The book of Joshua tells the story of Israel’s occupation of the land of Canaan. The book reflects back on the promise of land (Gen 17:8), idealizes a faithful past (Josh 24:31), and sets the stage for the crisis of exile at the end of 2 Kings. It highlights covenantal loyalty, exclusive allegiance to God, obedience to divine instruction (torah), and the formation of a faithful people. The book assumes that there is an integral relationship of God, people(s), and land.
Even so, the book stands in contrast to Jesus’ command to love the enemy (Matt 5:43-48). With its focus on conquest and extermination of the Canaanite population, Joshua has been used to justify settler colonialism and ethnic cleansing. Reading Joshua, therefore, requires careful attention to the way it tells its story, how it is embedded in the larger biblical narrative, and how other biblical texts transpose and transform Joshua’s violent legacy.
Joshua stands in the middle of a particular biblical plot, a journey from landlessness to landedness and back to landlessness, both fulfilling promises to Israel’s ancestors and anticipating the failures to come in the books of Judges through Kings. As part of that longer story, the book has shaped communities of faith for good and ill. Readers over time have discovered continuities with their own lives through discerning a trajectory of words, themes, plot elements, characters, and thematic and literary patterns.
The book of Joshua participates in the ongoing conversation about what it means to be a people in relationship with God, to be connected to land/earth, and to be faithful in the journey into and out of land. As such the drama narrated in Joshua tells of a beginning, yet points forward to transformations even of those areas where the book fails to resonate with a hopeful vision of peace with justice for all.
Origin, Genre, and Narrative Features
Joshua is the first of the Former Prophets in the Hebrew Bible (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings), sometimes called the Deuteronomistic History because these books draw extensively on Deuteronomy’s theological vocabulary (e.g., Josh 1:5 and Deut 4:25-31; 30:1-20). The expression “still there today” or “as it is today” (4:9; 5:9; 6:25; 7:26; 8:29; 9:27; 15:63; cf. Deut 4:38; 29:28) implies a composition much later than the events described. Using older sources, this collection was likely begun during the monarchy—perhaps under King Josiah (640–609 BCE; 2 Kings 22–23)—and was completed after the last events narrated in 2 Kings during and after the Babylonian exile (586–538 BCE). (See the ADB essay on 1 & 2 Kings; Bible quotations are from the CEB unless otherwise noted.)
The book bears marks of ancient Near Eastern/West Asian history writing. It has been shaped by the literary conventions of its time. It contains reports about divine speech and interpretation of events as shaped by the hand of God. Although the book does not share the conventions of modern history writing, neither does it reflect all the standard conventions of ancient history writing. Its focus is not simply on the conquest of the land, but on the formation of a people faithful to divine instruction. And although Joshua contains warfare accounts like those of Israel’s neighbors, the book is not, strictly speaking, a conquest account. The book is filled with dialogue, exhortations, stories, colorful characters, vignettes, lists, and ritual ceremonies. Its plot contains ambiguities and tensions that suggest its conquest accounts are not to be taken as face value applications of Deuteronomy’s instructions regarding warfare (Deuteronomy 7; 20).
Archaeological evidence suggests a complex period of settlement unlike the rapid and complete conquest presented in Joshua 6–12 (note 11:23) and more like the account reflected in Joshua 12–24 (note Josh 13:1-7; 15:63; 16:10; 17:11-13; 19:47; 23:6-13; cf. Judg 1). Rather, the book presents an idealized portrait of conquest and settlement, interspersed with narratives about characters of interest whose stories reflect a submerged plot that is all too often obscured by focusing on the conquest accounts. Joshua, therefore, is not primarily historical in the contemporary sense but a later reflection on the gift of land as an inheritance from God, and on the challenges inherent in a naïve or simplistic understanding of that gift.
Outline of Joshua
Chapters 1–12 describe the conquest. Chapters 1–5 set the stage and prepare for the conquest, and chapters 6–12 present an account of the conquest focusing on the central part of the land (Josh 6–9), with brief accounts about the south (Josh 10) and the north (Josh 11:1–15), followed by a retrospective summary (11:16–12:24). Chapters 13–22 describe the distribution of the land. And chapters 23–24 provide a theological conclusion that echoes the tone of 1:1–11, and that bear marks of a covenant renewal ceremony. Chapters 1 and 23-24 provide literary and theological brackets for the book.
Besides Joshua himself, certain characters are paradigmatic figures: Rahab (chap. 2), the man with the sword (5:13–15), Achan (chap. 7), the Gibeonites (chap. 9), and the two-and-a-half tribes east of the Jordan River (1:12–18; 22). Ritual actions like circumcision, Passover, and reading the words of the Instruction scroll (law, torah) mark the formation of a people.
