Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
The last chapters (31-34) of Deuteronomy report the beginnings of the transfer of leadership from Moses to Joshua. Deuteronomy 33 is Moses’ farewell speech, and Deuteronomy 34 tells of Moses’ death and burial.
After Moses’ died, God called Joshua to assume leadership of the Israelites (1:1-9). Joshua led the people, beginning with crossing the Jordan River to take the Promised Land (chapters 2-3). Like Moses, he conquered many kings (chapter 12). He supervised the parceling out of land among the tribes (chapters 13-22).
Chapters 23 and 24 are the final chapters of the book of Joshua. Each of those chapters includes a farewell speech by Joshua, and chapter 24 includes an account of Joshua’s death (24:29-31). Note the similarity between the accounts of Moses and Joshua in their final days.
In chapter 24, Joshua leads the people in a covenant renewal ceremony. A covenant is an agreement between two parties. Essentially legal contracts, covenants typically describe what is required of each of the parties and the benefits that each can expect to enjoy. The covenant that Yahweh had established with Israel began with Abram, long before there was an Israel (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:18-20). Yahweh renewed this covenant with Moses (Exodus 24) and Joshua (Joshua 24) and Jehoiada (2 Kings 11) and Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 29:10 and Josiah (2 Kings 23:3) and David (2 Samuel 7:12-17).
This book was written during the Babylonian Exile—when Jerusalem and the temple lay in ruins. This report of the earlier covenant renewal would offer great encouragement to the Israelites in the midst of their exile.
JOSHUA 24:1-3a. THUS SAYS YAHWEH
1Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and called for the elders of Israel, for their heads, for their judges, and for their officers; and they presented themselves before God. 2Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel, ‘Your fathers lived of old time beyond the River, even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nahor: and they served other gods. 3I took your father Abraham from beyond the River, and led him throughout all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his seed, and gave him Isaac.
“Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem” (v. 1a). This is very close to the wording of 23:2, where Joshua summoned these same people, saying, “I am old and well advanced in years.” What follows is a farewell speech in which he is preparing the people for his death—in much the same way that Moses earlier prepared the people for his death (Deuteronomy 31-33).
Joshua gathers the people at Shechem, a town located approximately 30 miles (50 km) north of Jerusalem (Jerusalem would have been known as Jebus at this time—see 15:8; 18:28). The last national assembly took place in Shiloh (18:1). Shechem is quite near Mount Ebal, where Abraham had built an altar to Yahweh (Genesis 12:6-7)—and where Joshua had held an earlier covenant renewal ceremony (8:30-35). Mount Gerizim is also nearby. Jacob had purchased a plot of land in Shechem (Genesis 33:18-19). After Joshua dies, the people will bury Joseph’s bones in that plot of ground (Joshua 24:32).
“and called for the elders of Israel, for their heads, for their judges, and for their officers; and they presented themselves before God“ (v. 1b). As we will see in verse 2, Joshua intends to address all the people. However, he summons Israel’s leadership for the purpose of presenting themselves to God. He understands that the people are not likely to remain faithful to the covenant if the leaders aren’t faithful.
“Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel, ‘Your fathers lived of old time beyond the River, even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nahor: and they served other gods‘” (v. 2). This begins a recounting of the history of Yahweh and Israel that will continue through verse 13.
Terah had three sons—Abraham, Nahor, and Haran (Genesis 11:26)—but Joshua mentions only Abraham and Nahor. Haran was Lot’s father. He died in Ur while Terah was still living (Genesis 11:28). We don’t know why Joshua omits his name.
“lived beyond the Euphrates” (nahar—river) (v. 2b). While nahar doesn’t specify which river, we know that Terah lived in Mesopotamia, beyond the Euphrates River.
“and they served other gods” (v. 2b). This was before Yahweh made a covenant with Abraham. It would have been quite common for people of that time and place to worship a multitude of gods.
