The Covenant Renewal at Shechem

When Joshua gathers “all the tribes of Israel” at Shechem, summoning “the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel” to “present themselves before God,” it is a moment pregnant with remembrance and anticipation. According to the book of Joshua, the Israelites have completed their conquest of the promised land, at least in a general sense, and the covenant renewal ceremony is a symbolic acknowledgement of that climactic moment in which the people remember the past and prepare for the future. Like the sacraments of the church (baptism, marriage, communion), the ceremony ties together time and identity (who we are, where we came from, and where we are going), and individual and community (each “I” asserts its part in the “we”).

Joshua begins by identifying his listeners as descendants of the patriarchs in Genesis. It is striking that this particular recitation of God’s saving actions in Israel’s history begins in the time of the patriarchs, and not, as is more commonly the case, with the exodus. The more typical formula, at least within Judges and Samuel (i.e. within the Deuteronomic History), begins “I brought you up from Egypt…” (Jud 2:1);  “I led you up from Egypt…” (Jud 6:8); “Did I not deliver you from the Egyptians…” (Jud 10:11); “I brought up Israel out of Egypt…” (1 Sam 10:17); or “When Jacob went into Egypt…” (1 Sam 12:7). In contrast, the recitation here begins: “Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods…” (Jos 24:2).

This difference has many possible explanations. One line of interpretation concerns the difference between inclusive and exclusive attitudes toward the Samaritans in the Second Temple period (Wildenboer, Römer). Another, occupying so much of the published literature, explores the significance of such seemingly anomalous features of Joshua 24 for source criticism, form criticism, and the documentary hypothesis (Koopmans, Römer).

However, for our purposes, we can focus on the surprising, even shocking statement that “your ancestors… served other gods,” which is implied but not explicitly stated in Genesis. No adherent of an Abrahamic faith likes to think of the first patriarch as a polytheist. “No other biblical tradition says explicitly that the immigration of Israel’s ancestors was responsible for their rejection of the foreign gods and adoption of Yahweh worship” (Sperling). Such a statement coming from the lips of Joshua must have come across as a rebuke to the family honor—a pointed reminder not to take pride in genealogy as such. The sense that the people are being put in their place is only amplified by the following historical recitation, in which all the acts that saved and preserved the people are predicated of God. The people are beneficiaries, not the authors, of their salvation (Jos 24:3-13).

The location of this ceremony, at Shechem, points to how family history shapes collective identity. The place is laden with the weight of remembered narratives: “Imagine Lexington and Plymouth Rock and Independence Hall all in one” (Hughes). Shechem was the site of the forty acres, so to speak, that the patriarch Jacob had first acquired during the family history in Genesis. On his way from Paddan-Aram, Jacob had purchased “the plot of land on which he had pitched his tent” for “one hundred pieces of money” (Gen 33:18-19). Later, Jacob’s son Joseph, on his way to being captured and sold into slavery by his own brothers, had sought them at Shechem (Gen 37:12-16). At the end of Joseph’s life, when he is about to die in Egypt, he had longed to return home and made “the Israelites” swear “When God comes to you, you shall carry up my bones from here” [i.e. back home to Shechem] (Gen 50:25).

Now, in Joshua, the sentence that comes the very end of this chapter, of the book, and perhaps of the “Hexateuch” itself (see Brekelmans and Römer) is constructed to tie all these threads together: “The bones of Joseph, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem, in the portion of ground that Jacob had bought from the children of Hamor, the father of Shechem, for one hundred pieces of money; it became an inheritance of the descendants of Joseph” (Jos 24:32). It is hard to imagine a more definite way of closing one chapter and beginning another, than literally burying the patriarch’s long-exiled bones in his ancient land. Such a deeply significant connection to a home-land can perhaps only be imagined by such mobile and rootless people as modern Americans, but we probably have to do our best to try, if we want to understand the story here.

