Feature Image: Joshua with Moses, stained glass panel, 15th century, Church of St. Lawrence, Nuremberg, Germany.
The Book of Joshua is the sixth book in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament. It is the first book of the Deuteronomistic history or the story of Israel from the conquest of Canaan to the Babylonian exile. It contains many different kinds of highly synthesized and edited literary materials. These include various etiologies (explanations of customs, institutions, landmarks, etc.) and battle narratives. These materials are thereby complex from a literary perspective.
The Book of Joshua relates the military campaigns of the Israelites in central, southern and northern Canaan. It tells of the destruction of their enemies and the division of the land among the Twelve Tribes. These developments are conveyed by two set-pieces—the first by God commanding the conquest of the land (Chapter 1) and, the second, by Joshua exhorting the people to a faithful observance of the Law revealed to Moses (Chapter 23).
Is the Book of Joshua of historical value? Clearly historical, the Israelites gained control of Canaan—and the book relates that it was accomplished by a series of battle victories which is not unreasonable to presume. The book’s broad narrative is generally to be founded on history.
The Book of Joshua also contains many creations of the popular imagination or folklore which makes the historical reliance on its details presented as fact in the narrative not indisputable. Where the meagerness of materials is present, however, the ancient compilers and editors did not elaborate based on broad or simple textual statements but moderated descriptions to the available details. Today’s modern archaeology, while able to provide insight into human activity in Canaan throughout this time period (13th century BCE and later), the historical quest to establish a clear, concrete connection to episodes mentioned in the Book of Joshua by this science can be hard to support.
The figure of Joshua in the role of significant military leader is integral to the narrative and found in the most ancient, original text (i.e., his role in the formation of the 12-tribe league at Shecham, Chapter 24), among other examples. All factors point to Joshua’s significant role in the conquest.
In terms of the Book of Joshua’s religious aspects there are several layers of religious tradition that are held in common but with singular or special emphases. The book relates the conquest as an act of God. For man, the act of conquest or “holy war” was closely associated to an act of worship though that idea was based on an older, primitive religious practice that was not practiced at least by the time the Book of Joshua was completed in the mid6th century BCE. The Book of Joshua also conveys another religiously primitive idea–that of collective guilt (Chapter 7).
Religious tradition is expressed in the ideas of God’s covenant and that morality is based on obedience to the Law as part of their close personal relationship to God. In chapters 13 to 21 which were added later, the book expresses God’s fidelity to the Israelites to the point of restoration of total possession of the land although while in exile that idea would be a dream. The idea of a future Israel that is restored was further embellished religiously—such as the 12 tribes gathered to worship at the sanctuary and providing carefully for its tribal priests (Chapter 22).
Joshua’s speech ends the book with a warning about the future (Chapter 23) though the following and last chapter added later ends differently. In that last chapter the people of Israel proclaim their choice to serve God (Joshua 24:24) and that the choice of Israel to be in relationship with God is a free one (24:15). The narrative of the Book of Joshua closes with Joshua’s death at the age of 110 years old and his burial among the heritage of the descendants of Joseph (24: 29, 32).
SOURCE: The Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Joseph A Fitzmeyer, S.J., and Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.
12 It was then, when the LORD delivered up the Amorites to the Israelites, that Joshua prayed to the LORD, and said in the presence of Israel: Sun, stand still at Gibeon, Moon, in the valley of Aijalon! 13 The sun stood still, the moon stayed, while the nation took vengeance on its foes. Joshua 10:12-13.
24When they brought the five kings out to Joshua, he summoned all the army of Israel and said to the commanders of the soldiers who had marched with him, “Come forward and put your feet on the necks of these kings.” They came forward and put their feet upon their necks. 25Then Joshua said to them, “Do not be afraid or dismayed, be firm and steadfast. This is what the LORD will do to all the enemies against whom you fight.” 26Thereupon Joshua struck and killed the kings, and hanged them on five trees, where they remained hanging until evening. Joshua 10: 24-26.