Covenant Renewal at Abraham’s Place

Here we are in Shechem, rubbing shoulders with various elders, judges, leaders of Israel, participating in the third assembly of God’s people at the close of the Book of Joshua (see on ch. 22), and feeling solemn, for it’s a solemn occasion: we are standing ‘before God’ (v. 1) and we are about to hear Yahweh’s word (v. 2a).1 It’s a historic, sacred moment. One feels both cold and warm at once. Who can describe how one of the seed of Abraham must feel standing in Abraham’s Place? The reader may try his or her own comparisons. For me, I should think the effect would be like visiting Scotland and frequenting the haunts of my historical heroes, Andrew and Horatius Bonar, Rabbi Duncan, and Robert Murray McCheyne.

In seeking to hear the theological witness of the text, I would like to divide the text structurally into its three broad sections (vv. 2–13, 14–24, 25–28) and develop each of these divisions—particularly the first—in some detail.

The Review of Covenant History (24:2–13)

In verses 2–13 we hear Joshua proclaim the review of covenant history. His survey centres upon crisis points in Israel’s history, on threats to Israel’s welfare, each of which is met by Yahweh’s intervention. We easily miss the fact that this is a history that should never have happened. Only the grace and power of Yahweh explain why there was now an Israel to stand at Shechem and listen to a Joshua.2 So Joshua rehearses the story of the King’s grace, which corresponds to the historical prologue of the ancient treaties. And what a prologue Yahweh has created!
The Surprising Grace of God

Covenant history begins with the surprising grace of God: ‘A long time ago your fathers lived beyond the river, Terah, the father of Abraham and Nahor, and they served other gods; then I took your father Abraham …’ (vv. 2b–3a). We should not run around the plain implication of the text—that Abraham was plunged into pagan worship just as the rest: ‘They served other gods.’ ‘But if we attend to the words of the inspired writer, we shall see that he [Abraham] is no more exempted from the guilt of the popular idolatry than Terah and Nachor.’

Yet there is a persistent tendency in the popular Christian mind to look upon folks like Abraham as if they had always been a Mr. Goodwrench—good, solid, helpful folks to whom no God who had an ounce of wisdom could avoid taking a shine. Nor could some Jewish minds quite stand it. The pseudepigraphal book of Jubilees pictures Abram at fourteen understanding the error of pagan worship and separating ‘from his father so that he might not worship the idols with him’ (Jub. 11:16). Indeed he exhorts his father to dump idols and worship the God of heaven (Jub. 12:1–8). However, when he is sixty, Abram really gets drastic and burns the house of idols (Jub. 12:12–14).

All of which goes to show that John Newton was right: grace really is amazing. So amazing that we can’t believe it. So we go on concocting our graven images of biblical all-stars, like Abraham, picturing them as worthy fellows already disposed toward God, already on the way to truth, needing only a little help from God to finish a conversion so nobly begun.

But it is all rubbish. ‘They served other gods.’ That is the situation of Abraham. ‘Then I took your father Abraham.’ That is the grace of Yahweh. It all started there—in unexpected, unimaginable, unexplainable grace. Abraham rose out of the desolate pit and miry bog of paganism only because Yahweh touched him. ‘Abraham did not emerge from profound ignorance and the abyss of error by his own virtue, but was drawn out by the hand of God.’4 That there is a people of God at all hangs on the single thread of the mere good pleasure of God, who, for no apparent reason, took hold of our father Abraham, the sinner.

The Gradual Pace of God

We don’t live long in covenant history until we experience the gradual pace of God. Still speaking of Abraham, Joshua continues Yahweh’s word: ‘and I multiplied his seed and I gave him Isaac’ (v. 3b). Those two statements look ludicrous together. God multiplies Abraham’s seed—he gives him Isaac. One times one is one. And, according to the mathematics of Genesis, it took twenty-five years just to get Isaac (Gen. 12:4; 16:3, 16; 17:1, 17; 21:5).

