Conquest and Land in the New Testament (in Joshua)

From Anabaptistwiki

ADB logo letters.jpg Home A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Abbreviations Glossary

Something odd has happened to the conquest/land motif on its journey through the ancient world into postbiblical Judaism and the NT writings. Joshua’s conquest could be said to be completely transformed by Jesus’ beatitude “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5). Although Jesus is likely transposing Psalm 37:11, his eschatological imagination also draws on the hopefulness of the psalmist, who writes that it is in waiting for the Lord that one is assured that the “wicked will be no more” (37:9-10). By the time we arrive at the Johannine writings, among the latest in the NT, we find that Jesus has conquered the entire world (kosmos, John 16:33) and that conquest itself has been transformed, being accomplished through suffering and martyrdom (Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 26, 28; 3:5, 12, 21; 5:5; 6:2; 12:11; 15:2; 17:14; 21:7). Clearly the conquest motif has taken on a completely different significance from straightforward ancient conquest accounts.

Yet even the book of Joshua does not appropriate the conquest accounts uncritically, or for woodenly literal purposes. Cosmic, or worldwide, conquest comes to be associated hyperbolically with Davidic theology as expressed in Psalm 2:7-9. There, the decree “You are my son” is linked with the divine gift of “the nations [as] your heritage” and “the ends of the earth [as] your possession.” In the accounts of Jesus’ baptism, the sonship declaration of Psalm 2:7 is reiterated (Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22), but without the particularity of the “heritage” and “possession” of Psalm 2:8. The Gospel accounts themselves will spell out how the particularity of Jesus transforms the landedness of royal conquest into the landlessness of kingdom citizens. Similarly the Gospel accounts draw on the exodus tradition for its language of sonship as well, where God calls Israel, the enslaved people, as “my firstborn son” (Exod 4:22). Perhaps the book of Hebrews takes this motif the furthest, with its notion that this “son” has been “appointed heir of all things” (1:2).

Such a sampling as noted here serves to highlight the cosmic scope of the NT’s appropriation of exodus and royal traditions, including those of conquest. Since Joshua represents an archetypal royal figure, it is not surprising that the correspondence between the names of Joshua and Jesus, which are identical in Greek, should also be drawn into the symbolic naming of the NT’s divine royal son. For a rich and complex analysis of the transformation of the conquest tradition in the synoptic Gospels, see Swartley 1994 (esp. ch. 4).

For example, in Mark’s Gospel the conquest tradition has been transformed through redefining greatness as servanthood (Mark 8–10). As such, in Mark “God’s victory comes in a most unsuspecting way: the way of self-denial, humble service, and the very giving of one’s life for others. . . . For Jesus and his disciples, the way of faithful warfare was and is that of humble service, even unto death” (Swartley 1994: 115). Matthew’s Gospel includes a variety of uses of the conquest tradition. In Matthew the church conquers the gates of Hades, or the realm of death (16:18; cf. John 5:25-29; 11:25; Rev 1:18; see Swartley 1994: 120-21); the meek inherit the earth (5:5); Gentile outsiders are welcomed rather than conquered (8:11; 12:15-21; 28:19); those who have left everything receive everything (19:29-30); and all nations are judged at the bar of justice on behalf the marginalized rather than entitlement (25:31-46). In Luke, “inheriting the land” is transformed into “inheriting eternal life” (Swartley 1994: 132). Luke transforms “the Deuteronomic ‘land entrance’ and conquest traditions” by presenting Jesus both as a “journeying guest” as well as the host of the banquet (134). More particularly, in the great banquet parable (Luke 14:15-24), Jesus invites “the poor, the crippled, and the lame—precisely those who, in the Qumran literature (1QM 7:4-6; 1QSa 2:5-10), were excluded from the expected messianic banquet” (Swartley 1994: 137). Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem in Luke is a deliberate transformation of the OT conquest narrative. In Luke, Jesus welcomes all to his table.

