How to read Joshua


  • Content: the partial conquest, distribution, and settlement of the promised land.

  • Historical coverage: from the beginning of the conquest to the death of Joshua.

  • Emphases: the engagement of the holy war, as God through his people repeatedly defeats the idolatrous Canaanites; the gift of the land to God's people, thus fulfilling his covenant promise to the patriarchs; Israel's need for continuing covenant faithfulness to the one true God.


Following the five books of Moses, the book of Joshua begins the second large section of the Hebrew Bible known as the Former Prophets (Joshua-2 Kings, apart from Ruth) . Later scholarship has called the same group of books the Deuteronomic History. Both designations are full of insight. This section of the Old Testament is intended to be prophetic, in the sense that it records Israel's history with the purpose of instructing and explaining from the divine perspective how and why things went the way they did; they are Deuteronomic in that they tell the story from the very decided point of view of Deuteronomy. Thus, for example, Joshua's farewell speech in chapter 23 repeats language from Moses' farewell exhortation in Deuteronomy 7,but now from the perspective after the conquest; at the same time Joshua calls for obedience to "the Book of the Law of Moses" (Josh 8:31), a term that occurs only in Deuteronomy in the Pentateuch- and will appear again at the end of the Former Prophets in 2Kings (2 Kgs 14:6; 22:8,11; cf. 23:2).

Joshua itself tells the story of how a second generation of former slaves succeeded in invading and possessing Canaan, thus inheriting the land that God had promised to Abraham and his seed hundreds of years earlier (Gen 12 and 15). The story is told in four parts:

Chapters 1:1-5:12 focus on Israel's entrance into the land (with several echoes of the account of Israel's exit from the land of Egypt). After some crucial preparatory matters, the Jordan River is crossed. Accounts of circumcision and the celebration of the Passover (recall Exod 12) bring closure to this part of the story.

Chapters 5:13-12:24 tell the story of the (partial) conquest of the land. Featured here are the divine overthrow of Jericho (ch. 6) and the defeat at Ai (ch. 7), which are told in detail and serve as the paradigm for what follows-that this is God's holy war, not theirs, and everything is predicated on obedience and loyalty to the covenant with Yahweh. Hence the covenant renewal ceremony (8:30-35) immediately follows the taking of Ai (8:1-29). Following the Gibeonite deception (ch. g), which serves as grounds for victory in the south (ch. 10), the rest of the conquest is briefly summarized (chs. 11- 12).

Chapters 13-21 narrate the distribution of the land, setting out the administrative organization of Yahweh's earthly kingdom. After repeating the settlement of the eastern tribes (ch. 13; cf. Num 32), the focus is on the tribes that will play the leading roles in the history that follows (Judah, Ephraim; Josh l4-17); Benjamin (from whom the first king comes) leads the summation of the rest of the tribes (ch. 18-19). It concludes with provision for those who kill unintentionally (ch .20) and for the Levites, who otherwise do not inherit land (ch. 21).

Chapters 22-24 are concerned primarily with Israel's continued loyalty to Yahweh and thus conclude with the renewing of the covenant at Shechem (cf. 8:30-35).


You will notice that the story in Joshua is told from the perspective of a later time, as the narrator repeatedly mentions certain kinds of memorials that "are there to this day" (4:9; 5:9;7:26 8:28-29; 10:27), as are many of the Canaanite peoples (13:13; 15:63;16:10). The former serve as reminders of God's faithfulness in the past, the latter as reminders of what had not been done.

Both the structure of the book and God's opening words to Joshua (1:2-9) reveal the three major concerns. First, there is the engagement in the holy war. Notice how the emphasis is always on God's initiative and participation ("I will be with you," 1:5). Thus the opening battle (Jericho) is God's alone; after that, the Israelites are themselves militarily involved but always with God fighting for them (8:1; 10:14; 23:10); as David would put it later, "the battle is the Lord's" ( 1 Sam 17:47). This is God's holy war, not just to give Israel the land but especially to rid the land of idolatry (false gods)-all of this so that Yahweh will dwell as King among a people who are to reflect his likeness and follow his ways. In this regard be watching also for the several instances when the author speaks of the gift of "rest" following the holy war (Josh 1:13, 15; 14:15; 21:44;22:4; 23:l), a theme picked up negatively in Psalm 95:11 regarding the wilderness generation and then in Hebrews 4:1-11 as warning and assurance.

