The Ways of God Joshua 24:1-13


Joshua 24:1-13

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Chapter 24 contains the second and last of Joshua’s farewell addresses to Israel, the first of which, found in chapter 23, we considered last Lord’s Day morning. This chapter concludes the fourth and final section of Joshua, the key word of which section we said is the Hebrew verb “to serve.” That word occurs sixteen times in chapter 24.

Text Comment

v.1       So this the nation in its representative form. Shechem, if you remember, was the site of an earlier covenant renewal ceremony of which we read in 8:30–35. One of the reasons Shechem figured prominently in Israel’s early history in the Promised Land was because it had figured prominently in Abraham’s personal history some six centuries earlier. It was at Shechem that God first promised to give Abraham the land of Canaan (Gen. 12:6-7). So it was fitting that Israel should gather at Shechem to renew the covenant that had been made first on that same spot six hundred years before.

What we have in chapter 24 is the report of a covenant renewal ceremony. As such it bears the marks of the literary form common to ancient near eastern international treaties or covenants. It was noticed some years ago that the biblical covenantal material in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and here in Joshua 24 bears a resemblance to the form of those ancient treaties from the same historical period so striking that it cannot be accidental. Those ancient treaties also typically began with a preamble that identified the author of the covenant or treaty and then followed with an historical prologue that reviewed the previous history between the partners to the covenant. Those two elements are what make up the first 13 verses of Joshua 24. The biblical covenants, like the ancient treaties, describe and define the relationship between the two parties; in this case between Yahweh and Israel. For the Lord to use this literary form to describe the covenant between himself and Israel was an act of accommodation on his part. It made it easier for his people to understand what was being said and what it meant. Yahweh was making a covenant with Israel like a great king would make with a lesser kingdom, one that was subservient to him.

This is an example of the sort of accommodation that we find throughout the Bible. The Song of Songs is a love poem in many ways like other ancient near eastern love poems. The poetry of the Psalter would have been familiar to the people of Israel because it bore the marks of ancient near eastern poetic literature. Paul would later write his letters like letters were typically written in the first century, and so on. It made the Bible easier to understand and appreciate.

v.2       The words “Thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel…” is the preamble in typical ancient near eastern treaty style. You can find similar wording beginning treaties from various parts of the ancient near east. Compare “Thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel…” with the opening of a Hittite treaty from the period that begins “These are the words of (or Thus says) the Sun Suppiluliumas, the great king of the Hatti land…” [ANET, ii, 42]

v.4       Joshua’s review of the history of the Lord’s covenant with Israel begins with Yahweh’s calling Abraham out of idolatry. Abraham had served other gods, but then Yahweh revealed himself to Abraham and called him out of Ur and brought him to Canaan. Though Abraham and his wife Sarah had no children and were, by this time, old and long past child-bearing age, Yahweh gave them many descendants. But though Jacob was the son of the promise, Esau got his inheritance immediately while Jacob and his family found themselves in Egypt.

v.5       A significant shift has occurred. Up to this point in the review of the history of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel, the pronouns have all been third person. But now for the first time we read the Lord refer to the present generation. “I brought you out.” From now on it is primarily “you” not “they.” Of course these Israelites had not been present at the exodus, though some of them may have been children at the time. [Howard, 431]

This is an important point and serves to indicate the real purpose of the historical prologue, and not just this historical prologue but the entire narrative history of the Bible.  The history of Israel, stretching back to Abraham, is their history. It is an account of what the Lord has done for them. Israel would not be in the Promised Land, they would not possess the Promised Land except for all the things the Lord had already done on their behalf. As Rabbi Gamaliel put it in Paul’s day, “It is I who came forth out of Egypt.” [Cf. Wilken, Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 34] Remembering this history is more than simply mental recall. To remember in the Bible is to participate. We get this same point of view in the NT when Paul reminds a church of Gentiles in Corinth that their forefathers were delivered from bondage in Egypt. This history is not simply the history of Israel from the 15th to the 14th centuries B.C. It is our history; yours and mine. The exodus was as much our redemption as the cross is our redemption.

v.7       This review of the Lord’s dealings with Israel next mentions the exodus from Egypt, accomplished by the plagues and the destruction of the Egyptian army at the yam suph, the so-called Red Sea. The words themselves are literally “The Sea of Reeds” not the “Red Sea.” That is, it doesn’t necessarily designate what is called the Red Sea today. The time in the wilderness mentioned at the end of v. 7 is a heading for what follows.

v.8       The forty years in the wilderness is summarized in two particular episodes both of which came late in the period of the wilderness period. Here we read of the victories the Lord gave Israel over Sihon and Og, the Amorite kings whose kingdoms were east of the Jordan River.

v.10     The other episode was the one recounted at length in the later chapters of the book of Numbers, viz. effort of Balak, with the help of the prophet Balaam, to destroy the Israelites by divine curse, an effort the Lord thwarted in the most remarkable way.

v.13     The short summary of Israel’s history with Yahweh is concluded with a beautiful reminder that Yahweh had given the Canaanites into Israel’s hands, had delivered the land he had long before promised to Abraham, the land flowing with milk and honey, the land with all its wealth, into Israel’s possession.

