Cultural ideals and values change over time, even within a cohesive culture. As Joshua reaches the end of his life, he gathers the Israelites one last time to reaffirm their faith and to reinforce their adherence to an insular mono-cultural religion. Of course, the Israelites in the story agree, especially given the choices Joshua rhetorically offers. There are lots of choices when it comes to faith and belief, however, and not all of them are mutually exclusive, either-or decisions.
Now, obviously, we are skimming past some passages in the book of Joshua. For instance, we blew right past the beginning of Joshua 10. Although we can find spiritual value in any story, it didn't seem particularly important to discuss God responding to Joshua's prayer for the sun to stop moving in the sky to give the Israelites an upper hand in battle. It's one of those scenes that makes for great storytelling but cannot be taken as factual truth by anyone who understands basic physical laws. As bizarre as it seems, in modern civilized society, there are people who will fight tooth-and-nail to defend the concept that their god can break physical laws if he wants to, even though no one has ever reliably and verifiably documented such a thing. If it can just be a nice story that the Israelites told their children, then it's harmless.
We also don't need to spend a great deal of time on Joshua 22, in which a group of Israelite soldiers returns home after years of war and sets up a big altar. The rest of the Israelites, accustomed to battle and bloodshed, march over there -- ready for war -- to find out what this altar is all about. It's a testament to how our minds work. When we are convinced that opposition and threats are all around us, we will see enemies to fight everywhere, even in the faces of those close to us. The Israelites are portrayed as a pretty bloodthirsty people in this book. This chapter demonstrates how their single-mindedness about conquering the Other threatened to damage their own society when they ran out of Others to conquer. In the end, they worked it out, and everything was fine because they were willing to listen to one another -- a practice worth emulating in our personal conflicts.
In chapters 23-24, Joshua tells first the leaders and then the whole assembly of Israel that God will continue to good things for them if they continue to be obedient, and that God will do evil things to them if they are disobedient. This is very telling. There is no concept of a devil yet in Israelite culture, there is only their god and other people's gods. Other people's gods were obviously inferior, and their god was mighty and awesome. To that end, the Israelite god was capable of doing good or doing evil. According to Joshua. I'm not just making this up. The God of the Old Testament, at least up until this point, is capable of doing good or evil.
Is this the modern Christian definition of the divine character? Probably not in most people's minds. During a period of captivity, the Jews learned all about an Opposer, and this "Satan" became a part of their mythology. It's convenient to split that capacity for evil away from a god that people are supposed to be able to love and trust. It's hard to completely love or trust someone who has blatantly threatened to obliterate you from the face of the planet if you do something wrong. This perception of God softened and changed over time because people needed something different than the Infallible Supernatural Military Leader and Imposer of Order. People needed something a bit less volatile to believe in.
But this idea still exists, this God who is equally capable of doing great good or doing great evil. It's in the Bible, after all. It even leads to debates about the definitions of good and evil. It's evil for a dictator to commit genocide just because he doesn't like what a group of people is doing, but some people could persuade themselves to think of it as righteous, justified, even good if God were to do exactly the same thing. It's one of the primary reasons that religion and morality have become strange bedfellows. If any act becomes good (righteous, justified, "right") if God is behind it, then God has become amoral -- beyond morality itself. Any definition of good that doesn't contain an exclusion clause for God would seem to create problems for the god some Christians believe in.
Yet, the modern Christian view of God has evolved away from the idea that God is capable of both good and evil. If God approves of something, in their thinking, then it must be good, because God is incapable of evil. This is much like Nixon saying, "When the president does it, that means that it's not illegal." In Joshua's time, there was no ethical confusion. According to the story, their god had done some pretty impressive things when he liked what they were doing, and he had done some pretty horrible things when he didn't like what they were doing. He had proven himself mightier than the gods of all the people the Israelites conquered, to the point of providing for the Israelites the security of homes they didn't build and the abundance of vineyards and orchards they didn't plant. The story-book version of the Israelite god is not someone to whom you can easily say No.
Which brings us to Joshua's last inspirational speech. He leads the Israelites in a reaffirmation of their communal faith. And if they weren't willing to devote themselves to the god that provided so much and threatened so effectively, he commanded them to choose what other deity they were going to serve, the gods of their forefathers or the gods of the surrounding cultures. Not much of a choice. It's the kind of tactic that strategic parents use: "Would you like to clean your room, or would you like for me to take away your video game privileges for a week?" You can defy the logical choice, but there's a cost.
What if there were other choices, though? As far as people or ideals to serve, there are many more choices than what Joshua mentioned in his ritualized reaffirmation ceremony. Some people serve the ideals of patriotism, some people serve money, some people serve their children, some people serve nature, some people serve a particular corporation, some people serve aesthetic beauty, and more. Some people serve more than one thing in a meaningful way. It's worth knowing what you serve, but it isn't necessarily an either-or decision.
It isn't enough to say, "I serve myself," because that's what everyone does when it comes down to it. Did the Israelites have a better choice for self-preservation than to agree with Joshua? It wouldn't have been really self-serving to provoke the wrath of their god. It also isn't enough to say, "I serve God." Which one? The biblical God? There is no such thing. The biblical depiction of God is an inconsistent patchwork that evolved over time as a culture developed. Which version of the biblical God do you serve? Whatever your answer is, you will be defining the divine character based as much on personal beliefs as on biblical depictions. What matters to you about the character of God is based on what matters to you personally.
Joshua's admonition still has some value. You don't have to choose "this day;" there's no pressure. It's worth a little thought, though. What or whom do you serve? It may be more than one thing. What does it mean to serve? Does it mean mindless obedience? Does it mean fear of consequences? Or does it mean heartfelt devotion mixed with autonomy? Do you bring your full self into service, or do you shut down part of who you are in order to serve? Are you trying to serve something that really doesn't matter to you, just because someone said you should? If it didn't matter what other people thought of you, what or whom would you serve?
As for me, I will serve my divine self -- the insight, beauty, and creativity at the core of who I am. Through that deep self, I am awed and inspired by the world around me. Through that deep self, I can trust in my ability to find satisfying solutions to the challenges I face. Through that deep self, I can see the divine character of other people more clearly, and I can think of them and treat them in a way that honors them, that reflects a respect for their capability, even when they are not fully embracing that capability themselves. Through serving my divine self, I can be honest about what matters to me and make clear decisions that contribute to a fulfilling life. And from that deep self I can boldly connect with other people and share life with them.
That service is not easy. I believe things about myself that are not true. I believe lies about other people and about the networks and systems we create. I make decisions out of irrational fear from time to time. I serve my self imperfectly. Just like everyone else. I also forgive myself from that deep well and continue serving, and that brings me delight and satisfaction.
We all serve something. Know what you serve.