Reading the Book of Joshua

Scott M. Langston  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 41 - Fall 1998


In 1785, Timothy Dwight, future president of Yale University, published a book entitled The Conquest of Canaan, a Poem in Eleven Books. In this work, which actually was written during the American Revolution, Dwight portrayed allegorically the American War for Independence under the guise of the conquering Israelites as they took the land of Canaan. He dedicated his book to George Washington, who he described as “The Saviour of his Country, The Supporter of Freedom, And the Benefactor of Mankind.” No doubt, whenever Dwight referred to Joshua in his poem, he was describing Washington. Dwight’s use of the Israelite conquest of the Promised Land to describe American independence from Great Britain reflected his belief in the righteousness of the new nation’s cause, as well as his hope for the new opportunities promised in the birth of the United States. His choice of Joshua to express such ideas demonstrates how this biblical book helped define the ancient Israelites’ national “identity as the people of God, and to bring hope and reassurance to them throughout their history.

Dwight, therefore, found the book to be a fitting expression of hope for his new nation.

The book of Joshua plays an important role in the over­ all message and history of the Old Testament. Among other things, it chronicles the Israelite conquest of the promised land of Canaan. In doing so, it completes the story that began in Genesis when Abram received the promise that his descendants would be innumerable and would inherit a land chosen by God (Genesis 12:7). It marks the end of an episode in the life of Israel that took hundreds of years to complete. At the same time, it celebrates a new beginning in Israel’s life, for the fulfillment of the divine promises brought with it the responsibilities of nationhood.

One of the primary objectives of the pentateuch is to tell the story of Israel becoming a nation. Starting with an old man whose wife was incapable of having children, Genesis demonstrates the power of God to overcome all obstacles to the fulfillment of divine promises. As the reader turns the pages of the Pentateuch, moving from Abram to Isaac to Jacob and finally to Jacob’s sons, God is portrayed as working out a plan in history that no number of seemingly insurmountable problems could thwart. Yet, by the time the story comes to the end of Deuteronomy, it still remains incomplete. God had indeed blessed Abraham by giving him a multitude of descendants. He had overcome physical obstacles such a bodily weakness (infertility), military power, plans of deception, and hatred, as well as spiritual obstacles including un­belief, wavering faith, and worship of other gods. In spite of these great events, the story stands unfinished; the promise of inheriting a land had not been fulfilled.

As the book of Joshua recounts, still more obstacles faced the Hebrews. Their great leader, Moses, had died, and an untried leader, Joshua, assumed the task of uprooting seven nations that were mightier than the Hebrews (Deuteronomy 7:1, 7). The first half of the book sketches how the Israelites were able to conquer Canaan (Joshua 1-12). After receiving God’s commission to replace Moses (Joshua 1:1-19), Joshua began to organize the people for the crossing of the Jordan River into Canaan. The key to victory depended on the people’s obedience to Yahweh’s law, rather than their skill or might (Joshua 1:6-8). Once they crossed into Canaan, the rite of circumcision was performed on all the males, and the Passover was observed (Joshua 5). Circumcision recalled the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17:4-14), and its performance insured that no one would be excluded from the covenant. In the Passover, God’s salvation in the exodus event was remembered. Not until chapter six does the first conflict with the Canaanites occur.

Relatively speaking, the book of Joshua presents a somewhat abbreviated account of the conquest of the land. An entire chapter is devoted to the destruction of Jericho (Joshua 6), almost two chapters detail the taking of AI (7:1-8:29), another chapter is devoted to the incident with the Gibeonites (Joshua 9), and almost one full chapter describes the defeat of the five kings of the Amorites (Joshua 10:1-37) and the taking of Razor (Joshua 11:1-20). Outside of these five incidents, the process of conquering the land, which took years, is described in short summary statements, with chapter 12 providing a long list of the kings defeated by Joshua and the Hebrews. The overwhelming emphasis in these chapters is on God’s role in bringing the Israelites victory and on the Hebrews’ essential obedience to God which was prerequisite to victory. In the few instances where the Hebrews failed, the defeat was traced to their sinfulness. Yet, in spite of the great successes by the Israelites, the task still was incomplete. At the outset of chapter 13, Joshua was an old man and much of the land remained unconquered.

