IV. Serving God in the Promised Land (Joshua 22:1–24:33)
IV. Serving God in the Promised Land (22:1–24:33)
22:1-8 With the land acquired and at rest, Joshua sent the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh back to their homes on the east side of the Jordan (22:1-5). They had faithfully crossed the Jordan with their brothers to help them conquer the land (see 1:12-15). Now that the work was done, Joshua blessed them and sent them on their way (22:6). But he challenged them to carefully obey the command and instruction that Moses the Lord’s servant gave them (22:5). In other words, he said, “Even though you’re departing from your brothers, you hold tight to God.”
22:9-12 When the two-and-a-half tribes returned to their homes across the river, the first thing they did was build a large, impressive altar (22:10). But when the rest of Israel on the west side of the Jordan heard about it, they were deeply concerned. An altar was a place of worship, a place to sacrifice to a god. But the only acceptable place for Israel to worship was in Shiloh at the tabernacle, the tent of meeting. So as far as the rest of Israel was concerned, idolatry was brewing in the east among their brothers, and they didn’t want to pay the price when God’s resulting wrath visited the entire nation. Therefore, the entire Israelite community assembled at Shiloh to go to war against them (22:12).
22:13-20 The concerned tribes sent Phinehas son of Eleazar the priest and a delegation of leaders to meet with the Reubenites, Gadites, and half the tribe of Manasseh to ask them in essence, “What were you thinking?” (22:13-16). Before attacking their kinsmen in battle, they wanted an explanation for why they had built a competing altar. They reminded them of past instances of sin—for which there was corporate judgment, such as when some of the Israelites worshiped Baal of Peor (22:17; see Num 25:1-15) and when Achan stole items that had been set apart for God (22:20; see Josh 7:1-26). In each instance, God’s anger had fallen on the entire community (22:17, 20). So if the two-and-a-half tribes were to rebel against God today, everyone would pay for it tomorrow (22:18).
The delegation was ready to go to any length to make things right with God and avoid war with their brothers. They even told them to move in with them on the west side of the Jordan if there was a problem with their land on the east side (22:19). In other words, they would rather be crowded together than experience the wrath of God.
22:21-29 When the tribes on the east side of the Jordan heard this accusation, they cried out, The Mighty One, God, the Lord! The Mighty One, God, the Lord! (22:21-22). This repetition of three different Hebrew names for God was a way of making an extreme oath. May the Lord himself hold us accountable if we intended to do wrong, they swore. They confessed that they had no intent of using their altar for worship of any kind (22:23). Instead, they had established it as a replica of the true altar at Shiloh, to bear witness to future generations that all the tribes on the east side of the Jordan were true Israelites who worshiped the Lord like their brothers did. They had built it out of fear that the children of those on the west side might raise questions one day about whether those to the east were legitimate tribes of Israel, since the Jordan River divided them (22:24-29). In other words they said to their accusers, “You’ve misunderstood our motives entirely. We wanted to put a reminder in place—visible to all—that those of us to the east are committed to the same God as you are.”
22:30-34 After this explanation, the delegation of tribes from the west breathed a sigh of relief (22:30-31). Then they returned home and shared the good news with the rest of the tribes (22:33). Disaster had been averted.
There are two important lessons to be learned from the wise actions of these leaders. The first is this: Don’t act hastily. Proverbs says, “The one who gives an answer before he listens—this is foolishness and disgrace for him” (Prov 18:13). Instead of immediately going on the offensive and starting a war, the western tribes wisely paused first to ask the others to explain themselves. Too often, couples, friends, families, or co-workers go on the attack when they feel offended instead of first seeking clarity over the issue of concern. The second lesson is this: Take a stand. Though we don’t want to be hasty about confronting our Christian brothers when we fear they are stepping into sin, nevertheless, we must not compromise. These leaders didn’t want anything to stand in the way of their family’s relationship with the Lord. Believers must not ignore sin either. The only way we can experience God’s blessing together is when we deal with sin biblically and honestly.
23:1-5 Chapters 23 and 24 include Joshua’s farewell address to Israel. He knew his death was approaching, and he wanted to exhort the people one last time. Many years had passed since the Lord had given Israel rest from all the enemies around them, and Joshua was now an old man (23:1). He reminded the people that they had seen with their own eyes what God had done for them. He said, It was the Lord your God who was fighting for you (23:3). He was the one who’d ultimately destroyed the nations (23:4). Yes, it was true that the Israelites did the fighting. But they were only victorious because God had worked through them.
