JOSHUA Fighting Faithfully and Loyally

With peace established in Canaan, It is time to send the eastern tribes of Israel — Reuben, Gad, and part of Manasseh — back to their land across the Joran River:

1 At that time Joshua summoned the Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh, 2 and said to them, “You have kept all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you and have obeyed my voice in all that I have commanded you. 3 You have not forsaken your brothers these many days, down to this day, but have been careful to keep the charge of the Lord your God. 4 And now the Lord your God has given rest to your brothers, as he promised them. Therefore turn and go to your tents in the land where your possession lies, which Moses the servant of the Lord gave you on the other side of the Jordan. 5 Only be very careful to observe the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, to love the Lord your God, and to walk in all his ways and to keep his commandments and to cling to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.” 6 So Joshua blessed them and sent them away, and they went to their tents.

When Joshua assumed command of Israel upon the death of Moses, the second thing he does is command the people of Reuben, Gad, and Mannaseh, who have all been given land east of the Jordan River, to send their “men of valor” (גִּבּוֹרֵי הַחַיִל) across the Jordan to fight with the other tribes of Israel (10 tribes, because Manasseh has land in the middle of northern Canaan too) to take possession of the land.

When peace has come, the men of Manasseh, Gad, and Reuben will get to return to their allotments when the war is over, when all Israel has taken possession of Canaan.

Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh respond enthusiastically: “All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go.”

This is loyalty. This is solidarity. This is Israel fighting together, for Gad and Reuben have no share in Canaan between the Jordan and the Great Sea itself, and Manasseh has enough of a share in the east to ignore the fight for its share in the west. They are fighting for their brothers, and not for their land.

We see something similar here when Israel fights for its newfound Canaanite allies in Gibeon.

And now that the land is at least temporarily subdued (hint: it won’t last), and there rest on all sides for Israel (interesting that Joshua does not use the word “peace” here to describe this, as the Book of Joshua does not shy away from using the word peace שָׁל֔וֹם), Joshua is fulfilling his promise to the people of Gad, Reuben, and East Manasseh. They fulfilled their obligations — they fought for the patrimony of others while theirs was already secure — and so they will be allowed to go back home to their wives and children and land with

… much wealth and with very much livestock, with silver, gold, bronze, and iron, and with much clothing. Divide the spoil of your enemies with your brothers. (Joshua 22:8 ESV)

The three eastern tribes have kept their promises, and Joshua is keeping his. Because God has kept his promises.

The only condition they have been given is to remain steadfast in their worship of Israel’s God — a command given to all Israel, not just those who are going back their homes across the river.

JOSHUA God’s True Promises

1 Then the heads of the fathers’ houses of the Levites came to Eleazar the priest and to Joshua the son of Nun and to the heads of the fathers’ houses of the tribes of the people of Israel. 2 And they said to them at Shiloh in the land of Canaan, “The Lord commanded through Moses that we be given cities to dwell in, along with their pasturelands for our livestock.” 3 So by command of the Lord the people of Israel gave to the Levites the following cities and pasturelands out of their inheritance. …

45 The cities of the Levites in the midst of the possession of the people of Israel were in all forty-eight cities with their pasturelands. 42 These cities each had its pasturelands around it. So it was with all these cities.

43 Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. 44 And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands. 45 Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass. (Joshua 21:1–3, 41–45 ESV)

The land is taken. The promise is fulfilled. God has acted, and delivered his people, and brought them to the place of promise. This is a moment when everyone in Israel can breathe easy, relax, say “thank you,” and enjoy the peace and the quiet of God’s good provision.

But just remember, Israel did not take this land — The Lord gave it. Israel did not defeat their enemies through cunning, guile, and brute force — the Lord gave them into Israel’s hands. Some were expelled, some were killed, some were subdued, and some made peace on fraudulent terms. But they were given. Land and enemies — all of this was a gift to Israel, and Israel took that gift. Because that’s what you do with gifts from God, you grab hold of them and you take possession of them. They are gifts, unearned and even unasked for. This one is clearly conditional, as Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 and 30 emphatically show, but right now, at this place in Joshua;’s story, we reside in that moment between receipt of God’s gift and our response to giving.