At chapter 13, the focus of the book shifts. Previously, the book was concerned with detailing how the Hebrews established themselves in Canaan. At the end of chapter 12 the Hebrews were indeed a force to be reckoned with; however, they had not come close to taking the land in its entirety. Rather than continuing the account of the con­ quest, the book of Joshua now focuses on distributing the land among the tribes (Joshua 13-21). The tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh already had received their land, located east of the Jordan River (Deuteronomy 3:12-17), but the remaining tribes still waited for their specific land allotments. On the surface, this division of land seems to suggest that taking it would not be a difficult matter, especially in light of the Hebrews’ previous domination. The author, however, seems to use the land allotment as a contrast between what should have been (the ideal distribution of the tribes throughout the country) and what actually was (the Israelites living side-by-side with the Canaanites). In several instances, references are made to the inability of the Israelites to drive out the Canaanites (13:33; 15:63; 16:10, 17:12-13; 18:3). The ambiguity between the ideal and the actual is furthered by statements indicating that God had given all the land to the Israelites and that not one of their enemies withstood them (18:1; 21:43-45). As this section of the book closes, God’s promise to the patriarchs to give their descendants a land is declared fulfilled (21:43-45). God has given them the land, but the Israelites had not completely driven out the Canaanites.

As the book of Joshua concludes, the three remaining chapters continue the ambiguity that arose in the previous section. In chapter 22, Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh were commended by Joshua for their faithfulness toward the other tribes as demonstrated in their assistance in taking the land. After encouraging them to remain faithful to the commands of God, Joshua sent the 2 1/2 tribes to their inheritance east of the Jordan River. Immediately, they set up an altar near the Jordan that the other tribes interpreted as a forsaking of God, and those tribes prepared to go to war against their brethren. The TransJordanian tribes, however, explained that the altar simply served as a witness that they were a part of the Israelite tribal system and, therefore, were not to be excluded from the worship of Yahweh. Their explanation satisfied the other tribes. This episode raises several questions: Why has it been included in the story of the con­ quest? Did it highlight the commitment of the tribes to the worship of Yahweh? Or was the fear of the 2 ½ tribes legitimate (22:24:-29), thereby foreshadowing the serious divisions among all the tribes?

Some time after this event, Joshua, in the last days of his life, called together all the tribes and admonished them to remain faithful to Yahweh (Joshua 23). While many Canaanites still resided in the promised land, Joshua envisioned the Israelites as an unbeatable force, as long as they remained faithful to the commandments of God. In his final recorded act (Joshua 24), he assembled the tribes at Shechem and challenged them to recommit themselves to Yahweh. Once again, God’s fulfillment of the covenant with the patriarchs, as well as his salvation in the exodus from Egypt were stressed. After renewing the covenant, Joshua dismissed the people to their inheritances. The book records that all Israel served Yahweh “all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the Lord did for Israel” (Joshua 24:31).[1]All Scripture references are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted. This statement, however, is tempered somewhat by the doubt expressed by Joshua that the tribes would indeed remain faithful (24:19-27); based on the experiences recorded in Judges, Joshua’s doubt came to fruition in subsequent generations.

The book of Joshua, therefore, details the Israelite conquest and allotment of the promised land of Canaan. It needs to be read in light of its place in the Israelite historical materials, for it is the end of one era, the story of the patriarchs, and the beginning of a new era: Israel as a nation. In this regard, it is similar to the story of the American Revolution, which concluded the story of the British colonies in the New World and began the account of thirteen states united into a new nation. Yet, while the overall scheme of the book is simple enough to follow, discussion has arisen over several areas. One area deals with the identity of the book’s author.


Who Wrote the Book of Joshua?

