YEAR A: PENTECOST 27
November 6, 2011
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Again we move quickly in our lectionary readings, this time to the end of the book of Joshua, and specifically to the covenant ceremony at Shechem. Israel has passed into the promised land. Conquest of that land (Joshua 6-11) has been accomplished and, according to the editors of the Book of Joshua, the land has been apportioned among the twelve tribes of Israel (Joshua 12-21). The whole episode is summed up in a number of scattered editorial remarks, e.g. Josh 11:23 ‘So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the LORD had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war.’ (cf. also Josh 21:43-45)
We noted last week (Joshua 3:7-17; Pentecost 26) that certain events in the crossing of the Jordan and entry into the promised land seemed to be parallel to events as Israel left Egypt: preparation, saving those inside marked houses, Passover, the passing through water on dry land. In today’s reading there is another parallel to an earlier event. Even as Israel made a covenant with Yahweh after entering the wilderness (Exod 19-24) so now they make a (re)new(ed) covenant after taking possession of the promised land. The principal concern of this covenant is loyalty to Yahweh (cf. Deut 5:7).
While this concern may seem like a reasonable reminder, more is suggested in the text than this. Joshua variously questions the people’s sincerity in their profession of faith or doubts their ability to keep their promises of loyalty. He almost cajoles them into their commitment. But we ought not to forget the context of this covenant scene. They have now entered the land; the promise made by Yahweh has been fulfilled. They have experienced the Lord’s faithfulness. They, in turn, have often been rebellious, doubting or afraid. Their firm assurance in v. 16 has a hollow ring to it. Yes, there is truth in their statement about what the Lord has done (vv. 17-18). But is there any certainty of what they pledge?
Herein lies the heart of the matter. Have this people really grasped what loyalty to Yahweh is about and requires of them? They entered into the covenant at Mt Horeb (Sinai), and Moses reminded them again of their obligations before entering the land (see Deuteronomy, e.g. 7:12-16). But is that enough? The passage today suggests not. There is a firm reminder here that at each stage of the journey with the Lord, there will be forces, strong forces, which will lure even those who have seen ‘those great signs’ (v. 17) to pursue less than faithful paths.
The reminder by Joshua that the people put away the gods their ancestors served from beyond the river (i.e. in Mesopotamia) and in Egypt is surprising. Right through Genesis we have the clear impression that the god who leads Abraham, Isaac, Jacob etc. is none other than Yahweh, the God who enters into covenant with them. Moreover, there is no record of the people serving in a faithful way the gods of Egypt. The references seem elusive, but no matter how strange they may be, they teach a clear lesson. Even at the point when the Lord’s promises are all fulfilled, when the promised land has been possessed, there will be further temptations to unfaithfulness. Even at that point when we perceive our faith to be strongest, most assured, and vindicated, there is the very present danger of unfaithfulness and the need to hear again the call to obedience and discipleship.
Temptations to unfaithfulness can also be extremely subtle. In this case Joshua cites ‘the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt’. Deep traditions within the community’s history, even if no longer held, can be persuasive still, pulling at almost invisible cords of family and community loyalty. Alternatively, even those ‘gods’ who have been oppressive in the past (the gods of Egypt) can be a strange source of comfort and security in an unknown place, as the people discovered in the wilderness. The Book of Deuteronomy also knows the subtlety of temptation even in the land of God’s promise (see Deuteronomy 13 and the potential sources of temptation there). At this point the language and themes in Joshua 24 bear strong similarity to much of the language and the themes of the Book of Deuteronomy (cf. Deut 4:34; 6:22; 7:19; 11:3 etc.).
Finally, it cannot go without notice that the fulfilment of Yahweh’s promise to his people involves cruel treatment of others, notably the former inhabitants of the land, the Amorites and others (v. 18). If we read this text literally, this raises a major problem. I think we have here a clear case in which we are to read the spirit of the text critically, and even have a right to question its literal meaning. Josh 21:45 makes the point: ‘Not one of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.’ The point that the editors of the Book of Joshua wish to make through their tale of the conquest of the promised land, is that even in the face of grave opposition, other uncertainties, and even our own unfaithfulness, the promises of God remain certain. That is the point we take from this text. Any thoughts of texts like this justifying the cruel and unjust dispossession of others, are firmly challenged by the Gospel and some other Old Testament texts. Furthermore, recent archaeological discoveries in Israel suggest strongly that the story of the conquest in Joshua is simply not a reasonable historical account of how Israel came to be in the promised land. Rather than the conquest of the land by a large invading force, the people of Israel probably had their origins among the very people the Book of Joshua says they dispossessed. At this point at least, the biblical story is especially to be read as a story about faith, not about history. It wants to stress unfailing loyalty to a God whose promises are unfailing.
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