Opening The Old Testament
Whom Will You Choose? Reflections on Joshua 24
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Joshua 24 has long been a favorite of preachers, both Jewish and Christian. The stirring call of Joshua, the commander of the victorious forces of Israel, to "choose this day whom you will serve" has echoed down the centuries, providing countless preachers with a call to arms whether those arms be literal or metaphorical. But as I read this famous passage, I wonder whether its focus is in fact on the call to choose YHWH as God or rather on the huge difficulty and danger that such a choice entails.
The entire book of Joshua is an imaginative narrative of the near complete victory of the Israelites over those who had been living in the land that YHWH had promised to hand over to God's chosen people. This chapter continually calls those defeated peoples "Amorites," a quite general and not easily understood designation that says little or nothing about their actual identity. The history that may or may not lie beneath this tale has, of course, been the source of endless contention among scholars for hundreds of years. I do not have time to rehearse even the tiniest fragment of that struggle here, but suffice it say that Joshua's portrait of conquest is, even in the Bible itself, called into the most serious question.
In the book of the Judges, a supposed follow-up to the glories of Joshua's conquest, we are told clearly that "Beth-shean, Taanach, Ibleam, Megiddo, Kitron, Gezer, Acco, Sidon," among many other northern Canaanite cities, remained in Canaanite hands well after the supposed conquests of Joshua (Jud 1:27-33). In short, the tradition itself denies the thorough defeat of those in the land of promise, right after suggesting that is precisely what happened! As a side note, history and archaeology side with those who reject any notion of the book of Joshua providing any sort of solid historical account of what happened.
Hence, like much of the Bible, Joshua is idealized history, or theological history. The picture of the grizzled army general, Joshua, standing imperiously at the sacred site of Shechem (not even 20 miles south of many of those cities that Judges revealed had NOT been conquered!), urging his troops to choose the worship of the great battle God, YHWH, is more the stuff of movies than it is the stuff of history. Still, that should be no impediment to finding in the scene a very valuable warning about the too-easy acceptance of this God who is more demanding than we want to admit.
Joshua begins his colorful speech with the famous "messenger formula of the prophets: thus says YHWH, the God of Israel" (24:2). In this way, Joshua uses words chosen by nearly all of the canonically later (Joshua has been heavily edited by the 7th century Deuteronomist) prophets, Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, etc. He then provides a narrative summary of what has brought the people of Israel to this place in their long journey from Ur to Egyptian slavery, to the wonders of the Sea of Reeds, to the rigors of the wilderness, to the east side of Jordan and its defeated king, specifically Balak of Moab, and finally to the land of promise where the Amorites were beaten by the power of YHWH (vss 2-13). (Note that Joshua gives no hint of the Sinai covenant and the Ten Commandments, causing scholars no end of headaches at they sought to explain this enormous lacuna in the recital!)
But now after that history lesson, Joshua comes to the meat of his sermon. "Now," he begins, meaning perhaps "after all that I have reminded you of," "Fear (worship, revere) YHWH; serve (obey) only YHWH with uprightness (tamim) and faithfulness (emeth); put away (reject) the gods whom your ancestors served beyond the river and in Egypt, and serve YHWH" (vs 14). The implication of these words is plain: it was often easy for the ancient ones of Israel to fall into false worship in those places where they have lived up to now, namely, beyond the river (the Euphrates) and in Egypt. But now that the promise of YHWH has been fulfilled, there can be no excuse for worshipping and serving any other god in the land of promise. Immediately in vs 15, however, Joshua holds up the possibility, however ludicrous, that these people may decide not to worship YHWH, even in the face of the overwhelming evidence of YHWH's power and gift.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.