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Lenten Devotions 2016

Joshua 19 & Judges 9
St Stephens Lutheran Church Adelaide
January 2016

Since about ten years or so, the local Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA) congregation, whose service we attend here in Adelaide, St Stephen’s Lutheran Church (Website), publishes for its church members an annual Lenten devotion booklet.  An initiative by local church members, these booklets collect brief meditations and prayers by church members on one chapter or two of a selected book of the Bible.

While written mainly by lay people and a few “professional” Lutheran theologians, this series is a fascinating collection of truly Australian Christian theology in a Lutheran tradition.

For 2016, the Lenten Devotions cover the three historical books Joshua, Judges and Ruth under the title “THE LORD SEEKING FAITHFULNESS”. I had been asked to reflect on Joshua 19 and Judges 9 (both KJV21) , and for all of us writers these historical accounts in the Bible were quite challenging.

Joshua 19:  The Land of God

Names of places in Canaan, one after the other, all of them the homes of people — young and old, strong or weak, men and women, their animals, the places of their houses, fields and creeks and wells, and their livelihood.  I can hear the wailing of the women, the cries of the wounded, the burning of the land, groaning of the animals:  Their land has been destroyed and occupied by strangers.  The technical terms used today are ‘Landnahme’ (in German), land grab, conquest, colonisation, settlement — words used by conquerors.

In the ancient credos of Israel, this story reflects the granting of the land as the last of the saving acts of YAHWE1 ].

Joshua’s story, set sometime around 1210 BC, continues today.  The conflict between the people of Palestine and the people of Israel has never been solved:  Who is the owner of the land?  Earlier in the book, the conquering of this country is being summarised by two clandestine scouts:  ‘The Lord really
has given the entire land into our control. The inhabitants of the land have melted away right in front of us!” (2: 24 ISV).

Mengler's Hill, Baross Valley, South Australia

[ Mengler’s Hill, Baross Valley, South Australia ]

Lutherans in South Australia may know this sentiment all too well.  It is ingrained in their DNA since 1838 and engraved on the memorial monument on the Menglers Hill lookout above the Barossa Valley (Website):  ‘The Lord has given us this land!’ quoting Joshua 2:9.  But the tragedy behind this line is for the First Australians the same as from where it was quoted:  Rahab, a woman running a hostel in the centre of Jericho, hosting the two Jewish spies and protecting them, explains her act with the words, ‘I’m really convinced that the Lord has given you the land, because we’re overwhelmed with fear of you.  All the other inhabitants of the land are demoralized at your presence’ (2, 9). ((Reference:  Norman C Habel, The Land is Mine, 1995))

In this story, there is no happy ending for those dispossessed.  As Rahab recognizes, it was YAHWE himself who allocated her land to the people of Israel.  And thus Joshua, the prophet of YAHWE, exhorts his people and reminds them: ‘I [YAHWE] gave you a land for which you never worked, you have eaten from vineyards you did not plant.  “Now you must fear the Lord and serve him in faithfulness and truth. Throw away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt. Instead, serve the Lord.”’ ( 24, 13-14).

Prayer 

Mengler's Hill, Baross Valley, South Australia

[ Mengler’s Hill, Baross Valley, South Australia ]

Lord, never let us forget that all our inheritance comes from this earth, and with us it will return to the soil.  We may be victorious over other peoples and their lands, because for the moment we are stronger than them.  But this land is yours, not ours, not our own property.  You have granted it us so that we, like Joshua, will serve you.  Lord, be with us.  Amen.

 

Judges 9:  DEMOCRACY – AND PEACE

In the midst of a story of war, horrors, chaos, murder of opponents and kin, and deceit in the course of ancient Israel conquering the Promised Land — like an island of peace — we find Jotham’s fable.

Appalled by the carnage around him, Jotham, the youngest brother of the self-declared King of Shechem, Abimelech, challenges his people with a parable:  The trees want to crown a king amongst themselves.  However, the trees most popular in Northern Israel, olive, fig and grapevine, are too selfish to take responsibility knowing their fruit gains them lots of attention.  The lowest of them, the thorn bush, however, accepts the call — knowing well the powers this new position will give him over all and everybody around.

A parable warns of the hazards at the horizon:

“… the bramble has no useful function to perform in any case.  It is a tree that bears no fruit.  At best, it seems useless.  At worst, its thorns make it very unfriendly, and when it is dry it is easily flammable.  So here we have a value judgment on Abimelech and the foreign idea of centralized rule.”2 ]

This fable, hardly known in the Christian world, is a clear message, even to us today:  You don’t want to take responsibility but hide behind an authority — you pay the price:  The bramble can offer you little or no refuge, low to the ground and with thorns protecting only itself.  Jotham, and the composers of the Book of Judges, could not have more adequately revealed their contempt of monarchy.

Martin Buber, the German-Jewish bible scholar and philosopher, considers this passage the most anti-monarchic in the entire ancient world.  It is YHWH, the God of Israel, He who has brought His People to the Promised Land, — HE the only one — who is Lord.  Every other human being, ‘all are potentially equal [to each other] and can be imbued with the Holy Spirit.  It is a pre-democratic idea.’.3 ]

In the midst of this carnage, it was the youngest survivor of a dynasty power struggle who shone a light into the darkness.

Prayer

Lord, let us always remember — YOU are Lord, over all and everybody.

Without YOU, we are nothing or nobody, but you hold us in your hands and give us a name.  You bless us and nurture us.  Give us the strength and courage to go out and take responsibility for those around us.  Teach us how to care for those amongst us who are weak and insecure.  Help us to restrain those who want to acquire power for their own gains or who think they are better than others.  Let us respect the voices and the gifts the Holy Spirit gives us.

Let us prevent the carnage of war through living the vision of your world of Shalom:  ‘We shall overcome’.

Amen.

Further Reading

  • Susanne Gillmayr-Bucher, What did Jotham talk about? Metaphorical Rhetoric in Judge 9:7-20 <Website>
  • Daniel Scott Diffey, Gideon’s Response and Jotham’s Fable: Two Anti-Monarchial Texts in a Pro-Mononarchial Book (Thesis, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2013) <Website>
  • Video in German:
    Siegfried Zimmer, Die einzige Fabel der Bibel – Systemkritik par excellence (Richter 9, 8-15) | 3.7.3,  Worthaus@Freakstock 2013 – Borgentreich: 3. August 2013  <Website>
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Footnotes

  1. Gerhard von Rad [top]
  2. Michael Livoni, The Parable of Jotham:  The Question of Authority in Judaism (2001), page 3. <pdf> [top]
  3. ibid [top]

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