Reading Time: 13 minutes

Introduction to the book of Joshua

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Joshua before Joshua

The man known as Joshua was first named Hoshea (Numbers 13:8, 16), which means “salvation.” Later Moses changed his name to Joshua, meaning “the Lord saves” or “the Lord gives victory.” “Joshua” and “Jesus” are both derived from the same Hebrew word Yehoshua. The similarity of their names and work is striking—both led God’s people to salvation by conquest over the enemies of the Lord, establishing the possibility of eternal rest in the providence of the Father.

As the NavPress commentary makes clear, Joshua served a critical role in the early chapter of Israel’s history as a nation. When the people crossed the Red Sea, they met the Amalekites in their first military battle, and were led by Joshua to victory (Exodus 17:8-16). Joshua quickly became Moses’ understudy and disciple, sharing his experience atop Mt. Sinai (Exodus 24:9-13) and in the tabernacle (Exodus 33:7-11).

After Moses led the nation to the edge of the Promised Land, Joshua and Caleb were sent with ten other tribal representatives to spy out the land. Only they reported favorably; the nation shrunk from their heritage in fear, and their generation was forced to wander in the desert until they died. Moses then led them again to the boundary of the land, where he was taken to heaven. Leadership of God’s people now rested humanly in the hands of Joshua.

He would prove faithful to his calling. He would lead the nation miraculously across the Jordan, victoriously at Jericho and across Canaan, and strategically in dividing the land among the tribes. At the book’s end, he would challenge the people spiritually even as he had led them militarily.

At the book’s beginning, Moses was described as “the servant of the Lord,” and Joshua as his “aide” (1:1). At its end Joshua was granted the same title as his mentor: “the servant of the Lord” (24:29). His courageous faithfulness earned him such tribute.

Joshua the book

Setting and theme: The book opens with Israel on the edge of the Promised Land, camped on the eastern shore of the Jordan River. It ends with the people in possession of that land which will be the focus of divine activity and revelation from this point to the coming of their Messiah. And Joshua is the central figure and leader in this story of conquest and celebration.

The name of the book: The Hebrews used the first words of a book to constitute its name, thus calling our text “Now After the Death of Moses.” Those who translated the Hebrew into Greek (creating the Septuagint), three centuries before Christ, named the book “Joshua” in honor of its leading character. When Jerome later produced the Latin Vulgate, he expanded the book’s title to “The Book of Joshua.” And so it remains today.

Authorship: The book of Joshua does not name its author. In this it is similar to other Old Testament histories, all of which are named for their leading character rather than an identified writer. While Paul tells us who wrote Philippians, Joshua does not tell us its author’s name. As a result, questions regarding authorship are not crucial to understanding the book. And one authorship theory should not be defended as more “biblical” than another.

As the NavPress commentary notes, Jewish tradition claimed that Joshua wrote all of the book bearing his name except the descriptions of his and Eleazar’s deaths at the end (Josh 24:28-33). Modern opinion ranges from the belief that Joshua was alone responsible for the book to assertion that he had nothing to do with its composition, which occurred some eight centuries after the events the book describes.

Here is “internal evidence” (facts found within the book) which helps us form a position on this issue. We know that Joshua was himself literate, given that he carved the law onto stones (8:32) and later “recorded these things in the Book of the Law of God” (24:26). We find eyewitness accounts within the book, such as 5:1: “Now when all the Amorite kings west of the Jordan and all the Canaanite kings along the coast heard how the Lord had dried up the Jordan before the Israelites until we had crossed over . . .” (italics added). These facts, added to early Hebrew tradition, argue for Joshua as the author of most or all of the book.

Joshua 15:63 also contributes to an early authorship position: “Judah could not dislodge the Jebusites, who were living in Jerusalem; to this day the Jebusites live there with the people of Judah.” The men of Judah defeated the Jebusites later (Judges 1:8), and still later, David made the city his capital (2 Sam 5:6-10). But these events obviously occurred after Joshua was written, arguing for authorship at a time when the events transpired.

However, Joshua 4:9 suggests that an editor worked with the book after the events recorded had occurred: “Joshua set up the twelve stones that had been in the middle of the Jordan at the spot where the priests who carried the ark of the covenant had stood. And they are there to this day” (italics added).

My own belief is that the book was written primarily by Joshua, and that it was later edited by his followers into the form we have today, including an account of his death. But given that the book identifies no author, the issue is not foundational to the trustworthiness of Scripture or our interpretation of this text.

The nature of the book: Joshua is written as prophetic history. Like other books of biblical history, this is an interpretive narrative. The author’s purpose was not to detail or describe every event which occurred during the years encompassed by his work. Such would be no less possible then than today. Imagine writing a complete and exhaustive history of just this day in your life. All history is interpretive, by virtue of the sheer fact that what we include and exclude is the product of our own subjective purposes and biases.

So with the book before us. The author’s purpose was to show us how God kept his promise to his covenant people. Against all odds, fighting entrenched opponents who were defending their homeland and civilization, this band of former slaves came to possess one of the most fertile and politically significant regions in all the world. The author selects and interprets those events which tell his story most effectively.

And so this literature must be interpreted according to its authorial intent. In each passage we will seek to discover and apply the purpose intended for that text. Each week you will find another way to glorify the God who is the true Hero and Conqueror of Joshua, and of life and history today. Truly “history” is still “his story.”