It’s also important to remember that in this moment of peace, when the writer of Joshua acknowledges that none of the Lord’s promises to Israel have failed, and there is peace and rest across Canaan, the land is still full of Canaanites — enslaved, conquered, subject, foreigners. The rest Israel enjoys on all sides is also a gift from God, and not something Israel secured for itself.

Soon enough, this victory and peace will come to nothing. (Though the promises of God will never fail.) Because as we will see, the most human response to the gift of God is not thankfulness, but ingratitude. And a callous expectation of merit and entitlement that comes from forgetfulness.

No Mercy

Mark Tooley, over at the Juicy Ecumenism blog, writing in response to something that transpired on a segment of Dr. Laura Schleisinger’s radio show, has this to say about the nature of mercy, justice, and the state:

Government’s divinely ordained vocation for justice and order prioritizes public order, safety, and protection for the innocent. The sexual abusers of minors, along with violent thieves, drug dealers, robbers, and rapists, with other dangerous miscreants, are to be vigorously prosecuted and incarcerated. Murderers are to face the possibility of execution. These punishments are firstly for the common good, and secondly for the correction of the offender.

It is not the state’s prerogative to offer forgiveness per se. Victims of crime may offer it, and the church can point malefactors to a God who forgives the truly penitent. Government, as it administers its punitive responsibilities, can only defer to and stay out of the way, to the extent possible, of actors in civil society, like prison ministries, that seek the moral and spiritual reform of criminal inmates.

Tooley’s basically correct about this in so far as this is the historic teaching of the church about the state and about state justice. He even quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church to support what is essential and formal church teaching both for the Roman confession as well as nearly every liturgical church that arose from the Reformation:

The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. (¶2266)

Tooley is a great deal more interested in order than I am, and it shows. I get that this is the historic teaching of the church (some low-church protestants call this biblical), but it’s one of those teachings I find grounded far more in speculative philosophy and buttressed by scripture passages than any fundamental understanding of the state that can be derived from scripture. The Bible isn’t anywhere near this systematic about government, or order, or the common good.

What bothers me most with what Tooley writes here about mercy — that it not the state’s place to forgive or to be merciful.

One of the things modernity has attempted to do is turn governance into an impersonal mechanism in which all are treated equally and which is indifferent to personality. “A government of laws, and not men!” I believe this is because modernity seeks perfect justice, and therefore the creation of a world in which mercy is absolutely unnecessary. This is an impossibility, of course, since even in a law and order based world, person and personality — who is judged, and who does the judging — matter.

This church teaching Tooley cites doesn’t really ameliorate this fraudulent promise of modernity. in fact, I think it contributes to the merciless nature of governing and government, since an abstract order and common good become more important than any concrete good delivered to a specific person or people.

But it also misses something that was true of government before modernity — that person and position could not easily be separated. The king, the prince, the duke, the magistrate, wasn’t just an office defined and bounded by rules and laws, but was also a man who was accountable to custom and culture. There were times when the king was expected, in the pursuit of justice, to be merciful. As king. As ruler. As the sovereign who governed.

Personal government can bear the catechism’s understanding of “the state” because it is also understood that the ruler himself was a Christian with obligations not only to grand abstractions — public order, common good — but to real flesh-and-bone people who came before him. Government may not have an obligation to be merciful, but the king does.

To speak of government’s “divinely ordained vocation for justice and order” that has little or no room for forgiveness or mercy without acknowledging that governing is done through and by human agents who do have a calling to mercy and forgiveness is to turn government into something inhuman. Which, of course, is exactly what modernity aims at.

in fact, part of the crisis of modernity is its very inhumanity, demanding human beings become widgets and cogs in the mighty machines that are state and society. Human beings are adaptable, and many can bend themselves to form and function, but many cannot, and are broken and discarded, or bent beyond their ability to bear it. Their humanity bent and warped too.

