Saturday of Week 19 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Joshua 24:14-29

This is the last of our readings from the book of Joshua. It is an immediate continuation of yesterday’s passage (vv 1-13) as Joshua gives his final words to the tribes gathered at Shechem. It consists of the second and third parts of the whole passage.

In part two of the reading (vv 14-24) all the people declare for Yahweh and renounce pagan gods, and in part three (vv 25-29) a covenant is adopted and its statutes committed to writing.

Having reminded them of all that Yahweh did for them from time immemorial down to the present, Joshua urges the people to fear the Lord and to serve him truly and sincerely. ‘Fear’ here means to trust, worship and serve in a spirit of deep respect for the immensity of God. There is no place for fear in the ordinary sense before our loving God:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. (1 John 4:18)

They are to get rid of the gods their polytheistic ancestors served those days long beyond the Euphrates in Mesopotamia and later in Egypt. In Ur and Haran, Abraham’s antecedents, Terah’s family, would have been exposed to the worship of the moon-god, Nanna(r) or Sin. The sin of building the golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai was primarily that of making an image of Yahweh, but it probably was also influenced by Apis, the sacred bull of Egypt.

With a slight touch of mockery, Joshua tells the people that, if they find serving Yahweh is not a good thing, let them make up their minds which gods they want to serve, whether those of their ancestors in Mesopotamia or those of the Amorites, in whose land they are right now. There is a suggestion that they are not totally committed.

As far as Joshua and his family are concerned, they will continue to serve Yahweh. Joshua publicly makes his own commitment, hoping to elicit a similar commitment from Israel.

With one voice, the people affirm their allegiance to Yahweh:

Far be it from us to desert Yahweh and serve other gods!

It was Yahweh who brought them and their forebears all the way from Egypt, a place of slave-labour; Yahweh who worked all those great wonders before their very eyes; Yahweh who kept them safe among all the different people through whom they passed. It was Yahweh, too, who drove out all the nations so that they could take over the land. They conclude:

We, too, shall serve Yahweh, for he is our God.

Joshua, however, is somewhat sceptical of their promises and warns them that they will, in fact, not be able to serve Yahweh. He is warning them of over-confidence. Fidelity to God’s service is not easy, and therefore those who take such solemn obligations on themselves must be ever vigilant against human weakness. Time will show just how attractive the Canaanite gods were to the Israelites.

They must remember that Yahweh is a holy God, a jealous God who will not tolerate their misdeeds and sins. If they desert Yahweh and turn again to the gods of other peoples:

He will bring suffering on you again and, in spite of all he did for you in the past, will destroy you.

But again the people insist:

No! Yahweh is the one we mean to serve.

To which Joshua replies:

You are now witnesses to yourselves that you have chosen to serve Yahweh.

They cry out with one voice:

We are witnesses.

In that case, retorts Joshua:

Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.

This was a direct challenge. It was likely that some of them did have around them other gods represented by idols of wood and metal, which could easily be thrown away and destroyed – if they were really sincere.

But once again the people make their pledge:

The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.

Our reading concludes with the third part of the verses where Joshua makes a solemn covenant between God and the people and lays down a statute and ordinance for them there in Shechem. This consisted of the pledges they had agreed to and the decrees and laws from God. All was solemnly recorded in the Book of the Law of God and a large stone set up as a memorial.

Joshua set it up under the oak tree in Yahweh’s sanctuary at Shechem. Finally, he said to the people:

See, this stone shall be a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you if you deal falsely with your God.

The stone was set up as a witness to the covenant renewal that closed Joshua’s ministry. It will be the seventh memorial in the land to remind Israel of what the Lord had done for them through his servant. To these memorials were added the perpetual ruins of Jericho (Josh 6:26). This refers to the famous occasion when Joshua and the Israelites marched round the walls of Jericho blowing trumpets, causing the walls of the city to collapse (see Josh chap 6).

Thus the promised land itself bore full testimony to Israel (seven being the number of completeness) – how she had come into possession of the land, and how she would remain in the land only by fulfilling the covenant conditions. The land shouted its own story.

Joshua then dismissed the people, everyone to their own heritage. Joshua’s work was done and he was ready to go. He died at the venerable age of 110, just 10 years short of his superior and mentor, Moses. Ancient Egyptian records indicate that 110 years was considered to be the ideal life span. It was also the age at which Joseph died.

Joshua was buried at Timnath-Sera, which lay in the highlands of Ephraim, north of Mount Gaash (and about 30 km north of Jerusalem).

We are also told in this passage (though not in the reading) that the mummified remains of Joseph, which had been brought all the way from Egypt at the time of the Exodus, were now buried in Shechem, near the borders between the two Josephite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh and:

…in the portion of ground that Jacob had bought from the children of Hamor, the father of Shechem…

This fulfilled a final request Joseph had made before he died (see Gen 50:25).

With the death of Joshua, the great epic of the Exodus is complete and the people are in their Promised Land, committed to serving Yahweh faithfully as his people forever. As we shall see, it will not quite work out like that.

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