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The Book of Joshua

Joshua was the person designated by Moses to succeed him in the governing of Israel: “Be strong and of good courage,” Moses told him, “for you shall go with this people into the land which the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them” (Deut. 31:7). Moses passed all his authority on to Joshua, with the exception of his priestly powers, which went to Eleazar (cf. Num. 27:18-23; Deut. 31:14-23; 34:9).

Joshua had been Moses’ closest collaborator during the period of the pilgrimage in the wilderness. It was Joshua who led the Hebrews to victory over the Amalekites while Moses remained in prayer (Ex. 17:8-16). He was elected as Ephraim’s representative in the group of twelve sent to reconnoitre the land of Canaan (Num. 13:8). He and Caleb were the only people over the age of twenty when the Jews left Egypt who lived to enter the promised land: all the rest died in punishment for their infidelity (Num. 14:30-38; 26-65; 32:13). Biblical tradition is unanimous in extolling Joshua as a great warrior, a man of unshakeable faith, ever-obedient to God’s commands. In accordance with his name, which means salvation, he became a great savior of God’s elect, the avenger of their enemies, and their leader into the promised land. No one could resist him, for he wages the wars of the Lord (cf. Sir. 46:110).

The book of Joshua is divided into three sections:

1. Preparations and conquest (chap. 1-12). 

Joshua is charged to conquer the land which Yahweh promised the patriarchs. Before crossing the Jordan he reminds all the tribes of Israel about their commitments to Yahweh and then chooses spies who manage to enter Jericho with the aid of Rahab and report back to Joshua, “Truly the Lord has given all the land into our hands; and moreover all the inhabitants of the land are faint hearted because of us” (Jos. 2:24).

By a special providence of God they cross the Jordan whose waters open to let them pass, and they erect twelve stone columns to commemorate this miracle. The Jordan is in full flood at this season—springtime-and often overflows its banks: The snows of Lebanon melt just around the time of the first harvest. Some Fathers (for example, Gregory and Augustine) see this turning back of the waters as symbolizing the effects of baptism, whereby man goes back to the origin from which he deviated.

After they cross the Jordan, everyone is circumcised at Gilgal (5:2ff). This is highly significant. Augustine says it is “not the person but the people” who revive the practice of circumcision, which was interrupted when they left Egypt. Circumcision was unnecessary when they were living in the wilderness: it was a sign of belonging to Israel and therefore served no useful purpose while they were moving around uninhabited territory. Also, Jerome says, God dispensed them from circumcision in the desert because it would have been difficult or dangerous to carry out properly in that situation.

They then move on and conquer Jericho after a seven day siege, putting all to the sword except Rahab and her family (6:17-25). How did they manage to do this? “By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days” (Heb. 11:30). What could have been more ridiculous than silently circling a strong, defended city? Clearly the methods the Israelites used were completely disproportionate to what they achieved—an example of how God confounds human reason by apparent foolishness (cf. 1 Cor. 1:19-25).

After this comes a first, unsuccessful, attack on Ai. Joshua discovers in prayer the reason for the failure: An Israelite had taken booty, which God had explicitly forbidden should be done. Achan confesses his crime and is punished and then the Israelites succeed in taking the city (chap. 8). At the end of this chapter the covenant is renewed at Mount Ebal, to the east of the plain of Shechem.

The first part of the book ends with the account of two more conquests: that of southern Palestine (chap. 9-10) with the episode of the Gibeonites who shrewdly make a treaty with Joshua and obtain his aid in their struggle with the Amorites: This is when Joshua “stops” the sun to give himself an advantage; and that of southern Palestine, with the account of his victories (chap. 11) and the list of conquered kings (chap . 12).

2. Distribution of lands. 

Chapters 13-19 give details of the division of territory among the tribes and the establishment of cities of refuge (chap. 20) and of cities allocated to the Levites (chap. 21). Chapter 22 finishes with the return of the Trans-jordanian tribes and the erection of an altar beside the Jordan.

3. Last dispositions (chap. 23-24).

The book closes with a kind of appendix in which Joshua states his mind about the as yet unconquered territory and which reports his great address to the people assembled at Shechem on the subject of fidelity to God’s Law. And finally we are told where Joshua, Eleazar, and Joseph are buried.

The book of Joshua reports on key events in the history of the people of Israel. But we should remember that it is both a history book and a doctrinal book: In reporting history and doing so accurately—it is also teaching religious and moral lessons. Although the conquest of Canaan comes across as a great achievement, it is one which could not have happened without Yahweh’s continuous support. Over this period of almost thirty years Joshua is conscious that God is at his side in all his difficulties: Sometimes he actually sees this help—at the pushing back of the Jordan, his vision as he approaches Jericho, the staying of the sun, etc. The whole book speaks eloquently of God’s fidelity to his promise, which makes it a source of encouragement to Israel to remain faithful to him.

Throughout the book of Joshua we can see that it prefigures the New Alliance, which will come about centuries later in the person of Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah. Even Joshua’s name (= Yahweh saves) is a symbol of Jesus, for only in him can we find true salvation, which neither the Law nor the priesthood nor the sacrifices of the Old Testament can bring about. Faith in Jesus Christ, when accompanied by works, has power to bring a person into the new and final land—Jerusalem which comes down out of heaven from God (Rev. 21:12).

Even the division of Canaan by drawing lots is a figure of the gratuitous nature of the calling which Christians receive in Jesus Christ; “even as he chose us in him,” Paul says, “before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him . . . he destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:45).

It is important that we remember that God has assured us that the source of true prudence lies in faithfulness to the divine Law, and the only way to achieve success in our undertakings is to keep in line with God’s will. Hence we should frequently check on our actions and motives to make sure they are in line with our beliefs.

Unfortunately some people do not take God’s law into account when shaping the structures of society and support the introduction or maintenance of laws which are in conflict with the natural law and therefore with the common good (for example, divorce laws); in cases like these people’s minds and wills are bent out of their true pattern and they have come a long way from the model conduct of Joshua.


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