God made a promise he didn’t deliver on for 600 years or more. He waited for Joshua.
God told Abraham, sometime around the 2000’s BC, “Take a look around you. Look in every direction: north, south, east, west. It’s all yours. Every bit of land you can see is yours. I’m giving it to you and to your descendants forever” (Genesis 13:14-15).
Then God seemed to hit the pause button.
“Forever” had to wait 600 years. Maybe 800. Scholars debate whether Joshua lived in the 1400s BC or 1200s BC.
Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, migrated with his entire family to Egypt to escape a drought. They came as guests. They left, 430 years later, as slaves.
Moses led them to freedom and took them to the western border of Canaan, land now claimed by Israelis and Palestinians. Moses died without ever crossing the natural border of the Jordan River and walking into Canaan.
The end of Moses is the start of Joshua—a book of war stories told in 24-chapters. There are 12 chapters about Israelite battles with Canaanite locals. And there are another 12 chapters about dividing the land among the dozen tribes and the Levite priests.
Battles begin at Jericho, a city built in the Jordan River Valley on a massive fault line of earthquake-churning cracks between shifting plates of the earth’s crust, deep underground. Quakes in modern times have heavily damaged Jericho and other cities in the area. They have also produced landslides that temporarily dammed the Jordan River upstream.
The Bible doesn’t mention earthquakes in Jericho’s story. But it does report that the river stopped flowing so the Israelites could cross. And it does say Jericho’s city walls collapsed before the Israelites did anything more than scream at it. That leaves some wondering if God performed those two apparent miracles by pulling the trigger on an earthquake and aftershocks.
The fall of Jericho is the headliner of Joshua’s collection of stories.
Israelites take control of part of the land, mostly in the hills. There, the local Canaanite armies equipped with chariots didn’t have any advantage against Israel’s infantry.
The Israelites got enough of a foothold that Joshua could divide the land among the tribes and disband the army, sending the warriors home. Each tribe had the job of mopping up the last of the locals.
Dan’s tribe couldn’t seem to hold on to what sliver of land it got, along the Mediterranean coast. Perhaps that’s because they had to fight a group of seafaring people and perhaps former islanders who became known as the fierce Philistines. King Saul and most of his sons later died fighting them. It would take King David, 200-400 years after Joshua, to gut-punch the Philistines into submission.
Joshua died after calling the tribes together one last time. He reminded them to pledge allegiance to the covenant agreement they made with God—and to serve God with all the heart they had in them.
Joshua did write something: “Joshua drew up a contract agreement for the people. It became part of the law. Joshua preserved it in a book of instructions he received from God” (24:25-26).
But he probably didn’t write the notes about his death. Or the material linked to the 16 times the phrase “to this day” (4:9; 5:9; 8:28) shows up, referring to a time apparently long after Joshua.
Some scholars say the book reads as though someone compiled it from many sources, perhaps in an early draft during the time of King David, when Israel emerged as a full-fledged nation. Leaders of a nation like that might have wanted to preserve their history in writing.
Others say there are references in the stories to events around the time of 586 BC, when Babylonian invaders erased the Jewish nation from the world map and scattered most Jews abroad in exile. So, those scholars say the book was likely compiled in final form while Jews were living in exile in the 500s BC.
Some scholars date the stories to the 1400s BC. That’s based on the note in 1 Kings 6:1, which says King Solomon (ruled about 970-931 BC) started building the Jerusalem Temple 480 years after the exodus began. Construction started during the fourth year of his reign, in about 966 BC. A little math: 966 plus 480 equals, 1446 BC. Forty years later, Moses writes the speeches of Deuteronomy, in 1406 BC. Shortly afterward, Joshua and the Israelites invade Canaan.
Other scholars prefer the 1200s BC because that’s when archaeological evidence suggests newcomers started settling in the region and building new towns.
Many Christian scholars no longer refer to Joshua’s invasion as a conquest. They talk about it as a gradual settlement. That’s partly because the archaeological evidence so far doesn’t suggest that many cities were leveled and rebuilt—including ones reported by name in the Bible. Instead, they say, the evidence suggests Israelites migrated there and built new settlements mainly in the hill country, along the spine of hills that runs along the western side of the Jordan River.
These scholars say they read the stories about the conquest as a kind of theological fiction—a figurative way to show that God gave the Israelites all the land he promised them.
Others say the stories read like history, and we should trust the stories and wait for archaeology to catch up to the Bible.
West of the Jordan River is where the stories take place—many of them in what is now the Israeli-Occupied West Bank territory of the Palestinians. Most of the fighting took place within the long ridge of hills running north and south between the Jordan River Valley and the coastal plains beside the Mediterranean Sea. Flatlands were not Israel’s friend. Flat fields gave an advantage to the local armies that had chariot corps.
God delivers on the promise he made to give Abraham’s descendants the land now claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians. That’s the key message.
Joshua is the first book after the five books that Jewish people call the Torah, the Law. Joshua takes the first step from the category of Law to History—and to Prophecy. Some say he was a prophet who followed Moses, the ultimate prophet who spoke directly to God. Early Jewish scholars classified the book as prophecy, though it reads more like history. And that’s why Christian scholars put it in the “history” column.
Many Christians have trouble believing God had anything to do with one commandment that Moses attributed to him:
“When the LORD your God gives them to you, you’ll need to finish them off. After you defeat them in battle, wipe them out by killing them all. Don’t make any peace treaty with them. Don’t show them mercy” (Deuteronomy 7:2).
Also, the people promised the LORD, “If you will let us defeat those people, we will annihilate all Canaanites and decimate their cities” (Numbers 21:2).
The Hebrew word for “annihilate” is herem. Scholars describe it as a “curse of war” or a “ban.” The “ban” means that when soldiers conquer a city, for example, they are banned from keeping anything for themselves—everything in the city is under the curse of war and must die.
Joshua usually fought by those rules, as the Bible tells it.
Many Christians today struggle with this order, which they say sounds like genocide.
Others say if God ordered the people killed, it’s not our place to question it.
Moses explained why God allowed Israel to slaughter and drive out the Canaanites:
“You’re not getting this land because you’re good enough to deserve it. The locals are losing it because they’re terrible people. You’re getting the land because the LORD promised it to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Deuteronomy 9:5).
Yet many seem to doubt that God gave the annihilation order because it sounds more like the devil than Jesus.
Some scholars speculate the order wasn’t a requirement but was intended for use in worst-case scenarios.
Jericho’s prostitute Rahab was a Canaanite saved because she believed the Israelites had God with them. New Testament writers put her in the family tree of Jesus and praised her as an example of faith (Matthew 1:5; Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25).
Some scholars say they see in that the possibility that other Canaanites could have been acceptably assimilated into Israel and married to Israel’s guys and gals.
Joshua and Moses both portrayed the Canaanites as a serious threat to the people of Israel. But Rahab’s story suggests Canaanites might have been an opportunity, too.
In either case, there seems to be a growing movement among scholars to trust the archaeology, which tells a story that sounds more like one of herders settling peacefully in the land and less like genocide.
And if the story was theological fiction, then perhaps little if any blood was shed.
For some Christians, that’s comforting because it blends better with what they know of Jesus and with what they experience of God’s Spirit. For others, it’s unsettling because that’s not the way the Bible reads to them. They might not like what they read or understand it, but if it’s in the Bible, they say they believe it.