An Exciting Story

Joshua, the sixth book in the Bible, tells the story of Israel invading Canaan and conquering most of the inhabitants. It is an exciting story, recounting some of the most dramatic miracles ever seen in man’s history. For example, when Joshua “fit the battle of Jericho,” God intervened so that “the walls came tumbling down,” as the song says. Later in the campaign of conquest, when Joshua needed more time to complete his rout of the southern coalition of kings, God caused the sun to stand still.

Before launching into our survey of the book, we will provide a general introduction with two components.

  1. We will fix the setting of the book.
  2. We will show how the book is rich in spiritual meaning, giving deep insights into the ways of God.

Historical background

The book begins with Joshua assuming leadership of the nation after the death of Moses, who previously led them for more than forty years. The nation is poised on the east side of the Jordan River ready to enter Canaan, but God has not yet allowed them to advance farther. How has Israel come to this place?

Forty years earlier, God delivered them from Egypt with, as He said, "a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm" (Deut. 26:8). To display His power to all the heathen nations in the region, God afflicted Egypt with a series of ten plagues, escalating in severity from the merely annoying to the utterly devastating. In the first, Moses turned the water of the Nile into blood. Then came infestations of frogs, gnats, and flies, followed by a disease that killed cattle and domestic animals. In the sixth plague, men were afflicted by boils. In the seventh, hail and fire fell from heaven. In the eighth, all the vegetation was consumed by locusts. In the ninth, the sun disappeared and darkness continued for three days.

The purpose of the plagues was to humiliate and discredit the gods of Egypt (Ex. 12:12; 18:10-11; Num. 33:4). Notice that Scripture speaks of these gods as if they were real. The reason is that idolatry is the worship of demons (1 Cor. 10:20-21), and demons often pose as residing somewhere in nature. The Egyptians worshiped demons with many assumed identities, including the Nile River and such animals as frogs. Their chief deity was the sun god, Ra, who was the target of the last and severest plague except the tenth. By demonstrating His sovereignty over every realm of nature supposedly under the control of an Egyptian god, the God of Israel made His superiority obvious. Also, He exposed the weakness of the Egyptian priests, since they could not stop the plagues, but suffered the effects along with everyone else. All the people could see that their claims of power over nature were hollow.

The last of the ten plagues was the death of all firstborn sons in houses unprotected by lamb's blood sprinkled on the door posts. The leader of Egypt, Pharaoh, then gave Israel permission to leave the country, but no sooner had he allowed them to go than he regretted what he had done. He gave chase with all of his chariots and cornered Israel on the verge of the Red Sea. When God opened up a path of dry land through the sea and Israel fled to the other side, the army of Egypt followed in pursuit, but God closed the sea upon Pharaoh and his host and destroyed them all.

God intended Israel to go directly from Egypt to Canaan, but after hearing the report of twelve men sent to spy out the land, the nation balked. Ten spies argued that the inhabitants were too strong for them. The land was already occupied by several powerful nations, and they all lived in walled cities defended by chariots and the other most advanced implements of war. Among the inhabitants was a race of giants known as the Anakim. So, in fear of defeat, Israel refused to move forward into the land. Angered by their rebellion, God condemned the nation to forty years of wandering in the wilderness, until all the adults died off who believed the ten spies. The only two who would survive were Caleb and Joshua, the two spies who dissented from the majority opinion and recommended that Israel proceed at once to invade Canaan.

At the end of the forty years, God took Israel by another route to the border of the Promised Land. They went toward the east, bypassing Edom before coming into the land of Moab. Then they moved northward, and after defeating Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan, they took possession of all the territory east of Jordan.

