November 26th, 2018

God is still the covenant maker, but he calls us his children, not his vassals.

Joshua 24:14-28


Hittite covenants

Today we conclude our study of the book of Joshua. We began with the children of Israel on the east side of the Jordan River, where they had already won significant battles under Moses to occupy what would become the home for two and a half tribes. Moses dies, and God commands Joshua to “be strong and of good courage” while he leads the occupation of the land. The rest of the book describes crossing the Jordan, battle defeats and successes, and the eventual conquest and division of the land.

Last week, with the land and people at rest, we read Joshua 23, where the aging Joshua gathered the leaders at Shiloh (where the tabernacle had been set up[1]) for his farewell address. When we come to Joshua 24, Joshua gathers all the people at Shechem, where they had renewed the Mosaic covenant after crossing the Jordan. Shechem lies in the valley between two hills, forming a natural amphitheater.

In order to understand what happens in chapter 24, I need to tell you a little about the people known as Hittites. This name appears 58 times in the Old Testament, from Genesis to the prophets (including Joshua 24), so it’s important. Until the 19th century, scholars knew nothing of them outside the Bible, and some scholars used this as evidence of the Bible’s unreliability. Then came an astounding series of archaeological discoveries in the 19th and 20th centuries that identified the Hittites as a major player in near Eastern history from the time of Abraham to Joshua.[2] While it’s difficult to reconcile all the biblical evidence with archaeological finds, there is more than enough there to validate the basic story lines.

The Hittites were a superpower in the region just prior to the time when Joshua and the Israelites occupied Canaan.[3] The Hittite empire[4] was centered in modern day Turkey, and one of their greatest kings was Suppiluliuma, without whom the Hittites probably would have faded into history. [5]

The chief rival to the Hittites during this era was Egypt. Suppiluliuma won a series of battles that took land and kingdoms from Egypt, but then died in his prime when some of the Egyptian captives brought the plague with them. His young son, Mursilli II, then took the throne and continued the expansion of the New Hittite kingdom for another 25 years. Mursilli’s grandson is famous for signing the world’s first peace treaty, the Treaty of Kadesh in 1258 B.C. that ended generations of conflict between the Hittites and Egypt.

Why does all this matter to us if we’re studying the Bible? One of the reasons is because Joshua 24 is a striking parallel to the kinds of treaties the Hittites made as they were expanding their control of the region. A German archaeologist found 10,000 clay tablets written by the Hittites, among them various peace treaties. We know that the Hittites would make two kinds of treaties based on whether the takeover was friendly or hostile. If it was a friendly treaty, the two parties would be called “father” and “son.” If hostile, they were “suzerain” and “vassal,” or “lord” and “servant.”

The treaties generally included five basic elements[6]

  • This identifies the suzerain with names and titles. For example, “These are the words of… Muršilis, the great king, the king of the Hatti land, the valiant, the favorite of the Storm-god, the son of Šuppiluliumas, the great king, the king of the Hatti land, the valiant.”
  • Prologue. In this section the suzerain lists all he has done to protect and provide for the vassal. One read: “I, My Majesty, [have taken you], Šaušgamuwa, [by the hand and] have made [you (my)] brother-in-law.”
  • The suzerain lists what the vassal must do – perhaps payment, but always exclusive loyalty: “The tribute which was imposed upon your grandfather and upon your father—they delivered 300 shekels of refined gold of first-class quality by the weights of the land of Hatti—you shall deliver likewise. Do not turn your eyes towards another! Your ancestors paid tribute to Egypt, but you should not pay because Egypt has become an enemy.”
  • The treaty tablet needs to be recorded and read regularly. Another Hittite example: “A duplicate of this tablet has been deposited before the Sun-goddess of Arinna. In the Mitanni land a duplicate has been deposited before Tessub, the lord of the shrine of Kahat. At regular intervals shall they read it in the presence of the king of the Mitanni land.”
  • Hittite witnesses are their gods. One Hittite treaty read, “The Thousand Gods[7] have now been called to assembly (to attest to) this treaty tablet that I have just executed for you. Let them see, hear, and be witnesses thereto—the sun-god of heaven, the sun-goddess of Arinna, the storm-god of heaven.”
  • Blessings and curses. For example, “If Duppi-Tešub [does not keep these] words of the treaty and of the oath, then let these oath gods destroy Duppi-Tešub together with his head, his wife, his son, his grandson, his house, his city, his land and together with his possessions.” There is a corresponding blessing if he keeps the treaty.