I. Entering the Land 1:1–12:24
- A. Preparation 1:1–5:15
- B. The Conquest 6:1–12:24
II. Distribution of Land 13:1–22:34
- A. Setting the Stage 13:1–14:5
- B. The Distribution from Caleb to Joseph 14:6–17:18
- C. The Territories of the Remaining Tribes 18:1–19:51
- D. Cities of Refuge and Cities for Levites 20:1–21:45
- E. Othering the Insider 22:1-34
III. Covenant Exhortations, Covenant Making, and Coda 23:1–24:33
Summary, Comment, and Central Themes
Joshua 1 is an overture to the book, presenting its main themes: promise of rest and divine presence, gift and responsibility, God’s instruction and encouragement, leadership and faithfulness. The motif of “gift” echoes texts from Genesis through Deuteronomy (e.g., Gen 12:7; 15:7; Deut 1:8; 4:1), occurring eight times in Joshua 1 and thirteen times later in the book. In the ancient Near Eastern world, the gods granted land to their people (cf. Deut 2:8-23; 32:8-9). The central theological affirmation of divine presence echoes Deuteronomy’s assurances (Deut 4:25-31; 30:1-20).
Later stories about Kings David and Solomon reflect Deuteronomic motifs from among these found in Joshua 1 (Deut 17:19-20; 31:6; 1 Kings 2:2-3; 1 Chron 22:11-14). And in Solomon’s blessing to the people, Joshua’s “rest” for Israel becomes a hope for “all the earth’s peoples” (1 Kings 8:56-61; cf. Heb 4:8-11). In Joshua 1:8 a canonical theme emerges: the Instruction scroll (torah) is strongly cited in this first of the Hebrew Bible’s prophetic scrolls, which includes some of the same wording as in Psalm 1 at the beginning of the Hebrew Bible’s collection called “The Writings.”
Rahab’s story, which continues in 6:22-25, interrupts the plot movement from 1:1 to 3:1. The mention of Shittim reminds readers of the gruesome story of Israel’s apostasy and judgment where, in older translations, we read that Israel “began to play the harlot” (Num 25:1-5; NASB 1995). The spies’ entry into a prostitute’s house compounds the irony by highlighting, through sexual innuendo, the threat of compromise. Rahab’s name means “wide,” having the same consonants as the word for public square in other stories in which strangers enter towns seeking lodging (Gen 19:2; Judg 19:15, 20). Unlike those stories, here the stranger is host who exemplifies faith and hospitality (cf. Matt 1:5; Heb 11:31; James 2:25).
Rahab uses traditional Hebrew covenantal or treaty vocabulary of “loyalty” (v. 12, often translated lovingkindness or covenant loyalty, cf. Deut 7:9, 12). Here we find the first of many uses of the expression “utterly wiped out,” which refers to the annihilation of the indigenous population (2:10; cf. Josh 6:17, 18, 21; Deut 7:2, 26; 20:17).
This chapter takes up the plot from 1:2. The conquest is set in the context of ritual activity. The crossing story continues until 4:24, and the ritual activity ends with a conclusion in 5:12. “Crossing” the Jordan River takes up all of chapters 3 and 4, where the analogy to crossing the Reed Sea becomes explicit (4:23; see also the discussion of chap. 23 below). The ritual activity implies that the “way” is not only geographical (3:4). The Instruction scroll will guide and shape their way of life (3:6; 8:30-35; cf. Pss 86:11; 119:1). Listening to God’s instructions (3:9) is a prominent Deuteronomic motif that shapes all the prophetic books (Deut 8:3; Josh 5:6; 8:30-35; 23:6). The Hebrew verb “to listen” also means “to obey.”
The list of seven peoples (3:10; cf. Deut 7:1) is symbolic and idealistic, since, e.g., the Jebusites (inhabitants of Jerusalem) were not conquered until the time of King David (Josh 15:63; 2 Sam 5:6-10).
The expansive theology reflected in the expression “ruler of the entire earth” (3:11, 13) introduces a theme suggested already by Rahab (2:11) and elaborated in 4:24 (cf. Exod 9:14, 29; Ps 24:1). Chapters 3 and 4 draw explicitly from the story of the exodus, with its description of the water and the dry land (3:13-17; 4:18, 22-23; Exod 14:21-22), and the use of the word “heap” (3:13; Exod 15:8).
The ritual actions in chapters 4 and 5 present a pattern for the community’s life together and suggest occasions for instruction of the next generation (4:6, 21). Recounting these stories, the book itself becomes a narrative for teaching (didactic). Following the tradition of Deuteronomy (Deut 6:2, 7, 20-25), through ritual actions each generation identifies with the story as though they were there (Deut 5:2-3; 11:2; 29:14-15).
The story suggests that parents are responsible for reciting the memory of Israel’s relationship to God, and for articulating a theological vision that transcends the conquest narrative of the past. The “living God,” who drives out the seven peoples (3:10), is also “the ruler of the entire earth” (3:11) and the one whom “all the earth’s peoples might know” (4:24; cf. 2:11; 3:11, 13; Isaiah 42:1, 6; 45:22; 49:6; 55:5; 56:6-8; 60:3; Matt 12:18-21; 28:20).
