My Jewish neighbor and I went out for coffee the other day and talked about the Torah. As she had been born Catholic, I asked about her 25-year-old conversion to Judaism. In the course of describing the events, she happened to mention that it is the common Jewish practice to deny a Gentile postulant three times before accepting him or her. The rabbis examined my neighbor once, and they said she was not able to become a Jew. She went a second time, and they said no again. On the third petition, the examiners accepted her and never have looked back upon her Gentile origins.
This Jewish practice, hitherto unknown to me, seemed oddly familiar. Isn’t there a place in the Old Testament where a similar “dance” is described? Yes, it is the ratification of the covenant in the time of Joshua (Joshua 24:1-28), and the detail of my Jewish neighbor’s initiation into Judaism supplies a missing piece to a most baffling ritual in Scripture.
The time is about 1400 B.C., and the place is a natural amphitheater situated between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, a perfect setting for a covenant cutting on the brink of full conquest of the Promised Land. Joshua, Moses’ successor, begins by reviewing Israel’s history and God’s faithfulness. It is a lengthy review culminating in the following solemn charge posed to the gathered nation:
“Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness … choose this day whom you will serve. … But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.’”
The people responded:
“Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods. … ’”
This is the right answer, but Joshua gives them a hard time:
“You are not able to serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God. … ”
Thus comes the first denial or rejection. But the people press into their insistence:
“No, but we will serve the LORD.”
It is Joshua’s turn again and he again seems to try to deter them this second time:
“You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD to serve him.”
The congregation again replies (as Joshua hopes):
“We are witnesses. … The LORD our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.”
Joshua is pleased with this three-time pledge and affirmation, and the ceremony concludes:
“So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day. … ”
I now understand that Joshua was not trying to dissuade the Israelites from saying they would obey and serve the Lord. Indeed, he got them to say they would three times! What the leader of the people was doing—who himself had, after all, pledged that he and his house would serve the Lord—was making sure the covenant with the Lord was not entered into lightly. And so with us, God desires our yes be yes and our no be no, and we not only say “Lord, Lord,” but also actually do the will of the Father.
The three-time question of Joshua is not for deterrence and not for the purpose of tripping up the people in presumption. If there is any deterrence going on it is to deter frivolousness. Let us come to the Lord, having counted the cost of discipleship to see if we are ready to affirm as heartily the third time as the first time our obedience unto death.