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Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology
Joshua, Theology of
Joshua the Faithful Warrior and Leader . Moses gave Joshua his name, meaning, "the Lord has delivered." The change from his former name, Hoshea ("he has delivered, " Numbers 13:16; Deuteronomy 32:44 ), reflects a confession of the God of Israel as Savior. Joshua first appears in Israel's war with the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8-13 ). He fights on behalf of Moses and leads Israel to victory. He thus personifies Israel at war. When he reappears in Exodus 24:13 , Joshua climbs Mount Sinai alongside Moses. Later (32:17), Joshua warns Moses of the noise that comes from the camp below where Israel engages in idolatry. He joins Moses in the covenant-making process and in watching over its preservation. With Caleb, Joshua spies out the land and returns a positive evaluation of the possibilities of Israelite occupation (Numbers 14 ). He appreciates and bears witness to the promised land as God's gift to Israel. Finally, Joshua is designated as Moses' successor and is commissioned to succeed him.
Four theological themes appear in the descriptions of Joshua in the Pentateuch: Joshua's divine commission as leader of Israel, his military leadership, his allocation of the land, and his role in Israel's covenant with God. In each case, God's word and power lie behind Joshua. These same four themes reappear in the Book of Joshua.
The Commission of a New Leader . The first chapter of the Book of Joshua establishes Joshua's leadership as divinely appointed successor to Moses. With Moses' death, God addresses Joshua directly, promising both the land which he promised to Moses (Deuteronomy 34:4 ) and his divine presence, just as he had given it to Moses (Joshua 1:3-5 ). The commands to be strong and courageous (vv. 6,7, 9) define the mission of Joshua. Their context of God's promised presence suggests that it is the divine choice and enablement of Joshua that precedes his leadership and gives it success. It only remains for Joshua to be recognized as leader by the Israelites, something he achieves through completion of the divinely appointed tasks involved in crossing the Jordan River. This miraculous crossing is God's means for exalting Joshua in the eyes of all Israel (Joshua 4:14 ).
Holy War and the Extermination of the Canaanites . Joshua's military leadership recurs throughout the first twelve chapters. Its theological dimensions incorporate questions of holy war and the extermination of all people from the land. How could a loving God allow such a slaughter, not only of the idolatrous Canaanites but also of their innocent children? Appeals to the sovereignty of God and his wrathful judgment may be made but the question persists as to the apparent wantonness of the destruction. An alternative, or perhaps complementary, explanation focuses on the exceptions of Rahab's family and of the Gibeonites, who escaped divine wrath through confession of faith in Israel's God (2:8-13; 9:9-10,24-25). Does this imply that such an option was always open to those who would renounce idolatry and submit themselves to Israel and to Israel's God? Although the Israelites seem reluctant to allow any who live in Canaan to survive (9:7) and the Gibeonites are saved only by deceit, it remains true that we are never told of any Canaanites who confessed the lordship of Israel's God and who subsequently were put to death. As to the slaughter of innocents, there is no specific mention of the killing of children. The accounts of Jericho's defeat and of the massacre at Ai mention men and women, as well as young and old, but they do not specify children (as opposed to "youth, young man" cf. 6:21; 8:22-24). This may be due to the nature of these places as fortresses rather than as population centers. Hazor's destruction mentions the extermination of everything that breathed (8:11-14). Even here, however, it is not certain that any others than the army remained in the city by the time the Israelites reached it. This is not intended to suggest that no innocents were killed, but rather to point out how little the Bible informs us about such matters. The concept of the ban, in which divine judgment required Israel to render back to God through killing and destruction all who rejected Israel's God, was common throughout the ancient Near East. What is unique in the theology of Joshua is the record of exceptions to this rule, lives spared through the confession of belief in the God of Israel and in his mission for his people.
The Land as an Inheritance . Joshua's allocation of the land in chapters 13-21 continues the process already begun by Moses in Transjordan. Although the land west of the Jordan had the unique role of divine promise to the patriarchs and to Moses, the allotments of Reuben, Gad, and part of Manasseh also formed part of what was to become the land of Israel. Insofar as God is giving this land to his people as an inheritance, the tribal allotments, as well as the Levitical cities and the cities of refuge, take on a covenantal character. This land inheritance formed the material wealth of the families of Israel. It could be passed on from generation to generation as a means of preserving the wealth of the family and as a means of integrating the life, livelihood, and faith of each new generation with those preceding it. For this reason many of the towns mentioned in the town lists and boundary descriptions of these chapters are identical to the names of families found in the extended genealogies of 1 Chronicles 1-9 . The idealistic nature of these allotments is suggested from Joshua 13:1-7 and throughout the allotments. The witness of the Canaanite presence and occupation of parts of the land is not negated by the affirmation that all of God's promises were fulfilled (21:43-45). Instead, this promise looks forward to the completion of the settlement process and the full occupation of the land by Israel such as would be confirmed by the Bible during the reigns of David and Solomon. The whole account bears witness to God's gracious provision for the lives of his people and to the faithfulness of their response in laying claim to their inheritance.
