The book of Joshua recounts the momentous events of Israel’s entry into Canaan, the promised land: Joshua’s commission and reassurance, crossing the Jordan river, the capture of Jericho and Ai, the grand covenant renewal ceremony at Mount Ebal, the curious treaty with the Gibeonites, and a rapid overview of the campaigns in the south and the north. The second half of the book gives extensive details of the allotment of the land to each tribe, before resuming the conquest story and concluding with farewell speeches and burial notices.It is an action-packed story—but perhaps more than any other, Joshua is the Old Testament book that most troubles contemporary readers, whether Christians or critics: Isn’t there too much violence, and isn’t this inconsistent with the rest of Scripture, and the gospel?
David Firth begins his excellent exposition with a careful and helpful response to this issue. However, while addressing the problems is undoubtedly important, we must also consider how the book continues to speak to us today as God’s word. Firth’s basic contention is that we have to read Joshua as part of God’s mission, which for much of the Old Testament centered on Israel, but finds its ultimate focus in Jesus Christ. The book challenges those who have read it down through the ages to recognize that God not only includes those who join him in his mission, he also excludes those who choose to set themselves against it.
Get the complete Bible Speaks Today Old Testament Commentary Series (33 vols.).
“So far, though, the equation seems fairly simple. Those who consciously chose to commit themselves to God’s purposes, even though from a condemned people, could become part of God’s people and thus share the blessings God had for his people. By contrast, Israelites who rejected God’s purposes were excluded and now shared the position of those condemned.” (Pages 107–108)
“Many were killed, though not as many as the popular imagination seems to believe, and their deaths occurred because they had chosen to place themselves under God’s judgment.” (Page 21)
“Once again, we see the balance that is retained throughout the book between the certainty of God’s promises to his people and their need to claim them.” (Page 76)
“This is actually a very important question in the book of Joshua, and understanding this is vital to understanding the nature of the gift of the land. There is an important hint of the answer in what we have already observed, which is that the land was given so that Israel could live out Yahweh’s purposes, most notably that through them all peoples of the earth might find blessing.15 Israel’s right to the land depended on them living within those terms, and strange as it might seem, the same option existed for the Canaanite groups already within the land. Indeed, these groups could also become Israel.” (Page 23)
“By contrast, the person who was then devoted to destruction was Achan, an Israelite who took goods placed under the ban (i.e. devoted to destruction in accordance with Deut. 7:1–5) and who therefore forfeited his right to be part of Israel. It is worth bearing in mind that roughly one-eighth of the whole book of Joshua is devoted to the stories of these two individuals, so that by the end of chapter 8 we have marvelled at how Yahweh has brought Israel into the land19 and begun to wrestle with the question of who Israel is.” (Page 23)
David G. Firth serves as Old Testament Lecturer at Trinity College Bristol. He is the author of 1 2 Samuel (Apollos Old Testament Commentary) and The Message of Esther, and coeditor of Interpreting the Psalms, Interpreting Isaiah, Interpreting Deuteronomy, Words the Word and Presence, Power and Promise.