Theological Themes in the Book of Joshua

Larry M. Taylor  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 41 - Fall 1998


The book of Joshua is not a simple work. John Bright thinks it “presents as complex a literary problem as any book in the Bible.”[1]John Bright, “The Book of Joshua,” in The Interpreter’s Bible, ed. George A. Buttrick (New York: Abingdon Press, 1956), 2:542. The same can be said for its theology. The book is puzzling,[2]J. Maxwell Miller and Gene M. Tucker, “The Book of Joshua,” in The Cambridge Bible Commentary, ed. P. R. Ackroyd (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), 1. and even enigmatic. It demands the finest skills of interpretation the reader can bring to the text.

Joshua is a bridge between the Pentateuch and the corpus of literature that begins with Deuteronomy and extends through 2 Kings. It follows Deuteronomy naturally because it continues in narrative form the essential theology of that book. On the other hand, recent scholarship has come to see the book as belonging to what comes after it as well, the so-called “Former Prophets.” William Morton concludes that Joshua “is the sequel to Deuteronomy and is the first volume in the Deuteronomic history of Israel in Canaan, which begins with the conquest and concludes with the Babylonian exile.”[3]William H. Morton, “Joshua,” in The Broadman Bible Commentary, vol. 2, ed. Clifton J. Allen (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1970), 300.

Just as the book of Acts in the New Testament links the Gospels to the Epistles, so the book of Joshua is a bridge connecting promise to fulfillment, Moses to the new leader, the Pentateuch to the prophets, and the Exodus to the exile. Joshua is a threshold   book concerned with borders. Indeed, the crossing of the Jordan is one of its most significant theological moments.

The modern interpreter of the book of Joshua must be familiar with the work of Martin Noth.[4]Martin Noth, The Deuteronomistic History (Sheffield, England: JOST Press, 1981). It was Noth’s contention that the corpus Deuteronomy-2 Kings was the work of a single editor who wrote in the exile period. Today most scholars have accepted Noth’s understanding, though there have been refinements suggesting more than one author of the Deuteronomistic history.[5]Ibid., Foreword, viii-ix. See also the discussion of G. Ernest Wright in “The Book of Deuteronomy,” The Interpreter’s Bible, 2:316. For an expanded view on Noth’s theory see D. N. Freedman, “The Deuteronomic History,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume (Nashville: Abingdon, 1976), 226.

The theological connection between the book of Joshua and Deuteronomy is apparent. “The theological motifs which characterize Deuteronomy-e.g., covenant and law, the holy war ideal-find further expression in Joshua.”[6]J. M. Miller, “Book of Joshua,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, 493. Gordon Wenham observes that the two books are bound together by certain theological “leitmotifs,” including the holy war of conquest, the distribution of the land, the unity of all Israel, Joshua as Moses’ successor, and the covenant.[7]Gordon J. Wenham, “The Deuteronomic Theology of the Book of Joshua,” Journal of Biblical Literature 90 (1991): 140-41.

The theological connection of the book of Joshua to what follows it in the Deuteronomistic history has been less clear to some interpreters.[8]See J. Gordon McConville, Grace in the End (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), 73, 122. See also Wenham, 148. Martin Noth insisted that the entire corpus from Deuteronomy to 2 Kings gives evidence of a unified editorial view point. It was the perspective of this supposed editor that God was at work in the history of Israel to warn and to punish the nation for   its  moral and spiritual decline. He perceived a just retribution in the history of Israel which finally emanated in the Hebrew’s exile and the loss of their land. The Deuteronomic historian emphasized this great unifying theme of retribution in connection with numerous specific details in the various books comprising his history. This editor came to his work with a definite theological conviction.[9]Noth, 89.

It is the perspective of this article that Noth was essentially correct. John Bright asserts that “Joshua stands…as a part of a great literary complex, Deuteronomy through Kings. It is one section of a monumental history of Israel from Moses to the Exile, written clearly from the view point of the Deuteronomic law.”[10]Bright, 542. This means that our version of Joshua “stems from the Babylonian exile, more than five hundred years after the events which it reports.”[11]Miller and Tucker, 11.

