Choose you this day whom you will serve: Lectionary reflections on Proper 27, Year A

This Sunday, we will be observing All Saints, so our scripture readings will not be a continuation of the texts we’ve been reading. That’s a shame, because all three of them are rich. Both I Thessalonians and the Gospel reading have to do with the Second Coming, while the reading from Joshua 24 is the culmination of that book. All of the readings are available here.

I can’t read Joshua’s speech without thinking of our house in South Carolina.

We purchased our house from fundamentalists. Even though we liked the location, the layout, etc, there was one detail that almost broke the deal. On one of the living room walls was stenciled in large letters: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Now you may think there’s nothing problematic about that verse, that it is a worthy sentiment. But think about it for a moment. Joshua has given the Israelites an ultimatum: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” And to buck them up, to set an example, he continues, “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Do you get it yet? He is making that decision, not just for himself, but for everyone who lives with him—his wife and children, and any slaves. A worthy sentiment? Perhaps, but only if you think the only views that matter are those of the senior adult male.

The first thing we did after closing was paint over that stenciled verse; it took two coats, and still Corrie really wanted me to perform an exorcism on the entire property. After all, underneath that paint, those words remained. Our discomfort with them wass no accident, not just an example of the centuries and the cultural changes that separate us from the book of Joshua. For in their original setting, they were meant to bring discomfort to those who heard them first.

Joshua is largely unfamiliar to us today and the primary reason is that it tells a story that is deeply disturbing to many twenty-first century Christians. It records a version of the conquest of the promised land—with gory details of battles, and perhaps even worse, it records God taking initiative in those battles and demanding the complete destruction of the native population. It resonates uncomfortably with our own nation’s history of settling the continent of North America, defeating and destroying native populations in response to a belief that this land, like Canaan was given us by God. It also raises uncomfortable questions about waging war in the belief that God is on our side.

In fact, there is much more to the book of Joshua than the conquest, and even there the story it tells is much more complex than a quick skimming would suggest. The Israelites did not succeed in displacing the native population, as the later books of Judges, Samuel, and Kings relate, throughout the period of the monarchy, Israel lived among other peoples, and probably over time assimilated many of those people into their nation.

In these last verses of Joshua, we have the culmination of that story of conquest and settlement. This reading is extracted from a larger story, a dramatic covenant ceremony. Much of what was omitted was a recounting of the history of the Israelites—from Abraham and Jacob, through their slavery in Egypt, and the conquest of Canaan. After recounting those mighty acts of Yahweh, Joshua presents the people with an ultimatum: choose to serve Yahweh, or the gods of Mesopotamia, or the gods of the Canaanites. This story hearkens back to the events at Sinai, when Yahweh appeared to the Israelites and gave them the law.

In a way, it’s an odd story, because it implies that the Israelites’ commitment to Yahweh was less than total. In fact, it suggests that it is only now, after entering into and possessing the promised land, that Yahweh demands they give up their allegiance to other gods. But on another level, it is a reaffirmation of that faith, coming about at the end of a lengthy struggle, and centuries of unfulfilled promise. Yahweh had promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that they would possess this land; Yahweh had promised Moses and the Israelites as they suffered under Egyptian oppression, that they would be given a land flowing with milk and honey, and now finally, it was theirs.

The authors and editors of Joshua were writing the history of Israel from a vantage point hundreds of years after the fact, and hundreds of miles removed from the promised land. They were writing in Babylon, exiled after the destruction of their homeland, and they were trying to understand those events and to reflect on them theologically. So they developed a theology of promise and fulfillment, of a covenant made at Sinai, reaffirmed here at Shechem, but broken by centuries of unfaithfulness. Yet they hoped for a return to Jerusalem, their faith in Yahweh allowed them to imagine a future back in a restored kingdom.

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