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By Rev. Justin Smoot, for Wausau Pilot & Review
The Holy Land, the land on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean sea, has been a locus of conflict throughout history. While the modern era is still marked by the Nakba when 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes in 1984, the first few Crusades directed European knights and militaries against Muslim nations, Joshua led the nation of Israel in a military campaign against the various inhabitants of the land, and even Abram found himself in conflict with the inhabitants of the land.
The “promise” in the Promised Land comes from where the people of Israel, freed from slavery in Egypt, were invited to become part of the covenant promises that began with Abraham. The people of Israel stopped at Mt. Sinai, or Mt. Horeb; depending on which portion of the Old Testament you are reading. On this mountain, the people of Israel received the Torah, or Law of God. More than simply the 10 Commandments, the Torah was a way of life that would shape them as a people. This is how they were blessed, and what they were to use to bless the people. Keeping this Law was Israel’s covenant responsibility to God, their promises to God in exchange for God’s promises to the people of blessing, guidance, a place in the world, etc. This also meant, if they turned their back on their responsibilities to God and the commands of the Torah, God would do the same.
Central to this law was the worship of God alone, but a secondary theme that is repeated in the law is justice for the alien (or stranger), the widows, the orphans, and the poor. (Exodus 22-23, Leviticus 19, Deuteronomy 14, 24, 27) God repeatedly commands the people to care for those who were without standing or power among them because they were in the same situation in Egypt. These are the two ways that the people of Israel, the descendants of the family of Jacob, would bless the world. They would have the knowledge of the greatest God in Heaven, be devoted to and worship this God alone. Their focus would not be on political or military glory, but solely on embodying the Torah given to them by the God who had already done so much for them.
They would also be a model community of righteousness and justice amidst nations that looked only to themselves and their self-interest. The blessings of the covenant were not simply restricted to those explicitly under the covenant. Those explicitly under the covenant were not to fall into the fear and jealously that trapped the Egyptians into enslaving Israel’s family, but freely share what they have with the world like Joseph organized Egypt into the breadbasket of the world.
Devotion to God alone was hard. The people of Israel constantly grumbled against God and Moses on their journey. They created a golden calf to worship while Moses was up on Mt. Sinai. (Exodus 32) They did not trust God’s promise that God would fight for them against the Canaanites. (Numbers 14) A Priest named Korah thought he and his group were holier than even Moses and demanded their due respect and honor. (Numbers 16) God’s response was to punish the people, allow them to repent, and rededicate themselves to the covenantal promises that they broke. This cycle was a constant reminder that while they were chosen by God to bear this covenant, it was not unconditional.
When they finally crossed into the Promised Land, there was a clear message delivered to the people. The commander of the army of God met Joshua. (Joshua 5) The angelic commander made it clear that God was on nobody’s side but gave him the method by which Jericho would be destroyed. When they followed the command of God and placed themselves on God’s side, they succeeded. When they looked to their own gain and their own strength before the battle against Ai, (Joshua 7) they were punished with death and defeat. When they addressed the sin and brokenness and humbly returned to God’s side, God blessed them again, and eventually they took possession of Canaan, the Promised Land.
Their time in the Promised Land of Canaan was no more faithful than the conquest. The cycle of broken covenants, punishment, repentance, and rededication continued. This went on so many times that even the Judges whom God appointed to guide and protect the people forgot who God was and even oppressed the people they were supposed to serve. Jephthah sacrificed his own daughter in thanksgiving for a victory God granted him. (Judges 10-12) Child sacrifice was one of the named sins that we know the people of Canaan committed. Samson was promiscuous, violent, and arrogant, to the point of giving away the secret of his strength. (Judges 13-16) Very much the same pride that led to the defeat of Israel at Ai.
This rejection of the covenant reached its depths at the end of Judges, when the people of Israel turned in on themselves. A Levite, a traveling religious figure, was traveling through the portion of the land given to the Tribe of Benjamin with his concubine. The men of the area seized and raped the concubine until she died on the doorstep of the house. (Judges 19). This, in turn, provoked a civil war, more violence, and destruction because each thought that they were blessed by God, regardless of what they did.
While God remained faithful to the people of Israel, their time in the Promised Land is filled with promises that they broke, the punishment that resulted, and repentance that was required. The Covenant was never a mark of unconditional “chosen-ness”, or God’s tacit approval of their actions. Through the Torah, their lives and actions were to be shaped on God’s faithfulness. The ritual purification, the sacrificial system, and the commandments were all avenues of shaping and re-shaping the people to combat the self-centeredness that marked every time the people of Israel turned away from God. Yet, God worked through the brokenness of these people because it was from out of these people that David, son of Jesse was born.
Next week: David’s Kingdom.
Rev. Justin Smoot
Rev. Justin Smoot is one of the pastors at Saint Andrew Lutheran Church in Rib Mountain. He is always on the lookout for how God’s story turns our lives upside down and draws us closer together.