This question is an ancient one. As far back as the period of the ancient Jewish rabbis, this subject was discussed. In the English, as well as the Hebrew Bible, the book’s name is the same and may have arisen from the influence of the main character, Joshua.[2]The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), s.v. “Joshua, Book of,” by Robert G. Boling. However this attribution could reflect a belief that Joshua actually wrote the book. In the Talmud, the ancient rabbis concluded that Joshua did indeed write the book of Joshua, as well as the last eight verses of the book of Deuteronomy. The rabbis, however, took note of the fact that Joshua 24:29 recorded the death of Joshua. They then attributed Joshua 24:29-32 to Eleazar; yet, verse 33 recorded his death. So, the rabbis concluded that Phinehas wrote the final verse of the book.[3]Baba Bathra 14b, 15a. Attribution of the book’s authorship to Joshua, therefore, has ancient tradition in its favor.

Other arguments raised in support of Joshua’s authorship revolve around the book’s unity of purpose and the impression of its being an eye-witness account. Since the book deals exclusively with the conquest of Canaan, some have concluded that it could only have been written by one person. This argument, however, points more toward there being only one author, rather than proving that Joshua composed the book. When scholars consider that the book of Joshua appears to have been written by a con­ temporary of the described events, Joshua becomes a serious candidate. Furthermore, Joshua 24:26 indicated that Joshua “wrote these words in the book of the law of God” (the only such statement regarding Joshua’s writing activity). While this statement probably refers specifically to the words of the covenant renewal ceremony, some have argued that it at least indicates that Joshua had some role in authoring the book.[4]H. Freedman, “Joshua,” in Joshua and Judges, ed. A. Cohen, Soncino Books of the Bible (London: Soncino Press, 1961), xiv; B. H. Carroll, The Books of Numbers to Ruth, Interpretation of the English Bible (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1914), 165; The Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1972, s.v. “Joshua, Book of,” by Yohanan Aharoni.

Many scholars, however, remain unconvinced by the previous arguments. While they agree in their denial of Joshua as the book’s author, they do not agree on the identity of the author. The theories are many, and they range from one person writing the entire book to a number of people being involved in the process. This latter idea views the development of the book as a process. R. K. Harrison denied the assertion of the Documentary Hypothesis proponents that the book was composed of material from the J, E, D, and P sources; which suggests that parts of the book were composed as early as the 10th century b.c. and as late as the 6th century b.c.[5]For examples of this approach see J. Alberto Soggin, Joshua, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972), 7-14; John Gray, ed., Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, The Century Bible (Great Britain: Thomas Nelson, 1967), 7-11, 18-37; and John Garstang, Joshua, Judges, The Foundations of Bible History (London: Constable & Co., 1931), 3-10. For a helpful summary of the various posi­tions related to authorship, see Marten H. Woudstra, The Book of Joshua, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1981), 5-18. Yet, Harrison also concluded that the book was probably written around 1045 b.c. and that Samuel may have contributed to its compilation.[6]R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1969), 666-73. C. F. Keil surmised, “The origin of the book of Joshua is involved in obscurity, as we can neither find out its author, nor determine with certainty the date of its composition:” He agreed that the book gives evidence of having been written by an eyewitness, but he also believed that it contains a number of historical statements that suggest the book was written after the time of Joshua.[7]C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, trans. James Martin, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1887), 15-27. See these pages for a fuller discussion of why Keil believed the book was written after the time of Joshua. John Calvin also was among the ranks of those who did not believe that Joshua wrote the book. He began his commentary on the book by writing, “As to the AUTHOR of the Book, it is better to suspend our judgment than to make random assertions. Those who think that it was JOSHUA, because his name stands on the title page, rest on weak and insufficient grounds.” He ultimately thought that the high priest Eleazar probably provided a summary of the events that formed the basis for the book.[8]John Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of Joshua, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1949), xvii-xviii.