But that journey is also a conflicted journey, in which Satan is being conquered, not the Canaanites (Luke 10:18; cf. John 12:31; 1 Cor 15:24-28; Rev 12:7-12). In fact, in the same chapter it is the Samaritan who is exemplified as a neighbor rather than as an enemy, a poignant transformation since Samaritans lived in the territory first conquered by Israel in the early chapters of Joshua. For Luke, “the peace of the kingdom and the conquest of evil are developed in the narrative by actions that are located squarely in the territory of the religious and sociopolitical enemy, the despised Samaritans” (Swartley 1994: 141).

Paul has also transformed the conquest tradition. In light of the apocalyptic cosmic creation and redemption pattern in Paul’s thinking, the conquest story becomes Jesus’ victory for salvation. And Christian discipleship is both a contest and a victory over evil and adversity (Rom 8:37). As Toews writes, “Because God has acted decisively in Messiah Jesus to effect salvation for the world, Paul asserts that (a) Sin [as a power that enslaves] has been defeated (Gal 1:4; 1 Cor 15:3; Rom 4:25); (b) death has been condemned (1 Cor 15:54-57; Rom 8:31-39); (c) creation itself has been reclaimed by God, although the battle goes on toward God’s final victory (1 Cor 15:2-28; Rom 8:18-25); (d) God’s sovereignty has been established (Rom 8:31-39)” (35). Human beings are no longer the object of the struggle. That is left in the hands of God (Rom 12:21). Paul even transposes the hyperbolic conquest of Joshua into the experience of becoming “more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom 8:37). In Ephesians, the battle/conquest is transformed even further into a spiritual conflict: the opposing coalition is not a human military force but “principalities and powers,” cosmic forces, against whom believers are to dress in the armor of God (Eph 6:11-17; for a thorough analysis of conquest in Ephesians, see Yoder Neufeld 1997: 290-316).

Apocalyptic literature has also drawn on the conquest motif in the Bible. And there too, conquest is transformed in the context of persecution and martyrdom. “Those who conquer will inherit these things,” we read in Revelation 21:7a. “These things” refers to “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1). Moreover, that inheritance is linked to a covenant relationship: “I will be their God and they will be my children” (21:7b). As the notion of inheritance is thus transformed from the particular (land) to the universal (cosmos), this change reverses the notion of conquest. Now, instead of conquering the nations, “The nations will walk by its light [the light of God’s glory], and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it [the heavenly city]” (Rev 21:24; cf. similar motifs in Isa 60:5, 11; 61:6; 66:12). The tree of life in that city will produce leaves “for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2). Certainly the kings of the earth and the merchants, who are depicted as having done evil, will be judged for their indiscriminate oppression and slaughter (Rev 18). The adversaries in Revelation are depicted as enemies of God, who is represented by the rider on the white horse, who “in righteousness . . . judges and makes war” (19:11). The Lamb makes war on those who initiate war against him and “will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings” (17:14). We learn, however, that his weapon is the “sharp sword” that comes from his mouth (19:15). This sword is the same as the one coming from the mouth of the “one like the Son of Man” (1:13, 16). In other battle texts in Revelation 16:14; 13:7, kings of the earth and the beast are “allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them.”

Although that implies martyrdom, Revelation is mostly concerned about “those who had conquered” (e.g., 15:2). The call of Revelation is to follow the Lamb wherever he goes (14:4). Even those who die “have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (12:11). Those who follow bear the same weapon, the weapon of truthful testimony (which is martyria). It is in the context of their threatened martyrdom that they bear witness in “patient endurance” (1:9; 3:10) and without fear (1:17) and thereby “conquer” (2:7, 11, 17, 26, 28; 3:5, 12, 21). The assurance is that those to whom the letter is addressed may “conquer” not a human enemy, but death itself because “the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation” (3:14), the Lamb (17:14), has conquered and will conquer. In the face of such hope, the saints, “those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus” (14:12), are called to endurance. The irony of Revelation, however, is that the kings/nations who have been conquered and judged are also the ones who are healed and restored in the cosmic restoration of all things (for further exploration of these motifs, see Johns).

It is also possible that Revelation 1:12-18, with its image of a man with a sword coming from his mouth, is reinterpreting the image of the commander in Joshua 5:13 (see Rev 1:16; 2:16; 19:15, 21). This “sword” is analogous to nothing other than the “word of their testimony” (12:11). Such reappropriation, or “traditioning,” suggests that the writers of Scripture understand the old stories in a dynamic way. In the process, the shock of the imagery may be maintained, but the image is given a new significance in a new context. In Revelation, the adversary is primarily a cosmic enemy, even though there is also a judgment against human powers that participate in injustice and violence against both people and the earth (e.g., 11:18).

