Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 6, 2016
Joshua 5:9-12 Commentary
Few of us like new beginnings any more than we enjoy the change that precedes them. A new neighborhood. A new school. A new job. Old circumstances often produce old headaches. Yet new circumstances also produce new headaches.
Since Joshua 9’s Israelites have just crossed the Jordan River on dry land, their feet are neither damp nor muddy. Yet they figuratively have scarcely more than a toe in the land of promise. While God’s mighty acts on Israel’s behalf have clearly intimidated Canaan’s residents, Israel’s “hold” on her new home could scarcely seem more tenuous. Why on earth, then, would God want Israel to take the time and expend the energy on both circumcising her men and celebrating the Passover? Wouldn’t Israel’s time and strength be better spent expanding her foothold on her new home?
Those who stand on the threshold of the land of promise are not literally the Israelites whom God freed from Egyptian slavery. They are the children and grandchildren of the Israelite slaves. So they don’t remember Egyptian slavery. What’s more, their memories of the wilderness journey are hazy, if not non-existent. The Israelites have just spent hundreds of years scratching and clawing their way through the wilderness. So it’s understandable if they’ve been too busy to remember just who (or, more particularly, whose) they are. Joshua 9’s rituals serve to remind Israelites of their identity.
The Lectionary does not appoint Joshua 9’s account of Israel’s mass circumcision for this Sunday. But those who preach the rest of Joshua 9 do well to remember that circumcision was a sign of God’s covenant with Israel. Apparently while Israelites who had been born in Egypt were circumcised, those born in the wilderness were not. So Joshua reminds Israel of her identity as God’s covenant partner by demanding that her males be circumcised before they get too far into the land of promise.
After Joshua circumcises the Israelite men, as part of the text the Lectionary does appoint for this Sunday, God tells Joshua “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you” (9). Gilgal, the name of the first city Israel occupies in the land of promise, seems to be a pun on the Hebrew word for “I have rolled away.” Yet no one’s exactly sure just what God has “rolled away.” Many scholars suggest it’s the shame that’s associated with Israel’s slavery in Egypt. However, a few scholars wonder if Egypt’s “reproach” would be Egypt’s denigration of God if God had allowed the Israelites to die in the wilderness. Either interpretation, however, reflects the new beginning that Israel’s circumcision marks in her national life.
God goes on in today’s Old Testament text to further remind Israel of her identity by calling her to celebrate the Passover. That feast, of course, celebrates God’s liberation of God’s Israelite people from their Egyptian slavery. It had been, in fact, first celebrated on the night of the Exodus itself. However, it seems that Israel had not celebrated the Passover in the wilderness.
So it’s not just that their Passover celebration reminds the Israelites of their identity as those chosen and liberated by the Lord. It also serves to mark a renewal of an old ritual that takes on a kind of new meaning in the land of promise. Now Passover reminds the Israelites they weren’t just freed from Egyptian slavery by the Lord. God didn’t just lead them through the wilderness. God didn’t even just give them a toehold in the land of promise. Israel will take possession of Canaan because God graciously gives it to her.
Yet that Passover feast marks a new beginning in the way God graciously provides for God’s Israelite people. Throughout their wanderings through the inhospitable wilderness, they have completely relied on God to feed them manna. However, on the day after the Israelites celebrate their freedom from Egyptian slavery, they also celebrate their freedom from dependence on manna. On the day after that feast, manna, in fact, seems to stop falling. Now, after all, Israel is able to begin to eat the produce of her new home, homegrown food that includes unleavened bread and roasted grain.
Yet God recognizes there’s a real danger in this switch of provisions. No one could mistake that manna was God’s gift to Israel in the wilderness. Without it, there would be only dew in the morning. With the manna, there was enough sustenance for the new day. However, now Israel is preparing to no longer travel, but settle down. But she settles not in the inhospitable wilderness, but in the land of promise that flows with milk and honey. Canaan produces enough food for Israel not only to survive, but also to flourish. Yet it leaves the question of just who provides that produce. From where does Israel’s Canaanite daily bread come? From the land of promise’s rich fertility? From Canaan’s bountiful sun and rainfall? From the Israelites good agricultural techniques?
It will not be as clear to Israel that the land of promise’s produce comes from the same divine hand that provided her with manna in the wilderness. It will be hard to tell just what Canaan produces, what Israel tills or what God provides.
It’s arguably no less easy to differentiate the source of food for citizens of the 21st century. We naturally assume that our “daily bread” comes from some combination of fertile soil, good fertilizer, sufficient rainfall and sunshine, as well as efficient harvests, transportation and merchandizing. It’s not even easy for God’s own children to recognize God as the source of all good things, including our food.
Perhaps that’s why our own rituals remain so vitally important. Few Christians either circumcise males for explicitly religious reasons or celebrate the Passover anymore. Yet we seek to let God remind us of our identities through the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We may wrestle with how to celebrate them and what they mean. However, they do remind us that God is the generous and gracious source of not just our salvation, but of all good things.
It’s not especially easy to see how Joshua 5:9-12 fits into the season of Lent. Yet an examination of Luke 15 alongside our Joshua passage may prove fruitful in that regard. Both texts involve wanderings. In both instances the wanderers eventually find their way home. However, in both cases only an “other” is able to fully take away the shame of their past. God rolls away from Israel the disgrace of Egypt. Luke 15’s gracious father welcomes his wandering son with “he was lost and now is found.”
In Isak Denison’s Babette’s Feast, Babette is a talented Parisian chef who is banished from her native Paris in a time of political turmoil. She ends up in a small Danish fishing village, where she finds a deeply fragmented religious community.
The once close band of believers spends much of its time arguing with each other, harboring grudges and exchanging petty insults, much to the dismay of the two elderly sisters who head up the community. While the sisters hire Babette to be their cook, they ask her to prepare only flavorless foods, which is what they’re used to eating.
When Babette wins the lottery in Paris, she’s given an opportunity to start over again. But first, she offers to prepare a genuine banquet for the community. She treats the villagers to rare treats, the best wine, and some of the most delicious gourmet fare in the world. It’s a genuinely lavish meal.
Babette’s feast is not a ritual like circumcision or the Passover. It’s in fact the first time anyone has ever thrown such an extravagant banquet in her community. Yet it has a certain resonance with Joshua 9. Although these religious folks have no idea of the true value of Babette’s gift to them, the meal seems to restore their sense of community. They forgive past insults, drop grudges, and when the evening is finished, join hands and sing the Doxology under the stars, praising God for the extravagant gifts of creation and salvation.
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