I stood in the cemetery, looking at the stones with the different names on them, spotting familiar last names that brought up persons whom had been distant memories. There were flags on the graves of those who had served in the military. There were flowers on the more recent ones, and down at the other end were grave markers from the 1800s. I saw years that indicated long life and years that indicated only a few months. Of course, the one place that is special to my wife is the large stone that reads “Weaver.” This is where her grandparents are buried. This is where, each year on Memorial Day her aunt sets up her music stand and plays her trumpet to songs like “Yankee Doodle” and “America the Beautiful” among other selections. I watch as others bring flowers and gather around graves…Lee; McCombie; Coble; some more Weavers, among others.
This year, for the first time, I attended a Memorial Day service featuring “Taps” and a message by a retired minister about the importance of remembering. He told a brief history of Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it has been designated in the past, and then moved on to remind us of the sacrifices of soldiers and their families. He touched on the Vietnam Days and those who didn’t support the war…or the soldiers…and how that trend is thankfully changing…slowly, but it is changing.
My mind wandered a bit as he told stories, and I went to Joshua 3 where the Israelites crossed the Jordan River and they were commanded to place rocks at the place where they crossed as a memorial to God’s action. This happens in several Old Testament stories, and it made me wonder if that is where we get the notion of headstones in our cemeteries. So, a quick search…
These graves were usually marked with rough stones, rocks, or wood, apparently, as a way to keep the dead from rising. (Ok...I thought this line was funny!)
They were mostly marked with the deceased’s name, age, and year of death. Gradually, churchyard burials evolved involving large, square-shaped tombstones prepared from slate (1650-1900) or sandstone (1650-1890). The inscriptions carved on slate used to be shallow yet readable.
Public cemeteries evolved in the 19th century. Eventually, people started giving importance to the gravestones, headstones, footstones, etc. as a means to memorialize the dead. (https://www.iscga.org/history-of-gravestones.html)
Interestingly enough, gravestones can be traced back to ancient civilizations like Egypt, and that could also explain the use of them as memorials by Israel. But what I thought about was not just gravestones, but remembering and how I am trained to look forward and not backwards. We don’t do much remembering or reminiscing do we?
Here I stood in the cemetery and I began to think about my own family, my grandfather who served in the Navy. I remembered, and as I did I started to tear up, longing for just one more conversation with those who in my childhood seemed so large and so wonderful. In that graveyard was the story of our families…and it is the same with all of us. It is a shame that we don’t take the time to ponder, reflect, and tear-up from time to time. Or once a year, just because we get the day off to do it. I have heard it said among Christian circles that the person is on there anyway, so why visit? Well, maybe visiting a graveyard isn’t supposed to benefit the dead, but to benefit us who are living. Maybe when we see the larger story of life, we have a better understanding of the unfolding larger story, and not just the moment.
At one point, we started talking with my mother-in-law and came to the realization that the place we were standing were actually the plots that my wife and I own…we were standing in the place of our burial. That was sobering! Shocking really…and I joked that I wanted to make sure the view was nice! WOW…awkward moment.
It made me wonder who might come and visit my headstone one day. I wonder what the name “Woodall” will mean to those who visit the cemetery and who will plant the flowers and decorate my grave, because my life meant something to them. You see, the day before my daughter and her grandmother went to put flowers on the family graves, and her artistic flare could be seen…her presence definitely known. I’m all about having a good time, enjoying family and friends, and having a great meal—but we must also learn to remember in a sobering and weighty manner that places our lives in the context of larger “Life.” If you haven’t visited a cemetery that matters to you in a while, my homework or challenge for you is to go there and sit by a headstone and remember for a few moments.
“The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming. But again and again we avoid the long thoughts….We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. And why not, after all? We get confused. We need such escape as we can find. But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.” ― Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces
If you are following along with the readings in the Read Scripture App…then you like me might need a visual to go along with all the “inheritances” given out in Joshua last week. So, here is a map to help you see the land given to each tribe, remember of course that the tribe of Levi is only represented through their priestly duties and not assigned land.
Copyright “Accordance Maps Sampler”
Some notable cities would be that Bethlehem is obviously in the tribe of Judah’s inheritance and you can see that Jerusalem is in Benjamin’s land. Also, the small body of water would be the Sea of Galilee and the larger body of water would be the Dead Sea or “Salt Sea” as the scripture refers to it. Connecting the two bodies of water would be the Jordan River. If you have questions, leave them in the comment section and I’ll do my best. Keep reading!
The charge above is the words in Joshua 22:25 which motivated the tribes that settled in Gilead to build an altar to the Lord God. These tribes (Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh) were afraid that their decedents would not be welcomed to worship God with the rest of Israel because they chose to settle outside the Land of Canaan. So, they built an altar. And the other tribes, the ones in Canaan were furious and surprised by this…and so it was time to talk it out. Charged of sinning against the Lord, the leaders of the accused tribes responded:
22:24 “The truth is, we have built this altar because we fear that in the future your descendants will say to ours, ‘What right do you have to worship the Lord, the God of Israel? 25 The Lord has placed the Jordan River as a barrier between our people and you people of Reuben and Gad. You have no claim to the Lord.’ So your descendants may prevent our descendants from worshiping the Lord.
