Joshua - Introduction
THE BOOK OF JOSHUA, which derives its title from the name of its chief character, begins after the death of Moses (Deut. ch 34 ) and continues until the death and burial of Joshua (Josh. 24.29–30 ). Its narratives recount how Joshua leads the people of Israel across the Jordan River into the land promised to the ancestors, takes possession of that land, divides it among the tribes, and leads them in swearing allegiance to the covenant. Many of these narratives, such as the story of Rahab and the spies and the conquest of Jericho, are well known; others, such as the treaty with the Gibeonites and the land grant to Achsah, are more obscure. Even less familiar are other parts of Joshua: lists of tribal towns and boundaries, and descriptions of rituals.
As the first biblical book following the Torah, Joshua has many features in common with some of those books, especially Deuteronomy. Some passages are nearly direct quotations of texts from Deuteronomy. In addition, just as Deuteronomy is cast as a series of hortatory speeches by Moses, Joshua is replete with declamatory speeches—by Joshua, the leaders, Rahab, the people, and even God. As in Deuteronomy, the focus on the covenant is central to Joshua, with obedience to the covenant a prerequisite for God's blessings.
These similarities and the fact that the land promise of Genesis is only fulfilled in Joshua led many scholars in the 19th and early 20th centuries to speak of the Hexateuch, the first six books of the Bible, comprising Genesis through Joshua. Even more widely accepted now is the idea that, because Deuteronomic features are found throughout the Former Prophets (Joshua to 2 Kings), Joshua in its final form is the result of the compilation of a comprehensive historical work called the Deuteronomistic History, which begins in Deuteronomy and ends in 2 Kings. Such a work might have initially taken shape in the late 7th century BCE, when King Josiah is said to have found a “scroll of the Teaching” and subsequently instituted reforms that reflect Deuteronomic rules and perspectives (see 2 Kings chs 22–23 ). Because the last events of this “history” take place during the exile, it probably received a final editing in the 6th century BCE. This sequence of redactions may explain some of the duplications and inconsistencies of the book.
Although the completed book may date to the middle of the first millennium BCE, some of its elements may be much older. It clearly draws on materials—such as town lists, battlestories, and etiologies—that are similar to ancient historiographic and folkloristic traditions known from other ancient Near Eastern cultures of the second and first millennia BCE. In addition, it contains twelve personal names of non‐Israelites (including Rahab, Jabin, and Adoni‐zedek), and these names are attested in Near Eastern documents dating from or before the period of early Israel.
The reputation of Joshua—the leader and the book—usually is based on the belief that the land was entirely conquered by Israelites in the early post‐Mosaic period. There are two problems with this view of the narrative, however. First, the book's idea of total acquisition of the land involves carrying out the command to annihilate all the inhabitants of the land (see, e.g., 6.21 ); carrying out this ̣ͨerem, or “proscription,” would have been a project of genocidal proportions. Second, the intense archeological investigation of virtually all of the places mentioned in Joshua that can be identified with current sites reveals no pattern of destruction that can be correlated, in either chronology or location, with the period of early Israel. The moral horror of the first problem may, in fact, be diminished by the historical data provided by the second. That is, the military and destructive aspects of the so‐called conquest are probably not entirely historical, but rather are literary‐theological constructions to portray the overarching idea of Israelite acquisition of all the land promised to the ancestors. Indeed, most scholars now speak of Israelite settlement in the land, rather than of conquest, especially because archeology has also shown that earliest Israel consisted of scores of new villages—settlements of previously unoccupied territory in the central highlands—rather than rebuilt towns on destroyed Canaanite strongholds. In this understanding, the ̣ͨerem is not historical but rather an ideological expression of the divine ownership of the land being transmitted to the Israelites as the rightful heirs to their inheritance (nạͨalah) from the LORD. It also emphasizes that the Deuteronomistic authors of Joshua felt that the native population of Canaan posed a serious religious threat, which in theory should be dealt with through annihilation (see also Deut. 7.2; 20.16–18 ). That the ̣ͨerem was not applied to all these Canaanites is also suggested by references in Joshua and Judges that non‐Israelites did indeed survive in the land for generations to come.
The structure of the book is straightforward, with an overall division into two parts: The first twelve chapters present the conquest, and the second twelve describe the apportionment of the land. Within each half there are several units. The conquest part contains an elaborate account of crossing the Jordan (chs 1–5 ), followed by military narratives (chs 6–12 ). The latter focus mainly on the center of the country (chs 6–9 ), giving only cursory attention to the south (ch 10 ) and the north (half of ch 11 ). The apportionment consists of a unit delineating tribal lands (chs 13–21 ) followed by an epilogue of closing speeches and ceremonies (chs 22–24 ).
The religious aspects of the book, aside from the overall concern with following God's teaching, are manifest in several institutions and ceremonies that appear in Joshua. Circumcision and the Passover sacrifice mark the entry to the land and thereby provide didactic value in emphasizing two traditions, introduced in the Torah, that were to becomedefining practices of Judaism. Similarly, the important role of the Ark of the Covenant—along with priests, altars, and sacrifices—reflects the integral relationship of the sacral and political in ancient Israelite life. This prominence of the Ark, as the repository of the covenant, foreshadows the centrality of the synagogue Ark ('aron), which serves as the repository of the Torah scrolls in later Jewish tradition.
In its frequent usage of Deuteronomistic forms (e.g., speeches), language, and themes, the book of Joshua reveals its didactic intent rather than its interest in accurately depicting the past for its own sake. Furthermore, the telling of Israel's early “history” is not simply to provide a narrative of claim for the land; it also provides a way to make features of the land itself become signals of the past. For example, the numerous etiologies (origin accounts), many of them connected with stone heaps presumably visible on the ancient landscape of the later authors, provide instructional associations for geographic markers.
The continuity with Deuteronomy, and with the Torah in general, is most striking in the way Joshua mirrors aspects of Moses' leadership. Just as Moses led a miraculous crossing of the parted waters of the Reed Sea, so Joshua leads a miraculous crossing of the divided waters of the Jordan. Both leaders send out spies and apportion the land. The exodus itself is thus replicated, to a certain extent, in the experiences of the Israelites described in Joshua. Perhaps most important, the unity of all Israel, exhorted to act in obedience to the Teaching of the LORD, is emphasized in Joshua as in the Torah. This unity will dissipate in the succeeding biblical books. But it is an ideal, along with the concept of an extensive territorial holding with no foreign enclaves, that dominates the book of Joshua. That Israel falls short of the covenant and territorial ideals is alluded to; but it remains for the rest of the Bible to develop those tensions between the ideal and reality.