23:6-8 In light of what God had accomplished through them, Joshua commanded them to be very strong. What does that look like? First, they were to continue obeying all that is written in the book of the law of Moses, so that [they would] not turn from it to the right or left (23:6). This is a reminder to us not to add to God’s Word or take away from it (see Rev 22:18-19). God doesn’t need your help revising Scripture; he knew exactly what he wanted to say when he put together his Word. Your job is to believe what you find in it and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to obey it. The second way to “be very strong” is to be loyal to the Lord (23:8) by not compromising with the world. We have to live in the world, but we’re not to be of the world (see John 17:11, 16). In other words, don’t embrace the world’s value system. God’s people are to be distinct and reflect his character. As John the apostle says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).
23:9-11 Next Joshua said, The Lord has driven out great and powerful nations before you. . . . One of you routed a thousand (23:9-10). This tells us that when God fights for us, we don’t need to worry about the number of folks working against us. If you’re on God’s team, the odds are always in your favor. So, as Joshua said, diligently watch yourselves! Love the Lord your God! (23:11). To follow God is not merely adhering to rules and regulations; it’s about accepting and cultivating relationship. He loves you, and he calls you to love him as well.
23:12-13 Joshua next exhorted the Israelites not to intermarry with the surrounding peoples (23:12). We must be clear about what he meant and why. He wasn’t prohibiting marriage between couples of differing skin tones and ethnicities. Joseph and Moses both had interracial marriages in that sense (see Gen 41:45; Exod 2:16, 21; Judg 1:16), and the Bible never condemns these. All people groups descend from Adam and Eve and are of equal worth (see Gen 3:20; Acts 17:26).
There is no scriptural prohibition against marrying someone of another race. But there is a prohibition against marrying someone of another religion—that is, marrying someone who believes in and worships other gods rather than the one true God. The apostle Paul said that Christians should marry “in the Lord” (1 Cor 7:39). So if you’re a believer seeking a spouse, you need to marry someone who is going in the same direction spiritually. And this is the reasoning behind God’s intermarriage prohibition to Israel. As Moses had told the previous generation, if the Israelites were to intermarry with the peoples of the land, “they [would] turn [their] sons away from [God] to worship other gods. Then the Lord’s anger [would] burn against [them], and he [would] swiftly destroy [them]” (Deut 7:4). So Joshua was repeating this warning.
23:14-16 In saying, I am now going the way of the whole earth, Joshua knew that he was about to die, and he knew these would be his final words to Israel. So he reminded them that not one promise of God had failed (23:14). But to enjoy those promises in the land, the people would be required to give God their loyalty and commitment. They’d need to move together with God, not perfectly (which was impossible) but purposefully. Unfortunately, the next book of the Bible, Judges, shows Israel failing to walk with God, repenting, being rescued, and failing again cyclically. In time, they would lose the land and the blessings that God had for them as a result. Don’t follow their example.
24:1-13 Chapter 24 continues Joshua’s farewell address to Israel, which began in chapter 23. As Joshua’s exhortation continued, he gave the people a history lesson. Now that they were in the promised land, Joshua reminded them of how they got there, taking them all the way back to Abraham’s story that began in Genesis 12. The speaker here is Joshua, but the message is from God. Notice that throughout the rehearsal of Israel’s history, God insisted that he was the star of the show and the performer of the action: I took (24:3), I gave (24:3-4, 13), I sent (24:5, 12), I defeated (24:5), I brought (24:5-6, 8), I did (24:7), I handed (24:8), I annihilated (24:8), I would not listen (24:10), I rescued (24:10). In summary, God was telling them, “You got from slavery to here because of me. When you sinned and were unfaithful, I came through. I never bailed on you, and my promises never failed. Yes, there were things you had to do, but I enabled you to succeed all the way.”
In saying, I gave you a land you did not labor for (24:13), God reminded the Israelites that they were living in homes they hadn’t built, eating food they hadn’t grown, and sitting under shade trees they hadn’t planted. Now that doesn’t seem like a big deal at first given the way our culture buys and sells houses and ready-made meals. But in Bible times, if you wanted a home, you built it. If you wanted to eat, you grew or raised it. And if you wanted a luxury like a shade tree, you couldn’t just transplant a sapling from the local nursery. That God gave his people a land so well-equipped was a big deal.
Importantly, he used the unrighteous to get all this ready for them. The Canaanites did all the work, enjoying the fruit of their labors up until the day God evicted them for their wickedness. This reminds us that even the ungodly are God’s ungodly—not by relationship but by sovereignty. Similarly, even the devil is God’s devil, because he can only do what God permits. Israel needed to remember that they were like turtles on fence posts, which hadn’t gotten to their safe place by their own power.
What should believers in Jesus Christ learn from this? Whatever blessings we have received, we should give him all the thanks and praise.
