PASS ON THE BATON

 

Week of September 24, 2006

 

Bible Passages:  Joshua 24:14-28, 31.

 

Biblical Truth: When God gives a person an opportunity to lead, He also encourages and empowers the person to lead.

 

Set an Example: Joshua 24:14-18.

 

[14] "Now, therefore, fear the LORD and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. [15] If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD." [16] The people answered and said, "Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; [17] for the LORD our God is He who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, and who did these great signs in our sight and preserved us through all the way in which we went and among all the peoples through whose midst we passed. [18] The LORD drove out from before us all the peoples, even the Amorites who lived in the land. We also will serve the LORD, for He is our God."   [NASU]

 

[14]  The text abruptly changes speakers and mood. The prophetic Joshua now assumes the role of an attorney pleading for the proper verdict for his client. He demands two actions be taken. First, the people are to enter into the proper relationship to Yahweh (fear and serve). Second, they are to rid themselves of all other claimants to lordship over them. The proper relationship includes the proper attitude of reverence and awe in response to the majestic acts of God and the proper action of service in its widest sense. Such service is qualified by a pair of terms. Sincerity is the action expected of the people with their rulers. It is the demand made on the person who would enter into worship. The other word describing service of God is truth or faithfulness. It designates trustworthiness and faithfulness in speech and deed in relationship to other people and to God. Joshua thus demands an attitude and actions which are beyond the normal, expected attitudes and actions of men. He demands the same type of response to God that God has already shown to His covenant people, that of total loyalty and dedication. The attitude and decision for Yahweh always precedes the actions of putting away the gods and building the altars. Joshua calls for proper allegiance, on which basis he can then call for a change of practice. The interesting point is that Israel is charged with false worship not only in the time of their ancestors, but also in the time of their stay in Egypt. The presupposition appears to be that Israel has never yet served Yahweh correctly. They have merely cried to him in time of need.

 

[15] Joshua concludes his case by spelling out the alternatives facing Israel, with the language in your sight connecting back to verse 7. The call for Israel to choose is unique in at least two respects. (1) God is normally the subject, having chosen Israel. Yet His very choice forces a decision on Israel. (2) The only choice for Israel’s neighbors was which god to serve at the moment, in the present crisis. Polytheism was the natural presupposition in Israel’s environment. Ultimate choice was unnecessary. Joshua thus forced Israel to make a choice which never confronted her neighbors, a choice which would determine the nature of her worship from that moment on, a choice which spotlighted as no other the unique quality and demand of Yahweh. Israel is simply asked to view God’s history and determine if it proves His superiority over other claims to deity. The decision is not one to be made in isolation, for Joshua leads the way, proclaiming that his family has already chosen Yahweh. These were words of knowledge and wisdom. Joshua knew the futility and degeneracy of idolatry, and, furthermore, he knew the reality and supremacy of God. Observation and experience fully equipped him to so challenge the nation. That the whole nation felt the impact of these words is obvious in their reply.

 

[16-18] To Joshua’s challenge based on the reality of God, the people affirm that they will serve the Lord, for He is our God. Their answer employs a list of statements describing the salvation history. Each of the statements differs from those of Joshua. Whereas Joshua emphasized the victories of Yahweh against nations who fought Israel, the people emphasize the signs and wonders which provided for the needs of a people escaping from the house of bondage and protected them in the unknown, dangerous way across the wilderness, finally providing them a place to live.

 

Set High Standards: Joshua 24:19-24.

 

[19] Then Joshua said to the people, "You will not be able to serve the LORD, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgression or your sins. [20] If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you after He has done good to you." [21] The people said to Joshua, "No, but we will serve the LORD." [22] Joshua said to the people, "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen for yourselves the LORD, to serve Him." And they said, "We are witnesses." [23] "Now therefore, put away the foreign gods which are in your midst, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel." [24] The people said to Joshua, "We will serve the LORD our God and we will obey His voice." [NASU]