A close reading of Joshua seems to yield two dominant theological ideas: the land as God’s promise and gift to Israel, and the divine retribution which insisted that only while Israel was obedient to God’s commands would it prosper in the land. The Deuteronomic historian/theologian bound his great work together with these ideas. Since Israel could only claim the land as gift, the land could also be lost. The exile verified this possibility of loss. “Even when the land was lost during the exile, the theology of the land became the fundamental theological theme.”[12]Horst Dietrich Preuss, Old Testament Theology, vol. 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1991), 127.


Presuppositions and Themes

If we read Joshua Janus-like, looking back to Deuteronomy and forward to the rest of Deuteronomic history, we would expect to find continuities in theological themes. Within the book of Joshua itself, the language and thought of Deuteronomy appear over and over. But the book of Joshua is an advance beyond Deuteronomy, developing new themes by presupposing   certain foundational ideas on which it builds. Deuteronomy opens a dialogue or sets up a theological continuum in which the history unfolds.

The book of Joshua shares with the rest of Deuteronomic history this tendency to make certain presuppositions so it can proceed without reciting what is assumed. Noth notices this tendency and comments that the Deuteronomic historian:

focuses his attention upon specific theological presuppositions to which he alludes only occasionally in his narrative and which he does not articulate or expand as a whole; clearly, he expect the reader to be familiar with them.[13]Noth, 89.

Noth goes on to mention such theological concepts as the election of Israel as a chosen people and the covenant as defined in the law which governed God’s relationship with his people.[14]Ibid., See also Wright, 326-28.

Trent Butler is helpful in identifying themes in Joshua which locate it firmly within the Deuteronomistic tradition. These themes are found in the passages in Joshua which can be recognized as theological interpretations (1:1-8; 8:30-35; 11:23; 13:1-7; 21:43-45; 22:1-6; 23:1-16; 24:1-28). Butler names four major categories which contain these themes: the land, the leadership, the law, and the Lord.[15]Trent C. Butler, “Joshua,” in Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, Inc., 1983), XXV. As will shortly be seen, these themes are all prominent in chapter one of Joshua.

It seems reasonably clear, however, that two theological ideas rise above all others in the book of Joshua: the land as the unique possession of Israel because of God’s gift to them and the principle of divine retribution whereby God insists on Israel’s loyalty. These will receive special attention in the pages that follow.


Prologue to Joshua: Chapter One

The importance of Joshua chapter one can hardly be overstated. Leslie Hoppe observes that this chapter has a structure similar to the book of Deuteronomy. In the first chapter of Joshua, four verses (1, 10, 12, 16a) provide the narrative framework for four speeches which comprise the heart of the chapter: the Lord’s speech to Joshua (vv. 1-9), Joshua’s speech to his officers (vv. 10-11), Joshua’s speech to the Transjordan tribes (vv. 12-15), and the tribe’s reply (vv. 16-18). This chapter introduces the theological perspective from which the book will be interpreted.[16]Leslie Hoppe, “Joshua, Judges with an Excursus on Charismatic Leadership in Israel,” in Old Testament Message, vol. 5 (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1982), 25.

Chapter one is the transition between Deuteronomy and Joshua. The first nine verses set the theological tone for chapters 1-12. It is evident that Joshua 1-9 is a piece of Deuteronomic literature composed specifically to introduce this second volume in the Deuteronomic history. The section is Deuteronomic in its vocabulary, its literary connection, and it theological motifs. Repetition under­ lines theological ideas, key words frequently reoccur. Since Moses is dead, the promise of the land can now be fulfilled. Victory is promised repeatedly but must be won by human action and obedience.[17]Butler, 8-9.

The reader of the prologue cannot miss the frequent occurrence of the four themes of Joshua suggested by Butler: land, leadership, law, and Lord. Land is mentioned in the prologue eight times, Moses the servant of the Lord as the model leader five times, the law twice, and the Lord is the speaker in 1:2-9.