The “hearing” of verse 1 echoes Rahab’s speech (2:9-10). This verse introduces a sequence from 5:2 to 8:35, just as the “hearing” in 9:1-2 introduces a sequence that extends from 9:3 to 11:23.
Two covenantal rituals continue the Exodus analogy: circumcision and Passover (Exod 12:1-13, 21-27, 43-49). The analogy is strengthened using “flint,” mentioned elsewhere only in Exodus 4:2. Deuteronomy does not mention literal circumcision, but, like some later biblical texts, imagines a circumcision of the heart (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4; 9:25-26; cf. Paul’s argument in Rom 2:25-4:12). An allusion to the story in Numbers 14 serves as an ominous warning in Joshua. The translation “hadn’t obeyed the LORD” (5:6 CEB) reflects the Hebrew idiom in which they “did not listen to the voice of the LORD” (NASB). Attentive listening implies obedience (cf. Josh 3:9; Deut 6:4).
This scene echoes Exodus 3:1-12 (especially v. 5), along with allusions to Numbers 22:23. The answer “Neither” in v. 14 (NRSV) can better be rendered “No” (AT), as if to say, Joshua’s question about taking sides is the wrong question. The commander’s answer suggests a theocentric rather than an Israel-centered (ethnocentric) perspective. This commander represents the One confessed in 2:11; 3:11, 13; 4:24 as Lord of all the earth, and is therefore not beholden to either-or politics. Although “The LORD’s heavenly force” (v. 14; Deut 33:2; Judg 5:20; Zech 9:14) suggests that God is “warrior” (e.g., Exod 15:3), Psalm 46 asserts that this God, “the LORD of heavenly forces, . . . [is] bringing wars to an end” (46:7, 9). The captain’s “No” implies that God is not bound to Joshua’s agenda. As Lord of all the earth, God may not easily be said to take sides. The place is holy for all, Israelite and neighbor, who might hear themselves addressed: “Take off your shoes.”
The narrator presents this story more like a ritual event than an act of warfare. “Seven” appears fourteen times, suggesting completeness. Archaeological research has not found conclusive evidence of a wall in Jericho at the time of the settlement. The story is more symbolic than historical.
The action (“utterly wiped out” vv. 17-18, 21) follows the instructions in Deuteronomy 7:2; 20:16-18, though never so stated in chapters 1–5 of Joshua. The destroyed enemy is to be consecrated as the Lord’s possession. Rahab is an anomaly; contrary to Deuteronomy 7:2, the spies had made a covenant with her. The risk of such covenants is “serving other gods” (Deut 7:4), a risk that surfaces prominently in Joshua 24:14-24. Yet Rahab herself is honored in Israel and becomes the ancestor of King David (Ruth 4:21; Matt 1:5).
Rahab is an exceptional outsider who represents a bending of the Deuteronomic instructions concerning warfare. She, like others, “lives among Israel” (Josh 13:13; 16:10). She, who began “outside Israel’s camp” (6:23) now lives among, just as Israel lives “among” others (see Judg 1:32, 33; 3:5).
These chapters present two interwoven plots: one, a spy story and the attack on Ai (beginning in 7:2 and ending in 8:29); another that deals with Achan’s violation of the command of 6:18 (beginning in 7:2 and ending in 7:26. Both end with a notation about “today.” Chapter 7 ends with a wordplay on Achan’s name, associating him with the Valley of Achor, which means “Valley of Trouble.” The LXX (Greek translation of the Old Testament) even renames him Achar (trouble) in 7:1. The story represents a violation of relational (covenantal) integrity by Israel and its representative individual scapegoat.
Ai means “ruin,” and is always preceded by the definite article, thus “the ruin” (cf. 8:28). Ai is therefore a symbolic name just as Achan/Achar represents archetypal “trouble.” Beth-aven, “house of iniquity” stands over against Bethel, “house of God,” underlining the symbolism of the story.
“Transgressed/Violated my covenant” (7:11) in Hebrew is “to cross a boundary,” here, the terms of the covenant agreement (see 6:18). The expression occurs again in 23:16, with the additional threat that they will “vanish from the fertile land.” Israel’s/Achan’s action is paradigmatic for Joshua’s speeches in Joshua 23–24. Achan’s story will eventually become Israel’s story.
Joshua 7:21 seems to echo Deuteronomy 7:25-26, with its reference to idolatry, and where the words “desire” (covet) and “take” also occur in relation to silver and gold (cf. Exod 20:17; Deut 5:21). Paul warns against coveting when he declares, “Greed . . . is idolatry” (Col 3:5). Idolatry, according to Deuteronomy and Joshua, is Israel’s greatest temptation.
The extreme consequences for all of Achan’s household and possessions go beyond Deuteronomy’s focus on individual responsibility (7:24-25; Deut 17:2-7; 24:16, where children are not to suffer the consequences of their parents’ actions).
In this story taking spoils is allowed (8:2, 27), which, according to Deuteronomy, is only permitted for towns “far away from you” (Deut 20:14-16). Deuteronomy’s instructions are not followed to the letter.
