The Teacher’s Assignment

By Sarah Cornwell

Reading from Joshua, 8:30-35

30 Then Joshua built on Mount Ebal an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, 31just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the Israelites, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, “an altar of unhewn stones, on which no iron tool has been used”; and they offered on it burnt-offerings to the Lord, and sacrificed offerings of well-being. 32And there, in the presence of the Israelites, Joshua wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written. 33All Israel, alien as well as citizen, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark in front of the levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded at the first, that they should bless the people of Israel. 34And afterwards he read all the words of the law, blessings and curses, according to all that is written in the book of the law. 35There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the aliens who resided among them.


My Dad, a lawyer and a great stickler for the rules, likes to tell the story of one of his first days in fifth grade. The teacher passed out an assignment telling the students to read all of the instructions before beginning. The instructions were long, and it was clear most of the children skimmed or skipped, moving ahead to the math problems below. As it happens, the last instruction on the page read “First, get up and turn on the classroom lights.” My Dad will proudly tell you that he was the only student to do it.

The Israelites were probably itching to get through the rather picky instructions and the long reading and just get started on the work at hand. We may sympathize. In an age where there is much to read, from email, to news articles, to blog commentators, to updates from friends, families, and colleagues on social media, out of necessity many of us skim. It is difficult to do a close reading of anything, and even if we had the time, we are usually too exhausted. This can be especially true when it comes to reading the Bible. We basically know what it says, right? And besides, there are so many passages that are boring, weird, or feel uncomfortably dated.

But the teacher has passed out the assignment, and we have been told to read the words carefully — “to hear them… mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” As we read through scripture, it may not always be apparent why all these words are necessary. But we should not make the mistake of skimming because we think we know what’s going on. Otherwise, we may end up living out our days sitting in a dark room doing a lot of pointless busy work.

Sarah Cornwell is a laywoman, ballet teacher, and an associate of the Eastern Province of the Community of St. Mary. She and her husband have five children and they live in the Hudson Valley north of New York City.

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