The Land: God’s Gift

Almost everyone concurs that the cluster of ideas that center on the land constitutes the single most significant theological motif in Joshua. Brevard Childs says the concrete possession of the land remained of fundamental importance in the entire Old Testament. The “history of Israel’s encounter with the land through promise, conquest, expansion, exile and restoration formed the center of continual struggle to comprehend its theological significance.”[18]Brevard S. Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 243. Trent Butler notes that the land given by God is central to the thought of the entire book: “The promise to the fathers is realized; the punishment of the inhabitants carried through; the hope of the Pentateuch fulfilled; the inheritance from Yahweh is received.”[19]Butler, 11. No one has written on the theological significance of the land as beautifully and persuasively as Walter Brueggemann. He sees the land as a central, if not the central, theme of biblical faith. The faith of Israel was a journey into and out of land.[20]Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 3, 14.

The book of Joshua is fundamentally about land and place. Nowhere is the “bridge” function of the book more evident. Norman Gottwald points out that it was the urgency of the “land question” at the time of the exile that prompted the Deuteronomic historians to make his massive appeal to the past.[21]Norman K. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979), 146-47.

The land as theological theme in Joshua is broad and complex, and it will be discussed here under four   rubrics: (1) the land as promise; (2) the land as gift; (3) crossing into the land; and (4) conquest on the land. But these ideas are not separated in the text. There is no true separation, for instance, between the land as promise and the land as gift.

Gottwald called attention to the change in mode   of address between Deuteronomy and Joshua. Deuteronomy is mostly hortatory, while Joshua is primarily narrative.[22]Ibid., 146. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of the references to God’s promise of land occur precisely in the hortatory sections of Joshua, chapters one and twenty-three (1:3; 23:10, 14, 15). These two chapters serve as a kind of frame to the book, with opening and closing speeches that recall the themes from Deuteronomy.[23]L. Daniel Hawk, Every Promise Fulfilled: Contesting Plots in Joshua (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 128. It is God’s promise of the land that binds the book of Joshua to its predecessor within the Deuteronomic history. “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).”[24]Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fotress Press, 1979), 244.

A critical issue concerns the relation between “the promise of God” and “obedience as the only way Israel can claim the promise.” Ambiguity seems to prevail. In chapter one, for instance, promise precedes the word of exhortation (Joshua 1:3, 6). God will be true to his word and Joshua is only called to be trusting. No connection is made between the land and the effects of disobedience, as is common in Deuteronomy (e.g., 8:19-20).[25]Terence E. Fretheim, Deuteronomic History (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983), 55-56.

On the other hand, in Joshua’s farewell in chapter twenty-three, the book emphasizes the conditional nature of the promise. Fulfillment has not yet been experienced and still depends on Israel’s faithfulness to God (23:12-13). This tension is part of the larger ambiguity in the book. The narrator obviously wants to present a tidy story of an obedient Israel living with no rivals in the promised land. Yet all through the narrative there are instances of disobedience and compromise. The stories of Rahab (chapter two), Achan (chapter seven), and the Gibeonites (chapter nine) all argue against Israel’s fidelity to God. The result is a story that resists itself.[26]Hawk, 130, 144.

The land as gift is assumed everywhere in Joshua. The reader of this book must keep in mind that, to a great extent, the book of Joshua shares the theology of Deuteronomy, meaning the whole literary continuum which reaches from Deuteronomy to 2 Kings. The land as the gift of God to Israel is a basic assumption of this theological literature. The notions of gift land and people under gift are rare ideas. Israel came back to this idea time and time again because it was almost too good to be true, and Israel herself could hardly believe it. There was no analogy to the reality of a gift land to which Israel could compare her national experience.[27]Brueggemann, 50. In fact, the notion of land as gift is central to Joshua and to the Deuteronomic theology. The gift of Yahweh is the theological concept of how Israel was able to take the land. It is clear that Israel falls heir to an inheritance including cities she did not build and vineyards she did not plant.[28]Patrick D. Miller, Jr., “The Gift of God: The Deuteronomic Theology of the Land,” Interpretation 23 (1969): 456.