“According to the LORD’s word” occurs only in chapter 8 in Joshua (8:8, 27). Joshua is the messenger of God (cf. Josh 6:26-27), which is why the book of Joshua is the first of the prophets in the Hebrew canon.
Although the action in 8:31-35 reflects Moses’s instruction in Deuteronomy 27:1-10, it does not take place “the same day you cross the Jordan River” (Deut 27:2). In reading from God’s instruction book, Joshua follows the instructions regarding kingship in Deuteronomy 17:14-20 (cf. Josh 1:7). Elsewhere, only King Josiah reads from this book (2 Kings 23:1-3). The assembly includes outsiders (“immigrants”), a term that can be translated resident aliens, strangers, or indigenous persons. In Deuteronomy, they, along with orphans and widows, are part and parcel of Israel and are to receive special care (Deut 1:16; 10:18-19; 14:29; 16:11, 14; 24:14-21; 26:11-13; 27:19). Moses includes them in covenant renewal (Deut 29:10; 31:12), and they are welcome in the cities of refuge (Josh 20:9).
This chapter begins a new sequence of stories that extends to 12:24 (“heard” recurs in 9:3; 10:1; 11:1). This is a trickster story that defies the expectations of 9:1-2. Like chapter 2, it illustrates that inclusion and exclusion are not so easily managed as Deuteronomy’s laws suggest.
The Gibeonites use Deuteronomic language (9:6, 9, 14) to describe themselves as “from a distant country” (cf. Deut 20:10-18). Solomon’s prayer in 1 Kings 8:41-43 uses the same language in anticipating the welcome of “all peoples of the earth” (cf. Josh 4:24). In asking for a “treaty,” the Gibeonites echo Deuteronomy 7:2. They, like Rahab, are exceptional outsiders who become insiders.
The campaign for the south includes the conquest of Jerusalem, mentioned in verses 1 and 3 for the first time in the Bible. Despite the defeat of the king of Jerusalem reported here (vv. 16-27; cf. 12:10), the city of Jerusalem is not conquered until King David (2 Sam 5:6-10; but cf. Judg 1:8, 21).
The wording throughout verses 8-15 mirrors language used in ancient Near Eastern conquest texts. Biblical and ancient Near Eastern accounts include hyperbolic depictions of divine intervention by means of celestial phenomena (cf. Judg 5:20; Hab 3:11). The writer uses the same linguistic tools and literary conventions as were common in the ancient world.
Each of the vignettes uses stereotypical language drawn from Deuteronomy, including the common expression “wiped out . . . as reserved for God/the LORD” (vv. 35, 37, 39; 6:17, 21, 8:26; Deut 7:1-6; 20:1-4, 10-18). That expression is a translation of the Hebrew word ḥerem (verbal root ḥrm), which is also found in the Mesha Stele, a ninth century BCE Moabite inscription that uses similar stereotypical language about divine involvement in warfare (see below on “Central Themes,” and the essay “Herem: Devoted to Destruction”).
The hyperbolic theological summary in verses 40-42, follows the pattern found in ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts (cf. also Josh 11:11-15, 16, 23; 18:1; 21:43-45; 23:14). Notably, much remains to be possessed (13:1), and indigenous people continue to live among Israel “to this day” (13:13; 15:63; 16:10; 17:13). Although 10:42 has the victory occur “all at the same time,” the comprehensive summary in 11:16-23 suggests that Joshua “waged war . . . for a long time.”
Jabin is head of a coalition of cities in the Galilee region. This story (vv. 1-15) mirrors vocabulary of Deuteronomy 7:2; 20:16-18 and highlights uncompromising obedience to the command of the Lord. “Horses and chariots” represent superior military technology (cf. Deut 17:16; Mic 5:10; Isa 43:17-19; Zech 9:9-10). Judges 4 presents another (later?) story in which King Jabin of Hazor is conquered.
Verses 16-23 present a hyperbolic summary of the entire conquest as the Lord’s doing (v. 20), from far south to far north. The summary presents the conquest as thorough and complete, yet affirms it took “a long time” (v. 18). The “legacy” (or “inheritance,” v. 23), used for the first time in Joshua, is spelled out in detail in chapters 13–21 (with echoes of Num 32–36). Land is gifted from the divine estate. “The land had a rest from war” (11:23; cf. Josh 14:15) draws the first half of the book to a close (echoing Josh 1:13, 15) and anticipates Joshua 21:44; 22:4; and 23:1 (cf. Deut 12:10; 25:19).
The chapter is a hinge between conquest and distribution, emphasizing the completeness of the conquest both east and west of the Jordan River, and preparing the reader for 13:1. Joshua 12:1-6 focuses on Moses, recalling Numbers 21–24 and Deuteronomy 2:26–3:17. Joshua 12:7-24 presents a generic list that gives the impression of totality. According to Judges 1, some of these cities were captured after the death of Joshua (Jerusalem, Hebron, Debir, Hormah, Bethel). Joshua 12 is a deliberate idealization of the conquest, whereas Judges 1—and even Joshua 13:1—present a more realistic picture.
