Commentary on Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
Today’s passage contains one of the most familiar lines from the Old Testament, Joshua’s charge to “choose this day whom you will serve,” combined with his own response, “but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).
Probably less well remembered are the context in which Joshua makes the charge and the people’s astonishingly positive rejoinder. The story is without a doubt one of the true high points in the history of the Israelites’ faith. The question for us today is, how can we appropriate such faith?
The place in the story
We are at the end of the story of Joshua and the Israelites’ conquest of the Promised Land. In fact, we are well after the period of invasion and warfare, “a long time afterward, when the Lord had given rest to Israel from all their enemies all around, and Joshua was old and well advanced in years” (Joshua 23:1). All the tribes have gathered at Shechem, a point right in the middle of the land and right between Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim, where Joshua had previously renewed the covenant with the people (Joshua 8:30-35). Joshua had already spoken to the leaders of all the people in chapter 23, right before our passage, had given what had seemed to be his final words, in awareness that he himself was shortly to die (23:14). He had given them stern warnings to follow the law of Moses, laying out the severe consequences should they fail to do so, concluding with, “you shall perish quickly from the good land that he [the Lord] has given to you” (23:16).
Yet here in chapter 24 Joshua speaks again. This time he speaks “to all the people” (Joshua 24:2), and he speaks not from himself but as a prophet: “Thus says the Lord,” begins his speech. The speech from v. 2b through v. 13 consists of a first-person narrative — from the perspective of God — of the mighty acts God had accomplished from the time of Abraham through the conquest of the land. It emphasizes throughout that the whole history was God’s doing, not the people’s: “I brought you out” (v. 5); “I destroyed them before you” (v. 8); “I rescued you” (v. 10); “I sent the hornet ahead of you” (v. 12); culminating with, “I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant” (v. 13). The speech contains no admonitions, instructions, or warnings, not even including the giving of the law in its account. None of Israel’s failures along the way are mentioned, either. It is a straightforward, powerful narrative of God’s presence with and action on behalf of the people.
Thus when we get to Joshua’s charge at v. 14, the decision the people have to make is initially based entirely on remembering their own history through the perspective that God through Joshua has narrated it. The charge is simple: “revere the Lord” (the NRSV’s “revere” here has traditionally been translated “fear”) and “serve the Lord.” The decision to serve God is put in the context of an option to instead serve the gods the people’s ancestors had worshiped prior to the call of Abraham (in his land “beyond the River,” i.e. the Euphrates) and in Egypt; v. 15 adds the gods of the Amorites, the people whom the Israelites had conquered and displaced. The expression of the choice is striking in that Joshua does not denigrate these gods at all. They and “the Lord” (Hebrew YHWH, the proper name of God in the Old Testament) are simply given as alternative choices for allegiance.
How do we remember?
The question for the people, then, is how they will remember their history and whether this history of God’s acts will be the basis of their identity going forward. Here we ought to see ourselves in a similar position, for the question of how we narrate our own past and present, and how we see God working in them, is a perennial question for Christians. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we recall Jesus’ words, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). Is Jesus’ death the ongoing basis for our worship, or did his death mean something else? Was he really raised from the dead, or will we take the choice offered in Matthew’s Gospel, where some believed instead that his body was stolen (Matthew 28:12-15). As we are still in the season of Pentecost, do we remember that event as God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to the church, or as something else, perhaps the disciples being drunk, as some at the time suggested (Acts 2:13)? We have the options. Which will we take?
Moreover, the question is always before us in our daily lives. Can we narrate the story of our own lives as the mighty acts of God? We might think of the question in terms of our individual lives, but Joshua put it to the people as a whole. We thus might better think of the question corporately, as a church. How can we narrate our history as a people and our lives together going forward as God’s work among us?
The people shined in their response to Joshua: “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods” (Joshua 24:16). They summarize Joshua’s (God’s) account of their history as their own (vv. 17-18a) and then conclude, “Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God” (v. 18b). Joshua is not satisfied, for he then goes on to give all the warnings we might have expected already (vv. 19-20), but the people are emphatic in their commitment to the Lord (vv. 21-24), and the exchange concludes with a covenant renewal (vv. 25-28). Nor was this mere lip service, for v. 31 then tells us that “Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua.” This was a great moment in the history of Israel, one of those all-too-few times when the people really got it right. The story stands as an example and a charge to us: Will we serve the Lord or the gods of our times?