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Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

Writing about the Book of Joshua is hard.

If (unlike me) you believe in the importance of absolute biblical literality, it’s hard because Joshua’s narratives are chock-full of theft, plunder, and -let’s face it- divinely mandated ethnic and religious genocide. To say nothing of the text’s depiction of Yahweh as a jealous, seemingly capricious tribal warrior-god.

This is troubling on a lot of levels, not least because these messages contrast so sharply with the Sermon on the Mount. You know, the one in which Christ blesses peacemakers, forbids retaliation, rejects treasure-hoarding, and commands his followers to love their enemies.

Wow.

If (like me) you believe in the importance of historicity and literary criticism, it’s also hard because the events and chronologies described in Joshua simply do not fit what we now know about the peoples, geography, or socio-political history of the Ancient Near East during the period described (c. 13th century BCE).

For starters, neither religious scholars nor secular historians are entirely sure where the Israelites came from, how they came to settle in the highlands of Canaan, or who they may (or may not) have had to overpower to get there. What archaeologists can tell us is that of the 16 towns supposedly destroyed by the Israelites, perhaps 3 or 4 (at most) actually were. In fact, several towns mentioned in the conquest texts -including Ai and Jericho- probably weren’t even occupied during the time period the Book of Joshua describes.

So now what?

Let’s start by focusing on what the compilers of the text were trying to tell their readers.

The Book of Joshua was probably written and edited over the course of several decades between the mid-seventh and mid-sixth centuries BCE. Its stories describe human obedience and divine faithfulness, as well as the consequences of disobedience and God’s enduring promises. In doing so, the Book of Joshua addressed the hopes and fears of Judahites anticipating (and later experiencing) the social, economic, and theological horrors of the Babylonian Exile.

In the midst of great darkness, the Book of Joshua re-tells the story of an always-faithful God, an often-faithless Israel, and their relationship to the Land promised to them and their descendants.

“Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.’”

Here an elderly Joshua reminds the united people of Israel of their (somewhat scandalous) cultural history. They did not originally come from Canaan, and their distant ancestors did not even worship Yahweh! Nevertheless, it seems there is something very special about the relationship between this God, these People, and the Land. And in Chapter 24 Joshua urges the Israelites to renew their covenant promises to Yahweh before they take full possession of the Promised Land.

“‘Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.”

Joshua’s words provide an intriguing insight into proto-Israelite religious culture. Only a few generations removed from their miraculous deliverance from centuries of Egyptian slavery, it seems that the people of God have already resumed worshipping deities venerated by the surrounding nations and tribal groups. Indeed, to a nomadic, pastoral people, the allure of long-established regional fertility gods like Marduk and Baal must have been very strong.

“Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.’

It seems that God’s chosen people have already forgotten their covenantal vows: “You will be our God; we will be your People; and you will give us the Land.” But once more God (through Joshua) extends a chance for Israel to return to covenantal relationship. And once more -at least for now- God’s people promise to be faithful.

“Then the people answered, ‘Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.’”

And they did…sort of.

Joshua 24:31 records: “Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the Lord did for Israel.”

But readers of those words in seventh- and sixth-century BCE Judah would have known what Joshua and the early Israelites could not: that God’s people would repeatedly eschew Yahweh’s promised protection in the name of greed, militaristic violence, and idolatry.

That God’s people would still repeatedly eschew Yahweh’s promised protection in the name of greed, militaristic violence, and idolatry today.

And still Joshua’s challenge echoes to us across the centuries: “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

These are the words of the LORD.

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