Message: Not Conquest but Covenant | Scripture: Joshua 8: 23, 29-35 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
What is the purpose of verses 30-35 in Joshua 8? It’s to remind us that our covenant with God as his people is more important that our conquest “for God” as his people. The point is never to have more things from God, rather it’s always about being, knowing, and fellowshipping with God personally and experiencing that corporately with others. In our passage, the author of Joshua wants to take our eyes directly off of ourselves and our circumstances to turn us back to the one whom it’s all about. When we remember that it’s about our God, he intends to lavish us with his blessing. And we know he will do this because Christ has suffered our curse, poured out his blood on the altar of his cross, and obeyed all the law so that we might know the fullness of his joy and glorify him in our obedience forever. What a gracious God we have—that he might constantly intervene in our lives when we’re distracted to draw us back to himself. Praise him for he is worthy!
- What does the author intend for us to consider when the King of Ai is brought before Joshua/why is it significant that the King of Ai is brought before Joshua?
- What does it mean to be accursed (by God)? Think of instances in the Bible where someone OR something is cursed, what happens to that person/thing?
- Why does God choose to make an example of the king of Ai in this way? What is the significance of his punishment in history/the Bible?
- In what ways do we seek to set our own authority and ambition over the things and events in our lives? Are we often quick to sacrifice/lay down those things we want the most for the sake of our God/our brothers and sisters? Why/why not?
- Why are verses 30-35 here in the Bible? Are they chronologically sequential to the events of Joshua 8:1-29? What things in these verses signal us to the fact that they are/are not?
- If not chronological, what are these verses about? What is the purpose of all of this ceremony in the midst of Israel’s conquest?
- What does it mean to be covenanted with God?
- In what ways do we allow ourselves to be distracted from our covenant relationship with God/with one another? In what ways do we fulfill our covenant obligations to God and to one another? In what ways do you feel we fall short?
- Why is Shechem/the place of Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim important in Israel’s history? What is different about Israel’s current experience in Shechem? What does this experience ultimately point us towards?
- When is the law read to Israel in the timeline of this grand ceremony? Why is it significant that it’s read at this point?
- Why does God obligate us under his law? Are we given the law for ourselves? Why/why not?
- In what way(s) do we need to live out the covenant commands of God more intentionally on a day-to-day basis? Take some time to pray for one another.
Everybody may not remember the exact day that COVID shut America down, but everybody, if you think back, remembers the feeling that came when it did. I remember for Candace and me, we simply felt helpless, defeated, and a little scared, especially because we have a number of family members who work in the healthcare industry and thought that this was the end of the world.
But in the midst of that chaos, roughly 3 months into it, a man named John Krasinski—some of you know him as Jim Halpert from the Office—saw how off-putting the news was every night and how there seemed to be no good news to report. So, he said, “enough’s enough,” and he decided to start his own YouTube news network called “Some Good News” with the singular focus of proclaiming the good things that were happening in the world.
In the midst of all of this suffering—in the midst of all this hurt and panic—he determined that sometimes what people need is a break from the chaotic and to be reminded of simple, satisfying joys. He wanted to pause the narrative so that we might not forget that there are bigger, more wonderful things in the world than COVID-19.
Our passage here at the end of Joshua 8 is some good news for us in the midst of the chaotic. What we get here isn’t chaos but control—not further conquest but the reinstitution of covenant. It’s a pause on the narrative to remind us of our joy. So, let’s read of this joyful encounter between God and his people now—we’ll read verse 23 first, then go down to verse 29 until the end of the chapter. TWoL:
But the king of Ai they took alive [after the battle of Ai], and brought him near to Joshua. Verse 29, And he [Joshua] hanged the king of Ai on a tree until evening. And at sunset Joshua commanded, and they took his body down from the tree and three it at the entrance of the gate of the city and raised over it a great heap of stones, which stands there to this day. At that time, Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the people of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, “an altar of uncut stones, upon which no man has wielded an iron tool.” And they offered on it burnt offerings to the Lord and sacrificed peace offerings. And there, in the presence of the people of Israel, he wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written. And all Israel, sojourner as well as native born, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark before the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded at the first, to bless the people of Israel. And afterward, he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them.
