Joshua is the sixth book of the Bible and the first book of the section referred to as the “historical books” within the Christian canon. The other books in this section are Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. These books are called “historical” not because they should be read as objective annals of Israel’s history, but because they recount an extended period of Israel’s history. The telling of that history is, like the history covered in the Pentateuch, written with a storyteller’s flair and is intended more to teach Israel theological lessons than to relay objective, literal history. The latter conception of history is a hallmark of modernity, not antiquity. The main points of Israel’s timeline covered in the Historical Books are as follows: Joshua and Israel’s conquest of the land of Canaan, the early years of the monarchy under David and Solomon, the divided kingdoms of the north and south, the exile to Babylon, the return from exile, and a tale of political intrigue from the Persian period in the fifth century B.C.
The book of Joshua is the story of Israel’s conquest of the land of Canaan. Its twenty-four chapters take us through a long litany of harsh battles between Israel and the residents of Canaan as Israel marches systematically through the land God has given them. Before narrating this conquest, the book of Joshua opens with the story of Israel crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land. This episode is told in such a way as to parallel Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea out of Egypt, therefore highlighting Joshua’s role as a “new Moses” poised to take the Israelites the rest of the way on their journey. The first twelve chapters describe the conquest itself, and the first battle is the most famous: Jericho. Then follows the destruction of Ai. Both Jericho and Ai are on the western side of the Promised Land where Israel crossed over the Jordan, and the gateway to the rest of the land. The campaigns continue first to the south and then to the north, with chapter 12 giving the list of the Canaanite kings conquered byIsrael, thirty-one in all.
The second half of the book, chapters 13-24, covers the list of territories yet to be taken, the distribution of the conquered lands to the twelve tribes, and Joshua’s farewell address and death.
There are two pressing issues in Joshua for modern readers, and they are related to each other: the questionable morality of Israel’s warfare and the lack of archaeological support for the events described in the book. On the first point, Israel’s treatment of its enemies—which is announced in Deuteronomy 20:10-20 — is nothing short of merciless. Jericho, the first city to fall, was destroyed and every living thing (except Rahab and her family) killed by the sword. The precious metals (gold, silver, bronze, and iron) were kept for the treasury, but nothing else was spared. When Achan kept some of the booty for himself, Israel’s attack against Ai failed. It was not until Achan, his family, and all his livestock were executed by stoning that Ai could be taken.
It may or may not be a comfort to know that Israel’s deeds against the cities of Canaan find little archaeological support. Archaeologists are quite adept at determining when and where major cities of ancient Canaan were destroyed. It turns out that Jericho was neither occupied nor destroyed anywhere near the time depicted in Joshua (thirteenth century BC). The same holds for most other cites. Only two cities support the biblical story, Hazor and Bethel. A third, Lachish, was destroyed but about 100 years later than Hazor, not soon after each other as we read in Joshua 10:31-32 and 11:13. In other words, the “conquest” of Canaan was not swift nor did it include all the cities mentioned in Joshua. For these and other reasons, most biblical archaeologists conclude that “Israel” was not a discreet outside population that imposed itself upon the Canaanite population, but rather largely Canaanite in origin, perhaps influenced by a small group of outsiders (who may have come out of Egypt). The fact that the Israelites shared with Canaanites such things as pottery style, alphabet, and a name for God (the Canaanite high god was called El, which is also used of Israel’s God over 200 times in the Old Testament), further suggests that Israel grew up out of Canaanite culture.
So, what do we make of the violence in Joshua? What we have here is not a straight description of historical events but an idealized description of the utter dominance of God’s people, likely written many centuries after the time. In other words, Joshua is a significant elaboration of a few potentially core historical events that relay a theological message to the people of Israel and not a report of events as we might think of it today.
– Peter Enns