The spy tale in Joshua 2 emphasizes the gift of land to Israel from Yahweh by disclosing how fear struck in the hearts of the inhabitants. Already in chapter one, the land as gift and God’s giving of the land have been mentioned seven times (Joshua 1:2, 3, 6, 11, 13, 15). When Rahab hides the spies in her house she confesses to them that she is aware that God has “given” Israel the land (Joshua 2:9). This motif is repeated later in Joshua 2:24 when the spies report to Joshua. Thus the gift of the land is symbolized by the recurring theme of fear in the hearts of the Canaanites (2:9) so that the inhabitants of the land “melt away” before Israel.[29]George B. Coats, “An Exposition for the Conquest Theme,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 47 (1985): 50-51.

Israel understood that the land and all the good things that came from it were received as a gift from Yahweh. Even after centuries in the land, Israel still had no claim on it. The land was bound to God’s promise and also to God’s commands. This binding of gift to obedience set the stage for the strong retributive theme in Joshua (1:18; 23:12-13, 15-16). Yahweh offers his people a clear alter­ native: “maintain loyalty to God and the covenant, and live; go astray after other gods, and perish off the land.”[30]Bright, 548. The Deuteronomic historian perceived a just, divine retribution in the history of Israel which he sees as the unifying factor in the course of events that result finally in the exile.[31]Noth 89, 97. See also Moshe Weinfeld, Deutronomy and the Deuteronomic School (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), 3-4.

Noth believed that the Deuteronomic history was written in the middle of the sixth century B.C. when the history of the people of Israel was at an end. The historian had the theological vantage point of the end of time for his people. His attitude was shaped by the view that once Israel was situated in the land of Canaan, it slowly and surely brought its own downfall as the result of repeated apostasy. The Deuteronomic historian consistently developed the idea of Israel’s intensifying decline. The warnings issued by Moses (Deuteronomy 4:26ff) and Joshua (Joshua 23:15-16) appear to the historian to be fully justified by Israel’s subsequent history.[32]Noth, 79-80.

In Joshua 23 the Deuteronomic historian recorded Joshua’s long speech at the end of the occupation story. The speech looks back to the conquest events now at an end. It then looks forward in warning, and “culminates in a threat of retribution.” Noth writes, “It cannot be accidental that this threat resembles in meaning and wording the threat at the end of that part of Moses’ great speech composed by Dtr. (Deuteronomy 4:25-28, esp. v. 26).”[33]Ibid., 40.

Hoppe observes that the basic assumption of Deuteronomic theology is that obedience always results in benefit to Israel. When Israel attacked Jericho, the tribes did exactly what Yahweh had commanded. Complete victory followed, and the theological perspective of the historian is documented: obedience brings blessing. Later, when Israel found herself in exile, this text of Joshua became a timeless illustration that obedience was the way Israel had obtained her land in the first place, and was the only way she could ever regain it.[34]Hoppe, 47–48.

The actual crossing of Israel over Jordan and into the gift land of promise occupies two chapters in Joshua (3-4). The event is theologically significant for numerous reasons. Looking to the past, the passage through water on dry ground connected this moment at the Jordan to the Exodus. The ark of the covenant was exalted as the symbol of the presence of Yahweh. This expands the meaning of the crossing and reaches back into Israel’s his­tory to connect present with past.[35]Hawk, 29-30. See also Butler, 44-46. The crossing of the Jordan was the closure of something.

The crossing of Jordan is also significant because it marks the opening of something new. It can be variously expressed. Hawk says:

The crossing itself is an event highly symbolic of Israel’s transformation from a disordered to an ordered people. The narration of the event has a mythic quality…. By crossing the Jordan, Israel moves from wilderness-the place of chaos- to the promised land-the place of order.[36]Hawk, 95.

Brueggemann describes this moment in Israel’s history as the boundary event between two histories. “The first history is one of landlessness on the way to the land….The second history is the history on the other side of the Jordan. It is the history of landed Israel in the process of losing the land.”[37]Brueggemann, 71-72. For Brueggemann “the Jordan is the boundary between the precariousness of the wilderness and the confidence of at-home-ness …. The Jordan crossing represents the moment of the empowerment of enlandment, the decisive event of being turfed and at home for the first time.”[38]Ibid., 45.

