It will help to look at this chapter in two steps, beginning with Joshua’s summons that appears in 23:1-2a.
It’s important to remember that the book of Joshua refers to a number of other times when Joshua gathered Israel. But the description of this summons indicates that our author considered this assembly far more significant than Joshua’s earlier gatherings.
In the first place, our author mentioned, in 23:1, that Joshua was “old and well advanced in years.” Now, this same expression appears at the beginning of the second division of our book, in 13:1, but here we find the additional note that this was, “a long time afterward.” And along these same lines, in 23:2, Joshua began his speech saying, “I am now old and well advanced in years.” And in verse 14, he even commented, “I am about to go the way of all the earth.” Our author’s emphasis on Joshua’s advanced age indicated that this assembly was one of his final acts as Israel’s leader. Much like people today give special attention to a dying person’s last words, every faithful Israelite in the original audience would have understood that this was a very important event.
In the second place, 23:2 also notes that, “Joshua summoned all Israel, its elders and heads, its judges and officers.” Notice that Joshua didn’t address the high priest or even high-ranking Levites who largely remained separated from the common people of Israel. Rather, he addressed “all Israel” through the kinds of leaders that had frequent contact with the people. It was the responsibility of the “elders and heads … judges and officers” to enforce what Joshua was about to say. So, we see that in this assembly, Joshua raised matters that impacted every Israelite, every day and in every sphere of life.
But what was so important about this assembly? We find the answer to this in the second step of chapter 23, in Joshua’s speech. From verse 2b-16, Joshua warned Israel against violating God’s covenant.
We’ve talked about divine covenants elsewhere in greater detail. But in brief, divine covenants reveal the central administrative policies that God established for his kingdom. We can organize the dynamics of these covenant policies into three main categories: divine benevolence, human loyalty and the consequences of blessings and curses.
When we speak of divine benevolence we have in mind how God’s kindness both initiates and sustains all of his covenants. Human beings have never been able to begin or continue a covenant relationship with God by their own merit or strength. Divine benevolence is always essential. At the same time, divine covenants also raise the expectation of human loyalty as our grateful response to God’s benevolence. Human beings have always been told to offer God their loyal service in the light of what he has done for them. And in the Scriptures, God’s covenants also entail the consequences of blessings and curses. When God’s people are loyal to him and observe his commands, they receive his abundant blessings. But if they are disloyal and reject his commands, they experience his curses.
Now, biblical authors pointed out that these dynamics frequently unfold in ways that are inscrutable to human beings. God’s patience and forgiveness, as well as his severity and judgment, often surprise us because his ways are so far beyond our capacity to understand. But time and again, biblical authors assured us that God is always true to the terms of his covenants and that he administers them with unsurpassed goodness, knowledge and wisdom.
As we’re about to see, Joshua’s speech in chapter 23 refers directly to all three covenant dynamics. But, primarily Joshua emphasized warnings about the curses that would come to Israel for flagrant disloyalty to God.