The metaphor of the hornet harks back to Exodus 23:28, where the Lord had told Israel that “he would send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites, and Hittites out of your way.” It is a metaphor obviously. The main point, of course, is that Israel’s victories were God’s doing, not hers. Interestingly, in the next verses in Exodus 23 Yahweh said that the process would take some time and that he would not drive the Canaanites out in a single year. Little by little he would drive them out “until you have increased enough to take possession of the land” (Ex. 23:29-30). That is precisely what we have seen happening in Joshua. We are also reminded in this way that the very large numbers of Israelites that we are given in the book of Numbers, a company in the millions, are either an instance of hyperbole, exaggeration for effect, a very common literary device in the ancient world, or have been either miscopied or misunderstood in some way. Israel was not millions when they came into the Promised Land.

Now what makes this review of Israel’s earlier history so significant and helpful is that it reveals a pattern as obvious in our own time as in those long ago days of the conquest. Many things never change in this world. Put yourself in the place of those favored Israelites that day at Shechem. They were standing in the very place where the Lord first made his covenant with their ancestor Abraham. Yahweh had promised Abraham that this very land would one day be his in the person of his descendants. And now, after some six centuries, it has come to pass. They are now in possession of that land. How many generations of Israelites had come and gone thinking about that promise, wondering when it would be fulfilled or if it would be fulfilled, and now it had been and they had lived to see it.

Perhaps no other generation of the people of God were so favored except that generation that witnessed the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus. How many times in their lives do you suppose Peter or James or John said something like, “I wish my grandfather could have lived long enough to see this,” or “I wonder if Isaiah or Jeremiah had any idea that it was going to be like this!” And how many times do you suppose they pinched themselves and said, “I can’t believe that of all the generations who have waited for these things to come to pass, it should have happened in my generation; I should have been given the privilege!”

All well and good. But you and I have not been given that privilege. We have not seen one of the great prophesies of the Word of God come to pass before our eyes, and unless the Lord Christ should return in our lifetime we are not going to. I don’t mean to say that prophecy isn’t being fulfilled at this very moment. Surely it is. The nations of the world are being made the disciples of Jesus Christ by the hundreds of millions, especially in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The Scripture said it would be so and it is so. But that is not quite the same thing. That has been happening throughout the ages and the kingdom has waxed before only to wane for a time. To see the Lord appear is the sky with the angelic host and the church triumphant in his train; that would be an entirely different sort of thing. That is what it must have been to stand at Shechem that day and to realize that the promise had been kept, that the land was theirs. Canaan is ours, just as Yahweh promised! The deed has been done!

So for us, the historical prologue is a still more useful summary of our spiritual history than it was for the Israelites at Shechem, because it tells the tale of the people of God waiting for the promise to be fulfilled, not witnessing its fulfillment with their very eyes. True, great promises were fulfilled when the Son of God came into the world, but those events also lie far behind us now and we are not eyewitnesses of that history as Peter, James, and John were or Israel was of the Yahweh’s gift of the Promised Land.

So consider the pattern of this history so that we might apply it to our own circumstances. [Much of what follows is loosely based on Davis, 194-203]

  • Note in the first place the grace and mercy that characterizes God’s ways with his people.

This is the point with which Joshua begins, but it is also the assumption of all of this material. Who was Abraham? Well, he was an idolater, like everyone else in Ur of the Chaldees in his day. It wasn’t as if Abraham had been looking for the one living and true God and happened to find him. The Lord plucked him out of the mass of pagans among whom he lived happily and would have lived happily ever after had the Lord not drawn him to himself and taken him from Ur and settled him in Canaan as a worshipper of the one living and true God. This was a complete surprise to Abraham and to everyone who knew him. This is hard for human beings to comprehend. The Jews would later think that Abraham, even as a boy, saw through the idolatry of his culture and separated himself from it. Indeed, in the book of Jubilees, written between Malachi and the appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ, we read that Abraham as a teenager pleaded with his father to get rid of his idols and worship the God of heaven. In fact, when Abraham was sixty years of age he was supposed to have burned down one of the local temples! Indeed, his father Terah was supposed to have died in the fire trying to save his idols. [Jub. 12:14] You find a lot of this thinking in later Israel. Some rabbis taught that God gave Israel the law at Sinai because he knew that only Israel would be able to keep it. Other rabbis taught that Israel was delivered from bondage in Egypt because she alone of all the peoples of the world deserved God’s powerful intervention on her behalf. Don’t sneer at the Jews for thinking such things. We all think that way and more often than any of us wishes to admit. In so many ways we think that God ought to be good to us because, well, we are such likeable people! Our attitudes give us away, don’t they? Why are we so often offended; why are we so easily aggrieved, why do we get so upset with people when they don’t do what we want them to do unless we actually believe that we deserve better treatment than this?

