The people of Israel are now beginning to have many military victories as they enter into the promised land. Things are going so well that the people are now able to start living in the land and prospering. But as Joshua gets up there in years, there is still much more to be done.
Chapters 13-21 all describe the initial land boundaries for the different tribes. This included the specific cities of refuge, those cities where if a man accidentally kills someone he may flee for protection and await trial or the death of the current high priest. The tribe of Levi did not have their land as did the remaining tribes. The Levites were given cities within the various tribal lands so that there were always priests among the people. The priests were of course charged with the sacrificial system, but their other regular duty was that of teaching the people to obey the law of Moses. They would live among the people instead of making the people go to them to one place, like Jerusalem.
The tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manessah (half on one side, half on the other) all took possession of some land on the other side of the Jordan river, which meant some distance between those three and the remaining tribes. There was nothing wrong with taking that land, but all the able-bodied men were required to fight along with their brothers across the river. Now that the majority of the land is conquered, the soldiers from those tribes are given permission to return to their own land and build their lives.
What the ten tribes lost in a visual, they gained in suspicion. The eastern tribes built an altar in their own land, across the river. It appeared to the larger tribes, at least on the surface, that Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manessah were turning into idolaters. A group from the west is sent to get some confirmation about what is taking place. The two-and-a-half tribes assure the other nine-and-a-half that there is no funny business; there are no sacrifices taking place.
Gad, Reuben, and half-Manessah built this altar as a testimony to future generations that they are all a part of the nation of Israel. It is also to remind the larger group of tribes that those who live across the river are brothers, not enemies. We know what that is like within our own families. If we only see each other at weddings and funerals, we lose that intimate knowledge of each other. If the Israelites only see each other at the major festivals, they’re going to basically be strangers. This “witness” altar would at least be a regular visual reminder that the people across the river are compatriots and fellow worshipers of the one, true God.
Joshua, like Moses, then gives a sort of farewell address. He calls the Israelite elders to faithfulness and a firm backbone in leading the people. They’ve entered a new stage of Israelite life. Moses led them out of Egypt, and Joshua led them into the promised land. Now there isn’t going to be a point-man for the nation. They are going to be a group of tribes without centralized leadership. The elders are going to become even more important.
Joshua ends with the covenant renewal at Shechem. As was common, Joshua rehearsed the nation’s history as a reminder of God’s good purposes. Because of God’s faithfulness to the people, Joshua calls on the people to choose faithfulness in return. Of course, no one wants to be seen as a faithless apostate, so everyone says that they will be faithful and true to the Lord.
But this isn’t Joshua’s first rodeo. He tells the people that they are unable to do so in their own power. God is holy and jealous. He does not just throw out pardons and forgiveness wantonly. He is just. But the people affirm their intent, and Joshua tells them that they are witnesses against each other.
Joshua set up a stone as a monument, or a witness, to the covenant that has been renewed. Note, this is not a new covenant between God and Joshua, but a renewal of the Mosaic covenant. Joshua’s death is then recounted. We’re told that as long as Joshua lived, Israel was faithful to God. Eleazar the priest, Aaron’s son, also dies. This means that all of the primary spiritual leadership, everyone that brought the people through the wilderness and into the promised land, has died. The book of Judges picks up immediately where Joshua leaves off. Things are not good.
The term “judge” covers a variety of roles. There is no prophet like Moses, no military leader like Joshua, and no king in Israel. But at times, the people turn faithless and need spiritual leadership to call them to repentance and get them back on track.
There are still people-groups to kick out of Israel. Note that Simeon and Judah are fighting together, because they are living in the same plot of land. Simeon was dissolved as a tribe because of his violence against those who did horrific acts against his sister, Dinah. Nothing happened to the people per se, but the tribe was essentially absorbed into Judah. Levi is not dissolved because they already do not have land of their own, only cities within the other tribes.
Those tribes go up against Canaanites and Perizzites and king Adoni-bezek (Lord of Bezek). It was common practice to cut off body parts essential to warfare, such as thumbs or toes. Try grasping a sword or running without those things! But the tribes have great success. They finally capture Jerusalem for themselves, the future-capital city of Judah.
But not everything is hunky-dory. The threat of faithlessness is all too real. If the people get tired and quit fighting, they will without a doubt assimilate with the pagan people around them. And that is exactly what happens. Manasseh fails to drive out the Canaanites and takes them as slaves. And it wasn’t just one tribe’s problem. Ephraim, Zebulun, Asher, and Naphtali all fail to remove the pagans from the land and so disobey God’s word.
