1. This book like several others of the historical books of Scripture derives its name from its contents. It takes up the history of the chosen people at the death of Moses, and continues it in a systematic and orderly narrative, through the leadership and government of his successor. It records (almost exclusively) the acts of Joshua in fulfillment of the commission laid upon him from God by the hand of Moses (compare Deu 31:7-8), and terminates with Joshua’s death and burial.
The contents group themselves into two divisions of nearly equal length. The conquest of the land is described in twelve chapters, and then in twelve other chapters the subsequent partition of it together with Joshua’s last acts and words.
The victories of Joshua described in the former of these portions were accompanied by repeated and stupendous interferences of God. This miraculous element has led some commentators to treat the book as altogether unhistorical. But it must not be forgotten that the miracles of the Book of Joshua do not stand alone. They grow, as it were, naturally out of the divine interpositions on behalf of Israel in the days of Moses, and are but the close of a series of extraordinary providences began in Egypt, and described in Exodus and the books following. No less do they stand intimately associated with the future history and development of the Jewish Church and nation, and even with the wider and more remote issues of God’s counsels as manifested, or to be manifested, in the Christian Church to the end of all things. Thus, the conquest of Canaan by Joshua has other and vastly grander significances than its mere dimensions as a fact in history seem at first sight to suggest.
It is not to be regarded simply as the invasion of a little district about as large as three average English counties by a tribe of nomads from the Arabian deserts. It was also the accomplishment by God of a purpose revealed of old; it was an essential element in the plan ordained by Him for the preservation among men of His Law, Will, and Word; it was designed to foreshadow in many important particulars His future dealings with mankind at large. But for the special help of God, the Israelites could not have effected the conquest at all, for they were hardly superior to the Canaanites in numbers, and were destitute of chariots and horses, and of all the more elaborate equipments for war, above all of the appliances requisite for reducing the cities (compare Num 13:28; Deu 1:28; Deu 9:1) in which Canaan abounded. God’s promise was, however, pledged to their forefathers to give them this land; whatever then might be necessary to give effect to this promise it belonged to His faithfulness to accord; and the Book of Joshua consequently is an essential sequel to the Pentateuch as declaring the thorough fulfillment by God of the covenant made by Him through Moses with Israel, and thus as illustrating His inviolable faithfuless.
But important as the theocratical and theological characteristics of the Book of Joshua are, both in themselves and as (so to say) vindicating the miraculous elements of the narrative, we must nevertheless not lose sight of the internal evidences of common and historical fact which it presents.
The invasion of Canaan by Joshua was evidently a carefully and skillfully conducted enterprise. An army marching upon Canaan from the south would find its path intercepted by range after range of heights, each, in the days of Moses and Joshua, bristling with towns and fortresses. The progress of such an army could be but slow, and at every step would be met by better organized resistance from an increasing number of enemies. When Israel, after 40 years’ expiation of the revolt at Kadesh, again arose at the command of God to resume the long deferred enterprise on Canaan, the host was conducted round the whole southeast corner of the land and directed upon its comparatively defenseless eastern flank above the Dead Sea. The whole of the strong military positions and fenced cities in the “south country” and the “hill country” of what was subsequently the territory of Judah were thus taken in reverse and rendered comparatively useless.
It is probable, too, that the southern Canaanites in particular were at this time greatly weakened by the invasions of Thotmes III, who had taken Gaza, apparently not many years previously, and no doubt had overrun the whole adjoining district (see the note at Jos 13:3). No less able were the measures adopted by Joshua to execute the plan thus judiciously laid down. The passage of the Jordan, by the special help of God, at a time of year when his enemies no doubt deemed the river to be an almost insurmountable obstacle to his advance (see the note at Jos 3:15): the seizing Gilgal, to serve as his foothold in the land: the capture and destruction of Jericho: the fall of Ai: these events enabled him to throw the forces of Israel like a wedge through the very midst of the land almost to the western sea, and in its most vulnerable part, between the fastnesses of Judah on the south and the mountain district of Ephraim on the north. The Amorites on Joshua’s left, cut off from the Hittites on his right by his whole army interposing between the two, were overpowered before Gibeon. The whole south was reduced into at least temporary subjection before the larger multitudes of the north could be mustered. These in their turn shared the fate of their brethren in the south; Joshua broke their vast host to pieces on the shores of Lake Merom.
In these campaigns of Joshua it is impossible not to see the traces of strategical skill no less conspicuously than that presence of immediate and divine suggestion and succor which the narrative asserts.
