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Old Testament: Joshua

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Icelandic Jericho, (14th Century)Joshua is the story of the Israelites' entry into Canaan (the promised land) after forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Led by Joshua, the successor to Moses, the Israelites conquer the Canaanites and then redistribute the land to the twelve tribes of Israel. The book ends with a covenant renewal ceremony, in which both Joshua and the Israelites declare, "We will serve the LORD" (Joshua 24:21).

So What?

The book of Joshua tells of God's fulfillment of God's promises, the promises to Abraham in Genesis 12 that he will be blessed with many descendants and with the land of Canaan. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob never see the fulfillment of those promises, and their descendants become slaves in Egypt. God frees them from that slavery, but the end of the Pentateuch finds the Israelites still in the wilderness, outside the land of promise. The book of Joshua, then, is the fulfillment of centuries of longing and waiting on the part of Israel. As such, it is a witness to God's faithfulness to God's people, both then and now.

Where Do I Find It?

Joshua is the sixth book of the Bible. Following the five books of the Pentateuch, Joshua begins the story of Israel's life in the land of Canaan.

Who Wrote It?

Joshua is part of a larger literary work called by scholars the "Deuteronomistic History" (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings). This work has a unified theological outlook and tells the story of Israel from the time of Moses to the time of the Babylonian exile. The composition of the whole work is attributed to the "Deuteronomist," an individual or group of individuals who used the laws and stories of Deuteronomy as the basis of their theology. Many scholars argue for the existence of at least two Deuteronomists, the first writing during the reign of King Josiah in the last half of the seventh century B.C.E. and the second writing and revising during the Babylonian exile of the sixth century B.C.E.

When Was It Written?

It is generally agreed by scholars that Joshua reached its final form during the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E., though the book obviously contains older material. The many occurrences of the phrase "to this day," to refer to structures or practices existing in preexilic Israel, would argue that some "edition" of the book was completed prior to the exile (see 4:9; 5:9; 7:26; 8:28-29; 9:27; 13:13; 14:14; 15:63; 16:10). The use of the phrase would also imply that the author is writing for an audience living well after the time of Joshua. Many scholars place this first "edition" of Joshua in the reign of King Josiah, in the last half of the seventh century B.C.E.

What's It About?

The book of Joshua tells the story of Israel's entry into Canaan after forty years in the wilderness: their conquering of the land and its inhabitants; the redistribution of the land to the twelve tribes; and the renewal of the covenant between the Lord and Israel.

How Do I Read It?

Joshua is the first book of what scholars call the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings), which tells the story of Israel from the death of Moses to the time of the Babylonian exile. Despite its name, the Deuteronomistic History should not be read in the same way one reads modern history books. The biblical books do certainly contain historical accounts, but they also contain many other types of literary work: songs, liturgies, confessions, folktales, hero legends, administrative lists, etc. You should read Joshua, knowing that its primary concern is not with historical dates and events, but with telling the story of how God fulfills God's promises, both to Joshua's generation and to each subsequent generation of the book's readers.

AUTHOR: Kathryn Schifferdecker, Associate Professor of Old Testament

I. Introduction (Joshua 1:1-18)

A. The Lord Commissions Joshua (Joshua 1:1-9)
After the death of Moses (recorded in the last chapter of Deuteronomy), the Lord commissions Joshua son of Nun to lead the Israelites across the Jordan into the land the Lord is giving them. The Lord promises to be with Joshua and commands him to "be strong and courageous."

B. Joshua Prepares the People (Joshua 1:10-18)
Joshua instructs the Israelites to prepare for the crossing of the Jordan. He commissions the three tribes with land east of the Jordan to help their fellow Israelites in conquering the land west of the Jordan. The people promise obedience to Joshua and echo God's command to him to "be strong and courageous."

II. The Israelite Spies and Rahab (Joshua 2:1-24)
Two Israelite spies enter Jericho and stay with the prostitute Rahab, who knows and confesses that God has given the land to Israel. She hides the spies from the king of Jericho and, in return, they promise to save her and her family from destruction when the Israelites conquer the city.

III. Israel Crosses the Jordan River (Joshua 3:1-5:1)
The Israelites cross the Jordan River from east to west, into the land of promise, following the priests who carry the ark of the covenant. As at the Red Sea, God parts the waters for the Israelites so that they cross on dry ground. Joshua and the Israelites set up twelve stones as a memorial at Gilgal, where they camp after crossing the Jordan.

IV. Circumcision and Passover (Joshua 5:2-12)
The Israelites, all born during the wilderness wanderings, are circumcised at Gilgal because--unlike their parents' generation--they were not circumcised in the wilderness. They also keep the Passover and start eating the produce of the land. The supply of manna that sustained them in the wilderness for forty years ceases.

