* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Joshua 7-8: Our Spiritual Identities Are Strengthened by Landmarks and Reminders

We've called Joshua's attack on Jericho a cautionary tale of how fear can discolor inspired ideas.  As an image of a strong Israelite leader at the time, though, the character of Joshua fit the bill.  He spoke and acted with authority, whether he was punishing someone who had gone against his orders or slaughtering people who didn't believe in his god.  His story continues in Joshua 7-8, as Joshua leads the Israelites in claiming by force a land inhabited by people who had legitimately built cities, bred livestock, and raised families.  From an outsider's perspective, Joshua was a barbaric warlord who claimed to act on God's authority -- the sort of person we might emulate if we were ambitious narcissists, but not a model of how to create a better world. 

Not everything in Joshua's tale needs to be taken as cautionary, however.  His leadership demonstrates three important practices that could be of benefit to anyone on a spiritual journey.  Joshua has the Israelites create landmarks to commemorate every major event in their communal experience, both the successes and the disappointments.  He also adapts to issues within the community by changing his expectations, and he makes a significant event out of reminding the community of their identity.  All of these practices are demonstrated in chapters 7 and 8, even in the midst of overseeing a violent invasion.

In the story that is told here, Joshua had commanded his men not to take for themselves any of the spoils of war from Jericho, but not everyone listened.  This disobedience resulted in the Israelite soldiers losing a battle against the defending forces of Ai.  Joshua does two noteworthy things in this difficult situation.  First, he punishes the person who went against his orders, as one would expect from a strong military leader.  But the second remarkable thing is that he changes his expectations of the soldiers, commanding that they are free to carry off the livestock and plunder from the next city they attack.  After they are victorious, Joshua arranges for the Israelite community to be reminded of their spiritual and cultural identities in a ceremony that recounted the entirety of the law to which they were committed as a people.

At this ceremony, they left relics of the occasion, just as they had done at every significant event since Joshua's leadership began.  They left piles of rocks when a significant part of their journey was complete, when a city was successfully destroyed, when a member of their community was punished, every time something memorable happened in the life of the Israelite community.  The memorializing of the events presumably made it more difficult to forget them, thus strengthening cultural memory and identity.

Whether or not Joshua was a real person, these are practices that we can adopt in our own lives.  We may not be invading cities or sentencing people who disobey us to death by stoning, but we are all on our own journeys.  We all struggle from time to time with our identities, especially when there are people around us (or an entire society) with conflicting impressions of who we should be.  Standing with conviction about who you are and what you stand for isn't always easy, and it can be helpful to have a few practices in place to reinforce our personal responsibility and integrity.

Just like the Israelites, we occasionally need reminders about who we are.  We get into patterns of behavior that can almost become automatic if we let them.  Sometimes we are susceptible to what other people expect from us, to the point that we may lose our own integrity in the process of living by someone else's expectations.  Taking time to remind ourselves what we believe and what we want our lives to be about can be a powerful reinforcement in our lives, whether it's something we choose to do monthly, weekly, or even daily during times of exceptional duress.  Of course, this requires knowing what we believe and understanding who we want to be in the world, which is really what the journey is about anyway.

Based on our beliefs, we set goals for ourselves.  Sometimes these goals are very intentional and sometimes we are barely conscious of where we are headed.  The more time we spend examining our beliefs and our identities, the more opportunity we have to be aware of what we're expecting of ourselves.  When we encounter challenges, whether those challenges are because of our own capability at the time or because other people aren't doing what we expect or want, it's important not to let those challenges overwhelm us.  The challenges are there to help us hone our beliefs and expectations, not to punish or restrict us.  It may be that we are demanding some unreasonable things from ourselves (or other people), or that our beliefs about ourselves or the world around us are somehow being influenced by our fears.  Whatever the case, the challenges we encounter give us an opportunity to assess what we're making important in our lives, whether our expectations are reasonable, and whether there are some changes we can make to better enable us to have lives built on what matters most to us.

Challenges along the journey are rarely outright roadblocks.  We are capable of adapting to the challenges, refining our sense of who we are, and aligning ourselves more clearly with the truth, beauty, and creativity within us.  Whether we overcome our challenges with ease or we struggle against them, whether we see the immediate results as successes or disappointments, the challenges are worth commemorating.  We may not pile stones around our houses and workplaces, but across the landscape of our lives, we can create markers in our minds for significant events and how those events helped to define who we are and what we believe.  These significant events may be the kinds of things that are similar in everyone's life -- marriages, births, deaths, the plundering of cities -- or they may be things that are significant because of what you learned about yourself.  They landmarks remind us of the pitfalls we have faced and the bridges we have built, and our awareness of them can help prevent fighting the same battles over and over again in our lives.

What we believe may change over time -- if we are growing as human beings, it's likely that our beliefs will grow too -- but what we believe and how those beliefs inform our behavior is always within our control.  We are responsible for the lives we create and the impact we have on other people and the world.  Establishing spiritual landmarks and taking time to remind ourselves who we are helps us be more aware of that personal responsibility, and our willingness to be flexible as we face challenges with integrity keeps us growing in satisfying ways.

It may be that you are unsure what you believe, and that all of this seems rather impractical or unrealistic.  That's a fair critique at this point.  It's easy to say "create spiritual landmarks," and it's a much more difficult thing to clearly explain how one might go about doing that.  The easy answer is that you already know how to remember significant events and that there is no right or wrong way to remind yourself who you are and what is important to you, as long as you are willing to be honest with yourself.  It requires a bit of time away from the distractions of all the other noise -- perhaps a stillness and quiet that can be intimidating if it's unfamiliar.  No one can really tell you who you are or what matters to you. I can say with some confidence that the truth about you is not based on any fears you may have, but rather on a deeper, calmer, quieter place within you.  The moments when you are aware of the deep truth, beauty, and creativity within you or within other people -- these are the moments worth commemorating.  These are the moments that will help you get back to the core of who you are and what matters most in life.


  1. This is interesting because Joshua was leading a group of people, but your saying that we are like Joshua and the Isrealites at the same time, right? If we set our own landmarks and reminders for ourselves, it's like we are leading ourselves in a way, isn't it?

  2. In a sense, I think that's spot on. If the character of the divine stems from within us, then it seems appropriate that at a certain level we serve as our own guides. We still benefit from connection with other people who can teach us and partner with us, but we are ultimately responsible for our own growth.