Read the passage here.
Last week, we covered chapters 9-11 (very quickly). These chapters wrap up the bulk of the “action” in Joshua. In the intervening chapters, we get reports of the distribution of the conquered land of Canaan among the 12 tribes of Israel. And by skipping it, I don’t mean to suggest that these chapters aren’t important and I don’t mean to suggest that they are not interesting. However, we are moving all the way to the end of the book.
In considering today’s verses, it’s worth pausing to consider chapter 23. Essentially, chapter 23 takes place after all the distributing of the land – the Israelites are now, for all intents and purposes, preparing to settle. The land of Canaan, the promised land, is now becoming their home. At this point, Joshua now addresses Israel. The NIV titles chapter 23 “Joshua’s farewell to the leaders,” as distinct from chapter 24 which it titles, “The covenant renewed at Shechem.” In reading the two, you will see a lot of similarities in theme and content. The distinction between the two may be simply a distinction in the audience – in chapter 23 Joshua seems to specifically address Israel’s leaders and in chapter 24 he addresses all the people. But chapter 23 seems to have a more pronounced note of warning (though this also exists in chapter 24). For example, in 23:12, we read:
12 “But if you turn away [from the Lord] and ally yourselves with the survivors of these nations that remain among you and if you intermarry with them and associate with them, 13 then you may be sure that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you. Instead, they will become snares and traps for you, whips on your backs and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land, which the Lord your God has given you.Joshua 23:12-13
This should, of course, remind us of what we looked at last week – Blessings and Curses. But what I want to focus on is the notion that Joshua, knowing that he is going to die soon, and knowing that the possessing chapter of Israel’s story is closed/coming to a close, Joshua is now concerned with preparing the people for how to live.
The most well-known part of our passage is Joshua’s challenge, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…” (Joshua 24:15). It’s a passage that we’ve touched on several times as we’ve gone through Joshua. And it highlights the idea that the fundamental question in life is “will we live our lives for (or with) God or not?”
As a church community, we’ve framed that same question in a number of different ways: “life vs. not-life”; kingdom vs. the world; etc. This is not a new idea and therefore I won’t spend time discussing it here.
What I do want to note is that this question, this challenge and exhortation, is set in the context of Israel’s history. That is, in this gathering of Israel, as part of Joshua’s final address, as they settle into nationhood in the promised land of Canaan, he reminds them where they have come from, he reminds them of how God has led them.
Joshua reviews the entire history of Israel, from the calling of Abraham, through Moses and Aaron (that is, out of Egypt and out of slavery), through the wilderness, and in battle against the Canaanites. This is their history. This is their story. And it’s in this context – in light of the story – that Joshua poses the question, “whom then will you serve?”
The basic point that I’m trying to make is that formation happens in the context of story. Who the Israelites are, and who they are called to be and become – their identity – requires remembering, understanding, and being situated in their story.
Now, we use the language of story a lot. It’s definitely not unique – by now, it’s language that’s pretty common in the Christian community. Usually such language is used when we’re talking about the Bible. It’s essentially a biblical theological move by which we can understand scripture, not as a disparate, loosely (or thematically) related 66 books, but as a coherent narrative of God’s work in human history, of which we are a part. By understanding the bible as story (which is vehemently distinct from understanding the bible as fiction) we understand, among other things, that God is doing something, that history is moving towards something, and that each of us is connected to that.
So, we can understand that our stories are also part of God’s story. We participate in what’s going on in the world, in what God is doing in the world. And because our stories are part of God’s story, our stories are intimately connected with the biblical story.
A few weeks ago, I took some time off to attend a conference. I presented a paper on the influence of philosopher Martin Heidegger on the pastoral theology of Henri Nouwen. I won’t get into the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, but Nouwen, in one of his books, notes that Heidegger was significant for him. Nouwen, as we know, was a Catholic priest who wrote a great many books on spirituality and pastoral theology, and spent the final years of his life and ministry living at the L’Arche community in Richmond Hill, Ontario.
At any rate, the focus of my paper is the development of the theology of identity (or selfhood) by Nouwen, as influenced by Heidegger. I’m not going to get into it here except to note that for Nouwen, finding one’s true identity requires understanding and embracing one’s entire story.
