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March 8, 2010

I puzzled over this week’s Old Testament passage for a long time. It is
hard to see its connection to the other readings. But if we read this
ancient story through a lens refracted by the forgiveness and
celebration themes highlighted in the other lectionary texts, there are
at least tentative connections.

“Today I have rolled away from
you the disgrace of Egypt. And so that place is called Gilgal to this
day.” I’m sorry, but that seems like a pretty forced folk etymology for
the place named Gilgal. But it does say something about how at least the
author of Joshua understood the significance of the first encampment on
the other side of the Jordan.

This is the place where God starts
over with Israel. The time of punishment and suffering is over, and the
time of forgiveness and fresh starts has arrived. With Moses as
mediator-leader, but under God’s sovereignty, after slavery in Egypt
comes deliverance through water and lawgiving at Sinai. With Joshua as
mediator-leader, but still under God’s sovereignty, after wilderness
wanderings comes deliverance through water and covenant renewal at
Gilgal.

This is why the first thing this weary army does upon
setting up camp in hostile Canaan is to disable all the warriors through
flint-knived circumcision. (Ouch.) This is why they celebrate the
Passover with all due diligence to keep God’s commands to Moses.

God
has forgiven Israel. Israel celebrates God’s forgiveness and then moves
quickly to demonstrate its loyalty to God’s will by keeping the
provisions of the covenant.

That word “provision” has double
potential here. The wilderness days were provisional. Not where they had
been but not yet where they were going, Israel lived a provisional life
that relied on the provision of God. Now in the land of promise, the
days of provisionality appear to be over. Israel begins to eat the
ordinary produce of the land of Canaan.

Eventually they will grow
their own produce. And so immediately, the provisional provision of
miraculous manna ends. Israel will always remember that miraculous
provision but will no longer need it.

There is a kind of “coming
home” theme in all this week’s readings. Israel comes home to a promised
land from which the people have been absent since their mothers and
fathers were buried there. The psalmist confesses in order to come home
to God and be at home in his own body. The straying son comes home to
the waiting, forgiving father. Humanity comes home to a reconciling God
through the cross of Jesus Christ.

It would be nice if this were
the last word. Everybody would get to stay home. But powerful forces
within us, both individually and collectively, drive us out of our
homes. Israel ends up in exile. Believers who love God sin again and
find themselves once more in need of forgiveness. Our sin drives us into
internal self-exile, exile from relationships with others and exile in
relationship with God—who is our only home, our origin and our destiny.

Additional lectionary columns by Gushee appear in the March 9 issue of
the
Century—click here to subscribe.