“I took your father Abraham from beyond the River, and led him throughout all the land of Canaan“ (v. 3a). Terah, Abram, Sarai, and Lot had set out for Canaan, but “when they came to Haran, they settled there” (Genesis 11:31)—Haran being another Mesopotamian town. Terah died in Haran (Genesis 11:32), after which Yahweh called Abram, saying, “Get out of your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you.” (Genesis 12:1-3).
It is significant that Yahweh called Abraham to leave his family and the land he had known. Living in that place, it would have been difficult for Abraham to break the ties to his family’s gods. Yahweh called Abraham to a land that he would show him—a land where Abram’s descendants would one day live—a land that is still called holy today.
“and multiplied his seed, and gave him Isaac“ (v. 3b). The story of Isaac’s birth is so familiar that I will recount it only in broad strokes. Abraham and Sarah were childless until they were quite old. Isaac was a miracle child, born after Abraham and Sarah were too old to have children. Isaac became the father of Jacob and Esau, and Jacob became the father of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph. By the time the Israelites departed Egypt, Abraham’s descendants numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Since then, the number of Jacob’s descendants has become incalculable.
JOSHUA 24:3b-13. HISTORICAL REVIEW
These verses continue the historical review that began in verse 2. It recalls Egypt and the Exodus. It tells of Yahweh giving the Israelites victories over the Amorites, the Moabites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Gergashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Yahweh says, “I delivered them into your hand” (v. 11). Yahweh concludes this review by saying, “I gave you a land whereon you had not labored, and cities which you didn’t build, and you live in them. You eat of vineyards and olive groves which you didn’t plant” (v. 13).
Yahweh is reminding the Israelites of the wonderful things that he has done for them in the past. Because of their history with Yahweh, they have good reason to trust that he will do wonderful things for them in the future as well—if they are faithful to him.
JOSHUA 24:14-15. FEAR AND SERVE YAHWEH
14“Now therefore fear Yahweh, and serve him in sincerity (Hebrew: tamam) and in truth. Put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River, in Egypt; and serve Yahweh. 15If it seems evil to you to serve Yahweh, choose this day whom you will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve Yahweh.”
“Verses 14-24 correspond to stipulations in a treaty document” (Hess). Stipulations are conditions or requirements specified in a legal document. In these verses, Joshua tells the people what is expected of them in their relationship with Yahweh.
“Now therefore fear Yahweh” (v. 14a). Sometimes people fear God because they have done something wrong and fear retribution, but “fear God” often means something entirely different—reverence and faith that lead to obedience.
•Fear of the Lord is serving the Lord and the Lord only (Deuteronomy 6:13).
•It is observing God’s commandments (Deuteronomy 28:58).
•Fear of the Lord is “the beginning of knowledge,” in the sense that the person who fears God will be open to instruction by God (Proverbs 1:7).
•It is often the result of seeing God’s power in action (Exodus 14:31).
•Fear of the Lord requires righteousness (Acts 10:22), faithful service to God, and rejection of false gods (Joshua 24:14).
•Fear of the Lord insures God’s mercy (Luke 1:50), and results in spiritual prosperity (Acts 9:31).
“Behold, Yahweh’s eye is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his loving kindness” (Psalm 33:18), so those who fear the Lord can sing:
“Our soul has waited for Yahweh.
He is our help and our shield.
For our heart rejoices in him,
because we have trusted in his holy name.
Let your loving kindness be on us, Yahweh,
since we have hoped in you” (Psalm 33:20-22).
“and serve him in sincerity (tamam) and in truth” (’emet) (v. 14b). The word tamam means “to be complete, to finish, to conclude. At its root, this word carries the connotation of finishing or bringing closure” (Baker and Carpenter, 1233). This word is used elsewhere to describe a sheep without blemish or an upright life. In this verse, the word tamam means serving God without exception. It means a life committed to God.
