The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year. Joshua 5:12
After Israel crossed the Jordan River into the land God promised them, a rich land “flowing with milk and honey,” (Joshua 5:6), the entire nation renewed its covenant with God in a mass ritual of circumcision (Joshua 5:2-9). The people celebrated the Passover in the land of promise (Joshua 5:10-11) and then the manna on which they once lived ceased. The people went from eating “what’s it” (my translation of manna) to eating the ordinary fruit of the land they were about to conquer.
A Fresh Start
How high their hopes must have been. God had led them through the wilderness, miraculously provided for their needs and delivered them from all their enemies. He had opened a way across the Jordan as he had opened a way through the sea for their ancestors. Unfortunately, their ancestors had rebelled against God even though they had seen his mighty acts of power. The rebellious generation was now dead. The members of this new generation committed themselves to to being the people their parents failed to be.
But then the manna stopped. For Israel, this verse marks the transition from God’s supernatural provision of the basic “bread of life” to a richer, more varied diet obtained by the sweat of one’s brow on land obtained – if one keeps reading in Joshua – at the point of a sword. This transition involves more than diet: economics, politics, religion, and the entire social order are involved. The nomads are becoming farmers. The wild bunch is becoming civilized. (Whatever else you might say about this passage, the biblical record of God’s dealings with humankind show marked changes in the nature of that relationship at several points in history.)
This generation would have to learn to be faithful in entirely new circumstances. After Israel crossed the Jordan, God said to them, “It’s time to take some additional responsibility for your own lives.” Although they had not exactly mastered the art of faithful living in the wilderness when God provided everything, it was time to grow up a little. God’s providential care would now be found not in manna from heaven, but in the produce of the land they settled and in the battlefield victories God would bring.
I imagine that there were some who missed the days of manna and journeying in the desert. Settling down, settling into a routine, laboring in the same fields year after year, learning to live in peace (or in war) with one’s neighbor, building the institutions of civil society, exercising the powers and duties that come with life in the civil community: all of this was quite different from desert life. Some would long for the wild, peripatetic days of life on the edge of civilized society. Some would not take easily to the routine and responsibility of settled life. I’m sure that it seemed boring to many of that generation (even if the food was more interesting).
The Beginnings of Tragedy
The Joshua story is part of a much larger structure that includes the later books of Judges, Samuel and Kings. The author knows how this story will end. Some amazing things will happen as the story works itself out. By the power of God, the little band of desert wanderers will become a mighty nation but … and that’s the important word … the people will also become proud, self-centered, self-absorbed, and hungry for power and wealth. Time and again, the people show themselves to be unfaithful, and the consequences are disastrous.
Were it not for the grace of God, the story of Israel would be pure tragedy. There is nothing in the story, however, that suggests that settling down to become farmers instead of nomads was the real cause of Israel’s problem. Israel’s history shows that nomads are just as sinful as farmers. The problem of sin, however, took on new dimensions in Israel’s new way of life.
Can We See Ourselves?
For those of us trying to live faithful lives in a land flowing with milk and honey, the story of Israel at the Jordan is a reminder of our own hopes and of the promises we made when we entered the land of responsibility. We were going to do it better than those who came before us, those folks who made such a mess of things. We would take our faith into the world without succumbing to temptation, neither straying to the left nor the right from the path God set for us. It turned out to be a lot more difficult than we thought. Sometimes (well, much more frequently than we would like to admit), we acted out of self interest. Sometimes we just got lost trying to figure it all out. How we wish we could go back to where it all began.
We can’t go back to the simplicity of the desert. We learned there that we aren’t always faithful, even when life is relatively simple. We can’t even go back to be with Joshua at the Jordan River to start all over again, with the hope that maybe we will get it right this time.
Shall We Gather at the River?
Something else happened at that same river, however, some 1100 years after the manna stopped. A man in prophet’s clothing baptized another man, whom, he claimed, would take away the sin of the world. If the story of the Jordan River crossing is a reminder of my entanglement in sin, this season of Lent is a reminder that my righteousness is found in Christ alone.
We do long for the day when the world will be “all grown up.” We want to taste all the treats that God’s creation has to offer, but we also want to stay in life-giving fellowship with the giver of all these good gifts. That day will come. By the power of the power of the Holy Spirit, we may experience a little of that day even now.
And if we ever have to choose between the giver and the gift, between the God who brought us to this land and the milk and honey it offers, let us choose God.