Joshua 24 is first of all seen by its commentators as one of the Covenant rituals between the God of Israel and its people, which may be included in the series of the covenants made initially by Abraham and then by Moses.
The Old Testament text of Joshua 24 has been long commented and analyzed by scholars, in what regards its historical localization, and various conclusions have been derived, from those of Delbert Hillers who believed that its importance lies in the fact that it was the first Covenant that was made by the entire Israelite tribal amphictyony, to John Van Seters who argued that its form has so many similarities to the Deuteronomy tradition, that it should be considered as an addition to the initial work of Deuteronomy.
Thus, the reconstruction of the event in Joshua 24 varies from a perspective that sees it as a historical event, signaling important transformations for Israel (i.e. its tribal unification) and a perspective in which it is only a textual expansion of the Deuteronomic texts.
Scholars also differ therefore with respect to the placement in of the fragment in time: Hillers believes it to be a reminiscence of an ancient tradition, while Van Seters obviously places it after Deuteronomy.
Joshua 24 has been interpreted in many ways by the historians and theorists of the Old Testament. First of all, it has been shown that there is a great resemblance between the form of this chapter and that of the ancient treaties, for example the treaty concluded between Egypt and Hatti and signed by Ramses II and Hattusilis III, respectively.
The Covenant at Shechem has the same form as that of the treaty between Ramses II and Hattusilis III, covering most of the points that were mentioned in the treaty. The pattern for the vassal-sovereign treaty is made up of the following terms: stating the current relations, agreeing to mutual non-aggression, reaffirming the former treaties, establishing a defensive alliance, establishing of the orderly succession, defining the terms of extradition, naming the witnesses to the treaty, and finally making up a litany of curses and blessings.
These points made by the treaty parallel the structure of Joshua 24 thus: we are told that Joshua gathered an assembly of the tribes of Israel at Shechem and told them the words that God wanted them to hear from Him. First, God reminds Israel of the blessings that He brought to it, of the lands that He gave to the people of Israel and of the former Covenants that had been established between Him and them. This point is similar to the reaffirmation of the former treaties as stated in the pact between Ramses II and Hattusilis III:
Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Your fathers dwelt on the other side of the flood in old time, even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nachor: and they served other gods.
And I took your father Abraham from the other side of the flood, and led him throughout all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his seed, and gave him Isaac.”
In the verses above Yahweh reminds the people of Israel of the beginning of His Covenant to them: the moment when their forefathers forsook other gods to serve Him, and therefore the beginning of His protection of Israel as His own people, by giving them a land to inherit, by multiplying their seed and by sheltering them against all enemies or natural disasters.
Even form the beginning of the chapter there is, thus, emphasis on the fathers of Israel who “served other gods,” making it clear that the purpose of the Covenant is precisely the reaffirming of the Covenant of the “jealous God,” who desires to reestablish and enhance his authority over the people of Israel.
The second great emphasis of the passage is that of the possession of the land that was granted by Yahweh to His people, and that they are to maintain only by continuing in their submission to Him and by forsaking other gods. These two emphasis are part of the mutual agreement that corresponds to the treaty formula: only on condition that the people of Israel serve Yahweh and forsake other gods, does He secure the land for them and continue protecting them as His own people.
We notice that the conditions of the Covenant related to the possession of the land and to the promise of submission are themselves similar to those in a sovereign-vassal treaty:
And I have given you a land for which ye did not labour, and cities which ye built not, and ye dwell in them; of the vineyards and oliveyards which ye planted not do ye eat.
Now therefore fear the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in truth: and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the flood, and in Egypt; and serve ye the Lord.
And 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.”
The Covenant, like a sovereign-vassal treaty contains not only the promise of the benefits and blessings in case of obedience, but also the reverse- the menace in case of failure to abide by it- Yahweh states He will hurt Israel if they choose to serve other gods instead, just like He benefited them before:
If ye forsake the Lord, and serve strange gods, then he will turn and do you hurt, and consume you, after that he hath done you good.”
This point in the Covenant resembles, partly, that of the “defensive alliance” in the treaty-formula, since it states that if the jealous and holy God shall not be forsaken for other gods he will protect His people, otherwise He will hurt them. But most of all the menace resembles perhaps the litany of curses and blessings, since all those who will not observe the treaty will be cursed and will have to suffer drear consequences for their act of disobedience.
Once the Covenant is reestablished and the people of Israel swear to obey Yahweh as before, the witnesses have to be named, as in the sovereign-vassal treaty pattern. Still, in the Covenant of Shechem the people of Israel are called as witnesses against themselves, instead of the gods that are found in the treaty formula:
And Joshua said unto the people, Ye are witnesses against yourselves that ye have chosen you the LORD, to serve him. And they said, We are witnesses.”
In addition to this, Joshua also names as a witness a great stone that was placed under an oak “where the sanctuary of the Lord was.” The setting of the stone by Joshua has been interpreted many times as a reminiscence of the primitive cults, where the stone was considered animated, and thus able to witness the treaty and hear the promises made on both sides. This would point thus to the historical origin of the passage as dating before Deuteronomy, since it violates the commandments given through Moses on Mount Sinai, that forbade the worshipping of idols.