2. The leading trait in the character of Joshua is courage - the courage of the warrior: this must have been already remarkable at the time of the Exodus Exo 17:9. Subsequently, Joshua appears as in constant attendance on Moses Exo 24:13; Exo 32:1; Exo 33:11; he without doubt acquired on Sinai, and in the precincts of the sanctuary, that unswerving faithfulness of service and unshaken confidence in God which marked his after career. He was naturally selected as one of the twelve “rulers” sent by Moses Num 13:2 to explore the land before the invasion of it was undertaken; and the bold and truthful report brought back by him and Caleb Num 14:7-9, was no less characteristic than was his undaunted bearing before the incensed people Num 14:10. These qualities pointed him out as the fitting captain over the Lord’s people, who should overthrow their enemies before them and put them in possession of the promised inheritance. Accordingly, at the express command of God, he was solemnly appointed to that office and duty by Moses before his death Num 27:16-23; Deu 31:23.
Joshua was not a prophet (Ecclesiasticus 46:1; compare Num 27:21), but a divinely-inspired leader. After the great and peculiar work of his life was accomplished, he no longer held the same exclusive place at the head of Israel as before. In making the arrangements for settling the people in their homes, and establishing the theocracy on the lines laid down in the law of Moses, he acted in conjunction with Eleazar, the high priest: and with the heads of the tribes (compare Jos 14:1; Jos 17:4; Jos 21:1). This was but natural. The armies had done their work and were dispersed, or were ready to disperse, to their several inheritances; and the military authority of their general was consequently at an end. The latter years of his life were probably passed in retirement at Timnath-serah, whence, he would seem to have emerged in extreme old age to meet the princes and the people in the great gathering at Shechem Josh. 23–24, and to employ once more and finally his authority as the last survivor but one of a mighty generation, and as the hero of Israel’s greatest triumphs, in order to engage his people more firmly and closely in their rightful allegiance to God.
The courage which was the leading feature in the character of Joshua was very distinctly and directly built upon faith Jos 1:5-6. Joshua obeyed God’s call unhesitatingly and to the end, but it was because he trusted wholly in the promise which accompanied it. Hence, along with his soldierly qualities, were found others seldom present in the same man. He combined justice as a magistrate with gentleness as a man Jos 7:19; spirit as a ruler, with temper and discretion in dealing with the arrogant and exacting Jos 17:14; diligence and equity in disposing of the fruits of victory with a complete unselfishness as regarded himself Jos 19:49-51. Perhaps conspicuous above all was his humility. From first to last his valor and his victories are referred to God as their giver. Of his own personal work in the achievements of his life there is in his last addresses scarcely one word.
3. The chronological dates presented in this book are few:
a. Comparing Jos 4:19 and Jos 5:6, if the date of the Exodus be assumed to be 1490 B.C., that of the invasion of Canaan will be 1450 B.C.
b. The duration of Joshua’s wars with the Canaanites is spoken of loosely in Jos 11:18 as “a long time.” The words of Caleb (Jos 14:7, Jos 14:10 : compare Num 13:17) - who was thirty-eight years old when he passed through the Red Sea, and seventy-eight when he passed through Jordan - help us to assign a period of seven years (in round numbers) for the campaigns of Joshua.
c. The duration of Joshua’s rule, and consequently the number of years covered by the record of this book, is far more uncertain. He died when he was 110 Jos 24:29. If (compare Exo 33:11) we suppose him to have been about the same age as Caleb, he will have been about 78 years old when he invaded Canaan, and have been at the head of Israel not much less than thirty-two years altogether after the death of Moses, surviving about twenty-five years after his retirement to Timnath-serah (compare Jos 23:1). Josephus, however, states that Joshua’s rule after the death of Moses lasted for twenty-five years, and that he had previously been forty years associated with him. This would fix Joshua’s age at the time of the Exodus at forty-five. On the whole, nothing more precise seems attainable now than this: that Joshua governed Israel from twenty-five to thirty years after the death of Moses, and that about the like number of years contains the events recorded in the book which bears his name.
4. No sufficient evidence exists to enable us with certainty to name the author. That he was one of “the elders that overlived Joshua” Jos 24:31 is probable, for the book appears to have been written by one coeval with the events recorded, and, indeed, an eye-witness of them. The spirit of the narrative in the former or historical portion of the book, and the graphic yet spontaneous rendering of details, which it everywhere presents, bespeak one who saw what he describes. And the topographical information which abounds in the latter portion of the book is of such a nature, and is presented in such a form, as strongly to suggest the use of written, and apparently contemporary documents. Some parts of this information are minute and accurate (e. g. Josh. 15), other statements are far less definite and complete. No doubt some of these imperfections are due to disorder in the text, or to clauses having dropped out of it, but others are mainly due to the fact that the writer’s knowledge was itself imperfect. These very anomalies of the writer’s most valuable description of Palestine, inconvenient as they often are, seem thus to be attributable to the early date of his information. His documents were written while Israel was still a stranger in the land of his inheritance, and in parts of it still a foreign invader.
