“What Should You Do First?”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
At that time Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the people of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, “an altar of uncut stones, upon which no man has wielded an iron tool.” And they offered on it burnt offerings to the Lord and sacrificed peace offerings. And there, in the presence of the people of Israel, he wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written. (Joshua 8.30-32)
This event took place just after the conquest of Jericho and Ai, the first phase of Israel’s military campaign to destroy and displace the inhabitants of the land God had promised to Abraham and his descendants, 500 years before. The very next chapter opens by telling us,
As soon as all the kings who were beyond the Jordan…heard of this, they gathered together as one to fight against Joshua and Israel. (Joshua 9.1-2)
Meanwhile, what were the Israelites doing? Putting their camp into a defensive posture? Drawing up plans of attack against this opposition? Pressing their advantage of surprise, and using that initiative to knock members of this new anti-Israel alliance out of the fight individually, rather than facing them all together? No, they were building altars and offering sacrifices, while their military leader made a copy of the law. Someone might object that there’s nothing in the text to suggest that Joshua was aware the peoples of the land were organizing and preparing to mount a collective defense; on the other hand, any reasonably competent adult would expect that to be the case, and this was far from the first time Joshua had managed troops in battle—he’d led the Israelites’ defense against Amalek in Exodus 17, 40 years before, and the Israelites had just recently conquered the lands to the east of the Jordan, defeating powerful kings to do so. They were not strangers to war. Yet here they were, ignoring the military reality on the ground, and focusing instead on religious matters that probably could have waited until they’d established a more secure position.
And all Israel, sojourner as well as native born, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark before the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded at the first, to bless the people of Israel. (Joshua 8.33)
We’re reminded now a second time that the Israelites were doing these things because Moses had commanded it. Near the end of his life, as he gave one last address to his people, preparing them to enter the Promised Land without him, he told them to do exactly this (De 27). Rather than first conquering the land—a task which ended up taking Israel some five years to complete—and then worry about fulfilling this commandment, Joshua led the entire nation 20 miles out of its way, in hostile territory, in the middle of their war of conquest, to assemble the nation on the hillsides and offer sacrifices to God on their behalf. But that’s not all they did.
And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them. (Joshua 8.34-35)
All of this appears, from a fleshly perspective, to be putting the cart before the horse. But Joshua has seen the truth more clearly. He’s perfectly applied the proverb, “Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house” (Pr 24.27). We might be tempted to paraphrase this, get your priorities straight, but that’s not really the whole point. The idea is that we often confuse our priorities, because we fail to acknowledge the relationship between them. We might think, since we work hard at our jobs in order to both literally and figuratively build our houses, that the house is the the more important of the two. But while we can tolerate a less than optimal living situation, we can’t put up with starving to death because we were too busy sorting out our interior decorating, and missed the proper planting season. We might argue that we can’t work effectively, without a nice place to sleep; but in reality we can’t maintain a nice place to sleep for very long, if we’re unwilling to work.
Joshua certainly understood the relationship between the people’s dedication to God, and their conquest of the land they stood to inherit. He provides an excellent example for us to follow, today. Instead of focusing on the physical and giving whatever was left over to God, he made God the priority, and trusted God to give them the land, as he had promised, regardless of the Gentiles’ opposition. This is the same point Jesus made, when he taught that we should
“not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6.31-33)
What are your priorities? What stands between you and God? Are you putting off dedicating yourself to a life in his service, until you can accomplish something in the physical world? We all have responsibilities, but which is the most important? What should you do first?