Formations 07.28.2019: I Pledge Allegiance

“Joshua Renewing the Covenant with Israel,” illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company, 1907

Joshua 24:6-16

The American Pledge of Allegiance is a product of the 1890s, written by a young socialist pastor named Francis Bellamy in a time when big business was ushering in an age of materialism and a new wave of immigrants was entering the country from southern and eastern Europe.

Bellamy envisioned school children reciting the pledge as a way to “bring some heart back into the flag” around the time of the 400th anniversary of Columbus landing in the Americas (Hrapsky). The original wording of the pledge stated:

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands—one Nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

The wording was tweaked several times over the years until reaching its current form in 1954, when the phrase “under God” was added in reaction to the rise of communism. Also, up until World War II, the pledge was recited with an arm raised out, palm down, toward the flag. Association of that salute with the Nazis quickly led to the custom of putting one’s hand over one’s heart instead.

Over a hundred years after it was first composed, every American schoolkid still recites the pledge every week if not every day at school. Few Americans realize how unusual this ritual is.

Writer Bonnie Kristian points to conversations on Reddit about what U.S. governance and culture looks like to outsiders. She writes:

The pledge always comes up. “I’d like to offer a European perspective, and maybe explain why our reaction to the pledge ranges from mild discomfort through disgust to outright horror,” begins the top comment in one pledge-specific thread. It’s not about the content of the pledge, like the “under God” clause around which pledge debates in America often revolve. Rather, it’s about “the very idea of having such a thing.” Maybe it’s not actually “creepy or fascist,” the comment allowed, but it sure feels that way if you’re not American.

Even before World War II, not every American was comfortable reciting the pledge. In 1935, a group of Jehovah’s Witness students were expelled from their school in Pennsylvania for refusing to do so. They believed the pledge constituted an act of worship toward something other than God. When they sued, their case went all the way to the Supreme Court—and they won.

To what do you pledge allegiance? To what do you refuse to pledge allegiance? And in either case, Why?

In today’s passage, Joshua gathers the people of Israel at Shechem to renew their covenant relationship with God. He charges them, saying, “Revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness” (v. 14).

The people of Israel face a choice between serving Yahweh or the false gods of Canaan. Nevertheless, Joshua takes his stand: he and his household will serve the Lord.

Chris Hrapsky, “A History of the Pledge of Allegiance,” KARE11.com, 13 Jul 2019 <https://www.kare11.com/article/news/a-history-of-the-pledge-of-allegiance/89-52e6fac9-1e98-4a95-9ad4-d15174743f7d>.

Bonnie Kristian, “The Pledge of Allegiance Is Not Normal,” The Week, 12 Jul 2019 <https://theweek.com/articles/852114/pledge-allegiance-not-normal>.

Discussion

• If you grew up in another country, what was your first impression of the American Pledge of Allegiance?
• If you grew up in the United States, were you aware that reciting such a pledge is virtually unheard of in other democratic countries?
• How can Christians balance proper allegiance both to their country and to God? Is it possible to demonstrate both? Explain.
• It’s easy to claim, “We will serve the Lord.” What challenges do Christians face to serve someone or something else? Why do we compromise with other forces that demand our allegiance?
• What decisions can we make to reinforce our commitment to serve God and God alone?

Reference Shelf

Shechem

In confirmation with the biblical tradition that Shechem entered the Israelite confederation by treaty (Judg 8, 9, Josh 24), no destruction layer was found at the end of the Late Bronze and the beginning of the Iron Age ca. 1200 B.C.E. Of particular importance is the fact that the Late Bronze Age migdal temple continued in use without interruption into the early twelfth century B.C.E., with only additions in the forecourt consisting of an unhewn slab-like altar, and one large and two small mazzaboth (or stelae) nearby. Write had seen in this reused temple the actual “Temple of El-Berith) Judg 9:46; cf. 9:4, “Temple of Baal-berith”), as well as the setting for the well known covenant renewal ceremony of Josh 24. The final destruction of this temple in the mid twelfth century B.C.E., and its subsequent conversion into a granary in the ninth-eight century B.C.E., would then be connected with the rebellion of Abimelech (Judg 9).

William G. Dever, “Shechem,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 817.

The Shechem Covenant

The central event of 24:1-28 is the covenant made by Joshua for the people. The covenant, of course, is one made between Yahweh and the people, although Joshua acts as Yahweh’s agent.

The concept of covenant is basic in biblical thought. The basic idea refers to a binding relationship of mutual obligation and/or commitment between persons or parties. Joshua made statues and ordinances for Israel, which he wrote “in the book of the law of God.” The obligation assumed by Yahweh is set forth in the great story of God’s saving deeds (24:2-13, 16-18).

The Israelites seem to have adapted the treaty covenant to conceptualize their relationship with Yahweh. In this form a strong king would make a treaty with a vassal of lesser power and resources. The king assumed obligation for the protection and welfare of the vassal, sometimes recalling a history of benevolent actions toward the vassal. Stipulations were spelled out for the behavior of the vassal, with special emphasis on loyalty. These treaties were written in two or more copies and carefully preserved. Witnesses were appealed to for the verification and enforcement of the treaty. The witnesses were usually gods who would see that the curses of disobedience and the blessings of obedience would be operative.

In Old Testament contexts, there can be no appeal to other gods. Thus, Joshua sets up a permanent stone under an oak tree in the area of the sanctuary as a witness. Other elements of the treaty covenant form are obvious: the benevolent history; the stipulations; and the intense demand for commitment and loyalty on the part of Israel, who must choose between the gods of their ancestors, the gods of the land in which they are living, and Yahweh. The people must make their choice: “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey” (24:24).

Marvin E. Tate, From Promise to Exile, All the Bible (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1999), 21–22.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

*****

For further resources, subscribe to the Formations Teaching Guide and Commentary. Additionally, the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series is a scholarly but accessible means for enhancing your study of each lesson.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Comment

*