Israel bypassed Edom and refrained from attacking Moab, but was merciless toward the Amorites. Why? Because all the nations situated south and east of Canaan—including the Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, Ishmaelites, Midianites, and Amalekites—were close relatives of Israel. Like Israel, all were named after their forefather. Israel's forefather was given the name Jacob at birth but renamed Israel late in life by God Himself (Gen. 32:28). Edom, another name for Esau (Gen. 36:1), was Jacob's brother (Gen. 35:29). Moab and Ammon were the sons of Lot (Gen. 19:36–38), who was the nephew of Jacob's grandfather Abraham (Gen. 11:31; 25:19), so they were Jacob's cousins. As sons of Abraham, Ishmael, whose mother was Hagar (Gen. 16:15), and Midian, whose mother was Keturah (Gen. 25:2), were Jacob's uncles. And Amalek the grandson of Esau (Gen. 36:12) was the grandnephew of Jacob.

The Amorites and the Canaanites were, however, not related to Israel. They were not even Semitic in origin. That is, they came not from Noah's son Shem, but from his son Ham. Whereas some Semites retained a knowledge of the true God, the Hamites had corrupted themselves with abominable religious practices, including infant sacrifice and ritual prostitution, both heterosexual and homosexual.

Nevertheless, despite their kinship with Israel, the leaders of Moab and Midian regarded Israel as a threat. Recognizing that they could not overcome Israel in battle, they hired Balaam son of Beor, a priest of God, to place a curse on the invaders. But God put other words in his mouth, so that Balaam instead blessed Israel and prophesied that the nation would bring forth a great king who would defeat all his enemies. Yet this same Balaam, in his greed for man's reward, suggested a way that Moab could prevail. He counseled the Moabites to mingle with the Israelites, with the object of involving them in pagan festivities and ensnaring the men in immorality. The ploy succeeded, forcing God to send a plague of disease that killed 24,000 of His people. The plague stopped only when Phinehas the priest, grandson of Aaron, slew a Moabite woman together with an Israelite man who had brought her into the camp. Then, in compliance with the Lord's command, Israel went to war against Moab and utterly exterminated all the men and adult women. The conflict with Moab was the last major event before the death of Moses and the transfer of power to his successor, Joshua.

The book preceding Joshua is Deuteronomy. In chapters one to thirty, Moses gives a farewell speech to the nation. In chapter thirty-one, after he addresses specific commands to all the people (vv. 1–6) as well as to Joshua (vv. 7–8) and the priests (vv. 9–13), the Lord appears to him and announces that he will soon die (vv. 14–22). Then Moses leaves final charges with Joshua (v. 23) and the priests (vv. 24–29) before presenting his song of praise to God (31:30–32:43), a poetic summary of God's dealings with the nation both in days past and in days to come. He concludes by exhorting the nation to heed the words of his song (31:44–47). The whole of chapter thirty-three records his valedictory blessing on the tribes, reminiscent of the blessing that Jacob conferred upon them at his death (Gen. 49).

The passage after the song (32:48–52) tells of God instructing Moses to leave all the people and ascend Mt. Nebo.  On this mountain overlooking Canaan he would have the privilege of seeing the land that his nation would soon possess.  But he himself would not enter it.  He would die on the mountain.  His exclusion from the land was God’s punishment for the grievous sin that he committed at the waters of Meribah-Kadesh (Num. 20:7-12). There, God instructed him to bring forth water for the people by speaking to a rock. But instead of speaking to it, he spoke angrily to the people and smote the rock twice with his rod.

Getting Practical

Greater accountability

His offense might seem minor to us, but with such maturity and wisdom as Moses possessed comes accountability to a higher standard. Those of us who know the Bible and who have many years of Christian experience must be careful. If we offend even in a little thing, the consequences could be severe.

What exactly was the nature of Moses’ sin? His sin was unbelief. How was it unbelief? Under the impulse of bad temper, he chose not to believe that God required his exact obedience, and as a result, he profaned God in the eyes of the people. God wanted the people to view the rock that provided water as a picture of Himself, the provider of all things. By smiting the rock as if it were something evil and not good, Moses hindered them from apprehending this truth, and by speaking harshly to the people, he made God's provision of the water less useful for showing what God is like—that He is gracious and loving.