Along with the rooted attachment to the old homestead, however, were collective memories of conflict and violence. After Jacob had settled in the area, the tribal leader Shechem himself had raped Jacob’s daughter Dinah, setting off a punitive expedition by her brothers Simeon and Levi, who massacred the Shechemites to avenge her honor (Gen 34). Shechem was where Jacob, foreshadowing Joshua’s same demand, had required of the people that they surrender to him “all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak that was near Shechem” (Gen 35:4). Furthermore, the first listeners or readers of the book of Joshua would know that Shechem was later the place where Abimelech would attempt, with very unhappily bloody results, to establish a monarchy (Jud 9). They would know that the entrance into the promised land by no means indicated the end of conflict and tragedy for the Israelites.

Within the language of the text, what most vividly indicates the identity of the people through time—their identity with their ancestors—is the alternation of “you” with “your ancestors” in the historical recitation.

When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, you came to the sea; and the Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea. When they cried out to the Lord, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians, and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did to Egypt. Afterwards you lived in the wilderness for a long time. (Jos 24:6-7; emphasis added)

Returning to the cultural contrasts with modern Americans, this kind of address might resemble the way that “we” Americans often speak of “our” campaigns, victories and defeats in “our” wars (independence, civil, world). “We” experience the results of these actions of our ancestors even if “we” did not happen to be individually present at the time.

The text assumes that, although first Joshua, and second, the elders, heads, judges and officers, are singled out for having special authority, they can effectively represent the people in the ceremony. A bit later, the people themselves are also recorded as collectively (liturgically?) answering the challenge given to them (Jos 24:16,21). For his part, Joshua, speaking for “me and my house,” acts as a leader by admonition and example, not as a centralized sovereign authority as such (Van Seters). A similar pattern occurs much later, in the New Testament. When individuals such as the textile merchant Lydia or the awed Roman jailer want to be brought into the new covenant, Paul and Silas baptize each of them along with their “household” (oikos; Acts 16:15,31; Woudstra).

The structure of the covenant: In the form of this ceremony, it is remarkable that the structure centers on Joshua’s exhortation of the people to faithfulness (Jos 24:2ff, 19, 22). The now very elderly Joshua demands an affirmative response three times, just as Jesus did to Peter (Lucas). It contrasts with the form in Deuteronomy, where God does all the choosing.

At least on some level, the organization of the text can be mapped onto the classic structure of Hittite suzerainty treaties, with a preamble (v. 2), historical prologue (vv. 2-13), stipulations (vv. 14-15, 16-25), the deposition of a copy in the temple (v. 26), witnesses (vv. 22,27), and (merely implied) curses and blessings (19-20; see Giblin and Howard). However, the central climax of this action (and in fact, of salvation history in general) is the binary choice: to serve the Lord, or not. This choice, with endlessly manifold consequences and significant ramifications, repeatedly confronts every individual and community of believers. The central question is always: whom to worship? (Brekelmans)

The language of the ceremony at Shechem echoes that used on similar occasions elsewhere in the Bible. For example, the people are enjoined to “put away” their foreign Gods (Jos 24:14). The same word, sur, meaning to turn aside, remove, forsake or depart, is used repeatedly of the same demand to put away foreign gods on earlier and later occasions (Gen 35:2, Jud 10:16, 1 Sam 7:3). On other occasions, the fundamental choice for Israel is: abad (to work or serve), or azab (to leave, abandon, or forsake). Over and over again, Israel is warned not to “forsake” God (azab; Deut 28:20; Deut 31:16; Judg 2:12-13; Judg 10:6-10). But they do, with predictably dire results. Happily for Israel and for us, God does not give up on them or us. Although Israel’s dalliances with other gods had begun “beyond the Euphrates” (v. 1), they did not end there, or in Egypt (or in Israel, or in the church, for that matter). Later readers would remember that according to the prophet Ezekiel, the people of Israel had “sold” themselves to foreign gods in Egypt in a manner distressingly akin to prostitution; they had “defiled” themselves and “played the whore” (Ezek 20:7, 23:3; Woudstra).

