Scripture Reading: Joshua 1-2, 6, 8, 10-11, 23-24
Significant Moments in The Story
Joshua sends spies to Jericho – Joshua 2
Israel crosses into the Promised Land – Joshua 3
The fall of Jericho – Joshua 6
Joshua retells the story of Israel and challenges Israel to recommit to covenant – Joshua 23-24
Conquering the Promised Land
The book of Joshua is the story of God inviting Israel to share in the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Though it is the armies of Israel that fight on the battlefield, Joshua is insistent that it is the LORD that gives the victory in battle. The battle for the Promised Land is also understood to be an extension of God’s judgment upon those nations who were settled in the Promised Land (see “Some Questions That Might Come Up” below).
Though the book of Joshua is dominated by scenes of battle and military victories, the book’s climax comes in Joshua 24, when Joshua stands before Israel and says, “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15). The entire narrative rests upon the idea that Israel will hold onto the land for the same reason that they enjoy success in conquering the land: faithfulness to God and obedience to His commandments. This will set up the story of Judges and ultimately the story of Kings, when faithlessness to God and His covenant is what will ultimately be understood to lead to defeat and exile.
God’s Fulfillment of His Promise
Through challenges of infertility, sibling rivalry, famine, slavery, and rebellion, God proves faithful to his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Their descendants are given possession of the land which Abraham was first promised all the way back in Genesis 12. At Shechem, Joshua reminds the people of their entire history with God (Joshua 24:1-13). This narrative is not just a family history; it is Joshua’s way of reminding them that God has delivered on His promises. The question is: will Israel remain true to their promises to God? (See Joshua 24:16-27 for Israel’s promise and Joshua’s doubt about their ability to keep their promise!).
The Great Sea – Joshua 1:4
This refers to what we know today as the Mediterranean Sea.
The Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh – Joshua 1:12-18
This refers to 3 of the 12 tribes of Israel – the tribe of Reuben, Gad, and part of the tribe of Joseph. In Genesis 48, Jacob blesses Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, and says they will be equal inheritors of the covenant. Thus, the half-tribe of Manasseh was part of the tribe of Joseph.
In Numbers 32, these tribes approached Moses about receiving their inheritance of land not in Canaan but in territory just outside of Canaan that the LORD had conquered for Israel. The reason for their request, according to Numbers 32, was that these tribes possessed a lot of cattle and the land on the other side of the Jordan River from Canaan was good for grazing. It was agreed that they could settle in this land, but only on the condition that they would still go in and fight with the remaining tribes to conquer the peoples who lived in Canaan. Thus, here in Joshua 1, Joshua is reminding these tribes of this promise, and they are reaffirming their commitment to fight alongside the rest of Israel.
Jericho – Joshua 2, 6
Jericho was a city east of Jerusalem near several fords in the Jordan River, making it an entrypoint to Canaan from the east. Archaeology has had a difficult time verifying the events of the battle of Jericho as they are described in the Bible. Some believe that Jericho at the time that we believe Israel entered Canaan would have been nothing more than an unfortified village. There are several other cases of such discrepancy in Joshua’s accounts of battles, leading some to wonder if these battles were later episodes that were ascribed back in history to the great military leader Joshua.
Ai – Joshua 8
The battle of Ai is another circumstance where the Biblical description and the archaeological evidence have a hard time synchronizing. Many archaeologists believe Ai was an unwalled village that was uninhabited during the time of Israel’s settlement in the land. It’s name means “ruin”, which some have taken as an indication that the Biblical story was a later narrative intended to explain the existence of a ruined city in the land.
In Joshua 7, Israel attempts to attack Ai, a city where “there were so few people” that Joshua did not even take the whole of Israel to battle against them. When Joshua confronts God to explain why Israel was defeated, God responds that the defeat came about because someone had taken for themselves some of the gold and silver from Jericho that was to have been put into the treasury of the LORD. The story of the battle of Ai is seen as an example of the demand for faithful obedience to every command of God.
Shechem – Joshua 24:1
It seems that Shechem was a place of some significance to early Israel. Both Abraham (Genesis 12:7) and Jacob (Genesis 33:18-20) are said to have been altars to God at Shechem. Now, Shechem becomes the place where Joshua asks the Israelites to reaffirm their commitment to God and to His covenant.
“Put away the foreign gods that are among you…” – Joshua 24:23
The question that arises is, where did these “foreign gods” come from? There are several possibilities, and the answer may lie in some combination of them. Though the book of Joshua portrays the conquest of the Promised Land as total, swift, and complete (Joshua 11:23), the book of Judges portrays the occupation of the Promised Land as a gradual process with ebbs and flows, indicating that the Israelites were living among other nations who worshiped different gods. We have also already seen that, even before crossing into the Promised Land, some Israelites were marrying foreign spouses that were leading them to worship other gods (Numbers 25). Perhaps some of that influence remained intact at this stage of Israel’s journey. The book of Joshua does tell us that some of the peoples of Canaan were allowed to live, namely Rahab and her entire family (Joshua 6:22-25) and the inhabitants of the city of Gibeon (Joshua 9). Perhaps Joshua’s command to “put away the foreign gods” was an indication that these peoples were keeping alive some of the religious practices of Canaan. It must also be remembered that it was more than just the original 12 tribes of Israel that made up the nation at this point. Other clans and tribes are likely to have joined with Israel not only in the Exodus but in their journey to the Promised Land. Perhaps what we have here is an indication that some of the religious practices of these peoples who had joined with Israel had been kept alive either alongside the worship of the LORD or maybe even in secret.
