Joshua 23 is the penultimate chapter in the book and a call for Israel to make an ongoing, ultimate commitment to Yahweh. Here are ten things about this chapter to help us understand its main point with applications for us today.
1. Joshua 23 is the second of three assemblies that close the book of Joshua.
In the last three chapters of Joshua, the book comes to a close with three assemblies. In chapter 22, an emergency meeting is called when the Western tribes fear that the Eastern tribes committed idolatry by building an altar on the banks of the Jordan. In chapter 24, Joshua leads the nation to renew their covenant with Yahweh. But in Joshua 23, before that formal process of agreement, Joshua gives a more personal appeal for Israel to love God with all their heart and to guard themselves from idolatry.
In this way, Joshua 23 serves as a bridge between Joshua 22 and Joshua 24. It unites the three chapters with the theme of idolatry—or rather, a warning against idolatry. More specifically, this chapter focuses on the leaders in Israel, who are listed in verse 2: “elders, leaders, judges, and officials.” Importantly, as Joshua comes to the end of his life (vv. 1–2, 14), he is looking to this next generation of leaders to keep covenant with God. This shows how the nation prospers when the nation has faithful leaders (cf. 24:31).
2. Joshua 23 is carries on a biblical tradition of last words.
Joshua 23 also serves as a final word from Joshua. Like Moses and David, Joshua’s impending death prompts him to pronounce a sober exhortation to Israel. As Richard Hess notes,
This chapter recounts a sermon that Joshua gives to assembled Israel at the end of his life. In its purpose, it resembles the deathbed testaments of other leaders of Israel: Jacob (Gen. 48-49), Joseph (Gen. 50:22-26), Moses and David (1 Kgs 2:1—9). For Moses, the whole of the book of Deuteronomy serves as his final address. All of these occasions allow the leader to describe the future of Israel. Only in the cases of Moses and Joshua is there a choice as to what that fate will be. In both cases, it depends on the decision of the people. Like Moses, Joshua reminds the people of all that God has given to them. He calls them to faithfulness. Indeed, ‘his address consists entirely of reminiscences from the Pentateuch, more especially from Deuteronomy, as he had nothing fresh to announce to the people, but could only impress the old truths upon their minds once more’ [Keil & Delitzsch, 2:164–165]” (Hess, Joshua, 323)
Interestingly, Jesus will also give a final testimony to this followers before he is taken to his death (John 14–16). Likewise, John finishes his letter with the stark words, “Children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). Could John be building his Gospel and first epistle from this chapter in Joshua? It’s possible. Either way, Joshua’s closing admonition stresses how important it is for Israel to remain faithful by loving God and avoiding idolatry.
3. Joshua 23 foreshadows the ‘Already’ and ‘Not Yet’ of Jesus’s kingdom.
Joshua 23 also reiterates a pattern of inaugurated eschatology—i.e, God has given Israel the land, but he has also called them to keep fighting. As Dale Ralph Davis observes,
We meet here the same consistent picture of the conquest that we find in all the extant biblical documents. A decisive conquest (v. 3) and a continuing occupation (vv. 4–5); Yahweh has given rest (v. 1), yet there is still work (vv. 4–5). These two emphases are not contradictory but complementary. Indeed, God had disclosed from the first that there would be, of necessity, a gradual aspect in the conquest: “I will not drive them out before you in one year; otherwise, the land would become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you; little by little I will drive them out before you until you become fruitful and inherit the land’ (Exod. 23:29-30).’ (Dale Ralph Davis, Joshua, 185)
When we put this together, we learn that while Joshua has given Israel rest (11:23) and God has fulfilled all of his promises (21:43–45), even driving out all the inhabitants of the land (23:4), there remains places in the land that need subjugation. This is not accidental or a sign of God’s weakness, it is the way God works—both in the days of Joshua and in the days of the greater Joshua, Jesus Christ.
In fact, if we look carefully at verses 3–4 we may even get a sense of Jesus’s later Great Commission. In Joshua 23, the lesser Jesus (Joshua son of Nun) says that he has allotted all the land to Israel (v. 4). Then he implores Israel to go possess the land God has given to them. Moreover, he says God will help them do it (v. 5). In many ways, this foreshadows the great pronouncement of Jesus, that all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him (Matthew 28:18), hence, he has the right to make disciples of all nations. Like Joshua, Jesus’s authorization precedes his occupation.
Today Christ, by his church, is making disciples and preparing his people for the worldwide inheritance he has been given and will soon give all his disciples. Importantly, this idea of inaugurated eschatology did not originate with Jesus and his apostles. It goes back to Joshua and Israel’s possession of the land.
