On the Edge of Promise: The Liberating Power of Boundaries
Sunday, March 25, 2007
Numbers 34: 1-12
Lent we are focusing on the journey of the Israelites from slavery in
It is my belief that the story of the Israelites journey from slavery to freedom is paradigmatic – that is, it is the story not only of the Israelites in the Bible, but the story of every freedom movement, the story of every congregation engaging in ministry, the story of every society being born, and it is my story and your story.
So the question really is what keeps us stuck on the edge of our promise, and what do we need to do to finally make it across into our Promised Lands.
Book of Numbers, Chapter 13, tells the story of God’s original plan to lead
the Israelites into the Promised Land two years after they had left
So God decided in Numbers 14 that it will take a new generation to make it into the Promised Land.
The later part of the Book of Numbers, the Book of Deuteronomy and the very beginning of the Book of Joshua – the end of the 4th, the 5th, and the beginning of the 6th books of the Bible – describe what finally needs to happen 40 years later for the Israelites to make it to their Promised Land.
Two weeks ago we looked at Numbers 20 – the death of Aaron. Aaron was the Israelites’ symbol of artificial community – their wish/dream that community is possible without strife, without struggle, without tension. The Israelites’ had to let go of the fantasy that freedom and community were possible without strife and conflict.
week we are looking at Numbers, chapter 34. In Numbers 34 another necessary
thing happens if the Israelites are going to make it into the Promised Land.
God, in significant detail, lays out for the Israelites the boundaries of the
Promised Land. And, immediately after this, God sets up a process to
determine the boundaries of the areas to be occupied by each of the tribes of
In order for the Israelites to make it over the edge of promise into the Promised Land, they need to know the boundaries both inside and outside their Promised Land.
Boundaries are a difficult topic…a fascinating topic, but not an easy one. Boundaries are often seen as negatives – and for good reason because often boundaries do become negative. They become ways of trying to maintain and secure injustices.
Obviously, when we believe we need to build a $2 billion, 700-mile-long fence to keep people out, we have a boundary problem. If you’ve got a boundary that it takes you billions of dollars to defend, you clearly have a problematic boundary. If on one side of the boundary the average family income is more than $30,000 a year, and on the other side, the average family income is under $4,000, I doubt any fence can be tall or long enough to ultimately defend that boundary. People will figure out how to get to where the food is. Sometimes we try to use boundaries to secure and defend injustices, and this is one of the reasons we tend to think negatively about boundaries.
Boundaries are sometimes used to maintain ignorance and hatred…to defend against communication and understanding. These were the boundaries that Jesus Christ broke through. Ephesians 3:14 says of Jesus:
“For he is our peace; in his flesh he has…has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
Boundaries can be used to try to maintain hostility and separation and ignorance. This is another reason we tend to think negatively about boundaries.
But if the Old Testament story of the Israelites and the Promised Land is paradigmatic, not all boundaries are negative. Boundaries do not essentially exist to secure injustice or ignorance or hostility. These are perversions of healthy boundaries, not the essential nature of boundaries.
Numbers 34 suggests that boundaries were necessary for the Israelites to enter into the Promised Land – boundaries both of the limits of the Promised Land and boundaries within the Promised Land. And the Israelites needed to know the boundaries before they could claim their Promised Land.
I want us to think about why boundaries are necessary to enter the Promised Land: Why are boundaries necessary for the Israelites to claim their Promised Land?
The reason, I think, is this – without boundaries there can be no “other.” And without boundaries, we cannot be the “other.” And without others, there can be no Promised Land.
Without boundaries there can be no “other.” And without “others” there can be no Promised Land. God’s promise to the Israelites and to us is never selfish. It is never for our own sake alone but always for the sake of ourselves and others.
Without boundaries there can be no “others.” Without others there can be no community, no equality, no justice, no freedom, no Promised Land.
One of the things that kept the Israelites in the wilderness at the edge of promise for 40 years was that they did not want to be the “other.” They resisted and tried to escape the loneliness of otherness. One of the things that keeps us at our edge of promise is that we don’t want to be the “other” either in our lives and world. We want to avoid and escape the loneliness of otherness.
But there is no Promised Land without the “other” and we can not claim our Promised Lands unless we are willing to be the “other.”
Boundaries are always about where we end and the other begins, and one of the things we need to do to claim our Promised Land is to be willing to face the loneliness of being an “other.”
This is true in our committed relationships and marriages. Many romantic relationships begin as infatuation. Infatuation is an attempt to escape the loneliness of otherness.
