Read the passage here.
We are going through the book of Joshua quite quickly. In fact, we are going to pass over most of the book, but I hope to touch on enough of the book to give us a sense of what’s going on and to help us situate Joshua in the story of God’s redemptive work in Israel.
Our passage today is quite short, only a few verses. But it’s connected to the stories that we looked at earlier and the verses that we’ve skipped in chapter 8. Previously, we looked at the story of the battle of Jericho, followed by the story of Ai and Achans sin. Reviewing that story – the story of Achan – we remember that the Israelites failed to defeat Ai (in fact, they were routed by much smaller numbers) and that this was a result of Achan keeping some of the devoted things for himself. That is, he did not give over or destroy all of the things from Jericho that were supposed to be devoted to destruction.
Then, immediately prior to our passage today (and connected), we see that Israel, having repented of their sin (that is, the sin of Achan), once again takes up arms against Ai and, this time with the Lord’s blessing, conquers the city.
Now even though we’re not specifically looking at those verses (8:1-29), I want to make a few quick comments about them.
The first thing I want to note is that this, like the story of Jericho and the story of Achan, can be hard to stomach for contemporary readers – specifically in regard to the level of destruction (i.e. killing) involved. And that is to say that the defeat of Ai is a violent story. Now we’ve talked about this element of the conquest stories already so I don’t want to go over it again. However, I do want to acknowledge that it still remains problematic for a lot of people. Therefore, I just want to quickly note the following.
There is a cultural context to nation-building. This has to do with both the activity itself (i.e. making war), but also includes the reporting of it. And to this, I want to simply say that the reports of Israel’s conquest shares similarities to other conquest narratives in the ancient near east (that is, regarding the extent of conquest).
Secondly, we want to keep in mind the idea of being set-apart – Israel is called to be a nation set-apart. This is related to the conversation we had around hesed, or “devoted to destruction.”
Therefore, though we can’t simply ignore the violence, war, and destruction, the narrative point in these accounts seems to have to do with God’s creating a nation. That is, the point that these accounts are intended to communicate has more to do with God’s faithfulness in fulfilling His promises, and Israel’s becoming a nation, rather than the geo-political realities of the time and place.
The second thing I want to note is that we are seeing quite clearly a continuation of the leadership of Moses in Joshua. We read that during the battle of Ai:
8:18 Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Hold out toward Ai the javelin that is in your hand, for into your hand I will deliver the city.” So Joshua held out toward the city the javelin that was in his hand. 19 As soon as he did this, the men in the ambush rose quickly from their position and rushed forward. They entered the city and captured it and quickly set it on fire…
26 For Joshua did not draw back the hand that held out his javelin until he had destroyed all who lived in Ai.Joshua 8:18-26
And if we remember in Exodus 17, after the Israelites escaped Egypt and were on their way to Sinai, that they were attacked by the Amalekites:
17:11 As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. 12 When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. 13 So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.Exodus 17:11-13
So on the one hand, we can see Joshua’s leadership validated by his connection with Moses. But I think that what we are also seeing – through the continuity of Moses through to Joshua – is the continuity of God’s promises to Israel.
Which brings me to my third point (regarding the battle of Ai – which we are “skipping”). At the beginning of chapter 8 we read:
Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Take the whole army with you, and go up and attack Ai. For I have delivered into your hands the king of Ai, his people, his city and his land. 2 You shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king, except that you may carry off their plunder and livestock for yourselves. Set an ambush behind the city.Joshua 8:1-2
I highlighted verse 1 (the second part) because if we compare this to the battle of Jericho, we see that very much the same words are used by God.
6:2 Then the Lord said to Joshua, “See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men.Joshua 6:2
All that to say that in both stories, we are to understand that Israel’s victory is something that God accomplishes (it’s interesting to note that in both cases, the pronouncement is made before the battle, but is phrased as “have delivered” instead of “will deliver”). Again, we are reminded (as we were in the Jericho account) that the land is given. In the battle of Ai, this is made even more explicit because, in their first attempt, they go without God’s blessing and fail. In the second attempt, after the appropriate act of repentance, they go with God’s blessing and succeed. In other words, they succeed only when God goes with them.
Now all of that is, in some sense, preamble to the actual verses that we’re looking at today, or what we want to focus on today. And in the passage we are focussing on, vv. 30-35, we see that after Israel is successful in possessing Jericho and Ai, effectively establishing a foothold in Canaan, taking those first steps to nationhood, the first thing they do is remember (or renew) their Covenant with God.
And what we read is that after the victory over Ai, Joshua built an altar and offered sacrifices, and then read the book of the law to the entire assembly of Israel.