4. Joshua 23 is a sermon with a dual center—Love the Lord your God and Flee Idols!
Commentators often organize Joshua 23 in three parts. For instance, Davis (Joshua, 182) outlines the section: Yahweh’s help (vv. 1–5), condition of Yahweh’s help (vv. 6–13), and alternatives to Yahweh’s help (vv. 14–16). Likewise, Mathews, after acknowledging the introduction in verses 1–2, divides verses 3–10 from verses 12–16, with verse 11 serving as a bridge (Joshua, 174).
Contrary to this common line of interpretation, I don’t believe this is the best way to read the chapter. While verse 11 places a central role in the chapter, I don’t believe it merely a bridge, but the very center of Joshua’s sermon. As a sermon (or testimony) from Joshua, we need to recognize that introduction in verses 1–2 sets up one, cohesive word from Joshua.
More specifically, Joshua shapes his sermon around a central command: “Be very careful, therefore, to love the Lord your God” (v. 11). And then, like the rest of the book, I believe we can discern an intentional chiastic structure around this central verse. Here’s my proposal, which depends on observing multiple linguistic parallels in the concentric rings of the chiasm.
I. Joshua’s Assembly (vv. 1–2)
II. Joshua’s Admonition (vv. 2b–16)
A Looking Back: Joshua’s Exhortation to Remember God’s Promise (dbr) (v. 2b–5)
“I am now old and well advanced in years . . .” (v. 2b)
“And you have seen all that the Lord your God has done to all these nations for your sake, for it is the Lord your God who has fought for you.” (v. 3)
B Looking to Yahweh: Cling (dbq) to Yahweh (vv. 6–10)
C Guard Yourself and Love the LORD (v. 11)
B’ Looking to Canaan: Don’t Cling (dbq) to Idols, or Those Who Worship Them (v. 12–13)
A’ Looking Ahead: Joshua’s Exhortation to Remain Faithful to God’s Promise (dbr) (vv. 14–16)
“Now I am about to go the way of all the earth . . . ” (v. 14)
“You know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed.”
I haven’t seen this outline in any commentary, but I believe it stands on observations from the text and it makes great sense of what Joshua is communicating. Joshua is calling for Israel to love God (v. 11) by keeping covenant (vv. 6–10) and not worshiping idols (vv. 12–13). This is the stress of the his message, and it is framed by what God has done in the past (vv. 2–5) and will do in the future if/when Israel disobeys (v. 14–16).
5. Joshua 23 is a model of exposition.
Going back to the quote from Keil and Delitzsch, we should consider how Joshua’s “sermon” is another inspired instance of biblical exposition. As Keil and Delitzsch observe, “[Joshua’s] address consists entirely of reminiscences from the Pentateuch, more especially from Deuteronomy, as he had nothing fresh to announce to the people, but could only impress the old truths upon their minds once more” (164). Incredibly, as Joshua anticipates his death, he is not deviating from the Word of God (Joshua 1:6–8). Rather, he is putting the Word of God before the people until the very end.
In fact, Joshua even applies to Israel the words God gave him as he began to lead Israel after Moses’s death, saying, “Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left, . . .” (23:6; cf. Josh. 1:7) This application of the Word is but one instance of the way Joshua recited God’s Word in his sermon. Others include,
- God’s promise to give the nations to Israel (v. 6) — Exod. 23:23–29
- Israel’s command not to worship or serve foreign gods (v. 7) –Deut. 6:13; 10:20
- God’s promise to drive out the nations (v. 9–10) — Deut. 4:38; 7:1, 24; 9:1; 11:23, 25
- God’s promise that one Israelite would drive out 1,000 (v. 10a) — Lev. 26:7–8; Deut. 28:7; 32:30
- God’s command to guard yourself (v. 11a) –Deut. 4:15
- God’s command to love the LORD (v. 11) –Deut. 6:5; 10:12; 11:13
- God’s warning about mixing with the nations (v. 12–13) — Exod. 23:33; 34:12–15; Numbers 33:55; Deuteronomy 7:3, 16
God’s warning about a trap (v. 13) — Exodus 10:7 — so is the imagery of a thorn in the eyes (v. 13) — Num. 33:55
- God’s warning about future curses for covenant disobedience (v. 15) — Lev. 26:14–33; Deuteronomy 28:15–68, 29:14–28
- The evil things (lit. evil words) identifies God’s promised rejection of Israel if they broke the covenant (v. 15) — Deut. 30:1, 15
From all these citations and allusions, we learn how much Joshua stored the word of God in his heart. His faithfulness is not accidental; he meditated on God’s Word day and night, as the Lord told him (1:6–9). By God’s Word, he led Israel. And here, Joshua’s entire sermon serves as an example of biblical exposition and a model for future leaders (cf. Keil and Delitzsch, 2:164–165).
