We are studying select verses of Joshua 24 for Sunday, December 9, along with everyone else who is using the Uniform Series texts; specifically, we’re studying verses 1-3, 13-15, and 21-24. This week, the specific selection of verses matters more than we might think, it seems to me. Here are my notes on the text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The book of Joshua is one of those parts of the Bible that fuel pitched ideological battles in other regions of the internet.
Here, I just assume that it’s part of the Deuteronomistic history. I don’t think any of my teachers at seminary had a problem with that, including the most hard-core inerrantist ones, so why keep fighting that battle? Date of composition, sometime between 6th and 7th century BCE, maybe right around the time of the exile, maybe right after the return. I incline towards “during,” at least for this part of the book, based on the evidence of verse 20, just because it doesn’t seem to square with a post-exilic perspective. Would someone who had just been through the most unanticipated redemptive experience to date go ahead and write down the text of Joshua 24:20? I’m guessing not.
Either way, though, this is text that views Israelite sacred history from the perspective of the Babylonian conquest and exile. It reflects a keen appreciation for the dire consequences of idolatry and of ignoring sensationalistic prophetic warnings, which turned out to be both more realistic and more gracious than people fully appreciated at the time. At least, that’s the way I read it.
Joshua 24 is the last word in this book. It follows the book’s account of the history of Israel from the death of Moses (Joshua 1:1) to the death of Joshua [military/political leader] and Eleazar [priestly leader] (Joshua 24:29-33). This includes the events of crossing the Jordan river, the “Battle of Jericho” that everyone who ever sang camp songs knows Joshua “fit,” all the other fighting associated with the conquest of Canaan, the division of the land among the tribes [the plat numbers are listed, basically, in chapters 13-21], and the final address by Joshua to “all the people.” So part of that final address is our reading for Sunday.
After that comes everything in the rest of the historical narrative, most immediately the events described in the book of Judges. In other words: everyone who already knows this story knows that “all the people” are not going to do what they are saying they will do here in chapter 24 of Joshua at all.
So the rhetoric that sounds so inspiring and resolute in this particular narrative moment is just that: big talk, that is going to end in epic failure, though not quite in the most literal sense of the word “epic.” We don’t have a counterpart to the Iliad in the Bible. The book of Joshua is about as close to that as this literature gets. [Thank YHWH God. And while we’re on that subject, maybe we could try not to forget all about that other ancient literature when we’re stressing over the violence in the book of Joshua. Not at all saying that we shouldn’t stress. Just noting that the book of Joshua is not uniquely violent ancient literature.]
CLOSER READING: We are reading the narrator’s introduction to the chapter along with the very beginning of Joshua’s recitation of the “saving acts of God,” beginning with Abraham’s family (v3) and ending with the entry into/gift of the land (v13), most of which we skip, picking up again with Joshua’s concluding instruction and declaration of fealty to YHWH (vv14-15), skipping the people’s initial answer and Joshua’s objection, possibly ritualized (vv16-20), and picking up again with the people’s response to the objection, Joshua’s reply, and the people’s final response (vv21-24). We skip the procedural details in vv24-28, including setting up a monument to this covenant, and the epilogue in vv29-33.
Reading it this way makes for streamlined reading, and avoids some of the unpleasantness hiding out in vv4-12 and 16-20. Which I’m also happy to avoid. At least this week.
[Of course, just because we’re not reading it doesn’t mean it’s gone away. At some point, each of us probably has to decide whether we believe that the God we worship decreed genocide in Bible times, and was serious when He told Joshua to tell the people that He would not forgive them their sins and transgressions if they did not serve Him the way they said they would. And I am fairly sure that what we decide about this matters. As for me – and I’m not in a position to speak for my household – I will serve the One who said “comfort, comfort my people” and “love your enemies” and “he is not willing that any should perish,” and try to swim in my lane.]
Verses 1-2 emphasize Israel, in its entirety: all the tribes, all the kinds of officials, and “all the people.” Israel serves as a refrain: underscoring the identity of the people.
Joshua’s speech is presented as prophetic speech, that is, introduced with the formula “Thus says YHWH, the God of Israel” (v2). Joshua is not speaking for himself, but for God.
It’s YHWH God, and this is emphatic as well. In our few verses, the name of God recurs nine times. YHWH God is the object of service, which is also emphasized. The verb “to serve” recurs even more often than the name of God.
The stark point is that a choice has to be made: which god(s) are you-all going to serve? The foreign ones, or YHWH God, the God who did everything in vvv3-13, including giving you all this land and towns and vineyards and olive yards that you didn’t build or plant.
[Implied: Because someone else built them and planted them. And God took them away from those people and gave them to you all. So, God could do the same thing again, and take them away from you all, and give them to someone else. It seems to me that this view of things would feel straightforwardly descriptive from the perspective of the Babylonian exile.]
V2 sounds a bit like Abraham is serving other gods beyond the river at some point, along with Terah and Nahor, but we know from other sources – midrash – that it can’t mean this. Maybe that’s why Rashi doesn’t bother to comment on this verse.
In v24, where the people say “YHWH God we will serve, and him we will obey,” they literally say “to his voice we will listen.” This, for some reason, seems particularly significant to me.
The main thing is knowing whose voice to listen to.