Commentary on Joshua 24:1-15 [16-26]
Joshua: Conduit of Ancestral Blessings and Intergenerational Continuity
The book of Joshua is narratively and ideologically connected to the book of Exodus as themes of covenant, commandments, and salvation frame both. Moses is one of the most celebrated figures in Israel’s pre-monarchic history, perhaps because he collaborates with Yahweh to deliver the Israelites out of Egypt and is the messenger through which Yahweh reveals the commandments to the people. Moses transitions before the Israelites forcibly migrate into the “promised land”. However, Yahweh’s promise for Israel to possess the land is fulfilled after Yahweh appoints Joshua as Moses’s successor.
Before becoming Moses’s successor, Joshua stands out as an exceptional warrior, model attendant to Moses, and an effective spy. Yahweh commissions Joshua to lead the Israelites in capturing Canaan and annihilating the inhabitants of the land. Once in the land, Joshua:
- reminds the tribes of their covenantal relationship and obligations to Yahweh
- allocates land to each of the tribes according to Yahweh’s command
- circumcises all the males that had been born in the wilderness
- establishes refuge cities and Levitical cities
- reminds the tribes that Yahweh has fulfilled Yahweh’s covenantal obligation
- provides admonitions to be steadfast to and observe the laws given to Moses and
- lists consequences for breaching their covenantal agreements.
In chapter 24, Joshua gathers the tribes to Shechem (the place where Abram first encounters Yahweh and enters covenantal relationship, Genesis 12:6-8) and facilitates a covenant renewal ceremony. Now assimilated among other groups (because they did not annihilate all the indigenous people of the land), the Israelites experience the lure of engaging and worshipping foreign deities and intermarriage (23:12-13). Joshua invokes collective memory (recalling covenantal agreements with the patriarchs, the exodus from Egypt, and the possession of the land) as a reminder of Yahweh’s salvific history and of their obligations of fidelity to Yahweh’s covenants and commandments.
Here, the covenantal proceedings and historical prologues differ from previous renderings in Genesis and Exodus:
- In Genesis, Yahweh cut covenants with singular patriarchs, whereas at the renewal ceremony, Joshua assembles all the tribes of Israel and summons Israel’s leaders (elders, heads, judges, and officers).
- Moses’ reference to the covenant in Exodus 19 refers briefly to “what Yahweh did to the Egyptians” and how “I bore you [Israel] on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (verse 4).
At the Shechem ceremony (Joshua 24), Joshua recalls a more robust and nuanced history:
- Abram’s father Terah, Abraham, and his brother Nahor living beyond the Euphrates serving other gods (connecting their pre-covenant religious practices to current post-covenantal practices—underscoring an infringement)
- How Yahweh caused Abraham to migrate and made his offspring numerous
- That Yahweh took Jacob’s children into Egypt, plagued the Egyptians, brought Israel out through the sea, and led them through the wilderness to land that Yahweh gave them to possess. (The two last points emphasize Yahweh fulfilled Yahweh’s terms of the contract, which stands in stark contrast to Israel’s violation).
In Exodus, Yahweh says to Israel, “if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured people … A priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (19:6). However, in Joshua, Yahweh instructs Israel, “Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord” (24:14). Later Joshua reveals punishments for transgressions: “If you forsake the LORD, and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good” (20). The former focuses more on the blessings of obedience to Yahweh’s covenant, whereas the latter is an indictment for the worship of foreign idols in geographical locales of origin and alienation.
Because there had been breaches of the covenant, Joshua perceived a need to renew it. When reading through the renewal in chapter 24, one sees that this reestablished covenantal relationship requires:
(1) active participation by all members of the tribes
(2) acknowledgment of and appreciation for Yahweh’s acts of salvation/grace,
(3) accountability, and
(4) an agreement to enter an alliance with Yahweh only.
As mediator between Yahweh and Israel, Joshua orders Israel to make a choice holding them accountable and ensuring they actively participate in the covenantal agreement: “Now if you are not willing to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living…” (15a). Before giving them an opportunity to choose, however, Joshua proclaims “…but, as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD” (verse 15b).
The people follow up by declaring that they will not forsake the LORD to serve other gods and they recite their salvation history as well. Joshua reiterates the consequences for not maintaining strict alignment with Yahweh and, to further hold them accountable, leads them to commit to being witnesses against themselves (22). After they pledge to do so, Joshua commands them to put away their foreign gods among them and incline their hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel (23). They reply: “The LORD our God we will serve, and him we will obey.”
Immediately after this exchange, Joshua makes a covenant with the people, makes statutes and ordinances for them, (25) and writes those laws in the book of the law of God (26). This ending scene connects Joshua to Moses (as mediators and lawgivers) and connects the subsequent generations of Israelites to the ancestors that made covenants with Yahweh. Joshua not only serves as a mediator between Yahweh and Israel, but he is the conduit of ancestral blessings and intergenerational continuity as he reconnects an estranged generation to Yahweh and to their ancestors.
The main point of the covenant renewal is to remind Israel to remember that who they are [becoming] is rooted in a contractual relationship with Yahweh and contingent upon their fidelity to Yahweh’s commandments. Specifically, the renewal serves to iterate that possession of the land will be maintained if Israel keeps the covenant. If not, the very groups that the Israelites spared shall be a snare and trap for them (23:13).
Three questions for consideration as we assess the intersections of covenant, commandments, and salvation:
- Does Israel’s refusal to annihilate all the inhabitants of the land and their peaceful cohabitation with indigenous people illustrate that covenantal relationship is negotiated/refined by both parties (Yahweh and Israel) to ensure that liberty and justice is actualized for other non-covenantal groups?
- Does “all” really mean all in the ancient context? Were women and children central to Israel’s covenantal relationship, commandments, and Yahweh’s salvific acts?
- The story depicts that God’s generosity to Israel (land gifting) is gruesome (land snatching/extermination) for others. How are we to interpret/engage this text today?
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of deliverance, you saved the people of Israel and chose Joshua to lead your people to the Promised Land. Choose us, and equip us to live with faith and peace. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
God whose almighty word ELW 673
If you but trust in God to guide you ELW 769
Forgive our sins as we forgive ELW 605
Pater Noster, Igor Stravinsky
Our Father, Harry T. Burleigh