In John’s Gospel, Jesus even says, “I have conquered the world!” (16:33; cf. 1 John 2:13; 4:4; 5:4-5). Such a conquest theme is not about land or human enemies but about the cosmic darkness that has launched a guerrilla movement against God’s reign (cf. Rev 3:21; 5:5; 12:11; 15:2; 17:14; 21:7). The world is that which is aligned against the rule of God. The Johannine epistles affirm that believers have conquered the evil one (1 John 2:13; cf. 4:4; 5:4-5).

Thus Ezekiel’s hope for a people faithful to God’s instruction remains alive in the NT, even as God’s people continue to wait for the Spirit’s freedom and transformation (Ezek 36:26-28; Rom 8:19-25). The hope for an inherited homeland, as interpreted by Hebrews 11:8-16, has been realized in Jesus, in whose Spirit the NT writers rested and waited for the fullness of the promise. Such waiting is characteristic of the meek as they inherit the earth (Matt 5:5), Jesus’ offer of rest to those who desire to learn from him (Matt 11:28-30), the eschatological “rest” of the book of Hebrews (4:11), and the “inheritance” motif in Paul’s theology (Rom 4:13; 1 Cor 6:9-10; 15:50; Gal 3:18).

Postbiblical Jewish literature develops a similar trajectory as that of the NT. Halpern-Amaru explores the way four texts “rewrite” the tradition, including the conquest: Jubilees, Testament of Moses, Pseudo-Philo, and Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities. “All four authors who rewrite biblical Land theology reconstruct the narrative such that the Land no longer functions as the key signature of covenantal history.” These “new narratives . . . deemphasize the theological significance of the land” (116). For example, in Jubilees: “From the perspective of the past, Land promise, acquisition, and retention are the markers of Israel’s history. From the author’s present, purity of heart and fidelity to the covenant become the new eschatological markers” (51). Summarizing, Halpern-Amaru writes, “Landedness is part of the theological and historical heritages of all the writers. However, it is as troublesome to them as it will become to the later rabbinic tradition which, in the light of destruction and exile, placed people and Torah over Land in the heart of its own system” (127). Such a “downgrade” of land theology is “not because possession of the Land is insignificant, but because it is so significant that it stands in the way of a contemporary reading of Scriptures. Indeed the same can be said of those who currently struggle with the theological significance of the modern return to the Land” (127). For similar reasons, conquest theology has been transformed in the NT. Even the book of Joshua, as noticed in this commentary, highlights faithfulness to covenant peoplehood through attentiveness to the divine word (Torah) over conquest and acquisition of land.

Land in the NT takes on a rather distinct significance as the theme is filtered through a figural imagination. First, although the gift of land appears not to be prominent, NT writers do appropriate the promise of land in creative ways, many of which are consistent with the vision of the OT in general, and perhaps even with the book of Joshua. In the beatitude of Matthew 5:5, Jesus offers an alternative way of inheriting the earth: the way of meekness. Gardner suggests that the word meek “points to a style of relating to others, a style in which we eschew the proud and violent ways of the mighty” (95).

In Jesus’ teaching, the theme of the kingdom of God/heaven absorbs but does not eradicate the promises and reality of life on the land. In the NT, Jesus speaks of the gift of the kingdom. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells his “little flock” not to be afraid (cf. Josh 1:9), for “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). And although the kingdom is a gift, in Matthew’s Gospel it is also specially prepared for those who do the will of God (Matt 7:21, 24; 12:49-50). These are the ones who come to a place of rest and whose obedience is “light” and not burdensome (Matt 11:28-30). People from every “nation” become recipients of eschatological blessing and will “inherit the kingdom” (Matt 25:34). The Gospel language continues the lively intrabiblical conversation about the gifts of God. Paul transposes gift language to describe the work of the Spirit (1 Cor 2:12; 4:7).