The expression “reached old age” (13:1) also occurs in Joshua 23:1. These two notices frame the distribution of land in chapters 13–22. “Much . . . remains” seems to stand in tension with 11:23 and the summary in chapter 12 (cf. also 13:13; 15:63; 16:10; 17:11-13; 19:47; Judg 1).
“I myself will remove” (13:6) reflects the ideal portrait of the conquest in Joshua, tempered by the warning in Joshua 23:11-13 that becomes reality in Judges (Judg 2:2-3, 20-21).
Balaam (13:22) is an ambiguous figure: both the Lord’s instrument in Numbers 22–24 and perceived as representing the threat of pagan divinization (Num 31:16). His death has already been reported in Numbers 31:8 (cf. Deut 23:3-6).
“In the land of Canaan” (v. 1) specifies land west of the Jordan River (in Joshua only here and 21:2; 22:9-10). It raises the question of the status of the Transjordan tribes, whose narrative frames the entire distribution section (chaps. 13 and 22). The expression harks back to Genesis where it refers to the destination of Abram (Gen 12:5-6). To maintain the number of twelve tribes, two of Joseph’s sons are allotted tribal status (v. 4). “Exactly as the LORD commanded” (v. 5) reiterates the book’s emphasis on the people’s faithfulness. In contrast, Ezekiel imagines a new kind of distribution of land “equally,” such that even “immigrants” (or resident aliens) will be treated as “full citizens” (Ezek 47:14, 22-23). In Revelation, conquest leads to inheritance of a different kind altogether (Rev 21:7).
The threefold mention of Caleb’s “loyalty” (14:6-15) echoes Numbers 14:24; 32:11-12; and Deuteronomy 1:36 (cf. 1 Kings 11:6). The conquest of Hebron was already reported in Joshua 10:36. It is remarkable that Caleb is a Kennizite, those who are descendants of Esau (Gen 36:9-11). By the time of the Chronicles, Caleb has been completely absorbed into Judah (1 Chron 4:13).
“The land had rest from war” (14:16) echoes Joshua 11:21-23. Joshua and Caleb are both responsible for this “rest,” which is punctuated by placing Caleb and Joshua at opposite ends of the distribution to the tribes west of the Jordan (13:6-15; 19:49-51).
Judah is the first and most important tribe and is given the most extensive boundary and town lists. Judah is home of the Davidic dynasty and is favored in Jacob’s blessing (Gen 49:8-12). Verses 13-19 develop the Caleb story of 14:6-15. Achsah’s role in the story is repeated in a different context after Joshua’s death in Judges 1:11-15. Rahab, Achsah, and the daughters of Zelophehad (Josh 17:3-6), also exceptional outsiders, are noteworthy for their surprising initiatives.
Ephraim, one of Joseph’s sons, became one of the names of the Northern Kingdom after the death of Solomon (e.g., Isa 7:2-9). That Solomon and his son Rehoboam (first king of the Southern Kingdom of Judah) continued the forced labor (16:10; 17:13) may well be one of the main reasons for the division into two kingdoms (1 Kings 9:20-21; 12:1-19).
Canaanite towns and regions have been incorporated into the genealogy of Israel (vv. 1-13): Gilead, Bashan, Shechem, Machir, Tirzah, Hepher (Gen 34; Josh 12:17, 24). The daughters of Zelophehad (cf. Num 26:33; 27:1; 36:11) are more important than the distribution itself, for they represent, like Caleb, another marginal group who claim their inheritance according to the instructions of Moses, but whose heritage includes indigenous peoples.
This chapter contains the third special request within the distribution section of the book (vv. 14-18; cf. Caleb in 14:6-15; the daughters of Zelophehad in 17:3-6). “Joseph’s” request seems to put Ephraim and Manasseh in a bad light. Joshua, as mediator, acquiesces to Caleb and the daughters, not to the Joseph tribes. His permission to clear the forest seems to run counter to Deuteronomy 20:19-20. The story is a folktale-like narrative explaining the expansion and ascendancy of Ephraim in the north after the death of Solomon.
The mention of the “meeting tent” (tabernacle constructed in Exodus 35–40) frames this section (18:1; 19:51). Shiloh gained a bad reputation by the time of Jeremiah (7:12, 14; 26:6, 9; Ps 78:60). In Joshua, however, Shiloh represents a place of intimacy with God. Joshua 18:8 implies that the distribution lists that follow in 18:11–19:48 are more like surveyors’ notes. The word “conquered” in verse 1 is often translated subdued, which is the same word as is translated master in Genesis 1:28. Thus, Israel subdues the earth/land as it enters the land of Canaan and begins to “take charge of” (have dominion over) it.
