Joshua Introduction

Author and date

Scholars differ about both the date and authorship of this anonymous book because they use different methods.

On the issue of authorship some scholars, following the Talmud (c. ad 500), assign the book to Joshua himself. They support this by noting that Rahab is said to be still alive at the time of writing (6:25) and that the author, using ‘we’, includes himself among those that crossed the Jordan (5:1). The remark about Rahab in 6:25, however, may refer to her descendants, and other Hebrew texts read ‘they’, not ‘we’ in 5:1. Also, as in 5:6, the author could have used ‘we’ out of a sense of solidarity with the generation that entered the land.

The dating issue is sometimes also decided entirely on the basis of remarks within Joshua, and some scholars who use this method date the book some time between the deaths of Joshua and his contemporaries who outlived him (24:29–31) and the time of Samuel (c. 1050 bc). Because Sidon is reckoned as Phoenicia’s leading city (11:8) and Tyre conquered it about 1200 bc, some favour that as the date of the book’s completion. Other internal pointers to the book’s date are that Jebus, Old Jerusalem, and Gezer are as yet unconquered (15:63; 16:10). Jerusalem eventually fell to David (2 Sa. 5:6–10) and Gezer to Solomon (1 Ki. 9:16). Also in 13:2–3 the Philistines, who invaded Judah’s coastal plain in 1175 bc are present, though this could have been a later scribal addition.

More recently scholars have started to look outside the book itself to decide the issue of dating. Some of them see links between Joshua and the Pentateuch. They think there is a continuation of the Pentateuch’s alleged literary strands: namely, E in chapters 2–11 and P in 13–22, with various additions from other sources. Others have reached the conclusion that in Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings there is a more or less closed, or at least shaped, unity. The language, style and theology of these books support the conclusion that a so-called Deuteronomist (an individual or a school) gathered together a variety of sources from various periods and wove them into a comprehensive whole during the exile. This would mean that Joshua was written c. 550 bc. These books are linked together by overlapping conclusions and introductions. Jos. 1:1 matches Dt. 34:1–12, especially v 5, where Moses is called for the first time ‘servant of the Lord’. That accolade is bestowed on Joshua, also for the first time, at the end of Joshua (24:29). The conclusion of Joshua (24:29–31) is repeated as part of the introduction to Judges (2:6–9). The Deuteronomist’s style is most apparent in the farewell addresses by Moses (Dt. 31), Joshua (Jos. 23), Samuel (1 Sa. 12), David (1 Ki. 2:1–4) and Solomon (1 Ki. 8:54–61), capped by the editorial summary of the Deuteronomist himself (2 Ki. 17).

Jews have always recognized the unity of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, calling them the ‘Former Prophets’. This arrangement has the advantages of calling attention to the integrity of each book and of distinguishing between the Pentateuch, which describes the organization of Israel as the people of God under the Mosaic covenant, and Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings which interpret the history of Israel in terms of that covenant. The modern approach however emphasizes the strong links between Deuteronomy and these books. G. J. Wenham has found five theological themes which bind Deuteronomy and Joshua together: the holy war of conquest, the distribution of the land, the unity of all Israel, Joshua as the successor of Moses, and the covenant.

The modern approach is also an advance on the traditional view because it observes sources within Joshua to Kings and highlights the Deuteronomist’s theological use of them. Joshua explicitly mentions the Book of Jashar as a source (10:13), and some problems within the book are best explained by source analysis. For example, in 11:21 Joshua is described as driving the Anakites out of Hebron, but in 14:12 Caleb is credited with that feat. This difference is not a contradiction, for Joshua as head of the army could have been credited with his subordinate’s achievements. But it may be best explained in terms of varying sources.

The Deuteronomist assumed his readers knew the earlier stories within the Pentateuch. For example, Joseph’s bones are provided for in Gn. 50:25, taken out of Egypt in Ex. 13:19 and buried at Shechem in Jos. 24:32; and Caleb’s promised inheritance in Nu. 14:24, 30 finds fulfilment in Jos. 14:6–15.

The date of the conquest

The attempt to date Israel’s taking of the land is hampered by the nature of biblical history-writing, the way the Bible reckons dates, and the ambiguity of archaeological discoveries.

