Keep Reading! - Reflections on Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, November 6, 2023

Keep Reading!

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher

          There is a very serious No-No in Bible reading, and I suppose in any reading, called proof-texting. This faux-pas occurs whenever anyone takes a single verse, phrase, or even word, and rips it out of its immediate context, making it appear that the verse, phrase, or word has a kind of universal truth in it. A famous example is: Isaiah 7:14 where the phrase “Behold! A virgin shall conceive and bear a son” (KJV) has been used to proof-text the virginal birth of Jesus, though any careful reading of the text makes it plain that the word translated “virgin” does not in fact mean that in the context, and that a broader reading of the tale suggests that Isaiah is referring to the future fate of a particular 8th century BCE Israelite king, and not to a future messianic figure. A more current example may be the references in Leviticus to what appears on the surface to be condemnation of male homosexual acts, when the two verses from Lev. 18:22, and 20:13 do not at all mean that, but instead refer to men treating men like women, thus disturbing the supposed “proper” order of male dominance. Furthermore, naming such activity as “abomination” reminds readers of other Levitical condemnations of improper eating—shellfish, animals who “chew the cud, but do not cleave the hoof” (whatever that may mean!); that too is dubbed abomination. Why choose to follow one demand and not the other?

          In short, refusing to look at the contexts in which texts are ensconced is to run the risk of completely misrepresenting and misusing material for foolish or even dangerous purposes. Today’s reading presents such a problem. Many readers of the Hebrew Bible are quite familiar with the famous line from Joshua 24:15: “Now if you are unwilling to serve YHWH, choose today whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the river or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve YHWH.” Joshua’s ringing and heroic cry has served as the basis of more than a few sermons over the years, a preacher challenging her congregation to put away all would-be gods and turn for service of the one true God. Joshua’s demand is fully reminiscent of another conviction, offered up by the 8th-century prophet, Isaiah, when he proclaims in Is.6:8, “Here am I! Send me,” responding to the call of the awesome YHWH the prophet has met in the temple. Many a hymn and anthem have been written using these courageous words from Isaiah and Joshua as bases for congregational challenge. I imagine some are echoing in your minds as you read this.

          However, we stop too soon if we revel in the great words of these two verses alone without examining the verses that follow immediately. Isaiah 6:9ff offers a far more dangerous and troubling call to the supposedly eager prophet. YHWH continues, “Go and say to this people, ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand. Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.’” Well, there is a different kettle of fish! Isaiah is asked now at the direct call of YHWH to speak to Israel in such a way that no one will get what he is saying! Little wonder that the prophets responds with, “How long, YHWH” (Is.6:11)? Gone is the grand “Here am I, send me,” now replaced with a “How long” do I have to say such things? YHWH’s reply to that whine is less than comforting: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant,” etc. Perhaps Isaiah would like a do-over at the call of YHWH! Perhaps we might like a do-over, too, when we understand the full weight of the call of God. 

          Perhaps the people of Israel would welcome a similar second opinion when Joshua warns them what it means to attempt to follow the will and way of YHWH. They reply to Joshua’s heroic claim that he and his house will serve YHWH by agreeing wholeheartedly. “Far be it from us that we should forsake YHWH to serve other gods,” they cry (Josh.24:16). I mean why should we serve other gods while we are standing on the edge of total victory, having seized the land of promise at the expense of those who lived in the land before them. “YHWH drove out all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we will serve YHWH, who is our God” (Josh.24:18). (It must be said that there is precisely no evidence at all that the rag-tag former slaves seized much of anything historically of the land of promise, but the tale being told is what is important, not historical proof of it. Also, this seizure of land formerly populated by others raises important questions about the fairness of grabbing land not one’s own. Those of us in the USA need always to raise such questions as well.) 

          Joshua, however, knows these fair-weather Israelites all too well. “You cannot serve YHWH,” he thunders, “who is a holy God, a zealous God who will not forgive your transgressions or your sins” (Josh.24:19). Their too-easy claims to serve YHWH will not stand up when the going gets rough. “Yes, we will serve YHWH,” they cry (Josh.24:21). Ok, says Joshua, if you make such a claim, “you are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen YHWH to serve” (Josh.24:22). That is, if you really do desire to serve YHWH, the proof is in the pudding. “Put away you foreign gods and turn your hearts to YHWH, God of Israel” (Josh.24:23). Talk is cheap! Actions will speak far louder than your words. We remember Joshua’s brave claims to serve YHWH, but we too often forget his challenge to Israel to match their words with their actions.

          It is crucial to read more expansively, more fully, lest we miss the full contextual meaning and significance of the words of our Bible. Can you name other passages that have been truncated and have thus been misused? Read John 3:16 again and see whether there are problems there with a too-brief reading of the context. It is a crucial thing to read in full if the Bible is to possess its power for us and for our congregations.

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