The conquest and the love of God

The book of Joshua presents most readers with a troubling question: how can a God of love command his followers to destroy an entire nation of people? The Canaanites had lived in their land for centuries before Joshua and his people came to claim it for themselves. While some in Canaan fought against God’s people and were destroyed as a result (cf. the battle of Ai, 8:14ff), others mounted no armed aggression against Israel. The people of Jericho, for instance, retreated inside their city walls and mounted no attack against the Jews. Nonetheless, following divine orders, the Israeli soldiers “destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys” (6:21).

The God of Joshua also required a similar kind of wrathful judgment against his own people when they sin. Following the battle of Jericho, a soldier named Achan took in plunder “a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels” (7:21). This in direct disobedience to the divine command that “All the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron are sacred to the Lord and must go into his treasury” (6.19).

For this sin, the Israeli army was defeated in the first battle of Ai. When Achan admitted his disobedience, he and his family were taken to the Valley of Achor where they were stoned to death and then burned (7:25).

Such vengeance sounds very little like the God who is love (1 John 4:8), the One who would send his own Son to die on a cross in place of our disobedient race. How are we to reconcile the first Joshua with the Second? Four facts may help your class.

First, the Promised Land belonged to God before the Canaanites established temporary residency there. It had always been his plan to give this land to the descendants of Abraham: “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here” (Gen 15:16a). The Lord did not take from them that which was “theirs”—he reclaimed that which was his according to his foreordained purposes.

Second, the Canaanites lived in wicked rebellion against the will and purposes of God. The Lord had predicted that Abraham’s descendants would claim the land when “the sin of the Amorites” reached its “full measure” (Genesis 15:16b). This “full measure” of sin was attained by the Canaanites in the generation leading to the Jewish conquest.

Moses warned his people about these sins they would encounter upon entering the Promised Land: “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead” (Deuteronomy 18:10-11). He stated that anyone who practices such sins is “detestable to the Lord,” and explained that “because of these detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you” (v. 12). Those who were conquered by Joshua and his armies were not innocent victims, but wicked sinners who received the judgment their transgressions had warranted.

Third, the blood retribution practiced by ancient tribal culture required the Jewish armies to destroy not only the soldiers of their enemies, but their families as well. So long as one member of a family remained, that person was bound by cultural law to attempt retribution against the enemies of his people. Such unrest and hostility would have persisted throughout the nation’s history, with no possibility of peace in the land. What appears to be genocide was actually the typical way wars were prosecuted.

Fourth, in these formative early years of Israel’s history it was imperative that the people be kept from the influence of sinners without or within their nation. The holy God who gave them their land would uproot them from it if they rebelled against him (Deut 28:63-68). This warning came to pass centuries later at the hands of Assyria and then Babylon, and ultimately in the national destruction wrought by Rome in the first century after Christ.

And so God had to bring severe judgment against Achan, lest he and his family spread the cancer of their disobedience within the nation. And he ordered his people to destroy all they found within Canaanite civilization, lest it continue to tempt them to disobedience and eventual destruction. We find similar severity during the formative years of the Christian movement in God’s judgment against Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11).

God does not change. But his purposes are fulfilled in different ways at different times in redemptive history. Justice required retribution against the sinful Canaanite civilization. And his salvation plan required a purified nation through whom he could bring the Messiah of all mankind. When Christ came, Joshua’s leadership of conflict and conquest was fulfilled.

Now we are taught to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors (Matthew 5:44). Not because God has changed, for such love proves that we are “sons of your Father in heaven” (v. 45). Rather, because such love expresses his grace toward us and all mankind.

Why study Joshua now?

Joshua is a perennial favorite for Bible study groups, given its exciting stories of conquest and faith. Crossing the Jordan River miraculously, parading around Jericho, and watching the sun stand still are experiences worthy of any Sunday school literature.

I never enjoy teaching a class without expounding a specific text of Scripture. And so let’s close this introduction to the book of Joshua with a brief exploration of its first two verses: “After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ aide: ‘Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them—to the Israelites.”

Moses was the foundational and formative leader of the nation. He was her first prophet and guide, leading her people from four centuries of Egyptian slavery to the edge of their Promised Land. Israel had seen God do remarkable miracles through Moses: bringing plagues upon the entire Egyptian nation, parting the Red Sea and destroying the mightiest army the world had ever seen, and receiving the very words and Commandments of God by his divine hand. Truly, “No one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel” (Deuteronomy 34:12), until the Lord himself descended in his Son.

Now Moses is gone. If colonial America lost George Washington their military hero, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams their political leaders, and Benjamin Franklin their man of wisdom, all in one moment, they would be in no greater peril than Israel when the book of Joshua opens. The very future of the nation rests humanly with him.

But Joshua has the very resource which empowered his mentor and hero: the word and will of the Lord God Almighty. God makes clear that the nation is his, their future is secure in his hands, and their destiny is sure. He will give them their land and their dreams. He will keep his promises and make them his own.

This same Lord now stands ready to guide and empower all who follow him by faith. What purpose has he assigned your life and work? What enemies are you to defeat in his power? What land are you to possess for his glory? What does he intend you to do next to fulfill his will for your life?

If your dreams are large enough to be accomplished without fear or faith, they are not large enough. God intends to do through us that which is beyond our ability. He will not share his glory. And so his call is always to that which will bring him honor, as he demonstrates his power and grace through our lives and work.

As you know, our church has been working toward a capital project of historic significance. “Continuing the Vision” has been motivated by a statement I first heard from my friend John Haggai: “Let us attempt something so great it is doomed to fail unless God be in it.” I am convinced that is God’s intent for our church, and for each of our personal lives and ministries.

At the beginning of the book which bears his name, Joshua faced a life purpose he could not accomplish without God. Let’s join him, for that is the very best place to be.