Our proposition this morning is fairly simple: Live as the covenant people of God—holy and pleasing to him. But what I want to do for us from the text this morning is answer “why?” Why are we to live this way? In the chaotic, in the pursuit of all the things that God wants to give us, why must our first priority be God himself? Ultimately, our answer is going to be because he is what it’s all about, but I want to show you how we get there. So, let’s look at our first point now. We are to live as the covenant people of God—holy and pleasing to him:
1) Because you have been spared the gruesome spectacle of God
I wanted to start with verses 23 and 29 this week for multiple reasons. The first is because verse 29 is what we often call a hinge verse—like a hinge on a doorframe. It provides a kind of double function where it closes off one section while simultaneously leading the way into the next. In our case, it closes off the narrative section from Joshua 7 all the way until here in chapter 8, while also providing a sort of introductory event for the things that take place in verses 30-35.
Secondly, I wanted to start with these verses particularly because of what this kind of death means to the people of Israel. On the one hand, the author of Joshua is very intentional in verse 23 to note for us that in the midst of this battle for the city of Ai—the battle where Israel is being handed all of its inhabitants on a silver platter, the only one who is left alive at the end of the war is its king, and he’s left alive for two purposes. The first purpose is so that he might be brought near to Joshua.
Why is this significant? Well, it’s significant because of who Joshua is. Recall with me from last week Joshua’s disposition as he went into this second battle at Ai. He was humbled by remembering Israel’s initial defeat. He was patient to see God’s sovereign hand at work. And he was obedient to participate in God’s bigger picture for the redemption of his people. So, what’s being painted for us here? It’s an image of a humble, sobered, obedient Joshua standing beside the arrogant, self-reliant, blood-thirsty king of Ai, and we’re meant to think, which of these two men are great in God’s eyes—which one of them will prevail?
What’s more is that this is a king standing in front of a leader of a nation that, at this moment, has no human king. Israel is kingless, and that’s an important fact for us because, for those of you who are familiar with Deuteronomy, in chapter 17:14-20, we see God’s instructions for Israel in establishing a king of its own. But what we also learn in that passage is that Israel will ask for a king not because God commands them to have one—God is supposed to be their king, but because they want to be like the nations.
See, right here, God is giving Israel a warning about its future, just like they received with Achan and the punishment for his sin in the Valley of Achor back in Joshua 7. “A king might be in your future, but you’ve got to know what happens when that king misleads you, seeks his own gain, and causes you to sin. You’ve got to know what happens when that king refuses to submit himself to God in his arrogance, bloodlust, and self-reliance.”
Israel, don’t miss this—this image of what a man looks like when God is his king in contrast to this image of what a man looks like when he makes himself a king because the man who is caught in his own hubris, in his own arrogance—who refuses to submit himself to God—this kind of man leads others to ruin—he leads them to slaughter. And he leads them to ruin, verse 29 tells us, because he is accursed by God.
Notice with me the kind of death that this king is given—and this is the second purpose for why he’s initially kept alive. He’s hung upon a tree by Israelites, which tells us that he is judged according to Israelite law, again, as we see in the book of Deuteronomy 21:22-23. Why is he judged under Israelite law? Well, firstly, it’s because this is God’s land given to God’s people, and he has transgressed God’s royal law. But secondly, both Leviticus 18 and Deuteronomy 9 tell us that all of Canaan is under God’s curse because of its wickedness, and the king of Ai is one of these Canaanites. He is accursed, and so he is hung from a tree as one who is under the ultimate judgment of God.