Joshua (and the Bible) hammer home the point again and again: it is a binary choice. One or the other. God, or not. Of course, we would prefer not to have to make that choice. Wouldn’t it be easier to let everyone pick and choose for themselves as they wish? The problem comes when values and priorities conflict, as they always ultimately do. At the moment of conflict, you have to pick a side. Not choosing is itself a choice. Ultimately the order and structure of your life will reflect what you choose (or inadvertently choose by not-choosing).

Dick Lucas points out that in Joshua’s famous ultimatum, “Choose this day whom you will serve… as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord,” he is addressing those Israelites who may be unwilling to sign up to serve the Lord—letting them know that even so, they still have to make a choice (Jos 24:15). Joshua is pointing out to such people that they can’t wiggle out of a decision as easily as that. Even if they try to avoid God’s claim on them, they will still end up faced with a choice: whether to serve “the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living” (Jos 24:15). Even if you want to avoid the God of the Bible, you will still end up faced with a choice. In parallel, Lucas cites anecdotes from communities in Iran and Israel in which young people are faced with stark choices between tradition and modernity, community and autonomy, in fundamental matters of marriage and lifestyle.

Kent Hughes states that the effect of Joshua’s review of the Lord’s overwhelmingly awe-inspiring acts of salvation is to suggest to the Israelites (and us): What other choice could you possibly make? How could you sanely decline to serve this God who brought you out of Egypt? It’s the only reasonable thing to do! After such stupendous acts by God, what, other than total commitment, could you offer? Hughes makes the comparison to Paul’s plea in Romans: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable (logiken) service” (Rom 12:1 KJV, emphasis added).

In the Shechem ceremony, the demand centers on the binary choice, “rather than on a law code” or “the extensive list of commandments” (Butler). The text does not enumerate the commitments made by the people, beyond choosing whom they will serve. Nevertheless, the fact that Joshua is recorded as writing in “book of the law of God” (sefer torat ha’elohim), a construction which otherwise appears only in Nehemiah, has encouraged interpreters to associate the book of Joshua with the Second Temple period (Jos 24:26; Neh 8:18; Wildenboer). Joshua is also recorded as giving the people “statutes and ordinances” (Jos 24:25). This formula pairs hukkim (statutes, rules, prescriptions) and mishpatim (ordinances, or judgments); the same phrase occurs in Deuteronomy (4:1,45; 6:1). Even as the text focuses our attention on the binary choice, it also acknowledges the legal system that inevitably emerges out of that choice.

Why was it necessary to renew the covenant? In a basic sense, it is necessary to renew covenants because people, like sheep, tend to go astray (Isa 53:6). Ideally, a public ceremony will motivate the participants to stand firm and be strong when they might otherwise waver.[1] John Calvin astutely diagnosed this tendency in his commentary:

For when the Lord brings men under his authority, they are usually willing enough to profess zeal for piety, though they instantly fall away from it. Thus they build without a foundation. This happens because they neither distrust their own weakness so much as they ought, nor consider how difficult it is to bind themselves wholly to the Lord. There is need, therefore, of serious examination, lest we be carried aloft by some giddy movement, and so fail of success in our very first attempts.

[1] In the language of behavioral economics, a “commitment device” is “a means with which to lock yourself into a course of action that you might not otherwise choose but that produces a desired result,” such as a public promise to donate $500 to a despised political opponent if you fail to follow through on your weight-loss commitment. Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt explore such topics in “The Stomach-Surgery Conundrum,” The New York Times (Nov. 18, 2007) and their bestselling book Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (New York: William Morrow, 2005); see as well as


Reference List (by date)

Calvin, John. 1854. Commentaries on Joshua (original 1564), trans. Henry Beveridge. Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society.

