Reading through the Book of Joshua
The homiletical character of the book of Joshua is evident from the very beginning. About twenty percent of the book's text describes the elaborate preparations for the entrance of the Israelite tribes into Canaan. Before the crossing of the Jordan begins, the book makes it clear the land is a gift that God is giving Israel ( 1, 1–5 ). The way to insure that Israel will be in a position to receive that gift is obedience to the Torah ( 1, 6–9 ). The rest of the book simply illustrates these two assertions. First, under Joshua's leadership, the tribes will take the land with relative ease because God is handing it to them. Second, because Israel is obedient, it takes possession of the land, which is then distributed equitably among the tribes.
The book's first chapter consists of four speeches: the Lord to Joshua (1, 1–9); Joshua to the Israelite leadership ( 1, 10–11 ); Joshua to the tribes from east of the Jordan ( 1, 12–15 ); and the eastern tribes to Joshua ( 1, 16–18 ). These speeches are the means of conveying the central religious affirmations of the book: the presence of God with Joshua and the Israelites, the importance of obedience to the Torah, the land as a gift from God, and Joshua as the successor of Moses. These affirmations provide a framework for understanding the stories that will follow. As the stories unfold it will become clear that Israel receives the land as a gift from God given to those who obey the Torah under the guidance of Joshua. No military preparations are mentioned and none are necessary as long as Israel observes the Torah.
The episode with the two Israelite spies and Rahab, the prostitute from Jericho ( 2, 1–21 ), also betrays the book's purpose. Rahab's conversation with the two spies makes it seem as if she had been reading the book of Deuteronomy. Because she helps the Israelite spies, she is fulfilling the divine will and will escape the fate that the rest of Jericho's citizens will suffer ( 6, 22–25 ). If Israel had followed her example, the fate of Jerusalem and its exiles would have been much different. If, like Rahab, Israel now chooses the way of obedience, it will return to its land to live in peace.
The scene depicting the crossing of the Jordan ( 3, 1–4, 24 ) underscores the book's intent to present the taking of the Promised Land as a wonder performed by God to fulfill the commitment made to Israel's ancestors. The book purposely describes the crossing of the Jordan River as a miracle like the crossing of the Red Sea ( 4, 23 ), even though the Jordan is, in fact, easily fordable at several places. The miraculous crossing of the Jordan demoralizes the people of Canaan, robbing them of the will to resist ( 5, 1 ). Again, it is clear that Israel's possession of the land was God's doing.
In 5, 2–12 , perspective then shifts to Israel. At God's instructions, the preparations to enter the land and face its inhabitants involve nothing of a military nature. In fact, these preparations actually render Israel's army quite vulnerable to attack because all the males had to be circumcised, making them temporarily unable to be an effective fighting force. But the mass circumcision does, however, make the community fit to celebrate the Passover ( 5, 2–12 ). Both these observances became important markers of Jewish identity during and after the exile. Certainly the book of Joshua intends to promote these practices.
Although the book of Joshua is often thought of as a chronicle of a massive invasion of Canaan by a united Israelite army under the leadership of Joshua, only one quarter of the book actually deals with the battles for the Promised Land. At the end of this section, the author comments that “Joshua captured the whole country” ( 11, 23 ). But the account of the battles fought by the Israelite tribes focuses almost entirely on the central region of Canaan ( 6, 1–10, 27 ). Battles in the south ( 10, 28–43 ) and the north ( 11, 1–14 ) are treated in summary fashion. The two places that receive the most attention are Jericho ( 6, 1–27 ) and Ai ( 7, 2–8, 29 ). But before Joshua begins the attack on Jericho, the mysterious “captain of the host of the Lord” arrives ( 5, 14 ). When this person tells Joshua that he must take off his sandals because he is standing on holy ground, the attentive reader recognizes the similarity to the story of Moses' encounter with God at the burning bush (Ex 3, 1–6 ) and knows that the leader of Israel as he moves out to take the land is someone other than Joshua.
Jericho was a town that had been abandoned for centuries before the time of Joshua, probably because its water source had become severely polluted, making its waters no longer drinkable. Ai was a town that flourished in the Early Bronze Age—more than a thousand years before the Israelite tribes emerged in Canaan. It too had been abandoned for centuries before the Israelite tribes made their appearance. The stories of the capture of Jericho and Ai in Joshua (6–8), then, are not historical records. But apparently, the people of Israel celebrated the gift of the land that they received from God at shrines near Jericho. Certainly, the story of Jericho's fall reads more like an account of a liturgical ceremony than that of a military adventure.
