Thursday, November 7, 2013

Joshua 23:1–16

Joshua's farewell discourse is an exhortation to Israel, prior to the renewal of the covenant at Shechem (24:1–28) and the report of Joshua's death (24:29–30). The timing is: "A long time afterward," that is, after the conquest of Canaan, "when the LORD had given rest to Israel from all their enemies all around, and Joshua was old and well advanced in years" (23:1). This episode is paired with the epistle reading (Hebrews 4:1–11) owing to the sense in which the latter assumes any "rest" give to Israel through Joshua was no permanent status that would close the book on the hope of rest (4:8). Rather, the apostle makes clear that the Spirit speaking much later in Psalm 95 would not have continued to urge Israel in the imperative to enter God's rest if that possibility had long since been sealed off.

Here then in the summation of Joshua's ministry, we have a reminder of what has been accomplished (23:2b–4, 14), as is typical of such farewell soliloquies, as well as a double (covenantal) forecast consisting of promises of what will happen in future (23:5–9, 15a) if Israel will but "hold fast to the LORD your God" (v. 8), and a warning of what will happen if Israel turns from following the LORD (23:12–13, 15b–16). Although several conditional and cautionary clauses (vv. 7, 12, 16) strike antithetical notes of warning throughout the text, the primary hinge or turning point of this chapter is surely Joshua's brief statement of how things stand at the present moment: "One of you puts to flight a thousand, since it is the LORD your God who fights for you, as he promised you" (v. 10). Moreover, this blessed advantage and divine favor Joshua unabashedly leverages as the very reason why Israel should, "Be very careful, therefore, to love the LORD your God" (v. 11).

Three things are noteworthy here. First, despite so many operative, but shallow stereotypes of the Old Testament or the Old Promise (as I propose we call it), we find once again that the fear of the LORD is not the ultimate aim—no, it is but the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10)—but rather, love is the primary aim here, in keeping with the Shema (Deut 6:4–6). Adherence to the covenant is adherence to the LORD; loyalty is to be Israel's primary expression of love. Like any loving parent, God wants his children nearby, so as to bless and enjoy them. In many ways, it is really that simple.

Second, setting aside whatever attitudes we might have toward so-called "prosperity theology," whether we find it attractive or repellant, we should consider carefully what is being suggested here. For, despite the common and correct Christian assertion that (in the light of grace) we can do nothing to earn God's love, here we see that the holy One of Israel is not so aloof or standoffish as to be above winning human loyalty or making the case (through Joshua) that he has earned human love by what he has done and continues to do for us. What a remarkable (and positive) condescension on the part of the holy God! We who have no hope of righteousness through our works see that the God of saving grace reveals his righteousness in his works, and though he merits our love unconditionally for who he is, nevertheless, he is willing to prove his love and so "earn" ours by fighting our battles for us.

Finally, as politically problematic as such texts may seem at first blush which speak positively of the conquest of the promised land, the preacher and indeed the church need to make clear that the distinguishing of Israel from other nations, especially as it is expressed in the prohibition against intermarriage (v. 12) here and elsewhere (e.g., Nehemiah 13:23–27), is not at root a nationalistic or a racial concern. If that were the case, Ruth and Rahab, to say nothing of loyal Caleb the Kenite, would never have been assimilated. On the contrary, the imperative distinction is absolutely theological. Israel belongs to Yahweh, the other nations (at this juncture in salvation history) have chosen other gods. As it goes with the other nations, so it goes with their gods in the great cosmic drama in which it is yet to be decided: Whose god will be Lord of all? (We, of course, know how it ends.)

It is for this reason that Israel is not to even "make mention of their (i.e., the nations') gods, or swear by them, or serve them, or bow ... down to them" (v. 7). The covenant is a land of freedom in which the blessings of the LORD are to be enjoyed, but to "go and serve other gods and bow down to them" is to transgress the covenant, at which "the anger of the LORD will be kindled, and you shall perish quickly from the good land that he has given you" (v. 16). [It is not without some pretty solid scriptural basis that many people are seeing these terms at work analogously in interpreting the swift decline of the U.S.] In brief, inter-racial marriage within the Christian—and I would even say, Judeo-Christian—community is not a theological problem, and we should not erect barriers to it needlessly; doing so really does boil down to bigotry and racism. What is a problem—and an explicitly theological problem—is the increasing institutionalization (in marriage and in many other social spheres) of interfaithism, the relativistic equivocation among, and the ultimate validation of all world religions as equally true, redemptive, or salvific. For the church to sponsor or support such a philosophy on political grounds is, at best, nothing more than a flimsy attempt to forge a peace where there is no peace; it is quite beyond the biblical, covenantal, and theological pale. Neither is it "conservative" to say so, since the gospel we proclaim proceeds from the self-revelation of the eternal God. It is simply to restate the terms of God's covenant with, his promise (with all the attendant warnings) to his people as it has been revealed in scripture and proclaimed for millennia. It is to adhere to the wisdom of the younger Solomon, and to elect not to decline with him into his politically expedient folly and his theological dotage (1Kings 11), which precipitated the rupture of the nation, the gradual loss of the land, and the long slide into exile.

What is the upshot of all this for sermonic application and mission? It is nothing novel. Those who hold to other religions and worship other gods are to be loved and prayerfully, persistently, and graciously evangelized. The church is missionary, or it is not the church. We need to be clear that our message and our methods are not the same as other missionary religions, and in the contrast, in the gracious invitation to the gracious and sinless Son of God who has died that we may live, the world shall come to know and recognize the difference; shall come to realize that the God of Israel has earned their love and loyalty, too.

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