An Overview of the Book of Joshua

Gerald Vreeland
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In the book of Joshua we see God as a covenant-keeper and leader of His people. God will never forsake His people, and the book of Joshua shows that truth. If you want to learn more about the book of Joshua, read this overview.

Who Wrote the Book of Joshua?

The book is anonymous. The title “Joshua” is taken from the principal figure. It is possible that Joshua also wrote this book. This theory of authorship becomes difficult in light of the book including the death of Joshua (24:29-33). However someone else could have added these appendices (cf. Dt 34:5-12), perhaps Eleazar or one of the elders who outlived Joshua. Joshua could have written most of the book himself as hinted by the first person plural in the narrative (5:1 NASB footnote indicating “other mss. read we,” 6).

When Was the Book of Joshua Written?

Two dates for the book are ably defended by scholars. Some defend a date parallel with the 19th Dynasty of Egypt (1300s BC). The events, however, may be safely dated in the late 15th and early 14th century BC. In 1 Kg 6:1, readers are told, “In the four hundred and eightieth year after the sons of Israel came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv which is the second month, . . . he began to build the house of the Lord.” This date for the beginning of the temple construction would be spring of 966 BC. Counting backward 480 years to the exodus from Egypt and then adding 40 years for the wilderness wandering, one arrives at the date of 1405/6 for entrance into the land. This also fits the 300 years later indicated by Jephthah (Jdg 11:26).

From the standpoint of secular history, the Merneptah Stela should be considered. Merneptah reigned 1236–1223 BC. Merneptah was the pharaoh after Raamses II, the pharaoh of the exodus by adherents of the later exodus theory (for these matters, see the introduction to the commentary on Exodus). The monument mentions Israel as already in the land (ANET 3, 376–78). Thus the exodus would be dated at about 1230 BC. The stela does not regard Israel as emerging; it views her as an indigenous enemy. At the time of the Merneptah Stela, Israel occupied a prominent place regionally and a distinct position culturally. Recent studies on the Berlin Pedestal, the base of a recently rediscovered monument with hieroglyphic writing on it naming Israel, indicate that Israel was an enemy of Egypt in the late 18th Dynasty, perhaps in the early 1300s BC. Again, it shows Israel as an indigenous enemy.

The events of the book cover 25 to 30 years. The three initial campaigns took about seven years (Jos 14:7, 10). If Joshua was 79 at the time of the invasion and 110 at death, the total period covered is about 31 years. This makes it likely that the events of the book of Joshua span about 1406 BC to approximately 1375 BC.

What Is the Theme and Purpose of the Book of Joshua?

For OT theologians who view the center of their theology as promise/ fulfillment, this book represents the fulfillment of centuries of prophetic promise and historical movement. Thus the narrative has a twofold emphasis: the destruction of an idolatrous people and the progress and victory of faith in the one true God. The theme is “the venture and victory of faith.” As an historical account, the book of Joshua demonstrates the faithfulness of God, despite the inconsistent nature of the faith of God’s people. It shows Him as the covenant-keeping God (Jos 1:26). The purpose is to strengthen faith in and commitment to the Lord by giving a history of the conquest of Canaan and the distribution of the land among the tribes.

What Does the Book of Joshua Contribute to the Bible?

It is impossible to think through the Bible without including Joshua. The bare fact of “Israel in the land” presupposes the people getting there. Many of the cities mentioned in the conquest are revisited in the drama of biblical narrative. Soon enough the story will spiral into the despair engendered in the epoch of the Judges; but for now, at the outset, Joshua presents the conquest of the land with Joshua and Israel just as God had promised Abraham.

Joshua sets a context for what follows in the OT. Judges would be a theological whiplash (how something begun so well could proceed so poorly!) without the words, world, and themes of Joshua. Readers would know less that obedience leads to blessing had that truth not first appeared in Joshua.

Furthermore, the events recorded in Joshua are referenced in significant ways in the Old and New Testaments. After the Babylonian captivity, the reader is told that Israel had not celebrated the Festival of Booths since the days of Joshua (Neh 8:17). Also, Stephen mentions the tabernacle crossing the Jordan with Joshua (Ac 7:44-45). There is, finally, the contrast between the “rest” that Joshua gave Israel from war and the “rest” believers have in Christ (Heb 4:8).

What Is the Background of the Book of Joshua?

The biblical book of Joshua opens with Israel on the eastern bank of the Jordan River. The memory of Egyptian bondage is four decades old. The people of Israel are younger: those over 20 after the exodus perished in the wilderness. Moses has just passed away, and the mourning for the great legislator of Israel has drawn to a close as Joshua assumes leadership of the nation. The reader joins Israel as the people prepare to enter the land and take possession as God had promised Abraham four centuries earlier (Gn 13:14-18).

Prior to the death of Moses, the great leader affirmed the request of two and a half of the tribes (Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh [Nm 32:1-5, 20-33]) to settle their wives, families, and livestock in the Transjordan area. Forty thousand of their men, however, would participate in the invasion of Canaan (Jos 4:13). The entire population of Israel may have numbered two million people. Though the people mourned greatly the death of Moses (Dt 34:5-8), eventually they would be in high spirits after their Transjordanian victories over the Amorites, and they were in support of Joshua (1:15-18). Joshua is assumed to have been about the same age as Caleb, who was 40 years old at the time when they spied the land (Nm 13). He would thus be about 79 at the time of the crossing of the Jordan River. Joshua was from the tribe of Ephraim and had distinguished himself as a lieutenant of Moses (Ex 17:9-13). He served as Moses’ servant at the giving of the law (Ex 24:33). Caleb and Joshua were the only spies who had the faith that God would help them take the land of Canaan. Thus they, and perhaps the two sons of Aaron, Eleazar and Ithamar (Jos 14:1), were the only ones of that generation to enter Canaan. Following a special commissioning by the Lord, Joshua became a fearless warrior and general, superintending a cyclonic campaign in Canaan. He would die at age 110 (Jos 24:29).

“Canaan” designated the western strip from Sidon in the north to Gaza and Sodom in the south (Gn 10:19). The original meaning of “Canaan,” if related to the Hebrew word, was “trader” or “merchant.” It was, however always known as the “land of purple,” from its manufacturing of purple dyes. The valley cities were more impenetrable for Israelite forces because their armies were equipped with iron chariots (Jdg 1:19).

Canaan was populated by many tribal groups, but predominantly by the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites, and Girgashites (Gn 15:19-21; Jos 9:1). Of these, the Canaanites and Jebusites appear to be indigenous groups. The Hittites were from Asia Minor in the north; the Amorites were from the East; and the Hivites were probably from across the Dead Sea in the mountains of Seir (Gn 36:20), and originally from Mesopotamia. Of the Perizzites, nothing is known, and the Girgashites’ exact location in Canaan is unknown.

The religions of Canaan were the basest of fertility cults. El was the chief god; Baal was his preeminent son who was the paramour of Ashtoreth (or Anath). Baal was the god of rain, sun, and vegetation and his consort was the personification of sexual love and fertility. These deities had no discernible moral character and the worship of these entailed some of the most degenerate practices in history. Their worship and lore fostered brutality and the most decadent immorality. The culture was due for extinction (Lv 18:21-30; Dt 12:30-32).

For Further Reading:

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