V. The Commander of the Army of the Lord (Joshua 5:13-15)
Joshua has a vision of the commander of the army of the Lord, equipped for battle. In an echo of Moses' vision at the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-6), the heavenly emissary tells Joshua to remove the sandals from his feet, for the ground on which he is standing is holy.

VI. The Fall of Jericho (Joshua 6:1-27)
Acting on instructions from God, the Israelites march around the city of Jericho every day for seven days. On the seventh day, the walls of the city miraculously fall down, and the Israelites destroy Jericho and everyone in it, except Rahab and her family.

VII. The Sin of Achan (Joshua 7:1-26)
After failing to take the city of Ai, the Israelites learn that God is angry, because one of them has taken booty from Jericho that should have been "devoted to destruction." God reveals the culprit to be Achan, of the tribe of Judah, and he and his household are killed as punishment.

VIII. The Destruction of the City of Ai (Joshua 8:1-29)
The Israelites capture the city of Ai and kill all its inhabitants. They are allowed to take the livestock and other things from the city as spoils of war.

IX. Covenant Renewal (Joshua 8:30-35)
The Israelites fulfill Moses' instructions from Deuteronomy 27 to hold a covenant renewal ceremony at Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim (see also Deuteronomy 11:29-30). The people assemble, Joshua builds an altar, the priests offer sacrifices, and Joshua writes out the law of Moses and reads it to the Israelites.

X. Treaty with the Gibeonites (Joshua 9:1-27)
Through trickery, the Gibeonites of central Canaan persuade the Israelites to make a treaty with them, so that they and their cities will not be destroyed. When the Israelites discover the trick, they honor the treaty, but consign the Gibeonites to be "hewers of wood and drawers of water" for the sanctuary.

XI. Continued War with the Peoples of the Land (Joshua 10:1-11:23)

A. The Sun Stands Still as Israel Fights the Amorites (Joshua 10:1-15)
Joshua and his forces, with miraculous intervention by God, defeat five Amorite kings who have attacked Gibeon. At Joshua's request, the sun stands still for a day so that the victory can be accomplished.

B. Five Amorite Kings Killed (Joshua 10:16-27)
The five Amorite kings flee and hide in a cave. Joshua finds them and kills them as a symbol of what will happen to all of Israel's enemies.

C. Victories for Israel (Joshua 10:28-11:15)
Joshua and the Israelites capture and destroy many cities. They also defeat a large army mustered by northern Canaanite kings against Israel. In all this, Joshua is obeying the commands of the Lord to Moses (11:15).

D. Summary of Joshua's Victories (Joshua 11:16-23)
These verses are a summary statement of all the land that Joshua and the Israelites conquered in Canaan. The passage describes the boundaries of Israel at the height of the Davidic kingdom. The summary ends, "And the land had rest from war" (11:23).

E. The Kings Conquered by Moses (Joshua 12:1-6)
These verses list the lands and kings conquered by Moses and the Israelites east of the Jordan River.

F. The Kings Conquered by Joshua (Joshua 12:7-24)
These verses list the lands and the thirty-one kings conquered by Joshua and the Israelites west of the Jordan River.

XII. Dividing the Land for an Inheritance (Joshua 13:1-21:45)
The land captured by Israel, both east and west of the Jordan River, is divided among the twelve tribes of Israel.

A. Introduction: The Land Still Unconquered and the Command to Divide the Land (Joshua 13:1-7)
The Lord lists for Joshua the parts of Canaan still unconquered by the Israelites and promises to drive out the inhabitants of those lands. The Lord also commands Joshua to divide the land of Canaan for an inheritance to nine and a half tribes of Israel.

B. The Land East of the Jordan Given by Moses to Israelite Tribes (Joshua 13:8-33)
The text lists the lands and cities east of the Jordan River given by Moses to the other two and a half tribes of Israel: Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh.

C. The Land West of the Jordan Given by Eleazar and Joshua to Israelite Tribes (Joshua 14:1-19:51)
The land of Canaan, west of the Jordan, is divided by lot and given by Joshua and the priest Eleazar (son of Aaron) to nine and a half Israelite tribes: Judah, Ephraim, the other half-tribe of Manasseh, Benjamin, Simeon, Zebulun, Issachar, Asher, Naphtali, and Dan. Joshua and Caleb, the only people still living of the generation that came out of Egypt, are given their own individual allotments of land.

D. The Cities of Refuge (Joshua 20:1-9)
The Lord commands Israel to set aside "cities of refuge," where a person who has killed someone unintentionally can take refuge from those who would seek revenge. The Israelites designate six cities throughout their territory as cities of refuge.

E. Cities for the Levites (Joshua 21:1-42)
The priestly tribe of Levi, which possesses no land because "the LORD God of Israel is their inheritance" (13:33), is allotted forty-eight towns scattered throughout the territory of the other tribes. These towns include the six cities of refuge.

