Why this land is not ours

Sean Winter

By Rev Dr Sean Winter, Head of College, Pilgrim Theological College

Debates about border protection and the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers show no signs of going away.

In the midst of the political rhetoric, and despite the obvious and real challenges that face politicians, it is important to remember the longer story to which our present moment belongs.

Remembering the longer story, and reminding others of the difference it makes, is what people of faith do.

The prophet Jeremiah undertook this task on behalf of the people of Israel. In Jeremiah 2:4–13 he alludes to memories of Israel’s journey to “a plentiful land” full of “fruits and good things”.

Israel is marked out as a nation formed by settlement. They have left one land and entered another: from Egypt, via a long journey full of trials, to a place they came to call home.

But settlement brings forgetfulness. Jeremiah castigates the people for failing to remember their story and God’s role in it. “They went far from me”, declares God through the prophet, “they went after worthless things” and “they did not say ‘Where is the LORD?’ (Jer 2:6).

This missing question suggests a fading memory, and a truth that is growing ever more distant. The land you call home never belonged to you. It is a home you have been given, or taken, or both.

Jeremiah then hears God make a final challenge. It’s not just forgetfulness that is the problem, it’s the moral vacuum that is left, and which gets filled with something else. The imagery is striking:

“They have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jer 2:13)

Forgetting the God who led them to the land, Israel now gets on with the work of nation-building and resource management.

Water was crucial and the prophet imagines the people ignoring that God has provided more than enough and working instead to capture and keep water for themselves.

They build cisterns or wells, hewn from the land they have been given. This suggests a new story of entitlement.

Israel takes what is freely given, and keeps it for itself. A cistern can be guarded, hidden, controlled and possessed.

While, theoretically, the building of cisterns to keep water appears to be a sensible and positive strategy, Jeremiah views this in unequivocally negative terms.

The Hebrew word used here (bõr) sometimes denotes a place of imprisonment and death. Joseph is thrown into a cistern and left for dead (Gen 37:20) and the word is used as a synonym for the place of the dead, Sheol (Isa 14:15).

You have received freedom, God seems to say, but you end up building prisons. This attempt to protect and secure will end in disaster. The cisterns will be cracked, broken, and ultimately there will be no water left. This is a word of judgment, pointing Israel to the need to remember the longer story of which they are a part.

It is no large leap to say there is an Australian version of this story and that forgetting it will inevitably bring God’s judgment. This is a nation that exists in the form it does because people from other lands have travelled here and made a home.

This is a nation built on the occupation of land that was first a home for others. And any nation with that story, which then proceeds to protect resources and restrict access, stands at significant risk of finding everything it has built will start to crack.

This land is not ours. It was only given to us to the extent that it was taken from others. To seal it off from the possibility that others can seek their freedom here is to invite heaven itself to be appalled at what we have done.

Look for more columns like this in April’s Crosslight, which is out next week. 

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