Lectionary reflections on Proper 26, Year A: Entering the Promised Land

This week’s readings are here.

We’ve been using the semi-continuous readings from the RCL this summer, which have taken us from God’s promise to Abraham that he would possess the promised land, up to now, Joshua 3, when the Israelites finally cross the Jordan and enter the land. I’ve not had the opportunity to do much more than allude to the readings from the Hebrew Bible in my sermons over the past few months. I won’t be preaching on Sunday, and if I were, I probably wouldn’t say much about Joshua, but this dramatic scene, and the one which precedes it, deserve attention.

In last week’s reading from the last verses of Deuteronomy, we heard of Moses’ ascent of Mt. Nebo, his first and only sight of the Promised Land, and his death. It’s impossible for me to read this text and not think about the speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr., on the night before his assassination.

The book of Joshua carries the story forward. In this week’s reading, the Israelites cross the Jordan River. At the same time, it resonates deeply with earlier stories, especially the crossing of the Red Sea. There are thematic and linguistic parallels–the rare Hebrew word used in v. 13 describing the waters as standing “in a single heap” is also used in the Exodus account of the Red Sea, to give just one example.

Joshua is a problematic text on many levels. It tells the story of the Israelite conquest of Canaan, and of God’s ruthless demands that the Israelites utterly destroy their enemies (and God’s punishment when they don’t). It has been used over the centuries to rationalize other conquests, such as the American conquest of Native Americans (witness the number of place names from Joshua used by settlers for towns in the US). The story, however, is more complex than that, for in fact the Israelites did not utterly destroy and displace all of the land’s inhabitants. Many survived and thrived, and the book of Judges offers evidence of the continuing presence of non-Israelites in the land. Still, it is worth pondering the influence of Joshua’s portrayal of the Promised Land and Holy War on the American psyche.

There are other important theological themes present in Joshua, among them the succession of authority from Moses to Joshua, that provide food for thought for contemporary Christians.