The book tells the tale of Jericho and Ai as object lessons for its readers. Neither Joshua's military leadership nor the bravery of the Israelite army was responsible for the fall of Jericho. The town was taken because Israel followed God's directions. The city's walls collapsed after an elaborate procession with the ark—not because of any military operation. This led to a complete victory, but Israel was told not to enjoy the fruits of the victory: no one was to loot the city nor was there to be any Israelite settlement there. While Israel had no difficulty taking Jericho, Ai was another story ( 7, 1–8, 30 ). Because Joshua's spies misjudged the enemy's strength, Israel attacked Ai without sufficient force and suffered a grave defeat. The book accounts for this stunning setback by describing how Achan kept some of the booty from Jericho for himself, contrary to Joshua's instructions ( 6, 17–21 ). After Joshua prayed and Achan was punished, God provided Joshua with tactical instructions for the defeat of Ai's army.
To keep the significance of the Torah before the reader, the book tells of a detour to the north that Joshua took in order to build an altar on Mount Ebal, which flanks the valley in which Shechem is located ( 8, 30–35 ). On the stones used to make the altar, Joshua wrote the Torah. He then read the Torah—complete with the blessings and curses contained in it—to the people, reminding them that they will shape their future by the choices they make.
When the book returns to the story of the battle for Canaan, Joshua and his army are at Gilgal. Their victories led kings of the city‐states in Canaan to form an alliance to stop the Israelite advance. The people of Gibeon tried a different approach. They sought an alliance with the Israelites by claiming to be, like the Israelites, newly arrived in Canaan ( 9, 1–27 ). When the Israelites discovered that they were tricked by the Gibeonites, they suggested that the Gibeonites accept a low social status in the Israelite community as laborers in the Temple.
Like Jericho and Ai, Gibeon was not inhabited in the thirteenth century BC. This story is not based on any memory of an event in Israel's past; it is another homily on obedience. Like Rahab, the Gibeonites seem to know their Bible and are familiar with the Exodus tradition and the laws of Deuteronomy regarding relations with nearby and distant towns (Dt 20 ). But the story also serves as a warning to consult with the Lord in difficult circumstances, which the Israelites did not do in this situation—much to their regret (Jos 9, 14 ). Without consulting God, Israel found itself regretting its actions. There will be several occasions in the monarchic period when Israel and Judah get into great difficulties because of the treaties they made with other nations, for example, Ahaz's alliance with Assyria (2 Kgs 16, 7–9 ).
One reason for Israel's regret in this case was that it had to face a coalition of Gibeon's neighbors to the south who were not happy because of its alliance with Israel. Of course, Israel was victorious, not because of its military prowess but because God enlisted the sun and moon to seal Israel's victory ( 10, 1–14 ). In the ancient Near East, the sun and the moon were gods in their own right, but here they are simply weapons in the Lord's arsenal. Verse 13 notes that the couplet celebrating this miracle came from a now lost text: the book of Jashar (see also 2 Sm 1, 18 ). Ancient Israel produced more literature than the Bible preserves, and occasionally the Bible will cite these texts. The book of Jashar is one example.
Following Joshua's defeat and execution of the kings allied against him, he moved against the south and brought that region under Israelite control ( 10, 25–43 ). The story of Joshua's victory over a coalition led by Jabin of Hazor ( 11, 1–23 ) is meant to account for the taking of the entire northern third of Canaan: the Jezreel Valley and the Galilee. Once the author tells of the capture of Hazor, the story of the land‐taking ends. The second section of Joshua ends with summary statements ( 11, 15–23 ), the most important of which is that Joshua carried out the orders that God gave to Moses. The story of the battle for the Promised Land, then, is a story of the success that obedience brings.
The gift of the land is a motif that is woven throughout the Old Testament, but the references to how that land was acquired by Israel are not very specific. For example, though the story of Jericho's miraculous fall is an important part of Joshua, it is not mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament. What precisely were the experiences that generated the first stories about Israel's acquisition of its land are unknown. But before they came to have their present form, they were shaped and reshaped by almost six hundred years of life in that land. Ancient Israel's storytellers witnessed the rise and fall of the two Israelite national states. These experiences certainly left their mark on the story of Joshua and the emergence of the Israelite tribes in Canaan.