But perhaps we should have allowed Joshua to go on: ‘I multiplied his seed, and I gave him Isaac, and I gave Isaac Jacob and Esau’ (vv. 3b–4a). That’s not much better. Yahweh multiplies Abraham’s seed by giving him two grandsons! And, according to the scriptural math, that was after twenty years of childlessness for Isaac and Rebekah (Gen. 25:19–26).

God does not appear to be in a hurry; he is not driven by the calendar or intimidated by the clock. Yahweh did multiply Abraham’s seed but he did it slowly. He does what he promises but sometimes so gradually that we don’t see his faithfulness. This is frequently God’s way—to be ‘faithful in little’ and even little by little. It might help our faith if we would fasten our eyes more on the fact than the degree of God’s faithfulness, or its speed. We easily lose sight of what Yahweh has done by demanding too much too soon.

Every time I enter the print shop in town, I see a poster the proprietors have prominently displayed behind the counter. There are three cartoonlike characters on it, in various positions, laughing wildly and holding their sides. The caption reads: ‘You want it when?!’ It’s a subtle message to impatient customers who think their order should have been ready the day before they brought it in. Perhaps it’s more of a parable than a poster for those of us who chafe at the pace of God’s faithfulness.

The Mystifying Ways of God

One twister leads to another: in covenant history sooner or later we encounter the mystifying ways of God. ‘I gave Esau Mt. Seir to possess, but Jacob and his sons went down to Egypt’ (v. 4b).

Now why is that? Why do Esau and his family, the noncovenant line, get their inheritance, while the covenant family (Jacob and Co.) do not receive theirs—indeed, they go to Egypt where, eventually, they will be enslaved (Gen. 15:13–16)? Why do the covenant people experience hardship and slavery while others have their reward? Why do God’s chosen ones experience the affliction while others enjoy their good things? See how Scripture recognises this mystery, that God’s people so often have to wait in great distress for God’s promised blessing?

This total candor of Scripture about the life of faith is so refreshing. Hebrews 11:32–38 illustrates this perfectly. That writer makes no bones about the astounding benefits God gives to faith: his people conquered kingdoms, shut lions’ mouths, escaped the sword, routed alien armies, observed resurrections (Heb. 11:32–35a). Now that is the victorious Christian life! That’s what God does for his people who believe! Yet the writer continues with nary a semicolon: ‘Others were tortured … some faced jeers and flogging … they were stoned; they were sawed in two … put to death by the sword … went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated … they wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground’ (Heb. 11:35b–38, NIV). That’s what God does for his people who believe. Thus the writer makes no bones about the strange hardships God allows to faith. Is that the ‘victorious Christian life’? Who knows? But it’s as much the Christian life as conquering kingdoms and muzzling lions.

My point is that neither Scripture nor God speaking in Scripture glosses over this mystery. Back to Joshua 24:4. Even in this overall survey of Yahweh’s goodness to Israel we find this mystery. Esau received his possession; Jacob and his family went down to Egypt. The mystery must be seen both in and in light of the whole story. Weeping may endure for the night (cf. Ps. 30:4–5).

There is no use kicking at this mystery, but the mystery itself should lead us to adore our God. Why? Because when he rehearses the story of his grace he doesn’t hide the (to us) rough spots; he doesn’t gloss over the perplexities; he doesn’t omit the difficulties. He never erases the mysteries or dark times from the record. My point is, you can trust a God like that. Here is a straightforward, honest God.

One reason why I believe the New Testament record of the resurrection of Jesus is because Matthew’s Gospel contains three words in relating the disciples’ meeting with the risen Lord in Galilee: ‘But some doubted’ (Matt. 28:17). Someone might ask, ‘How can hearing of their doubt support your faith?’ Simply because it tells me that the writer has nothing to hide. If Matthew was trying to feed me theological baloney he would have suppressed mention of anyone—especially among Jesus’ followers—doubting Jesus and his resurrection. The fact that he so candidly and openly notes it tells me that Matthew (or, if you prefer, the writer of the first Gospel) has nothing to hide, no secrets to keep; I can trust a man like that to tell me the truth.