Second even though chapters 13-21 are not a good read as such, they are profoundly important to the story, for here at last is the fulfilling of God's promise to Abraham and to his seed that they would one day inherit this very land. It was to be their special territory precisely so that here God could develop a people who, by honoring and serving Yahweh, would bless the nations.

Third and most important, everything has to do with the Israelites' covenant loyalty to the one God. This is the key element in the opening address to Joshua ("Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written init," 1:8). This is the central factor in the defeat at Ai (7:11, 15). It also accounts for the early insertion of the covenant renewal at Mount Ebal (8:30-35) and for the final covenant renewal at Shechem with which the narrative concludes (24:1-27).

You will readily see how much all of this picks up and carries on the concerns of Deuteronomy: God's war against false gods; God's promise of the land; and the concern for loyalty to the one true God against all forms of idolatry.

Two further things might help you to read Joshua well. First, read with helpful maps in hand (such as those found in Marten Woudstra's commentary on Joshua [see How to ]). This will give you a good sense of the geography mentioned throughout.

Second it may help you to know that, at the time of Israel's invasion, Canaan was not occupied by a superpower, as it had been earlier by the Egyptians and Hittites. Thus, Israel did not have to face that kind of powerful opposition. Rather, the land was organized in the form of city-states, so that each major city and its surrounding villages had its own king, each of whom was politically independent. Such an arrangement meant that the Israelites, though a small people themselves, could fight each state or small grouping of states (9 :1-2; 10 :5-27; 11: 1-9) separately

and thus gradually possess much of the land.




This chapter introduces all the main themes: God as the protagonist of the story; the call of Joshua and recognition of his role as true successor to Moses; that Joshua would lead the people to inherit the land God had promised to their ancestors; and the central concern for covenant loyalty.

Note Yahweh's repeated exhortation to Joshua to "be strong and courageous"

(vv. 6,7 ,9), repeated at the end of the chapter by the people (v. 18) and by Joshua to the army at the beginning of the southern campaign (10:25). Note also the beginning of the theme of "rest" (1:13, 15).


Preparation for and Entrance into the Promised Land

Look for the ways the several narratives of these chapters describe the preparation of the people for the conquest of the land. The first is military (ch. 2): sending spies to Jericho, who, protected by Rahab, learn of the dread their previous victories (Num 21:21-35) have aroused in the people.

The second is the miraculous crossing of the Jordan (Josh 3-4), which echoes the previous crossing of the Red Sea during the exodus. The final two are spiritual: the renewal of the rite of circumcision and the celebration of the Passover. Israel can only possess the land as a circumcised people (recall Gen 17:9-14), with the "reproach of Egypt" removed (Josh 5:9), and Passover can now be celebrated again (after a hiatus of 39 years; see Exod 12:25 and Num 9:1-14) as the gift of manna ceases (Josh 5: 10- 12).

Take note also of the significant role that Gilgal will play in the rest of the conquest (5:9; 9:6; ch. 10); later it becomes one of Israel's sacred sites (1 Sam 7:16;11:14) and eventually a place of syncretistic idolatry (Hos 4:15; 9:15; 12:11 ; Amos 4:4;5:5).


Jericho and Ai

Note especially how the conquest begins-with Joshua's encounter with "the commander of the Lord's army" (Josh 5:13-15). Already on the scene to take charge of the conquest, he is Joshua's (and Israel's) assurance that Yahweh's heavenly army is committed to the conquest a conquest of which Joshua and his army are the earthly contingent. This item is full of echoes of-and significant contrasts with-Moses' encounter with Yahweh in the burning bush (Exod 3:1-4:17).

Observe how closely linked the two stories of Jericho and Ai are, both in the present narrative and beyond (Josh 9:3; 10:1). Together they disclose the conditions under which Israel can conquer and then retain possession of the land. Don't miss the important features of the well-known account of the fall of Jericho-that it is God's victory altogether; that, except for the trumpets, the role of Israel's army is quite nonmilitary; that it is the first fruits of victory, and therefore everything in the city belongs to God (the city itself is burned as a thing "devoted . . . to the Lord," 6:21; its precious stones and metals will go into the Lord's house); and that Rahab and her family are spared because she had confessed that the future belongs to Yahweh (2:8-13).