Butler says chapters 3-4 of Joshua contain duplications leading to the suspicion of two duplicate sources blended together by the narrator. The first narrative focuses on the ark of the covenant and serves catechetical purposes for reminding the people of the good results that followed obedience. The second narrative is cultic in nature and functions as cultic teachings or proclamation.[39]Butler, 41-43.

Brueggemann makes much of the teaching function of the narrative in Joshua chapter four. He calls attention to 4:21-22: “When your children ask their fathers in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean? ‘ then you shall let your children know…” (R.S.V.). Noting the similarity between this question and the questions found in other places (Exodus 12:26; 13:8, 14; Deuteronomy 6:20-21; and Joshua 4:6), Brueggemann sees the verses as the beginning of concern for the educational process. The event of crossing the Jordan represents a teachable moment. It is marked by ritual and connected to boundary crossing into the new land of promise and gift.[40]Walter Brueggemann, Tbe Creative Word: Canon as a Model for Biblical Education (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 14-18.

The lesson of crossing the Jordan into the new land was not lost on later generations. That lesson took the precise form of the retributive principle which the Deuteronomic historian frequently repeated and documented from various historical events in Israel’s history. Later generations applied this lesson to their own time. “If God gave his people the land once, he could do it again, if the people had leaders and obedience as in the day of Joshua.”[41]Butler, 51.

There can be little doubt that the leadership theme 1s a very significant theological idea in the book of Joshua. It is seen first in chapter one and is pursued and refined in subsequent chapters. The role of Moses as leader serves as the model for leadership. Moses is mentioned eleven times in chapter one. Five times he is called the “servant of the Lord.” Moses is acknowledged for his role as mediator of God’s promises, of the law, and of the instructions for possessing the land. Here again is seen the close connection of all the major themes of the book-land, leadership, law, and Lord. Joshua assumes all of Moses’ roles, but Moses remains the primary figure.[42]Fretheim, 58. See Hoppe, 59, for a somewhat different view of Joshua. Moses is the servant of the Lord, but Joshua is “the son of Nun, Moses’ minister” (Joshua 1:1). Not until Joshua 24:29, after the land is conquered, the law is obeyed, and the final speeches have been made, does Joshua finally become “the servant of the Lord.”

D. J. McCarthy relates Joshua’s role in the book to the holy war theology of the conquest. Joshua becomes the human instrument through which God continues Moses’ work. The taking of the land and the figure of Joshua are virtually inseparable. McCarthy concludes, “This is a theology of legitimate leadership, and the problem of leadership is one which will confront the deuteronomistic historian throughout his story.”[43]D. J. McCarthy, “The Theology of Leadership in Joshua 1-9,” Biblica 52 (1971): 175.

Perhaps at no point in Joshua is the theological line more ambiguous than in the conquest itself. The conquest account opens in Joshua 5:13-15. In a theophany Joshua meets the “commander of the army of the Lord.” Apparently the account is intended to parallel Moses’ burning bush encounter with Yahweh. The scene is intended to introduce the conquest theme at the edge of Jericho because the mood established is clearly militaristic.[44]Coats, 50. Childs notes that the image of God a divine warrior extends throughout the Old Testament.[45]Childs, Old Testament Theology, 185. Hawk finds this figure of the commander to be disturbing, and says that a man with drawn sword is an ominous and threatening apparition. He can see no positive image in this figure.[46]Hawk, 22-23, 41–42. Wenham sees the theological significance of the commander as the assurance that Yahweh directs the war. Since God is fighting for it, Israel can trust and be confident.[47]Wenham, 141.

