Alive. (Matthew 26-28)

January 15, 2011

I’m feeling a bit flummoxed with this post. I’ve just read Matthew 26-28, which contains the entire passion, anointing at Bethany through to Resurrection, and what do you say about that really? Except, wow, that’s all pretty amazing!

Or perhaps that’s not my problem at all, perhaps it’s that I’m not amazed enough. I’ve heard these stories probably more than any others in the Bible, they are familiar to many, whether Christian of not. In fact, I must admit, it occured to me that I could probably write something about this passage without actually having to read it. But then I reminded myself why I’m doing this blog!

So how do we engage with something so familiar? I suppose a good place to start is to imagine that you don’t already know the story, that you are there as it unfolds, with its incomprehensible highs and lows. To put yourself in the place of the women who stayed to the end, who saw Jesus, their beloved Messiah, die next to petty criminals (27-55-56). Or those men who had given up everything for Jesus, only to see him taken away by an armed crowd and told by their teacher not to even try to resist (26:51-54).

We emphasise Good Friday and Easter Sunday in our liturgies and celebration, but when I think about these people it is often the day inbetween that I wonder about. There is a gaping silence in the gospels when it comes to this day. We are told that Jesus is buried and that an armed guard is placed around his tomb (27:57-66), but there is nothing about this disciples; what they did or how they felt. There must have been fear; would they be next? There must also have been despair at the death of their Jesus, for surely, even with his opaque references to resurrection, they would not have held out much hope. After all, we are told by Matthew that when the disciples met the resurrected Jesus in Galilee still some of them doubted (28:17).

I remember one Easter Saturday doing Ignatian imagination meditation on this story. I imagined I was one of the women at the cross, who had then attended his burial, as Matthew tells us the two Marys did (27:61). Perhaps they helped to prepare the body. This left no doubt that he was dead. In this meditation I felt myself lie down in bed, utterly desolate. He was gone; this great redeemer, the man on which my hope was pinned, had died, just like any other man, worse.  I remember feeling that I too had died with him.

I have wondered why it was the women who stayed at the cross. Perhaps his male disciples had been known publicly and it was not safe to show themselves. But surely it also that the women, especially those like Mary Magdalene who were not also following their sons, needed to cling to their hope until the last. What would they do if he was gone? They were single women, what was there for them to go back to? Perhaps some of them had left lives they did not wish to return to, for others they could not. Jesus had treated them in ways they would not have dreamed, how would they go back to before?

When I think of these people, then I see how amazing this story is. Chapter 28 has life again as I imagine the two Mary’s, who were there at every stage, seeing that their redeemer lives. There was still a kernel of hope they had not allowed themselves to notice in the darkness of grief, and now it comes alive in them, as they are given the honour of being the first to preach the Good News. He lives. He lives.

I often feel that we see the resurrection as the ‘the bit after the crucifixion’ in the Church. Sure, we mention it often enough, but do we remember it? Do we feel it? Are we sufficiently amazed by it?

 Matthew’s gospel ends wonderfully, with words from Jesus’ lips; “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This is the resurrection. This is the Good News, surely. Of course the cross is central to our, certainly to my, beliefs, but it is nothing without what comes after.

It life, vitality, dynamism with which this gospel ends.

So may you be given hope where there none. So may you be given life where there was death. So may you know that he is with you always, to the end of the age.

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The Ideal Woman? (Ruth)

January 8, 2011

Guess what dear reader? I read a whole book of the Bible in one sitting! Okay, so it was the book of Ruth, which means in my tiny-tiny-small-print Bible only two and a half pages, but still I feel a certain sense of achievement.

I’ve noticed in the past few years that people really love this book. It is not unusual to hear ‘ooh I love Ruth!’, whereas ‘oh I love Joshua’ doesn’t crop up quite as much. Of course there is the wonderful and often quoted declaration “Where you go, I will go/ where you lodge, I will lodge / your people shall be my people / and your God my God.” (1:16) More famous than the story perhaps, and a popular choice for weddings, apparently. I find that rather odd, as it’s said by one widow to another. Good sentiment though.

And I am of rather the same disposition as the Ruth-lovers. I like the book of Ruth, perhaps instinctively because it is one of the only two books of the Bible named after a woman.

