Read the passage here.
Today, we wrap up the book of Joshua. And we finish looking at the closing address of Joshua to Israel that we began last week. The first verses we’re looking at (14 and 15) are the last verses that we looked at last week, simply by way of continuity – there’s no reason to think too deeply of the fact that we’re looking at these verses again. With that said, let’s take a look at the passage.
So, unlike last week, I’d like to take a closer look at just a few of the textual elements of this passage. In particular, we’ll begin with vv. 14-15.
In the NIV, verse 14 reads:
14 “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.Joshua 24:14
Most of the other major English translations render the ‘now,’ as ‘now therefore.’ In other words, this is a conjunction which functions as a logical connector. Which is probably not that interesting except to remind us that the passage we’re reading today is intimately connected to the verses that we read last week.
And again, this should be obvious. The English translations don’t usually distinguish these verses into separate “sub-headings.” But I want to highlight the point that the call to action, the call to faithfulness (presented to the Israelites) happens specifically out of the context of their story, a reminder of the faithfulness of God.
It’s in light of that, in light of the faithfulness of God over the past many generations, that we hear the call to “fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness.” And I want to note that these phrases, “fear the Lord,” ‘serve him,” “faithfulness,” are heavily theologically-laden phrases. Which may be obvious to you, but I suspect that it’s just as likely that we lose some of the impact of what Joshua’s saying due to the cultural and historical distance as well as due to familiarity. In this case, familiarity may not breed contempt, but it may breed apathy.
To further highlight what I’m talking about, I want to take a look at verse 15, which says:
15 But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”Joshua 24:15
Specifically, I want to think about the phrase, “if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you…” Several of the English translations share the general thrust of the NIV’s rendering:
- “If you are unwilling…” (NRSV)
- “If it is disagreeable in your sight…” (NASB)
- “If you refuse…” (NLT)
All of these translations give the impression that serving God is a choice, but maybe just a better or worse choice (depending on your perspective) – it gives the impression that one has to decide something like, “yeah, that seems fine…” or “no, I’d rather not.” However, the ESV and NKJV (and some others) take a much stronger position on the translation.
- “If it is evil in your eyes…” (ESV)
- “If it seems evil to you…” (NKJV)
Now this translation as “if it is evil in your eyes” is super interesting to me because, one) it is a lot more forceful than the NIV translation; and two) because I think it highlights something pretty important.
Now I’m not competent to parse or convey the Hebrew to you. I rely on various tools (books) to try to get a sense of what’s going on. However, it seems to me that the sense of what’s going on (‘ra’) is something like “wrong.” And what I mean by that is related to the fundamental inversion that goes on when we reject God as God and make ourselves (or anything else) gods. We choose for ourselves what is right and wrong. In other words, we reject the order of creation that God has put in place – which is to say we contradict the very nature and character of God. In the other order – that of the other gods, where we don’t allow God to be God – what God has put in place can seem wrong (or evil).
In other words, I think the sense of what’s going on here is something like, “if serving the Lord seems wrong/not proper/against the order to you…” or, “If this is not the world you want to live in…” Now I don’t want to spend any more time on this so I hope it makes sense as we continue to think about what’s going on in this passage.
Now that’s the challenge that Joshua presents to the Israelites. We’re familiar with the verses, but if we understand what’s going on (including but not restricted to what we’ve just looked at), we understand that this is serious business that Joshua is talking about. It’s something to be considered deeply – Joshua is not merely asking people to “pick a side.” Joshua is asking the Israelites to really examine their hearts, to really think about the world they want to live in, the kind of people they want to be.
And so, we get this three-fold repetition between Joshua and the Israelites. Which may seem a little weird. Joshua issues his challenge and the Israelites agree – shouldn’t that be the end of it? (Now I recognize that this may be a rhetorical device – it’s repeated for emphasis). But maybe there’s more going on? This challenge and affirmation is repeated three times. And the fact that Joshua feels compelled to repeat the call three times should highlight the seriousness of what’s going on here. So looking at the first such call and response, the Israelites respond:
16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods! 17 It was the Lord our God himself who brought us and our parents up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled. 18 And the Lord drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”Joshua 24:16-18
And that sounds great, right? That’s a good answer. But Joshua doesn’t just accept their response. Joshua says:
19 Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. 20 If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.”Joshua 24:19-20
Now the first thing that I want to note is that Joshua’s response does seem to be a rhetorical device – that is, he is speaking hyperbolically when he says God will not forgive. If nothing else, we see in the history of Israel that God forgives repeatedly. But I want to take just a little bit of time to consider that phrase, “He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins.”
It’s worth noting that Joshua uses essentially two words for sin – rebellion and ‘sins.’ We’re not going to digress into another word study here, but the one word (‘rebellion’ in NIV) has more to do with breaking a law (hence, ‘rebellion’ or ‘transgression’ – i.e. against something), and the other, “sins” is something like falling short of, or failing to live up to a standard.
Now the one, “rebellion” or “breaking a law,” can be clearly traced in Israel’s history. There have been numerous examples that we have read about, and the breaking of a law usually seems quite obvious. The other, falling short of a standard,” is much more nebulous. It’s hard to pin down when and how we fall short of a standard, except to note that, because of our sinful nature, we always fall short of God’s standard.