Of the remaining tribes (18:11–19:51), several are of special interest. Benjamin and Dan, mentioned first and last in the list, receive notoriety because of stories in Judges 18–21. The youngest, mentioned here first, will disappear because of an atrocity committed (Judg 19–21). And Dan, mentioned last, represents one of the cultic sites set up by King Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:29). Jerusalem, in Benjamin’s territory, becomes absorbed into Judah (chap. 15; cf. also Gen 37:26-27; 43:3, 8; 44:14-34). Simeon, the oldest of the seven in this distribution list, is allotted within the tribe of Judah (19:1-9), which is a way of accounting for the eventual historical disappearance of Simeon, and the political reality of a later time that Judah is the only tribe of the south with an independent identity.
The “refuge cities” are places of asylum for the person who has killed “unintentionally.” These cities provided a kind of “redeeming,” or a limit on vengeance or blood feud. Establishing these cities completed what God had commanded Moses (Exod 21:12-14; Deut 4:41-43; 19:1-13; see Num 35:9-34 for a detailed description).
In keeping with instructions in Deuteronomy, Levites were allotted cities and pasturelands throughout the tribal areas (Deut 4:41-43; 19:1-13; Josh 13:14, 32; 14:3; 18:7). The cities of refuge, along with the Levitical cities, were significant in that they represented the administration of justice and preserving the tradition of divine instruction (torah).
The theological conclusion in verses 43-45 is similar to 11:16-23. It looks forward to Joshua’s speech in chapter 23 but seems to bypass the ambiguity reflected in various earlier statements (13:1, 13; 15:63; 16:10; 17:12-13). “Good things” is reiterated in 23:14-16, but there Joshua introduces a warning about potential “bad things” (cf. Deut 29:18-28). The term “House of Israel” (v. 45), emphasizing Israelite unity, is found only here in Joshua.
The last three chapters echo elements of Joshua 1, thereby providing bookends to the story. A story about the Transjordan tribes (Josh 22) echoes their prominence in 1:12-18. And Joshua’s speeches and covenant renewal ceremonies in chapters 23–24 provide a theological conclusion that echoes the tone of the speeches in 1:1-11.
Along with chapter 13, this text about the Transjordan tribes frames the distribution section of Joshua 13–22. Joshua’s words, laden with Deuteronomic phrases, echo the wording of 1:12-18 (cf. Deut 6:4-9; 10, 22-13; Josh 23:11).
Mention of “Land of Canaan” (vv. 9-12, 32) raises two questions: which side is the Lord’s land? And who are the Lord’s people? The representatives of the western tribes “came back to the Israelites in the land of Canaan” (v. 32); this makes it seem as though the altar was built on the eastern side of the Jordan, which is confirmed by the mention of “unclean land” and “the land of the LORD’s property” (v. 19; cf. vv. 13, 15).
The emphasis on “tribes of Israel,” “the LORD’s entire community” (lit. “all Israel,” vv. 16, 18), implies an exclusionary bias against the Transjordan tribes. The western tribes’ accusation appeals to, and uses language from, the Achan story (7:1) and from the story of apostasy in Numbers 25. Purity of land and peoplehood, along with assumptions about the geography of God’s presence, are at issue. Moreover, the eastern tribes are afraid of exclusion from the people of God, with the Jordan River being used as a boundary against them (vv. 24-25). They confess “The LORD is God of gods” (22:22). Only Rahab has made a similar confession (2:11).
Joshua’s speech (vv. 1-8) echoes Deuteronomic language and themes that resonate with earlier parts of Joshua: “Rest” (Josh 1:13-15; 21:42; 22:4; Deut 12:10); “fights for you” (Josh 10:14; Deut 1:30; 3:22; 20:4); “be very strong” (Josh 1:6-9; 10:25; Deut 30:6-7; 31:23); “Instruction scroll [from Moses]” (Josh 1:8; 8:31; 24:26; Deut 30:10; 31:26); “right . . . left” (Josh 1:7; Deut 17:20); “serve/worship other gods” (Josh 23:16; 24:14-16; Deut 5:9; 7:1-11; 29:26).
The encouragement to covenant loyalty (vv. 9-13) is balanced by a warning reflecting Deuteronomy’s realistic picture of conditional occupation and impending exile from the land. “Love the LORD your God” is a call for covenant loyalty (Josh 22:5; Deut 6:4-5). Intermarriage risks worshiping other gods (Deut 7:1-4) and “vanishing from the land” (see also v. 16; Deut 4:26; 11:17; 28:63; 29:28).
“Good thing . . . bad thing” (vv. 14-16) reflects the blessings and the curses of Deuteronomy 28. “Violate the covenant,” includes the verb “to cross over” (v. 16). It is an expression found only three times in Joshua—here and in 7:11, 15 (cf. Judg 2:20)—which makes Achan a paradigmatic violator of covenant. The rare use of the verb in this context reflects an irony residing in the allusion to “crossing” the Jordan (cf., e.g., 1:2 and esp. chaps. 3, 4). In 2 Kings 18:12, the only other occurrence of the expression, exile is the consequence of covenant violation.
