Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell to the ground on his face before the ark of the Lord until the evening, he and the elders of Israel; and they put dust on their heads. Joshua said, “Ah, Lord God! Why have you brought this people across the Jordan at all, to hand us over to the Amorites so as to destroy us? Would that we had been content to settle beyond the Jordan! O Lord, what can I say, now that Israel has turned their backs to their enemies! The Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear of it, and surround us, and cut off our name from the earth. Then what will you do for your great name?”
“Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho
Joshua fit the battle of Jericho
and the walls came a-tumblin down.”
Many of you will be familiar with this famous African-American spiritual. Quoted above are the words of the recurring chorus. For Joshua, successor to Moses, and the children of Israel, this was the beginning of a serious setback. Oh, they won the battle of Jericho as God had promised, their first struggle after crossing the Jordan River, ending their 40-year wandering in the desert after leaving their many-centuries-long enslavement in Egypt. But it is what came next that is the problem. It took just one bad apple in the crowd to spoil it for the rest of them. God had told the people not to plunder any items after they ransacked the defeated Jericho. All but one man obeyed that command. Isn’t that just like reality? Nevertheless, all the rest of the conquerors had to suffer for his greed and disobedience. Isn’t that just like the real world? Many suffer for the fault of some single knucklehead? As punishment for this disobedience, God insured defeat for the whole Israelite army in their next battle at Ai where they lost thirty-six men.
So, this is where we join the scripture reading above. Joshua and the other leaders performed the culturally appropriate and expected act of contrition by tearing their clothes and throwing dust and dirt on their heads. At that time and place, this was the way people expressed their sorrow and regret for an egregious act. Now let us move forward three millennia. What is our understanding of this act? After trying to recover from the seeming unfairness of God’s punishment of an entire tribe of people for the sins of one lone individual, we now try to figure out this dirt on the head business! It is certainly appropriate to lament the wrongdoing of one of our own, but dirt on your head! What is the meaning here? As we are discovering this Lent in these meditations, the symbolism and meaning of dust and dirt are manifold. But what about here in the Book of Joshua? Might our reading from this part of the history of the Hebrew people be pointing to the unity of all people, the wholeness of the world, and the oneness of the cosmos? We are all in this together. When one suffers, we all suffer. When one sins, we all sin. When one loses, we all lose. When one rejoices, we all rejoice. All of creation is born of the same dust, the same atoms, created by the one Maker. Unity is God’s constant reminder, even if it feels unjust to us at times. Should we be more aware of our cultural insistence on rugged individualism, on winning each competition only for ourselves? Perhaps our Lord is calling us to a more loving and compassionate wholeness. We are all of one dust.