This man’s death is a spectacle of what happens to someone who transgresses the law of God. The references to the book of Deuteronomy regarding this king’s death are numerous. And it’s no mistake that it’s happening here in Joshua 8, nor is it a mistake that it’s happening to a king who comes from outside of Israel. Not only is this king’s death tied directly to the death of Achan—both of whom show what is necessary to satisfy the penalty and guilt of sin, and both of whom represent that all men—Jew and Gentile—stand condemned under the law of God in the land of God—but both accounts are also meant to be as gruesome and horrific as possible. Why is that? Because, as one commentator puts it, “the living God must stoop to such spectacles, else we might never fear sin;” else we might never understand the depth of what’s been done for our sin as those who were accursed.
My son has this board book, entitled Jesus Saves, and the reason why I like this book is because of the way it frames sin. This is what it says, “God is your king. King of who? King of you! God is your king, little one. But wait! You want to be king! King of who? King of you! You want to be king, little one! You want your own way. You grab toys and disobey. You sin against God, little one.” And why I like how this book puts it is because it doesn’t frame sin as something that we do that’s bad against other people. It frames sin as something we want, that is, we desire to replace our one, true King with ourselves. Our sin is, primarily, a heart problem with who God is to us.
But it doesn’t leave it there, the book continues to say this, “You need to be saved. Saved from what? Saved from sin! God wants to save you, little one. God sent his Son. Sent who? Sent his Son, Jesus Christ. God sent Jesus to save you, little one. Jesus died to save you. Save who? Save you! Jesus died to save you, little one.” And after talking about his resurrection, and the need to follow him, on the very last page, it gives us the reason why we are to follow him—not only because he’s come, not only because he’s obeyed, not only because he’s died, and not only because he’s risen, we read these words, “Say yes to Jesus. Yes, Jesus! Because he’s your King! Say yes to King Jesus, little one!”
Let me wrap this section up by reiterating, like this king of Ai, we tend to think that we get to make the rules for ourselves and determine who or what it is we submit our lives to—we think we’re the final say over our own person. But like the king of Ai who, in his arrogance, led his people to slaughter—our own hubris, our own arrogance, leads us to our own slaughter as those accursed.
But in God’s perfect plan, he gives us a King who is from outside of us. One who was not bound by any law, and yet thought not of his own rights, well-being, or ambition, but rather he laid those things aside for those whom he loved. He came in the vulnerability and finitude of human flesh to live as one who was under the law of God. And though he could have done whatever he wanted, being fully God and fully man, he came not to slaughter his people in their rebellion but to live as they couldn’t in total obedience to the law, and at the right time, he was slaughtered on their behalf. He came not to curse but to become the curse and to give his life as a ransom for many by dying upon a tree. He was made the spectacle of our curse and sin, so that we might receive, instead, his righteousness and blessing—so that we might become sons and daughters of the living God.
This is why we can now live as his covenant people—as his covenant children, because his own Son was put to death as our substitute. Our lives are to be holy and pleasing to him because he has accomplished for us the impossible—he has spared us from that gruesome spectacle, which we rightly deserve. And so, as those who have received what we do not deserve, let us hold fast to our confession and endeavour with every opportunity to live in a way that honours our Saviour—as those who belong to the holy God of Israel.
2) Because you have been blessed as the unlikely people of God
As we turn our attention to verses 30-35, I hope you see why it was so essential to cover verses 23 and 29 before these ones because they don’t make sense, on their own, as to why they’re here—as to why God, through Joshua, is having a covenant ceremony in the midst of conquering the land. In fact, when we take the information we’re given in this paragraph, certain questions should arise because of how odd the details are.
Right from the start in verses 30 and 33, we’re told that Joshua and Israel are in Shechem in front of Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. For those of you who are a little rusty in your Middle Eastern geography, Shechem is about 20-25 miles north of Ai. And this is peculiar for a number of reasons. First, there is no mention, after Ai, about any subsequent battles on the way to Shechem, which makes no sense because there are a number of Canaanite cities along the way that need to be conquered. Second, this particular area of Shechem is not mentioned in this book again until chapter 17, and even more strange is that Israel doesn’t actually visit this site again until chapter 24 when Joshua is, funnily enough, reinstituting the covenant. Thirdly, verse 32 mentions the elders and officers and judges of Israel, but there is no mention of judges in Israel in all of Joshua up until this point, and from this point onward, there is no mention of them again until chapters 23 and 24 as we go into the book of Judges. Finally, what’s most peculiar is that after these five verses—after trekking 20-25 miles due north, they, then, trek 20-25 miles back south to take up the events in Gilgal (about 2 miles from Ai), which we read about in chapter 9.
