Commentary on Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
God had commissioned the Israelite leader Joshua to accomplish a two-part mission: 1) to conquer the Canaanites (Joshua 1-12) and 2) to settle the Israelite tribes in their allotted territories (Joshua 13-22).
In Joshua 24, it is time for this old leader to offer his last words of instruction and the renewal of Israel’s covenant commitment to their God before he departs this life. Several pieces of background are important to understanding the significance of these final words of Joshua.
The promise of the land of Canaan
Much had been at stake in this mission to get Israel settled in Canaan. God’s reputation as a promise-keeper was on the line. Over several centuries of time, God had promised the land to Abraham (Genesis 12:1; 15:17-21; 17:8), Isaac (Genesis 26:2-5), Jacob (Genesis 28:1-4, 13-15), Joseph (Genesis 48:3-4, 21), and Moses (Exodus 3:7-8). There had also been a failed attempt by Moses to bring Israel into the land of Canaan thirty-eight years earlier that had ended in disaster (Numbers 13-14). Joshua had a heavy burden to get this right.
God’s holy war against Canaan
God’s initial instructions for Joshua’s holy war (Hebrew herem) were designed to cleanse Canaan of all non-Israelites and eliminate all temptations to worship other gods: “you shall not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them” (Deuteronomy 20:16-18).
Such words reapplied over the centuries have had real consequences in the history of God’s people, often tragic and disastrous. These horrific genocidal directives rightfully trouble us. They seem to run contrary to so many other biblical texts (for example Isaiah 2:1-4; 11:1-9, Matthew 5:9. 38-39, 43-48; 26:51-52; Romans 12:9-21; Colossians 1:20; 3:12-15) in which peace, non-violence, turning the other cheek, loving enemies and “living peaceably with all” are upheld as God’s ultimate will and purpose for humanity and the world.
Joshua’s incomplete and failed mission
We can’t resolve these thorny theological and ethical issues here. But the important point for understanding Joshua 24 is that Joshua had a clear mandate to wipe out the Canaanites completely. Yet, at the end of his life, Joshua had failed. The Canaanite prostitute Rahab and her family (Joshua 6:22-25), the Canaanite clan of Gibeonites (Joshua 9:22-27), and many other Canaanite towns were not conquered and thus allowed to remain living in the land.
A few texts in Joshua do speak of an accomplished and total conquest of all of Canaan (Joshua 11:23). Other assessments, however, have a disappointed God complaining to Joshua that “very much of the land remains to be possessed” (Joshua 13:1). God had reassured Joshua that God would somehow finish the job later (“I myself will drive them out” — Joshua 13:6). In the end, however, even God would not complete the conquest of Canaan (Judges 1:22-36; 2:19-3:6). Remarkably, God ultimately abandoned his own original holy war plan to wipe out all the Canaanites. Instead, God permanently allowed the Canaanites to continue to live among the Israelites in the land “in order to test Israel.” God thereby consigned the holy war strategy to the dustbin of history, a rejected way forward.
The land as gift, remaining in the land as vocation
Another important theme in understanding Joshua’s farewell speech in Joshua 24 is the recurring reminder to Israel that the conquest of Canaan was never based on Israel’s inherent moral or religious superiority over the people of Canaan. The Canaanites had lost their land because of centuries of wickedness and injustice against their own people (Genesis 15:16; Deuteronomy 9:4-7; Psalm 82).
So why did God give Canaan to the Israelites instead? Simply because God had made a promise and chose to keep that promise out of love for God’s people, Israel (Deuteronomy 7:6-8; 10:15; 32:8-9). The land was pure gift (Deuteronomy 8:11-18; Joshua 24:13). And just as the people of Canaan had lost their land because of their wickedness, so Israel should remember that it too could lose the land if they forgot the LORD (Deuteronomy 8:19-20). Eventually, Israel did perish from the land — the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE (1 Kings 14:15-16) and the southern kingdom of Judah in 587 BCE (2 Kings 21:10-15). In each case, God declared the reason: “because they have done what is evil in my sight.” With this all in the background, we turn to our text of Joshua 24.
Joshua’s farewell speech: rooted in God’s love (24:1-13)
Joshua invites all Israel to the town of Shechem in the central highlands of Israel. Joshua reminds them of the long history of all that God had done for Israel: the promises to the ancestors, the deliverance from slavery in Egypt, and God’s provision through the wilderness (Joshua 24:1-13). Although much of this section is deleted from the lectionary reading, these verses are important. They testify to God’s grace, mercy and unmerited love of Israel which forms the reason for Joshua’s call in verse 14: “Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness.” Reverence and obedience to God are the primary ways by which God’s people give thanks to God for the generous gifts of life and freedom God has already given.
We will serve the LORD! No, you won’t! Yes, we will! (24:14-21)
Joshua urges the people to put away “the gods of the ancestors” and “serve the LORD.” Speaking on behalf of his own household, Joshua declares: “We will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15). If the other Israelite household are unwilling to follow the example of Joshua in serving the LORD, then they are free to “choose” among multiple other foreign gods, whether Mesopotamian gods (from “beyond the River [Euphrates]”) or “the gods of the Amorites [Canaanites]” (24:14-15). It doesn’t matter which other god they choose; they will have broken the sacred covenant bond between them and their one true God.
The Israelites respond to Joshua enthusiastically: “We also will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:18)! Now the reader might expect Joshua at this point to say, “Great! I’m delighted to hear you’re on board!” Instead, Joshua sternly replies, “You cannot serve the LORD!” God is jealous for your love, and God will not forgive you endlessly and without consequence. If you forsake God, God will “consume you, after having done you good” (Joshua 24:19). The people urgently answer back, “No, we will serve the LORD” (24:21). The elderly Joshua seems to have a longer view of these matters based on his long experience.
You are witnesses against yourselves (24:22-25)
Joshua proceeds to a formal ritual of renewing the covenant relationship between the Israelites and Israel’s God at Shechem. The people’s own words of unfailing commitment to serve God alone would be written down (Joshua 24:26) and remembered as “witnesses against you (24:22).” The Israelites’ words of assurance to Joshua at Shechem echo the words of an earlier generation spoken to Moses at Mount Sinai. There too the Israelite had spoken with enthusiasm, “Everything that the LORD has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8; 24:3, 7)! Israel, however, quickly forgot its commitment and broke its covenant with God. They worshiped an idol — a golden calf — and thereby came dangerously close to endangering any future with God (Exodus 32:1-35; see also Exodus 33-34). Joshua had been present there at Sinai (Exodus 32:17). He had heard these insincere assurances from the people before.
Joshua knew all too well what Moses also knew (Deuteronomy 31:27, 29). The future of God’s people in the land depended ultimately not on the people’s sincerity, faithfulness or obedience. No, ultimately, the future depended on God — God’s faithfulness, God’s mercy, God’s powerful word, God’s transformation of the heart. Israel would suffer severe consequences for its centuries of forsaking God (exile from the land). In the end, however, God would bring Israel back to the land not because of who the people were, but because of who God was…and who God is.