Ellicott, Charles John. 1897. An Old Testament Commentary for English Readers. London: Cassell.

Mendenhall, George E. 1954. “Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East.” The Biblical Archaeologist 17:3 (September 1954), pp. 49-76.

Muilenburg, James. 1959. “The Form and Structure of the Covenantal Formulations.” Vetus Testamentum 9:4 (October), pp. 347-365.

Giblin, Charles H. 1964. “Structural Patterns in Jos. 24,1-25.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 26:1 (January), pp. 50-69.

Chester, Ray F. 1966. “Covenant Types.” Restoration Quarterly 9:4, pp. 285-289.

Woudstra, Marten. 1981. The Book of Joshua. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Butler, Trent C. 1983. Joshua. Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 7. Waco: Word Books.

Van Seters, John. 1984. “Joshua 24 and the Problem of Tradition in the Old Testament.” In the Shelter of Elyon: Esasys on Ancient Palestinian Life and Literature in Honor of G. W. Ahlström. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 31. Sheffield: JSOT Press. pp. 139-158.

Hughes, Kent. 1985. “Making a Commitment: Joshua 24:1-15.” Sermon, College Church, Wheaton, Illinois, August 25.

Sperling, S. David. 1987. “Joshua 24 Re-examined.” Hebrew Union College Annual 58, pp. 119-136.

Koopmans, William T. 1990. Joshua 24 as Poetic Narrative. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 93. Sheffield: JSOT Press. Reviews by:

  • A. G. Auld, The Expository Times 102:4 (Jan. 1991), pp. 116-117.
  • J. A[lberto] Soggin, The Journal of Theological Studies 43:2 (Oct. 1992), pp. 555-557.
  • K. Lawson Younger, Jr. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 54:2 (Apr. 1992), pp. 328-329.
  • Diana Edelman, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 52:4 (Oct. 1993), pp. 308-310.
  • R. P. Gordon, Vetus Testamentum 43:4 (Oct. 1993), pp. 571-572.

Brekelmans, C[hris]. 1991. “Joshua xxiv: Its Place and Function.” Supplements to Vetus Testamentum: Congress Volume Leuven 1989, pp. 1-9.

Edelman, Diana. 1991. “Are the Kings of the Amorites ‘Swept Away’ in Joshua XXIV 12?” Vetus Testamentum 41:3 (July), pp. 279-286.

Bugg, Charles B. 1998. “Joshua 24:14-18 – The Choice.” Review and Expositor 95, pp. 280-284.

Howard, David M. 1998. Joshua. New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman and Holman.

Römer, Thomas C. and Marc Z. Brettler. 2000. “Deuteronomy 34 and the Case for a Persian Hexateuch.” Journal of Biblical Literature 119:3, pp. 401-419.

Lucas, Dick. 2001. “Four Great Texts To Treasure: Joshua 24:14-27.” Sermon, St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, London, August 5.

Creach, Jerome F.D. 2003. Joshua. Interpretation Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press.

Arnold, Talitha. 2004. “True Grit (Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25).” The Christian Century (Oct. 23-Nov. 5).

Goldingay, John. 2011. Joshua, Judges and Ruth for Everyone. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Norfleet, Agnes W. 2012. “Between Text and Sermon: Joshua 24:1-28.” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 66:2, pp. 197-199.

Aurelius, Erik. 2014. “Bundestheologie im Alten Testament. Ein Buch von Lothar Perlitt und seine Folgen.” Zeitschrift fuer Theologie und Kirche 111:4 (December), pp. 357-373.

Hess, Richard S. 2015. Joshua. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, vol. 6. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.

Davis, Dale Ralph. 2015. Commentaries on Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel. E4 Group. Kindle E-book.

Wildenboer 2015. Wildenboer, Johan. “Joshua 24: Some Literary and Theological Remarks.” Journal for Semitics 24:2 (2015), pp. 484-502.

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