Now this may seem obvious to us (to most), except that what Nouwen is talking about (and Heidegger to a lesser extent) is in marked contrast, in my opinion, to how many people today – in a western, postmodern culture – understand identity.
I’ll try to explain what I mean as simply as possible. And please note that I haven’t studied, nor do I claim to have, a comprehensive understanding of postmodern identity. But I want to suggest a couple of common (?) adages that I think point to how people understand or take hold of their sense of identity – their sense of who they are.
The first adage that I encounter a lot is, “You have to be true to yourself,” or something like that. By this, we usually mean that you have to be true to yourself, as opposed to being true to someone or something else. Which sounds right. But embedded in that is the assumption that one’s identity is distinctly self-possessed. By that, I mean that we tend to assume that identity is entirely internal. Now there’s more to say about this, but, in my opinion, at least part of this is a result (rightly or wrongly) of the pervasive anti-institutionalism or anti-authoritarianism in western society (and by “anti-authoritarianism,” I mean opposition to authorities/experts, not opposition to totalitarianism or dictatorships, for example). In other words, we don’t want anyone else telling us who we are or who we are supposed to be. My identity belongs to me and me alone.
Now I want to point out that this position, that identity is entirely internal, is not a universal position, even in our contemporary world. As a simple example, I grew up in-between cultures (which is a culture in and of itself), between a Canadian culture and a South Korean culture. One in which I was expected to be true to myself, and one in which I was expected to be true to my family. Which understanding of identity you assumed to be correct depended on which side of the fence you were looking from.
The second maxim that I hear (not a lot, perhaps, anymore) is that you shouldn’t have regrets. Specifically, that one shouldn’t have regrets because the mistakes you’ve made in the past are what led you to the person you are today. Now passing by a lot of the other issues that I have about this saying or perspective, with respect to what we’re talking about today, I think that what this reveals is pre-occupation with the present. There’s an assumption that the truest version of myself – my truest identity – is the present version. The past is only significant as a means of getting to the present. It’s a preoccupation with the now (hence the related saying, “you have to live in the now”).
Now I’m not suggesting that we should live in the past – that we should dwell on past wounds, past mistakes, or past victories). We are very much called to be present. However, I think it’s a mistake to reduce our past to merely the road to the present. It’s a mistake to think that the past is merely “what got us here.”
If nothing else, we run into the philosophical issue that, if the past is merely what got us here (and therefore, only prelude to our true identity), the present is merely what gets us to the future. So if the past is not part of our “true” identity, then neither is the present (or at least that the present is no more important to one’s identity than the past was when it was the present – and both, at best, can only serve as precursor to a nebulous, undefined future).
At any rate, what Nouwen (and Heidegger) talks about is the notion that our true identity is a lot more holistic than we in the contemporary west are prone to believe or practice. Who we are is bounded by our community and unfettered by time. According to Nouwen, our identity is not only informed by, but includes, our past, present and future. At the risk of over-simplifying, to discover our truest identity, we must embrace our whole story.
Now I understand that this might still be a little unclear. So I want to try to clarify what I’m talking about by looking at Joshua – his final address to the Israelites. Again, Joshua is addressing the Israelites with the knowledge that he will soon die. The Israelites have (more or less) possessed the promised land – the land of Canaan – and will now have to go about the business of living in it. They will now have to go about being kingdom people in the promised land. They have to embrace a new identity.
And in preparation for that, Joshua reminds them of their story. And what I’m suggesting is that connecting to this story is an essential part of their formation as kingdom people. And there are several elements of this that I want to point out:
Firstly, Israel’s past failures are implicit/assumed. To put it another way, Joshua doesn’t point out Israel’s numerous failures or shortcomings in his brief recitation of their history. However, those failures and shortcomings are not ignored. In fact, I think it’s impossible to ignore those failures or shortcomings. I think it’s impossible because Israel, in the possessing of Canaan, has just re-lived them (think of the story of Achan). Further, Israel’s failure and shortcomings are the reason for the repeated warnings that we see in Joshua 23 (a prelude to the final address) and in Joshua 24 (part of the final address). For example:
23:6 “Be very strong; be careful to obey all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, without turning aside to the right or to the left. 7 Do not associate with these nations that remain among you; do not invoke the names of their gods or swear by them. You must not serve them or bow down to them. 8 But you are to hold fast to the Lord your God, as you have until now.