The hand of a writer contemporaneous with the events is indicated in several expressions, e. g. in Jos 5:6-7; Jos 6:25; Jos 10:2, a notice which plainly borrows its terms from the state of things in Canaan at the time of the invasion; and in the record of ancient Canaanite names of cities, though disused after the Israelites occupied them, Jos 14:15; Jos 15:9, Jos 15:15, Jos 15:49, Jos 15:60.
The book cannot, in its present form at least, be ascribed to Joshua himself. The account of his death and that of Eleazar, with the few supplementary verses at the end of the book, might have been attached by another hand, as a conclusion to the historical work of Joshua, just as a like addition was made to the work of Moses. But there are up and down the book a number of historical notices, which point to a date clearly beyond the death of Joshua (compare Jos 15:13-20 and Jdg 1:1-15; 15:63, and Jdg 1:8; Jdg 15:13-19 and Judg. 18).
For these reasons the opinion of the rabbis and many moderns which names Joshua as himself the sole writer of this book, must apparently be abandoned. The evidence internal and external renders it likely that the book was composed partly from personal observation and inquiry, partly out of pre-existing and authentic documents, within a few years after the death of Joshua, and probably from materials furnished in part by Joshua himself.
5. The book of Joshua is a work complete in itself, with an organic unity and peculiar characteristics. This appears:
(1) From the definiteness of the writer’s purpose, and the thoroughness with which he executes it. He proposes to narrate the conquest of Canaan, and to present that conquest as a proof of God’s fidelity to his covenant. But the writer does not limit himself to the achievements of Joshua. Such additions to the main body of his story, which belongs to the lifetime and leadership of Joshua, as are contained in Josh. 13 and Josh. 15 are to be explained only by a reference to the writer’s distinct and special aim.
(2) from the tokens of connection and method apparent throughout. Not only does the first part, which records the wars Josh. 1–12, evidently lead up to the second part Josh. 13–24, which describes the partition of the territory when subdued, but the contents of each part taken singly are given in proper and chronological order, each transaction growing out of the one preceding.
(3) from the style and phraseology. These are marked by distinctive features, whether the book be compared with the Pentateuch or with the other and later historical books. The difference of style, words, and treatment in the historical chapters, as contrasted with the topographical chapters is only what might be expected from the diverse nature of the subjects, and from the self-evident fact that in much of the latter part of his task the author was working from pre-existing documents.
Certain discrepancies alleged to exist in the book do not seriously impair its unity and independence. The difficulties, e. g. in the account of the capture of Ai Josh. 8 arise solely out of the numbers, and are far more probably due to a mistake in the numerals (see the note at Jos 8:3), which is by no means of infrequent occurrence, than to the presence in the narrative of two or three different versions of the events which the final editor omitted to harmonize.
The contradiction said to exist between some passages which speak of the land as completely subdued by Joshua, and of the Canaanites as utterly extirpated (Jos 11:16-17, Jos 11:23; Jos 12:7-8 etc.), and others which allude to “very much land,” as still in possession of the native inhabitants (Jos 13:1; Jos 17:14 ff; Jos 23:5, etc.), is to be explained partly by the theocratic view which the writer takes of his theme; a view which leads him to regard the conquest as complete when it was so “ex parte Dei,” and when all was done that was needed to enable the Israelites to realize fully the promises (compare Jos 21:43-45); partly also by the fact that territory was undoubtedly overrun by Joshua at the first onset, which was afterward recovered by the Canaanites, and only again and finally wrested from them at a subsequent, sometimes a long subsequent, date. That the early campaigns of Joshua were in the nature of sudden raids, overpowering for the moment, but not effectually subduing the country, has probably much truth in it.
Thus then, the Book of Joshua, though based upon pre-existing materials of various kinds, and sometimes incorporating them, appears to be a separate and complete work produced as a whole from one original hand. Its relation to the Pentateuch is that of an independent treatise by a distinct author, who resumes a theme of which the first great and important portion had been finished by a predecessor. The Pentateuch is not to be looked upon as principally a historical work. It is the statute book of the theocracy, and contains only such historical matter as illustrates the origin and import of God’s covenant with Israel. Joshua records how the temporal promises of that covenant were accomplished; and describes how the basis was laid for the future development of the nation, under the special superintendence of God, by its settlement in Canaan. Thus, regarded, this book is no more an appendage to the Pentateuch than the books of Judges and Samuel are an appendage to it.
