book. When I read it, I feel again the grief over a people violently displaced and wonder how God can be behind it all.
Re-reading the story feels different through the lens of the narrative lectionary. It helps to take a step back and see the bigger picture. It becomes then, instead, a story less about taking, and more about receiving. This is a family and nation and people who have lived through four centuries of slavery. They have lived through abuse, oppression, murder, and dehumanizing slavery for longer than any of them can remember.
This is not a violent Empire expanding their territory, but a beaten people finally finding rest. This is not a military force displacing others for the sake of conquest, but a nation of former slaves finally receiving a place to call home. This is not the “manifest destiny” of a people who believes that they are ethnically superior to those who they attack, but reparations for 400 years of generational abuse and trauma. Re-reading the whole story arc at once like this, I see in a new way how the Israelites are much less like the United States in the way that they displaced the native people of this land, and how they are more like those native people groups themselves, subjugated and broken and traumatized. It becomes a story not of a people greedily taking, a story of a people learning to receive.
Re-imagine the story of Exodus with me as a story of five gifts. First, by way of the Sea, God gives them physical freedom from the slavery of the Egyptians. Second, by way of the Mountain, God gives them identity and purpose through Torah. Third, by way of the Desert, God gives them the gift of trust: eventually, over the 40 years, they are able to trust God as a God of provision, who will give them what they need. And now God gives them a new gift: the vineyard. The land which offers them security and peace and protection. Here is a displaced people, finding a place. For the first time in 400 years, they now have a place where they can become themselves. A settled people.
And now, Joshua and the people have come to a crossroads. The folks at the Two-Way Bible study last week correctly named that this is a people at a crossroads. In the speech that Joshua gives, he names several crossroads. Abram and his family could stay frozen in grief, or go to a new place with new promise. Jacob and his family could follow Esau into the desert and stay forever the little brother, or they could strike out on their own and follow Joseph to Egypt. They could remain in slavery to the Egyptians forever, or they could follow Moses and Aaron to freedom.
And now, they have come to another crossroads. They have been given the vineyard and have a place to lay their heads. However, they have tasted the blood of war. The people of Israel have seen the walls fall before them. They have felt the power of military power, and it is a sweet temptation. Surrounding them are the “little-g gods” of the culture: the gods of greed and lust for power…the gods of violence and want of land and possession. These are the rules and the gods of the peoples who surround them, and there is a powerful temptation to follow them down the path toward violence. How much land is enough? A little more. How much wealth is enough? A little more. How much political and institutional power is enough? A little more. Those are the ways of the cultures around them and this is a crossroads moment for them to ask “will we become a people of Empire? Will we continue a life of conquest?”
Joshua’s response is clear. “Maybe you will. But I won’t. I will follow the covenant of Yahweh, which leads to restraint, shalom peace, and gratitude. Y’all have to decide which way you are going, but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua’s response here is that when at the crossroads of violence and peace, he will choose peace. Joshua walked off the battlefield, and walked into the vineyard. He put down the sword and picked up the plowshare.
Did you notice what the Gospel reading was this morning? The narrative lectionary does a beautiful job pairing the words of Joshua with the words of Jeshua…Jesus. Joshua was tempted to follow the ways of power and conquest and destruction….much in the same way that Jesus was tempted to follow Satan’s call to stand on top of the symbols of power and claim his authority. But just like Joshua choosing restraint and peace, Jesus rejected Satan’s temptation to political power. He preached a Gospel of turning the other cheek, loving your enemy, and carrying their pack the extra mile.
And so, in this passage, really the ending of the story of Exodus, God gives them one more gift: the Tree. After the Sea, and the Mountain, and the Desert, and the Vineyard, now God gives them the Tree. In verse 26, after Joshua proclaims his commitment to restraint, and the people respond back with their message of restraint, it says that Joshua placed a stone under a big oak tree, as a reminder that this is where the violence stops. This is where we choose not to be a people of Empire, but instead to be a people of Yahweh. A people of peace.
And the words of Joshua…and Jeshua…ring in our ears today. Will we follow the gods of violence and greed? Of conquest and acquisition? Or will we set up a stone under the tree of our Lord that says, “we have enough”?
I believe that maybe the best way for us to read this story today is not through the eyes of the Israelites. When we do, we will end up in the same place of those who subjugated and enslaved and relocated those who they thought were lesser humans than them. Instead, I think we have to do the hard work of putting ourselves in the place of the Canaanites and Jebusites and Hittites. Where are the people in our world who have been subjugated enough? Who are those on the margins who need space to call their own? How have those in our midst been abused and traumatized by the world, and can we step out of the way for them?
I have learned that it is not the whole story, but perhaps the Feast of the Hunters Moon might be a model for us anyway. Maybe we can look back in our history and reclaim a story in which people who were different found common ground. Maybe we can celebrate how people of military might chose to set aside their weapons of violence and pick up paddles and race canoes instead. Maybe it is just being naïve, but I believe that the message of Jesus leads us to open our eyes to those around us, seek the peace of all peoples, and invite those on the margins to share a turkey leg or two.