A Primer on Joshua
It isn’t my habit as I preach through books of the Bible to spend a lot of time introducing the book. Maybe a few paragraphs to understand the context, but no more. Some pastors devote whole sermons to introducing a book well and I have benefitted from those types of sermons, but the truth is that there is an abundance of good introductory information at our fingertips if we want to understand issues of provenance, authorship, literary approach and historical timeline. These are profitable to pursue, but not necessarily the best use of sermon time.
So, as we start our walk through the book of Joshua, I thought I would take this opportunity to introduce the book. I lean here some on (and commend to you) Dillard and Longman’s Introduction To The Old Testament.
Joshua is one of the most pivotal books of the Old Testament in terms of its historical narrative. Exodus gets a huge amount of attention, but the exodus of the Israelites only matters if they end up in the promised land. In many ways, Joshua is the hinge that holds the first five books of the Old Testament to the following 33.
As you would expect in a hinge book, one story closes and another opens in an Avengers: End Game sort of way. First, it closes the story of the Israelites taking the promised land. Joshua steps into the shoes of the recently deceased Moses and marches them into their new home. Then, it sets the stage for Israel’s failure to stay faithful to God and their eventual exile from the promised land. As you read the book of Joshua, you can almost hear an Israelite child of a much later date asking, “Why are we exiled from the promised land?” and the father responding, “Well, it all started back in Joshua’s day.”
Authorship And Date
Obviously, the older the book, the harder issues like date and authorship are to ascertain. The Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism, says that “Joshua wrote his own book” apart from the account of his own death which it claims came from Eleazar, the son of Aaron.
The book of Joshua, though, nowhere claims that Joshua wrote it. Most conservative evangelical scholars would say they just don’t know. When it comes to authorship, we have to account for a few important elements inside this book like the recurring phrase “to this day” (4:9; 5:9; 6:25; 7:26; 8:28-29; 9:27; 10:27; 13:13; 15:63; 16:10) which strongly suggests that some amount of time has passed between the events and their recording. On at least one occasion (10:13), the author is citing previously written material which also places the author at a later point in time.
Because this book reflects the the theological perspective of Judges-Kings (called Deuteronomic History) that tells us why the exile happened, most conservative scholars believe that there were a handful of firsthand accounts in different Israelite tribes that were compiled later around the person of Joshua. These first hand accounts were designed to answer specific questions like, “Daddy, why do the Gibeonites serve Israel at the Tabernacle?” (giving us Joshua 9) or “Why does our tribe live here?” (giving us a report of the conquest). Some think that Joshua either wrote or was consulted in these accounts, but there is no way to know for sure. We know these accounts were written at a time when many of the people in the stories, like Rahab (6:25), were still alive.
Likely, these reliable first hand sources were compiled into what we call Joshua early into the Israelite monarchy. If this is the case, we can have a high degree of confidence in the biblical material we possess.
Table of Contents
The book of Joshua is an historical narrative, that is, it tells us a story. Chapters 1-12 contain the vivid accounts of Israel’s entry into and conquest of the promised land. Chapters 13-22 chronicle the aftermath of that conquest. The war has been won, now what do we do with this new nation? Chapters 23-24 recount a covenant renewal between God and Israel, a settling into the land, and Joshua’s death.
Joshua brings to the forefront hard theological questions about holy war, the killing of women and children, when is it ok to lie, and the conquest of land. Less controversial, but just as important, Joshua informs our understanding of the unity of Israel, the role of a covenant, and the historical role of the man Joshua. This book informs our theology of rest and, most importantly, foreshadows the better Joshua, Jesus.
I’m excited to spend this summer in Joshua and hope you can join me.