And such is our God. He is kind enough to show us plainly that within the story of his grace we may meet with darkness. Not that we will relish the darkness. But a God that truthful can be trusted to hold us in the darkness.

The Manifest Power of God

As expected, a substantial section of this historical prologue recounts the manifest power of God. Joshua outlines three major moments of that power:

    Deliverance from Egypt, 5–7
      Sending of human instruments, 5a
      Infliction of the plagues, 5b
      Rescue at the sea, 6–7
    Conquest east of the Jordan, 8
    (see Num. 21:21–35)
    Conquest west of the Jordan, 11–12
      Victory at Jericho, 11
      Victory over ‘two kings of the Amorites’,

The major impression Israel is to receive from this section is that the power is solely Yahweh’s. Joshua makes the point deftly at the end of verse 12, summing up the conquest west of the Jordan: ‘it was not by your sword or by your bow’ (see Ps. 44:3, 5–7). Don’t begin to imagine that your own efforts achieved this. The praise belongs to Yahweh and his strong arm.

The ‘rescue at the sea’ section (vv. 6–7) preaches the same point.

  I brought your fathers out of Egypt and you came to the sea; and the Egyptians pursued your father with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea; then they began to cry out to Yahweh and he placed darkness between you and the Egyptians; then he brought the sea over them—it covered them and your eyes saw what I did against the Egyptians.

That is Exodus 14 in concentrate. And Exodus 14 stresses the utter helplessness of Israel at the sea. In fact, it says that Yahweh himself placed them in that position of helplessness. Even though there is no certainty about precisely where Pi-ha-hiroth, Migdol, and Baal-Zephon (Exod. 14:2) were located, the general description in Exodus 14:1–4 allows us to see the picture. Israel was going out the exit and Yahweh ordered them to ‘turn back’ and camp ‘between Migdol and the sea’ (14:2). Pharaoh would then think that Israel was ‘wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert’ (14:3, NIV). It appears that Yahweh deliberately placed Israel as sitting ducks by the sea for Pharaoh; they were hemmed in and totally helpless as Egypt’s military machines rolled in behind them.

Why does God operate that way? To show, in a word, that salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9); ‘to make it clear that such an overwhelming power comes from God and not from us’ (2 Cor. 4:7, JB); to insist that ‘there is no place for human pride in the presence of God’ (1 Cor. 1:29, NEB). Don’t misunderstand; God’s purpose is not to deform us into blobs of limp jello who only let go and let God, but to transform us into humble worshippers who gladly confess our ‘help comes from Yahweh, maker of heaven and earth’ (Ps. 121:2). God will sometimes box us up in our own helplessness in order to show us we are not delivered by our own cleverness, insight, manipulation, or anxiety, but by Yahweh ‘who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters’ (Isa. 43:16, RSV).

The Faithful Protection of God

In verses 9–10 Joshua alludes to the Balaam episode, reminding Israel of the faithful protection of God. You may refer to Numbers 22–24 (plus Num. 25 and 31:8, 14–16) to review the whole story, though Joshua gives the essence of it.

Israel had arrived at the plains of Moab, ready to enter Canaan. Balak, king of Moab, hired Balaam, a most successful diviner, to come curse Israel. Balaam was to put the hokey-pokey, lickety-split on Israel, so that Balak could defeat them in battle. Balaam was a prophet for profit and, though God at last permitted him to go to Balak, he made it clear that Balaam could do only what God directed or allowed (Num. 22:20), which might make it difficult for Balaam to be successful in collecting his check.

So that Balaam would realise just how much he was under Yahweh’s control, God gave him extra tutoring on his journey to Moab. Three times the angel of Yahweh stands in the road ready to plunge his sword through Balaam. And on each occasion Balaam’s ass is his saviour—and gets punished for it. The ass went off into a field, smashed Balaam’s foot against a vineyard wall (better one foot crushed than a sword through your middle), and finally lay down on the job (Num. 22:22–27). While Balaam was beating the daylights out of her, his ass asked what she had done to deserve such abuse. The Israelites knew that asses don’t talk and that’s why Numbers 22:28 states that ‘Yahweh opened the mouth of the ass.’ It was an act of God. If God must make an ass talk to get Balaam’s attention, he must have been pretty dense.

