The Book of Joshua and the American “Promised Land”

Sometime this month, in May of 1731, the Ecclesiastical Society of New Canaan, Connecticut was established, the forerunner to the town of New Canaan. It is worth noting simply because of its name and what it says about the mindset of early settlers. They saw their community as the New Canaan–the New Promised Land. They and many, many other new arrivals, took the story of God’s promise to Israel in the Hebrew scriptures and made it a divine promise that also applied to America.

This brings us to the first book review of this blog: Joshua in 3-D: A Commentary on Biblical Conquest and Manifest Destiny, by Ashland Seminary Professor L. Daniel Hawk. The book explores the Book of Joshua in detail, both in the Jewish context and in the American context. He writes about the parallels between how Europeans legitimized their taking of land in the “New World” with Israel’s  conquest of Canaan. In summing up the book, he writes:

Following the Puritan idea that the New World is a New Canaan, the idea that the United States is a “new Israel” has exerted a powerful influence on American self understanding. It does not seem to have occurred to many Americans, until recently, that the connection may be spurious and that European claims to the New World might, in fact, have no moral legitimacy.

The book title, Joshua in 3-D refers to the three dimensions of analysis that Hawk uses. In the first dimension, he analyzes the text of Joshua chapter by chapter. (This is interesting if you are into textual analysis, but might be dry for some. You can scan this part.) The second dimension puts the Book of Joshua in the context of broader biblical themes. In exploring these themes, he writes:

We can discern two opposing voices in Joshua … A dominant voice trumpets claims of ethnic superiority, military triumphalism, national idealism, divine destiny, and the conviction that Yahweh’s might makes right … A subtle voice, however, whispers as the domineering voice shouts.  … The voice speaks of a larger vision of Israelite identity, one that dismantles Israel’s us/them ethnic consciousness, portrays all peoples–invaders and indigenous alike–as recipients of God’s mercy.

The third dimension puts the Book of Joshua in the context of the American story. He writes:

The idea that the United States is a light to the nations, a beacon of freedom, and a refuge for the oppressed is deeply embedded in the American psyche. Yet Christianity also aided and abetted the dispossession, ethic cleansing, and, in many cases, extermination of the indigenous peoples of what is now the United States. … The program was made possible by a dehumanization of the indigenous peoples that viewed the great diversity of cultures and nations simply as “savages”. The desire to annihilate Native peoples was so strong that many indigenous peoples continued to suffer loss of land and violence even after they had been “Christianized” and “civilized.” Manifest Destiny is the voice that thunders in America’s memory. Very few have heard the whisper: the opposing voice that speaks with sorrow.

You don’t need to be a seminary student or a pastor to read this book. But (again) it can bog down in spots on analyzing particular passages. Just skip ahead to the narratives that touch on the bigger themes.

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