Israel’s covenant

This gives us a much better understanding of what happens in Joshua 24.

Preamble (2). “This is what Yahweh, the God of Israel, says.” Joshua doesn’t need to say more. He doesn’t need to brag about “Yahweh the Great or the Valiant.” As we’ve said weekly, the book of Joshua is about God. Every story has been about God, not Joshua. Yahweh is Personal. Elohim is Powerful. God keeps his promises, but he is also holy and judges sin. All the earth is his, but he has claimed this particular land at the center of three continents for his people.

Prologue (2-13). Joshua rehearses their history, in four parts:

  • Abraham: “I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Canaanites and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants.” (3)
  • Exodus: “I sent Moses and Aaron, and I afflicted the Egyptians by what I did there, and I brought you out.” (5)
  • Conquest I: “I brought you to the land of the Amorites who lived easy of the Jordan. They fought against you, but I gave them into your hands.” (8)
  • Conquest II: “I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build.” (13)


Requirements (14-21). This is the part of Joshua 24 that looks like a dialogue, even a negotiation. There’s one word that is key to what Yahweh will require of his people – “serve.” There are other verbs, too – fear, choose, forsake, throw away. But “serve” occurs 13 times in this part of the treaty.

This is not a “friendship” treaty. God is suzerain, and Israel is the vassal. They don’t get to decide what the terms of the covenant are. They must serve the LORD, and him only. This has to be an exclusive relationship. Serving Yahweh means forsaking all other loyalties and throwing away their idols.

Where did these idols come from and why do they still have them? They may be part of the bounty they took from Egypt. Some of those idols had been turned into the golden calf in the desert, but apparently not all. During the conquest they were told to totally destroy some cities, but not all. In their war booty, they had also seized some other idols. Joshua’s telling them to discard them.

What’s different about this treaty, I presume, as opposed to other ancient treaties, is that Joshua gives them a choice. He honors their freedom. “Choose you this day whom you will serve,” he says. “As for me and my house, we will serve Yahweh.” But you have to decide whom you will serve. No one’s going to force you. The people respond, “We too will serve the LORD.”

Document (26). “And Joshua recorded these things in the Book of the Law of God.” “Law” is the Hebrew word “Torah.” For Jews, this doesn’t mean Joshua was adding to the Torah, but this is a reaffirmation of the Mosaic covenant, and this treaty confirms that this day is a renewal of their vows in a new generation.

Witnesses (26). “Then he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of the LORD. ‘See!’ he said to all the people. ‘This stone will be a witness against us. It has heard all the words the LORD has said to us. It will be a witness against you if you are untrue to your God.’”

In the Hittite treaties the witnesses were the gods, represented in some physical way, probably an idol. But these people aren’t to worship or possess idols, so the witness is a large stone. Seven times in Joshua a stone or stones are set up as reminders and witnesses of what God has done. This one is set up near an oak tree that represents the presence of God. “See,” Joshua says, “This stone will be a witness against us.”

Blessings and curses (19-20). “Joshua said to the people, ‘You are not able to serve the LORD. He is a holy God. He is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.’”

Joshua 24 is preparing us for what happens next. I didn’t read this in any commentary, but I see a strong hint of their repeated lapses into idolatry. Joshua keeps saying, “You must serve the LORD and put away your idols.” The people keep responding, “We will serve the LORD.” They don’t answer the second part. It’s rather like an addiction counselor saying, “In order to stay clean, you need to rid your home of every bottle of alcohol and pills.” The addict answers, “I will stay clean.” The counselor says, “No, you can’t do this unless you get rid of your bottles.” The addict says, “I can. I will stay clean.” And no one’s surprised when the bottles are reopened.

This is the sad story of Israel’s covenant. But it’s a setup for the new covenant.