In other words, what I’m contending for you here is that verses 30-35 don’t actually take place after Ai. It’s likely, when I read through this book, that this serves as a summary of things happening in chapter 24 after the land has been mostly occupied by Israel. The sequence of these events is not in chronological order, which begs the question, why, then, are these verses here? What is their purpose? And overwhelmingly—given the evidence—these verses seem to be here not to tell us what happens next historically or chronologically, but to make a theological point. A point that tells us that all of this—all of Joshua and Israel’s striving—it is not just about the land. It is not just about the conquest. It’s about the covenant. It’s about the relationship. It’s about being blessed with knowing and possessing God as his people—as those whom he has saved.
The author does not want us forgetting why this is all taking place. It’s easy to get swept up in Achan’s sinfulness and punishment, in Israel’s first lost at Ai and their subsequent victory, in the tactics of warfare, etc. But at the end of the day, when we wade through all the action, it comes down to God and whether or not his people are willing to follow him as he leads them, love him as he loves them, and trust him as he shows time and again that they can depend upon him. Is Israel willing to give their lives and hearts and strength to God, or do they want to be just like the nations—godless and doomed?
And we know, if left to themselves, they’d choose the latter—they’d choose to be godless and doomed, but God through our author uses these verses and this place in Shechem to remind us of his sovereign will, and his limitless pursuit of his people to sustain them and give them all that he has promised. Some of you may remember Abraham, a nobody from Ur of Chaldees, he was given his initial promise here to be the father of a great nation and to receive this land as an inheritance. He ended up building the first altar in this area to acknowledge his encounter with God and the incredible kindness and grace shown to him.
Then, two generations later, his grandson Jacob ought to have been killed by his brother Esau, but in an unlikely turn of events, God wrestles with Jacob to show him that he will survive the greatest trials, and he leads Esau’s heart not only to spare Jacob but to show him unfathomable kindness, love, and mercy. Jacob ends up building an altar here as a response to his encounter with God and his goodness when he least deserved it.
Then, comes Moses who in Deuteronomy 27 prophesies that Israel will make it to this place once again—the land of Abraham and Jacob by defeating all their enemies despite being in the wilderness for the past 40 years, and despite being enslaved in Egypt for the 400 years before that. Although highly unlikely, Moses knew that God would sustain his people and fulfill his promise. And as a response, they were to build an altar, but this time it wasn’t because of a specific encounter, like Abraham and Jacob, it was to acknowledge that something greater had come. Instead of a single encounter, this altar was to acknowledge God’s abiding presence with them. Not only was he faithful to give a promise and to show up like a thief in the night, but he fulfills the entirety of his promise by showing up in unimaginable ways to give them their hearts desire.
Allow me to make a brief comment about this altar that Joshua builds. It’s to be an altar of uncut stones, one that has not been manipulated by man. And this is important because this altar would have been very distinguishable from all the pagan altars around it in the land. See, pagan altars would have been fashioned in man’s image to look pristine—to gain favour with whichever god it was meant to appease, but this particular altar—this one built by Joshua and Israel—was not to be fashioned by man. It was to be constructed wholly of materials fashioned by God.
In other words, this altar was meant to be symbolic of Israel. As God built these stones, as this altar is made of his materials, and as imperfect as it might look to the nations, it is made adequate and beautiful in God’s sight not because of the pieces, not because of man’s handiwork to put it together, but because of the one to whom it belongs. God is the one who makes Israel worthy. God is the one who makes Israel beautiful—a light to the nations. Man does not earn God’s favour—God dispenses it to those who are undeserving—to the unlikely and desperate sinner. This altar signified that something greater and better than what all the other altars had to offer had come.