[19]  Joshua’s answer is perhaps the most shocking statement in the Old Testament. He denies that the people can do that which he has spent the entire chapter trying to get them to do. Having won their statement of faith and allegiance, he rejects it. Why? The issue at stake in the entire chapter is the service of other gods, presented as a present reality for Israel. Her experience is that of the service of gods who make less demands than does Yahweh. Joshua has detected this in the response of the people. They see God as the one who is bound to protect them along their way, so they will serve Him because He protects them. Joshua demands a service with deeper motivation. He wants service based on the nature of God Himself. Joshua has described this nature in the acts of gracious election, creating a people through salvation history. Now he defines this nature with two theologically loaded terms, terms which explain why Israel cannot serve Yahweh. First, God is holy. In its earliest tradition Israel understood this holiness both as a saving and as a destructive power. The holiness of God impresses the worshiper to imitate the purity of God, acting in accordance with the demands of God. The true worshiper of Yahweh is impressed by this supernatural holiness of God, so impressed that he knows he cannot meet the demands of such a God. He cannot serve such a God. Second, God is jealous and zealous. Yahweh’s uniqueness lies precisely in His jealousy over against His worshipers. He loves them so much that He wants their undivided love in return. He will not share them with any other god. God turns His jealous indignation against the unfaithful worshiper, not against the rival lover. He punishes the people who try to serve Him along with some other god. God’s jealousy cannot tolerate this. He has given undivided love and wants the same from them. The nature of God Himself prevents Israel from serving Him. His holy purity and jealous love both tie Him in total devotion to His people and tie them off from fulfilling His demands. This has drastic consequences. God will not forgive Israel’s sins. His expectations of them are too high. His love for them is too great. He cannot easily ignore their wrongdoings, their casual flirtations with other gods. The gods of the neighbors would simply wait for the worshiper to come back. Yahweh goes out to discipline the errant lover until she returns. This inability to please a holy and jealous God points out the need for a righteous substitute to satisfy God’s holiness on our behalf.

[20]  The consequences receive explicit definition. Israel’s temptation is not just to serve other gods. It is to serve strange foreign gods, gods to whom Israel does not belong, gods who have done nothing for Israel. Such service is the easy way out for Israel. She can fulfill the wishes of the strange gods. But such service is foreign to Israel, for it denies her very origins and identity. Still, it remains a tempting option throughout her existence. When Israel exercises this option, Yahweh’s course of action is clear. He will reverse salvation history. Israel will be totally destroyed. This is the basic definition of Israel’s relationship with God, a definition the prophets played on in various ways for centuries. God has created the relationship and takes it with utmost seriousness. He expects Israel to do the same and will give them reason to do so when they do not.

[21-22] In light of the nature of Yahweh and His demands, the people again respond, more somberly and succinctly, but still positively. Israel has obligated herself to Yahweh. Joshua assumes the role of judge and swears Israel in as witnesses against herself. Normally, other gods would serve as witnesses in the Ancient Near East. Israel’s pledge of allegiance to Yahweh has excluded them from consideration. Israel must observe her own behavior and attest their fidelity or infidelity to their oath. Her free choice is to reject the gods of her tradition and turn to the God who has given her identity and hope.

[23] Having gained Israel’s commitment, Joshua places the demand on her once more. The demand is now quite personal. The gods are no longer those of the fathers beyond the river and in Egypt. The gods are the ones in the midst of the people today. The present generation is not exempt from the sin of the fathers. The ceremony of putting away the gods, however it may have been carried out, was not enough in itself. The important ingredient was one of personal dedication. Israel did not have only to stretch out her hands in ritual worship. She had to stretch out her innermost being, her heart, in total devotion.

[24]  Finally, Israel gives an extended answer demonstrating she has understood Yahweh’s demands. They accept Yahweh as their God. They promise to serve Him. They pledge to listen obediently to His voice, something they had not mentioned previously. Here is the central statement of the chapter. The identity of Israel stands not in her confession of faith nor in her religious loyalty. The basic identity of Israel resides in the conversation she carries on with God, listening to His word and obeying it. This, and only this, is the true service of Yahweh.

 

Covenant with God: Joshua 24:25-27.

