If you have been faithfully reading your three and a bit chapters of Scripture a day to get through the Bible in a year, beginning with Genesis 1 on January 1, then you should be up to the book of Joshua by now. The Pentateuch ends with the Israelites freed from Egyptian bondage, and finishing their 40 years of wilderness wandering.
It is now time for them to enter the promised land of Canaan and take possession of it as foretold long ago by God (see Genesis 12 and the call of Abram). Finally, they are set to take possession of the land long promised to them. So here we have the narrative account of an important stage in Israel’s history.
In the book’s 24 chapters we read about how the Israelites entered Canaan and displaced the evil occupants of the land. We also learn that they did not fully obey the Lord and they did not fully dispossess the Canaanites. This would be a continual thorn in their side, eventually leading to more disobedience, idolatry and eventual exile from the land.
One important theme found in this book is the joint (divine-human) effort in taking Canaan. On the one hand, God over and over tells the Israelites that he has given the land to them. On the other hand, he tells them over and over to go in and fight and take possession of the land. There are some key spiritual lessons to be had here for Christians today.
As I wrote in an earlier piece:
God gave them the land. That is utterly clear. But the Israelites were also commanded to go in and take the land. That too is absolutely clear. This was a team effort, and both players were fully involved. Sure, it was God’s grace ultimately that allowed this to happen, but the Israelites had a real job to do, and they would not have possessed Canaan had they not done the fighting as Yahweh commanded them to do. And all this is not just the stuff of a faraway land and a history of long ago.
All this is an example for us today. Indeed, we can argue that this is also typological, and we see the Christian life today as following the pattern of the OT occupation of Canaan. We too have been promised a great inheritance in Christ. But we too are commanded to go in and take possession of it. We are not to just sit back and expect God to throw holiness, maturity and Christian growth into our lap. He makes it possible for us to obtain it, but we must work at it. We must take possession of it.
See here for much more on this: billmuehlenberg.com/2015/03/22/sanctification-cooperating-with-god/
Even certain narrative portions of the book which might seem rather remote or irrelevant to us today can be filled with terrific spiritual truths. Consider the cities of refuge (ch. 20). Six cities were to be used as a place of refuge for those who accidentally killed another person, to protect them from the avenger of blood.
Francis Schaeffer mentions various ways in which they parallel the work of Christ:
-They were centrally located and easy to reach. Christ too is easily accessible.
-They were open to all – Israelites and non-Israelites. Christ is also open to all who approach him.
-The doors were never locked (according to non-biblical sources). The same with access to Christ.
-If the killer did not flee to the city of refuge, there was no help for him. Christ is the only help for all of us.
Of course one major difference is the cities were only for the innocent, while the cross of Christ is only for the guilty, which means every single one of us.
A brief outline of the book of Joshua, as per the ESV Study Bible, runs like this:
Chapters 1-5 – Cross the Jordan into the land
Chapters 6-12 – Take the land
Chapters 13-21 – Divide the land
Chapters 22-24 – Serve the Lord in the land
Joshua contains a number of fairly famous stories, including the walls of Jericho falling down (chs. 5-6), and the sin of Achan (ch. 7). The spiritual lessons to be gained from these stories I have dealt with in more detail elsewhere: billmuehlenberg.com/2013/02/25/lessons-from-joshua/
Finally, one of the more memorable passages in the Old Testament is found in this book. I refer to Josh. 24:14-15 where we find Joshua’s parting words to the Israelites:
Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.
As always, we can be greatly assisted in our study of God’s word by good, solid Bible commentaries. Important scholarly commentaries on Joshua which are for the most part conservative/evangelical would include:
Butler, Trent, Joshua, 2 vols (WBC, 1983, 2014).
Firth, David, The Message of Joshua (BST, 2015).
Hess, Richard, Joshua (TOTC, 1996).
Howard, David, Joshua (NAC, 1998).
Hubbard, Robert, Joshua (NIVAC, 2009).
Madvig, Donald, Joshua (EBC, 1992).
McConville, J. Gordan and Stephen Williams, Joshua (THOTC, 2010).
Pitkanen, Pekka, Joshua (AOTC, 2010).
Woudstra, Marten, Book of Joshua (NIC, 1981).
Commentaries and books that are more devotional or expository in nature are plentiful. A few good ones would include:
Boice, James Montgomery, Joshua (Baker, 1989).
Jackman, David, Joshua (PTW, 2014).
Schaeffer, Francis, Joshua and the Flow of Biblical History (IVP, 1975).
The conquest of Canaan
Many Christians can be a bit squeamish about God’s commands to the Israelites to conquer Canaan and drive out its inhabitants. Whole articles, if not books, need to be devoted to this (and they do already exist), but just a few words can be offered here. First, it was the overwhelming wickedness of the Canaanites that in large measure moved God to have them displaced. Two key passages on this are:
-Genesis 15:13, 16: Then the LORD said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. . . . In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”
-Deuteronomy 9:5: It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Second, this was a one-off, non-repeatable command to the Israelites, and not a blanket standing order for all peoples for all times. It was a unique historical order given to a unique historical people. Third, the Canaanites had time to repent (see Josh. 2:8-11 eg.).
But much more needs to be said about all this, so for further reading, see these helpful volumes, or parts thereof:
Beale, Gregory, The Morality of God in the Old Testament. P&R Pub., 2013.
Copan, Paul, Is God a Moral Monster? Baker, 2011, pp. 158-197.
Copan, Paul, Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God. Baker, 2014.
Craigie, Peter C., The Problem of War in the Old Testament. Eerdmans, 1978.
Gane, Roy, Old Testament Law for Christians. Baker, 2017, pp. 334-339.
Gundry, Stanley, ed., Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide. Zondervan, 2003.
Longman, Tremper and Daniel Reid, God is a Warrior. Zondervan, 1995.
McQuilkin, Robertson and Paul Copan, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics, 3rd ed. IVP, 1984, 2014, pp. 413-417.
Thomas, Heath, Jeremy Evans and Paul Copan, eds., Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem. IVP, 2013.
Tinker, Melvin, Mass Destruction: Is God Guilty of Genocide? EP Books, 2017.
Wright, Christopher, The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith. Zondervan, 2008, pp. 76-110.
Wright, Christopher, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. IVP, 2004, pp. 472-480.
The above books basically defend the concept of holy war as it applies to the taking of Canaan, but the two volumes edited by Gundry and by Thomas offer a range of viewpoints and perspectives.
Happy reading and studying.