Oh yes, I have been a feminist much longer than I’ve been a Christian; I wasn’t baptised until I was 23, but at the age of 2 I refused to build an ‘snow-man’, it had to be a ‘snow-girl’. We’ll have gender equality in my front garden, thank you very much!

But when I read the book this time, thoughts that have only niggled before seemed to bubble to the service. They centre around the role of Ruth in the story. It starts out very promisingly, with her beautiful speech promising loyalty to her mother-in-law and the God of Israel, even if it means living in poverty. This passage (1:15-18) paints a picture of Ruth a determined, strong and fiercely loyal woman, but when they get back to Bethlehem the picture changes. Ruth’s words after this point are almost entirely expressions of obedience and gratitude, or requests. Of course there is nothing wrong with this, but it’s part of a wider narrative in which Ruth seems to lose her dynamism. It is Naomi who orchestrates the situation; who sends her to glean and later to lay at Boaz’s feet on the threshing floor (a possible euphemism apparently!). And it is Boaz, of course, who arranges the marriage. In fact, he gets Ruth as part of a package deal; he buy’s her late father-in-law’s land and also ‘acquires’ her as he puts it (4:9-10).

Of course, this is a cynical reading of the text. Boaz is obviously a generous and affectionate man, we see this in his dealings with Ruth when she gleans in his fields (chapter 2). So much so, in fact, that one of my favourite charities the Boaz Trust, who serve destitute asylum seekers in Manchester, have made him a model for welcoming the stranger. Which, of course, Ruth was as a Moabite woman. Many Israelites would have shunned her for this reason.

I suppose my problem isn’t with the treatment of Ruth, but with the presentation of her as a role model for women. After chapter 1 she is meek and obedient, she doesn’t speak unless spoken to and she never questions the instructions she’s given, even when she’s told to go to an older man in the middle of the night and risk being shamed. 

There is nothing wrong with being a meek and mild woman, but for those of us who do not have that natural inclination the Christian tendency to idolise this way of being can leave us feeling loud, inappropriate and unfeminine. Ruth, like Mary and many other young women of the Bible, is presented as blushing and obliging (though who knows it this was really the case). Her purity seems to be linked to a passivity. But I know there are many women, like me, who don’t fit this model; we love to debate, to passionately gesticulate, to challenge those around us, regardless of their gender. And while women like that can seem the most confident you know, many, especially Christians, can have an underlying feeling that they don’t fit the mould. Perhaps even that they aren’t how God created them to be?

But what is it to be a Godly woman? At the end of this book we are given a genealogy that tells us Ruth was great-grand mother of David; a mark of her significance. But there is another women mentioned, another widow who bore a son, and funnily enough, she is mentioned my previous reading, Genesis 38; Tamar.

As Boaz and Ruth marry, the town elders wish them well saying “Through the offspring the LORD gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.” (4:12) and later we see that Boaz is in fact of the line of Perez (4:18-22). So just as the widowed but redeemed Ruth takes her part in forming the line to David, so does Tamar. And so, as Matthew tells us in his first chapter, they are also ancestors of Jesus; part of the unfolding path the Christ (Matthew 1:1-16, esp 3-5).

And you thought genealogies were just boring lists, hey?

But why am I bringing up Tamar? The woman who pretended to be a prostitute so that her father-in-law (she was widowed) would sleep with her and give her a son? Not a fantastic role model, surely?

Well, actually, maybe she is. Okay, it all seems pretty off to us, and more than slightly of icky to us married ladies, but this was a woman who no one was looking out for. She was a widow, promised to be married to Judah’s youngest son (the other two had died on her, the second deliberately not impregnating her). The promise was not fulfilled, so where did this leave her? There’s a reason the law and the prophets and the words of Jesus and the New Testament letters all contain commands to care for widows; they often weren’t cared for. No male relatives could mean no money, no house. If Tamar was pretending to be a prostitute once, it was better than being reduced to being one forever once her father had died and she had nowhere to go.

So she takes matters into her own hands. She stands up for herself and when she is accused of “whoredom” she exposed Judah to himself; he is not only the kind of man who’ll take a prostitute, but one who will neglect his daughter-in-law and then says “let her be burned” when he hears her doing the very thing he has done (38:24). So he says “she is more in the right than I”. You go girl! Well, sort of.