Some Questions That Might Come Up
Why does God command that all the people of the cities be killed?
The book of Joshua is a story of war, and thus it presents a very difficult challenge to many and their picture of God. We see Joshua and the Israelites decimating entire cities, killing all the women and men of a city. The book portrays all of this as action, if not directly ordered by God, at least endorsed by God. We are left asking the question, “Why would God want all of these peoples killed, especially those that we would identify as innocent non-combatants?”
In Deuteronomy 9:4-5, Moses tells Israel that God has not brought them into possession of this land because of their righteousness. Instead, he has done so because of His promise to Abraham and because of the wickedness of the people of Canaan. Thus, the settling of Israel in the Promised Land is portrayed, in part, as an act of God using Israel to punish the people of Canaan for their worship of false gods and some of their religious practices, which may have included the offering of children as sacrifices. Thus, the violence of Joshua is at least, in the Biblical witness, shrouded in an understanding that this violence is an act of divine judgment.
Some also wonder if perhaps, similar to Moses in the situation of the golden calf, Israel is ascribing to God commands that God did not actually give. In Exodus 32:27, Moses says that the LORD has ordered the Levites to kill brother, friend, and neighbor because of their unfaithfulness to God. This command is not recorded anywhere in the Biblical account of Moses’ dialogue with God. Thus, it appears as if Moses is “putting words in God’s mouth” to justify his own command. There are some who wonder if Israel, in it’s historic memory, is not doing the same thing in the book of Joshua, ascribing commands to God to justify the actions of their ancestors.
The authors of A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament raise some interesting points that should be considered in reflecting on the violence of this book. First off, the book makes it clear that violence will not be how Israel will maintain possession of the land. Instead, only faithful obedience to God’s Word will allow Israel to remain in the Promised Land. Thus, the book is not advocating a “might makes right” mentality. As a matter of fact, in the case of the city of Ai (Joshua 7), Israel learns that disobedience undermines military strength.
The second point that the authors make is that we should not be so quick to write off the violence of this book.
Such privileged opposition to violence, that “such things must not be done,” is itself an ideological claim in the interest of maintaining the status quo. What may seem to us readers in our privilege (and most who read this book will be profoundly privileged) as completely unacceptable violence may not seem so objectionable to the oppressed, marginated, and economically abused who know deep in their bones that such oppression cannot be “right,” and cannot be willed by the creator of heaven and earth. Thus the overthrow of entrenched, abusive power, albeit by violent means, is not as ethically objectionable to the disenfranchised as it is to the safely and prosperously ensconced. This literature may be understood, at least at one level, as the primitive literature of desperate liberation movements who know themselves to be allied with and vouched for by the God of all social transformation. … There is something to be appreciated in the pervasive affirmation of this literature that the God of the Exodus stands massively against every system of exploitation. (p. 195, ATITTOT, Birch, Brueggemann, Frethem, and Petersen, Abingdon Press, 1999).
Though the violence of the book may be disturbing to us, it should also force us to ask ourselves, “Is there unrighteousness that I am simply allowing to exist, without taking any action of any kind to stop?”
Some Reflection Questions
- In the original languages both “Joshua” and “Jesus” mean “Jehovah saves.” How is Joshua’s relationship to Israel similar to Jesus’ relationship to the Church?
- What basis did Joshua have for being “strong and courageous” (p. 89, Joshua 1)? Which assurances that God gives Joshua most strengthen and encourage you?
- What concerns might Joshua have had as he accepted the reigns of leadership from Moses? What can we learn from the people’s response to Joshua that can apply to changes of leadership at our church?
- Rahab told the two spies: “I know that the Lord has given you this land” (p.90, Joshua 2:9). Upon what was her declaration of faith based? How could she be a prostitute, so easily tell lies, and not be a part of God’s chosen people, yet be attributed with great faith?
- Rahab hid the spies and then lied to the authorities when they came looking for them (p. 90, Joshua 2). When, if ever, is it okay to lie? How do you know?
- Review the main points of the covenant that God made with Abraham. (See the summary for Chapter 2, also p. 13., Genesis 12:1-3) What examples can you find in this chapter that show God’s faithfulness to its fulfillment?
- How does God’s command to annihilate entire cities fit into the Upper Story of the Bible? In what way do these battle stories fit into God’s Upper Story? (Hint: review p. 86, especially the first full paragraph., Deuteronomy 9:1-7)
- Some people doubt the Bible because of miracles like Joshua’s “long day” (p. 97, Joshua 10:12-14). But some people, like Rahab, come to believe in God because of His miraculous works. Discuss how you might respond to the skeptic who discounts the miraculous as myth.
- What character traits of Joshua most impress you? Which of those would you like to be known for?
- Joshua is known for his statement “As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD” (p.101, Joshua 24:15). How can you lead your household to serve the Lord?