Chapter One: “Israel Served the Lord”
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11 one “Israel Served the Lord” A Hermeneutical Key Above all, previous holistic readings of the book of Joshua have shown one thing: that any convincing reading must deal with the tensions that the book presents to the reader. Paradoxically, this multitude of tensions sends the reader in search of some theme or focal point by which to gather together the multifarious strands and weave them into an integrated story. That does not necessarily mean that the reader must find a way to eliminate the conflicting themes that pull at the fabric of the text. In fact, I suggest that the best reading will let these tensions remain as tensions, rather than try to eliminate them. Yet for the book to be read as a book, they must be rallied toward some common telos. That telos, I will argue, is the verdict in Joshua 24:31 that Israel “served the Lord during all the days of Joshua.”1 Many—perhaps most—scholars would read this verse as an exaggeration or an ironic declaration. I suggest instead that if the reader accepts this verse as a sincere statement, it becomes a literary clue pointing to a theological "Israel served the lord" 12 interpretation of the totality of Israel’s actions in the book of Joshua. Specifically, it broadens and deepens the reader’s understanding of Israel ’s service to the Lord, allowing it to encompass Israel’s repentance and YHWH’s mercy, not only Israel’s obvious acts of obedience. In four major narrative episodes in the book, Israel acts questionably in relation to YHWH’s laws or commands.2 These include the story of the oath to Rahab (Josh 2), Achan’s violation of the h . erem command (Josh 7), the treaty with the Gibeonites (Josh 9), and the altar built by the Transjordanian tribes (Josh 22). In addition, doubts remain in the book as a whole about whether Israel succeeds at the overall task of occupying the land, a task that also relates to Israel’s obedience. This could lead the reader to take the statement of Israel’s faithfulness in Joshua 24:31 as a hopeless contradiction or mere pious gloss. Instead, I will argue that it should be read as a “hermeneutical key” that simultaneously problematizes and illuminates these threads that have an ambiguous relationship to YHWH’s prohibitions and commands. At the conclusion of the book of Joshua, immediately preceding the burial notices of Joshua, the faithful “servant of the Lord,”3 and­ Eleazar the priest, the text declares a sweeping verdict on the era of Joshua’s leadership: “Israel served the Lord during all the days of Joshua and of all the elders who outlived him and who had experienced everything the Lord had done for Israel” (Josh 24:31). More than one commentator reads Joshua 24:31 as the stirring epitaph of one of Israel’s great leaders, a tribute to his faithful example that kept the people on the right path during his lifetime and influenced the leadership of those who immediately followed him.4 This conclusion would be perfectly logical, were it not that the contents of the book of Joshua call this verdict significantly into question. One might wonder whether the person who penned Joshua 24:31 actually read the book before inscribing such a positive conclusion, since Israel, as depicted in the book of Joshua, seems to have a rather mixed record of faithfulness in serving YHWH. Rather than drawing Israel’s first days in the land as a steady line of obedient behavior and covenant faithfulness, the narrative vacillates between dramatic ups and downs, recounting the questionable alongside the upstanding. a hermeneutical key 13 It is true that the story begins with an extended and ceremonious entry into the land characterized by a harmonious call and response of command and action (Josh 3 and 4), followed by the long-neglected performance of circumcision (5:1–9) and the celebration of the Passover (5:10–12). With Israel’s measured and graceful attentiveness to YHWH’s instructions for the entry into the land and the references to removal of the “reproach of Egypt” (5:9) and the cessation of manna (5:12), the cumulative effect of the Jordan crossing is to mark the end of an era, and an auspicious new beginning for Israel: Israel, attentive to YHWH’s commands, not rebellious; responsive, not resisting; tasting the firstfruits of the fulfillment of all YHWH’s promises in the longpromised land...


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