24:14 So how was Israel to respond to this gracious provision from God? They were to Fear the Lord and worship him in sincerity and truth. To “fear” God means to take him seriously, rather than having a mere casual relationship with him and trying to keep him on the periphery of life. They were also to Get rid of the gods [their] fathers worshiped. While this was likely a reference to the false gods mentioned in the Old Testament story to this point, an idol isn’t merely a statue before which someone bows. An idol is any unauthorized person, place, or thing that a person looks to as a source of purpose, promise, or provision. Therefore, an idol can be money, power, popularity, sex, influence, or a person, and the list goes on. You have only one ultimate source to meet your needs—God. Look to nothing else, take him seriously, and serve him.
24:15 In this verse Joshua laid all his cards on the table. He said, Choose for yourselves today: Which will you worship? . . . As for me and my family, we will worship the Lord. Joshua spoke like a kingdom man. He couldn’t control the hearts of the people of Israel, but he knew whose agenda he himself would follow and who would lead his home. He was determined to serve the Lord. He called the Israelites to make the same crucial decision.
24:16-20 In response to Joshua’s bold declaration, the people replied, We will certainly not abandon the Lord to worship other gods! . . . We too will worship the Lord, because he is our God (24:16-18). To this, however, Joshua responded, You will not be able to worship the Lord (24:19).
Now that response may seem a little odd. Why challenge them to follow the Lord and then call them liars when they promise to do it? Joshua said this because he recognized the danger of not putting your money where your mouth is. Talk is cheap, but actions prove our words. Frankly, Joshua didn’t believe they were serious, so he doubled down. He warned, He is a jealous God. . . . If you abandon the Lord and worship foreign gods, he will turn against you (24:19-20). Indeed, God is jealous—righteously jealous—for his people, just as an honorable husband would be righteously jealous if he saw his wife acting inappropriately with another man. It isn’t enough to agree with truth; you must act on that truth.
24:21-22 The people responded to Joshua and insisted that they got the point: No! . . . We will worship the Lord (24:21). Therefore, Joshua told them, You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to worship the Lord. To this Israel replied, We are witnesses (24:22). So be it. By publicly vowing to worship God, the people of Israel had made a self-maledictory oath. If they were to fail in their pledge of fidelity, their own words would call down a curse on them and justify the judgment of God. They had testified against themselves in advance.
24:23 Since the people had promised to walk the talk, Joshua admonished them: Get rid of the foreign gods . . . among you. This tells us that Joshua was aware of inconsistencies between what the people claimed and how they lived.
God will not tolerate idols. If you have an idol in your life that you are unwilling to renounce (see commentary on 24:14), then you have, in effect, rejected God’s help and blessings in your situation. Many people ask God why he’s not working in their circumstances, while they’re hugging their idol of choice at the same time. They don’t stop to consider that God’s inactivity may be a result of the fact that like many in Israel, they aren’t willing to lay down the competition.
24:24-28 On that day Joshua made a covenant for the people (24:25). A covenant is a divinely sanctioned bond. It’s a declaration of legal relationship in the spiritual realm. Through a covenant, God provides a “covering” for individuals, families, and nations. For example, when a husband honors his marriage covenant with his wife, God provides a covering—an umbrella—of blessing. So Joshua recorded this agreement in the book of the law of God (24:26). He also set up a large stone as a witness (24:26-27). Previously, Joshua had set up memorial stones to remind Israel of what God had done for them (see 4:1-9) and to remind them of the seriousness of sinning against God (7:26). This time, however, the memorial stone was to point them to their agreement to worship God. Every time they passed by it, the stone would silently whisper, “Do not deny your God; practice what you preach” (24:27).
24:29-31 After challenging Israel to follow their God, Joshua died at the ripe old age of 110. How would he be remembered? As the Lord’s servant (24:29). And as a testimony to his faithfulness, we are given this insight: Israel worshiped the Lord throughout Joshua’s lifetime (24:31). Unfortunately, as the book of Judges will reveal, that pattern would soon change.
24:32-33 Many years before, when Joseph was about to die in Egypt, he made the sons of Israel—his brothers—vow to carry his remains to the land God swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and bury them there (see Gen 50:24-26). So, when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, he “took the bones of Joseph with him” (Exod 13:19). But now that Israel was in the land that God had promised, they buried Joseph’s bones (24:32).
Though he would not live to see the outcome of the promise, Joseph believed that God would keep his word to his family. And if you think about it, Christians are essentially called to do the same thing. We wait for entry into the divine promised land where God will dwell among his people forever. So with that truth ever in view, walk with God and trust him for what he has planned for your life. Because none of his promises fail.