Joshua on the Margins

Shelach L’cha—Joshua on the Margins

by Rabbi Russ Resnik

This week’s parasha brings us to a climax in Israel’s story of deliverance. A few chapters earlier, the tribes of Israel finally departed from Mount Sinai, where they had camped for nearly a year to receive the Torah, build the tabernacle, and inaugurate the priesthood. Finally, the cloud of glory rose up from the encampment and Israel moved on, as Moses called out the words we repeat to this day when we take the Torah scroll out from the ark: “Kuma Adonai. Arise O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered! May those who hate you flee before You!” (Num. 10:35).

Now, in this week’s reading, Moses sends forth twelve scouts to spy out the territory beyond the Jordan and prepare Israel to take possession of the Promised Land. But, of course, ten spies return with an evil report that terrifies the Israelites, who refuse to go forward and take the land. The entire generation will die in the wilderness, except for Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who brought a report of faith and encouragement.

The conquest of the Promised Land must await a new generation, which we read about in the haftarah portion for this week, Joshua 2. There, Joshua, like Moses before him, sends spies to scout out the land. Unlike Moses, however, Joshua sends only two spies instead of twelve, reflecting the fact that only two of the original spies brought a positive report. Now, the two spies return and tell Joshua, “The Lord has delivered the whole land into our power; in fact, all the inhabitants of the land are quaking before us.” The haftarah concludes with these words, but let’s follow the story a little further. This time the Israelites do not lose heart. As the people mobilize to cross the Jordan, the waters of the river part and the Israelites cross on dry ground to set foot on the Promised Land. There they renew the covenant of circumcision, which had been neglected during the wandering in the wilderness. Then they celebrate Passover and begin to eat the produce of the land as the manna ceases and their wanderings are over.

We are ready for a complete reversal of the failure recorded in Shelach L’cha. But first, Joshua has an encounter that will mark this conquest as different from any invasion or military campaign in history.

  • Once, when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him, drawn sword in hand. Joshua went up to him and asked him, “Are you one of us or of our enemies?” He replied, “No, I am captain of the Lord’s host. Now I have come!” Joshua threw himself face down to the ground and, prostrating himself, said to him, “What does my lord command his servant?” The captain of the Lord’s host answered Joshua, “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” And Joshua did so. (Joshua 5:13-15, NJPS)

The man lets Joshua know that he’s not the center of the divine drama, that even Israel is not the center, but only God himself. When Joshua asks what he is to do, the man only tells him to remove his sandals in the presence of holiness. The encounter with the divine is inexplicable, totally other, and it transforms Joshua from a warrior, girded for battle, to a worshiper with bare feet, his face to the ground. Joshua will become a warrior again, but only after he takes a position in which he cannot conquer anything, at least by human means.

This place of holiness is also a place on the margins, a spot in no man’s land outside the camp of Israel and outside of Jericho. And so we learn that what is central in God’s geography may be marginal in the calculations of man, and what is central in man’s estimation may be marginal in God’s.

In Messianic Judaism, we see the man that Joshua encounters as a hint of the Messiah to come, the captain of the Lord’s hosts who has come to disclose the holiness of God and bring us into it. Joshua’s response—baring his feet and falling on his face—looks like weakness. Paradoxically, however, it reflects the true strength exemplified in the crucified Messiah, who tells us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). It’s as if, on the eve of Israel’s great victory and display of power, the Lord reminds Joshua that it’s not about power, not about victory through the means the dominant culture presents. Instead, the true power is to be found on the holy ground of the margins, in the irreducible, transformative encounter with God. Without this encounter all of our efforts will fail and fade away.

Joshua on the margins teaches us many lessons in addition to this essential one, and I’ll touch on one that pertains to the challenge of building Messianic Jewish communities. Joshua encountered the divine on the margins, not only geographically but also in terms of how things get done in this world. The 16th century Jewish commentator Abarbanel writes,

  • By telling Joshua to remove his sandals, the angel was signifying that Jericho could not be conquered by physical means. The Land was holy, and Israel’s enemies would be defeated only through God’s miracles. And Joshua did so, not merely in the literal sense that he removed his sandals, but that he discarded any thoughts of triumph by mere force of arms. (Quoted in The Early Prophets Artscroll Pub., p. 25)

In our secular age, all congregations—church and synagogue—are marginal. Membership in mainstream groups is declining. It is no longer conventional, that is, expected and beneficial for social standing, but can actually be a stigma. This reality leads to membership that is intentional, where people join out of conviction, expecting membership to reflect their faith and commitment. Messianic Jewish groups have never become established enough to provide conventional reasons for people to join us. Hence, we can embrace our place on the margins, outside today’s dominant culture of consumerism and hyper-individualism, to become intentional congregations and sacred communities.

One prominent rabbi contrasts the dominant market community with sacred community:

  • The everyday is what we use as means to ends. The sacred exists as its own end. . . .  Sacred community . . . is devoted to certain tasks, but these can be realized only in a sacred ambience, not in a market community where people weigh value by the list of limited liability deliverables that they think their dues are buying.1

Much good may proceed from a sacred community, but it is not constituted just to get a job done or to provide a collection of programs, projects, and benefits for dues (or tithe) paying consumers. Congregation is not a means to an end, but a gathering under Hashem in a shared vision of his holiness and purpose. In the Messianic world it is a gathering of those who have experienced the transforming encounter with the divine. When a member begins to ask, “What’s in it for me?” he or she is already turning away from sacred community to the cult of consumerism. Congregation as sacred community is inherently marginal to the dominant culture, but it becomes the place where a more profound marginality is overcome. It reflects the way of Yeshua, who met us on the margins to bring us into the heart of God’s story.

Joshua worshiping on the margins reminds us not to depend upon human power, particularly the power of individualism and self-satisfaction that is marketed to us every hour. Like Joshua, we may have to leave the holy ground to serve God’s purposes, but we return transformed. The challenge is to remember and continually count on the truth that all we do depends on God’s power and not our own-particularly in an age fascinated with human accomplishment and technology, and the quest for self-fulfillment.

Within this setting the word of the Lord is, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Can we respond like Rav Shaul? “Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Messiah may rest upon me.”

Rabbi Russ Resnik:

Part of this commentary appeared earlier in “Hesed and Hospitality” by Russ Resnik, in Kesher: A Journal of Messianic Judaism, Issue 23, Fall/Winter 2009.

Stephanie Escalnate