At the very least, it highlights the importance of what God is talking about when He’s calling Israel to be a holy nation, a people set apart. He’s calling them to be a people of God, and not just one of all the other peoples of the world. But I think what people often do when we fail to live up to a standard is not that we try to better understand the standard – we try to change it. We move the goal posts. Usually, we decide to set the standard as ourselves.
But that’s a longer conversation – and one we’ve had many times before. So I’d like you to just keep that in mind as we move onward.
The point that I simply want to make again is that Joshua’s challenge is a very serious one (hence the threefold repetition, including skepticism of Israel’s affirmation). The third and final textual element that I want to look at is the repeated mention of foreign gods – specifically that Israel must throw away foreign gods. We see this in:
- 14 …Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.
- 15 …then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living.
- 16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods!
- 20 If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.”
- 23 “Now then,” said Joshua, “throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.”
Repeatedly, Joshua says (essentially) that in order to serve the Lord God, what choosing God means is to throw away (that is, wholly reject) other gods. Twice, Joshua identifies these as foreign gods (or three times, if you include “the gods of the Amorites,” and twice Joshua refers to the gods of your ancestors.
Now there’s some further parsing we could do – one interesting note is that (presumably) the gods of Egypt were originally foreign gods. After all, the Israelites were foreigners in Egypt. But the Israelites became slaves, as we know. And after hundreds of years of slavery, living in a foreign land, the foreign gods of Egypt became Israel’s gods. Hence, “the gods your ancestors worshiped…in Egypt.”
But I think what I’m saying is that the Israelites could apparently quite easily say, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods.” But Joshua knows that the danger is real. The danger of living among the Amorites, the danger of living in a foreign land, the danger of accepting these foreign gods is quite real.
And the thing about gods is that they are not just external entities, they are not just idols on a pedestal, they are not just things. But they are constitutive of the very reality of the land in which the people reside. Now it’s not just black and white – the gods are diverse and the pantheon of gods in the ancient Near East can be confusing.
But the point I’m trying to make is that “the gods” are not just an add-on to the every day realities of life in Canaan. But the gods one worships says something about how one understands life and how one understands the world to work.
So when Joshua is talking about choose whether you will serve the Lord God, Yahweh, whom you witnessed (through the generations) delivering you from Egypt, bringing you through the wilderness, and establishing you in the promised land, or whether you will serve other gods, he is very much asking who will you allow to have authority over how the world is and how the world is supposed to be.
When he says, “if serving the Lord seems evil in your eyes,” he is very much asking if they are willing to accept the Lordship of Yahweh, the sovereignty of God over their lives and over this world. Or if they would rather hold onto something more familiar, something that makes more sense in the world’s eyes.
And Joshua is very much saying, through his persistent repetition, that this is a serious question. This is a serious challenge. And this is a serious appeal.
Because this people – Israel – is called to be a people set apart; a chosen people; a royal priesthood, a people belonging to God, declaring the praises of Him who called them out of darkness and into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)
So, of course, the question put to the Israelites is very much the question that is put to us, the new Israel, the Church. And it may seem a very easy question, especially since we think of ourselves as Christians. It may be easy to answer that of course we’re not going to seek after foreign gods. We (probably) are not going to seek after Allah, or Shiva, or Buddha (though I acknowledge that technically, Buddha is not a god). But, as we are also likely aware, these aren’t the only gods.
There’s a show on Amazon Prime called American Gods. It’s based on a novel by Neil Gaiman and it talks about, among other things, the struggle between the old gods – gods we’re familiar with through various world mythologies like Odin, Zeus, Anubis, etc. (those aren’t exact) – and the new gods (particularly in the U.S.) like technology, media, money. Etc. In my opinion, it’s a good show, though I suspect that not everyone will like it.
But, simply, the show makes explicit what most of us know implicitly. That is, that there are many other gods that people worship in this contemporary world – gods that may or may not have anything to do with religion.
Or, to say it differently, there are many things which govern how we understand the world, how we think things work, to which we give our lives, many things we cling to in order to make sense of and give meaning to our lives, other than God. Some of those things we’re aware of, such as money, power, and significance. But many of these things are more subtle, more subversive. Such things might be individualism, nationalism or various tribalisms. It may even be such seemingly benign things like happiness, safety, or the desire to be a good person.
Now most of this should be familiar to us as we talk about it a lot here. But my point is simply that all kinds of things can be gods. We are constantly faced with the challenge of looking to something else, putting our hope in something else, seeking to live our lives according to something other than God.
And my equally obvious point is that one can be a Christian, one can genuinely have accepted and proclaimed Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour and still hold onto other gods. In fact, we do this all the time. Part of the reason we do this is because the gods are so intertwined with the culture, with the society. Capitalism, consumerism, and individualism are built into the very fabric of our society (here in the west). But another part of the reason we do this is because we’ve become very adept at compartmentalizing our lives. It’s entirely too easy to worship God on Sundays, to know that God is sovereign, to know that God is holy, and spend the rest of our week chasing after power, position, and prestige.
So the first thing we need to do is recognize these foreign gods and the power they hold over society and, potentially, over us. We need to name them, we need to examine ourselves, and we need to take seriously the challenge that is constantly before us. And we need to cling fervently to the grace and love of the God who redeems us and is calling us home.