The first part of the Ai story (ch. 7) picks up the theme of the "devoted things" from chapter 6, focusing on Israel's defeat because of one man's covenant disobedience (7: 1 1, 15; cf. 22:18-20). Note the significance of Achan, a man from Judah whose story may be read against the background of the account of Rahab the harlot (Achan and his family lose all inheritance in the land while Rahab the foreigner and her family gain inheritance).

The second part of the Ai story (ch. 8) then narrates how God enabled Israel through a shrewd military stratagem to defeat and destroy Ai. These two decisive victories at the point of entry, one miraculous and one through human instrumentality-and told in detail as they are suggest to the reader how to understand the rest of the stories that are not told in detail. So at this point the narrator includes the covenant renewal at Mount Ebal (8:30-35; see Deut 27:4-8).


The Gibeonite Ruse and Its Consequences

The first account after the covenant-renewal ceremony is another breach of the covenant, this time by Joshua himself, who "did not inquire of the Lord" (9:14); note that the Gibeonites are Hivites (9:7; 11:19), who are one of the seven Canaanite people groups who are to be utterly destroyed (9:1; cf. Deut 7:1-2). Nonetheless, their deception leads directly to the defeat of the five "kings of the Amorites," who intend to subdue Gibeon but are themselves then defeated (Josh 10:1 -28).This in turn leads to the narrative of the conquest of the southern city-states (w.29-43); note that the army immediately heads for the cities of the kings who have been killed.


The Northern Conquest and Summary

Here as before, the defeat of the southern kings leads in turn to the defeat of many in the north (ch. 11). Then chapter 12 summarizes all the kings and their city-states that were destroyed.


The Distribution of the Land

Although this part of Joshua is not exciting reading, you need to be aware of its importance for the rest of the biblical story. For here is the actual fulfillment of the gift of the land made to Abraham and his seed. But observe especially the importance given to certain parts of the narrative-both by placement and by the amount of space devoted to them.

The account begins with a reminder of what still needs to be done

(13:1-7), which becomes important for reading both Judges and 2 Samuel 5 and 8, where David finally succeeds in subduing these peoples. After repeating the allotment given to Gad, Reuben, and half of Manasseh (13:8-32; cf. Num 32), the focus is first of all on Caleb and the tribe of Judah (chs. 14-15) and then on the two tribes of Joseph (Ephraim and half of Manasseh, Josh 16-17). Note that a clear break (18:1-2), highlighted by the appearance of the Tent of Meeting at Shiloh, separates these allotments from the rest that follow (18:3-19:48); observe further that these latter begin with Benjamin, which includes Jerusalem (18:28), even though it has not yet been conquered. The distribution narrative itself concludes with Joshua's allotment (19:49-51) so that Caleb and Joshua bookend this narrative (see comments on Num 9:15-14:45).

Appended to the distribution narrative are two other very important land matters: provision for unintentional killing (ch. 20) and for the Levites (ch. 21). Note how these repeat Numbers 35, but in reverse order and by condensing the one and expanding the other.



The three chapters that conclude Joshua have loyalty to God and the covenant as their common denominator. The near outbreak of war over an altar built by the eastern tribes had to do with fear that they had broken faith with the God of Israel (22:16). The two farewell addresses by Joshua have covenant loyalty as their singular theme. Observe how much these speeches reemphasize the concerns of Deuteronomy.

The book concludes on the encouraging note that not only Joshua and Eleazar are buried in the promised 1an4 but that the bones of Joseph, first buried in Egypt (Gen 50:26; cf. Exod 13: 19), are also re-interred at Shechem, in the tribal lands of Joseph's son Ephraim. And so God keeps covenant with his people! Unfortunately, the next chapter in the story (Judges) tells of Israel repeatedly breaking covenant with God.

Joshua contributes to God's story of redemption by bringing closure

to the covenant promise of the land made in Genesis (and throughout

the Pentateuch), thus setting the stage for the next phases of the story.