Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

We say “all” when we aspire to a unity that seems so elusive

Stay Awhile sign on bookshelf
Photo by Andrea Davis on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

August 22, 2021

First Reading
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Commentary on Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

Covenant renewal happens even in the season of COVID-19. The pandemic disrupted institutions including congregations. COVID disturbance functions much like the wilderness that invites people to think about covenant after the pandemic ends. Joshua 24 echoes the covenant at Sinai (Exodus 19-20). Memory in Deuteronomy gestures to God’s providence that provokes a covenant renewal. Joshua 24 reflects the traditions, rhetorical devices and metaphors of theology found in the books of Deuteronomy and Exodus. 

Why does it have to be all? 

The passage accents the unity of the people. Just as Exodus 16 refers to all the congregation of Israel, Joshua 24 refers to all the people and notes several offices. Both stories in their own way want to make clear the unanimity of the decisions. The language of “all” percolates when social conflict manifests itself most acutely. We say “all” when we aspire to a unity that seems so elusive. Similarly, the term Israel represents a varied group.

Why Shechem?

Covenant renewal in the Bible often happens at major shrines: Sinai, Shechem and eventually Jerusalem. The Joshua speech occurs in a special place with a long tradition. Shechem carried weight as a religious center. Shechem is both a city of refuge and a Levitical city. (Joshua 20:7; 21:21) The other sites of covenant making are in places of note such as Egypt in captivity, Sinai, and now in the promised land, Shechem.  

History matters

Joshua begins with a prophetic formula, “thus says the LORD.” The formula tells the audience that these are no longer the words of Joshua but those of God. 

The covenant process often begins with a historical recital of obligation. The language of recital began long ago and far away, and accents the power of an ongoing relationship in a traditional society. The ancestors come from a faraway place. The reference to the first ancestors observed that they served other gods. The phrase “other gods” occurs in the book of Joshua but much more in the books of Deuteronomy and Jeremiah which understand that covenant renewal means forsaking other gods. The ancestors receive veneration, but this is a new covenant. The ancestors, like founders of countries, followed other gods, ideologies no longer perceived as valid.  

This section of the covenant renewal rhetoric rehearses past relational history. The promises are of progeny, land, freedom from Egypt, guidance in the wilderness, acquisition of the promised land. The history of God’s intervention into history on behalf of the children of Israel sets the stage for a confession of loyalty and obligation. 

The promises that make you a people of the covenant (Joshua 24:14-18)

The history recounted in verses 2-13 lays the foundation for the new section which begins with the call “now,” an interjection of urgency. The “then” of verses 2-13 emerges through the interjection “now” that begins verse 14. The divine advocacy “now” prompts the imperative “revere” or “fear.” The verbs “serve” and “revere” function as worldview-shaping verbs for the world of the Bible. The imperative to revere accompanies the commandment to serve. As such it contrasts the present generation and the ancestors such as Abraham. 

The writer links reverence and service with the language of sincerity and faithfulness. The hallmark of such behavior requires loyalty. Hence the instruction to remove or put away (other) gods. The other gods include those served by the ancestors. The gods served beyond the river did not liberate the community, therefore they have no standing according to Joshua. The passage links gods of the Mesopotamian ancestors to those of Egypt. Verse fourteen ends with the imperative to serve the LORD. 

The imperatives “serve” and “revere” require more than sheer adherence under threat. They require assent of the people, all Israel.  The NRSV “if you are unwilling” conveys a sense that “if this is evil or disastrous in your eyes.” For the world of Joshua, theological decisions mattered for the good and prosperity on the one hand or the evil and disaster on the other. 

Many negotiations have a place where the alternative to the deal is discussed. Here Joshua recognizes that it might strike the community as evil or disastrous in their eyes to serve the LORD. He chides them then to choose. The term “this day” indicates the time sensitive nature of the decision. 

The modern and postmodern consumer society is all about choice. As such the imperative “choose” resonates with us. The biblical world uses choice in a particular fashion. Here the choice is an expression of fealty. An ancient or feudal person of lesser status and wealth swears loyalty to a lord or patron who typically has greater status and or wealth. Three choices are given: the gods of the Mesopotamian ancestors or the gods of the Amorites who lived in the promised land. This gives way to the confession of Joshua that he and his family would serve the LORD. 

The community responds

The people respond and declare “we” will not forsake the LORD, the God of our deliverance. The language of “serve” returns in verse 16 but there it fuses with “not forsaking.” The language of forsake resonates with Psalm 22 and the cry of dereliction (Mark 15:34). The text fuses ancestral promise, the liberation from Egypt, guidance in the wilderness, and the possession of the land formerly of the Amorites. 

The covenant renewal of Joshua 24 resonates still. The passage concludes with a confession of loyalty rooted in God’s relentless advocacy for the full freedom of all the people. How does revering and serving the God of liberation and contesting other gods look in a post pandemic world?