“Yet there shall be a space between you and [the ark of the covenant], a distance of about two thousand cubits; do not come any nearer to it.”
Joshua 3:4b (NRSV)
Last weekend Wendy and I watched the recent film version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It is a fascinating story set in the dark ages in Scotland. Macbeth is a warrior with relatively low rank among the nobility of the Scottish clans. On his way back from a successful battle he encounters three witches, also known as The Weird Sisters, who utter a prophecy that Macbeth will be named Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland.
Macbeth writes his wife a letter and tells her of this news. Then, while still traveling home, he is advised that King Duncan has named him Thane of Cawdor, just as the sisters prophesied. Upon arriving home, the Lady Macbeth urges her husband to man up and take hold of the second part of the prophesy. King Duncan makes a surprise visit to the Macbeth’s household and Lady Macbeth sees this as her husband’s chance to make the prophecy come true. Macbeth, at his wife’s urging and insistence, murders King Duncan in his bed. The second part of the prophecy is thus fulfilled, but a madness of blood-guilt and paranoia is also unleashed that will ultimately doom Macbeth and his wife.
The story of Macbeth raises an interesting spiritual dilemma. Do you step up and try to make a prophecy come true, or do you sit back and wait to see if the prophecy is fulfilled of its own accord? Wendy and I spent some time after the movie exploring the question. We recalled an experience from recent years in which we watched a person strive, in Macbeth like fashion, to make what they believed had been prophesied happen. The results were similarly tragic, though certainly not as tragic as the bloody carnage of Macbeth!
In today’s chapter, Joshua is told by God to send the ark of the covenant out in front of the people into the Jordan River. No one is to get within 2000 cubits (e.g. approximately 3000 feet/900 meters) of the ark. When the ark enters the river, the waters are miraculously stopped (just like Moses and the Red Sea) so that the people can cross.
I found this to be an interesting word picture and an unexpected continuation of our Macbeth conversation. In murdering Duncan, I would argue that Macbeth tried to get out in front of the prophesy. He may have crossed the proverbial river into the promise, but the result was ultimately tragic as he refused to wait for the natural course of events to take place, if they ever would. Macbeth and his Lady were short on faith. Instead of trusting that the prophesy would be fulfilled at the right time in the right way, they were compelled to make it happen. In contrast, Joshua tells the people to stand back, make way, and give God room to get out ahead and clear the way. Only then shall they cross.
Today I’m reminded of the messy balance between doing what I’m called to do and, at the same time, waiting on the Lord. I don’t want to get out ahead of God or presume to stand beside. I also don’t want to lag behind and get off course. I want to follow at an appropriate distance and attentively follow where we are led on Life’s path.