"Self-Worship" Bible Study on Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
November 5, 2020, 12:00 PM

Dear Members & Friends:

I invite you to read the following passage from Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25 (Common English Bible).

Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel at Shechem. He summoned the elders of Israel, its leaders, judges, and officers. They presented themselves before God. Then Joshua said to the entire people, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Long ago your ancestors lived on the other side of the Euphrates. They served other gods. Among them was Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor. I took Abraham your ancestor from the other side of the Euphrates. I led him around through the whole land of Canaan. I added to his descendants and gave him Isaac.

14 “So now, revere the Lord. Serve him honestly and faithfully. Put aside the gods that your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates and in Egypt and serve the Lord. 15 But if it seems wrong in your opinion to serve the Lord, then choose today whom you will serve. Choose the gods whom your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you live. But my family and I will serve the Lord.”

16 Then the people answered, “God forbid that we ever leave the Lord to serve other gods! 17 The Lord is our God. He is the one who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. He has done these mighty signs in our sight. He has protected us the whole way we’ve gone and in all the nations through which we’ve passed. 18 The Lord has driven out all the nations before us, including the Amorites who lived in the land. We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”

19 Then Joshua said to the people, “You can’t serve the Lord, because he is a holy God. He is a jealous God. He won’t forgive your rebellion and your sins. 20 If you leave the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn around and do you harm and finish you off, in spite of having done you good in the past.”

21 Then the people said to Joshua, “No! The Lord is the one we will serve.”

22 So Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the Lord.”

They said, “We are witnesses!”

23 “So now put aside the foreign gods that are among you. Focus your hearts on the Lord, the God of Israel.”

24 The people said to Joshua, “We will serve the Lord our God and will obey him.”

25 On that day Joshua made a covenant for the people and established just rule for them at Shechem.

Our First Scripture Reading for this Sunday is Joshua's exhortation to Israel to choose to worship and serve God and God alone.  Joshua's very Jewish warning against idolatry gives us the opportunity to reflect upon some of our idolatries in the present age.

A covenant is made at Shechem at the end of the conquest of the land of Canaan.  Joshua previously performed a covenant ceremony at Shechem (Joshua 8:30-35).  Now all the people are engaged and made to vow three times that they will serve God.  The requirement for the threefold vow surely indicates that idolatry is an inclination that is not easily overcome with a single resolution not to do so.

Joshua begins with remembrance: "Long ago your ancestors (all the way back when they lived in the land beyond the Euphrates River, all the way back even to Abraham's father, Terah) . . . served other gods (Joshua 24:2).

God is the active Maker of History in Joshua's account who took Abram's hand, gave him a new name, Abraham, and led him into a new land.  Abraham didn't seem to have much choice in the matter.  I guess Abraham could have stayed in that land, clutching his false gods.  Yet now God becomes the God of Abraham and his descendants.  Curiously, the lectionary excludes verses 4-13, a further elaboration of Israel's history with God.  However, we must lift up that Israel's faith in God is based upon Israel's historic experiences with God's mighty deeds.

As we noted when we went through the Exodus narratives, the Israelites have been freed from slavery in Egypt, but their freedom is freedom to serve and be obedient to Yahweh God.  Joshua thus presents faith as a matter of choice rather than God's coercion, declaring, "my family and I will serve the LORD" (Joshua 24:15).

All the people promise that they will always serve the one true God and never hanker after other gods.  Their acclamation of God seems to be based upon their recollection of what God has done for them in bringing them out of Egypt (Joshua 24:17-18) and protecting them along the route of the Exodus.  Verse 18 also adds "he is our God."  They worship God because God, in covenant, has self-declared to be their God.  The relationship between them and God is personal.

Yet before this Sunday's passage ends, we are thrown a curve ball.  After all this noble vowing and affirming God, Joshua tells the people, "You can't serve the LORD! (verse 19)  God is holy, jealous, and righteous: if the people slip up and break their vow and forsake the covenant, God will not forgive.  In the face of Joshua's pessimistic warning, the people strongly respond, "No!  The LORD is the one we will serve" (Joshua 24:21).

Was Joshua just trying to provoke them to rise up and obey their better angels?  Is this meant to be a double affirmation; one declaration of faith is not enough?  They affirm again in verse 24, so it's three times.  At last their is a public covenant-making ceremony where there are written vows and even a stone set up as a witness.

I wonder if Joshua challenges the people's declarations of faith because Joshua (whose name the Septuagint renders Iesous, Jesus) knows that idolatry is an ever present danger for God's people, no matter what they vow.  A major intention of scripture seems to be the critique of our false gods.  Our good intentions to stay focused upon the God who has focused upon us are never fully realized.  We keep being distracted by other gods, continually devising false gods that are easier to worship and serve (or so we may presume) than the true and living God.  Joshua-Jesus is telling us to stick to worshipping the Sovereign God of Israel, that is, God and God alone.

Questions arise:  Could our contemporary idols be our favorite brand of politics?  Could our contemporary idols be our own blessed selves, making church a time to focus more upon ourselves than upon God and God's ways?  The idol Joshua was battling was named Baal.  Is our idol called, "Me, Myself and I."

Tough questions to ask and reflect upon.  Who will you serve this day?


Pastor Greg Rupright


11-05-2020 at 9:30 PM
Pat May
Challenging questions! Easy to say “God!” But much harder to really do...
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