Promised Land

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you … and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.” (Deuteronomy 7:1–2)

The day starts as nearly all of them have: with a few whimpering cries of hunger, quickly muted by the satisfying provision of a full and generous breast. Looking up, he sees his mother wearily rubbing a pair of eyes that struggle to remain open. The dim light of the fire dances gently upon her brown and weathered skin, a yawn stretching across her face.

Outside, the village is still in slumber. In a short time, the sun will begin to creep above the horizon and the world will come to life. Birds taking up their songs. Craftsmen beginning their work. Children picking up their games from the previous day. But for now, silence.

These are consistent, familiar moments. In a brief life flooded with new discoveries and strange experiences and sensory revelations, these quiet mornings with his mother are pleasantly predictable. They have come to anchor his brief existence in the bedrock of intimacy and love. He knows very little about the world. But he knows that with her, he is safe.

She pulls his body closer to her own, and he savors the warmth of her skin in the cool morning air. He eats leisurely, and she shows no signs of hurrying him along. The rest of the day can wait. She strokes his dark hair and meets his gaze with a loving smile.

He is oblivious to how the mere fact of his existence still strikes her as nothing short of miraculous. Years had come and gone, and she had nearly given up on the possibility of motherhood. Babies abounded for her sisters, her cousins, her neighbors. But for her, only bitterness. Her prayers, once fervent and trusting, had grown rote and formulaic. Was there anyone to hear them? Was there anyone to answer them? Was there any point in continuing to hope?

And then, everything changed. Her despondency was lifted by the unexpected transformations in her body as it began the strange and sacred work of forming another. She remembers gazing daily at her growing belly in complete wonder, a wonder that nevertheless feels paltry in comparison to what she now enjoys as she holds the tiny child in her arms.

He, of course, knows nothing of these feelings. Nor does he care. The things he needs to know, he knows with tactile certainty. The sound of her voice, the scent of her skin, the feel of her heartbeat. He spent nine months as a part of her body. In many ways, he still is.

After several minutes, the urgency of his hunger begins to subside. His eating begins to grow listless and lazy. Even at this quiet hour, distractions clamor for his attention. He watches the flickering light on the wall. He lifts up his feet and feels the soft skin on the bottom of his toes. He blows wet bubbles with his lips.

He doesn’t, however, hear the faint sound of a scream in the distance.

His mother does, and her body tenses in response. She holds her breath and strains to listen. Perplexed, he watches the concentration on her face. When the second scream arrives, he hears it clearly. This one is much closer, and it is immediately followed by boisterous shouts in a language neither he nor his mother recognize.

Instinctively, she curls herself around his fragile frame and retreats into the corner. She whispers into his ear, urging him to remain quiet. A prayer of protection arises from deep within her soul, one that her own mother had taught her years before. She waits. She watches.

Outside, the sounds multiply and cohere into an invisible wave that surges toward them. It swells and swells until finally it crashes into their home. The door shatters. Two shadowy figures burst inside.

He wouldn’t know he’s supposed to be scared if not for the terrified shriek that escapes from his mother’s throat. He takes his cue from her, and his lungs offer their own contribution to the commotion. She spins around and uses her body to shield him from the intruders. He can feel the rapid thumping of her heart.

For a fleeting moment, the men pause and look around the room. The light glistens off their weapons. Their eyes gleam with passion. They speak to one another in gruff, abbreviated phrases.

Then, in perfect unison, they stride to the corner of the room and effortlessly throw the boy’s mother to the ground. Cradling the crying child in her arms, she bears the brunt of the blow directly on her back. The breath leaps out of her body. Still, she holds him tight.

The next few moments play out in a confused frenzy. Two pairs of rough hands grasp at both garment and flesh. The child feels himself being torn away from his mother as her body is wrestled to the other side of the room. Kicking and thrashing, she desperately reaches out for her son and tries to call his name. A wheezing cough is all she can muster. His own cries fill the void left by her silence.

One of the men casually tosses him aside, as if disposing of a stale loaf of bread. Their joint focus turns to his mother. He strikes the ground gently but finds himself face-down in the dirt. His limbs flail, not yet having learned the complex series of maneuvers required to roll him over. All he sees is darkness. Dust fills his mouth as he inhales frantically.

Lying there apart from his mother, there are many aspects of the moment which the young child fails to appreciate. Particularly, the hallowed reverence of it all.

If only he could understand that these unknown assailants are not arbitrary villains. That they are not there merely to pillage and destroy. Instead, they are humble servants, taking ownership of what they believe has been promised to them. Namely, land. A land flowing with milk and honey. A land where their ancestors will live and worship in peace. A land presently complicated by the minor inconvenience of being already inhabited.

Caught up in the terror of being ripped from his mother’s arms, the child is oblivious to how the men radiate a righteous zeal, relishing the holiness of their task. As if their hands are empowered by divine strength. As if their weapons are instruments of divine wrath. Theirs is a mission of obedience. “Every man, woman, and child,” they have been told. “It’s the Lord’s will.” No contamination can remain. No obstacle can be left standing.

These men know what he doesn’t. That they have a destiny to fulfill. And that because he happened to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time, the very God who had knit his body together within his mother’s womb now requires that very masterpiece to be unraveled. This young child is the collateral damage of someone else’s blessing.

But he doesn’t know these things. At the moment, he is too gripped by primal fright and too distracted by the agony of separation to appreciate the theological significance of the scene around him.

For the first time in his life, she is not there to comfort him. Where has she gone? This woman who broods over him and attends to his every complaint. What has happened to her? He calls out for her, but there is no response. He can’t see her smile, can’t hear her whisper, can’t feel her embrace.

Her embrace. Lying naked and vulnerable on the ground, this is what he craves more than anything. It has always been so dependable. So present. The new world around him never seems so scary from within that embrace. There is no way he could know that he has already felt it for the last time.

When the sun comes up an hour later, the men are long gone. He didn’t see them go. Nor did he see them meet up with their companions leaving adjacent homes, hurrying to replicate their violence throughout the rest of the village. He just saw the dirt below his face. And there in the dirt, he continues to cry.

As the morning stretches on, his throat becomes raw and his tears dry up. His cries turn into whimpers, and then his whimpers turn into moans. By early afternoon, he is silent. Does he finally realize that there is no one left in the home to hear him? No one left in the entire village, for that matter? Or is he simply too exhausted to continue?

He slips in and out of sleep throughout the following night, the cold and hunger taking turns waking him. Across the room, his mother’s body is awkwardly slumped against the wall. The pool of crimson that had blossomed around her frame is slowly drying in the dirt. The land is already receiving her back into itself. Soon it will receive him, too.

But this land beneath their bodies, this land on which their ancestors had walked for countless generations, it is not theirs. Not anymore. It is now a promised land, and the promise belongs to those with the mightier army and the stronger weapons.

Eventually the men who left him there will return, setting fire to what remains of the village and removing any evidence of its previous inhabitants. This is a necessary part of their task. Total destruction. A complete purge. Their faith can tolerate no religious rivals in this new and holy abode. Their manifest destiny requires a clean slate from which to create a new nation. A nation that will be a light to all other nations. A nation where righteousness will dwell.

A nation under God. Indivisible. With liberty and justice for all.

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