You see, the purpose of this altar, the purpose of all of this ceremony in verses 30-33, was not so that the people might bless God, like the pagans did for their gods. No, the author tells us at the end of verse 33 that the purpose of all of this was so that God might bless his people. The point is not the altar. The point is not to signify the success of their conquest. The point is God’s abiding nature with and among his people to covenant with them and fellowship with them forever.
He means to make sure that he is their God, and that they are his people. And as those whom he’s covenanted with, his people are not to forget or squander the blessing—that God is the one who brought them into the land, and God would be the one to keep them in it. It was now theirs, and better yet, God was there with them in the fullness of his pleasure. Something that Israel never had in such quantity throughout its history.
Still, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that something is missing. In Deuteronomy 27, when Moses commands the building of the altar at Mt. Ebal and the giving of the blessing, there is supposed to be, accompanied with these things, the giving of the curse. But no curse is mentioned here in verse 33. Why not? Because this text is meant to make a theological point. Simply said, something better had come. A covenant was made, and the blessing was secured through the atonement of sin in Achan’s blood and the destruction of the curse through the hanging of the king of Ai upon a tree.
How much more, then, should the covenant of Christ mean to us knowing that his own blood has atoned for our penalty and his crucifixion has broken our curse—all so that God might be with us not just in that land but anywhere and everywhere we go? Brothers and sisters, there is no true comparison, for our covenant is much greater and far more satisfying—not because we are greater and not because God finds us more satisfying than the Israelites gathered at Shechem, but because Christ and his cross serve as our greater altar—as the means through which we approach God—as the means through which God makes us beautiful to him—as the means through which we receive his blessing. We who were sinners, the unlikely representatives of God, are made righteous by the blood of his Son and heirs to his eternal throne. We belong to God. We are the blessed of God because Christ suffered the curse of God. Don’t forget the blessing. Don’t squander the gift you’ve been given. Live a holy and pleasing life to him as those whom he’s brought in as his covenant people.
3) Because you have been given all access into the presence of God
As our time comes to a close, what I want you to notice in verses 34 and 35 is the timestamp for when Joshua reads them the law. When does Joshua apply the commandments to the life of Israel? Does their obligation to the law come before the curse is broken? Does their obligation to the law come before they are blessed under God’s covenant? No, the author of Joshua is as clear and precise here as he is anywhere else in his book. It is after atonement is made. It is after the curse has been broken. It is after God has blessed his people, saved them from their own destruction, and brought them to himself. After all is said and done by God for his people, that is when the words of the law are brought before Israel. It’s only after the blessing that responsibility is distributed.
And don’t think that this responsibility or obligation is a means to trap you, as if God brings you in and then enslaves you against your will to him. Why is it that he gives the law? Why is it that after Creation, God commands Adam to care for the land and fill the earth? So that the blessings of God might multiply—so that his glory might go out from sea to sea—so that all might know the fullness of his joy and the pleasure of his presence.
This is why verse 35 exists: “There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them.” When the blessing comes, and the presence of God draws near—God wants everyone to know it—he wants everyone to have access to him because he is what it’s all about. It’s not about the conquest—it’s not about the gifts—it’s about the covenant—it’s about our unhindered access to God as our God, as our greatest treasure, as our purest love.
And what’s better is that he lets us have all of this in the fellowship and rejoicing of other people—with the nations—with the native-born and sojourner alike. God blesses his people so that we can be a blessing to others, and by blessing others, our joy is made complete because we give of ourselves in the same way that he’s given himself to us.
This is why we live holy and pleasing lives, because it brings us not only face-to-face with a God who is holy and pleased in himself, but it brings us face-to-face with those who can now experience God’s goodness and presence through us. And he is telling us in these verses that when we live as he lives—when we live for his glory having received his presence through the death and resurrection of his Son, there is no higher pleasure. There is no greater good. The point is God. The point is being with God. Don’t let the conquest draw you away from the covenant. Don’t let your ambition or your comfort in the world lure you from the presence of your God. Draw near to him by living a holy life—one pleasing in his sight, and, surely, he shall be with you and in you from now and forevermore.