Monday was a holiday–of sorts. When I was young, it was unambiguously Columbus Day: we celebrated the day Columbus “discovered” America and most of us had off from school. Now, in many places–though not everywhere–the day is commemorated as “Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” but somewhat uneasily, I think, depending on where you live.
I asked a friend of mine what her school-age children here in Adams County, PA were taught about this day, and she told me that not much was said about it at all. This shouldn’t be too surprising–avoidance is a tried-and-true human coping mechanism in the face of a complicated, difficult and contested situation.
Because of a confluence on the calendar, I was thinking about all this in conjunction with Yom Kippur [see last week’s post], which just concluded on Oct. 9th. Both of these commemorations have a great deal to do with land, with identity and with blessing. And, in my view, both also illustrate the dangers that are possible when one chooses to uncritically appropriate God’s blessing for oneself, and either intentionally or unintentionally exclude others and put them on the outside, as “other.”
With all of this as background, then, I want to share a few verses from Deuteronomy, and some commentary from The Peoples’ Bible, which I found useful and helpful in this context. I hope you find it all helpful, too, in your own thinking about identity and blessing.
Here is the first set of verses, from Deuteronomy 6:4-9: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Then, some commentary: “These themes [of oneness and distinctiveness] can be understood as an exercise in constructing identity. To be Israel, the people must, on the one hand, be wholly dedicated to the LORD, and on the other they must distinguish themselves from the practices of other peoples. Group identity is created through the erection of cultural and religious boundaries…Establishing and maintaining cultural identity is a necessary and sometimes problematic business. There is a fine line between creating group boundaries to preserve a cultural heritage and erecting walls or fences to keep others out.” Culture, the commentary, concludes, has a “double-edged nature.”
Here is the second set of verses, from Deuteronomy 7:1-6: “When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you— and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.”
And again, some commentary: “Although it is not unusual today to hear characterization of Islam as a violent religion, those who treasure the Bible as sacred scripture might well consider that in several places the Qur’an places strict limits on the resort to violence and force. On the other hand, in Deuteronomy God is represented as commanding wholesale slaughter of a people….No one is to be spared, and the indigenous culture of Canaan is to be obliterated as well. The book of Judges, and archaeological evidence as well, show that in fact the Hebrews did not carry out such complete and wholesale destruction Some scholars suggest that these commands represent the ‘wishful thinking’ of later scribes who lament the residual practices of ancient Canaanite religion; but wistful or not, the commands to slaughter others in the name of God have had disastrous consequence in history–most notably in the destruction of native American peoples and the eradication of their cultures in a continent that many of the Europeans regarded as a ‘New Canaan’.”