Sunday, June 17, 2007

As For Me and My House (Joshua 20-24)

The book of Joshua comes to an end, with this satisfying closure:
Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers...Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.
Israel, for its part, seems to be returning the favor as well – keeping the commands of the Lord, distributing the land according to his directions, remembering to set aside cities of refuge and other cities for the Levites – when all of a sudden Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh decide to complicate matters.

These tribes, if you remember, are not technically settled in the Promised Land but in Gilead beyond the Jordan. And now word comes that they have built an alter there – presumably as a rival shrine to the Tabernacle of the Lord. The other ten tribes prepare for a war to end this sacrilege. They send messengers to the tribes in Gliead:
Have we not had enough of the sin at Peor from which even yet we have not cleansed ourselves, and for which there came a plague upon the congregation of the Lord, that you too must turn away this day from following the Lord? And if you too rebel against the Lord today then tomorrow he will be angry with the whole congregation of Israel. … Did not Achan the son of Zerah break faith in the matter of the devoted things, and wrath fell upon all the congregation of Israel? And he did not perish alone for his iniquity.
Israel, it seems, has learned this harsh lesson. It is not enough to keep your own hands clean – you must actively root out evil in your midst. Sins of laxity and omission are punished just as severely.

Thankfully the whole thing turns out to be an honest misunderstanding. The three tribes had only meant it to be an “alter of witness” – proving that, though they don’t actually live in the Promised Land, they were nevertheless part of the conquest and heirs of the promise. Phinehas himself, the priest famous for spearing a compromising Israelite at Peor, is more than satisfied with their explanation. The armies breathe a sigh of relief, and return to their homes.

Then Joshua gives one last speech before his death. It’s the same message as Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy: serve the Lord, remember his blessings, do not get complacent, and continue to be faithful. It ends with this famous line:
If it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond 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.
The people pledge to do likewise, and Joshua and Eleazar die in peace. The last of the great witnesses of the exodus have now gone the way of all the earth. We know, of course, that the peace and blessings will not last – Israel will rebel again as the warnings say. But before this happens we are invited to pause for a quiet, pensive moment, and know that now, in this generation, Israel has chosen to wholeheartedly serve the Lord.

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