“This Land Is Your Land”
Woody Guthrie’s famous song explores the breadth of America and celebrates, in its title and refrain, the ties that bind its people to its land. To a greater degree the Old Testament nation of Israel understood their land as their birthright—a sacred gift conferred upon a nomadic people, to establish their permanent home in the world. N.T. Wright asserts that along with Temple, Torah, and racial identity, the Land is one of the central symbols of the enduring Jewish worldview (The New Testament and the People of God, p.224).
No wonder, then, that the OT scriptures pay such attention to the gift and allotment of the land! Centuries after Israel’s conquest of Canaan, its people could read in these stories how their God had provided the Land, how their brave ancestors had fought to inhabit it, and how they divided the different parcels for each tribe. Rehearsing these stories of the Land—not unlike Americans’ stories of the pioneers—reinforced and celebrated their national identity and the central idea of God’s gracious provision for God’s people.
A review of the scriptures reveals a deeper truth: God gives the Land for Israel’s use but retains the ownership Himself. “This land” is not ultimately “your land”; this land is God’s land. Remember the instructions for the Year of Jubilee: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Leviticus 25:23). God’s covenant people are welcome to enjoy and benefit from the land, but so are the poor, the stranger, and the sojourner (Lev. 25:35-46). Regardless of race, class, or station, all people are ultimately sojourners in God’s eyes, just as the Israelites were in Egypt. All are equally needful of God’s generous provision. God’s Law invites God’s people, then and now, to recognize and follow the gracious ethic of justice that secures God’s blessings for all.
Old Testament Readings: Joshua 14-24; Judges 1-6
Most of our readings in Joshua detail the different tribes’ allotments of land, with painstaking geographical description of the boundaries. We may discern some emphases with the ordering of these allotments. The two most senior leaders, Caleb and Joshua, receive separate, individual allocations of the land they had scouted (Joshua chh.14, 19; cf. Deut. 13:6,8). Others are done by tribe, beginning with Judah (ch.15), later to become the central power of the Divided Kingdom. Of interest are the cities of refuge (ch.20)—safe havens for those accused of serious crimes to avoid being killed before their cases could be adjudicated. And each tribe provides cities and pasturelands for the Levites (ch.21), the priestly class scattered throughout the land to provide for the people’s ongoing worship life.
As Deuteronomy did, so the Book of Joshua concludes with a sense of finality and ceremony. Chapter 23 provides the aging Joshua’s farewell address to his leaders. Predictably, he enjoins them to “be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses,” to “cling to the Lord your God,” and to “love the Lord your God” (23:6,8,10). Israel’s security in the Land depends upon its covenantal faithfulness to the Lord: “if you transgress the covenant of the Lord your God . . . and go and serve other gods and bow down to them . . . you shall perish quickly from off the good land that he has given to you” (23:16).
Chapter 24 describes a covenantal renewal ceremony at Shechem. Much as Moses did at his farewell (cf. Deuteronomy 29-30), so Joshua rehearses the story of their salvation and calls upon the people to declare their faithfulness to the Lord. “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (24:15). See how Joshua prods his audience to declare their faithfulness not once or twice but three times (24:16-24), the oral culture’s conventional device to signal definitive and irrevocable agreement.
It is not a surprise that so much of Joshua recalls the form and content of Deuteronomy. Joshua is Moses’ successor, and his farewell instructions echo Moses’ commands about obedience to the Law and exclusive worship of the Lord. In essence, the figure of Joshua fills the need of Israel in its new land—a leader in the spirit of Moses. Moses’ call is to lead the people out of Egypt; Joshua’s is to lead them into the Promised Land. The demand upon the leaders is the same: to exhort the people to claim their national life by serving only the Lord.
The Book of Judges covers that time in Israel’s history after the conquest of Canaan and before the monarchy. Authority in this period more local and tribal than national; the centralization of power and coordination of political and military interests will occur later, under Israel’s future kings. The book portrays Israel’s episodic responses to threats from foreign peoples, led by leaders whom God raises up for that moment. These “judges” provide much more than civic leadership or judicial decisions; they govern their regions and lead in battle against outside threats. Indeed, the exploits in battle highlight the rule of the most notable of the twelve major judges in the book.
The book begins with an assessment of Israel’s progress in the conquest of Canaan. Chapters 1 and 2 recount the failure of the twelve tribes to drive out the inhabitants from the land, a violation of God’s instructions. This disobedience brings the prophecy that the inhabitants “shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you” (Judges 2:3).