The story of the battle for the Promised Land effectively turned the past into a sermon whose purpose was to stimulate the faith and hope of those who first heard or read it. They learned that there could be a future for the people of Israel if they, like Joshua's generation, were obedient to the Torah. The homiletical character of this story makes its use in reconstructing the early history of Israel problematic. Archaeological excavation supports the conclusion that the stories of conquest found in Joshua were not based on memories of actual battles that took place at Jericho, Ai, or in the environs of Gibeon. But archaeology has shown that people living in Canaan in the thirteenth century BC experienced serious disruptions. Towns and villages were destroyed and abandoned. The Israelite tribes emerged in the central highlands of Canaan precisely during this difficult period, so it is likely that Israel acquired the land that was to be the scene of its subsequent history, in part, by violence. It is difficult, from the evidence offered by the book of Joshua, to say much more. What the book does affirm unequivocally is that Israel came to possess the land because of God's power, and Israel was able to receive that land as God's gift because of its obedience. These affirmations, however, were meant to give Israel a vision of the future rather than information about the past. To those who wondered if God were capable of restoring Israel, the book of Joshua answers with a resounding yes.
After listing the territories brought under Israelite control during the battle for the Promised Land ( 13, 1–7 ), the book of Joshua has an extensive section dealing with the distribution of the land among the Israelite tribes ( 13, 8–19, 51 ). Working through this section is difficult for modern readers since it is full of geographical detail that is meaningless to many. While the precise borders of the various tribal allotments may have been very important to the people of ancient Israel, their significance today is exclusively historical. Still, there are some details in this part of the story that even contemporary readers should attend to.
It is important to remember that ancient Israel's economy was based on agriculture. Ownership of land was crucial to survival in such an economy. Possession of a plot of land enabled the Israelite to produce enough food for his family and livestock with a surplus to be used for replanting and for sacrificial offerings. Without land, a person had no access to the means of production. Such a person was dependent for survival on the charity of his fellow Israelites. Of course, there were some people who supported themselves as merchants and artisans, but they too ultimately depended on Israel's peasant farmers for their prosperity.
The account of the land distribution among the tribes begins with a reminder of the areas of Canaan that the Israelites did not control ( 13, 1–6 ). This was a necessary corrective to the exaggerations in the previous section of the book, which claimed that Joshua and the Israelite subdued “the entire land,” “the whole country” (Jos 9, 24; 11, 23 ). Then follows a review of the territories previously allotted by Moses to those Israelites who were going to live east of the Jordan River ( 13, 7–33 ). Israel's control over this region was neither firm nor constant, but its inclusion among the tribal allotments expresses Israel's claim on that territory, even though Israel was not always able to support that claim. When Ezekiel described his vision of an Israel restored after the exile, he did not have any of the tribes living east of the Jordan (Ez 48, 1–29 ).
When the account of the distribution of the land west of the Jordan begins in chapters 14 , both Eleazar the priest and Joshua preside over the distribution ( 14, 1; see also Nm 34, 17 ). The preceding sections of the book did not emphasize the role of the priest except for the liturgical actions (e.g., 3, 6; 6, 1–9 ). The priority given to Eleazar here may reflect the more significant role that the priests played in the leadership of the community after the state collapsed and the dynasty ended, as is evident from Haggai, Zechariah, and Ezra. Eleazar's presence may also be a consequence of having the land distributed by lot ( 14, 2 ). Although Deuteronomy explicitly forbids attempts to determine the divine will through the techniques of divination (Dt 18, 9–12 ), the casting of lots seems to have been widely practiced and accepted as legitimate. The lot oracle was committed to the priests (Ex 28, 30; Lv 8, 5–9 ). To show that the distribution of the land was done according to God's will, it was accomplished by the use of lots in a procedure presided over by a priest. The New Testament gives evidence of the continuing popularity and acceptance of using lots to determine the divine will (Acts 1, 26 ).
The report of the land's distribution among the Israelites pays most attention to the region in the very center of what became the territory of the two Israelite kingdoms ( 14, 6–17, 17 ). This is the territory that will be given to Judah, Ephraim, and Manasseh. While the territory of Benjamin ( 18, 11–20 ) also merits special regard because it was coveted by both Israelite kingdoms, the allotments of the other tribes get comparatively meager attention. Judah is considered first. Its territory comprised most of what would be the Southern Kingdom. Since the Old Testament reflects a southern perspective, the priority given to Judah is understandable. The territory of Ephraim and Manasseh became the heartland of the Northern Kingdom and could not be ignored. The entry about the allotment of Dan is unusual ( 19, 40–48 ). It notes that the territory given to Dan was located along the coastal plain. This will be the setting of the story of Samson, a Danite hero (Jgs 13–16 ). But the entry goes on to note that Dan was unable to take control of that territory from the indigenous population, and so the tribe relocated to the far north. The story of this relocation is told in Judges 17–18 . The story of the land's distribution concludes in 19, 49–51 with the note that Joshua received the town in Ephraim that he requested for himself.