Now, we need not take Tamar’s example literally. It goes without saying that none of us need to become father-in-law bedding fake prostitutes! But what I can see from this is that it takes all sorts. God doesn’t make women with cookie cutter; sweet and perfectly formed. Just as we have to deny society’s lie that there is an ideal look for women, when we can see that God created us in abundant and diverse beauty, so we can refuse to believe that there is one ‘ideal’ woman. Some of us are quiet, some talkative. Some confident, some shy. Some are firey, some gentle. And most of us a big fat mixture.

So, God made them all and gave them their place in the story of our faith. Loyal and obedient Ruth, defiant and assertive Tamar, strong and stoic Mary. And many more. Men and women can learn from these great figures.

Got that? Good.

Right, I’m off to straighten my hair… (it’s funny because it’s true).

What can I say about Judges 17-21? No, seriously, what can I say? It’s pretty bleak, and very brutal. There are two stories really. Chapter 17 tells us of Micah and Levite. In short: Micah steals his mother’s silver but then gives it back because she curses the person who stole it, then she is happy to have it back so turns it into an idol. Okay… Then Micah meets a wondering Levite who is “going to live wherever I can find a place” so  he employs to be his priest. Then in chapter 18 the Danites, who are on the look out for territory and spy some where the people are “quiet and unsuspecting” take Micah’s priest and idol for their own and when Micah complains they threaten to attack him. All unpleasant enough, but you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The second story is not one I want to recount; it’s a bit like the story of Sodom only without divine intervention and with some war and kidnap added on the end. Both this story and chapter 34 of Genesis, which I read yesterday, involved rape, and I don’t want to brush over that fact. Especially today’s which is horribly disturbing in every way. This is the stuff that reminds us not all of the Bible was written to instruct or inspire us. Some is written to show how far astray humanity can and has gone.

I began to write an exploration of the statement that ends the book; “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” I wanted to explore whether having a king made them any better, but more than that whether any one could ever really think any of this was “right”. But I don’t know where those ideas are leading… I seem to go around in circles. The fact is that I’m heart-broken by what I read in these chapters, especially chapter 19. It is a similar feeling to reading or hearing about the atrocities committed against women in the Congo or other parts of the world in which rape is used as a weapon of war.

These stories force me to face the darker side of humanity. They don’t, as others may suggest, prove to me that we are innately wicked and that is why Israel behaved this way without God to guide them (you may like to read my post on Genesis 1-3 for my thoughts on that subject). But they do confront me with the inescapable truth; that parts of the world and parts of ourselves that seem so so far from God, and there people who have forgotten or never knew that they were made in his image. And I am not talking about atheism. There are countless humanitarian and compassionate atheists in this world, I’m talking of a much deeper forgetting.

Perhaps this is not the inspirational post you signed up for (I do see and appreciate the subscriptions, thank you), but then the Bible’s not really what any of us signed up for is it? Not all of it. We signed up for ‘Love God and Love your neighbour’ perhaps, or ‘I am the Way the Truth and the Life’, or ‘freed from the letter of the law to live in the spirit of the law’, but not many of us signed up for facing rape, murder and kidnap. But perhaps those of us who are privileged enough to only read about such trauma have the duty to face it, to remember that it is not just archaic horror recorded in a book, but present in the world today. It is something that we should care about, something that should break our hearts open. Jesus did not take kindly to those who bubble wrapped themselves into cozy lives and tried to keep the worst of the world out. So perhaps Judges 17-21 has done me a service today, strange though it may seem.

But, to end, I do believe that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. And there are lights all over the world including the Heal Africa Hospital who, among many other things, seek to heal the women in the Congo who have been abused like our nameless woman in chapter 19. May God bless them.

 

 

 I love Romans 15-16. It brings to an end the first letter from Paul that we read in the New Testament and though I have a bit of sense of achievement from getting through my first epistle, that’s not why I like it so much. Chapter 15 ends with promises of a trip to Rome and then in chapter 16 we get the personal greetings Paul sends to members of the Christian community as well as greetings sent by Christians in other places to the Romans. At first, like the many genealogies in the Bible, this can seem like an irrelevant list, something to be skim read so we can get on to the good stuff. But this is not true for the genealogies and neither is it true for these words of greeting.