The incident of Pilate killing people in Siloam is not recorded in Scripture, and as far as anyone knows, there is no recollection of it outside of Scripture, either. But the impulse of many Jews was to see people who die a violent death as getting a special punishment for some kind of special sin. This is a common belief among the Jews (and many assume it to be true today). Think back to when some tried to question Jesus about the man born blind; was he born this way because of his own sin or because of his parents’?
Jesus corrects this misguided belief by telling them that they will suffer the same punishment or worse if they live unrepentant lives. The point is not that really bad sin leads to being squashed by a falling tower, but that ultimately all sin is deserving of death. Not all sins are equal, but the wages of all sin is death.
Jesus tells many parables throughout this section. The parable of the barren fig tree is a perfect conclusion to the interaction with the people about the Siloam tower. The parable is a great image of God’s patience leading people to repentance. Remember that the parables are all about the kingdom of God. The mustard seed and the leaven envisage small beginnings but enormous ends. The narrow door is the image of what is necessary for salvation; when asked if there will be many who are saved, Jesus reorients the question by saying that it’s better to focus on repentance than numbers alone. The wedding feast teaches that God’s kingdom is a race to the butler’s pantry, not the front row seats. The great banquet shows God’s patience with Israel, and when rejected by Israel, God’s call to the gentiles.
Chapter 15 tells perhaps his most famous parable, the parable of the prodigal son. But the prodigal son is one of three parables told back-to-back. All three are about things or people that are lost. In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd cares for each and every one his sheep and knows exactly how many he has. In the parable of the lost coin, the woman diligently searches for what is hers. In the parable of the prodigal son, the father absorbs back into himself the cost brought about by both sons. In all three parables, they end with celebrations.
Parables require both comparison and contrast. The parable of the dishonest manager is not a call to live dishonestly but a call to wisdom and discernment. Because you cannot serve (be completely loyal to) both God and money, use your money to serve God.
The rich man and Lazarus is a parable about the eternal state and rewards. Since this parable follows shortly after the parable of the dishonest manager, it should be read in a similar way, especially since money is involved in both. Money has a way of blinding us to eternal realities, and the rich man was too focused on luxury and comfort to notice or care about a poor, dying man at his own doorstep. If we care so little for the things of God, we will continue to care little for the things of God in the age to come. The rich man never repents, even in hell. All he wants is a little relief, not forgiveness.
Later comes the parable of the persistent widow. Again, think about whether we should compare or contrast the parable with the kingdom of God. A certain judge is so bothered by a widow who kept showing up to his courtroom demanding justice that only because of her incessant squawking does he give her what she wants. How much more, then, does God want to bring justice for his children?
After all of these parables involving money, a rich young ruler comes and asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. The young man thinks that he has kept the law perfectly, but at best he has kept it superficially. To keep the spirit of the law, his spirit must be broken, and he must part with the false god of money that he actually serves with his heart.
Throughout this section, Jesus continues to heal many people, from exorcisms to physical ailments. These miraculous healings are always to show God’s power over nature and the spiritual realm.
Jesus also has a lot to say about Jerusalem. Jesus once compares himself to a mother hen trying to gather her brood, but the brood keeps running away. And because of their stubborn, hard hearts, they will not accept him as Lord and Savior until their hearts are made anew.
Luke 17:20-37 is parallel to the Olivet discourse in Matthew 24-25 and Mark 13. To make the comparison of the last days to the days of Noah even clearer, Jesus now compares the last days to the days of Lot in Sodom and Gomorrah. In both of those instances, those who were saved were those who were left behind. Those who were judged for wickedness were those who were taken and destroyed. And like it was with Sodom and Gomorrah, with fire and brimstone, so it will be again at the end of the age, when Christ returns. Just read about the seven seals, bowls, and trumpets of Revelation to see how accurate that is. When the disciples ask where these things will take place at his second coming, he replies, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather” (Luke 17:37). He is simply saying that in the same way you can see vultures circling in the air over a dead animal from a distance, you will see Christ coming. There will be nothing secret about it. It means the same thing as being able to see a lightning strike in the east and in the west at the same time (Matthew 24:27). In fact, in Matthew 24, Jesus says both sayings back-to-back.
Psalm 76: God is to be feared above all others.
Psalm 77: When my strength is gone, God remains powerful.
Psalm 78: God is just, but he never forgets his promises.
Psalm 79: God will never disappoint us.
Psalm 80: Do not forget us, God, even when we fail.