Friday of Week 19 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Joshua 24:1-13

We go to the end of the book of Joshua. The intervening chapters which we have skipped deal mainly with the conquest of the Promised Land by the Israelites and later with the sharing out of the land among the tribes of Israel.

In this first part, Joshua asks his hearers to recognise God’s intervention on behalf of Israel. We will read the second half of the address in tomorrow’s reading.

An ancient tradition underlies this chapter. It possibly implies something more than a renewal of the covenant, namely, an offer of the Israelites’ faith to associated groups which had not experienced either the marvels or the revelation of the desert period. However this may be, the pact of Shechem confirmed the religious unity and thus preserved the political unity of the tribes. It was to have a decisive effect on the history of the nation.

Chapter 23 begins Joshua’s last words and testament, and today’s reading is part of a great assembly at Shechem where Israel is once called to a renewal of the covenant. It was Joshua’s final official act as the Lord’s servant, mediator of the Lord’s rule over his people. In this he followed the example of Moses, whose final official act was also a call to covenant renewal – of which Deuteronomy is the preserved document.

With its position right in the centre of the country, Shechem was ideally suited for tribal gatherings and its history made it the ideal place for making this religious pact. Abraham had built an altar there, Jacob had bought land there, and there had been buried the idols brought from Mesopotamia.

Joshua asks his hearers to recognise God’s ever-continuing intervention on behalf of Israel. The elders of Israel, its leaders, judges, and officials are all assembled in the presence of the Lord. Joshua then addresses the people bringing a message from Yahweh. Only a divinely appointed mediator would dare to speak for God with direct discourse, as Joshua does here.

There follows a brief history of all that God has done for his people from the earliest times. In accordance with the common ancient Near Eastern practice of making treaties (covenants), a brief recital of the past history of the relationship precedes the making of covenant commitments. Joshua here focuses on the separation of Abraham from his polytheistic family, the deliverance of Israel from Egypt and the Lord’s establishment of his people in Canaan.

From time immemorial their ancestors, Terah, father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshipped other gods. The ‘River’ is the Euphrates. We know that Abraham originally came from Ur of the Chaldees, in the south of present-day Iraq.

Yahweh then brought Abraham from across the River and led him through the length and breadth of Canaan (where the people have now returned).

Abraham had, as promised, many descendants:

-There was Isaac, who had two sons, Jacob and Esau.
-To Esau was given the land of Seir, while Jacob and his sons settled in Egypt.
-Then he sent Moses and Aaron, brought the plagues on Egypt and then led his people out.

As they left and reached the Sea of Reeds pursued by the Egyptians, the Lord put a cloud between his people and the Egyptians, who were drowned in the waters.

-After that, for a long time they lived in the desert (there is no mention of Sinai).
-He then brought them to the land of the Amorites, who lived on the east side of the Jordan.
-The Amorites made war on the Israelites but were defeated and their country captured.
-Then Balak, son of Zippor, king of Moab, made war on Israel.
-He sent for Balaam, son of Beor, to go and curse the Israelites.

But the Lord would not listen to Balaam; instead, he turned Balaam’s curse into a blessing (see Num 23-24).

The Israelites then crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho. While the peoples of Jericho made war on the Israelites, God tells them:

I put them all at your mercy.

Yahweh also sent hornets ahead of the Israelites, which drove out the two Amorite kings. ‘Hornets’ may refer to the Egyptians who had long used the hornet as a national symbol, in which case Egypt’s military campaigns in Canaan may be in mind. But “the hornet” may also refer to the reports about Israel that spread panic among the Canaanites (see Jos 2:11; 5:1; 9:24). It may also simply indicate some troublesome afflictions, even leprosy. In any case, all that happened was God’s work. It was:

…not the work of your sword or of your bow.

Finally, Yahweh reminds his people:

I have given you a country for which you have not toiled, towns you have not built, although you live in them, vineyards and olive groves you have not planted, although you eat their fruit.

All in all, Yahweh is making clear that he has been with his people all the way from the earliest times to the present. Let them not think that it is all their own doing. At the same time, he is offering them a choice to continue following Yahweh or to opt for the far lesser gods of the surrounding peoples which they are often tempted to follow.

Maybe we too might look back and see the hand of God in the events of our lives, things which happened quite beyond our expectations or our ability to bring them about.

We might also reflect what are the gods in our lives we are tempted to follow. The gods of mammon: money, career, success, enjoyment, consumerism, status and image. Can we really opt for these gods and still be totally committed to the one God?

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