Delving Deeper

Water from the rock

The rock furnishing water to the people had even more profound meaning. We read in John's Gospel of an occasion when Jesus went to the Temple during the Feast of Tabernacles. There He gave the people new insight on Israel's experience in the wilderness.

On each morning of the feast, the priests filled a golden cup with water at the Pool of Siloam not far from the Temple. Then in a joyful procession accompanied by music they carried the cup through the Water Gate of the Temple and poured out the water upon the altar. The ceremony commemorated God’s provision of water from the rock.

At some time during the last day of the feast, probably in the morning shortly after the ceremony was completed, Jesus stood forward in the Temple and proclaimed aloud the ultimate meaning of what the people had seen (John 7:37–38). What did the water signify? It pictured the same living water that the Lord had already promised to the Samaritan woman (John 4:13-14). Jesus declared to the people that the only way to obtain this water of life was to believe on Him.

Still, what did the water and the rock represent? The meaning of the water is explained by John. It is the Holy Spirit (John 7:39). The meaning of the rock is explained by Paul. It is Christ Himself (1 Cor. 10:4). Only by coming to Jesus and believing on Him is it possible to receive the Holy Spirit, who makes us new creatures in Christ gifted with eternal life.

When Moses stood before the people and brought forth water from the rock, God was using him to create vivid and precious imagery of wonderful spiritual truths, so his darkening of the picture by rash disobedience was, in God's sight, a serious breach of duty.

In the closing chapters of Deuteronomy, we learn that at the end of his life, Moses was still doing his best to correct any false conception he fostered when he smote the rock instead of speaking to it. Especially in his song, he emphasized that God is a rock (Deut. 32:3-4, 15, 18, 30-31, 37).

Getting Practical

No exemption for leaders

Moses' failure to enter the land is a caution to any leader not to presume that his position grants an exemption from obedience. Even Paul had no such exemption (1 Cor. 9:27). If Paul feared that through indulging the flesh he might fail in God’s service, becoming a castaway, how should we feel? How careful must we be to keep our lives pleasing in His sight!

The last chapter of Deuteronomy is the record of Moses' death. It was evidently not written by Moses himself, but by a later editor of the book, perhaps Joshua or Samuel. We learn that after Moses ascended Mt. Nebo and surveyed the Promised Land, he died, and God buried him nearby in a secret place (v. 6). The unstated but obvious reason for hiding his grave site was to prevent the nation from turning it into a center of idolatrous worship. At first they might go there to show respect for the nation's deliverer from bondage, but in time they might worship him as a national deity. The danger was not altogether averted, for in later years they burnt incense to the bronze serpent he made in the wilderness (2 Kings 18:4). In the New Testament (Jude 9) we learn that Satan tried to take possession of Moses' body after his death, doubtless because he intended to create a public grave site that would help establish Moses as a cult figure, but his plan was frustrated by the archangel Michael, who, by asserting himself as a delegate of divine authority, withheld the body from Satan's control. Presumably it was Michael who buried it in a private tomb.

After the close of Deuteronomy comes the Book of Joshua, which relates the entire career of Joshua after he assumed power until he died. Under his leadership, Israel entered the land, defeated every foe they met in open battle, divided the land into portions for each tribe, and returned to a settled way of life with houses rather than tents as their dwelling places.

Authorship and Date

The Book of Joshua itself provides no information as to the author. Many readers, including the Jewish rabbis in Jesus' day, have come to the conclusion that the author was Joshua himself. Liberal scholars today believe, however, that the book was written as much as a thousand years after the time when Joshua supposedly lived. But what they believe rests on theory rather than evidence. In their proposals of the book's date and authorship, they do not agree, and their only grounds for preferring a late date is their belief that Jewish monotheism did not fully develop until the period of the captivity. They imagine that the Israelites of an earlier time viewed Jehovah, their national deity, as equal to the gods of other nations. According to these scholars, the advanced conception of God that we find in the Book of Joshua proves that it could not have been written in Joshua's day. But we who believe in divine inspiration need not give any consideration to the baseless and self-serving theories of skeptics.

