The Book of Joshua is the sixth book of the Bible, and is the first of the historical books. It tells of the conquest of the promised land by the Israelites, led by Joshua, and how the land was allocated to the different tribes of Israel.
Famous stories include the story of Rahab the prostitute, the fall of the walls of Jericho, and Joshua causing the sun and moon to stand still.
Place in the Bible
The book of Joshua is divided into two parts: the first recounts the invasion of the promised land by the Israelite forces, led by Joshua. The second half describes the allocation of the land to the twelve tribes of Israel.
The invasion starts with the crossing of the Jordan from the east, establishing a base near Jericho, then waging first a southern campaign, then a northern one.
With God names Joshua the successor to Moses, and promises him the land of the Hittites, from Lebanon in the north, to the Mediterranean in the west, to the Euphrates in the west. He also tells Joshua that he will be successful in combat only if he obeys God.
Crossing the Jordan
In Chapter 2 , Joshua sends two spies across the river Jericho to reconnoiter. They go to the city of Jericho and meet Rahab, a prostitute.
Rahab hides the spies from the king of Jericho, and proposes a deal: in exchange for sparing her and her family's lives, she tells the spies about the lay of the land, and low morale among the people. The spies tell her to tie a red rope to her window, so that the invading soldiers will know to spare her house. The spies return to Joshua and pass along the information Rahab gave them.
The Israelites carry the ark of the covenant into the Jordan, which causes the waters to pile up upstream, so that the army can cross over dry land. They erect a monument of twelve stones from the river, to commemorate their passage.
For six days, the Israelites carry the ark of the covenant around the city walls of Jericho (about 0.6 miles). Then, on the seventh day they do so seven times, then shout, which causes the city walls to fall down.
Joshua tells the troops to kill everyone — men, women, children, animals — (except for Rahab and her family), and to destroy everything except for silver, gold, bronze, and iron. After the slaughter, they burn the city down.
Chapter 7 : The Israelites try to conquer the city of Ai, but underestimate the number of soldiers required, and are repulsed. The cause turns out to be a soldier who kept some loot from Jericho, in contravention of God's orders. Joshua finds him by casting lots, and has him and his family stoned, and the bodies burned.
Chapter 8 : The Israelites make a second assault on Ai. This time, they divide their forces into two groups: a small force attacks, then flees, pretending to be repulsed, which draws the defenders out into the open, where they can be killed by the larger Israelite force. Once the defending army has been slaughtered, the Israelites return to the city and kill its inhabitants (although they keep the livestock and booty).
In a flash-forward scene, Joshua erects a monument on Mt. Ebal, some 20 miles north of Ai, inscribes the law of Moses on it, and reads it to the assembled nation.
Chapter 9 : The inhabitants of some towns southwest of the Israelites become alarmed at the invasion. They equip a delegation with worn clothes and torn wineskins, and send them to negotiate a peace treaty with the Israelites. The delegates claim to be from cities far to the north, and Joshua agrees not to attack them. Eventually, the ruse is discovered. Joshua tells them that since there's a treaty, they won't be killed; but from now on they'll be wood-cutters and water-fetchers for Israel.
The Israelite army defeats the five-king alliance at Gibeon, and proceeds to chase their armies to slaughter them. Joshua commands the sun and moon to stand still in the sky, to give him more time to kill his enemies.
The Israelites proceed to conquer southern Israel.
The northern campaign only takes up one chapter (Chapter 11 ).
Several kings form an alliance to defeat the Israelites, but Joshua conquers them, pursues their armies (despite the fact that they have horses and chariots) all the way to the sea, and sets fire to their cities.
Joshua then proceeds to defeat some minor tribes.
Chapter 12 summarizes the extent of the lands conquered and lists the cities and kings defeated.
Allotment of land
Most notably, the Levites receive no land of their own: as priests, they live in cities throughout the land, and receive burnt offerings.
In Chapter 13 , God reminds Joshua that there is a fair amount of land still to conquer: the Israelites currently control a strip of land west of the Jordan, but God promises them everything westward to the Mediterranea, as well as the Gaza strip, and parts of modern-day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt.
In Chapter 15 , Caleb promises his daughter to whomever will conquer the city of Kiriath-sepher. His nephew does so.
In Chapter 17 , the Josephites complain that they didn't receive enough land. Joshua tells them to conquer the land of the Perizzites and Rephaimites, as well as the hill country, and assures them that they will be able to overcome the enemy's iron chariots.
