Background~The Book of Joshua highlights God’s fulfillment of His promises to the Patriarchs and the people concerning the Exodus and the inheritance of the Promised Land (Compare Gen 15:13-21; Ex3:17; Ex23:23-33 with Josh 1:2-4; Josh 21:43-45; Josh 23:14). God’s fidelity looms large in this book, and so too does God’s call to the people to remain obediently faithful (Josh 1:6-9; Josh 1:16-18; Josh 6:18; Josh 10:40; Josh 11:15). When God’s plans are thwarted, or, rather, hampered, it is the result of sin, the lack of an obedient faith (e.g. the sin of Achan, Josh 6:18-7:5).
Jos 24:1 And Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and called for the elders of Israel, and for their heads, and for their judges, and for their officers; and they presented themselves before God.
Jos 24:2a And Joshua said unto all the people…
Joshua gathered all the tribes.The calling together of all the tribes (v. 1) for a covenant renewal ceremony (vv. 25-27) is a reminder that the people are not disparate (the point of Numbers 32:1-33, and see Josh 1:12-16). Even if each tribe has its own heritage of land allotted to them (v. 28; Josh 13:1-21:45) they have obligations towards both God and their fellow Israelites. The dangers of people attempting to do their own thing in relation to God is a factor the book tries to deal with (Josh 22).
At Shechem. This is the place where the people’s eponymous ancestor, Jacob, (who was given the name Israel), was dwelling (Gen 33:18) when he told his family to put away their foreign God’s before going up to Bethel (Gen 35:1-4, compare with Josh 24:14-16)). It was Jacob’s second visit to Bethel, the first was when he had his famous dream wherein God promised him-as he had his grandfather Abraham previously-that his descendants would inherit the Land (Gen 28:10-22). Shechem calls to mind the promise of God and the commitment it demands for fulfillment, i.e., the obedience of faith.
Elders…heads…judges…officers…all the people. At the beginning of the book a young Joshua had called together the leaders and admonished them to instruct the people (Josh 1:10-11; Josh 3:2-4). Here, in the final chapter of the book, the aging Joshua alone delivers the words of “the Lord, the God of Israel” (2) to both leaders and people. More to the immediate point is the fact that the elders, heads, judges, officers and people were addressed by Joshua in the previous chapter (23), wherein his his speech reiterates the major themes of the book.
Jos 24:15 But if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.
But if it seems evil unto you to serve the Lord. Joshua has just highlighted the many benefits the people have enjoyed from the Lord in verses 2-13, and in verse 14 he spoke of serving the Lord in sincerity. His words here are sarcastic, and in light of the context, great rhetoric.
Choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood.
Serve. The Hebrew (עבד = ‛âbad) is used in Exodus 1:13-14; Ex 5:18; Ex 6:5; Ex 14:5; Ex 14:12, etc., to designate the Israelites’ service as slaves to Pharaoh and the Egyptians. They were released from this bondage to serve God (Ex 3:12; Ex 4:23; Ex 7:16; Ex 8:1, etc). Often it refers to the service of false gods (e.g., Ex 20:5; Deut 30:17).
Whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood. The flood is a reference to the Euphrates, which is why some versions read in Mesopotamia rather than the other side of the flood. In Josh 24:2 we read: Your fathers dwelt of old on the other side of the river, Thare (Terah) the father of Abraham, and Nachor (Nahor): and they served strange gods. God called Abraham from his family’s false gods and made promises to him and his descendants. These descendants, the people of Joshua’s day, have experienced the fulfillment of those promises.
But for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. Joshua thus exposes himself as a true descendant of Abraham, concerning whom God had said: For I know that he will command his children, and his household after him, to keep the way of the Lord, and do judgment and justice: that for Abraham’s sake, the Lord may bring to effect all the things he hath spoken unto him (Gen 18:19).
Jos 24:16 And the people answered, and said, God forbid we should leave the Lord, and serve strange gods.
The people make a commitment to God first in negative fashion, expressing what they will not do: God forbid we should leave the Lord and serve strange gods, and then in positive fashion in verse 18b (see below). The negative form of their expressed commitment indicates that they are rejecting the gods their fathers served (Josh 24:2, 15).
Jos 24:17 The Lord our God he brought us and our fathers out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage: and did very great signs in our sight, and preserved us in all the way by which we journeyed, and among all the people through whom we passed.
The people recognize that their future with God is intimately tied up with his faithfulness in the past. Note the reference to release from Egyptian bondage,  the great signs worked in their sight;  God’s providential protection of them during the desert wanderings.
The Lord our God he brought us and our fathers out of the land of Egypt…and did very great signs in our sight, and preserved us in all our way by which we journeyed. The plural pronouns us and we, and the the plural noun, our, stand in marked contrast to the strange gods of of the previous verse. The Lord God is a personal God, no stranger to them.
And preserved us…among all the people through whom we passed. God’s preservation of the Israelites among other peoples highlights His superiority over the strange gods of these peoples.
Jos 24:18b. Therefore we will serve the Lord, for he is our God.
Having first expressed their commitment to the Lord in negative fashion (expressing what they would not do, v. 16), they now express their commitment positively. Their response echos that of Joshua in verse 15. Joshua goes on to insist that they will not be able to serve the Lord (v. 19) because God is holy (separated from the profane) and jealous (not brooking other god’s as suitors), and warns them what will befall them in serving strange gods (v. 20). The people again insist they will serve the Lord (v. 21), they thus become their own witnesses, under oath as it were (v. 22). In light of this, Joshua again exhorts the people: put away strange gods from among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord the God of Israel (v. 23). To this the people reply: We will serve the Lord our God, and we will be obedient to his commandments (v. 24).
Joshua’s insistence that they will not be able to serve the Lord in verse 19 sets the stage for the book of Judges. The various narratives that make up Judges have, basically, a very distinctive structure which serves its message. The structure is as follows (for a narrative example see Judges 3:7-11):
- A. The people sin before God. Usually idolatry.
- B. God punishes them by delivering them up to an oppressor. Usually.
- C. The people repent. Usually introduced narratively with the words: “they cried out to God.”
- D. God sends a judge (i.e., a leader or ruler) to rescue the people.
- E. There is peace during the lifetime of the judge.
God stands by Israel when they are faithfully obedient, but when they sin He punishes them in order to bring them to repentance (Deut 30:1-6). God is, as Joshua said, a holy God, and mighty and jealous, and will not forgive your wickedness and sins (v. 19). But while he does punish wickedness and sin, he does so in order to bring people to repentance.