There follows an important summary of the repeated historical cycle that ensues (2:11-20). “And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. And they abandoned the Lord” (2:11-12). This grave sin brings the predictable consequence: “So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers. . . . Whenever they marched out, the hand of the Lord was against them for harm, as the Lord had warned” (2:14-15). Yet the Lord’s purpose is to chastise, not to annihilate, the chosen people. “Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. . . . Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning” (2:16,18). Regrettably, Israel’s does not sustain its faithfulness to the Lord, which renews each time this cycle of idolatry, oppression, and divine deliverance.
Our readings this week cover the first five judges--Othniel (3:7-10), Ehud (3:12-30), Shamgar (3:31), Deborah (chh.4-5)—and introduce us to the sixth, Gideon (chh.6-8). The stories spare no detail in celebrating the judges’ victories in battle. Ehud murders Eglon in the privacy of the lavatory; Shamgar kills 600 Philistines with an oxgoad; Deborah’s foe Sisera dies while sleeping, pinned to the ground by a tent peg through his temple. The descriptions amplify the heroic aspect of these accounts, but they also show the superhuman power given to Israel’s leaders by the God whom they represent in battle, who fights with them and for them.
New Testament Readings: Luke 17-21
As we read through these chapters, we can feel the increasing weight of Jesus’ calling. He heads toward Jerusalem, the site of his climactic encounter with the powers that rule God’s people. He is preparing his followers to understand the events that must occur as well as to continue his ministry after he is gone. We can read each episode for its significance to the ongoing life of the Church.
Jesus is unafraid to engage the apocalyptic implications of his proclamation. He teaches the Pharisees and the disciples about the coming of the Kingdom (17:20-37). When teaching on prayer, he asks, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (18:8). He invites us to “receive the kingdom of God like a child” (18:17), and he warns “[h]ow difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (18:24). In chapter 21 he prophesies the destruction of Jerusalem and the coming of the Son of Man. This dimension of Jesus’ teaching challenges some modern readers, but it spoke to the audience of Jesus’ day, many of whom prayed for an immediate and powerful divine response to Roman oppression. It also engaged the early Church, who waited expectantly after Jesus’ resurrection for his return to consummate God’s redemptive victory on earth. We do well not to dismiss this eschatological aspect of the gospel, for it reminds us of the urgency of our belief and service. Jesus is the inbreaking of God into our world to save us, and we are people whose destiny in Christ is eternal.
We noted earlier how Luke emphasized the breadth of Jesus’ love, a sign of the gospel’s reach beyond the cultural and religious life of Israel. We see this theme in Jesus’ cleansing of the ten lepers (17:11-19), the only one to return in gratitude being a Samaritan. Another cultural outcast is Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector whom Jesus honors by inviting himself to dine with him (19:1-10). Jesus’ concluding comment on this episode summarizes his earthly mission: “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (19:10).
Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem occurs in the figurative shadow of the temple. After driving out the money changers, Jesus “was teaching daily in the temple” (19:47). He takes on the Sadducees, religious leaders focused on right worship in the temple (20:27-40). He comments upon the widow’s contribution to the temple treasury (21:1-4), and he foretells the destruction of the temple that occurred some forty years later, in 70 AD (21:5-9). This focus on the temple spans the length of Luke’s gospel, which opens by introducing us to Zechariah, a temple priest (1:5) and which ends with Jesus’ disciples “continually in the temple blessing God” (24:52). Luke wants the reader to understand the centrality of worship to the good news of Jesus Christ and the life of the Church.
Psalms: 15, 116, 16
Psalm 15 offers a reflection on the kind of character that pleases the Lord. It takes the form of an entrance liturgy for worship, asking who is admissible into God’s presence (v.1). The answer portrays one whose conduct has integrity with God’s purpose: “He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth with his heart” (v.2). The behaviors described all seek to enhance the well-being of the community. Since such living accords with God’s desire to bless us, the one “who does these things shall never be moved” (v.5), being founded upon the will and rule of God.
Psalm 116 is an individual’s song of thanksgiving for healing. In need the speaker prayed for help (v.4); God heard and answered the prayer (vv.6-8). The speaker now fulfills his obligation in worship: “I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people” (v.14, 18). The psalmist’s testimony strengthens the community’s trust in the love and mercy of the God whom they worship together.
Psalm 16 sings the confidence and contentment of one who “take[s] refuge” (v.1) in the Lord, who seeks and finds the protective care of God. Trusting God’s care allows the saint to celebrate the particular aspects of life as the Lord’s loving providence. Notice how verses 5-6 use the imagery of Israel’s allotment of the Land to describe God’s distribution of blessings to the faithful. The speaker’s wholehearted trust produces a confident expectation of God’s future, even eternal, blessings.