I have sympathy with the position Tooley takes in his essay. I do ministry with abused and exploited young people, I’ve seen the damage done by those who molest and rape. Personally, I don’t believe in mercy for those who hurt kids. But I can’t translate that into a general faith in government mercilessness.

The problem is, modernity cannot bear the specific, cannot bear the common law, cannot bear custom or culture. Modernity demands the universal, confesses it confidently, and then seeks to bend the world to that universal. All become the same under one law, ruled by one ecumenical, impersonal apparatus that shows no mercy because none is needed.

Tooley, who has a problem with where the culture has carried the law — gay marriage, for example — needs to appreciate that this government which cannot forgive, this deeply impersonal state which can account for nothing save the words of the law itself, is part of the problem he laments. There is no fixing this problem now — we are too far along and law itself has been too mercilessly applied and enforced.

Because the law — and the state — are all we really share anymore.

JOSHUA Cities of Refuge

1 Then the Lord said to Joshua, 2 “Say to the people of Israel, Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, 3 that the manslayer who strikes any person without intent or unknowingly may flee there. They shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood. 4 He shall flee to one of these cities and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and explain his case to the elders of that city. Then they shall take him into the city and give him a place, and he shall remain with them. 5 And if the avenger of blood pursues him, they shall not give up the manslayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbor unknowingly, and did not hate him in the past. 6 And he shall remain in that city until he has stood before the congregation for judgment, until the death of him who is high priest at the time. Then the manslayer may return to his own town and his own home, to the town from which he fled.’” (Joshua 20:1–6 ESV)

The cities of refuge are laid out for Israel in Numbers 35:9–12 and Deuteronomy 19. Six cities in all are set aside for those who kill without pre-meditation or malice, places to flee and find safety from family members seeking vengenace:

9 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11 then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there. 12 The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment. 13 And the cities that you give shall be your six cities of refuge. 14 You shall give three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. (Numbers 35:9–14 ESV)

It’s important to remember that the teaching given to Israel in the wilderness — especially the punishments for sins — are not carried out by some abstract state and its uniformed agents, but by family members, relatives of those aggrieved. This is why the protection of orphans, widows, and wayfarers (to use Qur’anic language) is so important in both the Torah and the prophets — because they have no family, no kin, to act as a deterrent to wrongdoers, no kin to seek revenge, to avenge the blood that has been purposefully or accidentally shed.

So it makes sense that these six cities of refuge — three east of the Jordan and three in Palestine proper — would be set up. Because some who kills isn’t fleeing the state, but a kinsman seeking vengeance.

Because of this, most of the laws about retribution given in the Torah (“But if there is harm, you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” Exodus 21:23–25, also Leviticus 24:17–23 and Deuteronomy 19:21) are designed to limit the damage done by vengeance-seeking rather than encourage retribution. You can take no more than was taken in order to avenge the wrong. No one-upping the damage, no scorched earth in response to a slight. Even Deuteronomy’s command “your eye shall not pity” is a reminder that this vengeance, that this “purging evil for your midst,” is a divine commandment. We may be inclined to flinch — taking limb and life is no small task, and we should never be comfortable with it even when we are right doing it.

This reminds me of story from time at The Saudi Gazette in Jeddah. In the far southwest of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the mountains of Asir province along the mountainous border with Yemen, came a report of a murder. A young man from one family killed a young man from another family. The police, however, were not called, in part because the writ of the government doesn’t run very deep in that part of the country.