The only valid way to assess the authorship and date of the book is to search the Scriptures for relevant evidence. There, we find a statement near the end of the Book of Joshua that seems to say that Joshua was indeed the author of at least a portion of the book (Josh. 24:26). Exactly what portion we infer depends on how we interpret "these words." Some feel that they refer only to his last address to the nation (Josh. 23:3—24:25); others, that they intend the whole writing commencing at chapter one.

To resolve the uncertainty, we must consult the various miscellaneous remarks in the book that furnish clues as to when it was written. The phrase "unto this day" or an equivalent phrase appears twelve times, giving us abundant information about the state of things at the time of writing. The memorial of twelve stones was still visible in the Jordan River (Josh. 4:9). The name Gilgal was still in use (Josh. 5:9). The mound burying Achan's family was still standing and the place was still called Achor (Josh. 7:26). Ai was still a desolation (Josh. 8:28), and the stones cast over its dead king still remained (Josh. 8:29). Another mound covering the five dead kings of southern Canaan remained as well (Josh. 10:27). The Geshurites and Maachathites still occupied their original territory (Josh. 13:13), as did the Canaanites in Gezer (Josh. 16:10), and Hebron was still in the possession of Caleb's family (Josh. 14:14). Also, the Gibeonites were still working for the congregation, and the place for the Temple had not been chosen (Josh. 9:27). It was David who fixed the place as Jerusalem. Moreover, the writer of Joshua says that Jerusalem was still under the control of the Jebusites (Josh. 15:63). Again, it was David who finally ousted them (2 Sam. 5:6). Most critical for setting a date is the comment that Rahab was still alive (Josh. 6:25). Some commentators interpret this as a reference to her descendants, but undermining their view is their inability to find any other text in Joshua that fails to distinguish offspring from their ancestor.

All the texts saying "unto this day" allow us to place the date of authorship very close to Joshua's time, if not during his time. But three texts are problematic for an early date, forcing us to modify our conclusions. For example, the author refers to the totality of the land as Judah and Israel (Josh. 11:21). Such language, putting Judah on a par with the whole rest of the nation, did not, so far as we know, come into use until much later, perhaps in the days of Samuel (compare Judg. 20:12–19 with 1 Sam. 11:8). Also, the author of the book's closing words places himself after the time of Joshua and Joshua's generation (Josh. 24:29-33). The text that absolutely cannot be reconciled with an early date for the whole book is the one that mentions the Book of Jasher (Josh. 10:13), which is mentioned again in Second Samuel (2 Sam. 1:18-25). The name means "Book of the Righteous." The quotations in Joshua and Second Samuel show that it contained odes written in honor of the nation's heroes. Since these heroes included Saul and Jonathan, it is evident that the Book of Jasher was composed no earlier than the time of David.

But do these three texts pointing to an author who rose after Joshua's time imply that the whole book originated a thousand years after the traditional date of Joshua? No, they merely show that by David's time, about four hundred years later, the book acquired some small additions. The view of conservative scholars has always been that in that space of years, godly men such as Samuel and David put a few editorial touches on the five books of Moses and the Book of Joshua. Doubtless the work was done by the same hands that gave us the books of Judges, Ruth, First Samuel, and Second Samuel.

There is absolutely no reason to discard the traditional view that Joshua was written substantially in its present form by someone close to the events—by someone alive during the lifetime of Rahab. At least the closing speech comes from Joshua himself, and we can without fear of being refuted believe that the major portion of the whole book comes from him as well.

Whoever composed Joshua, its authors must fit Peter's description of all those God employed to produce the Bible (2 Pet. 1:21). They were "holy men of God" who spoke "as they were moved by the Holy Ghost." Therefore, we may regard the work they have handed down to us as the inspired, inerrant Word of God.