Second, Jesus’ followers become a transnational peoplehood. God’s “Emmanuel” (Matt 1:23) is now the motivation for mission, making disciples of all nations, incorporating them into God’s community by baptism, and teaching them the importance of obedience (28:18-20). The group gathered after Jesus’ death asks whether he will “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). The response is an expansive declaration that they will, by God’s own power, be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth” (1:8). But this world-embracing perspective is not unique to NT teaching. Even the book of Joshua, as we have begun to see, raises questions about the identity, boundaries, and definition of the community of promise.

Third, the call for obedience is reflected in numerous ways in the NT. The motif of hearing and doing Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels sets the stage for reflection on the character of obedience (Matt 7:24; Luke 6:46; John 3:21; 8:31; 14:15). In various ways the Gospels present Jesus as affirming the law or as highlighting a core of instruction. In answering the question about what good deed would bring eternal life, Jesus responds, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matt 19:17b; cf. Deut 5:33; 8:1; 32:46-47). John’s Gospel transposes life in the land to “eternal life” (3:15; 10:28), which is experienced as “abundant life” (cf. 10:10). The book of Hebrews affirms the need for diligent obedience in faith. The author refers specifically to Joshua’s incomplete rest as a motive for continuing to strive to enter God’s rest (4:8-10). Only now the weapons are not military, but the word of God (Heb 4:12; cf. Eph 6:10-17). Joshua 1 already affirms the priority of heeding the word. Thus, with the prophets Isaiah and Micah (Isa 2:2-4; Mic 4:1-5), the violence of the book of Joshua stands under the judgment of the word of the Lord, which ultimately undermines all human weapons and violent means of acquisition. The heart of this “word” theology is expressed in Deuteronomy 8:3b: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”

This notion of victory achieved through obedience to the word of God stands out as one of the ways the NT writers reinterpret the conquest theme. That victory motif is rooted in the model of Jesus, as he is presented in the Gospels as Victor. Swartley suggests that Jesus is depicted as Victor in at least three ways: “(1) Jesus continues to battle with evil; (2) Jesus himself is the divine Warrior who gives his life instead of taking the lives of others; and (3) the victory of Jesus is appropriated to Jesus’ followers, in their authority over evil and in the shape of their life together” (1994: 146).

On exodus, conquest, conflict, and warfare in the NT, see McDonald; Swartley 1994, 2003; Yoder Neufeld 1997, 2011; Zerbe. See also the following for thoughtful reflection on the biblical theology of land in general, and land in the NT in particular: Brueggemann; Burge 2003, 2010; Gordon; Jeschke; March; Weaver.


  • Brueggemann, Walter. The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 2002.
  • Burge, Gary M. Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to “Holy Land” Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010.
  • ______. Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told About Israel and the Palestinians. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim, 2003.
  • Gordon, Robert P. Holy Land, Holy City: Sacred Geography and the Interpretation of the Bible. Carlisle: Paternoster, 2004.
  • Halpern-Amaru, Betsy. Rewriting the Bible: Land and Covenant in Post-Biblical Jewish Literature. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994.
  • Jeschke, Marlin. Rethinking Holy Land: A Study in Salvation Geography. Scottdale, PA, and Waterloo, ON: Herald, 2005.
  • March, W. Eugene. God’s Land on Loan: Israel, Palestine, and the World. Louisville, KY, and London: Westminster John Knox, 2007.
  • McDonald, Patricia M. God and Violence: Biblical Resources for Living in a Small World. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2004.
  • Swartley, Willard M. Israel’s Scripture Traditions and the Synoptic Gospels: Story Shaping Story. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994.
  • ______. “War.” In The Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible. Edited by Donald E. Gowan, 524-28. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2003.
  • Weaver, Alain Epp, ed. Under Vine and Fig Tree: Biblical Theologies of Land and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. Telford, PA: Cascadia; Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2007.
  • Yoder Neufeld, Thomas. Killing Enmity: Violence and the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011.
  • ______. “Put on the Armour of God”: The Divine Warrior from Isaiah to Ephesians. Journal for the Study of the New Testament: Supplement Series 140. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1997.
  • Zerbe, Gordon. Non-retaliation in Early Jewish and New Testament Texts: Ethical Themes in Social Contexts. Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha: Supplement Series 13. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993.

Gordon H. Matties