The book of Joshua is the story of how Joshua, heir to Moses’ mantle of leadership, led the children of Israel to finally take possession of the Promised Land. Its concluding chapter contains that fateful verse, “Choose this day whom you will serve; as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:15).
But that’s an abbreviation of the verse. There’s more to it than that. Here’s the unaltered verse from the New Revised Standard Version:
Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose lands you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.
Ironically, while idols are portable, the gods they represented in those days were not. They were gods of this mountain, gods of this land, gods of the river, etc. People were always trying to appease the local gods. YHVH, the LORD of Israel, could not be a stationary god, because the LORD’s people were on the move. YHVH was the god of a people, not of a place, and YHVH was their God in Canaan, in Egypt and beyond the Euphrates. Those regions had their own gods – or so the people of those regions presumed – but YHVH surrounded the Israelites, going before them to drive out the Amorites, going behind them to block the way of the Egyptian army.
Terah and his sons, Abraham and Nahor, worshipped other gods beyond the Euphrates (Joshua 24:2) until YHVH spoke directly to Abraham (Abram) and told him to leave his father’s home. Now, the Israelites were returning to the land YHVH had promised to Abraham and his descendants. But as Joshua pointed out, they had many gods to pick from for worship, and there choice would come with consequences. They could pick the gods of Terah and young Abram, the gods of the Egyptians, or the gods of the Amorites whose lands they now possessed – or they could serve YHVH, who had called them away from those gods and cleared a path from slavery to prosperity.
Without regard to the historical accuracy of the book of Joshua, the spiritual accuracy of the story is significant. Like the Israelites, we are all called to grow beyond the superstitions of the childhood gods beyond the Euphrates; beyond the gods of fear from our Egyptian enslavement; beyond the gods of the lands and peoples who went before us in this place. And if I am not symbolically denigrating Abraham, then neither am I denigrating the Egyptians, nor the Amorites, nor any of the faith systems they may represent. But as for me and my house, we will serve YHVH, the God who brought us through all the above, who fulfilled the promises, who cleared the land before us and stopped the armies behind us.
We are not self-made people. We all live on land where we did not labor, in towns we did not build, and we eat from vineyards and oliveyards that we did not plant. (Joshua 24:13) We enjoy a town, a church, a society that is not the work of our own hands, but of all those who went before us and, ultimately, of YHVH, who may have blessed those predecessors with long, happy lives – or who may have driven them out with hornets so that we could reap the fruit of their labors. (Joshua 24:12)
Remember, I’m reading symbolically, not historically. The point is that God had a hand in the labors of our ancestors, our slavers, the opposition and those who went before us, without regard to the gods or ideals they served. Abraham probably did honor his father, but not to the point of serving his gods. The Israelites had no sooner escaped the Egyptians than they began to long for the luxuries of their slavery – and they could not do so without rejecting God. Moses took them to the river Jordan, but of the spies sent across to scope out the land, only Joshua and Caleb believed the LORD would give them the land; the rest were afraid of the people and discouraged the Israelites from crossing the Jordan.
God has called us to a better faith. God calls us to a direct encounter. We cannot find God by imitating our father Tahor. Tahor was called to go to Canaan but stopped short. It is a wonderful thing to honor our ancestors, but we must accept that God has probably called us to something greater and different.
God calls us to a faith beyond that of our Egyptian captors. Europeans spread Christianity to the New World even as they decimated the inhabitants and enslaved the captives. Natives and slaves heard the Gospel and believed. But, where the slavers used it idolatrously to justify their lordship, the slaves found there a hope that broke the chains of bondage and set the captives free. They followed YHVH directly instead of merely mimicking the faith of the Egyptians.
Now we’re in the Promised Land, where we did not build and did not plant. It’s the LORD’s doing, and it’s no different from the way God has fulfilled promises to many people and many generations. It is not our doing – not our fault, not to our credit – but here we are. Do we keep doing things they way they’ve always been done here? Nothing wrong with that, but we have to be certain that we are doing them because God leads us there, and not just because that’s how it’s always been done.
We are called to a faith that is new every morning. We are called to worship God, who is beyond understanding. Our parents didn’t plumb the depths of God, nor did our enslavers and detractors, nor did those who went before us here. The truth is, we won’t either. But we’ll stay shallow if we aren’t willing to go beyond the faith of our parents, our founders, our superiors, and even our trailblazers.
In this light, let’s reconsider Matthew 10:34-39 –
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Luke14:26 puts it even more harshly: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.” So if we know that Jesus never calls us to hate anyone – certainly not our parents, children and siblings – then we have to look for the spiritual meaning of these verses. I find that meaning in the challenge of Joshua: “Choose this day whom you will serve…”
Let’s not be content with the faith of our parents, our children, our siblings, our neighbors. Their faith may be great – Who are we to judge? – but God has no grandchildren. We are each called to live for Christ, in lands we did not till and eating fruit that we did not plant. One person plants, another waters, but God gets the increase. (1 Corinthians 3:6) Direct faith in God calls on us to dare to do something new, more than our ancestors did; more than our founders did; more daring, loving and giving than any who have gone before us, ahead of us, or behind us.
That’s the view from this side of the Jordan. Choose this day whom you will serve.