The word ’emet means “truth” and “faithfulness.” Truth and faithfulness are characteristics of God, so Godly people need to manifest these virtues. Truth and faithfulness are different, but related. A person who is faithful will not only tell the truth, but will also live a true life—in the sense that the person’s life will hew to a straight and narrow pathway rather than being subject to every whim and temptation. The person who is ’emet will be steadfast—rock-steady.
“Put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River, in Egypt; and serve Yahweh“ (v. 14c). Just as a vassal would be expected to serve his king loyally, a person who serves Yahweh in tamam and in ’emet will be expected to serve Yahweh exclusively. There must be no turning to the right or left—no idols hidden away for secret worship—no allegiances above their allegiance to Yahweh and no allegiances that conflict with their allegiance to Yahweh.
The ancestors beyond the (Euphrates) River would be Terah and his family. While we don’t know of specific instances where Israel worshiped other gods in Egypt, Leviticus says, “they may no longer offer their sacrifices for goat-demons, to whom they prostitute themselves” (Leviticus 17:7)—and Deuteronomy says, “They moved him to jealousy with strange gods. They provoked him to anger with abominations” (Deuteronomy 32:16). And, of course, the Israelites had not been gone from Egypt very long before they built and worshiped a golden calf (Exodus 32).
“If it seems evil to you to serve Yahweh, choose this day whom you will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell“ (v. 15a). This is decision time! Joshua challenges these people to make a decision—to get on one side of the fence or the other—to commit themselves wholeheartedly to Yahweh or to whomever else they might prefer. They have a choice, but they may not choose to straddle the line. Joshua presses the issue by insisting that they make their decision “this day.”
“but as for me and my house, we will serve Yahweh” (v. 15b). Joshua exercises a fundamental principle of leadership—leading by example. He and his family will demonstrate in their personal lives that they have chosen to serve Yahweh. By doing so, they hope to lead the fence-straddlers to move to the Yahweh side of the fence. They hope to influence the entire nation of Israel by their personal example. The next verse suggests that they will be successful—although we know from subsequent events in Hebrew history that the people will turn out to be fickle and often unfaithful.
JOSHUA 24:16-18. WE ALSO WILL SERVE YAHWEH
16The people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake Yahweh, to serve other gods; 17for it is Yahweh our God who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, and who did those great signs in our sight, and preserved us in all the way in which we went, and among all the peoples through the midst of whom we passed. 18Yahweh drove out from before us all the peoples, even the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve Yahweh; for he is our God.”
“The people answered, ‘Far be it from us that we should forsake Yahweh, to serve other gods'”(v. 16). The people respond affirmatively to Joshua’s challenge. They make it sound as if it was a foregone conclusion that they would abandon any other gods and serve Yahweh exclusively, but that is hardly the case. They have been unfaithful in the past, and we know that they will be unfaithful in the future—but for the moment they have decided to cast their lot with the Lord Yahweh.
“for it is Yahweh our God who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, and who did those great signs in our sight, and preserved us in all the way in which we went, and among all the peoples through the midst of whom we passed“ (v. 17). As proof that they mean to keep their pledge to serve Yahweh, the people recount the history of the blessings that they have received at Yahweh’s hand. They remember, in particular, the Exodus and their long journey through the wilderness. Yahweh has been faithful to them in the past, so they have reason to trust him for their future.
“Yahweh drove out from before us all the peoples, even the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve Yahweh; for he is our God“ (v. 18). The people use the word Amorites to refer to the inhabitants of Canaan and the surrounding lands. It was only recently that God had provided a series of victories over the inhabitants of the Promised Land (chapters 6-12), so those would be fresh in the people’s minds.
JOSHUA 24:19-20: YAHWEH IS A HOLY GOD
19Joshua said to the people, “You can’t serve Yahweh; for he is a holy (Hebrew: qadosh) God. He is a jealous (Hebrew: qanno) God. He will not forgive your disobedience nor your sins. 20If you forsake Yahweh, and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you evil, and consume you, after he has done you good.”
“Joshua said to the people, ‘You can’t serve Yahweh; for he is a holy (qadosh) God'” (v. 19a). The word qadosh denotes something that is sacred or holy—separate or set apart.
