Friday, May 09, 2008

The Reubenites Democratize Judaism: Joshua 22

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

The Israelite peace doesn't last long, even among themselves. Recall that a couple of thribes - the Reubenites, the Gadites, and some of the Manasseh - had decided not to come with the rest of Israel into the promised land, because they preferred the land they had already conquered over the land God was "giving" to them. Their armed divisions nevertheless went along for the Canaanite wars, but now that those are apparently over with for the time being, Joshua sends them home to their fields.

The three tribes immediately threaten the peace, apparently quite innocently, by constructing "an imposing altar" on the banks of the Jordan. The Israelites, naturally displaying very little faith in their brethren, immediately conclude that the tribes in question have turned to foreign gods and are breaking the Moses covenant, since they're seemingly planning on worshipping away from the central temple and the Ark of the Covenant. The response, to this society of warriors, is very simple: it's time to go to war and kill the offenders.

Fortunately, and to his credit, high priest Phinehas assembles a group of elders from the assembly and goes on a peace mission. He condemns the new altar and threatens divine punishment.

The accused respond that they still respect the God of Israel and did not intend to rebel in any way: the altar is an imitation model only, intended not for sacrifices but as a symbol to future generations of God's covenant. Phinehas is persuaded and actually blesses them for thinking of this.

This is a very interesting and revealing episode, even though it takes up very little space in Joshua. The Israelites have become so thoroughly militarized that the prospect a civil war with two and a half of their own tribes apparently arouses little real resistance.

On the other hand, and more significantly, the Reubenites and Gadites have taken an extremely significant step in diluting the power of the centralized priesthood and its control over access to the Lord. They have not created an alternative sight of worship, certainly, but they have created a replica which is certainly intended to fulfil at least a few of the functions of the central temple in terms of symbolizing the Israelites' relationship with their God. Over the last three books, God has become more and more closely linked to a singe physical space - the porta-temple and, more generally, the traveling camp of the Israelites. Now that the camp is beginning to disperse, the people devise a method to begin the process of de-linking the divine from a single space.

Strikingly, the idea for the temple replica doesn't come from God, or even from the priesthood - it comes from among the people. Independently, they take action intended to show and preserve their faith in God - a far cry from the incessant complaining and idol worship. And neither God nor the priesthood seem to mind on this occasion. I'm not sure whether this will come back later to haunt them, since I fully expect the Bible's pessimism about the people to return in full force at some point. For the time being, however, the people act of their own accord to cement their relationship with God, and the priesthood permits them to do it. It's a lot more uplifting than God's smiting of the Kohathite rebellion back in Numbers.

The fact that I consider this a positive incident might just show how desensitized I've become to the rigidly centralized, hierarchical religious order that has been established in Israel. After all, the temple replica is just that - a replica. Actual services, with actual sacrifices and actual blood-letting, will not be conducted there. And if it had been an effort to worship God in the full pattern of the ancient Israelites, apparently the rest of the nation were prepared to go to war and massacre their own brothers and sisters. Back in Genesis, violence among brothers was one of the signs that the patrimonial family-based social order was failing - or had always been a failure, since both the first (Cain and Abel) and the last (Joseph and his brothers) families described in Genesis are fractured by murder plots. Now, the Israelites are apparently perilously close to the same fate. Still, the Israelites resolve the dispute peacefully, and in doing so affirm the right of people outside the priesthood to choose some of the elements of their relationship with the divine. Such incidents are rare thus far in the history of Israel.