Two of ancient Israel's social institutions are the subject of the fourth section of the book of Joshua. The first is the city of refuge. There were six of these cities—three on each side of the Jordan. According to Numbers 35, 9–34 , it was Moses who announced God's plan to have such cities where a person who accidentally caused another's death could be safe from the victim's relatives, who might seek vengeance. Moses had already named the three cities east of the Jordan, and now Joshua designated three more west of the Jordan. The books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles never mention this institution since they were not needed following the centralization of authority by the monarchy. The book of Judges mentions two examples of private vengeance: 8, 13–21 and 20, 1–11 . It is clear from these examples that the biblical tradition does not approve of such acts. A second set of forty‐eight towns is set aside for the Levites. The tribe of Levi received no territory of its own because the men of that tribe served as priests, who were to teach the Torah to Israel and offer sacrifice to the Lord (see Dt 33, 8–11 ). To fulfill these functions the priests need to be available to the people; therefore the cities where the Levites have residential and grazing rights are scattered throughout the country.
This section on special towns has been inserted in the account of the tribal allotments, as is evident from Joshua 21, 43–45 . This text makes no mention of the special towns but has been detached from 19, 51 to allow for the insertion.
A Threat of Civil War ( Jos 22, 1–34 )
The Israelites whose territory was east of the Jordan River had joined in the battle to take control of the area west of the river. Since that battle was completed successfully, Joshua allowed them to return to their homes (vv. 1–8 ). This is a prelude to a conflict between the Israelites east of the river and those on the west (vv. 9–34 ). The tribes from the east side of the river built an altar near the Jordan, and this offended the Israelites from the west. War was averted because Phineas, Eleazar's son, succeeded in negotiating peace between the two groups. The precise nature of the offense is not obvious, though it may reflect the Deuteronomic belief that there was to be only one place where sacrifices were to be offered. Apparently, the book of Joshua assumed that this place was Shiloh. When the easterners explained that they did not intend to offer sacrifices on the altar they built (v. 26 ), this defused the problem. The tribes from the west of the Jordan were satisfied that those from the east side meant no offense and were not repudiating the Lord. Joshua had no role in this story; it was a priest who brought about a happy ending to what could have been a great disaster. Again, this presages the leadership role that priests assumed in Israel's life following the end of the monarchy.
The final testament of such an important person as Joshua was highly significant. The storyteller creates a speech for his hero that could have come right out of the book of Deuteronomy. Israel's continued presence in the land depends on its adherence to “all that is written in the book of the law of Moses… ( 23, 6 ). Joshua reminds Israel to love God ( 23, 11 ), the Torah's greatest command. But then Joshua issues a warning that any failure on Israel's part to remain completely and exclusively loyal to God will have the gravest of consequences ( 23, 15–16 ). While the land is a gift from God to Israel, the gift can be revoked. Of course, this is a theological conclusion that came from Israel's experience. By the time the book of Joshua took the form that it now has, Israel did “perish from the good land” that it had received from God ( 23, 16 ). Israel's faith in God's fidelity, however, led to the hope that a new dedication to the Torah and a renewed commitment to the covenant will bring a reversal of the misfortune that Israel brought on itself. The book then describes an elaborate ceremony in which Israel of Joshua's day renews its commitment to God and the Torah ( 24, 1–28 ). Clearly this final chapter is a model for Israel of the sixth century BC, which has experienced the full consequences of its infidelity. But a renewal is possible if the people and their leaders remember how God has been faithful to fulfill the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Like the ancestors in the days of Joshua, Israel must again commit itself to serve and obey God alone.
The burial notices with which the book ends ( 24, 29–30 .32–33) are significant because of the prominence given to Eleazar, the priest. This is very likely another indication of the leadership role assumed by priests after the fall of the Israelite monarchy. Verse 31 is the verdict on the era of Joshua: it was an era marked by obedience and loyalty. That is the reason Israel came to possess the land: obedience brings God's blessing.