Joshua tells the story of the entry of God’s chosen people into the promised land after they had wandered for 40 years in the wilderness. The book begins with the commissioning of Joshua as leader of God’s people after the death of Moses and their subsequent entry into the land across the river Jordan. The middle chapters describe the battles between God’s people and the inhabitants of the land, beginning with Jericho, and the subsequent dividing of the land between the 12 tribes. The book ends with a renewed covenant between God and his people and the death of Joshua.
Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1.9)
Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. (Joshua 24.15)
Well, the whole book really. The book of Joshua contains what appears to the modern eye to be the command to kill everyone who lives in the land already. While scholars might say this reflects a complex reality on the ground, you could call this genocide. The challenge is to work out what you think is going on here.
There is nothing in the book itself about who wrote Joshua. In style and theology it is very similar to Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. It is often thought to form with them a collection of writings named by scholars the ‘Deuteronomistic histories’.
Next to nothing.
The name implies a theological connection with the book of Deuteronomy, since the outlook of all these books seems very similar. It is suggested that the author or, more likely, authors of these histories were influenced by Deuteronomy and told Israel’s history from that perspective. The key feature here is that Deuteronomy stresses that God’s people will only stay in the land if they remain faithful. Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings tell the story of how God’s people failed to be faithful and so, eventually, went into exile from the land.
No one really knows when these books were written. It is thought that they reached their final form in the sixth century BC – in other words, shortly after the Judeans went into exile – and were finalised then in order to explain why the exile had happened at all. It is clear, however, that these final documents were drawn together from already existing sources, many of which would have been written during or shortly after the event described.
If it is right that these histories are written to explain why the exile happened, it's clear that the people would have been feeling hurt, despairing and lost. For a sense of what people were feeling then, have a look at the book of Lamentations, which provides an accurate insight into their emotions.
This is a history book but it falls into the category of what you might call theological history – history with a purpose. It is not telling the events just so you can know what happened, but so that you can understand why it happened. Many of the historical books of the Bible are like this.
1.1–18 The commissioning of Joshua as leader
2.1–12.24 Entry into and conquest of the land
13.1–22.34 The division of the land among the tribes
23.1–24.33 Joshua’s farewell and the renewal of the covenant
There will be lots of names you will not know; don’t worry if you can’t place them all. The key ones are given below.
Euphrates, Shittim, Ai, Bethel, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Bashan, Beer-sheba, Bethel, Canaan, Carmel, Dan, Dead Sea, Edom, Ekron, En-gedi, Ephraim, Euphrates, Galilee, Gath, Gaza, Gezer, Gibeon, Gilgal, Hebron, Hermon, Israel, Jerusalem, Jezreel, Judah, Lachish, Lebanon, Midian, Mizpah, Moab, Mount Carmel, Mount Gerizim, Mount Hermon, Mount Seir, Mount Tabor, Negeb, Ramah, Sheba, Shechem, Shiloh, Shunem, Sidon, Tirzah, Tyre, Ziklag
Anakim, Amorites, Gibeonites, Rephaim, Hittites, Ammonites, Amorites, Asher, Balaam, Balak, Benjamin, Canaanites, Gibeonites, Hivites, Isaac, Issachar, Jebusites, Joshua, Levites, Manasseh, Moses, Philistines, Sidonians
Altar, Ark of the Covenant, burnt offering, High Priest, Passover, priest, Tabernacle, wadi
In all the books of the Deuteronomistic histories, God’s promises are very important. The idea you find time and time again is that God always does what he says he will. Look out for this theme as you read.
Another important theme in this book is identity – the questions of what made God’s people who they were. As you read, ask yourself what you can tell about who God’s people were meant to be and what they were meant to do.
Right at the heart of this book lies the covenant, made through Moses with the people and reiterated at the end of the book by Joshua. Look out for the covenant and what it means to God, to Joshua and to the people.
A theme that bubbles away throughout Joshua is faithfulness – God’s faithfulness to his people and their unfaithfulness to him. What does faithfulness mean to you and can you learn anything about it from this book?