From the Book of Joshua:
All Israel, alien as well as citizen, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark in front of the levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded at the first, that they should bless the people of Israel.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Joshua 8:33 (NRSV) – July 23, 2014)
Two weeks ago, I stood on Mt. Gerizim with 17 friends looking over to Mt. Ebal. We read this text; we read Deuteronomy 27 in which the explicit curses to be read from Mt. Ebal are set forth. We pondered what it means for a people to live in a land divided by blessings and curses. Lost in our thoughts, we were startled when we turned around and found a young Israeli soldier standing behind us in full battle gear, an Uzi loaded and held at the ready.
Some of us found him threatening, but we were told that he was there for our protection. The lookout is a spot where Jewish pilgrims also like to come and remember their heritage; it is in full view of the Arab city of Nablus and a sniper on the city’s outskirts with a high-powered rifle could pick off someone standing at the lookout. I don’t know if that has ever happened, but the young soldier was there to make sure it didn’t or that, if it did, the gunfire would be answered.
I’m sure there might be some radical lunatic who might try such a thing, but in the three days we spent in Nablus, walking its streets, eating in its restaurants, greeting its people, I certainly never met or encountered anyone whom I thought to be such a threat.
In any event, I wonder about that young soldier now. Has he been transferred the fifty or so miles from his outpost on the ancient mountain to the modern battleground on the border with the Gaza Strip? Is he safe? Has he been wounded or killed? Is he preparing for a ground battle in Gaza? I’ll never know, of course, but I wonder.
There was a report recently that in Sderot, an Israeli community less than three miles from the Gaza community of Beit Hanoun, the Jewish residents sat in their lawn chairs watching the bombing of their Palestinian neighbors, laughing and cheering as the bombs exploded. An Australian CNN reporter filmed them doing so.
I couldn’t help but think about that when I read today’s story of Joshua. I couldn’t help but remember standing on Mt. Gerizim and wondering what it must have been like to hear from the mountain across the valley the voices of Joshua and others yelling out the curses. Ancient Jews on a hillside pronouncing curses on the land a couple of miles away; modern Jews on a hillside laughing derision and cheering destruction on the land a couple of miles away. Ancient history come to life in modern Palestine; an ancient ritual now played out as if in some obscene parody with modern weapons of terrible vengeance. Would the residents of Sderot have laughed and cheered if they knew that young soldier might be in danger where those bombs were exploding? Did it matter to them that other young soldiers, not to mention women, children, elderly people, disabled people, and other civilians, were dying where those bombs were exploding?
I don’t ask to imply or suggest any condemnation of them. God knows Americans have no high moral ground to stand on in this regard! It’s a well-known fact of American history that the residents of Washington DC took picnic baskets out to the hillside overlooking Bull Run to watch what became the first Civil War battle at that site. And, more recently, many of us cheered and partied in the streets when we learned of the death of Osama bin Laden. Laughing derision and cheering the destruction of those we consider our enemies is a universal human behavior. We just don’t consider them to be quite like us.
But they are like us. They have lives like ours. As Shakespeare’s Shylock pointed out when contemplating the differences (or lack of differences) between Jew and Gentile:
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute — and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction. (Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1)
Is that what is happening now? In unknowingly acting out that bizarre caricature of the curses from Mt. Ebal, in carrying out their “containment” of the Palestinians behind a “security barricade,” in bombing the herded-together densely-packed residents of Gaza (1.8 million people on a piece of land only 139 square miles in size; 13,000 people per square mile) is that what Israel is doing? Bettering the instruction that Gentile society, Christian Europe specifically, has taught the Jews? Is that what is happening? The abused become the abuser and doing it “better”? The accursed become the curser and doing it “better”?
I am commended by Scripture to “bless the people of Israel.” I am commended by Scripture to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. I can only do so if I include in my blessing all the people of Israel, Jew and Arab, Muslim and Christian, secular Jew and Orthodox, Amenians and Greeks, all the people of the land. I can only do so if my prayer is for a peace which is just to all and in which all are secure, “alien as well as citizen.”
Bless the people of Israel and pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.