The book is named after its leading figure, Joshua the son of Nun, who according to the biblical tradition was Moses’ successor as leader of the Israelites. In one sense it is a self-contained work, focusing on the activities of its hero, Joshua. But its position in the canon cannot be ignored when considering its interpretation, and one major approach to the book sees it as part of a larger whole.
Joshua falls into two main parts with a short concluding section. Chapters 1–12 describe preparations for entry into Canaan, the crossing of the Jordan, and the taking possession of the land, with accounts of the defeat of major cities such as Jericho, Ai, and Hazor. Chapters 13–21 (or 22 which is sometimes linked with what follows) describe the distribution of the land among the various tribes and the establishment of cities of refuge and Levitical cities. Chapters 22–24 contain an address by Joshua to the tribes which remained east of the Jordan and the setting up of an altar (22), a parting appeal to the people (23) and a gathering at Shechem at which Joshua encourages the people to renew their covenant with God (24).
Date and authorship
Ancient tradition suggested Joshua was the author but that belief has largely been abandoned. With the rise of the critical approach to the Old Testament, and to the Pentateuch in particular, it was suggested that the sources believed to underlie the first five books of the Old Testament could be traced in the book of Joshua. While such a view is no longer thought likely, the realisation that there were close affinities between Joshua and Deuteronomy led to the association of the book with the circles responsible for producing Deuteronomy and their viewpoint. That these affinities extend beyond Joshua into Judges, Samuel, and Kings lies behind the concept of a great Deuteronomistic History, to which Deuteronomy forms a prelude and of which Joshua forms a part. This ‘History’ was a reflection on the Israelites’ story from the first possession of the land to the loss of the land to the Assyrians and to the Babylonians. It may have incorporated earlier traditions but the activity of the Deuteronomists is usually dated to the exilic or early post-exilic period (6th century BCE).
As a result of extensive archaeological activity in particular, but also in light of recent approaches to the nature of the biblical materials, the historical authenticity of an Israelite ‘conquest’ of Canaan has increasingly been questioned and other ways of understanding Israel’s emergence have developed. The archaeologist John Garstang found a collapsed city wall, which he dated to the Late Bronze Age and associated with Joshua, but subsequent excavations led by Kathleen Kenyon demonstrated that this wall was about 1000 years earlier than Garstang had supposed (1970, 210). These tumbled down walls had nothing to do with a Joshua whose activity, even if historical, has traditionally been dated to the end of the 15th century BCE (based on biblical data, e.g., 1 Kings 6:1) or the end of the 13th century (according to some rather conservative reconstructions of Israel’s past). The precise origins of the geographical details in the second part of the book are unclear, but it is more likely that they represent some ideal description of the extent of the land rather than actual allocations to the tribes. Some of the stories seem to have been passed down in order to explain the existence of features of the land, notably ruins (such as Jericho and Ai?), megaliths and stone circles (at Gilgal?) which prompted the question ‘What do these stones mean?’ (Joshua 4:21). But as noted above, the canonical position of the book may offer other clues to its interpretation.
Even if it is no longer appropriate to think of a ‘Hexateuch’ (grouping the first six books of the Old Testament), Joshua does provide the fulfilment of God’s promises to the ancestors in Genesis that they will have a land in which to dwell. And as part of the Deuteronomistic History it plays its part in underlining the belief that obedience to God will be rewarded, disobedience punished, reinforcing the point that the later loss of the land was a result of the people’s disobedience rather than the weakness of Israel’s God.
It has to be admitted that the Joshua is not without its problems. A book which on the surface appears to justify ethnic cleansing provides ammunition for those critical of the Old Testament and indeed its God. Richard Dawkins (2006, 247) describes the Book of Joshua as ‘remarkable for the bloodthirsty massacres it records’ and refers to its ‘xenophobic relish.’ Its use (or abuse) in contemporary claims about ownership of the land has often been unfortunate and unhelpful. Even a theological reading in terms of reward and punishment, obedience and disobedience may be over-simplistic. But more positive readings are possible; for example, J. Gordon McConville (2013) highlights the image of the crossing of the Jordan as a symbol of moving from tyranny to new life.
Curtis, Adrian H. W. Joshua. OTG. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994.
McConville, J. Gordon. “Joshua.” Pages 158-76 in The Oxford Bible Commentary. Edited by John Barton and John Muddiman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
McConville, J. Gordon. Joshua: Crossing Divides. Phoenix Guides to the Old Testament 6. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2013.
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. London: Bantam, 2006.
Kenyon, Kathleen. Archaeology in the Holy Land. 3d ed. London: Ernest Benn, 1970.