Chapter 19 says that the tribe of Dan lost the land they were allotted, and had to relocate to the north.
Chapter 20 lists six cities of refuge: if someone kills someone accidentally, they can flee to one of those cities, and have asylum there from the family of the victim, out for revenge. The killer gets a trial, and may stay in the city until the death of the city's high priest, at which time they can go back home, or wherever the deed was done.
Civil war averted
In Chapter 22 , the transjordanian tribes return to their homes east of the Jordan. Along the way, they erect an altar. The cisjordanians (tribes west of the Jordan) think that the transjordanians are about to start worshiping a different god, and attract the wrath of God, as in Numbers 25:3-5 . and go to war to prevent this.
The transjordanians explain that there is a misunderstanding: that their altar is merely a copy of the real one, to remind future generations that they are all part of the same people, even though the Jordan divides them. Satisfied, the cisjordanians return home.
In Chapter 23 , Joshua promises the Israelites that as long as they remain loyal to God, they will be able to defeat their enemies; but if they deviate from God's commands, or intermarry with other tribes, their combat abilities will be withdrawn.
In Chapter 24 , Joshua summarizes the events of Genesis and Exodus, and the conquest. He tells the Israelites how fortunate they are to live in cities that they didn't build, and enjoy vineyards and olive gardens that they didn't plant. He tells the people to serve Jehovah and no other gods.
The book ends with three vignettes: the death and burial of Joshua; the burial of the bones of Joseph, which were brought from Egypt; and the death and burial of Aaron's son.
The events depicted seem to have taken place at some time in the middle of the second millennium BCE.
The authorship of the book of Joshua is unknown. Tradition says that it was written by Joshua, except for parts like the account of Joshua's death, and inclusions saying that such-and-such is true "to this day". But biblical scholars disagree. It is unknown when it reached its final form, though one major edition dates to the late 7th century BCE.
According to Richard Friedman, the Deuteronomist, who assembled Deuteronomy, also assembled Joshua and the other historical books. He also added a few lines here and there, mostly underscoring the importance of Moses as a lawgiver, and of the Levites as priests. It is likely, then, that the Deuteronomist was a Levite.
The history given in Joshua should be treated with skepticism, since it appears to be an idealized history written long after the facts it describes. Some of this shows in the book itself: several passages say that the Israelites conquered the whole of the promised land, but throughout the book are interspersed descriptions of unconquered Canaanite enclaves. Some of these are explained away (such as the treaty in Chapter 9 ), while others aren't.
In other cases, the division of the land clearly indicates wishful thinking: 19:24-31 promises several Phoenician cities to Asher. But these cities were never under Israelite control. (One can, of course, argue that these cities were promised to Asher, provided that he could conquer and keep them.)
Archeology shows evidence of war in Israel, but does not support the story of a quick invasion (20 years or so) as recounted in Joshua. More likely, the book is a collection of tribal stories, assembled into a flowing narrative.
Likewise, the monument of twelve stones (Chapter 4 ) may have been erected long before the Israelite invasion. The story of its commemorating the crossing of the Jordan may be a later invention to explain its existence.
Parallels between Joshua and Moses
Several scenes show parallels between Joshua and Moses:
- Both sent spies ahead of them.
- Moses parted the Red Sea; Joshua stopped the Jordan.
- Both celebrated Passover.
- Moses brought the law from Mt. Sinai. Joshua wrote the law on Mt. Ebal and read it to the nation.
Depiction of God
Unlike Genesis or Exodus, God never intervenes directly in Joshua. Usually, he simply relays his orders through Joshua. In Chapter 7 , Joshua casts lots to find the guilty party. That is, he throws dice (or something similar) and lets God determine how they will land. This indicates the tribe, then the clan, then the household of the guilty party.
Mostly, the ark of the covenant seems to be a powerful magical artifact, which causes the Jordan to dry up, and the walls of Jericho to fall.
Morality in the book of Joshua is rather primitive: obey God and you will be rewarded; disobey God and you will be punished. This is repeated several times; and throughout the book, the Israelites' military success or failure is determined by their obedience to God.
- The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Michael D. Coogan, ed., Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Isaac Asimov, Asimov's Guide to the Bible, Random House, 1981.
- Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible, Summit Books,