What Is the Background of the Book of Joshua?

Gerald Vreeland
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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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