What seems apparent about the book’s authorship is that disagreement abounds. What then can we conclude? The Bible does not say that Joshua wrote the book. In fact, it does not indicate who wrote it. In light of its silence on this matter, speculation as to the book’s author remains exactly that-speculation. Calvin seems to have offered the best advice concerning this issue:

Let us not hesitate, therefore to pass over a matter which we are unable to determine, or the knowledge of which is not very necessary, while we are in no doubt as to the essential point­ that the doctrine herein contained was dictated by the Holy Spirit for our use, and confers bene­fits of no ordinary kind on those who attentively peruse it.[9]Ibid.

While it may not satisfy our curiosity to not know the author’s identity, ultimately it does not affect the fact that the book was inspired by God to tell us something about God. This is the heart of the matter and deserves our utmost attention.


What is the Purpose of the Book of Joshua?

As seen from the brief overview of the book Joshua presented at the beginning of this article, the book gives an account of how the Hebrews   conquered Canaan, the land that had been promised them through the patriarchs. This information, however, serves as a plat­ form for a greater purpose. The book of Joshua is not merely an historical recounting of the events of the conquest and the allotment of the land among the tribes. The book has a larger target as its goal. What is that purpose?

Typically, scholars have identified the purpose of the book of Joshua in one of two ways. The first possibility relies upon a time-oriented scheme (historical-contemporary), while the second prefers a theological rendering (theocentric-anthropocentric). With this first reading method, the emphasis falls upon either the meaning of the book in its historical context, or the meaning of the book in a contemporary context. The difference between the historical and contemporary approaches might be illustrated in the way a question concerning purpose is asked. One might ask, “What did the book of Joshua mean to the ancient Israelite community?” Or, the question could be phrased, “What does the book of Joshua mean to the contemporary community of God’s people?” These two approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and are often used in tandem; one method, however, usually dominates.

Examples of interpretations running along the historical-contemporary axis can be found in the works by J. Alberto Soggin, John Gray, Trent Butler, and Brevard Childs. Soggin’s interpretation of Joshua draws heavily upon literary-critical methodology. He assumed that the book of Joshua was a part of the Deuteronomistic History.[10]The Deuteronomistic History is a theory developed by Martin Noth arguing that the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings were written in the mid-sixth century b.c. as a single literary unit. The writer attempted to interpret Israel’s history in light of the theology found in the book of Deuteronomy. Addressing the exiles in Babylon, the writer sought to show that the exile had occurred as a result of the nation’s long his­tory of unfaithfulness to Yahweh. Since Noth’s proposal in 1943, several modifications of the theory have been proposed. The most noteworthy are those that suggest more than one author and those that propose a different theme. Gerhard von Rad tried to show that the idea of grace was present in the Deuteronomistic History, thereby bal­ancing Noth’s emphasis on judgment. For a detailed discussion of this idea, see The Anchor Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Deuteronomistic History,” by Steven L. McKenzie. Using this presupposition, the book of Joshua was understood to demonstrate how the promises to the patriarchs were fulfilled. This was an important point to the sixth century b.c. exiles in Babylon, who were cut off from their ancestral land, for the book emphasized that the promise of land was still intact. The Babylonian exiles, therefore, could live in hope that one day they would be restored; they need not fear that they had forever been cut off as God’s people. While Soggin emphasized this idea in his interpretation, he briefly noted that Joshua’s idea of the “conquest” as the fulfillment of ancient promises could be used in a non-exegetical fashion to foreshadow Jesus.[11]Soggin, 21-22. The major thrust of Soggin’s interpretation, however, was overwhelmingly historical.

John Gray also considered the book of Joshua to be a part of the Deuteronomistic History, and agreed that it has only one central theme. He, however, chose to emphasize the aspect of blessing. Read in light of the blessings and curses found in Deuteronomy 28, the book highlights the idea of God’s blessing in the conquests and establishment of Israel in the land of Canaan. With the book of Judges, however, Israel’s sinfulness becomes dominant.[12]Gray, 8. This interpretation is very different from Soggin’s. From Gray’s standpoint, the book served as a foil to the sinfulness of Israel by highlighting God’s goodness. Soggin, however, saw the book as a source of hope to the beleaguered exiles. In the first instance, God’s role stands out, while in the second, Israel’s situation takes precedence.