Then, as Yahweh had opened the ass’s mouth, he opened Balaam’s eyes (Num. 22:31), and Balaam saw he was within an inch of death. Here is real irony. Balaam is the diviner, the seer, the one who perceives. Yet it was the ass who saw the angel of Yahweh while Balaam did not. The dumb ass was sharper than Balaam. Though some may take offence, we can truthfully say that the point of the narrative is that Balaam is the real ass.

The scrape with death evidently sobered Balaam and he got Yahweh’s point: ‘Go with the men; but only the word which I bid you, that shall you speak’ (Num. 22:35, RSV). Balaam’s lucrative heart longed to curse Israel, but he was held in God’s vise grips. It is an awesome, helpless feeling—to be held in the crunch of Shaddai’s hand. He could speak only Yahweh’s will. And Yahweh’s will was blessing for Israel.

The rest is history (see Num. 23–24). Balak had amassed all the brass, pomp, and regalia (and maybe several high-school bands) to hear Balaam’s magic curse. But every attempt brought only Balaamic blessing. Just as Yahweh says in Joshua’s summary (back to Josh. 24): ‘But I did not want to listen to Balaam, so he kept on blessing you, and I delivered you from his hand’ (v. 10).10 (The whole episode in Numbers 22–24 must be viewed in light of Genesis 12:3a, ‘I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.’ This is the protection clause of Yahweh’s promise to Abraham, and it should control our reading of Numbers 22–24. Yahweh’s will for Abraham and seed is blessing and, Balaam or no Balaam, he will bless them.)

So Joshua preaches to Israel, ‘Remember the faithful protection of God; remember how he shielded you from Balaam’s passion and Balak’s purpose.’ The same appeal applies to God’s people in every age. The Balaams and Balaks assume different guises but the protection of God remains unchanging. Jesus says as much of his church: ‘I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it’ (Matt. 16:18, RSV). The same holds for God’s people individually, though many of us have sometimes wondered where God’s shielding hand was in our tragedy and losses. But my knowledge and yours is too fragmentary. If you knew what God has kept you from and what he has kept from you, you would have no trouble confessing how faithful his protection has been.

The Continuous Provision of God

The story of amazing grace includes the continuous provision of God. We have a hint of this in verse 7: ‘and you lived in the wilderness a long time’ (RSV). What a load is packed into that clause! Half of Exodus and all of Numbers are compacted into those words. Their mere survival from Egypt to Canaan was nothing less than one long miracle.

However, Israel was now enjoying Yahweh’s abundant provision in the land of promise: ‘And I gave you a land you did not toil for and cities you did not build—and you began to live in them; you are now eating from vineyards and olive trees you did not plant’ (v. 13). Here is abundant provision and it too flows from grace (‘I gave’); there is nothing automatic about it.

Combine the testimony of verses 7 and 13. Here is provision in necessity (v. 7) and in abundance (v. 13). But each is God’s provision and all is God’s sustenance. And please note how very earthy Yahweh’s provision is: whether manna in the wilderness or vineyards in Canaan, it is food for covenant stomachs; it is land on which to settle and towns in which to have homes. Towns to live in and produce for food. How crass and unspiritual can we get? But God’s people never get beyond that: daily bread and corn flakes and casseroles are the stuff for which Jesus teaches us to pray (Matt. 6:11).

Such is the review of covenant history, the story of the King’s grace. Do you begin to feel the gentle handcuffs of God’s goodness slipping around the wrists of your heart? He says: ‘Remember how I took you as my own; how I baffled you, rescued you in your helplessness; how I shielded you from dangers seen and unseen; how I have sustained you with bread and meat until this very day.’ ‘Oh, to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be!’ Do you feel the claim of this text, the pull it exerts upon your affections?

