Bible texts: 2 Chronicles 1:7-11 and 2 Peter 3:13-18.
The main story line of the Bible is that Joshua, who succeeded Moses, led the children of Israel to victory in the battle of Jericho, and then either killed or drove out all of the Canaanites from the land. It can be uncomfortable for us to read about this early example of ethnic cleansing, since it appears to have been done at the command of God. Recent discoveries by archaeologists suggest a different story.
If you look closely at some of the narratives in the Old Testament, mainly in the books of Kings and Chronicles, you will read, for example, that Jotham, king of Judah, “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord,…but the shrines were not abolished and the people continued to sacrifice and burn offerings there.” (2 Kings 15:34,5). Later, Ahaz , Jotham’s son, became king, but “he did not do right in the eyes of the Lord, but followed in the footsteps of the kings of Israel; he even passed his son through the fire according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord had dispossessed in favor of the Israelites. He sacrificed and burned offerings at the shrines and on the hilltops and under every spreading tree” (2 Kings 16:2-4).
According to one archaeologist, “Israel emerged from a collection of loosely organized and largely indigenous tribal and kin-based groups. The borders between these groups were weak enough to allow external groups to join those already allied to form a new ethnic group that called itself Israel” (Mary Joan Winn Leith, "How a People Forms," Biblical Archaeology Review, May-June 2006, p. 22). Probably one of these external groups was that of the Hebrews who escaped slavery in Egypt.
What happened was that there was constant, swirling warfare in the land of Canaan, among the peoples who had already lived there, like Perizzites and Girgashites and Jebusites. Then the tribes of Dan, and Reuben, and Benjamin and the others who were said to be Joseph’s brothers joined in. Neighboring tribes fought each other, then fought together against other tribes. The Hebrews brought into this mixture of religions the belief in one God, Jahweh.
We can understand how this happened when we look at Native American tribes who engaged in the same kind of warfare. Most of today’s Indian tribes formed and reformed. What we know as Ojibwas were formed from earlier tribes of Amikwas, Maramegs, and Saultiers (Richard White, "The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815," Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 19). There are many other examples of this tribal amalgamation. Probably, the French performed the same function in America that the Hebrews did in Canaan. It is probable that most eastern Indians in America are partly descended from the French.
Later writers and editors of the Biblical books insisted that the Israelites were forbidden by God to relate to the people of Canaan. They were in a great struggle to establish faith in one God. The biblical narrative shows what they were up against.
The Hebrews in the desert worshipped a golden calf while Moses was on the mountain. Others worshipped local gods on hilltops and in sacred groves of trees. They made blood sacrifices to these gods. They sacrificed their own children to appease these gods: that is what it means when Ahaz “passed his son through the fire.”
So the Ten Commandments said, “You shall have no other gods before me.” I think it was a struggle to teach the children of Israel that there is only one God. It was a completely new idea in the ancient world. Later, as the prophets spoke out against the practices of blood sacrifice and cult prostitution and ostentatious ritual, they came to understand that the Creator of the Universe is not a god of this or that group, but is a God of love who cares for the weak, the poor and the oppressed.
It took a long time for them to learn that. A thousand years later, Jesus objected to the blood sacrifices in the temple at Jerusalem. He continued the vision of the prophets, and extended it beyond what they had taught. His vision was of a kingdom of heaven where love reigned supreme, and where God did not exact punishment or revenge for the sinfulness of the people. Even on his cross he prayed that most loving and generous of all prayers, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”
But his message also fell on deafened ears. Several times, after he had taught using a parable, his disciples asked him, “What do you mean by that?” They tried to shoo away children who wanted to be with him, and he pointed out to them that such childlike faith is to be found in the kingdom. Once, on a boat in the sea, the disciples worried that they had only brought one loaf of bread, and he said, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Have you no inkling yet? Do you still not understand? Are your minds closed? You have eyes: can you not see? You have ears: can you not hear? Have you forgotten? When I broke the five loaves among five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up? Do you still not understand?” (Mark 8:17-21)
They didn’t quite get it. It took two thousand years for the people of Israel to separate out the good news from the nationalistic propaganda of a warrior god who protects his own and enables them to banish their enemies. The story of the Bible is the story of the nation learning the difference between its own vainglorious history and the message of a loving, universal God. It is a story that moves from having no other gods before the Lord to the realization that there is only one God. After Jesus began his teaching, it became even clearer that God is love, but even the twelve didn’t get it all the time.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could say that we have fully understood, that we get it? It took us two thousand years to apply this gospel to the abolition of slavery. It has taken the same amount of time to understand that women are the equal of men in wisdom and intelligence and ability. We still engage in war, many of us still are biased toward those who are different because of race or nationality. Women still are put down when they strive to excel.
But, the situation is not hopeless. Rene Girard has said that the Bible is a “text in travail.” It is a work in progress. God is working his will through us, as dense as we may be.
In my field of organizational development there is the concept of the “learning organization.” Usually, when there is a lack in the company, managers think that what is lacking is skill and knowledge in the workers, and they try to correct that by some form of training. However, often after the workers have been trained, the trouble persists. What is needed is for the organization to change. The organization as a whole needs to learn.
I think that is what I have been trying to outline. The Hebrews and the Israelites needed to learn God’s purpose. Jesus came to continue that learning. The church continually needs to learn. The Protestant reformers said that the Church needs a reformation, and our Presbyterian Church has long taught that the Church is “reformed and ever reforming.”
We are about to begin the most active part of the church program. In two weeks, later this year because the renovation of the Parish House is not yet completed, we will start the Christian Education program for the children and youth. At the same time, we will also begin rehearsing the children’s and youth choirs. Later on, we will add some efforts at adult education.
All of this is important, but it is not enough for us to teach our children in the elements of the faith. We must make sure that we have a learning faith. It appears to me that a learning faith is one that seeks wisdom. Solomon asked the Lord for wisdom, not riches or victory in battle. In the second letter of Peter, it was written, “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience is an opportunity for salvation, as Paul, our dear friend and brother, said when he wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him.” (2 Peter 3:15) After Jesus, the boy, taught in the temple, the gospel says that “he advanced in wisdom and in favor with God and men.” (Luke 2:52)
Jesus tells us what this means for us. He once asked his disciples whether they understood what he had been teaching. When they said, “Yes,” he continued, “When a teacher becomes a learner in the kingdom of heaven, he is like a householder who can produce from his store things new and old.” (Matthew 13:52)
Many schools and universities begin the school year with an opening convocation. Let’s consider this celebration of communion as this year’s opening convocation for us to become learners in the faith. Let us admit that we don’t know it all, and that we can grow in wisdom together so that we will participate in a learning faith. Amen