Trent Butler also viewed the book of Joshua from the perspective of the Deuteronomistic History, arguing that it was designed to set out a program for life in exile. The Deuteronomist made it clear to his audience that the curses of Deuteronomy had been fulfilled and that Israel had indeed lost the land due to her unfaithfulness. Her only hope resided in renewed commitment and obedience to the covenant and its demands. Then, God would raise up a new leader to bring them back into the land and give them rest from war. Butler added these words of contemporary application:

As the people in exile, the people of God today remain waiting for the promises to be fulfilled. We, too, await the day of rest. As we await the day of rest, we are given to the same program as was Joshua, the program of studying the Word of God to search out its depths and embody them in our lives.[13]Trent C. Butler, Joshua, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word Books, 1983), xxiii-xxvii.

Butler’s interpretation is similar to Soggin’s, in that Israel’s situation and need for hope is given prominence. In other words, the book of Joshua gave hope to the exiles by showing that, in a sense, they held their destiny in their hands. While God was the one who would bring them back into the land, he would not do so until the exiles demonstrated a renewed obedience.

Brevard Childs has stated, “Few would contest the assertion that the main purpose of the book of Joshua was to show the fulfilling of the promises to the fathers regarding the gift of the land (Deuteronomy 30:20).” However, he went on to argue that the book offers a unique interpretation of the possession of the land. Child’s recognized the ambiguity present in the book of Joshua between statements that portray the conquest as a unified effort resulting in total victory for Israel, and statements that present an incomplete conquest carried out by individual or small groups of tribes. He rejected the literary-critical explanation that these accounts represent different sources, and instead chose a canonical explanation.[14]Childs is famous for advancing canonical criticism which basically emphasizes the final form of the text, rather than the constituent parts of the text’s formative stages. While not denying the findings of literary-critical analysis, Childs emphasizes the final canonical shape of the text as determined for interpretation. He contended that those passages presenting a complete conquest were intended to represent an example of obedient Israel. Thus, whenever Israel was obedient, God brought about victory, disobedience, however, resulted in defeat. The two pictures of the conquest, therefore, were not the result of an awkward combination of sources, but were an intentional effort by an editor to portray a theological pattern of obedient and disobedient Israel. In essence, the purpose of the book of Joshua was to set out a pattern by which Israel could find guidance for her future actions. The book of Joshua, as those of all of the Former Prophets, functioned to give Israel a renewed hope for forgiveness. More than an explanation of Israel’s past, the book served as instruction for the future based on the past.[15]Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 236-38, 244-52. Childs, therefore, understood the purpose of the book of Joshua from its historical setting.

By and large, these four interpretations are driven by their commitment to the historical context and situation in which the book of Joshua was written. While in a few instances some reference is made to the modern setting and use of the book, these are brief and secondary to the overall explanation. These four scholars were intent on answering why the book was written in antiquity, how it functioned within that community and, occasionally, how it functions in the community of believers today. This method of reading along the lines of a historical-contemporary axis differs somewhat from the theocentric-anthropocentric grid often used by scholars.

The theocentric-anthropocentric reading of the book of Joshua reflects a difference in emphasis. Was the purpose of the book to make a statement about God (theocentric) or humanity (anthropocentric)? As with the historical-contemporary axis, these two approaches to the purpose of the book are not mutually exclusive, yet one usually pre­dominates. Often a reading of the book will emphasize the book’s attempts to reveal something about God, whereas others will give preeminence to the teachings about humanity. Since the book presents God and humanity in a relationship, the two cannot be separated, but   often one receives greater attention as scholars try to demonstrate what they think the book’s purpose is.