The men who compiled the Bible stories aimed primarily to teach theology, not to write about bare facts, so details are sometimes left out. Some reconstructions by modern historians of what actually happened, however, depart too radically from the Bible to be taken seriously.

By taking the figures given in 1 Ki. 6:1 and Jdg. 11:26 at face value, one could date the conquest c. 1400 bc. One cannot assume, however, that the Bible simply adds up the years in this way. Nevertheless, the archaeological evidence from Jericho and Hazor point to this date. At Jericho, the study of the ceramic remnants, royal scarabs, seismic activity in the region, destruction by fire and even ruins of toppled walls along with the use of carbon-14 dating marshals impressive evidence that the fortified city was finally destroyed about 1400. At Hazor, there are destruction levels at 1400, 1300, and 1230 bc. Almost all scholars assign the 1300 destruction to Pharaoh Seti I, leaving either of the others to Israel. The reference in Jdg. 4:2 to Hazor as a Canaanite city in opposition to Israel three or four generations after Joshua precludes the later date, unless one supposes either that the biblical narrative at Jdg. 4 is flawed or that the archaeological evidence is incomplete. Ai, if rightly identified, lacks evidence of an Israelite destruction, presenting a problem for either view (see on 7:2). J. Bimson has established 1400 bc as the date of the conquest on firmer ground by refining the dates of the archaeological periods in question.

On the other hand, the archaeological evidence from Pithom and Rameses in Egypt (Ex. 1:11), the lack of data corroborating established kingdoms of Edom and Moab east of the Jordan before the thirteenth century bc, and the hundreds of new settlements by pastoral nomads that sprang up in Israel at about 1200 in contrast to their absence in the earlier period, all favour dating the conquest in the second half of the thirteenth century.

The date of the conquest, however, does not really affect the theology or message of Joshua, as long as there was a conquest.


The book of Joshua is all about the promised land: its possession (chs. 1–12), its distribution (chs. 13–21) and its retention (chs. 22–24). On the other side, it is also about the dispossession of ‘the wicked’ from that land. The land fit for kings was given to a people fit to be kings (see Jos. 12).

The land as gift

The Creator of the whole earth (Pss. 24:1–2; 47:4) and unique Owner of Palestine (Lv. 25:23) made the patriarchs trustees of a land fit for kings, flowing with milk and honey (Dt. 31:20). He promised to give it to their descendants as a permanent inheritance (Gn. 17:8; Ex. 32:13). The occupation of the land, to be taken by stages (see 13:1–7), was launched dramatically by Joshua. It was then ‘allotted’ by God to Israel’s tribes by casting lots (Nu. 33:50–54), and so became their inalienable possession which no-one could take forcibly from them. Only the Levites received no land of their own; instead they ‘inherited’ the Lord himself, opening the way to a spiritual understanding of the inheritance (13:14).

With Christ’s resurrection and ascension and with the outpouring of the Spirit, it became clear that Joshua is a symbol of Christ and the land a symbol, a metaphor, of the church’s salvation in Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1–4). Both the land and the salvation in Christ are a gift (1:2, 6; cf. Rom. 6:23), possessed only through faith (1:7, 9; cf. Rom. 10:8–21; Eph. 1:8–9). They are both a place of blessing (Ex. 3:8; Nu. 13:27; Eph. 1:3–14), a home base of rest (Jos. 1:13; Heb. 4:1–11) and a holy place where one uniquely meets God (Ex. 15:17; Col. 3:1–4; 1 Tim. 2:5–6). They both also demand a life-style that conforms with God’s law (1:7–8; 8:30–35; 1 Cor. 10:1–13). Through the new covenant Christ qualifies his church to live in this ‘land’ fit for kings (Ezk. 37:26). And yet, though the church today inherits eternal life and rest in Christ Jesus, after its resurrection it will enjoy a more solid ‘land’ appropriate to that state (cf. 1 Cor. 15:50–54; Heb. 11:39–40). The ‘land’ remains a gift already received but not yet fully experienced.