Our covenant

The tempting thing for a preacher is to make our covenant sound like Israel’s. “OK, church. God has protected and provided for you, so you better throw away all your false gods and serve God with faithfulness and obedience or else he’ll withhold your blessings and curse your life.” We can preach this as a message about making and renewing the deal you made with God and having accountability partners as witnesses to make sure you still faithful.

This would be a noble attempt to take the whole Bible seriously – to affirm that the message of Moses and Joshua is the same as that of Jesus and Paul. It’s an attempt to defend the Bible’s unity, but in my view it’s a deep misunderstanding of the Bible. It’s even a betrayal of the Gospel. Joshua’s covenant is not Jesus’ covenant. The book of Hebrews is included in the New Testament to emphatically declare that the New Covenant is better. It’s based on better promises that are not contingent on performance and sacrifices. So let’s look at the New Covenant.

Prelude. The primary connection between the Old and New Covenants is God. Hebrews 13:8 says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” God is no more and no less a God of holiness, justice, and wrath. He is no more and no less of God of mercy, love, and forgiveness. Joshua’s God is our God. He is the one that writes the terms of the covenant. However, Jesus says, “I will no longer call you servants, but friends” (John 15:15). God is still the covenant-maker, but he calls us sons, not vassals.

Preamble. The story of what God has done for us is not about battles and land. All of the New Testament points back to the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. What God has done for us is to become one of us, to live the life we were made to live, die the death we deserved, and rise to give us new life. Thus Hebrews 8:6 says, “The new covenant is established on better promises.”

Requirements. The key requirement of the New Covenant is not “do.” It’s “believe.” Hebrews 10:22 says, “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.”

The degree to which this Gospel message has infiltrated my soul goes on display with how I treat others – that I want them to find this freedom and joy as well, that I forgive and love as I’ve been forgiven, that I want them to stop trusting in the false gods of security and self-absorption preached by our own culture, that I don’t try to coerce or force them any more than God has done so for me, that I am willing to wait and pray and trust God to be at work. That because I have been loved unconditionally by God in the cesspool of my own sin, I work hard for justice and mercy, believing that I am God’s partner in creating a world where beauty, goodness, and kindness are on display even toward those who are not deserving. Thus, my obedience is not so much to law but to love. Obeying God out of gratitude is so much deeper and life-transforming than obeying him out of fear.

Document. I love this part in Hebrews:  “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf.” (Hebrews 6:19-20) Jesus is our “document.” He’s safely in heaven, and there he is our intercessor and advocate.

Witness. Hebrews says our witnesses are those who have gone before us – Old Testament believers like Abraham, Joshua, and David, who lived by faith; New Testament believers who showed the way; others through the centuries who have demonstrated what it means to walk by faith. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2) These witnesses remind us to live out our faith, to let this grace keep changing us.

Blessings and curses. Once again, I have failed as a preacher if I preach on Joshua 24 and threaten you with God’s curse if you start to stumble. The blessing of this new covenant is clear:  “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” (Hebrews 6:19) As for curses, they have fallen on Jesus. But when we choose disobedience, we lose our assurance that we belong to Christ. In a sense, we bring the curses on ourselves. We choose the fear of wondering if our performance is sufficient. “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” (Hebrews 10:26-27)

In some ways Joshua has been tough. It’s a book of war, of judgment, of violence. I’ve often said if they made Joshua into a movie, I wouldn’t want to watch it. But like every part of the Old Testament story, it’s a setup for the grace that is to come. This God is our God, and this covenant is only a shadow of the new covenant which is ours in Christ. The Israelites ratified a covenant based on their ability to keep their promises. They failed miserably.

Starting next Sunday, we enter into the season of Advent, when we remember and rejoice that the New Covenant is based on God’s promises that never fail. Amen.


[1] Joshua 18:1.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hittites#Archaeological_discovery.  This seems to be a fairly well-documented Wikipedia article.

[3]This presumes a 13th century date for Joshua’s conquest.  Some scholars date Joshua in the 15th century.

[4] https://www.ancient.eu/hittite/.

[5] https://www.ancient.eu/Suppiluliuma_I/

[6] http://www.michaelsheiser.com/TheNakedBible/OT%20covenant%20ANE%20covenants%20Pt2.pdf.

[7] The Hittite Pantheon.

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