There is, assuredly, an intimate connection among these writings throughout, a connection which is expressly indicated by the connective conjunctions used in the beginning of each book (see the note at Jdg 1:1). This is due to the fact that the several authors were moved to write by one and the same Spirit, and that their one purpose in successive ages was to record the dealings of God with their nation. Hence, they have selected whatever declares or illustrates the divine call of Israel; God’s methods in educating that people for its functions in His world; the preparations made through the chequered history of Israel for future issues bearing on the salvation of all mankind. We find at one time periods of considerable length, and events of great importance to secular history cursorily alluded to, while other occurrences, often of a biographical character, are dwelt upon with anxious minuteness, because of their theocratic bearings. Accordingly, the name “Earlier prophets,” given to this and the following books of Judges, Samuel, and Kings by the Jewish Church which has handed them down to us as canonical, is appropriate. They were written by inspired men, and treat their subject from the prophetical point of view.
The Book of Joshua is repeatedly cited or referred to in the New Testament: compare Act 7:45; Heb 3:5; Heb 4:8; Heb 11:30-31; Jam 2:25.
6. The land of Canaan was given as a free gift by God to the Israelites - they took possession of it because He bade them do so - and He no less bade them annihilate the Canaanite nations without mercy?
The question then occurs in unbroken force, all palliative explanations being disallowed: Is this merciless treatment of the Canaanites consistent with the attributes of the Deity, especially as those attributes are illustrated for us in the New Testament?
The destruction of the Canaanites is always presented in Scripture as a judgment of God sent on them because of their wickedness. They had not only fallen into total apostasy from God, but into forms of idolatry of the most degrading kind. Their false religion cannot be regarded as a mere error of judgment; cruelty the most atrocious, and unnatural crimes the most defiling were part and parcel of its observances. Moreover, they had proved themselves to be incorrigible. They had had not only the general warning of the deluge, as had other nations of the earth, but the special one of the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah in the very midst of them. They had had also the example and instruction of Abraham and the patriarchs living for ages among them. Even after the miraculous providence of God had brought the Israelites out of Egypt and across the Jordan, and even when the sword was as it were hanging over their necks, it was but in one or two isolated cases that signs of repentance and recollection of God were manifested (compare Jos 2:1; Jos 9:24). God had forborne for ages in vain (compare Gen 15:16); in the days of Joshua the time for mercy had passed, and that of judgment had come. It is impossible to acknowledge God as the moral Governor of the earth, and not to admit that it may be right or even necessary for Him to remove such nations. The fact, therefore, that God is described as having not only permitted, but even enjoined and caused the extirpation of the Canaanite nations, depraved as they were, is not inconsistent with His moral attributes. People, as was long ago pointed out by Dr. Butler (‘Anal.’ ii. 3), have no right to either life or property, but what arises solely from the grant of God. When this grant is revoked they cease to have any right at all in either. And in the case before us the forfeiture decreed by God was merited, and the execution of it was therefore righteous.
God chose to inflict His righteous judgment by the hands of the Israelites, and expressly commissioned them to be His executioners. If it be objected that this is to represent God as sanctioning cruelty, the answer is obvious: it is no sanction of cruelty to direct a lawful sentence to be carried out by human agents (compare Num 31:3). Nor would obedience to God’s command in this matter make the Israelites brutal and bloodthirsty. The behavior of the Israelites, on many occasions, proves that they shrank from a terrible duty of this sort when laid on them by God, and did it only so far as they were compelled to do it. .
The slaughter of the Canaanites served various important purposes besides the mere removal of them from the face of the earth. To make and keep the Jewish people as much as possible isolated, was a marked and vital principle of the Old Testament dispensation. No more effectual means could have been adopted for inspiring God’s people with an abhorrence for Canaanite sins, to which they were not a little prone, than to make them the ministers of divine vengeance for those sins.
They learned by experiment that God would certainly root out those who fell away in apostasy from Him. They were warned also that if they fell into the sins of the Canaanites they would themselves be the victims of those same judgments of which they had been the reluctant executioners (compare e. g. Deu 28:25). And the whole was so ordered as to exhibit a type, fearful no doubt yet salutary, of what must be the fate of the impenitent and obdurate in the upshot of God’s righteous government.