Of course, since our God is ever adding ‘grace on top of grace’ (John 1:16), the historical prologue of his benefits gets longer and more amazing. Above all, the story of the King’s grace now includes the act of the King’s sacrifice. You can no longer be your own, ‘for you were bought with a price’ (1 Cor. 6:19–20). You now lead a life of innovative holiness and trembling awe, ‘knowing as you do that you were not ransomed from your empty way of life … with perishable stuff—silver or gold, but with precious blood … even Christ’s’ (1 Peter 1:14–19). The logic of these New Testament texts presses the claim of grace upon us. This claim and call and argument of God’s grace explains so much. It explains why Galatians 2:20 is such a long verse. Paul tried to stop with the words ‘Son of God’ but couldn’t. He couldn’t help himself; he had to add ‘who loved me and gave himself for me’. It explains why the ‘immortal, invisible’ of 1 Timothy 1:17 is not so much doxological filler; it is the response of one who is utterly astounded at the overflowing grace of the Lord Jesus toward a vicious blasphemer who remains the foremost of sinners. God’s goodness comes equipped with fetters and his people are glad to be its captives.

The Demand for Covenant Commitment (24:14–24)
In the second major section of the text Joshua presses the demand for covenant commitment (vv. 14–24) upon Israel. These verses contain four statements by Joshua and four responses by Israel:

    Joshua—demand, 14–15
      Israel—decision, 16–18
    Joshua—caution, 19–20
      Israel—insistence, 21
    Joshua—query, 22a
      Israel—acknowledgment, 22b
    Joshua—demand, 23
      Israel—reaffirmation, 24

A Logical Commitment

What sort of commitment does the covenant call for? It demands a logical commitment: ‘And now fear Yahweh and serve him in whole-heartedness and fidelity’ (v. 14a). The ‘and now’ places the response demanded in light of the grace displayed (vv. 2–13). Fidelity to Yahweh is but the natural contemporary response to his abundant historical goodness. What else could one do toward a God who calls, delivers, protects, and supplies? There is a compulsion about it. It is the only reasonable response to overwhelming waves of Yahweh’s mercies. Israel is held in the grip of grace; they are almost coerced to faithfulness by sheer logic. We have, quite expectedly, the same pattern in the New Testament. As stated before, it is in light of the lavish mercies of God depicted in Romans 1–11 that Romans 12:1–2 calls believers to their only rational response:

  So then, my brothers, in view of all these mercies that God has bestowed on you, I now make this plea. Present your bodies to God, present them as a sacrifice—a living one, not a lifeless one; a holy one (because it is offered to a holy God), and one in which He will take pleasure. For, when you consider your indebtedness to God, the consecration of your lives to His service is your logical act of worship.

I was going to say that the Christian’s response to God is bloodlessly rational. But it can never be bloodlessly rational, can it? Not for a Christian. Rational, certainly, but bloodlessly rational, never.

An Exclusive Commitment

Then Joshua also demands an exclusive commitment (vv. 14b–15; see also v. 23):

  … and put away the gods your fathers served beyond the river and in Egypt and serve Yahweh. And if you do not want to serve Yahweh, choose today whom you are going to serve—whether the gods your fathers served beyond the river or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living. But I and my house, we are going to serve Yahweh.

There is no doubt about what Joshua is after. That word serve (Hebrew, ‘abad) appears seven times in these two verses (the Hebrew root is like measles in ch. 24, occurring eighteen times). Israel must decide whose slaves they will be (cf. Rom. 6:17–18, 22).

Joshua appears to do a strange thing. Not every one notices that his famous choose-you-this-day command calls Israel to choose between two sets of pagan gods! Back up. Joshua calls Israel to ‘serve Yahweh’ (v. 14). But if Israel will not serve Yahweh, they must at least choose some god(s). He presses Israel to the wall; they must come down somewhere. If not Yahweh, the real historical God, then they must choose either the ancestral Mesopotamian gods or the contemporary Amorite ones. The conservatives who were fond of tradition, of what had stood the test of time, who yearned for the ‘faith of our fathers’, might vote for Mesopotamia. The liberals with their yen for relevance, for being in step with the times, might prefer to identify (as an act of goodwill) with the current social milieu and enter into dialogue and worship with the Amorites. But you must choose; if not Yahweh, then take your pick from ‘these dunghill deities’ (Matthew Henry).