The last point of resemblance between the text of Joshua 24 and the sovereign-vassal formula is that of the “orderly succession,” which states that the Covenant will be followed and obeyed by the generations to come as well. In Joshua we have the actual confirmation of the Covenant keeping by the people of Israel:
And Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that overlived Joshua, and which had known all the works of the LORD, that he had done for Israel.” (Joshua, 24:31)
Many commentators of the Old Testament have attempted to interpret and localize historically the Covenant at Shechem.
Among these, Delbert Hillers proposed that the very place of the Covenant had been long associated with a tradition of pact-making, even before the coming of the Israelites, and that the very name of the founder of this town is a clear hint to the making of treaties:
The very name of the founder of the town points to an association with treaty ceremonies and the name of the God worshipped in its temple- the largest yet discovered in Palestine- is variously given as ‘God of the Covenant’ (El Berit) or ‘Lord of the Covenant’ (Baal Berit)”
Hillers’ historical interpretation of the Biblical text sets forth the idea that the land of Shechem itself is the key to Joshua 24, since it must have been the place where all the twelve tribes of Israel finally gathered, for the first time in their complete representation, to resume the pact that had not been complete in the Covenant from Deuteronomy, when the tribes were not yet unified:
There were groups within later Israel which had not taken part in the exodus and had not stood at Sinai, and the classic league of twelve tribes comes into full existence only on the soil of Palestine- at Shechem to be exact. Here we have an account of the definitive formation of the twelve-tribe league incorporating people who may well have had ancient ties with Israelite tribes but who only now pledge their undivided allegiance to the God of Israel.”
Thus, Shechem is, according to Hillers, one of the most important place for the Covenant renewal, since it was the first that was witnessed by the united Israelite tribes.
John Van Seters, on the other hand, offers a different explanation for the origins of the text in Joshua 24. He concludes that the resemblances in form between the Covenant at Shechem and the Deuteronomy Covenant makes it plausible that the Joshua 24 has to be just an addition to the Deuteronomy work:
There is only one solution to this dilemma and that is that Joshua 24.1-27 was composed as an addition to the Dtr. work. It is post-Dtr. And was inserted before chapter 23’s original ending as a second conclusion to the history of Joshua. All our literary analysis confirms the fact that while Joshua 24 was influenced by the Dtr. tradition, it was in fact a later development of that tradition in the exilic age and must be viewed as post-Dtr.”
In his analysis, Van Seters carefully investigates the similarities between the Deuteronomy work and that of Joshua 24, thus concluding that the text in Joshua is not more ancient than the former, but has actually been created afterwards as a continuation of the Deuteronomy tradition:
Already it is possible to say something about the form of the text. It is modeled directly upon Dtr. parenesis. It is not just a question of some vague prophetic influence but the kind of prophetic style that is the hallmark of Dtr tradition both in DtrH and in the late prophetic works.”
Van Seters analyzes the form of Joshua 24 to collect his evidence that the Covenant at Shechem is a later addition to the Deuteronomy work. He notices, for instance, that the dialogue formulas such as “you/your fathers” and “we/us, our fathers” are very common and specific to the Deuteronomy tradition.
Also, the historical summary of the generations of Israel since Abraham and going on to Joshua, is another parallel to the Deuteronomy tradition. However, Van Seters observes that there are many differences in detail, between the two texts compared- Joshua 24 seems to be filled with new information as regards the historical context. The mentioning of new episodes has been the basis of the arguments that most of the scholars brought to prove the anteriority of this chapter, but Van Seters sees this as a certain piece of evidence that the text is only an addition to Deuteronomy.
Van Seters also argues that the text doesn’t have to be interpreted as a sovereign-vassal pattern, since the manner of the Covenant making has is not a liturgy because the allegiance of the people comes only as a logical argument like that of the Deuteronomy preaching.
Moreover the scholar sees has a very different theory than that of Hillers for the amphictony problem. He believes that, according to Joshua 24, the people are summoned to make the Covenant to the God of Israel not as a nation, but as so many individual households:
The challenge is made to the people no longer as a nation but as so many individual households who were called to follow Joshua’s example. Joshua does not function as the centralized authority to keep the nation pure -as in the story of Achan- but as a religious leader who leads by admonition and example.”