Unity of the founding generation

The author aims to link Joshua with Moses and to identify the people that entered the land as the representatives of those that came out of Egypt (see 24:7, 17). Though the exodus and conquest lasted over two generations, the author of Joshua treats those founding generations as one. He links Moses and his assistant Joshua throughout the book. For example, God promised to be with both (1:5); both lead Israel across a formidable body of water that amazingly dries up and so are exalted in the eyes of the people (3:7); both take off their shoes in the presence of the Lord (5:13–15); both intercede for the people when they sin (7:7); both possess the land and distribute it (12:7–8; 14:1–5); both bless the people (22:6); and both mediate the old covenant (ch. 24). The generation under these two leaders saw the Lord’s amazing wonders in the exodus and the conquest (24:7, 17) and entered into covenant with him; they are the first leaders of the nation ruled by God.

Unity of all Israel

The author is also concerned to portray the unity of the twelve tribes, using ‘all Israel’ and similar terms frequently (e.g. 3:1, 7, 17; 18:1; 22:14). The fighting men of the eastern tribes were not dismissed until after the conquest was completed (1:14–15; 22:1–9), and their misunderstood ‘rival’ altar caused consternation among the other nine-and-a-half tribes (22:10–34). Twelve men, one from each tribe, lifted a stone out of the Jordan to make a national memorial (4:1–9), and all the tribes renewed the Mosaic covenant at Shechem (8:33–34).

Covenant faithfulness

Joshua’s generation proved the dominant theme of this history; namely, the Lord kept his promise to the patriarchs and gave Israel the land and rest. It is stated and restated at key points in the book: in the prologue before the conquest (1:1–9), after the conquest (11:23), and after the distribution of the land (21:43–45). The burial notices at the end of the book also symbolize this truth (24:28–33). This sacred history establishes Israel’s confession, ‘The Lord is God’ (22:22), and the motivation for keeping his covenant (chs. 23–24). It encourages the faithful to possess the land that remains (13:1–7; 14:6–15; 19:49–50), while leaving the unfaithful without excuse (18:3), and sobers all with the dark realization that God also keeps the curses of his covenant (23:15–16; 24:19–24).

Israel for its part must fulfil its covenant obligations by taking, allotting, and retaining the land through the obedience of faith in the Lord, showing their faith in him by obeying his law.

Holy war

Obedience to the covenant involved Israel fighting according to the rules of holy war given in Deuteronomy. The Lord initiates the battle and, if Israel obeys wholeheartedly, ensures its success (1:2–9; cf. Nu. 27:18–21), intervening on occasion in the most amazing ways as at Jericho (6:20) and Gibeon (10:11, 14). While encouraging Israel to be strong in its faith in him, God destroys his enemies before battle begins by striking panic into their hearts (2:9–11, 24).

‘To the victor belong the spoils’, and so all the wicked Canaanites must be ‘devoted’ (Heb. h\eµr) to the Lord (6:17). The extermination of the Canaanites was designed to save Israel from temptation (Dt. 7:1–5). As G. A. Cooke describes it, ‘anything which might endanger the religious life of the community was put out of harm’s way by being prohibited to human use; to secure this effectively it must be utterly destroyed’. When Achan failed to devote to the Lord what was rightfully his, Achan and all he possessed were destroyed (7:15). Sometimes the Lord reserved the plunder to himself and at other times he rewarded his army with it (8:27). The Canaanites were exterminated because the righteous judgment of the Lord was at hand, not because of Israel’s thirst for blood. The prostitute Rahab repented and found a permanent place in Israel (6:25). For the most part, however, God hardened the hearts of the Canaanites who were ripe for judgment (11:19–20). Their destruction prefigures the eternal punishment of the wicked (Mt. 25:46), as had the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah centuries before. Israel possessed their land because the Lord aimed to sanctify it. That is why the author places the account of the covenant renewal at Shechem right in the heart of the battle stories (8:30–34). If we do not recognize these parallels between Israel’s judgment on the Canaanites and the last judgment we shall fail to see why Israel was instructed to act in this way.

Further reading

D. R. Davis, No Falling Words: Expositions of the Book of Joshua (Baker Book House, 1988).

A. G. Auld, Joshua, Judges and Ruth, DSB (St Andrew Press/Westminster/John Knox Press, 1984).

D. H. Madvig, Joshua, EBC (Zondervan, 1990).

M. Woudstra, The Book of Joshua, NICOT (Eerdmans, 1981).

c. circa, about (with dates)

cf. compare

DSB Daily Study Bible

EBC Expositor’s Bible Commentary

NICOT The New International Commentary on the Old Testament

Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Jos 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.