Examples of this kind of reading of the book of Joshua are seen in the works of John Calvin, B. H. Carroll, C. F. Keil, R. K. Harrison, and H. Freedman. The latter two authors emphasized the anthropological aspects of the book, while the former underscored the theological ideas. To Calvin, the book demonstrates the faithfulness of God even in the midst of the Hebrew’s unfaithfulness. In fact, the people’s sinfulness magnified God’s faithfulness. Just as he had promised the patriarchs, God faithfully brought their descendants into possession of the promised land. In essence, Calvin defined God’s faithfulness as God doing what he said he would do, even when the people’s disobedience justified God’s abandoning of his promises. Calvin concluded, “so far was the faithfulness of God from being overthrown, or shaken, or in any way impaired, that we here perceive more clearly how wonderful are His workings, who, in unsearchable wisdom, knows how to bring light out of darkness.”[16]Calvin, xxi-xxii. Calvin, therefore, found the purpose of the book of Joshua in its statements about God.

Similarly, B. H. Carroll identified the purpose of the book with God’s faithfulness and his governing of the nations. By bringing the Hebrews into Canaan and administering judgement through them upon the Canaanites, God displayed his faithful and just governing of the nations, including Israel. Carroll broadened the scope of the book by identifying Joshua as a type of Jesus who gave rest to the people of God through salvation.[17]Carroll, 166, 169. Likewise, Keil understood the book as more than an historical continuation of the story of Israel. Instead, its sole purpose was to show the faithfulness of God.[18]Keil and Delitzsch, 15.

In contrast to those readings putting emphasis on God, some scholars highlight the human aspect of the book. The book of Joshua is often understood to be filled with examples of the way people should live. For example, B. H. Carroll remembered hearing a funeral oration for Texas Governor Sam Houston delivered in 1863 by William Carey Crance, president of Baylor University at Independence. Crane compared Houston to Joshua, emphasizing the brilliant statesmanship and soldierly qualities of both as worthy examples to be imitated. R. K. Harrison turned his attention to the Israelite response to God, while recognizing God’s faithfulness and might. For Harrison, the book of Joshua emphasizes the privileges and responsibilities placed on Israel as the people of God, and in particular, it underscores the need for Israel to obey, in addition to the reality of their disobedience.[19]Carroll, 168; Harrison, 678. In a similar fashion, Freedman identified as the book’s goal the chronicling of the conquest, as well as the conditions for keeping the land. He acknowledged God’s role in giving the land to the Israelites, but he elevated the requirement of obedience to God’s laws as the condition for keeping the land. This view of the book of Joshua led Freedman to conclude that “the purpose of the miracles was not only that all peoples should recognize God’s might, but what was equally important, that Israel should fear Him always.[20]Freedman, xiii-xiv.

Marten Woudstra has offered an insightful critique of the anthropocentric reading. He argued that “as one reads the Former Prophets, including the book of Joshua, a resolute effort should be made to avoid putting mankind in the center.” In his opinion, the use of “Bible stories” sim­ ply as examples to be emulated or avoided ignores the historical context of biblical events. These episodes are often “made into timeless paradigms of moral behavior,” rather than understood as part of God’s self-revelation. While Woudstra was not arguing against an emphasis on moral behavior, he was seeking an understanding of these stories in their role as part of God’s acts of redemption. According to him, “Only when it [morality] is woven into the fabric of redemption and flows from the redemptive work which God accomplishes for his people can morality receive its due.”[21]Woudstra, 4-5. To him, therefore, giving inordinate attention to human aspects distorts the book’s purpose.

This overview of attempts to define the purpose of the book of Joshua demonstrates the diversity of opinion concerning this topic. Admittedly, the categories of historical­ contemporary readings and theocentric-anthropocentric understanding are somewhat artificial. In reality, all interpretations of the book probably have some elements of each type of reading. The distinguishing characteristic, however, reveals itself in the predominant method of reading. To the contemporary community, the text must be made relevant. Thus, a purely historical approach probably will not be satisfying. On the other hand, a contemporary reading that ignores the historical underpinnings of the text, that is, the historical purpose of the text, runs the risk of focusing on the minor points of the text.

