06 January 2011

On Foreskin Hill

from Joshua Five

I like the idea of enemies hearts melting in the face of an impending loss or defeat.  While it removes some of the sport of the encounter (teams, for instance, like to face one another in battle) it would surely save lives if the obvious loser in battle wouldn't even raise arms to fight but merely submit, with melted hearts, to their fate.  Such was the situation when the Canaanites and the Amorites heard about the parting of the Red Sea and Israel's victory over Egypt.  As Joshua Five opens, those enemies don't even show up on the field. 

The chronology is a bit muddled, but in the next verse following, a mass circumcision takes place.  That would freak me out, I can tell you that, and herein one sees the first real sign in Joshua that we'll also see in Judges of a spasm of blood and brutality that takes hold before, during and after battle that will be an occasional source of meditation in the days ahead. 

"Make thee knives of flint, and circumcise again the children of Israel the second time."  This notion, a second circumcision, triggers an interesting debate among the Sages, who wonder aloud about whether or not the practice of circumcision was suspended in the desert during the 40 years of wandering since the Israelites barely had time to rest and recuperate from such a procedure and so therefore simply postponed the ritual until they were ready to enter and take covenantal possession of the land that God promised them.  Makes sense.

But there is also the hint that the "second circumcision" is a hint toward a kind of brutal pre-war ritual of preparation, a sanctification in blood for the bloody battles ahead that would be waged in order to reclaim the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  It's a gruesome sight to imagine and maybe because some of my own early views of war as a boy and young man were steeled in the novels and films about the Vietnam war, I imagine a kind of sarcastically rendered Foreskin Hill, with grimly focused soldiers, bloodied by their own hands as a first rite before the greater war of conquest begins.

"And Joshua made him knives of flint, and circumcised the children of Israel at Gibeath-ha-araloth."  That's Foreskin Hill to you, buddy.

It had me thinking about preparation in war and preparation in general--for life--and how so often we are in fact not adequately prepared to face the challenges we do.  In reading David Finkel's The Good Soldiers, his Pulitzer Prize winning book about President Bush's Iraq surge strategy, I was struck by how seemingly prepared soldiers are but how in fact unprepared they truly are when the killing begins.  And the series of reporting that we continue to read about rates of depression and suicide in young men and women who are emotionally devastated--at times less than thirty days into their tours of duty--we are reminded of the truism that one can in fact never fully prepare for the hell of battle.

After the mass circumcision takes place, Passover is celebrated and the obvious implication involved here is that a central "text" or idea of the binding of the Jewish people to God in covenant and freedom needs to be read and celebrated in order to prepare and then seal the people into the binding narrative that will under-gird their devotion.  The Republican Party's decision to begin publicly reading the Constitution notwithstanding (here come the Originalists in full-force, America's new fundamentalism rearing its head)--there is a powerful notion at play with regard to reading aloud, practicing aloud, the values of a society and its culture before moving into another phase of its leadership.

It's only then that an angel of God appears to Joshua, re-enacting for Joshua his own "Burning Bush" moment.  The circumcision, the reading of the Law (in this case the Passover narrative) release for the people their leader's encounter with God. 

"Take off your shoes," the angel says.  "You're standing on holy ground."

It's this, I like to think, that served as the cause of melted hearts.  Who can fight it? 

For one brief, shining moment, self-sacrifice and a moving narrative of freedom and redemption was the cause of victory, and the only blood shed was our own.

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