F. Promises Fulfilled (Joshua 21:43-45)
These verses are a summary statement of the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel concerning the land. It ends, "Not one of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass" (21:45).

XIII. An Altar Built and a War Prevented (Joshua 22:1-34)
The eastern tribes--Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh--return to their territory after having helped the other tribes conquer Canaan. They build a memorial altar on the western bank of the Jordan River. The other tribes interpret the building of the altar as rebellion against the Lord and threaten war, but the eastern tribes explain that the altar is meant to serve as a witness in generations to come that they, too, worship the same God as the rest of Israel.

XIV. Joshua's Exhortation (Joshua 23:1-16)
Joshua has grown old and is about to die. He calls all Israel to him and exhorts them to obey the commands of the book of the law of Moses, so that they might not be enticed by the nations around them to forsake the covenant.

XV. Covenant Ceremony (Joshua 24:1-28)
Joshua calls all Israel to him at Shechem, where he asks them to serve the Lord--the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob--rather than other gods. They reaffirm their allegiance to the Lord, and Joshua makes a covenant with them there, erecting a stone as a memorial of the covenant.

XVI. Death of Joshua and Death of Eleazar (Joshua 24:29-33)
Joshua dies at 110 years of age and is buried in the land he received as an inheritance. The bones of Joseph, which the Israelites brought out of Egypt, are buried at Shechem. The priest Eleazar, son of Aaron, dies and is buried at Gibeah.

AUTHOR: Kathryn Schifferdecker, Associate Professor of Old Testament

The book of Joshua describes Israel's conquest of the land of Canaan, immediately after the forty-year period of wandering in the wilderness. The author of the book is not contemporary with the events he describes, however. At many points, the phrase "to this day" is used to describe places or practices in the author's own time, implying that the events he describes are of some antiquity (4:9; 5:9; 7:26; 8:28-29; 9:27; 13:13; 14:14; 15:63; 16:10). Most biblical scholars date the first "edition" of the book to the late monarchical period, perhaps during the reign of King Josiah (late seventh century B.C.E.). The book reached its final form in the Babylonian exile of the sixth century B.C.E. This story of Israel's entry into the promised land after many years of longing and waiting would have been a powerful theological affirmation of God's faithfulness and a sign of hope to the people in exile from that same land.

AUTHOR: Kathryn Schifferdecker, Associate Professor of Old Testament

The Deuteronomistic History. Joshua is the first book of what scholars call the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings), which tells the story of Israel from Moses' death to the Babylonian exile. Its name comes from the fact that the writers or compilers of the history used the book of Deuteronomy as the theological basis for their work and the introduction to it. Indeed, the "book of the law" referred to in Joshua seems to be the book of Deuteronomy (Joshua 1:7-8; 8:30-35; 23:6; 24:26). The Deuteronomistic History is marked by concern for covenant obedience, an emphasis on centralized power, and a pattern of human sin, divine punishment, and divine mercy.

Holy war. Many modern readers of Joshua find the book disturbing because of its depiction of holy war; that is, war that is commanded by God. Conquest of native peoples, especially "devoting" people to destruction, is an idea foreign to most Christians' conception of God. In pondering this legitimate theological problem, two things should be kept in mind. First, the book of Joshua was addressed in its final form to an oppressed people in exile who had no military ability to engage in holy war. Second, archaeological evidence demonstrates--and the book of Joshua itself acknowledges--that the "conquest" of Canaan did not result in the annihilation of the native population (see Joshua 11:22; 13:1-6; 15:63; 16:10; 17:12-13). In other words, the theological ideal in Joshua of a land settled only by Israelites and devoted to the law of Moses does not reflect historical reality.

Identity. The book of Joshua is concerned with the question of Israelite identity, an important issue during the exile, when the book reached its final form. The tribes east of the Jordan are careful to assert their identity as Israelites, though most of their fellow Israelites have settled west of the Jordan (Joshua 22). There are warnings in the book not to associate with the peoples of the land, lest the Israelites be tempted to worship foreign gods (23:6-13; 24:19-28). The destruction of "devoted things," both possessions and people, seems to be motivated by this fear of assimilation (see Deuteronomy 20:16-18). It is noteworthy, however, that a few non-Israelites are treated positively in the book, namely, Rahab and the Gibeonites, who both profess faith in the Lord, the God of Israel (Joshua 2:11; 9:9-10). The outsiders become insiders, and, at times, the insiders (native Israelites) become "devoted things" themselves when they break the covenant (Joshua 7).