This seems to be the theological meaning of the conquest. Unless God fights for Israel there can be no victory. But clarity ends there. No doubt the editor of the Deuteronomic history wanted to state that the entire land of Canaan was conquered swiftly and completely by a unified Israel under its great leader Joshua. But even in the text this view is not consistently supported. A gradual possession of the land seems to be the position of Judges 1:1-2, 5. “Even within the book of Joshua there are hints that the Deuteronomic presentation of the Conquest is more ideal than historically accurate.”[48]J. M. Miller, Interpreter’s, 495.

Brevard Childs sees this conflict in the conquest accounts as deliberate. It is not the result of two variant traditions, but represents the unique theological perspective of the Deuteronomic editor. This editor shaped the traditions available to him in such a way as to make the theological point that the period of Joshua was a paradigm of an obedient Israel.[49]Childs, Introduction, 249.

All of this seems to suggest that we have an account of the conquest in Joshua that is not so much historical in   the modern sense of historiography (the chronicle of literal events), but is an idealized account-a story to make a theological point: God fought for Israel, and that is the only way Israel possessed the land. McConville refers to “the hyperbole typical of all ancient conquest accounts.”[50]McConville, 95. David Impastato, in Upholding Mystery (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), xxii, speaks of “the postmodern notion of history as a web of narratives floating rather free of historical fact…since for most Christians the ‘inspira­tion’ of scripture is what gives it authority, not the precise historical status of its narra­tive referents.”

Appeal is often made to archeology to help tip the balance one way or the other in supporting the details in the Joshua account. Bright says the archeological evidence for a terrific assault upon Palestine in the thirteenth century is strong.[51]Bright, 547. However, the evidence is somewhat unsettled. Jericho and Ai are problematic, and “for the present it is necessary to suspend judgement.”[52]John Bright, A History of Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959), 118-19. Butler quotes W. F. Albright to the effect that the results of the Palestine excavations are ambiguous and sometimes apparently in conflict, but he believes the balance of the archeological evidence favors the Joshua account.[53]Butler, xi, xxxvi.

Theologically, archeology can never settle the point, it is a valuable but limited tool. The lesson from the book of Joshua concerning the conquest seems to be that God delivered the land to Israel. Israel’s possession of the land is inexplicable apart from the intervention of God. Written from the viewpoint of the exile, the book of Joshua would speak to a later generation about the faithfulness of Yahweh who gives· the land to his people when they obey his commands.[54]Wenham, 142.


Divine Retribution: Israel’s Loyalty Required

A full article elsewhere in this issue deals with holy war, so only modest attention will be given to it here. J. M. Miller contends that the holy war ideal should be attributed to cultic influences. It plays a major role in the Deuteronomic theology, but it was also present as a major part of the Joshua narratives in their pre­-Deuteronomic stage. The intention of the narrator in the Jericho account was to show the incident as a divine victory rather than the result of human endeavor. “Israel’s only responsibilities in the affair were to perform the proper rituals and to maintain the holy war regulations.”[55]J. M. Miller, 494.

The impression left in the holy-war accounts by the Deuteronomic author is that Israel herself was virtually passive in the conquest. It was Yahweh who did the fighting. This would have been a welcome message to the exiles centuries later because they had no choice but to be passive. The book of Joshua’s holy-war stories would assure the exiles that if they were ever to return to the land it would once again require an act of God.[56]Hoppe, 32.

The Deuteronomic historian never wavered from his point that obedience to Yahweh leads to success and victory for Israel. Disobedience results in defeat and frustration. “After God has given his instructions to Joshua, Joshua obeys; then he instructs the people, and they obey. The pattern of divine command-obedience of the people is central in the holy-war stories.”[57]Wenham, 141.

Gordon Wenham correctly asserts that this theme of obedience is illustrated by the holy-war accounts, but is much broader. “We have seen how the principle of strict obedience to the command of Yahweh forms a leitmotif of the holy war stories. However, it is not confined to them. It runs through the whole book.”[58]Ibid., 142.