Instead, the patriarchs of the two clans agreed to work it out the value of the murdered man’s life according to long-held custom. The murderer was held safely by his family and the clans sat down to deal. Eventually, as I recall, the dead man’s life was determined to be worth two pickup trucks, six camels, and an unspecified number of goats. The negotiations — which everyone in the murdered man’s clan had to accede to — were capped off by big, public feast to solemnize the arrangements.

This is the kind of law that scripture is. Not statues for states, but customs for clans and tribes and an entire people, Israel’s sunnah if you will, it’s way of doing business that limits how much and what kinds of vengeance are acceptable. These are statues for human beings, that remind us who and what we are, rather than the impersonal and mechanistic laws of states and nations.

And the cities of refuge are part of this. A reminder that not all killings, not even all murders, are the same. That everyone is entitled to be heard, and mercy … mercy may not be an entitlement, but there is room for mercy.

There is room for mercy.

No One Will Listen

This is a simply freakin’ brilliant description of the English vote for Brexit as well, I think, the appeal of Donald J. Trump in the United States:

To be born in many places in Britain is to suffer an irreversible lifelong defeat – a truncation of opportunity, of education, of access to power, of life expectancy. The people who grow up in these places come from a cultural background which equipped them for reasonably well-paid manual labour, un- and semi- and skilled. Children left school as soon as they could and went to work in the same industries that had employed their parents. The academically able kids used to go to grammar school and be educated into the middle class. All that has now gone, the jobs and the grammar schools, and the vista instead is a landscape where there is often work – there are pockets of unemployment, but in general there’s no shortage of jobs and the labour force participation rate is the highest it has ever been, a full 15 points higher than in the US – but it’s unsatisfying, insecure and low-paid. This new work doesn’t do what the old work did: it doesn’t offer a sense of identity or community or self-worth. The word ‘precarious’ has as its underlying sense ‘depending on the favour of another person’. Somebody can take away the things you have whenever they feel like it. The precariat, as the new class is called, might not know the etymology, but it doesn’t need to: the reality is all too familiar.

What, over the last few decades, has been the political ‘offer’ to these people? In truth, nothing much. The reality of the modern British economy is that the thriving sectors raise the taxes which pay for the rest. The old work has gone and is not coming back. The decline in UK manufacturing is real but the headline figure – it used to be 25 per cent of our economy and is now 10 per cent – conceals the fact that we are still a significant manufacturing economy. Our proportion of manufacturing is more or less the same as in the US and France; we are the eighth biggest manufacturing economy in the world. Some of the decline is relative, since the services part of the economy has grown faster. But these jobs aren’t quite the same as they used to be. UK manufacturing is now a high-skill, high-value industry; we don’t make cars and fridges and washing machines and phones and things that everybody notices, but we do make high-technology components and industrial devices of a sort that nobody ever thinks about. The UK, for instance, has the second biggest aerospace industry in the world. The most complicated bit of a plane is the wing; the world’s biggest passenger aircraft wing belongs to the Airbus 380, which is made in Wales. (They’re so big that they travel from the Dee estuary in North Wales to Pauillac on the Gironde estuary on a specially built roll-on roll-off ship.) This industrial work is high-skill, high-value, and doesn’t provide mass employment; it’s a lot like the kind of service work which thrives in London and the South-East.

More:

…There was no strategy to replace the lost industry; that was left to the free market. With these policies, parts of the country have simply been left behind. The white working class is correct to feel abandoned: it has been. No political party has anything to offer it except varying levels of benefits. The people in the rich parts of the country pay the taxes which support the poor parts. If I had to pick a single fact which has played no role in political discourse but which sums up the current position of the UK, it would be that most people in the UK receive more from the state, in direct cash transfers and in benefits such as health and education, than they contribute to it. The numbers are eerily similar to the referendum outcome: 48 per cent net contributors, 52 per cent net recipients. It’s a system bitterly resented both by the beneficiaries and by the suppliers of the largesse.

