Commentary on Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
Bondage to a lie, or freedom’s integrity.
The reading makes it seem like an easy choice. Joshua adjures the gathered tribes of Israel to fear and serve Yahweh and turn aside from other gods (24:14). To the people God has chosen, Joshua says, “Choose” (24:15). And the people choose: “We will serve Yahweh” (24:18).
I marvel and even puzzle over the editorial shaping that yields such concise instruction and confident response. It is not hard to spot what the Revised Common Lectionary leaves out: a history of darkness, deliverance, destruction, and gift (24:2b-13) that precedes this new choice; and a startling, even ominous exchange that follows the people’s bold answer to Joshua’s command (24:19-24).
In that elided exchange, Joshua shows the chosen people their future. Joshua does not applaud their discerning judgment or willing hearts, but instead assures them that they will break their promise. You will not be able to serve Yahweh, he says, and Yahweh will not forgive you (24:19). When they repeat their promise, Joshua calls them to witness to their choice (24:22). When they dare to repeat their promise a third time, Joshua records their commitment in scroll and stone (24:26-27).
Why delimit the passage in just this way, omitting reminder and warning? This conscious shaping of the lection directs the attention of the preacher and those who hear the word proclaimed in three ways:
While past and future remain in view, the lection focuses on the present moment.
If I were preaching this passage, I would aim to place my congregation in that moment, to show them that they stand where Israel’s tribes stood, before the warning of failure and before the covenant is made and recorded. I would bring their awareness to the place where Joshua has summoned them and to the moment of decision.
Joshua has gathered together all the tribes of Israel at Shechem, the place where, long ago, God had appeared to Abram and promised the gift of the land (Genesis 12:6-7). Abram built there an altar, the first sanctuary to Yahweh in the land of promise. In the book of Joshua we learn that the Lord has also designated Shechem as a city of refuge, a haven that interrupts and transforms a landscape marred by violence and revenge (Joshua 20:7).
Joshua now gathers the people in this city that orients them to the boundary between justice and mercy and beside the altar that commemorates God’s revelation and promise and their ancestor’s worshipful response. At the moment of decision the people are surrounded by physical reminders of God’s revelation and promise and oriented by their own shared practices of worship, justice, and mercy.
The leaders of the community are also such a physical reminder. Joshua summons the elders, heads, judges, and officers to station themselves and stand upright in the presence of God (24:1). These individuals possess wisdom and memory, live as visible examples of covenant faithfulness, dedicate their lives to justice, and are entrusted with responsibility for the people’s welfare. They commit their bodies, hearts, and minds to bridge the space between heaven and earth and draw their people closer to God.
The opposition between worship and slavery rises to the fore.
The editorial shaping of the lection moves the hearer past God’s first-person account of what God has done for Israel’s past generations and given to the present generation. The emphasis falls instead on what the people will do.
The threefold repetition in one verse (24:14) of the Hebrew verb ‘abad sharpens the focus. The verb occurs six more times in the lection (24:15-18; the related noun ‘abadim occurs once). The range of meanings for this verb includes “to be a slave”, “to serve”, “to work”, and “to worship.” The conceptual link between worship and slavery may seem obscure or theologically distasteful, but it is critical for understanding the choice Joshua offers the tribes of Israel. They can and will give their whole selves to one kind of relationship only. Worship of false gods is slavery to human artifice and self-interest. Joshua calls Israel out of bondage into the freedom of life in covenant with God.
Joshua’s call to worship Yahweh in integrity therefore entails putting away (vehasîrû) the gods “your ancestors” worshipped in Mesopotamia and Egypt (24:14). This instruction echoes an earlier command. In the book of Genesis, Jacob instructs his household to put away foreign gods (Genesis 35:2), and he hides the gods beneath the oak at Shechem (35:4), in the very ground on which the tribes now stand. The preacher who now summons the congregation to choose worship of God must also reveal the false gods hidden like landmines in the ground beneath their feet.
The people speak their reasons and tell their story in their own words.
The elided divine speech in Joshua 24:2b-13 offers God’s version of the story and suggests reasons, from God’s point of view, why the Israelites should now choose to serve God. But to arrive at their decision in true freedom and integrity, the people must tell their own story and declare their own reasons.
They begin by naming the relationship that has claimed them and allows them to claim God for their own: “Yahweh is our God” (24:17). They then profess that God brought “us” and “our fathers” up from Egypt, from a house of slaves. The people who stand before Joshua never set foot in the land of Egypt (except possibly Caleb, see Deuteronomy 1:36), but they remember this passage to freedom. They testify to miracles worked in their sight and to God’s care for them on the road and in their crossings.
Only after the tribes have told the story in their own words do they declare their commitment to serve Yahweh (Joshua 24:18). This declaration is climactic, but not the last word. Three words follow, highlighting once again the relationship that is the ground for every free choice this people makes: “Because [Yahweh] is our God” (24:18).