Other scholarly sources make the connection between the “gods beyond the flood” which are mentioned in the fragment and the historical context of the domination of Assyrian domination of Israel:
Perlitt finds the key to this in the striking references, unique to this passage, to ‘the gods whom your fathers worshipped beyond the river’ (vv. 2, 14, 15). Here we have no mere historical allusion to what once was; the ‘of old’ in v. 2 is matched by the ‘and now’ of v. 14 which with its appeal to ‘put away’ the worship of these gods means that such worship is a present reality in Israel. It is from ‘beyond the river’ that this threat now endangers Israel’s life, ‘beyond the river’ where the Assyrians live and whose gods have been installed for worship here and now in the midst of Israel. For this only one period comes into consideration, the seventh century, and that is the period in which and from whose religious necessities the Deuteronomic preaching arose.’ (p. 251.) it was a situation in which the gods of Mesopotamia and Palestine, here specified by ‘the gods whom your fathers worshipped’ and ‘the gods of the Amorites’ respectively, stood in opposition to Yahweh. Thus the subject matter and the purpose as well as the form and style of this passage converge in the historical setting of Assyrian domination of Israel and Judah and the rise of the Deuteronomic movement. And this renders attempts to find a different setting, with the splitting up of verses or the separation of literary layers or motifs which this involves, quite unnecessary.”
Perlitt considered that there are three possible alternatives for the origins of Joshua 24:
It is possible, therefore, that Joshua 24 originated in northern Israel, in the newly constituted province of Samaria. Shechem was chosen as the location for the setting of the scene described because it had long since ceased to be politically significant, was associated with an ancient Yahweh sanctuary, and besides had not been disavowed by prophetic threats. From northern Israel the text would subsequently have found its way to Judah, perhaps at the hands of refugees.(…) Alternatively, a Judaean setting for the composition of the passage is also possible. Judah had become a vassal of Assyria already in the time of Ahaz and was to remain so for over a century. The virtually complete subordination of Ahaz to the Assyrians is evidenced by his reconstitution of the temple in Jerusalem into a sanctuary for the Assyrian god Asshur (cf. 2 Kgs. 16:10-18). A third possibility remains: the period of the downfall of Assyrian power and the actions of Josiah who not only dismantled the religious and political concessions made by Ahaz and Manasseh (2 Kgs. 23:5), but also in so doing renounced Judah’s vassaldom to Assyria. More favourable conditions than those which existed in Hezekiah’s days now presented themselves; the Assyrians were probably no longer able to take effective action, and so Josiah began his march northwards to Bethel (2 Kgs. 23:15), to the province of Samaria (2 Kgs. 23:19), and to Megiddo (2 Kgs. 23:29) where he met his death. But before the tragedy at Megiddo new hopes had been kindled and fanned. In such a situation Joshua 24 may have been composed with those in northern Israel in mind as its addressees.”
The origins of the Joshua 24 chapter are therefore much disputed, both as to what regarded the historical context and to the possible interpretations. The conclusions are that the actual tribes involved could have been either the entire amphictyony of Israel, as Delbert Hillers suggests, or the tribes belonging to North Israel in the province of Samaria or a Judaeic province, as Perlitt supposed or, finally as Van Seters puts forth – merely a textual addition to the Deuteronomy work, and addressed rather to the “individual households” of Israel than to the nation as such or to certain tribes.
Van Seters’ arguments are convincing since the form of the text is very close to that of Deuteronomy preaching. Either way though, the essence of Joshua 24 consists of the settlement of the people of Israel on a new land, on the one hand, and the religious crossroads of Israel who were making the shift from the local tribal gods to an universal God, who could lead them and accompany them anywhere:
Thus the alternative lies in a choice between a personal deity, who accompanies those who believe in him wherever they go, and above all in migrations made in his name (an unheard-of thing at that period, found only amongst nomads), and the various local gods who have to be worshipped as soon as one enters their sphere of influence.”
Joshua 24 is thus a very important fragment for the understanding of the religious transformations that lead from the primitive cults to the universal God religion, and also for the Covenant making
Boling, Robert G., and G. Ernest Wright. Joshua. AB 6. Garden City, New York.:Doubleday, 1982.
Harris, J. Gordon, Cheryl a. Brown and Michael S. Moore. Joshua, Judges, Ruth. NIBC. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2000.
Nelson, Richard J. Joshua: A Commentary.Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997.
Nicholson, Ernest God and His People: Covenant and Theology in the Old Testament. Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1986.
Soggin, Alberto Joshua. A Commentary. Philadelphia. Westminster Press, 1987
Van Seters, John. “Joshua 24 and the Problem of Tradition in the Old Testament,” Pp. 139-158 in the Shelter of Elyon. Sheffield: JSOT Press
Woudstra, M.H. The Book of Joshua. NICOT. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1981.
Boling, Robert G., and G. Ernest Wright. Joshua. AB 6. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1982.
Hillers, Delbert R. Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea.
Van Seters, John. “Joshua 24 and the Problem of Tradition in the Old Testament,” Pp. 139-158 in the Shelter of Elyon. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1984.
Van Seters, John. “Joshua 24 and the Problem of Tradition in the Old Testament,” Pp. 139-158 in the Shelter of Elyon. Sheffield: JSOT Press,1984.
Van Seters, John. “Joshua 24 and the Problem of Tradition in the Old Testament,” Pp. 139-158 in the Shelter of Elyon. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1984.
Nicholson, Ernest God and His People: Covenant and Theology in the Old Testament. Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1986. Page Number: 151
Soggin, Alberto Joshua. A Commentary. Westminster Press. Philadelphia. 1987
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