I mentioned in my post about Joshua 1 that, according to Collins, “key points in this [Deuteronomistic History] are marked by speeches. A speech by Joshua in Joshua 1 marks the beginning of the conquest, and another in Joshua 23 marks its conclusion” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.94-95).
That’s pretty much the ground covered in Joshua 23.
Years have passed in peace and, now old, Joshua calls together all the elders. Strangely, he tells them that he has “allotted to you as an inheritance for your tribes those nations that remain, along with all the nations that I have already cut off” (Josh. 23:4). Strange because for all the talk of peace for many years and the end of the conquest, it’s quite clear that there’s plenty of warring left to do if the Israelites are to accomplish their stated goals.
But at least he promises God’s support in the remaining conqueration.
Was Joshua’s task not to take the whole of the land promised to the Israelites? Why did he not finish? It seems like the author(s) was dealing with a conflict between the rhetoric of the story being set down and the reality they lived in.
I also think that the idea of ‘work left to do’ might serve another purpose. In the context of a land half-occupied by Assyrians and soon-to-be overtaken by Babylonians, I can well imagine that the people may have wanted to read: “The Lord your God will push them back before you, and drive them out of your sight; and you shall possess their land, as the Lord your God promised you” (Josh. 23:5).
Assuming that the authors are writing with purpose, Collins writes:
The need for fidelity to “all that is written in the law of Moses” is also emphasized in Joshua 23, the farewell speech of Joshua. Joshua concedes that the Canaanites have not been wiped out and warns against intermarriage with them (23:12-13). The prohibition of intermarriage is found already in Deuteronomy 7 with reference to the seven peoples of the land. It did not necessarily apply to all peoples. Some distinctions between Gentiles were possible. Deuteronomy 23 distinguishes between the Ammonites and Moabites, who may not be admitted to the assemble of the Lord “even to the tenth generation,” and the Edomites and Egyptians, who may be admitted after the third. The thrust of Deuteronomy, however, is to maintain a distinct identity, and this could be threatened by intermarriage with any Gentiles. After the Babylonian exile, moreover, a significant part of the Jewish people lived outside the land of Israel, and the need for boundaries over against the Gentiles became more urgent. In this context, distinctions between Ammonites and Edomites lost its significance and all intermarriage was discouraged. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.106)
Joshua then passes on to a summary of the story so far, starting with Abraham’s entry into Canaan, through Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Jacob going into Egypt, Moses and Aaron leading the people back out, and then fighting loads of people. There’s even a mention of Balaam (though his donkey is, sadly, absent).
The new covenant
As Brant Clements points out, Joshua speaks directly on God’s behalf, tripping only once in Josh. 24:7, where he reverts to the third person.
Mostly, the speech serves to reinforce that all the Israelite victories have been God’s, and that it was God’s hand who guided them through the last couple hundred years of their history. At the end of this, Joshua asks the people not to serve other gods, even if their fathers did. The people agree.
Joshua then reminds them that if they serve other gods, God will “consume you” (Josh. 24:20). The people promise a second time.
Finally, Joshua reminds them that by giving their word they serve as a witness against themselves if they ever backtrack. The people promise a third time.
The implication is that the people had the choice, at this point, between following God or not doing so, that it is this promise that binds them (and not the promises made earlier to Moses). This is reinforced when Joshua finishes my making “a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem” (Josh. 24:25).
I’ve been theorizing throughout this book that Joshua may have once been a prophet/founder figure competing with the Moses-based cult. I don’t think it gets any clearer than it does here, where Joshua appears to go through all the same motions as Moses with no real acknowledgement that it’s been done before (despite the mention of Moses in the historical summary).
He even, after giving the statutes and ordinances, write his own “book of the law of God” (Josh. 24:26).
To memorialise this new covenant, Joshua places a great stone under the oak in the sanctuary at Shechem (Josh. 24:26). The reference to anything being “in the sanctuary” feels rather anachronistic. Apologists online seem mostly to argue that the oak is in the same field as the ark, but it sounds an awful lot like there is an actual sanctuary at Shechem at this point, one where Joshua was known as the covenant-bringer, not Moses.
My study Bible does corroborate that Shechem had some covenant-related importance: “The Canaanite god worshiped at Shechem was called Baal-, or El-Berith, “god of the covenant” (Jg. 9.4,46). The city thus had covenant associations for the Canaanites as well as the Israelites” (p.292).
According to Victor Matthews, this story became important for the later Samaritans:
Instead, they [the Samaritans] declared Mount Gerizim near Shechem to be their place of worship (see Gen 12:6-7 and Josh 24 for events justifying their position). The Samaritans took advantage of Alexander’s political goodwill to construct an alternative temple on Mount Gerizim around 330 B.C. (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.165).
Interestingly, this isn’t the first time that the oak at Shechem is mentioned. In Genesis 35:4, it is where Jacob buries all his household idols at God’s command.
At 110, Joshua dies and is buried on his land at Timnathserah.
Joseph’s bones – which had been brought up out of Egypt – are finally buried at Shechem, on the land that Jacob bought in Gen. 33:18-19.
Eleazar dies and is buried at Gibeah.