How and Why to Read the Book of Joshua in 2022
This year for Thanksgiving, I joined extended family for a Thursday feast and introduced them to my wife and son for the first time. Right there, I have a lot to be thankful for. Perhaps you, too, counted your many blessings this past week. Or perhaps you feel that your reasons to give thanks are few and far between. Either way, the Bible exhorts us to primarily give thanks for God’s unalienable gifts that are immune to the circumstances of this life. “Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28). In reinforcing our hope in our future reward, few books outshine that of Joshua.
Overview of Joshua
The book of Joshua (author unknown) tells how God enabled the Israelites to conquer and inherit the land of Canaan, in fulfillment of his promises to Abraham. The first 12 chapters describe the conquest, while the remaining 12 chapters describe the inheritance of the land. The first five chapters prepare the Israelites to fight as God’s army. Chapters 6-9 describe their early victories and blunders, and then chapters 10-12 describe a whirlwind of stunning military conquests. Chapters 13-21 describe how Israel apportioned the land they had captured, and the final three chapters provide concluding episodes with key reflections to help interpret the book.
The book begins where Deuteronomy ended — with Israel encamped east of the Jordan after Moses’s death — and draws heavily on the five books of Moses. Chapter 1 reaffirms God’s promises and instructions to Joshua and Israel from Deuteronomy 31, Genesis 13, and Exodus 23. In chapter 2, spies report back, “Truly the Lord has given all the land into our hands” (2:24), correcting the fatal mistake of the faithless spies from Numbers 13. In chapter 3, God parts the Jordan River as he had parted the Red Sea in Exodus 14. In chapter 4, Israel builds a stone to remind their children of God’s provision, like the instructions God gave in Deuteronomy 6. In chapter 5, the wilderness generation is circumcised, in obedience to the Abrahamic covenant of Genesis 17, and keeps the Passover, in obedience to God’s command as they left Egypt in Exodus 12-13. Additionally, “the manna ceased the day after they ate of the produce of the land” (5:12), which had sustained them since Exodus 16. Finally, Joshua is ordered to remove his sandals because he is standing on holy ground, like Moses before the burning bush in Exodus 3. These signs persuaded a new generation that the God of the Exodus was still among them.
The next chapters describe two victories, two failures, and two responses of faith. Israel besieged Jericho in faith, simply walking around the city, and its walls fell on their own. However, because of sin in the congregation, Israel was then defeated before the smaller city of Ai. The people then responded by inquiring of the Lord, seeking out the evildoer among them and purging him from the congregation — a model for expunging sin from our own lives. Israel then defeated Ai by following God’s instructions. They responded by reaffirming the covenant at Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, as Moses had instructed in Deuteronomy 27. But, so that “anyone who thinks that he stands” may “take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12), the people immediately made another mistake. Because they “did not ask counsel from the Lord,” they were deceived into swearing a perpetual alliance with the Gibeonites, one of the nations devoted to destruction, which God instructed them not to do (Exodus 23:32).
Yet God’s providence brought good out of Israel’s foolishness, because it hastened the destruction of the Canaanites. When five kings marched against Gibeon for their treaty with Israel, Joshua led the army on an overnight march to surprise them at daybreak (Joshua 10:9). There, “the Lord fought for Israel” (10:14), throwing their enemies into a panic (10:10), pelting them with hail so that “there were more who died because of the hailstones than the sons of Israel killed with the sword” (10:11), and causing the sun to stand still (10:13). Joshua continued this campaign through southern (chapter 10) and northern (chapter 11) Canaan, defeating 31 kings in all (chapter 12).
Nine chapters of Joshua are devoted to describing how the land was apportioned, and they can make for difficult reading. Several points are worth highlighting. First, many areas remained to conquer (13:1-7), even though Israel had been conquering for “a long time” (11:18) — years. Yet it was enough for Israel at the time, and they had rest (11:23). God had promised to drive out the inhabitants piecemeal “lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you” (Exodus 23:29-31).
Second, Israel followed the instructions about apportioning the land laid out in Numbers, including land east of the Jordan (Numbers 32, Joshua 13), Caleb’s inheritance (Numbers 14:24, Joshua 14), female heirs (Numbers 27, Joshua 17), division by lot (Numbers 33:54, Joshua 18:6), and cities of refuge (Numbers 35, Joshua 20).
Third, only Judah, Ephraim, and Manasseh (Joshua 15-17) quickly claimed an inheritance; Joshua had to prod the rest to take possession.
Fourth, the land allotments fulfilled Jacob’s prophecy (Genesis 49:7) that Simeon and Levi would be divided and scattered in Israel. Simeon was scattered throughout Judah (19:1-9), whose inheritance was too large, and ceased to have a separate tribal identity. Levi was deliberately scattered throughout all the tribes (21:1-42) to teach the people God’s law (Deuteronomy 33:10), and because the Lord was their portion (Deuteronomy 10:9, Joshua 18:7).
Fifth, these chapters help to inform later historical events. For example, when God strikes 70 men of Beth-Shemesh for looking upon the ark (1 Samuel 6:19), it’s worth considering that Beth-Shemesh was inhabited by priests (21:16), not just ordinary Israelites. It may still be difficult to read through a list of place names you might not find on any map, but hopefully knowing these contours will make it a bit easier to navigate the difficult terrain.
Joshua’s final chapters draw several conclusions from the conquest, perhaps best summarized:
Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass. (21:43-45)
In chapter 22, the eastern tribes returned home, but they built an altar by the Jordan to “witness between us that the Lord is God” (22:34). Mistaking their intentions, the western tribes prepare for war (22:12) according to Deuteronomy 13, believing that the eastern tribes have fallen into idolatry. Phineas the priest, whose zeal had ended the adulterous idolatry and ensuing plague at Peor (Numbers 25), lead a diplomatic delegation, who discovered that Reuben and Gad only intended to ensure they were not cut out from worshipping at God’s tabernacle. Both sides showed commendable religious fervor at this time.