Shechem, the setting of Joshua’s exhortation, is well-known from the ancestral stories in Genesis. Joshua records no conquest of Shechem but notes its absorption into Manasseh (Josh 17:2; cf. 20:7; 21:21). The violent incident at Shechem reported in Genesis 34 is the setting for Jacob’s call to put away the “alien gods” (Gen 35:1-5), an expression repeated in Joshua 24:20, 23 (the common Deuteronomic expression is “other gods”; e.g., Deut 4:28; 5:7; 6:14; Josh 23:16).
Joshua uses a messenger speech formula (v. 2) that establishes him as a prophetic figure in the line of Moses (cf. Exod 5:1; Judg 6:8; 1 Sam 10:18; 2 Kings 19:20; Jer 11:3). This full expression occurs primarily in the books of Kings and Jeremiah, which suggests that the book of Joshua may have been composed about the same time as those books.
The intent of Joshua’s rhetorical provocation in verses 19-20 runs counter to the assurance of texts like Deuteronomy 4:31 but sounds like the challenge in Deuteronomy 30, with its vocabulary of choosing between other gods and the Lord. “God’s Instruction scroll” (v. 26), not the earlier “Instruction scroll from Moses” (8:31), marks a transition concerning the characterization of Joshua, who is called the Lord’s “servant” in 24:29 for the first time. Mention of “the oak” confirms that Joshua 24 mirrors Jacob’s call in Genesis 35:1-5, where the gods are buried under the oak at Shechem.
Both Joshua and Joseph die at age 110. The epilogue (vv. 29-33) ties the ending of Joshua to Joseph’s death at the end of Genesis (50:22, 25-26) and to the beginning of Judges, just as the beginning of Joshua links to the ending of Deuteronomy. There is also a parallel in the motif of “knowing” (Josh 24:31) between Pharaoh not knowing Joseph or the Lord (Exod 1:6-8; 5:2) and Israel not knowing the Lord or his work (Judg 2:8-10).
Allegiance to God Alone. Joshua’s central focus is loyalty to Israel’s covenantal relationship with God, expressed through obedience to divine instruction (torah) and rejection of other loyalties, including idolatry (1:7–8; 23:6, 16). Yet some stories challenge simplistic notions of obedience (e.g., sparing Rahab and the Gibeonites; 6:25; 9:26–27). Although both people and narrator emphasize serving the Lord (24:18, 21, 31), Joshua says that they “can’t serve the LORD” (24:19). Disaster seems on the horizon (23:14–16; cf. Deut 29:28).
Gift of Land: Warfare and Conquest. The gift of land as a place of rest (1:13; 21:44) depends on God’s presence (1:2–11; 24:12–13) and on divinely sanctioned violence. Depicting the deities’ participation in warfare was common among ancient peoples. The Mesha Inscription (ninth century BCE) uses language like that of Deuteronomy and Joshua: “Kemosh [Mesha’s god] said to me, ‘Go, take Nebo from Israel.’ . . . I killed the whole population: seven thousand male subjects and aliens, and female subjects, aliens, and servant girls. For I had put it to the ban [ḥerem] for Ashtar Kemosh” (Hanson; cf. Josh 6:17–18, 21; Deut 7:2, 26; 20:16–17). The book of Joshua draws on the available literary conventions that depict ancient Israelite understanding of divine participation in human warfare. Like Mesha, Joshua presents the conquest hyperbolically as thorough and complete (11:16–23; 21:43–45). Yet Joshua also states that the conquest was incomplete (13:1–6, 13; 15:63; 16:10; 17:12–18).
Identity and Boundaries: Insiders and Outsiders. Although the book assumes an ideal unified “all Israel” living by God’s instruction (3:1), Joshua redefines unity. Rahab and the Gibeonites are included (contra Deut 7:2; 20:10–17). “All Israel” includes “immigrants and full citizens” (Josh 8:33, 35), including “outsiders” like Caleb, Othniel, and many others (13:13; 14:6–15; 15:13–19; 15:63; 16:10; 17:12). The tribes east of the Jordan River (geographical outsiders) are as much insiders as those living west of the river (geographical insiders). The book of Joshua challenges narrow understandings of identity via ethnicity and geography.
Tensions between obedience and disobedience, success and failure, insiders and outsiders, and complete and partial conquest characterize the book. God’s people are not simply defined by ethnicity or geography. God’s choice of a people and God’s gift of a land must be reciprocated by choosing covenantal fidelity and rejecting alternative allegiances.
Conclusion and the Anabaptist Tradition
Interpretive Approach: An Intrabiblical Conversation
The main challenge in reading the book of Joshua concerns how to draw on the book’s strengths while putting its difficulties into perspective. Four related suggestions may begin to do that.