I love this more personal, more specific ending of Paul’s letter because it reminds me that this was a real letter sent to real people who, like us, were grappling with the Big Questions and striving to live in Christ with each other. What’s more, we get a glimpse of Paul, not as some lofty orator whose voice bellows from the pages of a scripture, but as a real person, with relatives and friends and, dare I say it, favourites.

Let me pick out a few greetings that especially broadened my smile:

“Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” Paul, often quite a lone figure in the New Testament, had relatives, had people whom he had suffered with and, more importantly for me, whom he looked up to. Paul’s writing can sound a little arrogant here and there, like in 15:1 when he says “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak “. (Alright mate, get over yourself!) This, among other things, can lead some to dismiss him out of hand, but I like that in chapter 16 I can see that Paul had people whose words were important to him, who were “in Christ before him”. Conversely, I think that’s also important to remember as sometimes Paul can be held up as the ‘ultimate Christian’, but he too held others in high esteem.

This is also highlighted in 16:13: “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother—a mother to me also.” Anyone who’s seen Dogma will know why I especially like the mention of Rufus ‘chosen in the Lord’ (it’s just a joke, don’t get your knickers in a twist!). But I also like that there was a Christian woman who mothered Paul. Again this is because Paul doesn’t always read like someone who would let himself be mothered very much, but also because it reminds me that a church, the Church, is at its best when it’s a family.

And it’s worth mentioning that Junia and Rufus’ mother and also Pheobe who is a commended in 16:11 (I assume she delivered the letter?)  are all women (there are probably more, I’m not very good with guessing the gender of names). Horrah! It’s nice to see that whatever sweeping statements Paul occassionally makes about his sisters in Christ, he actually rates many of them very highly indeed.

But the reasons above are in way too complex (I know, they’re not very complex, but bear with me), because what I really love is that Paul ends his letter like so many of us would. “say hi to Rufus for me, remember me to his mum, say hi to Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas and Hermas”. Okay, I’ve never written to anyone called Asyncritus or Phlegon either, but you get the picture. I just love to imagine this network of early Christians, who knew and loved each other and of whom Paul was a part. When I think of him this way he becomes more relatable and so does his writing.

And what writing it is, say what you like about the guy but he can sign off a letter like nobody’s business. So I’ll think I’ll leave this one to him:

25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever! Amen.

I’m having an interesting time with Genesis. I had thought it was a book I’d really get on with, that I would relish the search for deeper meaning in the epic tales of God’s power and purpose. Turns out I feel like that about bits of it. From creation to Noah is fab for me, lots that I’ve thought about before, lot’s to work with. After that, not so much. Until (unless I’m unpleasantly surprised in a few weeks) the story of Joseph, which I love love love!

I know, I know, I’ve written about playing favourites with Scripture before, but this is how it is with me right now. I mean, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all have their moments – entertaining or wrestling with angels is pretty darn cool – but when I’m reading 3 or 4 chapters at a time these moments seem rather fleeting; flickers of light between negotiations for land and goods or, worse by far, questionable treatment of women.

I am referring, in the instance (see precious posts for more), to the story of Jacob, Rachel and Leah, right in the middle of Genesis 28-31. The meeting of Jacob and Rachel, echoing the story of his mother’s meeting with his father, is quite romantic really. He sees her, he waters her flock (which she keeps herself, by the way, girl power!), he kisses her and weeps. All very promising. So he meets her father, who seems nice at first but turns out to be a bit of tricky so-and-so. Jacob agrees to work for Laban (daddy) for 7 years in return for his daughter, but when he finally gets to spend the night with her he wakes in the morning to find it’s her older sister Leah. Downer! Laban says he can have Rachel too, as long as he works another 7 years! Well, how generous of him.

Now, there are ways of reading good intentions into all this. Jacob does not shame Leah by putting her away, but honours their marriage. If you can call marrying her younger sister as soon as he could ‘honouring’! But really, he worked hard to earn the love of Rachel, and we see the lovely line So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.” (29:20). He obviously cared for and valued her above money, because, it seems, he chose her over 7 years of wages, which is nice. And Laban, although revealed to be mighty slippery in later chapters, may simply have been looking out for the dignity of his eldest daughter. How would she cope with the stigma of being unmarried while her younger sibling went off to play happy families? So perhaps their intentions weren’t enitrely dishonourable.

