With this essay we begin a new series on the book of Joshua. As many of you know, the Jews divide their Scriptures, which we call the Old Testament, into three parts: the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. Moreover they arrange the books within those three categories a little differently than we do.
The first part is the Torah, which consists of the five books of Moses. We Christians also have those books at the beginning, but we generally call them the Pentateuch.
The Jews have all of the prophetic books in the second part of their Scripture, which logically, they call the Prophets. And they sub-divide the Prophets into two sections called the Former and Latter Prophets. The Former Prophets are Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. The Latter Prophets also consist of four books as the Jews count them: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve.
Of course we count them differently. We divide Samuel and Kings into two books each; and we count the twelve Minor Prophets individually. We also organize the books differently. We call our second group of books, Joshua through Nehemiah, the Historical Books. Thus for Jews, Joshua is the first of the Former Prophets; and for us, it is the first of the historical books.
The third part of the Jewish canon consists of the remaining books, which they call the Writings. We identify them either as wisdom literature or historical books.
Now then, to call Joshua and the other historical books “historical books” is not to say that they contain a general history of the region, or even a general history of the Hebrew people. Rather we are saying that they contain a record of a particular kind of history; namely, a theological history of the covenant people of God.
What I mean is the authors make no attempt to record everything significant that happened the way a secular historian would do. Instead, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they recorded only those events and circumstances that were of importance to the history of Israel as the people of God. Therefore some events that may have been of considerable significance in a secular sense may not get much attention from the biblical writers.
On the other hand, to call Joshua one of the Former Prophets, as the Jews do, does not mean it is filled with prophecies. Rather the Jews thought of it as a prophetic book because they believed a prophet authored it. And that brings us to the matter of authorship.
The question of authorship of the book of Joshua is wrapped in the mystery of ancient times. The book is named for its central character, not its author. It’s true that early Jewish tradition credited Joshua himself with writing the book. But few would want to claim that today.
Joshua obviously did not write the portion in chapter 24 that describes Joshua’s death (24:29-33). On the other hand, just a few verses earlier in that same chapter where the subject is Joshua’s farewell address, we read, “Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God.” Thus we see that Joshua did keep some records of his days in Israel. Moreover some of the battle stories, especially in chapters 6-8, have vivid descriptive accounts with minute detail that suggests the commander on the scene, Joshua himself, may have written them. Thus Joshua may have been responsible for some of the content of the book, but he was not the primary author.
Now the discussion about authorship raises the related matter of the origin and date of the book. Scholars have expended considerable effort seeking the oral and written sources that underlay the present work, and attempting to date the book itself. But it is a difficult and uncertain task. And the scholars cannot agree about it.
The best position, in my opinion, is to accept the idea that Joshua may have written parts of the book, though we cannot establish with certainly which parts. However the book has undergone considerable editing by a later author or authors. As for the date when it was written, the proposals are wide-ranging. In other words, no one knows. Indeed scholars cannot agree on the dates of the events being recorded, let alone when the book about those events was written.
The date of the conquest of Canaan obviously is connected with the date of the Exodus, since the conquest happened some 40 years after the Exodus. There are two basic positions on the dating of these events; namely, the mid-fifteenth century, and the early thirteenth century B.C. Unfortunately there are serious problems with both. I am not going to go into all of the arguments. I’ll just hit the highlights.
The main support for the fifteenth century date is 1 Kings 6:1. It says that Solomon began to build his famous temple 480 years after the Exodus. We can date Solomon fairly accurately at 960 B.C. So if we take 1 Kings 6:1 literally, that would date the Exodus about 1440 B.C.
Another biblical passage, Judges 11:26, also supports an early date, but not as early as 1 Kings 6:1. In Judges 11: 26, the Israelite judge Jephthah informed an Ammonite king that Israel had possession of her territory on the other side of the Jordan for 300 years. Jephthah usually is dated in the eleventh century. If one takes the 300 years literally, it would place the Exodus in the fourteenth, rather than the fifteenth century.
However, other biblical evidence points to the thirteenth- century. Exodus 1:11 declare that prior to the Exodus the Egyptians oppressed the Israelites to build cities for the Pharaohs. And it mentions two specific cities; namely, Pithom and Rameses.
There are good records of the Egyptian kings. And the Egyptian dynasties prior to the thirteenth century centered their activity in the Thebes area up the Nile. The cities mentioned in Ex. 1:11 both were in the Nile Delta area, where the kings of the Nineteenth Dynasty began building in the thirteenth century. Indeed the city of Rameses was named for Ramses II, whose reign was 1290-1224 B.C.