How is the modern interpreter to explain this aspect of the book of Joshua? It is morally repulsive to the modern consciousness that God would order the bloody wholesale destruction of populations as indicated in Joshua. Alicia Ostriker, in her poem, “The Story of Joshua,” imagines Joshua in conversation with Yahweh upon entrance to Canaan:

Here is what to do, to take
This land away from the inhabitants:
Burn their villages and cities
Kill their men
Kill their women
Consume the people utterly.
God says: is that clear?
I give you the land, but
You must murder for it.
You will be a nation
Like other nations.
Your hands are going to be stained like theirs
Your innocence annihilated
Keep listening, Joshua.
Only to you among the nations
Do I also give knowledge
The secret
Knowledge that you are doing evil
Only to you the commandment:
Love ye therefore the stranger, for you were
Strangers in the land of Egypt, a pillar
Of fire to light your passage
Through the blank desert of history forever.
This is the agreement.
It is entirely
Clear, Joshua,
Said the Lord.
I said it was. He then commanded me
To destroy Jericho.[59]Alicia Ostriker, “The Story of Joshua,” in Modern Poems on the Bible, ed. David Curzon (Philadelphia and Jerusalem: The Jewish Publication Society, 1994), 180-81.

It is not a simple problem, and even after   explanation the moral difficulties are never fully resolved. Butler says, “Holy war theology, which Israel shared with her Near Eastern neighbors, is the common bond holding the traditions together.”[60]Butler, xxii. According to Childs, von Rad believed that holy war was a defensive function of the tribal league and he looked for its reconstruction in a cultic setting. F. M. Cross and P. D. Miller looked elsewhere for   an explanation of the holy-war traditions’ origin. They postulated a line of continuity with ancient Canaanite mythology, where, in Israel, Yahweh played the role of divine warrior.[61]Childs, Old Testament Theology, 184.

Fretheim interprets Joshua 6 as the center of the conquest narratives, and says it serves as a prototypical conquest, a paradigm in light of which all the conquest materials are to be interpreted. Some scholars contend that chapter twenty-four then subdues the warlike elements in the conquest and suggests a festive liturgical setting where the conquest is narrated in a different manner from the bloody story in Joshua 6-8. By this understanding, the ritual and its accompanying story function typologically.[62]Fretheim, 62-63.

McConville proposes two points in relation to holy war. First, it is part of Yahweh’s polemic against other gods, it vindicates his claim upon Israel. Second, holy war is a reminder to the Israelites that they gain nothing in their own strength.[63]McConville, 140. These seem to be the theological meanings of holy-war conquest.

The relation between history and theology is never simple or obvious. No doubt there was a violent historical core behind the Joshua holy-war traditions. The full and exact details of that core may never be known. The theological function of holy-war accounts seems to be more certain. From Moses to the exile, Israel is blessed when she is obedient and suffers loss and defeat when she disobeys Yahweh.



The book of Joshua bristles with theological problems and ethical dilemmas for the Christian. It resists being smoothed into the texture of faith in any easy fashion. The book’s primary theological themes are the land given to Israel by God and the expectations of God that Israel will be faithful to God’s commands in the law. The latter expectation is enforced by divine retribution, which some see as a kind of conditional grace.[64]Morton, 300.

Other theological themes include the nature of obedient leadership, modeled by Moses and imitated by Joshua until each man could be characterized as “the servant of the Lord.” The law as the commandments of God spoken by Moses and reinforced by Joshua is an underlying motif to leadership and land. The image of God in the book of Joshua is consistent with that image in the entire corpus recorded by the Deuteronomic historian. The unique quality of God in the book of Joshua is the fulfillment of his promises by assuming the role of divine warrior. This, of course, is also the locus of theological difficulty.

God’s word to his people in the book of Joshua is an important word, but it is not the last word or the latest. Retribution can never be the final word of the God whose grace will triumph in the end.

The book of Joshua is a complex literary, theological, and historical work. Any reading of the book that minimizes this complexity will surely be superficial. This sophisticated writing has produced a book that is a true work of art. With the text that precedes it and the text that follows, the book of Joshua combines to form a literary web, a single unit. Its theology is forthright and sometimes breathtaking, demanding that the Christian interpreter assume the role of apologist. The book of Joshua is historical in the best sense of the term. It recalls the faithful God who is as good as his word to his obedient people


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