Joshua and archaeology. The story in Joshua of an invasion and occupation of the land of Canaan by a large external force in the thirteenth-twelfth centuries B.C.E. is not supported by the findings of archaeology. The cities of Jericho and Ai, for instance, which play a prominent role in the book of Joshua, were not major population centers in that time period. The emergence of a distinct people called "Israel" in Canaan is traced by archaeologists to hundreds of small settlements in the central hill country founded in the thirteenth-twelfth centuries B.C.E. Features of these settlements suggest that they were made up of egalitarian agricultural societies not under the control of the Canaanite city-states. The Amarna letters (documents from the fourteenth century B.C.E.) give us evidence that these Canaanite city-states were governed by kings, priests, and nobles, who oppressed the people of lower classes. Many of the oppressed people left this Canaanite social structure and became armed outlaws known as "Habiru." It has been suggested that the book of Joshua reflects the historical memory of an outside group, worshipers of the Lord, who came into Canaan and joined with the Habiru and other disaffected people to form a new, egalitarian, agriculturally based society, which later identified itself as "Israel."

Joshua and history. As noted in "Joshua and archaeology," the story in the book of Joshua about a large-scale invasion and occupation of the land of Canaan by Israel is not supported by the archaeological evidence. Though Joshua is part of the Deuteronomistic History, it should not be read as one reads modern history books. It includes some historical memories, but it is also compiled of many other types of literature: hero legends, folktales, administrative lists, liturgical texts, etc. Its concern is not so much with historical dates and events, but with a story of origins: How did this entity known as "Israel" come to be in the land? How did God fulfill God's promises to Israel? The book may very well contain a historical memory of those origins, the memory of a group of worshipers of the Lord who came into Canaan and joined with disaffected Canaanites to form a new nation, centered on the law of Moses. The historical parts of the book of Joshua, however, have more to do with the time of its compilation than with the time of Joshua. The lists of land allotments in chapters 13-19, for instance, are probably derived from administrative lists during the time of the monarchy, when the first "edition" of Joshua was probably completed.

What are "devoted things"? The Lord commands the Israelites on a number of occasions to "devote" things or people to destruction. The Canaanite cities they conquer are to be utterly destroyed, along with everyone and everything in them. This command seems to have the primary purpose of maintaining religious purity, so that the Israelites will not be tempted by the Canaanites to worship other gods (see Deuteronomy 20:16-18; Joshua 23:4-13). The command about devoted things also has sacrificial overtones. The devoted things are devoted "to the LORD," and they are to be burned with fire, like a burnt offering (Joshua 6:17, 24; 7:11, 15). For more on this topic, see "Identity" and "Holy War."

AUTHOR: Kathryn Schifferdecker, Associate Professor of Old Testament

Covenant loyalty. The book of Joshua calls the Israelites, and later readers of the book, to covenant loyalty. The most powerful articulation of that call comes at the end of the book, in Joshua 24:15, "Choose this day whom you will serve….But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD"--though, a careful reading of the text makes clear that such choice takes effect only if Israel refuses to serve the Lord, who has already chosen them. Covenant loyalty entails the rejection of all other gods except the Lord (22:10-29; 23:1-16; 24:1-28).

Faithful leadership. The first verse of Joshua notes the death of Moses, the great leader of Israel. The people are not left bereft, however. God raises up a new leader, Joshua, who is a second Moses--faithful, strong, courageous, proclaiming the word of God to the people, and leading them to fulfill their covenant obligations (1:1-9, 16-18; 3:7; 5:1-15; 8:30-35; 23; 24).

God's faithfulness. After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, after the death of the first generation of Israelites to be freed from slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel finally enter Canaan, the land promised to them by God since the time of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-9). God fulfills God's promises. This is one of the central claims of the book of Joshua (Joshua 1:3-6; 21:43-45; 23:14).

God's presence. The Israelites are successful in their battles because God is with them and fights for them (10:14). The ark of the covenant is a sign of the divine presence (3:10-11; 6:6; 8:33). At the very beginning of the book, God promises to be with Joshua just as God was with Moses (1:5, 9; 3:7); in the rest of the book, God keeps that promise.

Obedience. God calls for obedience on the part of the people. They are told to march around Jericho in a manner no military commander would have devised; but when they obey, they are rewarded with victory (Joshua 6). On the other hand, when they disobey the Lord's commands (as does Achan in chapter 7), God punishes them. Obedience brings blessing, and disobedience brings punishment (23:14-16).

Passing on the faith. Joshua, like Deuteronomy before it, emphasizes the need to pass on the faith to the next generation (see Deuteronomy 4:9-10; 6:4-9). The stones at Gilgal are to serve as a teaching tool for telling generations to come about the parting of the Jordan's waters (4:5-7, 19-24; see also 8:35; 22:24-29).

Providence. Deuteronomy states that God chose Israel as the Lord's people not because they were more numerous than any other people, but because God loved them (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). Joshua continues that theme. God promises to give the people the land in fulfillment of God's promises to their ancestors, and not because of anything they have done themselves (Joshua 1:3; 24:13).

AUTHOR: Kathryn Schifferdecker, Associate Professor of Old Testament