There is an emphasis on holiness in the Hebrew Scriptures that begins with the account of Moses at the burning bush. God told Moses, “Don’t come close. Take your sandals off of your feet, for the place you are standing on is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). That verse gives us a clue to the meaning of holiness. Nothing could seem more common and less holy than ordinary dirt, but the Lord told Moses that the ordinary dirt on which he was standing was holy ground. While that verse doesn’t say so in so many words, it implies that the ground on which Moses is standing is holy because of the presence of God. God is holy, and God’s presence sanctifies all that it touches—even the soil beneath Moses’ feet.
That burning bush episode further tells us that God expects people who find themselves in holy circumstances to respond by acting reverently in the presence of the holy. In the burning bush episode, Moses was to demonstrate his reverence by maintaining a distance between himself and the burning bush. He was also to take off his sandals to show reverence for the holy ground on which he found himself standing.
The Hebrew Scriptures consistently present God and God’s name as holy.
The Hebrew word, qadosh, means holy in the sense that God has set aside a person or thing for a holy purpose. Thus the sabbath is holy, because God established the sabbath as a day of rest and worship. Israel is holy because God chose Israel to be God’s covenant people. The tabernacle and temple are holy, because God set them aside as places for people to worship and to experience the presence of God. Priests and Levites are holy because God set them apart for his service.
All holiness is derivative—derived from the holiness of God. The sabbath is holy because God made it so. The tabernacle and temple are holy because of God’s presence. The nation Israel is to be holy because they are in a covenant relationship with God.
Leviticus 10:10 says that Aaron and his descendants (the priests) “are to make a distinction between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.”
To be chosen by God to be a holy people is a great honor, but it confers obligations as well as privileges. As God’s holy people, Israel incurs an obligation to live as a holy people. This requires obedience to God’s laws. Jewish law spells out in some detail what God expects his covenant people to do in response to being chosen as God’s people.
The surprise in this verse is that Joshua tells these people that they cannot serve the Lord. He has just called them to serve the Lord (v. 14), so why would he now say that they cannot do that. It would seem that Joshua is just trying to emphasize the distance between the human and the divine—the holy and the profane. It would also seem that he is trying to let these people know that it can be a dangerous thing to say that you will serve the Lord. The Lord is holy and jealous, so the person who says that he will serve the Lord and then fails to do so can expect to suffer serious consequences.
“He is a jealous (qanno) God. He will not forgive your disobedience nor your sins” (v. 19b). Once again, we are surprised at Joshua’s statement that God will not forgive their sins. That runs counter to everything that we have heard elsewhere about God—that God is merciful—that God seeks to redeem the sinner.
Once again, it would seem that Joshua is simply trying to emphasize the seriousness of the decision that he is putting before these Israelites. They dare not make their decision to serve the Lord lightly, because the Lord is a jealous God.
This word qanno can be used of jealousy or zeal. The Lord does not take his people lightly, but is passionate in his love for them—zealous for the relationship that exists between Israel and Yahweh. When Joshua tells these people that God is a jealous God, he is telling them that they are playing with fire—if their commitment is less than total. God will not countenance half-hearted religion.
“If you forsake Yahweh, and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you evil, and consume you, after he has done you good“ (v. 20). In verses 2-13, Yahweh gave the Israelites a brief synopsis of the blessings that Israel had enjoyed through their relationship with Yahweh. Yahweh had done great things for Israel in the past, so he could be expected to do great things for them in the future.
But this verse presents the flip side of that picture. If they turn unfaithful, the blessings of the covenant will turn into curses. Yahweh will punish them and consume them.
We should note that, in the history of Israel after this point in time, we will see Israel forsaking Yahweh repeatedly—and Yahweh punishing Israel repeatedly. We need to remember, though, that the punishments that Yahweh meted out to Israel were intended to be redemptive rather than vindictive. Yahweh would not only raise up Nebuchadnezzar to destroy Jerusalem and to take the people into exile. In due time, he would also raise up Cyrus to give Israelites freedom to return to their homeland and to rebuild Jerusalem. That redemptive pattern will be typical in the ongoing relationship between Israel and Yahweh.