In chapter 23, an aged Joshua charged the elders to “be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses” and “be very careful, therefore, to love the Lord your God” (23:6, 11), so that they would prosper and not be cut off. In chapter 24, Joshua exhorted all the tribes to choose to serve the Lord. He ordered them to “put away the foreign gods that are among you” (24:23) — an ominous sign of their future backsliding. “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God,” he solemnly warned (24:19), but they witnessed against themselves that they would (24:22). God had fulfilled his side of his covenant with Israel at Sinai, so Israel must fulfill their side. Yet they would shortly renege on their solemnly sworn promise.
Gospel Themes in Joshua
Given the name (Joshua, like Jesus, means “the Lord saves”), Joshua is predictably full of gospel types. After years of wandering as sojourners in the wilderness, here Israel finally comes into their inheritance. For Christians, our lives are sojourns in a foreign land, but we can look forward to “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4).
Jesus appears in person as the commander of the army of the Lord (5:13-15). This is evidently a manifestation of God. His very presence makes the ground holy. Joshua falls on his face to worship and is not rebuked for doing so. The Lord appears with a drawn sword to command his armies, just as he will do again (Revelation 19:11-16). When executing his holy wrath, Jesus does not fit neatly into the categories of Joshua’s question, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” “No,” he says. He is on his own side. How important, then, to make sure that we are on his side.
Jesus’s triumphs are typified by those of Joshua. Like Israel, the church is an army marching to victory, with Jesus instead of Joshua at our head. Like Israel at Jericho (Joshua 6) and Gibeon (10), the church’s victory over its spiritual enemies is not based upon our own righteousness or talent, but “it is the Lord your God who has fought for you” (23:3). Joshua’s victory was so complete that the Israelite chiefs could place their feet on the necks of the defeated kings (10:24). Jesus will defeat “every rule and every authority and power,” including, finally, death itself, and “put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Corinthians 15:24-27, see also Psalm 8:6, Ephesians 1:22, Hebrews 2:8). When Joshua finished his conquests, “the land had rest from war” (11:23, 14:15). When Jesus finishes his conquests, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Revelation 21:4). Yet Joshua died and was buried (24:29-30), going “the way of all the earth” (23:14); Jesus Christ lives forever in heaven. How much more glorious will be the ultimate fulfillment!
In Joshua, the people of Israel portray what happens when faith becomes sight. When Israel marched out of Egypt, they only had God’s promise that he would bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey and deliver it into their hands. When they reached it the first time, they refused to believe God and enter the land. God had shown his mighty works in Egypt, sustained his people Israel by sending manna each morning, and guided them with a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. Yet still the Israelites had to choose to believe that God would accomplish his word. In the book of Joshua, those promises are abundantly fulfilled. Israel now possessed the land promised to Abraham, in a way that not even Abraham possessed it. This is one reason why the book catalogues so minutely the distribution of the land. “Not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you,” said Joshua (23:14).
However, even this consummation of God’s promises will be surpassed. Says the author of Hebrews (4:8-9), “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” The Sabbath rest God has prepared for us in Christ Jesus is even better than the one obtained by the victorious Israelites conquering a land flowing with milk and honey. For us, Christ mediates a better covenant than Moses’ “since it is enacted on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6). To us God has promised:
I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more. (Hebrews 8:10-12, citing Jeremiah 31:33-34)
Not one word of God’s promises has failed, so we can trust that not one word of these new promises will fail either. O, “Lord, haste[n] the day when the faith shall be sight!”
Present Call to Obedience
God’s faithfulness to his promises should provoke us to respond in obedience. The author of Joshua is eager to incite us to be faithful to God, with frequent exhortations to “be strong and courageous” and to “be very careful” to do as he has commanded. The Israelites were called to set up stones of remembrance, to teach the law to their children, and to always meditate on it. They were called to reject the abominable idolatry of the nations they dispossessed. They were commanded not to turn aside from following God’s laws either to the right or to the left. These are good principles for us to follow too.
Joshua also summons arguments to persuade our reason against backsliding. “But just as all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you have been fulfilled for you, so the Lord will bring upon you all the evil things, until he has destroyed you from off this good land that the Lord your God has given you, if you transgress the covenant of the Lord your God,” Joshua warns (23:15-16). God’s faithfulness to his promises is good news while we follow him, but disastrous news if we reject him. Sin never goes unpunished and never affects us alone. God found out the sin of Achan, “and he did not perish alone for his iniquity” (22:20). God’s past judgments on sinners are designed to warn us away from their sin (22:17-20), and his past grace toward us should inflame our fear and love for him (24:2-18). In fact, God has done so much for us that we would be unjust if we did not respond by serving him. Even those who would later turn away from God, when put to it, professed their allegiance in Joshua 24.
We don’t yet enjoy the fulfillment of all the promises God has made to us. But we do have, in the book of Joshua, an infallible, written record of his faithfulness to fulfill previous promises under a previous covenant. There we find God’s mighty power, sovereign providence, patient instruction, and wise guidance leading his people into a land of plenty and rest, despite their failures. Jesus Christ has achieved a better victory over sin and death, opening for us who believe a way into a better rest. We look forward to an incorruptible kingdom from which sin, death, and sadness are banished. For that blessed hope, we should be thankful — not only on the fourth Thursday in November, but every day of the year.
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.