In light of these observations, the book of Joshua’s purpose appears to be bound up with its teaching about God. He is the central character of the book’s events rather than Joshua or the Hebrews. Throughout the book, the emphasis falls upon God’s gift of the land to the Hebrews. He overcomes all obstacles and causes something to happen that, humanly speaking, never should have occurred. In military terms, the Hebrews were far inferior to the Canaanites. In spiritual terms, the Hebrews were incapable of meeting the demands of God upon which the possession of the land was contingent. In essence, the nation of Israel existed solely because of God. As a result of this central theme, that God creates and sustains his people, the community discovers the God with whom they have a relationship, as well as how to live in relationship with God.

Reading the book of Joshua in this manner does not interpret its events as an account of the Israelites’ actions and the subsequent response of God. Rather, the book reveals God and then shows how the Israelites responded to him. God is shown to be faithful, gracious, and demanding of his people. The Israelites responded to this God sometimes in obedience and sometimes in disobedience. The book of Joshua presents God and then asks the people how they will respond. The covenant renewal ceremony of Joshua 24 makes this point and serves as a fitting end to the book. After calling the tribes together at Shechem, Joshua went to great lengths to portray God as the gracious creator and sustainer of their community (24:2-13), then Joshua issued his famous challenge to choose whom they would serve (24:14-15). Essentially, the people’s response was based on God’s actions and not the reverse, God’s actions resulting from the people’s response.

Reading the book from a theocentric position also has important implications for the contemporary community of God. On the one hand, it establishes a firm foundation for the community’s actions. While many things can be used to motivate God’s people (guilt, gain, compassion for others, etc.), the book of Joshua presents God as the primary motivating factor. Why should the people follow his commandments? Joshua offers God, the one solely responsible for their existence, as the primary motivation. This reading also can help a community understand that it is not the creation of a human or the product of human effort. Any corporate body made up of God’s people has been created and is sustained by God alone. Having this kind of identity or self-awareness can transform a community and the way it approaches is mission. In other words, the church does not necessarily need more modern-day Joshuas or Calebs. The church has not been created by, nor is sustained by human leaders, even though they play a vital role in the community’s life. The church has not failed because it lacks a Joshua or Caleb, nor has it succeeded because it has a Joshua or Caleb. God is the creating and sustaining force in the life of the church; he is the essential ingredient. With this understanding, the community of believers then chooses how it will act-whether it will move ahead in faith, just as the Israelites did, or if it will forget who has created it and live unfaithfully.

Establishing the purpose of the book of Joshua will have a profound impact on how one understands and applies the book. Thus, it is an important exercise, for it establishes the framework that shapes how individual episodes will be interpreted. Understanding purpose will also keep the interpreter from reading individual events out of context. Identifying the purpose of the book, how­ ever, does not obligate the interpreter to read the entire book from the perspective of a single theme. Many ideas and themes (some would say sub-themes) run throughout the book and ought to be explored. However, these ideas contribute to an overall purpose that influences how one understands the function of a particular event or theme. The idea of the land in the book of Joshua is an example of a major theme that runs throughout the text and deserves a deeper exploration.


The Land in the Book of Joshua

On one level, the land of Canaan is the focus of the book of Joshua. It is the contested area over which the whole narrative revolves. In chapters 1-12, Israel fought for the land, whereas in chapters 13-21, Israel divided up the land. The land is also at the center of the closing chapters. Any analysis of the book of Joshua, therefore, must take into account this obsession with a small plot of ground, measuring roughly 150 miles from north to south and 75 miles from east to west.

Physically, the land of Canaan became the permanent place of settlement for the Israelites. Prior to the con­ quest, they had no place of their own. In Egypt, they were mere slaves and tenants on the land. In Canaan, the Hebrews became a nation in all senses of the term. They now had a permanent place to identify with and could finally establish themselves. This land would provide them with sustenance, while supporting and shaping their physical lives. It was their inheritance, a physical manifestation of their relationship with God. As a result, Chapters 13-19 of Joshua are very important for establishing Israel’s relationship to its inheritance. The act of dividing the land between the tribes established Israel’s possession of it. This possession, in turn, greatly affected the people’s lives as it made them a viable political entity, gave them a means of sustenance, and bestowed upon them a permanent identity.

