Leslie J. Hoppe
The book of Joshua is the sixth book of the Bible and carries on the story that begins in Genesis and continues through Deuteronomy. Abraham's descendants, who had been slaves in Egypt, are ready to take possession of the land promised to their ancestors. The land was not simply a gift of God to Israel—it was the gift that made God's power and presence in Israel's life something real and tangible. It was an act of grace like no other, for the gift of the land made it possible for the people of Israel to survive. The land provided Israel with its food, clothing, and shelter. Without it, Israel could not be a people. The land as God's gift to Israel was a theme that was central to its faith. It was a motif that was at the core of ancient Israel's stories, poetry, and prophecy. The book of Joshua is one product of the storyteller's art, while the theme of the gift of the land is found in several psalms such as Psalms 105, 106, 135, and 136 . The prophets based their indictment of Israel's infidelity on the gift of the land that should have led Israel to the loyal and exclusive service of its God, e.g., Jeremiah 2, 6–7; 32, 20–23 .
Joshua is both the conclusion of one story and the beginning of another. It concludes the story of the liberation of the Hebrew slaves and their guidance in the wilderness to the Promised Land. It is also the first part of another story: the story of Israel in that Promised Land. The books of Judges, Samuel, and Kings are the other components of this story. It begins with Joshua and the Israelite tribes taking control of the land, continues with stories about the judges who lead Israel in maintaining their presence in the land, and concludes with the stories of Israel's kings, who eventually lose control of that land. The story ends the same way it begins—with the Israelites outside the land. At the beginning they are ready to cross the Jordan and take control of the land; at the end they are in exile from the land, wondering about their future. It is a sad story, a tragic story. It is a story that begins with much promise and ends with great disappointment.
The ancient rabbis called the books that made up the story of Israel in its land “the Former Prophets” because they ascribed these books to prophetic authorship. Scholars have called these books “the Deuteronomistic History of Israel.” But that name can be misleading since these books are not histories—at least not in the modern sense. In the form we now have, the books date to about the middle of the sixth century while Israel was in exile. The story of Israel in the Promised Land turns Israel's past into a sermon in order to provide the exiles some basis for hope by affirming that Israel can have a future, despite the terrible losses it experienced when Jerusalem fell. The book of Deuteronomy provided the theological principles that guided the telling of the story of Israel in its land. Among these principles was the importance of serving the Lord alone by shaping one's conduct according to the norms of traditional Israelite morality, as found in the Torah that God revealed to Moses. The books of Joshua to 2 Kings show what happens when Israel is obedient and what happens when it is not. The story of Israel in its land, then, asserts that Israel can have a future if it chooses—because God has set before Israel the choice of life and death (Dt 30, 15 ).
The book of Joshua answers two questions that were on the minds of its first readers. Is God able to restore Israel? Is God willing to do so? The answer that the book gives to the first question is a resounding yes. The book will tell the story of how Israel acquired its land ostensibly under Joshua's leadership. But as the story unfolds, it will become clear that it was God who was leading Israel all the while. The answer to the second question is a qualified yes. God has promised blessings to those who obey the Torah: if Israel chooses the path of obedience, it can expect to have a future in the land promised to its ancestors. If, however, Israel chooses the way of disobedience, there can be no hope.