Humbug. The Bible tells a different story, about Abraham and about us. He was an idolater like everyone else and the Lord reached down and plucked him out of there and put him someplace else where it would be easier for him to learn the truth about God and about himself. And, of course, that is happening every day all over the world. Again and again someone new is added to the people of God, a convert of whom no one had thought such a thing, or a child is born to a faithful Christian family, and the kingdom is enlarged. Not a one sought the Lord; the Lord sought him or her.

No one could have predicted that Abraham would have been the patriarch of the people of God. No one in Ur would have imagined that he, of all of them, would become the friend of God and the father of the faithful. This was a complete surprise. And it was a surprise because it was pure unadulterated grace that God showed to him. It was mercy to an undeserving and uninterested sinner. It was spiritual transformation performed in and upon someone who had no expectation of it, no desire for it, contributed nothing to it.

And so it is everywhere and always. This person or that, this family or that, plucked out of darkness and placed in the kingdom of light. That is how it has been from the beginning and that is how it will continue to be until the end. That is God’s way; it must be his way because all men are dead in their sins and blind to the light.

  • Note in the second place the immense amount of time that must pass before God’s promises are fulfilled.

True enough, the Lord told Abraham in Genesis 15 that he and his descendants could not have the Promised Land yet because the iniquity of the Amorites was not yet full. To give the land to Israel meant taking it from another people and God wouldn’t do that until he could do so in perfect justice. He gave Canaan to Israel as a free gift; he took it from the Canaanites as punishment for their vile way of life and their inveterate refusal to repent. But to reach that point six centuries had to pass. Esau got his inheritance right away, but Jacob and his descendants had to wait for generations to get theirs. As Charles Hodge once observed, even “Omnipotence works gradually.” [Second Corinthians, 298] And we have just begun. Israel was in Egypt for four-hundred years. Do you realize how long that is? Four hundred years ago in 1614, the Pilgrims had not yet arrived in the new world. People didn’t even have cell phones; they had to use pay phones when they traveled! And even here at the end, it took years to conquer Canaan. The Lord may have sent the hornet before them, but the men who gathered at Shechem were perhaps most of a decade older than they had been when they first crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. The years pass and still the goal has not been reached. Why, even now, at Shechem, there were still some Canaanites in the land who had still to be dispossessed.

And so it has continued to be. The Christian life would be a comparative snap if only things happened more quickly than they do. If our afflictions came and went in a few days instead of sometimes months or years; if our sins were mortified pretty much as soon as we made the attempt; if our prayers were heard and answered immediately rather than, as is the case so often, over long stretches of time. It never seems to end, does it? The Bible makes it clear that the life of faith is an endurance race for most of us, not a sprint, and a life of faith not of sight, with the goal always beyond the horizon. This is a very important lesson that every Christian must learn and take to heart and every Christian will sooner or later. Things come slowly in the life of faith and there is and must be a great deal of waiting. In fact, not infrequently in the Bible, waiting is a synonym for faith!

  • Third, consider how mysterious, how inexplicable are the ways of God.

The fact of the matter is that nothing turned out the way anyone would have guessed or imagined beforehand. The Lord brought Abraham to Canaan to give it to him. But then his descendants were to spend centuries in Egypt before they could get their next sniff of the Promised Land. This point is openly admitted in this historical prologue, as we read in v. 4. Centuries later Israel came out of Egypt on eagle’s wings, but languished for forty years, a generation’s worth of time, in the wilderness because of their sin. Two and a half of the tribes were eventually settled east of the Jordan instead of in Canaan. And the list goes on. One thing after another that was utterly unanticipated, sometimes the result of Israel’s sin, sometimes, however, such as the famine that sent Jacob’s family down to Egypt, genuinely and immediately acts of God. Over and over again events intervened that seemingly deflected Israel from the intended course, though clearly enough these byways were all along the Lord’s intention. As Joseph would say about the family’s arrival in Egypt, “You meant it for evil, but the Lord meant it for good.”

Who would have thought at the time the Lord promised Canaan to Abraham and his descendants that there would be so much trouble, sadness, and disappointment before the land was finally theirs. And is this not just as much the story of our lives?

So much happens that we never anticipated. So many setbacks, disappointments, and sorrows along the way. How many times have we said to the Lord, or if we dared not say it thought about saying to the Lord, “Lord, if I were you, I would not treat my children the way you are treating me! Lord, where are the blessings you promised in your word? I have delighted myself in you; where then are the desires of my heart?”