First, the book of Joshua is part of a larger narrative. It cannot be understood without attending to its place in the narrative as a whole. It does not stand on its own but participates in various literary contexts, from the Deuteronomistic History (see above) to the biblical canon as a whole. Second, those larger literary and canonical contexts narrate a plot trajectory that illuminates God’s purposes, pointing toward a transformed way of life characterized by justice, peace, and welcome for all. Joshua stands in the middle of a story that ends in hopeful transformation of all that has gone awry.
Third, in that way, Joshua participates in an unfinished drama. Joshua looks backward, drawing on resources of earlier tradition and cultural conventions, and looks forward, anticipating a vision of life in which all peoples might know the goodness and beauty of life together on God’s good earth. Fourth, the book of Joshua is a text in conversation with other texts whose voices modulate, transform, and transpose Joshua into a new key.
Engaging All of Scripture
We do well, therefore, to read Joshua in conversation with the whole of Scripture, mindful of Scripture’s diversity and the ancient cultural context, with Jesus and the gospel as our interpretive lens. Joshua’s warfare tradition is challenged by our awareness of its contextual theology of gods participating in warfare. Our reading is grounded in a larger vision of healing and hope for all peoples, which Isaiah begins to articulate: “Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war” (Isa 2:4b).
The Anabaptist tradition highlights obedience in following Jesus. Obedience is not legalism, Menno Simons reminds us: “True faith or true knowledge begets love, and love begets obedience to the commandments of God” (Simons, 307). The New Testament affirms and refines Joshua’s notion of covenantal obedience.
In Matthew, conquest is transposed into love of enemy (5:43–46), a focal point in obeying Jesus’ teaching (7:21–24; 12:46–50; 22:37–40). Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba—all marginal and vulnerable in some way—are among those neighbors (Matt 1:3–6). Nations/Gentiles feature prominently, including those who seek mercy and justice (12:18–21; 25:31–46; 28:19–20). Matthew includes “magi . . . from the east” who come worship Jesus (2:1, 11). Only in Matthew does Jesus, like his ancestors, come from Egypt. He comes not to conquer but to serve the least. Jesus also transforms the notion of gifted land. Those who “inherit the earth” (5:5) do so by means of humility, not violence.
Although Stephen affirms that God “expelled” the nations from the land (Acts 7:45), the better news in Acts is the inclusion of the Gentiles. Other texts affirm Rahab’s faith or righteousness as she practices hospitality to strangers, and as she demonstrates that “faith without actions is dead” (Heb 11:31; James 2:25-26).
Joshua subverts rigid categories of inclusion and definition of the other. For Jesus and New Testament writers, genealogy, tribe, territory, clan, and national identity are not markers of inclusion. Whereas Joshua says, “You can’t serve the LORD” (24:19), Jesus says, “My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:30). True rest, says the author of Hebrews, is not in land, but in following Jesus (4:8).
The gospel lens allows us to evaluate the book of Joshua while retaining a focus on covenantal loyalty, exclusive allegiance to God, and obedience to the teaching of Jesus. Like the man with the sword who challenges us-them thinking (Josh 5:13–15), Jesus asserts that there is only one to whom allegiance is owed (Matt 6:24). That is Joshua’s call in its final two chapters.
Recommended Essays in the Commentary
Anger of the Lord
Composition of Joshua
Conquest and Land in the New Testament
Genocide and Sacred Violence
Herem, “Devoted to Destruction”
Plot Tensions in Joshua
Theology of Warfare
- Beal, Lissa M. Wray. Joshua. Story of God Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2019.
- Billings, Rachel M. ‘Israel Served the Lord’: The Book of Joshua as Paradoxical Portrait of Faithful Israel. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013.
- Creach, Jerome F. D. Joshua. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: John Knox, 2003.
- Earl, Douglas S. Reading Joshua as Christian Scripture. Journal of Theological Interpretation Supplement 2. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2010.
- ________. The Joshua Delusion? Rethinking Genocide in the Bible. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010.
- Hanson, K. C. “The Mesha Stele” https://www.kchanson.com/ANCDOCS/westsem/mesha.html
- Havrelock, Rachel. River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line. Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press, 2011.
- Hawk, L. Daniel. Every Promise Fulfilled: Contesting Plots in Joshua. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1991.
- ________. Joshua. Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000.
- ________. Joshua in 3-D: A Commentary on Biblical Conquest and Manifest Destiny. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010.
- Lynch, Matthew J. Flood and Fury: Old Testament Violence and the Shalom of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2023.
- Matties, Gordon H. Joshua. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Harrisonburg, VA; Waterloo, ON: Herald, 2012.
- McConville, J. Gordon and Stephen N. Williams. Joshua. The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010.
- Menno Simons. The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, c. 1496–1541. Translated by Leonard Verduin. Edited by John C. Wenger. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1956.
- Polzin, Robert. Moses and the Deuteronomist: A Literary Study of the Deuteronomistic History. New York, NY: Seabury, 1980.
- Walton, John H. and J. Harvey Walton. The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest: Covenant, Retribution, and the Fate of the Canaanites. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2017.
- Younger, K. Lawson. Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 98. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990.
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|—Gordon H. Matties|