One of the things you notice, travelling around the country talking to people about economics, is that young people in particular feel they are living in an economic system rather than a political one. They think about jobs and paying the rent and whether they will ever own a home and, increasingly, about student debt, and they don’t see politics as having anything to say to them about those issues. That’s because the economics are the same irrespective of which political party is in charge. This is one of the reasons the Remain campaign failed to win the argument. Making economic arguments to voters who feel oppressed by economics is risky: they’re quite likely to tell you to go fuck yourself. That in effect is what the electorate did to the almost comic cavalcade of sages and bigshots who took the trouble to explain that Brexit would be ruinous folly: Obama, Lagarde, Carney, the IMF, the OECD, the ECB, and every commentator and pundit you can think of. The counter-argument wasn’t really an argument but a very clever appeal to emotion, to the idea that the UK could ‘Take back control’.

And yet more, as to why immigration is an issue in both countries:

Immigration, the issue on which Leave campaigned most effectively and most cynically, is the subject on which this bewilderment is most apparent. There are obviously strong elements of racism and xenophobia in anti-immigrant sentiment. All racists who voted, voted Leave. But there are plenty of people who aren’t so much hostile to immigrants as baffled by them. They feel left behind, abandoned, poor, ignored and struggling; so how come immigrants want to come here, and do so well when they get here? If Britain is broken, which is what many Leave voters think, why is it so attractive? How can so many people succeed where they are failing? A revealing, and sad, piece in the Economist in 2014 described Tilbury, forty minutes from London, where the white working class look on resentfully as immigrants get up early and get the train to jobs in the capital which, to them, seems impossibly distant. ‘Most residents of the town, one of England’s poorest places, are as likely to commute to the capital as fly to the moon.’

Immigrants contribute to the economy more than they take, Lanchester writes, adding the replacement labor the British economy will need to sustain social welfare benefits for the entire nation. But like the unaccountable economy, the kind of change migrants have imposed on the white English working class has been beyond their political control, and thus any sense they get to shape the world they live in.

One of the most important ideas to emerge from micro-economics – or at least, the one with the most consequences for democratic politics – is ‘loss aversion’. People hate to have things taken away from them. But whole swathes of the UK have spent the last decades feeling that things are being taken away from them: their jobs, their sense that they are heard, their understanding of how the world works and their place in it. The gaps in our society have just grown too big. …

Lanchester has harsh things to say about all involved in what passes for British politics these days. This is a long piece, and well worth reading, but he concludes by noting that the very people who demanded to be heard with their Brexit vote will likely not be listened to even as the UK leaves the EU.

The same is likely to happen with Trump voters as well, whether Trump wins of loses.

Anyway, read it.

All The Kingdoms of the Earth

I was reading scripture, particularly the proclamations of Cyrus as we have them at the end of Chronicles and the beginning of Ezra, and something occurred to me.

“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him. Let him go up.’” (2 Chronicles 36:23 ESV)

Ezra relates a similarly worded — but longer — version of this same proclamation which includes specific instructions that the exiles of Judah should return to Jerusalem to rebuild the house of the Lord, in Ezra 1:2–4, and re-establish regular worship inn the desolate and abandoned capital of David.

3 Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.” (Ezra 1:3–4 ESV)

But key to both of these versions of Cyrus’ proclamation is the status and position of Cyrus, the king of Persia. He is the recipient of a gift from “the God of heaven (כָּל־מַמְלְכ֤וֹת הָאָרֶץ literally “all the kingdoms of the land/earth”) have been given to him, and it is therefore in his power give Judah and Jerusalem back to the exiles. The Lord, the God of heaven (יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם), has also commanded Cyrus to rebuild the shattered temple.

But it’s that boast Cyrus makes of himself — “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth” (LXX — πάσας τὰς βασιλείας τῆς γῆς ἔδωκέν μοι; Tanakh — כָּל־מַמְלְכוֹת הָאָרֶץ נָ֣תַן לִ֗י) that reminds me of something in Matthew and Luke.

