Covenant: Israel Makes a Commitment (Joshua 23-24)
The renewal of God’s covenant with Israel concludes the book of Joshua. The high point occurs in the very last chapter, when Joshua inspires the people with a rousing challenge to their commitment to serve God alone. His speech is a model of communication. First he recounts God’s amazing acts on Israel’s behalf in Egypt, the wilderness and the Promised Land. Why then, Joshua asks, are they still carrying idols and false gods with them? Using what today we might call reverse psychology, he challenges them, “If you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15). This gets their attention. “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods” (Josh. 24:16). But Joshua challenges them further. “You cannot serve the Lord,” he tells them, “for he is a holy God” (Josh. 24:19). “If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good” (Josh. 24:20). This brings them to a point of actual decision, and they resolve, “No, we will serve the Lord!” (Josh. 24:21) Let’s put it in writing, Joshua says, and he has the people sign and witness their commitment (Josh. 24:15-27). In more recent times, John Wesley published a covenant renewal service that is widely used today, and many churches have developed their own approaches to renewing the covenant.
When people seem to be wavering in their commitment, leaders can be tempted to minimize the task at hand or mislead people into thinking things will be easier than they actually are. Perhaps there are times when this technique can gain compliance for a while. But as Ronald Heifetz argues in Leadership Without Easy Answers, misleading followers rapidly diminishes a leader’s authority. This is not only because followers eventually discover the deception, but because it prevents them from contributing to solving the group’s challenges. Unless the leader knows the solution to every challenge—an extremely unlikely possibility—solutions will have to come from the creativity and commitment of group members. But if the leader has misled the people about the nature of the challenges, the people cannot contribute to finding a solution. This all but guarantees that the leader will fail. Instead, leaders who are honest with their followers about the difficulty of the challenges have an opportunity to involve their people in creating solutions. Joshua, through his relationship with God, provides an excellent model for leaders seeking to build commitment toward a difficult course of action through honesty and transparency rather than secrecy and false hope.
John Wesley, Covenant Renewal Service (1781). The text, along with modern adaptations, may be found at http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/covenant-service-directions-for-renewing-our-covenant-with-god/.
Ronald Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers, 1 edition (Harvard University Press), 1994.