After the death of Moses, God calls on Joshua to lead the Israelites across the Jordan River and take possession of the promised land. God guarantees victory in the military campaign and vows never to leave the Israelites so long as they obey his laws. The people swear their allegiance to Joshua, and he sends two spies across the river to investigate the territory. The men enter Jericho, where a prostitute named Rahab hides them in her home and lies to the city officials regarding the spies’ presence. Rahab tells the spies that the Canaanites are afraid of Israel and its miraculous successes. Professing belief in the God of the Israelites, she asks for protection for her family when the Israelites destroy Jericho. The spies pledge to preserve Rahab and return to Joshua, telling him of the weakened condition of Israel’s enemies.

The Israelites cross the Jordan River, led by a team of priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant. As the priests enter the water, the flow of the river stops and the Israelites cross the river on dry land. Arriving on the other side, the Israelites commemorate the miracle with an altar of twelve stones from the river bed (representing the twelve tribes of Israel). The people begin to eat the produce of the new land—thus halting the daily supply of manna—and the Israelite men perform the ritual of circumcision in preparation for battle.

Approaching Jericho, Joshua encounters a mysterious man who explains that he is the commander of God’s army but that he is neither for nor against Israel. Joshua pays homage to the man and passes on. Following divine instructions, Joshua leads the Israelites in carrying the Ark around Jericho for six days. On the seventh day, the Israelites march around the city seven times. Joshua rallies them to conquer the city and kill everyone except for Rahab. They are to refrain from taking any of the city’s religious items. At the sound of the Israelite war cry, the walls of Jericho collapse, and the Israelites destroy the city and its inhabitants.

Joshua’s fame spreads throughout the land, but the Israelites are humiliated in their attempts to take the next city, Ai. God attributes the disaster to the disobedience of Achan, an Israelite who has stolen religious items from Jericho. After the people stone Achan, the renewed attempt against Ai is successful as Joshua masterminds an elaborate ambush against the city’s forces. The Israelites celebrate by erecting an altar to God and publicly reaffirming their commitment to God’s law.

Fearful of the marauding Israelites, the people of Gibeon visit the Israelite camp in disguise, claiming to be travelers in the land and requesting peace with Israel. Joshua does not inquire with God and makes a hasty treaty with the men, only to discover later that the Gibeonites are natives of the land to be conquered. The Israelites refrain from attacking the city, but five other local kings attack Gibeon for making peace with Israel. The Israelites come to Gibeon’s aid and destroy the five armies. Joshua helps by commanding God to make the sun stand still during the fight. God listens and stops the sun’s movement—the only time in history, we are told, when God obeys a human.

The Israelites continue to destroy the southern and northern cities of Canaan, killing all living inhabitants, as God has stipulated. While much of the promised land still remains to be conquered, the people of Israel begin to settle in the land, dividing it amongst the twelve tribes. After God gives Israel rest from its enemies for many years, an ailing Joshua makes a farewell pronouncement to the nation of Israel. Joshua goads the Israelites to be strong and to obey all of God’s laws, throwing away any idols and refraining from intermarriage with the native people. The people assure Joshua they will be faithful to the covenant, but Joshua reluctantly accepts this assurance, worried that obedience for Israel will prove quite difficult.


Scholars dispute the historical accuracy of the Book of Joshua. Although the writer claims to be writing in the thirteenth century b.c., it is unlikely that Joshua was written that early, and it is unlikely that the conquest of Palestine by the Hebrew people was as clean and neat as the first twelve chapters of Joshua suggest. Some scholars choose to read the book not as an inaccurate record of history but as an accurate record of Hebrew cultural memory of the original invasion of Palestine by the wandering Israelites. Unlike Genesis and Exodus, Joshua contains detailed accounts of political and military battles, and more than half of the book is devoted to listing the allotment of land to each of the twelve tribes. Few of the characters are as dramatic as those in the first books of the Old Testament, and God interferes little with human lives. In this sense, Joshua reads more like an ancient Hebrew history textbook than a collection of separate myths and legends.

The Book of Joshua carefully structures its description of the invasion of Palestine. The strict organization of the book emphasizes that the description of the conquests is a literary interpretation, and shows the importance within this interpretation of the idea of land. Israel’s conquest is divided into two parts: the first twelve chapters tell the story of the conquest itself, and the final twelve chapters tell the story of how the land was allotted. These two sections are each subdivided into two sections. In these four parts, Israel prepares for the conquest, the campaigns themselves are carried out, the conquered land is allotted, and a concluding section exhorts Israel to remain loyal to God. The geographic organization of the book is equally rigorous; both the conquests and the division of lands are grouped according to whether the lands are in the north, south, east, or west. In the process, the idea of land plays a role as antagonistic as any character’s. Various people’s desire for and loyalty to specific regions is a source of great conflict, and God’s covenant with Israel is physically manifested in his promise of land.

The Book of Joshua describes Joshua as an echo of Moses who engages in the same actions, only of lesser magnitude and with lesser effect. Moses leads the Israelites out of their oppression in Egypt; Joshua leads them into their domination of Canaan. Furthermore, Joshua causes the Jordan River to run dry in the same way that Moses parts the Red Sea. Finally, both Joshua and Moses perform similar administrative actions, sending out spies and allotting land to tribes. However, the differences between Moses’s and Joshua’s stories almost always indicate that Moses was a grander leader and prophet. While Moses communes directly with God, speaking with him face to face as though to a friend, God’s presence in the Book of Joshua is largely symbolic. God exists for them in the Ark of the Covenant, a container that contains the text of Mosaic law. He does not, however, take physical form. Moses both foreshadows and overshadows Joshua.

This simplified rendering of the military campaign is contrasted by a lingering ambivalence in the behavior and the future of the Israelite people throughout Joshua. Rahab may display a blind faith in God, and the treaty with the Gibeonites may be the result of a deception, but by sparing these figures the Israelites disobey God’s ongoing commandment to destroy all the native inhabitants of the promised land. Equally perplexing is the man or angel who is “the commander of the army of the Lord.” He claims to be neither for nor against Israel, yet his presence at the battle of Jericho seems to connote God’s blessing on Israel’s military exercises. The ten chapters describing the allotment of tribal lands also undercut the decisive victories depicted in the first half of the book. Israel’s resettlement is a project of enormous proportions, occurring before all the land has even been conquered. In fact, it is not clear if the remaining lands will ever be conquered; but, although God requires the total conquest of the promised land, he nevertheless gives them rest from battle (23:1). Finally, in his farewell to Israel, Joshua commands the people to throw away their religious idols and to refrain from allying with the native peoples. At no point do the people agree to either stipulation. Instead, they merely affirm that they will serve God (24:18, 24). Paradoxically, Joshua responds, “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God” (24:19). The ambivalence of the people regarding obedience to God in light of Joshua’s persistence suggests that the future of Israel is uncertain at best.