The mystery of God’s ways is the burden every believing man or woman must bear in this world and it is the truest test of our faith. And the Bible is very candid about this. It never denies nor seeks to hide the fact that the ways of God are a great deep and often leave God’s people in confusion and grasping for spiritual breath. In the summary of the life of faithful men and women that we are given in Hebrews 11, we read of how those who trusted in the Lord “conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, and put foreign armies to flight.” But without a breath the review of that spiritual history continues: “Some were tortured…others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated — of whom the world was not worthy — wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” [Davis, 197]

Victorious Xian life or no? Well yes, if you are willing to accept that there will be a lot of hardship and even heartbreak and a great deal of confusion along the way. The Christian life is often described in glowing terms, and there is a reason for that, but at the same time the Bible is relentlessly honest that along with the blessings will come many difficulties that are hard to understand. Remember how faithful King Hezekiah had been, reforming the worship and life of Judah according to the Word of God. But then we read, “After these things and these acts of faithfulness, Sennacherib king of Assyria came and invaded Judah and encamped against [Jerusalem].” [2 Chron. 32:1] Not the reward we might have expected! The Lord’s ways are a great deep and they are simply past our finding out.

  • But, fourth and last, don’t miss the obvious: the Lord kept his Word and fulfilled his promises, every one of them.

The fact is that Israel was now in possession of the Promised Land, just as the Lord had promised she would someday be and lest you take that for granted, hardly a stranger, more unexpected, more unlikely thing has ever happened in the history of the world. The time of bondage had been ended by the most remarkable demonstrations of the divine power: the plagues and the parting of the Sea. After victories east of the Jordan, Israel had moved into Canaan through the bed of the Jordan River made dry again by the power of God. What is more he had promised to lead Israel in victory against the Canaanites — a more warlike, a better equipped, and a more experienced army than Israel’s — and that is what he had done. In battle after battle a smaller force of Israelites had prevailed against a larger force of Canaanites. Israel had prevailed. Canaanite chariots had been useless in battle against Israelite swordsmen. They should have proved a huge advantage but they did not. The hornet had indeed gone before her as Yahweh had promised. And now the land was hers. The farm houses she had not built, the fields she had not cleared and plowed and sowed, the wells she had not dug, the vineyards she had not planted, the cities she had not built, they were all hers now; hers to enjoy and hers to pass on to her children.

True enough, Israel had fought her battles; she had trusted the Lord; and she had obeyed his commandments. Our intentions, our self-conscious efforts to serve the Lord and to fulfill his commands are not without importance. But they would never by themselves have won the Promised Land! That was the Lord’s doing! Indeed, the historical prologue, as you might well have noticed, left out the long list of Israel’s failures: her faithlessness in Egypt and the constant whining it produced; her fear of the Egyptians those first days in the desert; her later complaining against the Lord and Moses because of the difficulties of her pilgrimage; and her abject failure to trust the Lord at Kadesh Barnea, for which a generation was consigned to die in the wilderness and never see the Promised Land. This was not a people who were going to take anything by themselves, much less a land thoroughly populated by a warlike and able people. It was Yahweh, not Israel who conquered Canaan!

This kind of demonstration of the faithfulness of God and the certainty of his Word has happened only a few times in human history. Surely this was one. The appearance of the Messiah and his victory over sin and death was another. And, of course, the Lord’s return will be a third. And it is ours to imagine ourselves at such a moment, thinking what we would think, rejoicing as we would rejoice to be among those who would be privileged to see these things, when so many generations of believers before us had to trust that they would come to pass some day and could only greet them from afar.

But we needn’t wait, of course for the return of Christ. Remember, in the typology of the Bible, Canaan is heaven. And the day will come, perhaps much, much sooner than the Second Coming, when we will find ourselves in the Promised Land, waking to new and eternal life, sinless of heart, overwhelmed by the purest joy, and beholding not only the eternal city but the King himself. We will think, we will certainly think that it “were a well-spent journey though seven deaths lay between.”

That’s the main thing here, of course. The long wait, the setbacks along the way, the mystery of the way things turn out are important to anticipate, to be sure; but the certainty of our eventual possession of the Promised Land, the guarantee of our inheritance by the power and the faithfulness of God, that is the main thing. It is because the Lord’s promise had been kept down to every single detail that Joshua will call upon Israel to give Yahweh her heart and to remain faithful to him.

The argument is as sound today as it was then, because God’s promises are as certain of fulfillment as Israel saw them to be as they stood at Shechem, proud owners of the Promised Land!

They who wait upon the Lord

Shall renew their strength;

They shall mount up with wings like eagles;

They shall run and not be weary;

They shall walk and not faint.