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Saturday, September 10, 2016

Lost Territory

“Here’s what God has given you. All you have to do is go and take possession of it. So what’s holding you up?”

In essence, this is Joshua’s message to the last seven tribes of Israel. Having established themselves as a nation in Canaan by taking 31 hostile cities in a relatively short period, it only remained to settle the rest of the people in their God-given inheritance. No Canaanite king or combination of kings ruling in the territory nearby was strong enough to push Israel back into the wilderness and deny them the Promised Land. All they had to do was finish the job, which would require each tribe to win a series of minor conquests — skirmishes, really, compared to what they had been through already.

Previously they had won battles as a nation. Now Joshua would see what the individual tribes were really made of.

So Joshua had men pass up and down through the land and look things over and write a description of what they saw in a book, after which Joshua cast lots to determine which tribe should get which allotment.

The Inheritance of the Seventh Tribe

The final lot, the seventh, was for the tribe of Dan. And the list of places Dan had to conquer to claim their God-given territory was quite specific, and just as unpronounceable as all the other places in Canaan that Israel had previously conquered:
“The seventh lot came out for the tribe of the people of Dan, according to their clans. And the territory of its inheritance included Zorah, Eshtaol, Ir-shemesh, Shaalabbin, Aijalon, Ithlah, Elon, Timnah, Ekron, Eltekeh, Gibbethon, Baalath, Jehud, Bene-berak, Gath-rimmon, and Me-jarkon and Rakkon with the territory over against Joppa.”
So the people of Dan had their list. Dan was assigned a chunk of territory adjoining Ephraim, bordering the Mediterranean. But while the Danites initially took possession of the territory assigned to them, their victory did not last long. The Amorites pushed them back into the hill country and they were unable to hold their alloted territory. The men of Dan had the reputation of being warriors (Moses called Dan a “lion’s whelp”), but they do not have a consistent track record of solo victory in the books of Joshua and Judges to show for it. Even the Amorites in their territory who were eventually subjected to forced labor were subdued by the neighbouring tribes, not by Dan.

Other tribes also failed to hold some of the territory assigned to them, but it seems only Dan failed in the long term to hold any of it.

A Peaceful People in an Isolated City

Eventually, despite having had a very specific piece of land assigned to them, the people of Dan ended up living somewhere else entirely:
“When the territory of the people of Dan was lost to them, the people of Dan went up and fought against Leshem, and after capturing it and striking it with the sword they took possession of it and settled in it, calling Leshem, Dan, after the name of Dan their ancestor. This is the inheritance of the tribe of the people of Dan, according to their clans — these cities with their villages.”
The full story may be found in Judges 18, and it’s not a pretty one. Leshem is a city also called Laish, in the extreme north of Israel’s territorial allotment, inland from Tyre and ethnically Sidonian. Basically the Danites massacred a peaceful people living in a city far from Dan’s assigned territory and took their land. In doing so, they also became the first idolatrous tribe in Israel. Instead of a whole tribal territory, Dan ended up with a single city, isolated from their fellow tribes and characterized by the worship of “household gods” they had stolen from an Ephraimite on their journey north.

What’s In a Name?

But notice what they did. They renamed the city “Dan”, after the name of their ancestor. By changing the meaning of “Dan”, they accomplished the task of possessing a territory for themselves.

Except it wasn’t the territory God had assigned them. It was approximately 100 km north of their tribal lot. And instead of 17 cities, they had one. And instead of being God’s instrument of judgment on the wicked Canaanites, they murdered what were very probably peaceful Phoenicians.

But they called their conquest “Dan”, so that’s okay then.

Not really. Changing a name doesn’t change anything about the essence of what we’re doing. Moving the goalposts doesn’t make everything alright. It doesn’t win us back any of that lost territory.

It didn’t work for Dan, and it doesn’t work in the church today.

Names that Don’t Reflect Reality

Feminism may be as intimidating an enemy as the Amorites, but referring to functional equality in the Christian household as “headship” doesn’t make it into a biblical authority structure. It just means we have abandoned territory that once belonged to us because we found it too hard to hold.

Likewise, calling a seminary graduate a “pastor” doesn’t make him one if his character, gifts, desires and set of responsibilities are not those of a New Testament shepherd. Titles and salaries do not make a man genuinely called and equipped by God.

Even in those churches that reject clerisy, simply labeling a man an “elder” so we have a name and phone number to put in the church bulletin doesn’t equip him for the task before him. If he fails to meet the criteria laid down by the apostle Paul he is not an elder, no matter what we may call him.

Again, calling ourselves “Protestant” when we have established an order of church business not so terribly different from that which we originally protested is simply a misnomer, and even calling ourselves “evangelical” is a bit of a joke if we don’t actually do any witnessing outside our own halls and auditoriums.

For that matter, calling the Lord “Lord” is a bit of a mischaracterization if we aren’t doing the things he taught us to do.

A name doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t reflect reality.

Back to the Lost Territory

What we need to do today is the same thing those Danites needed to do: go back to their to-do list and work their way down. Find our original instructions and follow them.

If we are unwilling to do that, we can hardly claim to have been shortchanged when our present “inheritance” turns out to be a bit of a disappointment, while the lost territory we gave up on turns out most satisfactory for those who are willing to take it and hold it.

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