Now there’s a couple of things to say about this passage and I’ll do so briefly. Firstly, we can recognize that what we’re reading here in Joshua is in direct response to what Moses commanded the Israelites in Deuteronomy. We read in Deuteronomy 27:
Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people: “Keep all these commands that I give you today. 2 When you have crossed the Jordan into the land the Lord your God is giving you, set up some large stones and coat them with plaster. 3 Write on them all the words of this law when you have crossed over to enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you. 4 And when you have crossed the Jordan, set up these stones on Mount Ebal, as I command you today, and coat them with plaster. 5 Build there an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones. Do not use any iron tool on them. 6 Build the altar of the Lord your God with fieldstones and offer burnt offerings on it to the Lord your God. 7 Sacrifice fellowship offerings there, eating them and rejoicing in the presence of the Lord your God. 8 And you shall write very clearly all the words of this law on these stones you have set up.”Deuteronomy 27:1-8
So again, we should read what’s going on here in Joshua as demonstrating continuity with the ministry of Moses. What Joshua and Israel do here is directly connected to the command of Moses, the servant of God. And Moses’ ministry is a direct result of the call and purposes of God, specifically God’s purposes to create a people, a nation, for himself – a nation that will be blessed to be a blessing.
Now it’s interesting to note something about the sacrifices, here. The priests offer burnt offerings and fellowship offerings (or “peace offerings,” depending on your translations). Burnt offerings are those meant for atonement, for the forgiveness of sins. There’s a little less clarity on what fellowship, or peace, offerings are, but generally these are offerings to celebrate, affirm, or renew the relationship between human beings and God. There are three types of fellowship offerings in scripture, but we’re not going to get into that here.
The point that I want to make is that, given what has just happened with the Ai and Achan episode, these offerings make sense. But they especially make sense in the context of Israel remembering or renewing their covenant identity, especially in the light of sin that has been forgiven. Israel (through Achan) had sinned, but because of their repentance, the God of grace has forgiven them and fulfilled His covenant promises.
So, having said all that, the main point that I think we should remember – from our verses today, but those verses in context of what’s been going on previously – is that Israel is called to be a covenant people. Our verses today, the altar, the sacrifices, and the reading of the law, serve both as reminder and renewal of that fact – Israel is called to be in covenant with God. This is what we’re focussing on as we read through the book of Joshua.
Now from this point on, we’re moving into the realm of personal reflection – which we frequently do. And the point that I want to make is that this renewal of covenant, the renewal of identity, happens in the context of worship.
Over the past few weeks in Joshua, we read about Israel’s initial steps in the land of Canaan. And we’ve framed this in terms of nationhood – becoming a people. This idea of nationhood or peoplehood is predicated upon the calling and covenant of God. It’s what we saw from the stories of Abraham through Moses and now Joshua. In Israel, God is creating a people for His name. A peculiar people who will not be like all the other nations on the earth, but Kingdom people.
As the Israelites step into Canaan, they’re reminded of this call and covenant (back in Joshua 1). And then they face Jericho, seeing the power and sovereignty of God (it’s worth noting that, in a passage we skipped, immediately prior to Jericho, all of the men of Israel are circumcised – the mark of covenant). But despite numerous warnings, one of the Israelites, Achan, sins. He doesn’t obey the commands regarding the devoted things. To be blunt, he holds onto the things of the Canaanites (the things of the world) instead of being completely committed to the Kingdom of God. And so, Israel is defeated in their next encounter with Ai.
Now this is significant. Because they’ve already seen that their victory, their taking of the land, that is to say their nationhood is predicated on God’s blessing. Their identity is that of God’s people. So to lose this battle isn’t just a military defeat, it’s a challenge to their very understanding of identity – who they are as God’s chosen (we’ve talked about this relationship between nationhood and identity before).
But because of Israel’s repentance – which involves the execution of Achan and his whole household – because Israel once again commits to not having anything to do with the things of Canaan, desiring instead to be people of God, God once again gives them victory in their second encounter with Ai.
And so, what do the Israelites do? They reaffirm their commitment to the covenant relationship with God. They reaffirm that they want to be a people set apart. A people who are guided and defined by God’s word, being formed into God’s people. A peculiar people, a people set apart.
And they worship.
The context in and through which they reaffirm their identity, the practice in which they recommit themselves to God is worship.
I’m not saying anything that we haven’t talked about before. But in worship, we reaffirm who we are as God’s people.
Now I’m trying not to say anything about how we, all kinds of people, misconstrue worship. And I’m also not trying to say anything comprehensive about worship – it’s more than what I’m talking about here.
But what I’m saying is that worship matters. Again, it matters for more reasons than we are talking about here, but it matters for the reasons we are talking about here. And crucially – as we know – worship is about God. Worship is about who God is, what God has done, and what God is doing. But in focussing ourselves on God, we focus on who we are as God’s. Worship is formation.
The question of identity is a prominent one in today’s culture. Who are we? How do we understand who we are and who we want to be? And the rhetoric of “be true to yourself” is pervasive in our culture. I actually have a lot of thoughts about this.
But what I want to say is – without any further content or context – is that the truth of who we are and who we are meant to be can only be found in God, the one who made us, the one who redeems us, and the one who gives us a hope and a future. And if we want to know who we are called to be as God’s, we need to enter deeply into who God is. And so we are called in His presence in worship.