The Covenant between God and Israel . The covenant making over which Joshua presides dominates the book. It is explicitly detailed in 8:30-35 and in the whole of chapter 24. In both of these sections Joshua's leadership establishes Israel in close relationship with God. God's grace enables the nation to occupy its land and to worship God alone. Yet the covenantal aspect of the text is not found only here. Indeed, the circumcision and Passover celebration in chapter 5, as well as the theological role of the tribal allotments as part of Israel's covenantal inheritance from God, suggest that fulfillment of the covenant remains an integral part of the whole book.
The text that confirms God's covenant with his people includes a divine rehearsal of the words of the Lord through Moses (24:2). There follows a review of God's work among the patriarchs, as well as Moses and Aaron, in promising and bringing the people into the land. This is supplemented by God's continual leadership and provision for the present generation in bringing them through the kingdoms east of the Jordan River, in enabling them to cross the Jordan, and in waging war on their behalf so that they can occupy the land. All these activities are interpreted as part of God's gift to the people. In return, his covenant requires exclusive loyalty to the Lord as the only God worshiped in Israel. The people agree to this and bear witness against themselves if they forsake God and serve foreign deities.
God as Holy and as Deliverer . The character of God is evident throughout the book, especially in terms of his holiness and his saving Acts. The divine holiness is found in the ceremonies that are commanded and observed. These include the memorial stones set up at Gilgal to commemorate the crossing of the Jordan River (4:19-24) with a special role for the priesthood and the ark of the covenant (chaps. 3-4); the Israelite circumcision (5:1-3); the Passover celebration (5:10); Joshua's confrontation with the commander of the Lord's army (5:13-15); the special instructions for crossing the Jordan with the ark (chaps. 3-4) and for marching around Jericho for seven days (chap. 6); the identification of the sin of Achan, his capital punishment, and the marking of the site of his burial (chap. 7); the erection of an altar east of the Jordan in order to remember the lordship of Israel's God (22:26- 27); and the establishment of a memorial stone at Shechem after the ceremony of covenant renewal (24:26-27). These Acts and memorials point to God's special selection of his people. God's holiness could only be challenged at the peril of those who did so, whether in the case of Achan or of the many peoples who opposed the Israelites and thereby rejected God's will for his people. All faced death for their sins.
The saving Acts of God are clearly represented in the military victories of the people against their enemies, especially in the miraculous collapse of Jericho's walls (6:20) and the divine control of the sun and the hailstones in such a manner as to aid Israel (10:11-14). They are found in the content of the confessions of Rahab, of the Gibeonites, and of Joshua as already mentioned. In addition, they occur in notes of how the enemies of Israel hear of the Israelite victories and how their courage melts (5:1); how God's presence with Joshua leads to his fame spreading throughout the land (6:27); and how the armies of Canaan learn of God's Acts but still refuse to accept God's sovereignty and signify this by perpetrating war against Israel (9:1-2; 10:1-5; 11:1-5).
The Inheritance of the People . In addition to the obedience of the people in taking possession of the land according to God's will, there is a significant theological theme of rest before God. After the wars the whole land has rest (11:23). The people as well find rest as they enter into their inheritance. This is generally true of the division of the land. Specific references are also found, as in the cases of Caleb whose conquest of Hebron results in the land being given rest (14:15) and of Joshua who settled in Timnath Serah (19:50). The records of the deaths and burials of Joshua, Joseph, and Eleazar, which conclude the book (24:29-33) reflect a final resting place for them in three sites located throughout the central hill country of Palestine, the region where Israel first settled.
Joshua in the Context of Israel's History . As a book that provides a transition from the Pentateuch and the lawgiving of Moses to the settled society and rule of the judges and the kings of Israel, this work presents a past ideal in which a leader like Moses brought the people into the promised land and proceeded on faith to lay claim to it. God's gracious gift of the land and his provision for the people as their leader and guide bear witness to later generations of divinely willed leadership for Israel and of how the faithful fulfillment of the covenant could bring upon God's people all the blessings involved in their occupation of the land. The later failures of Israel's leadership and of the people brought divine judgment, which revoked these blessings by uprooting the people from that land and sending them into exile. Even so, the prophetic promises looked forward to a return to the promised land and to a full claim of these blessings under a messianic leader who would rule the people in perfect fulfillment of the covenant and in a renewal of the rich blessings of the land to which Joshua had led the people so long ago.
Richard S. Hess
See also Israel
Bibliography . T. C. Butler, Joshua; L. G. Lawson, CBQ 53:25-36; M. H. Woudstra, The Book of Joshua; K. L. Younger, Jr., Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing .
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
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Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Joshua, Theology of'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/bed/j/joshua-theology-of.html. 1996.
the Week of Proper 22 / Ordinary 27