The land, however, had far greater meaning than its physical traits conveyed. In the biblical text, the land stood for something much more significant. As previously discussed, the book of Joshua makes it clear that the possession of the land fulfilled the promises God had made to the patriarchs (Genesis 12:7; Deuteronomy 34:4; Joshua 1:2-6). As such, the land symbolized the faithfulness of God. Israelites could look at the land and see that God   kept his word; they could trust God to be faithful. Simultaneously, the land was a lesson in God’s graciousness. The overwhelming impression left by the book of Joshua is that God gave them the land. The second verse of the book calls the people to cross “into the land that I am giving you.” Moses was dead and Joshua was now the new leader, but the emphasis fell on God’s role in giving them the land. This idea continues throughout the book. Before the battle of Jericho, God told Joshua, “See, I have handed Jericho over to you” (Joshua 6:1). Prior to the second battle of Ai, God again told Joshua, “See, I have handed over to you the Icing of Ai with his people, his city, and his land” (Joshua 8:1). As the description of the conquest continues, the reader is assured that the Israelites were victorious “because the Lord God of Israel fought for Israel” (Joshua 10:42). Expressions like this dominate the book and show that God was responsible for bringing the Israelites into existence. Without doubt, the land symbolized the graciousness of God.

Canaan also served as a symbol of liberation and freedom to the Israelites. As the Hebrews crossed the Jordan River into Canaan, they then   circumcised   all the males. Not only did this event conform to their covenant obligations (Genesis 17), but Joshua explained the event by saying, “…today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt” (Joshua 5:9). Then, the Israelites observed the Passover and subsequently ate from the produce of the land; the manna that had sustained them throughout their wilderness wanderings ceased (Joshua 5:10-12). The experience of slavery in Egypt was finally behind them; it was the past. Entrance into the land sealed their freedom. Possession of the land, however, was also designed to have meaning for other peoples. When the Israelite spies encountered Rahab in the city of Jericho, she affirmed that God had given the Israelites the land and that “the Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below” (Joshua 2:8-11). After crossing the Jordan River into Canaan, the people were instructed to take twelve stones from the Jordan and construct a monument “so that all peoples of the earth may know that the hand   of the Lord is mighty, and so that you may fear the Lord your God forever” (Joshua 4:24). The land, in possession of the Israelites, served to teach non-Israelites of the might of God and of his lordship over all the earth. It was a statement of God’s greatness.

The land also served as a testing ground for the Israelites’ faithfulness. God had given them the land; now, would they be faithful enough to take the land as God   had commanded? Joshua’s farewell address in chapter 23 makes this point. The key to maintaining this gift of God was bound up with the Israelites’ obedience to the law. Joshua warned that disobedience would result in the cessation of God fighting on their behalf “until you perish from this good land that the Lord your God has given you” (Joshua 23:13). With such importance attached to the land, one can imagine the devastating effects of the Assyrian deportation of the Northern Kingdom in 721 b.c. and the Babylonian exile of the Southern Kingdom in 586 b.c. If the land symbolized God’s faithfulness and graciousness, and, in turn, the Israelites’ freedom, liberation, and response to God, what did it mean to be driven out of the land? What did it say regarding the status of the people of Israel as the people of God? Inversely, what must it have meant to the Hebrews to be restored to the land in 539 b.c. when Cyrus, king of Persia, allowed those taken in the Babylonian exile to return?

While this overview hardly does justice to the land’s importance in the book of Joshua and to the depth of its meaning, hopefully it had demonstrated how the land functions within the book. The land of Canaan and its possession by the Israelites have poignant meaning for this book and for the entire Old Testament. While Canaan and the events surrounding it serve as the backdrop for the book’s statement about God, the land, as well as the other elements in the book, play a subsidiary role to God. The book of Joshua’s purpose, therefore, is to reveal God in his gracious, sustaining relationship with the people and to challenge his people to obedience. As such, today’s community of God, must collectively consider its response to him. Will the church respond by choosing obedience and life? This is the question that confronts each generation and each body of believers.


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