23:12 “But if you turn away and ally yourselves with the survivors of these nations that remain among you and if you intermarry with them and associate with them, 13 then you may be sure that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you. Instead, they will become snares and traps for you, whips on your backs and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land, which the Lord your God has given you.
23:16 If you violate the covenant of the Lord your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them, the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and you will quickly perish from the good land he has given you.”Joshua 23:6-16
As well as the key verses in our passage today:
24:14 “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. 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 24:14-15
In other words, the Israelites are well aware that the story of their ancestors (that Joshua is reminding them of) is thoroughly woven through with their failures. That is the very reason for the challenge that Joshua is putting before them now. But that past is part of their story.
But at the same time, the repeated failures remind them of the pervasiveness of God’s grace and sovereignty. That is, the Israelites don’t arrive at and take possession of Canaan because of their own goodness and faithfulness, but because of the goodness and faithfulness of God.
As we well know, the history of Israel is not just their repeated failures and rebellions, but of God’s unrelenting grace and mercy – not just to forgive Israel’s sin, but to create a people, to redeem Abraham’s children, regardless of their seeming resistance to being redeemed. The story of the Israelites is very much the story of God’s gracious activity with this fledgling nation.
And thirdly, this plan and purpose of God is likewise intertwined with Israel’s identity. Specifically, Israel’s identity is not merely their sins and failures, and not just God’s forgiveness and mercy, but the ultimate destination toward which God is working in history. In other words, the story – and thus Israel’s identity – is ultimately eschatological. Who we are is not just who we were but who we are becoming.
All of this is part and process of who Israel is – their identity. All of this is what Joshua points to as he ushers the people towards the life lived in the promised land.
Now, as usual, there’s a lot more to say about this than I can say in the time that we have. One such element that I’ve only made the barest mention is that identity is inherently related to community. This is a point that Nouwen makes clear and resonates throughout scripture. And in my own words, I would say that identity itself is inherently relational. We are not discrete, disconnected monads, but are members/participants in something.
But I hope the relation to ourselves is obvious, and how we think about spiritual formation and kingdom life – that is, what does it mean to be people of the kingdom. What Joshua is doing with Israel is something that God (I think) is doing with us.
The basic idea that I’m suggesting is that story is formation. And I’m saying, or trying to say, more than that the remembrance or telling of story helps with formation, that it’s piece of becoming mature in Christ. What I’m trying to say is that (somehow) story is practice. Your story is not just an artifact, but it’s becoming.
And if story is practice, a key discipline in that practice is imagination. By imagination, I don’t mean make-believe. I don’t mean constructing something that isn’t real. I mean something more akin to vision. Being able to see and make sense of what we see. When we cultivate imagination in our lives, we do so in a way that allows God, the Holy Spirit to make sense of our lives. We need imagination to allow our lives to be more than a collection of disparate, disconnected events. We need vision to allow people to be more than just resources or responsibilities. We practice this in the presence of God because otherwise, we inadvertently allow the world to fill in those gaps in His place.
So, we frequently talk about entering into the biblical story. Entering into the story of Israel; entering into the story of the Church. We talk about participating in the story of God’s work in redemption as told in scripture. What I’m encouraging each of us to do is to enter into our own stories (as part of the biblical story).
Remember how God has been faithful, in spite of our stumbling, our failures, and our rebellion. Know that God has led you, not only in spite of those things, but through those things. And that He is forming you, not only in spite of those things, but through those things. And know that you have true redemption in Jesus Christ and that God is still working in you to complete the great work that He has already begun.
So then, “Choose for yourselves this day…” may mean a lot more than just “pick a side.” It may mean (in practice) something along the lines of, how will we make sense of our lives? How will we make sense of where we have come from and where we are going? How will we make sense of who we are and who we are meant to be? As for me and my house, we will choose the Lord.