Some may be disturbed at the way evangelist Joshua calls for decisions. Is he serious about which pagan gods they should choose? How could that really be a choice? I think that is precisely Joshua’s point. He is using a reductio ad absurdum. He says, ‘Serve Yahweh; but if you won’t, choose which non-gods you will serve.’ You will say, ‘But that’s stupid; choosing between pagan gods is really absurd.’ Joshua retorts: ‘That’s precisely my point. If you reject Yahweh, you are stupid, and the only options left are so absurd that they make no sense at all.’ This approach baffles our prosaic western minds. But Joshua is not driving Israel from Yahweh’s service but seeking to shock them into being his slaves forever. And sometimes shock treatments work better than predictable preaching.

In any case, no matter what Israel does, Joshua has taken his stand: ‘But I and my house, we are going to serve Yahweh’ (v. 15b).  Popular opinion may differ; it makes no difference. Here is where I come down—no matter what.

Joshua pushes Israel in his own creative way to an either/ or commitment. If they are going to serve Yahweh, then they must ‘put away the foreign gods among [them]’ (v. 23). It is all or nothing. Israel must give themselves completely to Yahweh or not at all. It is the hog’s dilemma in that hackneyed hog and hen story. Both hen and hog were walking past a church and noted the pastor’s sermon title on the outside bulletin board. It read: ‘What can we do to help the poor?’ As hogs and hens are wont to do, they entered into earnest conversation over the question as they continued on their way. At last, the hen was smitten with a bright idea: ‘I’ve got it,’ she cackled, ‘we can help the poor by giving them a ham and eggs breakfast!’ ‘Oh no you don’t,’ shot back the hog, ‘for you, that only means a contribution, but for me, it means total commitment.’ The old sow was right. That is Joshua’s point—there can be no chicken’s way out, but Israel must go whole hog (if one may so speak) for Yahweh. No compromise on this point. They must consider whose slaves they will be.

A Cautious Commitment

One could hardly have asked for a more gratifying and orthodox response than what Joshua received from Israel in verses 16–18:

  Far be it from us to forsake Yahweh to serve other gods! For Yahweh our God is the one who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves, and who did these great signs before our eyes, who preserved us in all the way in which we have traveled and among all the people among whom we passed, and who drove out before us all the peoples, particularly the Amorites who live in the land. Yes, we too are going to serve Yahweh, for he is our God.

To Joshua’s ‘I and my house’ (v. 15) they add their ‘we too’. But then Joshua does something no decision-loving evangelist should ever do. To Israel’s ‘we too’ he opposes his ‘you cannot’ (v. 19). If Israel gives herself to Yahweh it must be in a cautious commitment.

Joshua’s is a shocking refusal. ‘You cannot serve Yahweh, for he is a holy God; he is a jealous God; he will not go on forgiving your rebellion and your sins’ (v. 19). If you desert him, he will consume you (v. 20). Don’t lightly mouth your profession of faith, Joshua is saying. Don’t you realise the sort of God you are dealing with? He is a holy, jealous God. You don’t dare come to him thinking, ‘though it makes him sad to see the way we live, he’ll always say, “I forgive” ’. Yahweh is not a soft, cuddly Santa in the sky who drools over easy decisions during invitation hymns. Joshua seeks to put down that blathering self-confidence that makes emotional commitments rather than shutting its mouth and counting the cost.

‘You cannot serve Yahweh.’ Neither Israel nor the church could hear a more beneficial word than that.

It was precisely when the Jesus bandwagon was going great guns (Luke 14:25) that Jesus emphasised who ‘cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:26, 27, 33). Rather, one must carefully ‘count the cost’ (Luke 14:28) before yielding allegiance to Jesus. The church should note this. Too frequently, the Jesus we present is some variety of prepackaged joy, peace, and provision that works twice as fast as aspirin. He is our cellophane Christ. We should not sell Christ like that but warn people about him! Our task is not to bait people into saying, ‘I will lay down my life for you’ (John 13:37), but to get them (and ourselves) to squirm under his searching, ‘Do you love me?’ (John 21:15–19). Too many of us perjure ourselves before a holy Judge as we sing, ‘I surrender all’, or ‘My Jesus, I love thee’. There are stanzas in some hymns that I dare not sing.