Most scholars believe the thirteenth century date is the best possibility, because archaeological evidence supports it. There is no archaeological evidence that any of the important sites in question even existed in the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries. But that evidence does exist for the thirteenth century. Thus the best suggestion for the date of the events of the conquest is the latter half of the thirteenth century B.C.
Turning to the specific historical framework of the book of Joshua, the account stretches from the death of Moses (1:1) to the death of Joshua and his contemporary, the high priest Eleazar (24:29-33). However, as I was saying in respect to the historical books as a group a few moments ago, it is important to realize that the book of Joshua is not simply an historical record of Israel from the death of Moses to the death of Joshua. It is a theological, historical record of how the faithful, covenant God fulfilled the promise he gave to the patriarchs that their descendants would possess the land of Canaan.
Therefore the book of Joshua is a very theological book in addition to its containing history. And it records the fidelity of God in respect to his covenant promises to give the land to his covenant people. We might say that the book of Joshua is a tribute to the mighty acts of God. It is true that Joshua is celebrated in the book for his leadership. But the book makes it clear that in light of the covenant provisions, the true glory must be given to God alone (e.g., 3:10; 4:23-24; 6:16).
Now just a word about the literary structure of the book. There is a brief introduction in chapter one, and a similarly brief conclusion in chapter 24. In between, the content of the book divides into two parts of near equal length. Chapters 1-12 describe the conquest of Canaan; and chapters 13-24 give the division of the land among the several tribes.
All right, now we want to turn to Joshua the man. Joshua was born in Egypt. Hence he went through the great events of the first Passover and the Exodus, and came out of Egypt through the Red Sea. He first appears in the Pentateuch, in Ex. 17:8-16, as the Israelite general during a battle against Amalek.
In the wilderness of Sinai, Moses appointed Joshua his assistant and took Joshua with him to Mount Sinai (Ex. 24:13) on at least one occasion. But at other times, Joshua served at the tabernacle while Moses was away speaking with God (Ex. 33:11).
When the time came to send spies into Canaan, 12 were sent, one from each of the tribes. Joshua, who also was known as Hoshea, was the representative of the tribe of Ephraim (Num. 13:8). You know the story. They went into the land, and found it to be a land of milk and honey (Num. 13:27). The grapes were so large and full that it took two men to carry a single cluster, using a pole spanning between them (Num. 13:23).
But the spies also saw that the people in the land were strong (Num. 13:28), and that some of them appeared to be giants, making the Israelites look like grasshoppers in comparison (Num. 13:33). Of the twelve spies, only Joshua and Caleb believed the Israelites could, with God’s help, take the land (Num. 14:5-10).
The people listened to the majority report instead of Joshua and Caleb’s minority report. They complained that they should have stayed in Egypt, and even considered returning to Egypt (Num. 14:1-4). They also threatened to stone Joshua and Caleb (Num. 14:10).
God was angry at their lack of faith, and threatened them with pestilence (Num. 14:12). Moses immediately interceded on their behalf; and God forgave their disobedient lack of faith. But he nevertheless decreed that the entire adult generation that came out of Egypt would never have the privilege of entering the Promised Land (Num. 14:13-25). And as you know, of all the people to come out of Egypt twenty years old or older, only Joshua and Caleb entered the land. Not even Moses had that privilege.
Before Moses’ death, Joshua was commissioned as his successor (Num. 27:18-23; cf. Deut. 31:7-29). When Moses died, the people obeyed Joshua as they had obeyed Moses. And he led them in the conquest of Canaan.
In many ways the book of Joshua presents Joshua as a second Moses. He had the presence of God, as Moses did (1:5). He was obeyed, as Moses was (1:17). He ordered the sanctification of Israel, as Moses did (3:5: cf. Ex. 19:14). He was exalted before the people by God, as was Moses (3:7; 4:14). He was the agent of a miraculous crossing of the Jordan (3:7-4:24), as Moses was for the crossing of the Red Sea (4:23). When the Angel of the Lord spoke to Joshua at Jericho, he did so in the same language as when God spoke to Moses at the burning bush (5:15). Joshua even wrote the law on stones like Moses (8:32); and near the end of his life, Joshua gave the people a summary of Israel’s history as Moses did near the end of his life (24: 2-13). In the next essay we shall take up chapter one.