I love when the Lectionary readings remind me of something I’ve forgotten, and this week’s very brief Old Testament reading does just that. I’ve been aware of the story of the manna in the wilderness as long as I’ve been aware of the story of Moses, and I assumed that in the period of the tribal federation and the שופטים (that’s Judges, in case you wondered), there’s no mention of the people’s gathering manna, but I had forgotten that there is a discrete point at which the manna ceases. With regards to enough bread to feed a nation appearing daily (except on the Sabbath) to feed a wandering nomad-nation, I’ll admit that, although when I was a teenager I was a fervent seeker after evidence that weird Biblical phenomena “actually happened,” and I was equally intent through much of my twenties to establish myself as someone who wasn’t a “literalist,” but now, as someone who has preached probably around a hundred sermons, I realize that rhetorically speaking, neither of those positions is especially interesting in the pulpit. Each has merit in certain social situations, in order to fit in with the right sorts of people, but when Scripture is functioning specifically as the proclaimed Word, the shape of the story itself, not any assertions about what lies “behind” or “beyond” that text, prove most vital.
So when I see that the manna has ceased, I realize that the newly-circumcised second generation of free Hebrews had not yet taken Jericho and must have been eating grain that, in what political and legal terms were relevant, belonged to the city of Jericho. I also note that, before they camp on the plains of Jericho, the narrator tells the reader that all of the kings of Canaan had lost heart, had melted before this force of divine wrath. I think that people who take offense at the book of Joshua are right in some important ways but sometimes, perhaps because of our own discomfort with American and British imperial histories, don’t realize the true horror of scenes like this, an assumption of rights to food before the much-noted total wars start up. For all the narrative is concerned, the people of Jericho do not exist as a people; the mighty city is, if anything, a squatter in the space where Israel has always rightly existed, and their walls, which no doubt fended off or at least deterred the armies of the era’s superpowers, now counted as nothing. In the course of Joshua’s narrative they will fall neither to siege engines nor to other tools of war but simply by fiat as the royal priesthood of the true God blow their trumpets to celebrate victory in a battle that never really happens. I think that modern liberal objections to the “genocide” in Joshua (a misnomer if every I’ve seen one) fall short not because their hearts are in the wrong place but because they still think of what goes on in terms of modern categories of nation-state, imperialism, and the managerial state.
Like the siege of Jericho, Jesus’ parable of the father with two sons hits our tone-deaf modern ears wrong in some amusing ways. To begin with, faced with a story of a son who demands his inheritance early (effectively, as N.T. Wright notes, wishing his father dead before his time), who gives up his ancestors’ way of life to travel to foreign lands, who runs afoul of Fortuna when a famine (not unlike the one in the founding stories of Israel in Genesis 37ff.) reduces him to swine-herding, how does our tradition of English Bible-editing name the tale? We note that he sure does spend a lot of money. In our cultural imagination, the defining moment of the story is the son’s prodigality.
Beyond that, every discussion that I can remember of the story ignores the fact that the father says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31). One could read this as apocalyptic celebration of land that returns to the foolish whoh sell it, an anticipation of a grand Jubilee in which the younger son’s abandonment of the traditional order is restored with no harm done. But there’s little sense of that in the text. More likely there will be no subdividing the inheritance further, and moreover, there’s no sense that the son who has forsaken the ways of the father has anything but his older brother’s generosity upon which to rely. In one of the strange moments in the Bible when primogeniture seems upheld, the Jacob of this pair, after proving himself entirely unable to survive his own sojourn among foreigners, comes back to celebration but indeterminacy after that.
Now the main point of the story, I recognize, is the father’s forgiveness and the elder son’s reticence to celebrate. However, like Zaccheus (whose story happens not far away in chapter 19 of Luke), this sinner returns to the community with celebration but also with the sort of justice that holds in a world between the Fall and the Redemption that will obtain in the final return of the Messiah. Like Joseph’s brothers, who do not get the share of the patriarch’s blessing that their blessed-and-responsible brother Joseph does, the younger son is reinstated even as the older brother receives what is due.
Returning to Joshua, the manna from heaven is one of the most memorable stories in the Bible precisely because there’s nothing guaranteeing that an entire nation that opts to wander uninhabitable desert in this fallen order will even survive the ordeal, much less emerge across the Jordan as a force that frightens the mightiest kings of the day. But that miracle is for a moment, not for perpetuity. Jericho falls shortly thereafter, then Ai, then many other Canaanite cities, but as the book of Judges reminds the cautious reader, oppression never follows far behind when people forget that divine grace is always for the sake of divine glory. And if one reads 1 Kings carefully, noting that the narrator’s descriptions of Solomon’s policies use the same vocabularies as do Exodus’s accounts of Pharaoh’s, the same reader can hardly help but wonder at the frightful duties of the chosen people and that the presence of danger from foreign powers sometimes pales in comparison to the dangers from within when a kingdom becomes too powerful.
Perhaps the younger son in Jesus’ parable would have fared better had he not been “prodigal,” but famine is sometimes just as cruel to the prudent as to the foolish, and the man who stores up grain might end up being a hero like Joseph or a fool as the man in Jesus’ parable in Luke 12. And although the temptation often arises to declare, as does the editor of Qoheleth, that there is a singular sum to all of these dizzying factors, stories like Joshua on the plains of Jericho and parables like Jesus’ of the two sons with a forgiving father offer some caution to readers like myself, who find that the surface of the Biblical text does not offer such easy shelter so often. To put things briefly, the Bible is a book that speaks to those who listen, and when those listeners are postlapsarian folks like us, the stories it tells do not turn us loose from that fall. Just as life goes on after celebrating the younger son’s return, and just as the city of Jericho trembles because of the force of divine declaration, so the life of those who are claimed by the God celebrated in the Bible must continue to face the fact that a land granted to one people means that the other people become Lo-Ammi, and the son who comes back still must live on half of a traded inheritance. Miracles happen, but the day comes when all one has is what the land will give.
May the Lord keep us mindful of the coming goodness that will encompass all so that we can endure the wounded world in which we live in the meantime.