I was intrigued by the Wikipedia definition of infatuation. Let me read it to you:
“Infatuation: the state of being completely carried away by unreasoning passion or love; addictive love. Infatuation usually occurs at the beginning of relationship when sexual attraction is central. It is characterized by urgency, intensity, sexual desire, and anxiety, in which there is an extreme absorption in another. The relationship may have insecurity, distrust, lack of confidence, and the feeling of being threatened. There may be nagging doubts and unanswered questions, so the partner remains unexamined so as not to spoil the dream. Infatuation is based on fantasy and is often consuming and exhausting. It contributes to low self-esteem because the person looks to the partner for validation and affirmation of self worth. Both people need the other in order to feel complete, and feel discomfort with individual differences. Sometimes both people tear down or criticize each other. Partners may rush into things, like sex or marriage, and they have a strong sense of urgency so as not to lose their partner. One person is threatened by the other's individual growth, so the relationship may not be enduring, because it lacks firm foundation. Infatuation can be part of learning about love. Some relationships that begin as infatuation later develop into love. However, relationships built solely on infatuation usually do not work out well. They usually end when the fantasies on which they are built fade away.”[i]
You get a sense whoever wrote this has been there? Infatuation is the attempt to escape the loneliness of otherness.
But the psychologist Jane Adams in her book Boundary Issues says true “intimacy is about letting our real self be known – not the ‘as if’ self, the false self, the pseudoself we may have developed in childhood to earn a parent’s love or approval, or even the disguised self other people want us or need us to be, but our authentic warts-and-all self.”[ii]
Rabbi Martin Buber said long ago that “all real living is meeting” and it can only happen between an “I” and a “thou,” only between others.[iii]
We cannot get to the Promised Land unless we are willing to be “other.” Boundaries are the recognition that there is a place we end and the “other” begins.
Yes, boundaries can be used to try to keep others oppressed, but I suspect a more dangerous and subtle form of oppression is one that refuses to recognize boundaries as a way of refusing to recognize the “other.”
Perhaps the most difficult part of any emerging freedom movement is the recognition that those seeking freedom and those trying to defend the status quo are “others.”
This is the reason that white people during the civil rights movement believed the movement was the work of outside agitators. They insisted that it could not be “our Negroes” who feel this way. In a review of Jason Sokol’s book There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, Clay Risen says: “Most whites believed that all involved, of both races, understood the importance of maintaining a system of white supremacy. They were less outraged than shocked over the emergence, seemingly overnight, of a homegrown civil rights movement because they had understood blacks’ ‘veneer of deference’ as a sign of racial harmony. They could not comprehend why their maids and farmhands suddenly wanted life to be any different.”[iv]
Risen entitled his review “‘Our Negroes’ No More.” Before the civil rights movement African-Americans were viewed as “Our Negroes,” an extension of ourselves, part of us.
But it was not only true that white people had a hard time allowing African-Americans their space and place as “other,” it was also exceedingly difficult for African-Americans. Taylor Branch reports that “practically none of the former bus riders would tell a white person that they thought the boycott was a good idea…[they would say instead] that their normal bus had ‘broken down’ that day, or they were just walking for medical reasons, or, in a pinch that they just stay off the buses and leave the boycott alone.”[v]
What courage it took for African-Americans to increasingly claim their identity, their otherness, to people they had been taught to treat as though they belonged to them at the risk of their very lives.
Perhaps the hardest part of any freedom movement is the loneliness of acknowledging otherness. But there is no Promised Land without willingness to be “other.” The only way to the Promised Land is through the lonely valley of “otherness.”
One of my Lenten exercises this year has been to read and think about war every day. It occurs to me that one way to understand war is that it is a revolt against being “other.” It is an attempt to violently destroy otherness. But otherness will never go away. If we destroy an “other,” otherness will emerge somewhere else. Peace can never be won by destroying the other but only by learning to live with otherness.
I saw a book in a bookstore years ago. I didn’t buy it but I will never forget its title. The title was No is a Complete Sentence. If we can’t say no, we can’t say yes. If we don’t have boundaries, we can’t be in community. If we can’t be other, there can be no Promised Land of community and freedom.
There can be no love without loneliness. This is just as true in our relationship to God as to others. Some of our religious experiences are really infatuations with God – attempts to dissolve the boundaries between ourselves and God...to become one with God…to be absorbed into God. Like infatuation before any love, this is okay, heady stuff actually, but what God really longs for is a loving relationship between others…a relationship in which we walk humbly with one another toward a Promised Land of community, inclusion and justice.
[ii] Jane Adams, Boundary Issues (John Wiley and Sons, Inc.), 108.
[iii] Martin Buber, I and Thou (Free Press), p. 11.
[v] Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters (Simon and Schuster), 154-5