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
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