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world [πάσας τὰς βασιλείας τοῦ κόσμου] and their glory. 9 And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,“‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’” (Matthew 4:8–10 ESV)

And …

5 And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world [πάσας τὰς βασιλείας τῆς οἰκουμένης] in a moment of time, 6 and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 And Jesus answered him, “It is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’” (Luke 4:5–8 ESV)

Now, the offer isn’t quite the same, not even in the two gospel passages. The LXX has Cyrus using γῆς (physical earth/land) in both Chronicles and Ezra, while the Devil in Matthew refers to the κόσμος (the well-ordered created world) and in Luke speaks of the οἰκουμένη (the civilized world of Greco-Roman culture and government). Even as we render them all “earth” or “world” in our translations, and there are differences here that could be parsed (especially in the two gospel passages), I’ll deal here with the implication that all the kingdoms on the earth, from both to south and from east to west (and, implied in Luke, from the beginning to the end), are on offer. Have been given to the one making the boast, and thus, gifted again.

Cyrus’s boast is easiest to deal with. God has clearly not given him “all the kingdoms of the earth,” no matter what he might think. His is a vast empire, spanning from North Africa to the Indus River Valley, from Macedonia to the Arabian Gulf, but he isn’t even master of all he sees and knows. The city states of Greece evade his rule, and there is still much he doesn’t see that he cannot rule, such as southern India and China. He rules much of what could be called civilized 2,600 years ago, but he doesn’t rule it all.

He doesn’t rule the world. Not even close.

Still, he boasts of being given “all the kingdoms of the world” by the Lord, the God of heaven, who is also the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He has been given Judah, and its conqueror Babylon, and they are his to dispose of as he wishes. The statement is not true but it is true enough.

I never doubted Διαβολος, either in Matthew of Luke, when he shows Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world” and then boasts “these are mine to give you.” The kingdoms of this world — whether we speak of God’s good creation or the well-ordered and civilized Greco-Roman imperium — belong to Διαβολος and are his to give as he sees fit. In Luke, he echoes Cyrus by noting these kingdoms have been given to him, so they didn’t start out as his, but they are his now, and they are his to give to whomever he sees fit.

Cyrus rules a vast collection of kingdoms that are all very different, and he boasts not to give them all away, but merely to show he can give a single nation back to its disinherited people. In the gospels, there are no distinctions. All of the kingdoms of the world are a kind of undifferentiated mass that belong to Διαβολος. Not just some of them. And, if Luke is to be believed, not just at some points in history. There is no in and no out, no distinction here between civilized and barbarian, between dar al-Islam and dar al-harb. All of it, every polity from the tribes of the Andaman Islands the bureaucrats of Brussels, belong to Διαβολος, the Devil, the tempter who whispers into the hearts and minds of men and women.

But this means, as well, there is no realm outside of Christ either, no place where Jesus is not, no place not subject to him. Every knee bowing and every tongue confessing is not an aspiration for a “Christian” empire seeking to organize the world, but rather is a confession of what we know to be true — that God’s sovereignty, that Christ’s rule, is not bounded by our world. The kingdoms of the world, in and of themselves, belong to Διαβολος, and they are — as kingdoms — not redeemable. That God acts through them and in them is clear. But the way of dominion and violence that marks the empire belongs not to God but to Διαβολος.

And are his to give. Not God’s.

JOSHUA Trusting God, Trusting Power

The allotting of land continues, this time to the descendants of Joseph, the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim:

4 The people of Joseph, Manasseh and Ephraim, received their inheritance. 5 The territory of the people of Ephraim by their clans was as follows: the boundary of their inheritance on the east was Ataroth-addar as far as Upper Beth-horon, 6 and the boundary goes from there to the sea. … 10 However, they did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so the Canaanites have lived in the midst of Ephraim to this day but have been made to do forced labor. (Joshua 16:4–6, 10 ESV)

1 Then allotment was made to the people of Manasseh, for he was the firstborn of Joseph. … 12 Yet the people of Manasseh could not take possession of those cities, but the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land. 13 Now when the people of Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not utterly drive them out. (Joshua 17:1, 12-13 ESV)

I’ve been at great pains in these reflections to state that, even as God demanded Israel wage a pitiless and merciless war against the people of Canaan, that Israel failed to do so. Failed to follow the command of God.

