Formations 07.21.2019: God’s Promises

Joshua 23:1-10, 14-15

At the center of this week’s passage, Joshua calls Israel to remember, “It is the Lord your God who has fought for you. I have allotted to you as an inheritance for your tribes those nations that remain, along with all the nations that I have cast off, from the Jordan to the Great Sea in the west” (vv. 3-4).

The verse, given its resonance with our own history of colonization from Atlantic to Pacific, reminds us how provocative the theological category of inheritance is. The provisions of a shared history may not be equal. Some inherit privilege. Some inherit trauma. Even what we receive from Israel’s stories about the exodus, the conquest, the confederacy, the monarchy, and the exile differs because of our history.

So like the story of Jericho, Joshua’s speech demands responsibility, creativity, and humility. There are too many layers for anything less. Here, Joshua speaks of God, who fights for former slaves and brings them into an already-inhabited land, promising freedom and control. While his claims may have greater roots in Israel’s memory than in any historical and archaeological record, Joshua’s speech holds deep power.

On one hand, these memories of God’s often-violent intervention on Israel’s behalf undergirded practices of compassion for those at the margins. But at the same time, the belief that God’s commitment to Israel demanded Israel’s singular commitment to God also led to the destruction of many cultic sites and the killing of their priests, if Josiah’s reforms are taken at face value.

As inheritors of this story, we are challenged to interpret it. What are we to make of a God who rescues slaves from one land and demands the removal of all the peoples of another land? What are we to make of memory that encourages love and violence at the same time? And how are we to hold such an ambiguous text when it reflects the most painful failures of our own communities?

A recent story about public art in San Francisco clarifies these challenges. It begins with the New Deal’s Federal Arts Project, which historian Alfred Jones has seen as part of “a search for a usable American past.” Under this banner, the muralist Victor Arnautoff painted thirteen frescoes for George Washington High School. The series, “The Life of Washington,” depicts major scenes from the founder’s life, but Arnautoff’s were distinct because, in graphic ways, they required students to confront his enslavement of African Americans and wars against Native Americans.

Arnautoff’s portrayal of the history challenges a common erasure of his injustices, inviting students to see and respond to failures that shaped the entire nation’s development. We often confess that unrepentant sin may lead to its undoing. It appears that Arnautoff accepts a similar notion, holding up the nation’s guilt as useful, even necessary, for its healing.

More recently, however, many students and parents from the district have advocated for the removal of these paintings. The reason for removal is straightforward: these murals are not useful for African American and Native American students. These students don’t need to be reminded of the violence of our nation’s history. The murals may remind some students of inherited guilt, but they remind other students of the violence their ancestors faced. The paintings reinforce trauma passed down generationally through political, legal, and economic structures. Students who are victims of white supremacy don’t need to be reminded of its legacy, these advocates say, they need opportunities to transcend it.

It strikes me that there are merits of both relationships to the past. Honoring confession requires us to remember our failures of memory. But honoring repentance demands that these failures not prevent their transformation. It seems that this is the challenge we face in Joshua 23: How do we hold its problems without losing its promises? But seeing the passage as sacred, as we Baptists do, calls us to lean in, trusting the practice to train us for similar challenges that emerge in our community.

For these challenges—scriptural as well as cultural—Joshua offers a reminder. Inheritance is ultimately about the present and future, not the past. After recalling that God fought for Israel, Joshua says “therefore.” And this is a conclusion. “Be very steadfast to observe and do all that is written in the book of the law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right nor to the left” (v. 6). What we remember shapes who we are. Because of this, imagining who we want to become might lead to fuller memory.

Alfred Haworth Jones, “The Search for a Usable American History,” American Quarterly 71(5): 710–24.

Carol Pogash, “These High School Murals Depict an Ugly History. Should They Go?” The New York Times, 11 April 2019.

Discussion

What do you imagine this memory of Israel’s past says to them during the monarchy? During the exile?

• How has God been present in your community’s past? How have these memories shaped your community’s identity and practice?

• What do you hope your community can become? What stories from your memory can help your community to grow into this direction? What can you learn from the stories of others to grow toward this vision?

Reference Shelf

Remembering Joshua

Modern interpreters have proposed two understandings of its origins. In either case, at some time removed from the events described, individual accounts were gathered, arranged, and supplemented with theological reflection in order to give a sustained and educational portrait of Israel’s past. (1) It is the conclusion of the story that begins with Genesis, and thus it depicts the actualization of the deity’s oft-repeated promise of land to the descendants of the patriarchs (e.g., Gen 12:7). Thus, the first six books of the Bible (a Hexateuch) have a unity, even if compiled in stages (so von Rad). It is the continuation of the story of Israel’s history in the land of Canaan, which begins with Deuteronomy and concludes with 2 Kings. That is, it is part of the once independent “Deuteronomic History” (so Noth).

The second of these alternatives is now usually accepted by interpreters. The historical portrait by the “Deuteronomic Historian,” if taken seriously by readers during the exile (587–539 b.c.e.), would give an understanding of why the land was gained and lost, and would perhaps engender hope for the future. The goal of the “History” was not to present a sterile recitation of objective happenings but rather to state the theological facts (from a prophetic and deuteronomic point of view).

The role of the Book of Joshua within the larger “History” would be to stress that the land had been the deity’s to grant as a free gift (and thus the deity’s to repossess in case of dissatisfaction with the tenants). This theological assertion is bolstered by minimizing details of Israel’s warfare in a protracted struggle: the land was transferred to the recipients of the promise with a minimum of effort and in a relatively short time. Likewise, any accommodation with the Canaanite inhabitants is minimized, in order to stress that acceptance of foreign ideas and practices not only led to the exile but also was not to be tolerated after a return to the homeland.

Lloyd R. Bailey, “Book of Joshua,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990) 471.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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