But 29:31-30:24 is the passage that really leaves me sad. It’s probably best if you just read the whole thing, but the general gist is that rivalry for Jacob’s love and for status seems to be fought over via the ability to produce sons. Leah produces heirs first, indeed we’re told that  God opened her womb because she was unloved (29:31). When Rachel cannot conceive she gives her maid to Jacob and Leah follows suit. All the time there is a sense of tension, of competition between the sisters. We see this in it’s most extreme and bizaare expression the strange exchange about mandrakes in 30:14-18. Any one know the esoteric meaning of mandrakes??

Is this spirit of desperation and competition really that in which the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel were conceived? Great! It’s just all a bit uncomfortable, isn’t? Not just uncomfortable, but almost tragic. Leah is such a tragic figure to me. She who is given into the bed of a man she does not want her, let alone love her. We hear her voice constantly in these passages saying “now this time my husband will be joined to me” and “surely now my husband will love me” and even after the birth of all her sons “is it a small matter that you have taken my husband away from me?” This level of desperation breaks my heart as I read.

But what do I expect? For the Bible to provide me with flawless role models, perfect in the sight of God? Or amazingly functional families? What planet am I on? If the Bible teaches us anything it is that people and societies aren’t perfect.  So there will be bitterness and rivalry and double-dealing. But the question is where is God in this?

Where is God for Leah? He is the one answering her cries. In the midst of these mixed up people, who feel their loves and rivalries so strongly, God is there. And God’s role in this story is in birth. He is bringing hew life, hope to both women. He is fulfilling the promise to Jacob and his forefathers to make his ancestors as numerous as the stars. God is creating, moving, producing. And whatever rubbish is going on around it, new life is coming into the world. An apt idea to reflect on this advent; that God brings life and hope in the midst of our dysfunctionality.

Is this good enough? Does it take away my discomfort with these passages? Not really, I’ve still got many a rant about the subjugation women and ‘land rights’ up my sleeve. But it does help me see past the brain stuff into the heart stuff. The thought of Leah’s joy at her first born child, in the midst of all her misery, is enough to inspire and edify me.

 

P.S. for those of you who read my last entry: I know it’s after midnight, but this still counts as Monday’s post, and I’m promise it wasn’t a rushed job!

I’ll be honest, I can’t help being more than slightly disturbed when I read Genesis 16-19. The appalling treatment of the slavegirl Hagar (16:1-6); the disturbing story of Sodom when Lot tries to give a ravenous crowd of men his virgin daughters to “do to them as you please” (19:1-11), the creepy story of Lot’s daughters getting him drunk so they could become pregnant by him (19:30-38). Let’s just say there are nicer parts of the Bible.

First things first: reading the story of Sodom I wonder how anyone could take the story of Sodom as a blanket comment on homosexuality. The crowd of men that surround Lot’s house and demand to “know” the angels are attackers, not seducers. Yes, their attack may have a sexual element but it’s still an attack. Rape is the ‘abomination’ here, whoever it is done to. And that Lot offers his two daughters in the men’s place doesn’t necessarily imply that it would be better if the rape was heterosexual! Perhaps it implies that Lot himself has been corrupted by this place or if not that he protected them because they were guests (19:8) or even because they were angels (19:1). How this story can be equated with a loving monogamous homosexual relationship is beyond me. Just needed to get that off my chest.

Now, onto to the good stuff. What has made an impression on me more than the disturbing treatment of women and angels in these chapters is the way Abraham (given his name in chapter 17), Sarah (likewise) and Lot all communicate with God.

When told that they will still have a son, despite being 100 and 90 years old respectively, Abraham and Sarah both laugh at God. In fact,  “Abraham fell on his face and laughed” (17:17). I can imagine him rolling about on the floor; “O, Lord, that’s a good one!”. He manages to get  away with it though. Not so with Sarah, she’s told off (18:9-15). I love how she tries to hide it too, telling God she didn’t laugh, to which he replies “Oh yes, you did laugh.” It’s like a pantomime.

Do you ever laugh at God? Laugh at the possibility of the impossible? Laugh at the idea of your wildest dreams coming true?

It’s nice to see in Genesis that incredulity is not only an aspect of faith in the cynical 21st century, but has always been there. Comforting to think that even the mother and father of a great nation didn’t quite believe their calling.

