Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 12, 2023
Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25 Commentary
Comments, Observations and Questions:
A Choosing Place:
Shechem was the site of Jacob putting away foreign gods (Gen 35) recitation of the law (Joshua 8) and the rape of Dinah, leading to decisions about the relationship between God’s people and the other people of the land. “The setting of this episode thus creates an atmosphere infused with memories of confrontation and commitment, a scenic ambience that magnifies Joshua’s challenge that Israel choose whom it will serve.”
The part that is skipped over in the lectionary reading includes a retelling of the people’s history. Verse 14 signals a shift from the indicative mood, a narrative of God’s faithfulness, to the imperative mood, will God’s people respond with loyalty to the God of their liberation and landing?
That word, “serve” is central to the text, used first in verse two, indicating the original religion of the people who were to become Israel through God’s choosing. They served other gods to begin with. The word emerges again 7 times in two verses (14-15) in which the fundamental choice is outlined. Then, in verses 16-24 it is repeated again — 7 times — in a strange back-and-forth between Joshua and the people in which the people promise to serve God but Joshua questions their sincerity, which the people affirm and then Joshua doubts their capacity to which the people reply with a resounding, “No! We will serve the Lord.”
Joshua is in a unique position in this chapter. He continues to wear the mantle of Moses, a “covenant mediator,” like we saw in last week’s reading. But here, in this reading, he goads the people, is almost adversarial, dismissive and perhaps even accusatory, preemptively blaming the people for abandoning the covenant they haven’t even made yet! Rather than the grace and faithfulness of God, here Joshua changes his tune as though to say, “When y’all don’t follow through — and y’all are going to fail to follow through — God will not fail to follow through in discipline and judgment. One commentator frames Joshua’s argument like this: “This arrangement will never work … because YHWH will not forgive the nation’s transgressions.”
One might be tempted to think that, with encouraging leaders like this, who needs discouraging enemies! What is Joshua doing? One commentary argues that there are three purposes to Joshua’s strange speech:
- this is a serious and consequential decision. This will be more challenging than the people think because, as we learn through a lifetime of trying to follow Jesus, other — often easier — options are always on offer.
- In a text that does not allow for all caps or italics, repetition serves the purpose of amplifying people’s responses and there is plenty of repetition here, thanks to Joshua’s reinforcing prompts.
- From the outset, the people are reminded that all the goodness they are receiving and will ever receive in the land ultimately rests on God’s gracious favor. “Even Israel’s fidelity is derivative and reactive, a response to YHWH’s deeds.”
Rather than asking for a person-by-person affirmation in which the majority vote wins, Joshua leads by example and offers his household — the smallest and most basic social unit. Joshua argues for a grassroots, rather than top-down faithfulness. “Israel’s distinctive identity will be constituted and preserved by the decisions of the myriad households that comprise the nation.”
The faithfulness that Joshua models for and requests from God’s people begins in a smaller unit, that of the family. However, an ancient Israelite household was far bigger than a contemporary nuclear family, so perhaps we read this text best beyond the walls of our homes and in the church, school or neighborhood community groups we are part of. The following illustration may spur some creative thinking regarding local mission even as it confronts the pernicious and vicious god of partisanship vying for the loyalty of God’s people in our congregations.
Illustration & Mission Idea
In this moment of US cultural history, it can be easy to “cheer” for national politics with the same enthusiasm as a sports fan dons their jersey to sit on the couch, eating snacks while yelling plays at the television set. In this frame of mind, the work of cheering on our political team is supplanted by a local commitment to “serve the Lord.” In the context of ancient Israel, there was no difference between serving God privately and serving God publicly. In fact, one couldn’t be said to be truly doing the former if not also engaging in the latter. As Dr. Robert Coote writes for the New Interpreter’s Commentary, “if we wish to reflect wisely on the meaning of loyalty in the Bible, we have no choice but to include the political dimension in our thinking.”
This does not necessarily or most effectively mean national politics but, rather, every effort to love our neighbor in local action and policy. For example, Biblical loyalty and a commitment like Joshua’s (“as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord”) might look like efforts to fund after-school programming, ensure safe streets and safe policing in our neighborhoods. Rather than grabbing a handful of chips and shouting commentary at the TV news shows, this kind of effort gets us on our feet, in our sneakers, tagging in for a pick-up game, a PTA or neighborhood association meeting. By these local efforts we meet our neighbors in order to love them through friendship, advocacy and policy that echoes the promise of God’s people on the plains of Shechem, “We will serve the Lord!”
*Unless otherwise specified, the quotations in this sermon commentary are taken from the Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry commentary on Joshua by L. Daniel Hawk
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