The Lectionary readings for Holy Communion today pair Joshua 3:7-11, 13-17 and Matthew 18:21-19:1.
Back story: Abraham had lived as a nomad in Canaan, largely at peace with the established inhabitants of the land, God fulfilling his promise to bless those who blessed Abraham and curse (or, place restrictions upon) those who cursed him. Later, Abraham’s descendants had gone down to Egypt, where, after generations of peaceable living, they had been conscripted into forced labour. Eventually, God had delivered them, and now, after years of being led by Moses in the wilderness, they were about to enter the land promised to Abraham’s descendants, under the leadership of Moses’ successor, Joshua.
God promises Joshua an extensive territory. But Joshua goes beyond, reading into that the driving out of the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites, en masse. (This is never fulfilled.) These are the descendants of Noah’s middle son, Ham—whereas the Israelites traced their lineage from Noah’s firstborn son, Shem. The enmity between them stems from an account in Genesis 9:18-29. Post the trauma of the Great Flood, in classic survivor’s guilt, Noah gets drunk; and Ham at best dishonours and perhaps sexually abuses his father. In consequence, God blesses Noah’s other sons and curses Ham, declaring that his son Canaan shall be the servant of his older and younger brothers, Shem and Japtheth. So the tribes of Canaan are the servant of Israel—as Israel is the servant of the Lord God.
As already noted, the text from Joshua 3 is paired today with one from Matthew 18, and Peter’s questions to Jesus concerning the limits of forgiveness of a brother, and where the limits of mercy are set. Would, for example, enmity between peoples justified by an ancient tale of abuse, fall outside the boundary? But, just as the banks of the river Jordan had burst at the time when the Israelites entered the land to take possession of it, so Jesus insists that forgiveness, and showing mercy, overflow their banks. The river, of course, returns to its course eventually, but this reflects not the limit of forgiveness but, rather, the completion of its work, the restoration of relationship between estranged brothers.
There is no such thing as sole possession of a land, and this is even more important to understand in our context of increasing displacement of peoples due to political oppression, war, or environmental disaster. A land is simply a resource with which we can show, or withhold, mercy. Choose wisely, for choices have consequences. Choose mercy. Always, choose mercy.
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