There are plenty of spiritual lessons to be found in the book of Joshua. Here I just wish to highlight a few as found in chapters 5-8. This portion of Scripture involves three assaults by the Israelites on two Canaanite cities. The first one at least should be well known to most people.
Chapters 5 and 6 contain the famous story of the fall of Jericho, which many folks would have learned about as a child in Sunday School. By depending on Yahweh alone, and not relying on their own strength, the Israelites manage to overthrow this heavily fortified city and witness a complete and thorough victory.
Because the people obeyed carefully the Lord’s instructions, a miraculous result occurred, and everyone knew that Israel’s God was the one true God. Indeed, the key to their success was the fact that God was with them and fighting for them. The Canaanites knew this and reacted accordingly.
As we read in Joshua 5:1: “Now when all the Amorite kings west of the Jordan and all the Canaanite kings along the coast heard how the Lord had dried up the Jordan before the Israelites until they had crossed over, their hearts melted in fear and they no longer had the courage to face the Israelites.”
They in fact had heard of Yahweh’s mighty deeds earlier. As Rahab told the spies, “We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Josh 2:10-12).
The key to victory is found in Joshua 6:27: “So the LORD was with Joshua, and his fame spread throughout the land.” With this great win in hand, we read in chapters 7 and 8 about two attempts to take the city of Ai – the first unsuccessful, the second successful.
After the mighty victory at Jericho it was assumed that Yahweh would do more of the same in regard to this city. Thus we read in Joshua 7:3-5: “When [the spies] returned to Joshua, they said, ‘Not all the army will have to go up against Ai. Send two or three thousand men to take it and do not weary the whole army, for only a few people live there.’ So about three thousand went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai, who killed about thirty-six of them. They chased the Israelites from the city gate as far as the stone quarries and struck them down on the slopes. At this the hearts of the people melted in fear and became like water.”
Wow, talk about a major reversal of fortune. Not only did they suffer a major defeat, but the motif of intense fear is reversed: now it is the Israelites whose hearts are melting with fear. Joshua 7:1 explains the reason for this: “But the Israelites were unfaithful in regard to the devoted things.”
And in verses 11-13 the Lord spells this out in more detail: “Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction. Go, consecrate the people. Tell them, ‘Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow; for this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: There are devoted things among you, Israel. You cannot stand against your enemies until you remove them’.”
Achan had kept some of the spoils of war from Jericho instead of giving them fully over to the Lord. These objects had been devoted to Yahweh (herem). Some things were devoted to destruction, but some things (silver, gold, and articles of bronze and iron) were to go into the treasury of the LORD’s house (Josh 6:24). But Achan kept some of them for himself.
Because of his sin all of Israel suffered greatly. This shows the importance of corporate solidarity in Biblical thought. When one member of God’s household sins, it impacts on all the others. Thus Israel, not just Achan, must be judged. The holiness of God shows no favourites here.
Just as Jericho was devoted to destruction because of its sin and rebellion, so too would Israel be for the same reason. As David Howard comments, “This passage shows that God was not open to the charge of a double standard with reference to his treatment of Israel and the Canaanites. He had ordered Israel to exterminate the Canaanites because of their sin, but here he allowed all Israel to be affected by the sin of one man. The overriding concern in all such episodes was his demand for holiness and obedience and the concern for purity of worship.”
Commenting on v. 12 he says, “The reason for Israel’s defeat is now revealed: Israel itself – just as Jericho before it – was made liable to destruction because of its sin, and it had suffered a humiliating defeat because of this. What’s more, God would no longer deal with Israel, until they (the ‘you’ is now plural) removed the sin from the camp.”
Of course when Achan revealed that he was the guilty party, and Yahweh’s judgment is executed, then the previous assurances of God going with Israel in battle are resumed, and in ch 8 we see Ai successfully defeated. Success, in other words, can only come by being in right relationship with God, and through whole-hearted obedience.
As Trent Butler comments, “The two chapters [7&8] show the reverse sides of warfare led by Yahweh. Warfare carried out in thoughtless self-confidence leads to disaster. Warfare carried out in obedience to each of God’s commands leads to victory and possession of the land forever. The narrative of a sacred process has illustrated to Israel how she must act when she brings the anger of God upon herself.”
A related key truth found here is that while Yahweh is a warrior, who fights on behalf of Israel, he can also fight against Israel. New Testament believers need to take these lessons to heart. Obedience is always crucial and critical, and we can never presume upon God, expecting to always curry his favour.
Francis Schaeffer, in his book, Joshua and the Flow of Biblical History says this: “This simple yet profound process explains all the rest of the Old Testament. It explains the period of the judges, the period of kings, the captivities under Assyria and Babylon, the Jews’ return from Babylon and the Jews’ dispersion in A.D. 70 under Titus. It explains Romans 9–11, which speaks of the Jews turning away from God and yet at the future day coming back to God and once more, as a nation, being the people of God. First comes blessing, then sin enters, then comes judgment. If the people of God return to him after the judgment, the blessing begins again and flows on.
“This process is as much a universal as any continuity we have studied so far. It is the principle of God’s judgment of his people. It is unchanging throughout Scripture because God really is there. God is a holy God, God loves his people, and God deals with his people consistently.”
Yes quite right. We must pay close attention to the ways of God, in the Old Testament as much as in the New. God has not changed, and there is much we can learn from Israel of old. We ignore their lessons at our own peril.