“Choose You This Day Whom You Will Serve” (Or, The Problem with Christian Wall Art)

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Greg Koukl says that Christians should Never Read a Bible Verse:

If there was one bit of wisdom, one rule of thumb, one single skill I could impart, one useful tip I could leave that would serve you well the rest of your life, what would it be? What is the single most important practical skill I’ve ever learned as a Christian?

Here it is: Never read a Bible verse. That’s right, never read a Bible verse. Instead, always read a paragraph at least. . .

The key to the meaning of any verse comes from the paragraph, not just from the individual words. . . .

It’s the most important practical lesson I’ve ever learned . . . and thing single most important thing I could ever teach you.

Let’s take, for example, Joshua 24:15. It is not uncommon to see inspirational Christian art that quotes the verse as follows:

Choose this day whom you will serve . . .

But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.

The problem, we could say, is with the ellipses: the dots that indicate that something has been left out. In fact, there should be ellipses before “choose this day” as well, since this is halfway through a sentence.

Here is the passage with the complete sentences, starting with verse 14:

[14] Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness.

Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.

[15] And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.

But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.

In context, Joshua has just relayed to the tribes of Israel gathered at Shechem a message from YHWH, their covenant Lord, giving a history lesson of how their forefathers had served other gods until the one true God rescued them out of Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land.

In verse 14, Joshua begins drawing a conclusion from what YHWH has said: positively, they are to fear YHWH, serving him faithfully and sincerely (14a).

Negatively, and conversely, they are to put away the false rival gods that their ancestors served.

Then, in verse 15, Joshua provides an “if-then” clause.

If you Israelites determine that serving YHWH is evil,

then go ahead and make your choice of what kind of gods you’re going to choose: the false gods from the past beyond the River, or the false gods of the Amorites in your current location.

In contrast to this, Joshua says, he and his house are going to serve YHWH.

To recap, then, when Joshua says “choose this day whom you will serve,” he’s not talking about serving YHWH here. He’s speaking rhetorically about what they should do if they have already rejected YHWH—choose which set of pretender gods you want follow.

Now, does this interpretation make a major difference to how a Christian lives his or her life? No. It’s more like “the right doctrine from the wrong text.” The more we quote something like “choose ye this day whom you will serve” out of context, the more it suggests that we have memorized or picked up certain wording but failed to pay attention to or meditate upon the context and flow of how YHWH has revealed his actual words and arguments to his covenant people.

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