JOSHUA 24:21-25. YOU ARE WITNESSES AGAINST YOURSELVES
21The people said to Joshua, “No; but we will serve Yahweh.” 22Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen Yahweh yourselves, to serve him.” They said, “We are witnesses.” 23“Now therefore put away the foreign gods which are among you, and incline your heart to Yahweh, the God of Israel.” 24The people said to Joshua, “We will serve Yahweh our God, and we will listen to his voice.” 25So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made for them a statute and an ordinance in Shechem.
“The people said to Joshua, ‘No; but we will serve Yahweh'” (v. 21). The people reaffirm their dedication to serve Yahweh.
“Joshua said to the people, ‘You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen Yahweh yourselves, to serve him.’ They said, ‘We are witnesses'” (v. 22). The word “witness” is usually associated with legal proceedings. Witnesses help to establish what actually happened. To be a credible witness, a person needs to have observed personally the action about which he/she is bearing testimony. Mosaic law requires the testimony of two witnesses to convict a person of a crime.
Joshua establishes that these people have observed what has happened here—have participated willingly in their commitment to serve Yahweh and only Yahweh. If they fail to live up to that commitment, they will be required to serve as witnesses against themselves. Whatever happens as a result of their unfaithfulness, they will be in no position to blame Yahweh.
“Now therefore put away the foreign gods which are among you, and incline your heart to Yahweh, the God of Israel“ (v. 23). Joshua demands that they put away foreign gods. The implication is that they have not yet done so.
Joshua also demands that they “incline (their hearts) to Yahweh, the God of Israel.” Physically, our hearts are at the core of our being, located roughly at the center of our torsos. These people thought of the heart as the center, not only of the physical body, but of the whole person. The heart governs their thought processes, their emotions, and their decisions. To incline their hearts to Yahweh means that they will love Yahweh with all their hearts, souls, and might (Deuteronomy 6:5).
“The people said to Joshua, ‘We will serve Yahweh our God, and we will listen to his voice‘” (v. 24). The people reaffirm once again their commitment to Yahweh—and to the exclusive nature of that commitment.
“So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made for them a statute and an ordinance in Shechem“ (v. 25). A covenant is an agreement between two parties. Essentially legal contracts, covenants typically describe what is required of each of the parties and the benefits that each can expect to enjoy. Examples of human covenants would include everything from an agreement between two men to a treaty between two or more nations. In the ancient world, covenants were binding agreements, and people entering into covenants would usually ratify a covenant by swearing oaths and making ritual sacrifices.
The covenant that Yahweh established with Israel began with Abram, long before there was an Israel (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:18-20). Yahweh renewed this covenant with Moses (Exodus 24) and Joshua (Joshua 24) and Jehoiada (2 Kings 11) and Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 29:10 and Josiah (2 Kings 23:3) and David (2 Samuel 7:12-17).
Covenants between Yahweh and Israel were routinely ratified by blood sacrifice (Genesis 15:9-11; Exodus 24:5-8; 29:38-46; see also Matthew 26:28; Hebrews 9:15-22). The covenant between Yahweh and Israel was many-faceted, but Yahweh summarized its essential provisions in his promise to Abram:
“Get out of your country, and from your relatives,
and from your father’s house,
to the land that I will show you.
I will make of you a great nation.
I will bless you and make your name great.
You will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and I will curse him who curses you.
All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you.”
This verse tells us that Joshua made a covenant with the people. It might be more accurate to say that Joshua brokered a covenant between the Israelites and Yahweh—persuading the people to commit themselves to the generous terms laid down by Yahweh. While the people made their commitments in Joshua’s presence, their ties are not to Joshua, who will soon die, but to Yahweh.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2012, 2015, Richard Niell Donovan