 

[25] So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made for them a statute and an ordinance in Shechem. [26] And Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak that was by the sanctuary of the LORD. [27] Joshua said to all the people, "Behold, this stone shall be for a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the LORD which He spoke to us; thus it shall be for a witness against you, so that you do not deny your God."  [NASU]

 

[25]  On the basis of Israel’s commitment in verse 24, Joshua establishes the agreement between Israel and Yahweh. The basis of the covenant agreement is stature and ordinance. The present context does not emphasize the content of the stature for the agreement. Rather, it focuses on the central stipulation, that of complete loyalty and service of the Lord of the covenant. All other stipulations are simply presupposed as common knowledge of the people.

 

[26-27] An ancient practice underlies this verse. A great stone is set up under a tree within the sanctuary. Details of the ceremony are not given. Perhaps sacrifices or meals were a part of the ceremony. The intention here is not to preserve the ceremony but to impress upon the audience the importance of the basic stipulation. Having completed the ceremony, Joshua explains the significance to the people. The subjective witness of the people [22] is complemented by the objective witness of the stone. The words of the Lord must be the stipulations of the agreement [25], but these have been minimized in interest of the call to obedience to the one basic stipulation. Israel’s temptation is not to violate some secondary stipulation. Israel’s temptation and the danger of punishment came under the basic commandment: you do not deny your God.

 

Send Them Out: Joshua 24:28, 31.

 

28 Then Joshua dismissed the people, each to his inheritance. 31 Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua and all the days of the elders who survived Joshua, and had known all the deeds of the LORD which He had done for Israel.  [NASU]

 

In verse 29, Joshua is called the servant of the Lord, the same title that was given to Moses [Joshua 1:1].  Joshua’s epitaph was not written on a marble gravestone. It was written in the lives of the leaders he influenced and the people he led. They served Yahweh. Here is the theological climax to the theme introduced in 22:5 and repeated like a chorus in 23:7,16; 24:14,15,16,18,19,20, 21,22,24. The obedience is traced to faithful knowledge of all the deeds of the Lord. As long as men remained alive who could keep the tradition in force, Israel obeyed. When the men who knew the tradition of Joshua died, then the people rebelled. We read in Judges 2:10 that the next generation after them did not know the Lord. This points out the failure of the first generation to properly train their children in the way of faithful obedience to their God as Moses had instructed them [Deut. 4:9-10].

 

SUMMARY: Joshua 24 completes the book by giving the theological definition of the people of God. That identity as God’s people hinges on two things. The first is the action of God in the history of His people. Such action is set out as having occurred prior to any service of Yahweh by the people. Salvation history can in no way be connected to God’s reward for the behavior of His people. God sends His leader to assemble the people and remind them of the greatness of God’s actions for them. Here Joshua becomes the courageous religious leader ready to set the example himself with his house and calls his people to follow. Such a call is not a summons seeking recognition and popularity for himself. It is a call issued with stern warning of the responsibility and consequences. It is also a demand for discipleship, a call to hear and obey in faithfulness and loyalty the commands of God. Joshua forces Israel to understand the difference between their concept of gods and the true nature of Yahweh. He is the holy, jealous God, who expects His people to be satisfied with nothing less than perfection. He is not a God who waits around patiently while Israel flirts with other gods. He is the only God, the one who has all power and all responsibility.

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.    What kind of relationship with God is Joshua calling the people to seek? What two characteristics must describe our service to God? Note how these two elements protect our service from becoming mainly man-centered. Why must the proper relationship with God precede any attempts on our part to remove idols from our hearts?

 

2.    Why does Joshua reject the peoples’ affirmation that they will serve Yahweh? What important principle for service is Joshua proclaiming here? Why is obey His voice the key thought of the passage?

 

3.    What is Israel’s main temptation and weakness in these verses that Joshua is dealing with? Note how this is still our main temptation. John Calvin has written that our hearts are idol factories. Any time we desire something more than we desire God, then we have committed idolatry.

 

References:

Joshua, Trent Butler, Nelson Publishers.

Gleanings in Joshua, Arthur Pink, Moody Press.