The sixth book of the Bible is the first of the twelve historical books of the Old Testament. These twelve books tell the story of Israel’s entry into the Promised Land of Canaan under Joshua’s leadership, their subsequent inhabitance of the Land during the time of the Judges and the transition of leadership from that of a judge to that of a king. Also, these books chronicle the division of the kingdom into rival kingdoms, the downfall and exile of each kingdom, Judean life during exile, and the eventual return of the Judeans from exile under Persian rule. All told, these historical books document a history of over 1000 years and tell Israel’s fascinating story with all of its ups and down, twists and turns.
The Book Bears His Name, but Did He Write It?
The book of Joshua is named after its leading character, but, we do not know its author’s identity. Jewish tradition maintains that Joshua wrote the narrative as an autobiography of his experience leading the Israelites into the Promised Land with his death narrative being the one big exception to his authorship. (He very well couldn’t have written that, could he?) However, no internal or external literary evidence exists that can substantiate this claim of authorship. Parts of the book do indeed claim Joshua’s own penmanship, but others tend to point an authorship of a much later date. Repeatedly, we find the phrase, “to this day,” in the narrative, which suggests a significant lapse in time between the events of the book and the book’s final literary form. Thus, the book’s author remains anonymous.
This authorial anonymity means that the books’ original audience and date of composition remains unknown to us as well. What we do know is that book’s original audience and date is inextricably tied to the date of the conquest of Canaan. Scholars have debated this date for years, but they have not been able to arrive at a consensus. Many favor a later date for the Exodus and subsequent conquest (1400 BC) while others favor an earlier one (1250 BC). The discrepancy in dating is largely due to two factors: the difficulty of determining accurate dates for archeological evidence and sites and the challenge of the accuracy of the number of years in that 1 Kings attributes to the time between the Exodus and the construction of Solomon’s Temple.
Does a Historical Book Have Theological Meaning and Value?
A common question regarding historical books, especially for us modern readers, is: Do historical books have present meaning and value beyond just telling a story. The Bible’s answer to that question is a resounding, “Yes!” Think with me for a moment about the previous five books of the Bible – the Pentateuch – and their meaning. For them meaning is found in the fact that they tell the story of God’s interaction with his people and their subsequent deliverance, obedience, and disobedience. Joshua is no different. It is a record of God’s dealing with his people and graciously fulfilling all his promises to them. But, Joshua’s value goes much deeper than that.
The great act of salvation history in the Old Testament is not the Exodus alone. It is the Exodus coupled with the conquest and inhabitance of the Promised Land. God did not simply promise to deliver his people from the land of bondage, from the house of slavery. He promised to bring them into a land flowing with milk and honey, a land of provision, a land of freedom, and a land of promise. The deliverance from the bondage cannot be separated from the inheritance of the land. And, the book of Joshua tells us the story of how the Israelites came to possess their inheritance by chronicling their conquest and distribution of the land. This should bring great comfort to our weary souls. God has promised not just to deliver us from sin, but to bring you into his eternal rest. And, it is all ours in Christ. Like the Israelites, our deliverance in Christ cannot be separated from our final inheritance with God in Heaven. Praise the Lord!
Joshua’s Story in Four Parts
The book of Joshua breaks down most easily into four parts. They are as follows:
One Final Point: This is War and It’s Holy
Many of us read Joshua and are struck with what appears to be a blatant prescription for genocide. God commands the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites, leaving none of them, including women and children. This certainly challenges our thinking that God is a just, merciful, and loving God.
Three things must be said in response to our concerns over God’s command and Israel’s obedience to it. They are:
The reason this drastic measure strikes us as fanatical, and even appalling, is that in the present era of salvation, God has poured out all of his holy wrath on the Lord Jesus Christ who represented all the unrighteousness and unholiness of sinful people on his cross. So, the ultimate Promised Land is cleansed of unrighteousness and unholiness through Jesus’s death. We call this a penal substitutionary atonement. We don’t bear the guilt of our sins; he did. We don’t suffer the just punishment of our sin; he did. We don’t earn our place in Heaven; he did it for us. Be thankful for this grace and read God’s command to Joshua to cleanse the Promised Land through this lens of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. It will take on a new meaning when you do!