Information Point: Joshua

Each month, the Big Bible Project takes a book of the Bible as a theme for posts. This series acts as a tourist information point, highlighting some of the best-known parts of each book of the Bible and drawing attention to some hidden gems which you might not have thought to explore!

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Joshua by Jason Ramasami

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Way back in Genesis 12, God promised Abram (later Abraham) a nation and a land in which that nation could live, under God’s rule, to enjoy his blessing. As we’ve read through the first five books of the Old Testament, we’ve seen that promise begin to be fulfilled. The people have grown in number considerably over several generations and now constitute an identifiable nation. Yet they have rebelled against God’s rule and have not received the full extent of God’s blessing. Crucially, God has thus far withheld from his people the land he had promised them as an inheritance. Moses and the generation that rebelled against God in the desert (Numbers 14) have died, and the promise of the land still stands. Moses’ lieutenant Joshua is the new leader and God is about to give his people their inheritance: the land of Canaan.

Quick overview

The story books speak of inheritances as magical bonanzas occurring due to the passing of ancient and unknown distant relatives. They are always large, and the benefits are immediately and unequivocally transformational. In the real world, however, inheritances are often marred by sadness, difficult to obtain, and the cause of some considerable acrimony.

The book of Joshua is the story of Israel’s inheritance of the promised land of Canaan. At the start of the book, Israel is in a huge camp on the wrong side of the river Jordan preparing to launch an invasion. By the end, the land is being divided into areas for each tribe to occupy. In one sense, it is like the story-book inheritances: the land is a substantial blessing to the people. But the weakness and sinfulness of humankind provides a sting to the inheritance story: greed, jealousy and ingratitude set the scene for a difficult future of tribal rivalry and frustrated attempts to govern affairs without worshipping the God who is owed the highest praise.

Historical and literary context

Joshua is predominantly narrative in form, reading almost like an ancient epic. Some sections give dryer, descriptive information about the land of Canaan itself and which parts each tribe would inhabit. The large number of places mentioned provides ample data which scholars can match to extra-biblical knowledge of the ancient Near-East. The information in Joshua has been found to be consistent with the time and place it describes, and most scholars conclude that at least an early version of the text dates to a period not long after the events of the book took place.

In the Hebrew Bible, Joshua is the first book in a section known as the ‘former prophets’. This understanding of the book recognises the theological nature of its contents. Christian traditions have seen it as the first of the ‘history’ books, narratives which tell the story of the nation of Israel from the entry into Canaan to the reposession of it after exile a few centuries before the time of Jesus. Both groups are helpful to bear in mind while reading Joshua: it is both historically grounded and theologically pertinent. Losing sight of one will likely result in you missing the significance of the other.

Best-known bits

Rahab (Chapter 2) is, after Mary Magdalene, probably the second most famous prostitute in history. In many ways, it’s a disgrace that we remember her for her work in the sex trade rather than for her faith. She risked her life to protect the Israelite spies from the king of Jericho. She is counted among the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11:31, placing her alongside Noah, Abraham and Noah. She is mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:5) as an ancestor of King David. In earthly terms, Rahab is firmly part of the establishment. In spiritual terms, she is a hero of the faith.

The Crossing of the Jordan (Chapters 3 and 4) is treated a bit like the ugly stepsister of the Red Sea story in Exodus. Let’s reclaim it. There are, of course, similarities between the two stories. They each mark significant moments in the history of Israel, and each hold significance for the respective leadership of Moses and Joshua. One is the defining moment of the passage of the people from slavery into freedom; the other from dispossession into inheritance. Crossing the Jordan is a physical picture of passing into God’s blessing. This rich imagery has prompted reflections for Christians about the ultimate promised land of the new creation, where we will dwell with God in glory. Crossing the Jordan is a transformational, baptismal act of faith which signifies a knowledge of and trust in God’s future promises and his power to effect them for his people.  When I tread the verge of Jordan, Bid my anxious fears subside; Death of death, and hell’s destruction, Land me safe on Canaan’s side: Songs of praises, songs of praises I will ever give to thee. I will ever give to thee.

Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho (Chapter 6). The drama of Jericho is so extensive that it’s almost a distraction from the lesson God was teaching through it! Sunday school performances of cardboard fortresses being felled by screaming kids with musical instruments have cemented this story in the memory of many a churchgoer. It’s almost easy to forget that marching around some battlements several times and then blowing trumpets is a profoundly silly thing to do. It looks weak – ridiculous, even – yet it is in the weakness of the conquest of Canaan that God announced his strength. When the people of God look at their least effective, often it’s exactly the time that God is most strikingly at work. The armies of men are weak, but faith in the power of the living God can raze cities.

Under the surface

From the start of Israel’s history, a clear message has rung out: the ‘outsider’ is welcome. The covenant with Abraham was to be a blessing for all people. The law of Moses made provision to prevent the exploitation of foreigners, and the distinctiveness of Israelite worship was supposed to be attractive to the nations. Rahab was a doubly unlikely hero in Joshua, being both a prostitute and a foreigner. But she was commended for her faith, and became an important part of the nation’s folklore. God does not show favouritism: all are welcome. The story of Achan, which follows soon after Rahab’s, shows that the opposite is true, too. Even the most outwardly respectable face scrutiny from a righteous God, and their status won’t cover their wrongdoing. Mercy and grace are needed, and they are available equally to all. This is something of a corrective to the problematic moral question of the Canaanite people driven out of their land, or killed for it. This isn’t the place to explore that question in sufficient detail, except to say that Rahab and Achan show that the individual’s heart matters immeasurably to God, and their nationality does not.

Joshua is an excellent leader. It’s not lost on commentators that the name ‘Joshua’ shares its form with the name ‘Jesus’ – they are actually rendered the same in the ancient Greek texts. Joshua is seen as a type of Jesus: a precursor; a foreshadowing which points to a greater one yet to come. He led the people into the land, the resting place promised by God and won by his hand. Christ would later win the ultimate inheritance into God’s family and dwelling-place in his new creation. He is the one who made a way across the Jordan where we could not otherwise tread. Joshua’s leadership was servant-hearted, devoted to God, and grounded in the word of God. These attributes are fitting ones for any Christian leader. They are the reason why Joshua’s leadership was so blessed by God and they are why he points us firmly towards the Christ who ultimately fulfilled what he saw completed only in part: the people of God receiving their inheritance as heirs of the father in heaven.

Key verses

Joshua told the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the LORD will do amazing things among you.” (3:5)

“Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshipped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (24:14-15)

About Ali Gledhill

Ali lives in London, reads quite a bit, writes a little less, rides a bike, serves the church, avoids eye contact with strangers on the train, and has a website profile at gledhillonline.co.uk.