6. The warning of intermarriage connects with idolatry.
After exhorting Israel with God’s word and centering on the command to love God, Joshua explains further the need to avoid idols. This is found in verse 11 when he says, “Be very careful,” but he explains what Israel is to be careful with in verses 12–13:
12 For if you turn back and cling to the remnant of these nations remaining among you and make marriages with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, 13 know for certain that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you, but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the Lord your God has given you.
In particular, Joshua focuses on the concern of Israelite men intermarrying with women in Canaan. Already, Israel has seen the problem that foreign women can pose for Israel (see Numbers 25), and again Joshua is stressing the need to be cautious here. Why? Because it seems that covenant-making with unbelievers (i.e., those outside of Israel) will lead to mass idolatry and covenant unfaithfulness. In Israel’s history this will pose a major problem, as Ken Mathews notes,
[Joshua 23] particularly warns against two failures. (1) The Israelites must Canaanites, lest they fall into idolatry not practice intermarriage with the (23:12-13). (2) The Israelites must not worship other gods, for the Lord’s wrath will result in their expulsion (23:14-16). . . . Immorality that results from such a practice (e.g., Judg. 3:6; Neh. 13:1—2, 23-27). It is virtually axiomatic in the Old Testament that marriage outside the covenant community (exogamy) leads to adopting the polytheism of Israel’s neighbors. This prohibition, however, is neither absolute nor permanent (e.g., Ruth the Moabitess; cf. Deut. 23:3—8). Exceptions include women who are taken captives, but they must undergo a cleansing rite before they are integrated into the community as full participants (Deut. 21:10—14). The primary point of the ban is that a spouse whose ethnicity originates outside the assembly must “convert” to the Lord before the marriage is considered legitimate. (180, 183)
Today, this command does not apply exactly the same way, but it does still apply. How it applies is a matter of rightly discerning how ethical passages like this one find continuity and discontinuity as we move from the old covenant to the new covenant.
7. Joshua 23 must be applied with continuity and discontinuity.
As we have noted throughout the book of Joshua, Israel is a people who remain under the law covenant established at Sinai and codified in the Pentateuch. Twice they renew a covenant with Yahweh (see Josh 8:30–35 and Josh. 24), but in neither instance is a new covenant ratified. Joshua is a faithful servant of the old covenant.
This means that those who live under the covenant inaugurated by the blood of Christ cannot directly apply this book today. Instead, we must follow the pathway from Joshua to Israel (the original audience is perhaps the generation of Israel in the days of the Judges). Next, this book must be read as a precursor to Christ. Once he fulfills the office Yahweh’s Savior, then we can apply it to ourselves by way of our Mediator and his Holy Spirit.
For this reason, Christians cannot make a direct application of the warning about marrying foreigners—i.e., those from other countries or ethnicities. There is nothing here to deny a multi-racial (better: multi-ethnic) marriage. Instead we must see how the new covenant continues and discontinues this law. Such transformation of the law is true for all Old Testament books, but here we have a clear case of covenantal transfer. Paul himself helps us understand what it means for new covenant believers to separate themselves from the world with respect to marriage.
8. Believers must separate themselves from the world, but not as Israel did.
Alert to the challenge of applying Old Testament passages to new covenant believers, we learn from 2 Corinthians 6:14–18 how to make the application regarding marriage. Addressing the marriage of a believer to an unbeliever, Paul writes, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (v. 14).
Here is the change: under the old covenant marrying a woman from another nation meant taking her gods and exposing yourself to her idols. Only in the rare instances when a woman like Ruth forsook her gods and her nation could an Israelite marry such a woman (see Ruth 1:16–17). But in all other cases, the Law was clear—to marry outside of the covenant was to invite idolatry into the house of God. Hence, the Law taught Israel, (a people circumcised in the flesh) not to marry unbelievers—i.e., women from other nations.
This all changed when the new covenant, with its circumcision of the heart, was inaugurated by Christ. Now the boundary markers of God’s people are not national; they are spiritual (i.e., the Holy Spirit). Hence, separation is not ethnic, national, or anything else visible to the eye. Separation with respect to marriage is entirely and always pertaining the Holy Spirit. As Paul goes on to say,
14 Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,
“I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
17 Therefore go out from their midst,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
then I will welcome you,
18 and I will be a father to you,
and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty.”
(2 Corinthians 6:14–18)
Incredibly, Paul applies the words given to Israel and David (from Leviticus 26 and 2 Samuel 7, respectively) to the church of Jesus Christ. In other words, Paul has a very strong sense of Christian separation, but not in the way that Israel practiced separation or in the way some “Separatists” isolate themselves from the world. Rather, the separation has to do with covenant making in marriage between a believer and an unbeliever. The dividing line is the presence of God in the Holy Spirit, and nothing according to the flesh.