I’ve done that because I think it’s important to note that our relationship, as people of God, is not merely one of obedience. We don’t merely ask “how high?” when the divine command “jump!” is uttered. There are many consequences to failing to follow the command of God, but being abandoned by God is not one of them.

The story of scripture is one of gift — God gives to Israel — and response — Israel receives of the gift of God, responds with gratitude, quickly gets used to living in and with the gift, takes it for granted, relies either on the gift itself or its own abilities, falls into sin and idolatry, suffers the consequences of sin and idolatry, and then appeals to God for redemption and deliverance. At which point, God acts — giving a new gift to Israel, which Israel then…

Such is the story of scripture.

God tells Israel that he, and not Israel, will do the work of conquering, expelling, and killing the Canaanites:

21 You shall not be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is in your midst, a great and awesome God. 22 The Lord your God will clear away these nations before you little by little. You may not make an end of them at once, lest the wild beasts grow too numerous for you. 23 But the Lord your God will give them over to you and throw them into great confusion, until they are destroyed. 24 And he will give their kings into your hand, and you shall make their name perish from under heaven. No one shall be able to stand against you until you have destroyed them. (Deuteronomy 7:21–25 ESV)

This is God’s work, not Israel’s. Israel is not even an instrument, a proxy through which God acts, the sword of God’s vengeance or justice upon the sinful people of Canaan. Israel is almost a completely passive recipient of God’s acts, whether it be at the walls of Jericho or in defense of the people of Gibeon against the Canaanite confederation. Israel is not taking Canaan; Israel is being given Canaan as a gift. God, and his army of hosts we met in Joshua 5, are doing the fighting.

For God’s ends, and not necessarily Israel’s.

But in these passages, we begin to see Israel growing reliant upon its own strength. “Now when the people of Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not utterly drive them out. … For you shall drive out the Canaanites, though they have chariots of iron, and though they are strong.” Israel enslaves the Canaanites because Israel is strong, and trusts its own strength and power, and not because it is weak or fears its own weakness.

In weakness, Israel turns to God to act, to deliver and save Israel. In weakness, Israel has no choice but to trust God. In strength, Israel trusts the prowess of its mighty, it wealth and its power, to accomplish things on its own behalf. In strength, Israel doesn’t have to trust God.

In strength, Israel decides it can live with Canaanites in its midst. That enslaving them and dominating them is enough. That merely keeping them down, in their place, under foot, subject to law and violence, the Canaanites will not be a problem. Israel forgets that God very specifically told them they risked becoming “ensnared” by the false gods and idolatrous practices of the Canaanites if Israel didn’t devote them all — people and things — to destruction.

Enslaving the Canaanites will have a couple of consequences. The first is the continued presence of a people whose gods and worship will prove a constant distraction — an attractive nuisance — to Israel. The second is that Israel will eventually compel the labor of its own people as David and Solomon build their great and powerful state.

Human power is troublesome in scripture. Confidence in their own strength allows Israel to think that merely enslaving the Canaanites will successfully deal with them. A wealthy and powerful Israel is its own downfall, its own undoing, as the kingdom is rent apart in a dispute over the taxes and conscription (forced labor) needed to keep the army, the state, and the royal court well supplied and working.

More important than all this, however, is knowing that God never abandons his people. God never absconds, never leaves Israel, is always there, moving closer, finding a way to redeem this wayward people who cannot do what they we are told and cannot be grateful to the one who called and gathered them us for any great length of time.