One of the healthiest things a Christian can do is to doubt and question his easy expressions of commitment. One of the ordination vows my denomination asks of me is:

  Do you engage to be faithful and diligent in the exercise of all your duties as a Christian and a minister of the Gospel, whether personal or relational, private or public; and to endeavor by the grace of God to adorn the profession of the Gospel in your manner of life, and to walk with exemplary piety before the flock of which God shall make you overseer?

I would not touch that with the proverbial ten-foot pole. It asks too much of a proud, angry, lustful, covetous man. I affirm it only because there is that clause, ‘by the grace of God’, in it. Otherwise, I would have to turn away, for it would be too much to promise. Baptismal, membership, and marriage vows should receive the same scrutiny.

We must retain Joshua’s paradox, must constantly stand between his ‘serve Yahweh’ (v. 14) and his ‘you cannot serve Yahweh’ (v. 19). His purpose is not to drive us from Yahweh but to him.14 Only we must not make our commitment easily, lightly, flippantly, casually, but cautiously and fearfully (vv. 21, 24).

The Wonder of Covenant Religion (24:25–28)

In the third section of the text we can observe the wonder of covenant religion. Now in one sense there is no wonder here at all. These verses contain certain predictable elements of covenant and treaty ratification. There was, evidently, the customary sacrifice, for that seems implied in the language of verse 25a, ‘So Joshua cut a covenant with/for the people on that day.’15 There was the written document, for ‘Joshua wrote down these words in the book of the torah of God’ (v. 26a).16 And then there stands a silent witness—a huge stone (vv. 26b–27)! It may seem spooky to read of a stone that has heard all the words that Yahweh spoke that day. (Do rocks have ears?) But in pagan treaties the various gods are summoned as witnesses. Biblical religion, however, has ‘de-godded’ the pagan pantheons, and thus drastically reduced the available witnesses! So, heaven, earth, mountains—and stones—have to do (cf. Isa. 1:2; Mic. 6:2).

We are warming to the wonder, however, when we note the significant place where this covenant renewal occurred—at Shechem (v. 25); more precisely, at ‘the sanctuary of Yahweh’ in Shechem (v. 26). We can’t help it. Our minds go back to Genesis 12:6–7. It was here at Shechem that Yahweh promised Abram, ‘To your seed I will give this land’ (Gen. 12:7).18 Now, 600 years (plus or minus) later, here is Abraham’s seed at Promise Place—Shechem—having the land—no falling words.

But the real wonder of covenant religion is that there is any covenant at all. For Joshua to take the lead in renewing the covenant (as, apparently, in our chapter) means that there must be a covenant to renew. But whoever heard of a covenant-making God (cf. Exod. 34:10)?

  The ideas of a covenant between a deity and a people is unknown to us from other religions and cultures.… It seems, however, that the covenantal idea was a special feature of the religion of Israel, the only one to demand exclusive loyalty and to preclude the possibility of dual or multiple loyalties such as were permitted in other religions, where the believer was bound in diverse relationships to many gods. The stipulation in political treaties demanding exclusive fealty to one king corresponds strikingly with the religious belief in one single, exclusive deity.

Hence there were treaties and covenants in the ancient world. Covenants between kings and vassals, covenants between equals. But where can we find a covenant God, a God who, as Alec Motyer puts it, ‘makes and keeps promises’? Where do we hear of a God who binds himself by covenant to a people? Where is there such an unusual God? Only in Israel. Your knees should bend and worship begin: ‘Who is a God like you …?’ (Mic. 7:18; 1 Kings 8:23).

Taken from Davis, D. R. (2000). Joshua: No Falling Words (pp. 181–198). Scotland: Christian Focus Publications.