How about negotiating with God? Ever try your hand at that? Abraham and Lot do. I especially like the scene of Abraham trying to talk God down from destroying Sodom (18:22-33). At first he asks confidently if a Just God will destroy a city if there are even just 50 righteous people live there? God agree to spare Sodom if there are 50 righteous people. Then Abraham sees he’s on to something, tries his luck, and talks God down to 10 righteous people, each time asking with more polite reverence “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more…” Haggling with God? I didn’t know that was allowed. Lot negotiates too. When fleeing he is told not to stop anywhere in the Plain but he says “can’t I just go to that little city over there? It’s only a little one!” (perhaps not in those exact words).  And God let’s him!

So what’s that about? How much is negotiable? Is prayer negotiation? When do we argue with God and when do we just do what we’re told?

I like this God who listens to the appeals of his people, who will be reasoned with. It’s a bit anthropomorphic maybe, but there’s something quite appealing about a God that you can laugh with/at and talk to. Hagar certainly knew this in the desert when she fled from her harsh treatment (16:7-15). Although she is sent back (perhaps she could have negotiated a little better there) she is promised that it will not be in vain. And she calls God El-roi which probably means God of seeing or God who sees.

In all these stories God is almost tangibly present, there to be laughed at, scared of, reasoned with and, of course welcomed (18-1-8). He is not far off executing his plan with clinical precision but close, a guest as well as a God.

I long for a relationship with God like this. Most of the time I don’t have it but these chapters, odd and disturbing bits aside, inspire me to think of God as involved in my life. And quite right too. God is present, involved, accessible. We just need to be open to negotiation.

Fair reader, I’m not going to lie to you, I skim read some of the passages in Joshua 16-20. All the:

“the territory of the Ephraimites by their families was as follows: the boundary of their inheritance on the east was Ataroth-addar as far as Upper Beth-horon, 6and the boundary goes from there to the sea; on the north is Michmethath; then on the east the boundary makes a turn towards Taanath-shiloh, and passes along…[yada yada yada]”

and the :

“Now the towns of the tribe of Benjamin according to their families were Jericho, Beth-hoglah, Emek-keziz, 22Beth-arabah, Zemaraim, Bethel, 23Avvim, Parah, Ophrah…[blah de blah de blah]”

just didn’t float my boat this afternoon. And I’m sure it’s all very important for many reasons beyond my understanding (if you know them please do fill me in) but it’s not the kind of thing that puts fire in your belly is it?

However! There are some interesting things going on in all this land-dividing-up business. My favourite serves as a nice contrast to yesterday’s ‘giving your wife to the Pharoah’ debacle. Yes, the bit where the daughters of Zelophehad (pronounce that!), stand up for their rights! Having no brothers to inherit their portion of the land they say to Joshua “the Lord commanded Moses to give us inheritance along with our male kin” and so they get their inheritance. It’s just briefly mentioned in 17:3-6 but this must have been very significant; to give women certain property rights? That’s big. It may not seem big to us, but often women without close male relatives would be destitute in these times, as the plight of Naomi in the book of Ruth shows. So this is pretty right on, and I’m glad to read it. It reminds that though the general tone of the scriptures is pretty darn patriarchal, strong women pop up and are respected again and again. And these women must have been strong to stand up in front of an assembly of men and claim their rights. Go sisters!

Another, more curious, provision comes in chapter 20, with the cities of refuge. These places are created for people to flee to when they need refuge. So far, so good. But they are specifically for those who seek refuge if they have killed “a person without intent or by mistake” and are being pursued by an avenger. Erm, okay…My first question: How do you kill a person by mistake?

Perhaps this is a reference to Moses, who killed someone and fled from Egypt as a younger man. Or perhaps these are just very very different times, when violence is a matter of fact. We forget how cushioned we are, those of us who can sit in front of our computers and read about violence in our newspapers. And although the concept confuses me, I like that there is this provision. That the people of God include refuge in their division of the land and,  importantly, that refuge is for “all the Israelites and all the aliens residing among them.” From the beginning the people of Israel are not an insular self-serving community, as some readings may paint them, but one that also provides for those who live amongst them. So even whilst dividing their conquerred lands, the Israelites retain a sense of justice.

You may be surprised that I have found something positive to say about the book of Joshua at long last, I know I am! But if nothing else then that’s what the Good Book does; it surprises you. For better or for worse.