Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

Sometimes I look at the state of the world and wonder why the all-powerful God does not take charge and control things to prevent the horror, the pain and suffering that we see around the world. 

  • Do you wonder this also?  Would you, like me prefer God did take charge? 

I confess that if I had the power, I would take charge.  That is why I am so grateful for passages such as this that remind me this is not the way of God.  This passage reminds me that we are not compelled to choose God.  We are given choice. We have freedom to make a conscious choice to serve God, and God alone or not.  The people of Israel were given the choice and so are we. Joshua in his closing address is getting the Israelite people to make a choice.  

Several pieces of background are important to understanding the significance of these final words of Joshua.  The chapter starts with Joshua remembering the people’s distant past, “long ago,” literally “from eternity,” in the Hebrew, when the Israelite’s ancestors lived in the land beyond the river, or the Euphrates (then Ur, now modern day Iraq).  Joshua does not just recall the often-invoked ancestors — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob but goes back even further, to Abraham’s father, Terah. The punchline for this past is that back then, they served other gods (24:2).

But God took Abraham from beyond the River and led him into a new land.  God took and God led.  With God as the subject of those verbs we might wonder if Abraham had a choice.  Abraham, however, we are told “believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6). Abraham’s righteousness is not a result of his following the law, of doing the right thing but having faith in God, choosing God.  A faith which grows over time as they journey together.

The lectionary does not include verses 4-13, which recite the Israelites’ journey with God, but the memory of what God has done for them in the past is an important reason why they do choose God.  God had fulfilled the promise to make them a great nation and freed the people from Egyptian slavery.  God had been providing for them during their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, with Moses as their leader.  But when Joshua took on the leadership God still had not come good on the land that had been promised.  God’s reputation as a promise-keeper was still questionable.

Just last week we were introduced to Joshua, the new leader of the Israelite people. This week the lectionary skips to the end of the book of Joshua.  What we skip over is the two-part mission that God had commissioned Joshua to accomplish:
1) to conquer the Canaanites (Joshua 1-12) and
2) to settle the Israelite tribes in their allotted territories (Joshua 13-22).

God had been promising over several centuries that the people would be given this promised land. Beginning with Abraham (Genesis 12:1; 15:17-21; 17:8),then 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).

Led by Joshua through the terror of military conflict, Israel finally possessed the promised land, a fruitful land.  The story of the entry of the people of God into the promised land is told in a highly stylised way.  The historical reality is quite different. There is no archaeological evidence that correlates the biblical record of the capture of Jericho and other cities in the land. All we have is the story told in the Bible.  The result is the book of Joshua is almost universally considered to be a wonderfully embellished and stylised narrative constructed by the priests in the sixth century BCE, as they prepared to lead the people exiled by Babylon back to the land from which they had been removed.  The best question we can ask of the book of Joshua, is not, “did this actually happen?”, but rather, “what does this story offer to us, today?”  For us today, like the people returning from Babylonian exile, this story tells us that God is faithful.  It may take several centuries but God makes good God’s promises.  It tells us how the people responded to God’s faithfulness and by extension how we should respond.

Joshua urges the people to revere and serve the LORD, YHWH. “Serve YHWH” is the core of Joshua’s message. He repeats this twice in verse 14, and it appears three times in the subsequent four verses. Serving YHWH means worshipping YHWH alone, and not other gods.  The Hebrew word which is translated as “serve” means both “worship” and “serve”. In this instance it makes sense to translate — and understand — it as service rather than worship.  The people have just been reminded of their slavery in Egypt.  The people were Pharaoh’s servants, something they had no choice about.  Now they get to choose to serve YHWH.  They get to choose if they will be YHWH’s servant and Joshua presents this as a genuine choice, not something they are compelled to do.  The literal translation of the Hebrew of Joshua 24:15 is; “it may be evil in your eyes” to serve God! The NIV and NRSV soften the language.  The ESV and the NKJV are closer to the mark “And if it is evil in your eyes to serve YHWH, choose this day whom you will serve…”  They are acknowledging that maybe you will not see it as a good thing to serve God! That it may seem bad to serve God!

Joshua ends the verse by presenting his own choice: “he, and his house, will serve God.”  The Israelites assert that they will never forsake YHWH and serve other gods. It may seem that they are just emulating their leader, but they elaborate on what Joshua said, putting it in their own words demonstrating the depth of their understanding of their history of redemption.  God brought them and their ancestors up from Egypt out of slavery, doing great signs in their sight, protecting them along the way and among the people, and driving out the people in the land. Because of what YHWH has done for them, they choose to serve YHWH.

In what might look like reverse psychology Joshua then tells them, “You cannot serve the YHWH!” (Joshua 24:19) He tells them that God is holy, and jealous, and if the people forsake God, God will not forgive.  Rather than reverse psychology, Joshua wants them to be sure of their choice and commitment, half-hearted loyalty to YHWH or fearing, loving, and trusting other gods have dire consequences.  This contrasts with the God known to us in Jesus the Christ who regularly comes to us with words of absolution and forgiveness, seventy times or seventy times seven times. God loves and forgives us with the hope and expectation that such love will lead to renewal in our lives, leading to growth in faith and to faith active in love. How do we reconcile these differences?  Part of our human nature is to make sense of things that happen. If we remember this book was written not as a history but for people who were returning from exile.  To make sense of their exile, of why God would let it happen they can point to this warning of God’s unforgiving nature.  The Israelites in this story respond, “No, we will serve YHWH” (Joshua 24:21).  The Jewish people returning from Babylonian exile also have the choice.  For them, the choice Is between the Babylonian gods, or continuing to serve YHWH, their God, even though they were not protected from the exile.  Still God is faithful.

Joshua then challenges the people to be witnesses against themselves, to be self-critical, and to confess their sins. Just as they would accuse the offender of any agreement to which they were witnesses, so they must examine themselves to see whether in fact they fear, love, and trust God above everything else.  For a third time they affirmation to serve YHWH this time adding they will obey.

  • Is God always first in our lives, or do we not in fact often serve other gods, by sins of omission and commission?
  • What does the fact that we have choice say to you about the character of God?

Rev Tammy Hollands