Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Joshua 9) transports me to the wonderful world of Mulla Nasreddin, the originator of thousands of folk stories that are the Middle East’s equivalent of Jack Tales or Aesop’s Fables. The Sufis are especially fond of swapping Nasreddin stories, which often put the Mulla in the role of trickster, pulling the wool over some authority’s eyes. Donkeys play a key role in many of the stories. In one tale, Nasreddin gets up one morning and takes his donkey, laden with straw, across the border. A border guard suspects him of smuggling, and stops him. He carefully examines the straw on the donkey’s back, but finds no hidden contraband. This happens the next morning, and the next, and the next. Day after day the suspicious border guard accuses Nasreddin of smuggling, but much to his dismay finds no evidence in the straw. Over time, Nasreddin begins to show signs of wealth, in the clothes he wears, the food he eats, the houses he builds. Finally, after many years pass and the elderly border guard has retired, he knocks on Nasreddin’s door. I know you were smuggling, he said, but I cannot figure out what. Will you tell me now? The Mulla smiles and nods his head, responding, Of course, I was smuggling donkeys.
Mulla Nasreddin, who lived in the Middle Ages, was not the first to find ample material for story-telling in the lives of donkeys. Thirteen centuries earlier, the first Christians loved telling the story of Jesus riding the donkey into town. Jesus got his idea for this living parable from the prophet Zecharia who wrote the donkey parody five centuries earlier. And a thousand years before Zechariah, we have the story of some Gibeonites who used their donkeys as part of a theatrical ruse to fool Moses’ successor, Joshua. The Hebrew conquistador was fresh off a campaign to wipe out all the inhabitants of the Promised Land, with routs of Jericho and Ai that had left no survivors. The various potentates of Canaan and surrounding lands decided to join forces and confront the new threat with their combined military might, but the Gibeonites had other ideas. They were not excited about the prospects of a new world war, so they resorted to a ruse, as the NIV puts it. Enter the donkeys, which they loaded with stuff they found dumpster diving – worn out sacks, cracked wineskins. The Gibeonite costumes were much the same – patched clothing and worn out sandals. Their food supply was the rough rations of dry and moldy bread. They went to Joshua and his army and claimed to be weary and worn travelers from a distant country, and were hoping to enter into a treaty. They laid it on thick, speaking of the fame of Joshua and how their elders had instructed them to come all this way to seek out an alliance. Joshua and his men fell for it, and made a treaty, promising them a peaceful relationship in perpetuity. Three days later, Joshua went to wage war and slaughter the neighboring Gibeonites, only to find out these were the very people he had made peace with. He had been had. As a recourse, Joshua consigned the Gibeonites to what must have been some of the more difficult and less glamorous work details – wood cutting and water carrying – but in the end, the people of Gibeon survived, which was more than could be said for the people of Jericho and Ai and other conquered cities. The Jews and the Gibeonites had to learn to co-exist, to live together and work together and survive together. The land of promise, as it turns out, included the promise of peaceful co-existence. They had some donkeys to thank for it.
In our world of constant warfare where cultures clash and neighboring nations suffer under the false premise that they cannot endure the others presence, sometimes it takes the tricksters to pull off a ruse that will lead to a peaceful co-existence. The Gibeonites knew that, and saddled their donkeys with stuff Good Will would have rejected in order to survive the slaughter of conquest. Jesus knew that, and parodied the pomp and circumstance of royalty by riding in on a donkey to call people away from militarism. If we are going to take our cues from the Gibeonites and Jesus and learn how to live together amidst a highly conflicted world bent on conquest, maybe we’d better read some more Mulla Nasreddin stories. Or watch some Hee Haw and Shrek.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.