The continuity then is found in the fact that the line of division is still covenantal. But because the covenant is changed, so are the practices of separation. Today, God’s people separate themselves by the way they live and worship and marry. But they do not section themselves off from the world by national boundaries or other Levitical stipulations. The covenant is different and so too are the practices of separation.
9. Joshua’s final word is one of warning; Jesus’s final word is one of comfort.
Another difference between the days of Joshua and the days of Christ is the way that Joshua and Jesus give their final words. With Joshua, the great leader of Israel concludes with a warning and one that forecasts Israel’s future disloyalty. Like Moses, who concluded his final book with a forecast of future disobedience (see Deut. 30), Joshua does the same. He states,
“And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed. 15 But just as all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you have been fulfilled for you, so the Lord will bring upon you all the evil things, until he has destroyed you from off this good land that the Lord your God has given you, 16 if you transgress the covenant of the Lord your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them. Then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and you shall perish quickly from off the good land that he has given to you.” (Joshua 23:14–16)
Notice how ominous Joshua’s words are. Verse 16 says “if you transgress,” but it could be rendered “when you transgress.” Indeed, this is how Moses spoke at the end of his life and it would be surprising if Joshua did not do the same. Such a sober word from God’s servant is meant to stir up the fear of God’s people and promote their obedience.
As far as the effectiveness of his words, Joshua 24:31 indicates Israel remained faithful for one generation beyond Joshua—only one generation!! Truly, Joshua’s sternest warning could not effect the kind of obedience that he prescribed.
Today, some read Joshua’s words and draw the conclusion that we should draw a direct line of application. As Dale Ralph Davis puts it
Just as Joshua argues from the memory of Yahweh’s goodness, so he appeals to the threat of Yahweh’s judgment. Both the grace of God and the fear of God should move the people of God. There are those who would tell us that New Testament Christians (whatever they are) are no longer subject to the fear of God. But an afternoon with the Epistle to the Hebrews should effect a permanent cure. (Joshua, 188)
Without getting sidetracked with Hebrews, I affirm Davis’s main point that there is an abiding reverence which Christians should experience before God. But I disagree that the main point of Joshua 23 is obedience motivated by such fear. That may not be exactly how he’d say it either, but we need to see that Christ’s final words are remarkably different than Joshua’s and in their difference we see the main point between Joshua 23 and the Christian.
Put simply, the point of application is not: Listen to Joshua and fear the Lord. The point of application is: Learn from the ineffectiveness of Joshua, and listen to the greater words of Jesus. Jesus’s final words of comfort do not resound with notes of an ominous threat. Wonderfully, they promise his abiding presence. Jesus says in John 16:7, I am going away but I will send you a helper, the Holy Spirit. And in Matthew 28:20, Jesus last word states, “Lo, I am with you always to the end of the age.”
Do you hear the difference?
Joshua couldn’t say this because he was going to die, just like all of the earth (Josh 23:14). But Jesus when he ascended to heaven had already died and now he was going to send his Spirit to be with his people. This is remarkable and makes any direct line of application to fear the Lord depreciate the difference that Christ has made. Christ remains with his people by his Spirit and his words are filled with comfort.
10. The ongoing presence of Jesus is what makes all the difference.
This difference must be where we make our final point of application. Israel experienced the Lord’s blessing only as long as Joshua, a word-saturated servant of God, led the people. When he died and the generation of elders died after him, the people had no faithful leader to lead Israel to keep covenant with God. Throughout Israel’s history this pattern repeated: when a faithful priest or king led the nation, the people experienced blessing. But when a wicked or passive king ruled, Israel fell into sin and such sin invited God’s judgment.
The lesson is this: Only when God’s people have an ever-present, righteous leader can they experience ongoing blessing. In Israel, this never happened. But in Christ, it has.
In Christ, we have a righteous servant who remains with his people. He has not gone far away and given us a final word we must remember. Instead, he reigns in heaven and on earth he continues to dwell with his people by his Spirit. From heaven he sends his helper, the Holy Spirit, to lead us into all truth and to maintain our faith.
In this way, Jesus is unlike any human ruler in Israel. Not only is he perfectly obedience to God; he is God. As God the Son Incarnate and by his Holy Spirit, he remains present with his people, securing us and the covenant he has made with us.
For all that Joshua did for Israel, his death brought his ministry to an end. Not so Jesus Christ. In his resurrection, ascension, and outpouring of the Spirit, he continues to rule amidst his people. And this why we can have faith, hope, love, and joy! This is fundamentally different than what we find in Joshua 23, and its this difference where we see the goodness of Jesus Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds