the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
Layman's Bible Commentary Layman's Bible Commentary
by Various Authors
THE BOOK OF JOSHUA
The Book of Joshua is both a climax and a new beginning. In it is recorded the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham concerning the gift of the land of Canaan (Genesis 12, 15) and the beginning of a long life for the people of Israel in the national homeland. The Exodus from Egypt and the Covenant in the wilderness have meaning in Israel’s history only because a home-land was won in which a redeemed and covenanted people could work out their destiny under God. The book thus looks both back-ward and forward.
This double orientation of the book has had an effect on its interpretation. It has long been classed with the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch), and the six books together have been termed "the Hexateuch." It has been thought that the same basic sources used in the Pentateuch ("J," "E," "D," and "P") lie embedded in the Book of Joshua. The book’s relationship with those writings which follow it in the Canon—Judges to Kings—has also been emphasized. Some interpreters argue convincingly that it is part of a great Deuteronomic history of Israel from the time of Moses to the Babylonian Exile of the sixth century. This history began with the Book of Deuteronomy, and Joshua formed its second member.
Such a view is in line with ancient Hebrew thought concerning the place of the book in the Canon. In the Hebrew Bible, Joshua is classified among the "Former Prophets" (Joshua to Kings). Though these books, strictly speaking, are historical writings and not compilations of utterances of prophets, there is some justification for the classification. Some of the material deals with such early prophets as Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha. But, more important, these writings present Israel’s history in its homeland from the viewpoint of the prophet: Israel stands in Covenant relationship with God; obedience to the terms of the Covenant has brought and will bring prosperity and security in the land, but disobedience has resulted and will result in national and personal disaster. This was the theological perspective of the Book of Deuteronomy, and the Books of Joshua to Kings show how Israel’s history in the land illustrates the truth of this principle.
Author, Sources, and Date
Most interpreters believe that the Book of Joshua was put together from a variety of sources—some of them of early date—by a compiler who lived not earlier than the late seventh century B.C. and probably in the sixth. This writer may have been the author of the Book of Deuteronomy in its present form. The stylistic and theological characteristics of Deuteronomy and Joshua are strikingly similar. It is altogether likely that Joshua is the second number of a great Deuteronomic history of Israel reaching from Moses to the fall of Jerusalem. It seems that some portions of Joshua were added after the great history was completed (possibly Joshua 13-21, 24).
What sources were used in compiling the Book of Joshua cannot be accurately indicated. It can be debated whether the old "JE" narrative furnished any of the material of chapters 1-12. The "JE" narrative must have contained an account of the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham (Genesis 12, 15) in the gift of the land, and hence some interpreters hold that it is preserved in altered form in the narrative of Joshua 1-12. The material contained in Joshua 13-21 seems to have come from tribal border and town lists of cities of refuge and Levitical cities, dating probably from the eleventh to the seventh centuries. Those who deny that "JE" materials underlie the story of the conquest of the land in Joshua find the source of this material in sanctuary and tribal traditions freely reworked by the Deuteronomic author. Whatever the sources used, the author has thoroughly recast them and welded them into a narrative of dramatic power.
Opinions differ sharply on the historical value of the Book of Joshua. It has long been noted that the massive, sweeping, and almost uniformly successful character of Joshua’s campaigns, as described in this book, differs from the painful, piecemeal, tribe-by-tribe efforts at conquest detailed in the first chapter of Judges. It has been customary to accredit the Judges account and discredit that in Joshua as consisting of fanciful hero tales told through the romanticizing haze of the years, and as popular stories which arose in explanation of various customs and landmarks. Similarly, little of value for understanding the settlement of the tribes in the conquered land has been seen in the lists offered in Joshua 13-21, so late and confused have these materials seemed to be.
As a result of archaeological research, however, some interpreters have come to see more grounds for confidence in the historical value of the Joshua materials. Excavation has established conclusively that several important cities of western Palestine (Bethel, Lachish, Debir, Hazor) were destroyed in the latter half of the thirteenth century B.C., the probable period of the Israelite invasion. Heavy layers of ash, topped by primitive Israelite structures quite different from Canaanite workmanship, offer mute evidence of the ferocity of the Israelite attack and the completeness of the resultant devastation. These cities are located in the center, the south, and the north of the land, the locale of Joshua’s sweeping attacks. It is admitted that the record in Joshua is schematic and overly laudatory of Joshua, that some cities claimed as destroyed by him could not have been thus taken (Jericho, Ai), and that in reality most of the land had yet to be subjugated territory by territory; but the probability of smashing campaigns in the center, in the south, and in the north cannot be gainsaid. Some sections of Joshua seem cognizant of the gradual subjugation of the land (13:2-6; 15:13-19, 63; 23:7-13). It seems that the evidence of both Joshua and Judges is needed for a full picture of the Conquest.
The point of view throughout is identical with that in Deuteronomy. If earlier materials used in the Book of Joshua had a different theological orientation, it is no longer discernible.
God is regarded as a holy and jealous God, who tolerates no worship of other gods by his people. He is the Lord of history, who works out the pattern of events in such a way as to fulfill his own purposes. (Note the sovereign "I" in 24:2-13.) He has called Israel into being and guided its destiny at every stage. He has given his people a homeland. This has been possessed not by Israel’s bow or sword (24:12) but by the terror or panic sent by the Lord on the land’s inhabitants. Although much territory re-mains to be taken, the whole land is included in God’s promise, and it will be possessed if Israel will be loyal and obedient to God.
In view of the gracious purpose and deeds of the Lord, Israel should love and serve him faithfully (23:11; 24:14-15). This means abhorrence of other gods, no intermarriage with foreign peoples (23:12-13), and complete destruction of forbidden material possessions (ch. 7). The only path to national security and prosperity is exclusive loyalty to God with the whole heart and soul (22:5); for an evaluation of the significance of this general point of view for contemporary Christians see the comment on Deuteronomy 7:1-26 and 27:1-28:68.
The Preparation for the Conquest (1:1-5:15)
The Events of the Conquest (6:1-12:24)
God’s Command to Joshua (13:1-7)
Tribal Allotments East of the Jordan (13:8-33)
Tribal Allotments West of the Jordan (14:1-19:51)
Appointment of Cities of Refuge (20:1-9)
Designation of Levitical Cities (21:1-45)
The Dismissal of the Transjordan Tribes (22:1-9)
The Altar of Witness at the Jordan (22:10-34)
First Concluding Address of Joshua (23:1-16)
Second Concluding Address and the Covenant Ceremony at Shechem (24:1-28)
Joshua’s Death and Burial and the Interment of Joseph and Eleazar (24:29-33)