Now, let’s look at this altar…
From the “Canaan” perspective it seems like a dumb idea, one that would anger God and cause division among the people. It wasn’t necessary at all and was considered a betrayal of God. The whole people of Israel was to gather for their offerings and sacrifices in the land of Canaan, and this action was a break in that fellowship.
From the “Gilead" perspective it seemed like a necessary reminder that God had approved these tribes and their desire to settle in this area. They were full participants in the nation of Israel and had full access to God, yet the fear of this access being severed caused them to be creative in preserving their special relationship with God. Thus, they built their own altar as a symbol of their claim to the Lord; especially if some time in the future they face disapproval.
For the tribes in Gilead, the allotment of land on the other side of the Jordan river was a distinctive part of their “witness” or story. And they acted accordingly to not just remember it, but preserve it for future generations both in and out of the tribes.
I have heard the idea that Christianity has tribes, and that we must learn to fellowship and love each other and our distinctive witness to the goodness of God. I think that some tribes in our Christian people seem to find some sort of pleasure in telling others that they “Have No Claim to the Lord.” Yet, a student of church history cannot only be aware of the ways God worked in the different tribes, but can also appreciate their distinctive witness to the Lord’s goodness.
I currently reside in the land of Churches of Christ, and I really like my tribe, but I am also aware that my tribe doesn’t make up the entirety of the people of God. We have a particular witness, and we have a contribution to make to the larger people. However, I pray that we will not be a tribe that charges others with “no claim” and we will work with each of our sister tribes to seek understanding and come to see their “strange altars” as their unique story. We might disagree with he altar, but may we never cut off people from worship of the Lord, the Lord is fully capable of doing that without our help!
Sometimes we come across something in the Bible that just stuns us, like the story of Achan in Joshua 6-7. This guy was an Israelite’s Israelite; from the tribe of Judah, plenty of livestock and a family. The way the Bible describes him is basically saying that he had it all. However, that didn’t really stop him from making a fatal error. You see, the Israelites were told to keep nothing from the city of Jericho…But Achan disobeyed the orders. Chapter 7 starts off by reporting:
1 But Israel violated the instructions about the things set apart for the Lord. A man named Achan had stolen some of these dedicated things, so the Lord was very angry with the Israelites. Achan was the son of Carmi, a descendant of Zimri son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah.
Israel goes to battle against another city, Ai, and they lose; in fact, they are slaughtered by this smaller and less intimidating city. The problem? Achan is the problem. So, Joshua finds out about it and calls Achan out, asking him to tell the truth:
20 Achan replied, “It is true! I have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel. 21 Among the plunder I saw a beautiful robe from Babylon, 200 silver coins, and a bar of gold weighing more than a pound. I wanted them so much that I took them. They are hidden in the ground beneath my tent, with the silver buried deeper than the rest.”
Achan had buried them…and in a fitting but weird response, Israel is now going to bury Achan and his family to respond to the Lord’s anger…
24 Then Joshua and all the Israelites took Achan, the silver, the robe, the bar of gold, his sons, daughters, cattle, donkeys, sheep, goats, tent, and everything he had, and they brought them to the valley of Achor. 25 Then Joshua said to Achan, “Why have you brought trouble on us? The Lord will now bring trouble on you.” And all the Israelites stoned Achan and his family and burned their bodies. 26 They piled a great heap of stones over Achan, which remains to this day. That is why the place has been called the Valley of Trouble ever since. So the Lord was no longer angry.
It was simple really, don’t bring anything back from a city that was known for its corruption and injustice. God wanted nothing to do with it and God wanted his people to have nothing to do with it. The one person rescued from the fall of Jericho was Rahab, a prostitute of the city who had faith in God and hid the spies. She risked her life to be saved, but what life did she really have in Jericho anyway? She (and her family with her) was the only person or thing worth saving from that city, God had made that clear.
So often we ask why God would do such horrific things. I mean, to destroy a family like this. Why does God react harshly? Is this fair? The questions can be asked and should be asked, but what about trusting God? What about obedience, contentment, and community? Achan’s issue wasn’t a robe, some silver, and a gold bar. Achan forgot the giver of everything he had; Achan was from the tribe of Judah, a rich man, a family man, and he “wanted them so much that he took them.” WHY? What good did he think they would do buried in the ground?
Here’s the problem, I see myself in Achan. What’s the back-up plan if this all fails? Can I really trust God? I lose sight of all God has given me because my focus is on more stuff. And the truth is, if I’m honest, that in the midst of my rebellion and sin, my family, community, and friends are in one way or another “destroyed.” Maybe not by stoning like in this story, but those I love are destroyed because my discontentment breaks relationships, hinders faith development, and kills authentic community. To end in a somewhat meaningful pun: when I find that I am Achan, may the pain of my sin trigger my repentance and return to trusting God.
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.