As every year since 1948, Israel this week celebrates Independence Day for the 75th time. A major part of the day is remembering our fallen soldiers and the high price we have to pay to live in our own sovereign country, a free and independent Jewish state.
And even though our land was promised by God, we still needed to conquer it. From a biblical point of view, this was a liberation of the Promised Land. In the eyes of the Palestinians, however, it was an illegal conquest.
Israel has lost 23,816 sons and daughters, mothers and fathers in wars since the restoration of the Land to the Jewish people. Blood had to be shed in order to redeem the Land, and every single day another Israeli sacrifices his or her life in perpetuating the fulfillment of God’s promise.
Independence days in the Bible
Independence Day celebrations are nothing new. Already in biblical times the people of Israel celebrated their first Independence Day after Joshua successfully conquered the Promised Land. In his case, too, it was a liberation, though to the people who lived here at the time, it seemed like a foreign invasion.
Joshua Ben Nun was, so to speak, the chief of staff of the Israeli security forces, which, according to the Scriptures, waged war against the 31 kings of Canaan and captured the country in fulfillment of the promises of God. Joshua was a brilliant strategist and army commander able to defeat powerful armies.
In these wars, too, many Israelis lost their lives, as did the people on the other side. I can well imagine that both grief and joy were experienced during those ancient independence days, just as Israelis today grapple with those seemingly opposing emotions every spring.
It’s the same today
Back then Joshua divided the Land among the Twelve Tribes and settled it from the north near Tel Dan to the south in the Negev. We can see a similar process under David Ben Gurion, who ensured that both the fertile land and the Negev Desert would be settled.
In the Book of Joshua (chapters 23 and 24) the ceremony of the first Independence Day of the children of Israel in the Land is described. After Joshua had completed his mission and fulfilled God’s promise by conquering the Land, he gathered “all the tribes of Israel at Shechem. He summoned the elders, leaders, judges and officials of Israel, and they presented themselves before God” between the Mountain of Blessings and the Mountain of Curses.
Then after a long speech in which he reminds the people why God chose their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as His people, Joshua retells the story of the many miracles God performed not their behalf during the journey through the desert to the Promised Land. “I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove them out before you also the two Amorite kings. So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant” (Josh 24:12-13). God took the Land from foreign peoples to give to Israel. Today, of course, people would say that God had violated international law by giving the Land to Israel. Even back then this was controversial and triggered a conflict.
Just as in those days, the leaders of Israel remind us every year on Independence Day of the miracles of God which the people of Israel experienced on their way from exile back to the Promised Land. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is especially eager to talk about God’s promises in addressing the UN General Assembly, where he likes to justify Israel’s sovereignty by reminding the world of the biblical mandate.
The highlight of Joshua’s Independence Day celebration is when God renews the covenant with His people Israel. God’s promise to Abraham of the Land became a reality through his seed, and Joshua addresses the people at this historic moment to ensure that the covenant between God and the people of Israel will last forever.
In his speech, Joshua points to the differences between Israel and the other nations that worship idols, and in doing so he sharpens Israel’s sense of calling, her national identity and the narrative of a people chosen, all still relevant and crucial truths for today. He also emphasizes the point that faith in God is essential to their story and raises the existential question that has accompanied the history of Israel until this day: “Are the people of Israel like all other nations or must Israel retain its uniqueness from among the other nations?” Every year this question underlies the Independence Day celebration in Israel: “Why has God restored the Land to us at this time?”
Joshua asks the people three times if they are sure they know what they want, and the people reply, “We will serve the Lord our God and obey His voice” (Josh 24:24). After the first Independence Day celebration in Eretz Israel was over, Joshua’s task was also completed. He died at the age of 110 and was buried at Mount Ephraim. But we still celebrate in our country every year and we are still challenged to respond to the same questions about our calling and the privileges and responsibility that come with living in the Land of Israel today.
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