As is the case with some of the other godly leaders whom we have discussed so far in this series , Joshua’s last words recorded in scripture span over two chapters. The first part of his last words, found in Joshua 23, is his farewell address, and the second part is the covenant renewal. Both are of great interest in painting the life of service that Joshua lived, and the points that he tried to impress, somewhat unsuccessfully, upon Israel. Indeed, if people had paid more attention to his last words, there never would have been cause for the Talmud to claim that Abraham was perfectly righteous and had earned his salvation, as Joshua’s last words point out that Abraham came from a family of idolaters that God rescued him out of. Indeed, Joshua claimed that Israel could not worship God in their own power and by their own strength, and yet Israel persisted in claiming that they would obey God even though they did not and could not. Although the two farewell messages are too long to analyze in detail, it is worth quoting each of them and making some comments on the most notable aspects of the farewell as it relates to previous biblical history as well as the destiny of Israel and the life of Joshua himself. I remember watching a movie once that claimed that Joshua died embittered, but these messages do not show a tone of bitterness, even if there is plenty of warning in them.
The Farewell address of Joshua takes up Joshua 23:1-16, and reads as follows: “Now it came to pass, a long time after the Lord had given rest to Israel from all their enemies round about, that Joshua was old, advanced in age. And Joshua called for all Israel, for their elders, for their heads, for their judges, and for their officers, and said to them: “I am old, advanced in age. You have seen all that the Lord your God has done to all these nations because of you, for the Lord your God is He who has fought for you. See, I have divided to you by lot these nations that remain, to be an inheritance for your tribes, from the Jordan, with all the nations that I have cut off, as far as the Great Sea westward. And the Lord your God will expel them from before you and drive them out of your sight. So you shall possess their land, as the Lord your God promised you. Therefore be courageous to keep and do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, lest you turn aside from it to the right hand or to the left, and lest you go among these nations, those who remain among you. You shall not make mention of the name of their gods, nor cause anyone to swear by them; you shall not serve them nor bow down to them, but you shall hold fast to the Lord your God, as you have done to this day. For the Lord has driven out from before you great and strong nations, but as for you, no one has been able to stand against you to this day. One man shall chase a thousand, for the Lord your God is He who fights for you, as He has promised you. Therefore take careful heed to yourselves, that you love the Lord your God. Or else, if indeed you do go back, and cling to the remnant of these nations—these that remain among you—and make marriages with them, and go into them and they to you, know for certain that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations from before you. But they will be snares and traps to you, and scourges on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land which the Lord your God has given you. Behold, this day I am going the way of all earth. And you know in all your hearts and in all your souls that not one thing has failed of all the good things which the Lord your God spoke concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one word of them has failed. Therefore it shall come to pass, that as all the good things have come upon you which the Lord your God promised you, so the Lord will bring upon you all harmful things, until He has destroyed you from this good land which the Lord your God has given you. When you have transgressed the covenant of the Lord your God, which He commanded you, and have gone and served other gods, and bowed down to them, then the anger of the Lord will burn against you, and you will perish quickly from the good land which He has given you.”
There is much in this passage that looks backwards and looks forward. Let us remember in Joshua 1:9 that God had called on Joshua to be strong and of good courage, and at the end of his life Joshua gives this same advice to the people of Israel. Many of the comments here, and the curses that are threatened for disobedience, can be found in places like Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, some internal evidence of Joshua’s awareness of the Book of the Law of Moses, as is his reference to sin pollution . Joshua’s awareness of God’s law, and his evident desire to walk in God’s ways, is something that he wishes to convey to the Israelites as a whole. However, this is done without any expectation of long-term success, as Joshua knows that Israel is stubborn and stiff-necked in doing evil. And so this passage has a melancholy feeling, not only because Joshua is nearing the end of his life, but also because he entirely lacks faith in the ability and longing of Israel to obey God. Though this might sound like bitterness to some, Joshua’s warnings were entirely proper, as first the northern tribes of Israel failed to repent upon repeated prophets being sent by God, like Joel, Hosea, and Amos, among others, and then about 135 years later Judah joined them in captivity for the same reasons. We ignore this example at our peril.
Nor is the Covenant at Shechem, the material of Joshua 24, without its considerable importance. Let us look at Joshua 1:1-5 and 13-28: “Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem and called for the elders of Israel, for their heads, for their judges, and for their officers; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘Your fathers, including Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, dwelt on the other side of the River in old times; and they served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from the other side of the River, led him throughout all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his descendants and gave him Isaac. To Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. To Esau I have the mountains of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. Also I sent Moses and Aaron and I plagued Egypt, according to what I did among them. Afterward I brought you out.’” Continuing in verse thirteen, after a historical interlude: “’I have given you a land for which you did not labor, and cities which you did not build, and you dwell in them; you eat of vineyards and alive groves which you did not plant.’ Now therefore, fear the Lord, serve Him in sincerity and in truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord! And if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” So the people answered and said: “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for the Lord our God is He who brought us out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, who did those great signs in our sight, and preserved us in all the way that we went and among all the people through whom we passed. And the Lord drove out from before us all the people, including the Amorites who dwelt in the land. We also will serve the Lord, for He is our God.” But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the Lord, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you, after He has done you good.” And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the Lord!” So Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves, that you have chosen the Lord for yourselves, to serve Him.” And they said, “We are witnesses!” “Now therefore,” he said, “put away the foreign gods which are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord God of Israel.” And the people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and His voice we will obey!” So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made for them a statute and an ordinance in Shechem. Then 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 tree that was by the sanctuary of the Lord. And Joshua said to all the people, “Behold, this stone shall be a witness to us, for it has heard all the words of the Lord which He spoke to us. It shall therefore be a witness to you, lest you deny your God.” So Joshua let the people depart, each to his own inheritance.”
For those who are aware of Israel’s history, this is an ominous covenant renewal. Let us note that each generation is faced with the renewal of the covenant when there is a transition of leadership . Each generation must choose for itself whether to follow God or not, and to make the commitment public, as was done here. Let us note Joshua’s commitment to following God, despite the impossibility of obeying God with one’s own unaided efforts. This passage is a powerful one, not least because it demonstrates that God has always worked with people through grace, and that there is no other dispensation that can be found to make men right before God but undeserved pardon along with wholehearted and sincere following of God. Contrary to the rabbis who falsely thought that Abraham had earned his salvation, this passage tells us that God called Abraham out of an idolatrous household to serve Him. Beyond that, like Exodus 19, this passage shows us an Israel that claims to worship God and be devoted to following Him, but does not serve Him with a loyal heart. It will not be more than a few years before the Israelites are in bondage and cry out for a deliverer, until they find one in Othniel, Caleb’s nephew and son-in-law. This passage over and over again demonstrates that Israel got what they had not earned and what they did not deserve because God had been faithful to their fathers. It is easy for us to enjoy good things and to think ourselves to be righteous and worthy of those blessings, and not to appreciate the grace and favor we have been given. As this tendency leads us to look down on others, it is notable that Joshua strikes at both sides of this moral and spiritual blindness here. When it comes to last words, that is a powerful reminder to leave behind.
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