Chapter 5, Book of Joshua
One of the ways we know something is really important, that we really need to pay attention to in the library called the Bible, is that themes are repeated, rather like in Hebrew poetry. This repetition lays down neural tracks in our brain, so that we might remember what is very important: these phrases and stories are physical inscriptions we carry in us. Just as repeating the multiplication tables or the periodic table or the alphabet might inscribe keys of understanding and shape us into persons who can inhabit the land of quadratic equations and chemistry and poetry, these formative stories and phrases that are repeated in the Bible are supposed to shape us into beings who can inhabit the land humbly, and with mercy and justice, with the Beloved.
So we should not be surprised that the fifth chapter of Joshua is both a repetition of the previous two chapters, and also of significant events in the history of the Israelites. The repetition of the story, though, has some important differences and information for us, rich with symbolism, if we can remember the reasons for the stories. The transmitters of the Book of Joshua have written an editorial of a sorts for us, one with which we, the readers and hearers of the story in each generation, can wrestle, because this is a foundational narrative editorial. Foundational narratives are stories that say: we are this kind of people for these reasons, and we do these things that define us a people for these reasons. Understanding that, we can see why:
- It is Passover when they cross over the Jordan. Literally, there is a return full circle out of Egypt into home.
- Manna ceases; the Israelites no longer need the Beloved to provide food in the wilderness for them: now they can forage in the pantry stocked at home, by the Canaanites.
- Every man has to be circumcised, to remember the covenant of Abraham, and physically bear the mark of transformation from slave and desert wanderer to home- and kingdom- makers.
But the editorial information is in the reminders that the adults who left Egypt as slaves still had to perish in the desert, (here’s the editorial) because they had not been able to live according to the law (echo: be strong and very courageous). The time in Egypt as slaves is understood (again, editorial), as disgrace, punishment. But now, they’re restored, right as rain, and as a sign of that, Joshua is even able to recognize he is standing on holy ground.
There’s some wonderful truths in this chapter. When we are in the wilderness periods of our lives, we don’t have a spiritual larder – and often, a physical one – to make sure we are fed. But when we do encounter food and water – wild foods and pure water – we eat and drink with great gratitude and zest, because we have been hungry and afraid. Hunger is one thing. Adding fear to hunger – about the next meal, continuing strength, vulnerability, adequacy – and we see human beings who are frequently in spiritual trouble. But once we are out of the wilderness, we must learn again to find and support ourselves in some rather different ways than the catch as catch can life of the wilderness. We have to learn another kind of discipline. That is what the Israelites are learning in this chapter, and they seal that physically by (1) having the Seder and remembering the Passover, and (2) demonstrating their commitment to the covenant with the Beloved through mass circumcision: through inscribing outwardly their devotion and their transformation.
A great many people who undergo traumatic and wilderness experiences physically alter themselves as they enter domestic life again: new hair styles or colors, new piercings or tattoos or scarifications, new wardrobes. There is a basic human need we have, when we come through a transformative experience, to mark that transformation on ourselves physically. It is a way of closing the door on a harrowing time, of setting apart that other journey. It is also a way of remembering, of bearing memory upon our personhood.
As you consider your life and those of the people you know, what are some of the ways transformational experiences are marked, honored, and remembered? How does this story in Joshua speak to you? What resonates? What seems frightening? Why?