Joshua/Judges Week 1
Assistant Professor of New Testament, George Fox University
A Book About Land
Mark Twain once wrote, facetiously, that a “classic” could be defined as a book that people praise but don’t actually read. I’m afraid, then, the Bible has become a “classic”! No doubt the Bible can be intimidating — my study Bible is more than 2,000 pages of text with very tiny font.
I suspect the problem is more with the content, though, than with the length. Christians naturally cherish the great faith of the patriarchs in Genesis, the beauty of the Psalms, the wisdom of the Proverbs, the hopeful prophecies of Isaiah, the inspirational stories of Jesus in the Gospels, and the richly complex discourses by St. Paul.
Books like Joshua — well, they may be the reason why the Bible has become a “classic.” Joshua is not about “salvation” or “heaven” or “peace with God” in the ways we expect of a religious book. Joshua is about land. It is about land for Israel. Aren’t Christians supposed to be citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20)? No wonder Joshua seems antiquated and irrelevant. When viewed all by itself, as an isolated story, Israel’s taking of the land of Canaan might seem dull and irrelevant. However, the book of Joshua is not the beginning of a story, but the middle of a story that goes all the way back to Genesis. And everyone likes sequels, right?
Episode One: Paradise Lost
The Bible begins (“Genesis” literally means “beginning”) with humans in a garden, a paradise. God does not “plant” these creatures to relax and vacation in the garden, but to rule. Adam and Eve are vice regents, governors over the earth by the authority of God. They are commissioned to see the garden of Eden flourish. When we read about God walking around in Eden (can you imagine that!?) in Genesis 3:8, we get the sense that, while he owns the whole world, he has made Eden his special residence, the capital of the earth — his temple-garden [see Author’s Note 1].
When Adam and Eve sin and betray their God, they are expelled from Eden (Genesis 3:24). Not only is Eden shut down (with an armed cherubim guard at the east entrance), but Genesis 4–11 narrates the grim tale of the reverberations of this act of rebellion, traveling outward across the earth until God is forced to send the mighty, destructive waters to cover the whole land, as if to “undo” creation and start over.
Episode Two: The Hope of Promise
The first part of the story is sour indeed, but Genesis 12 offers a new beginning. The LORD calls out to a man from Ur and says, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing …. [I]n you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1–2). Abram, who is later dubbed by God “Abraham” (“Father of many nations”), is given a promise of being blessed by God. This blessing is not just to inflate his self-esteem, but to bless all families — to begin the process of restoration, reconciliation, and healing for all — beginning with this one man.
A big part of that plan and promise is land. The “Promised Land.” While many of us are familiar with this terminology, it should probably be kept in mind that this is short for something like “The Promised-by-God-to-Abraham-for-the-Blessing-of-the-Whole-World Land.” (The two-word version is catchier and a bit easier to say, I admit.)
A few chapters later in Genesis, the LORD makes known, in more detail, which land He has promised: “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites” (Genesis 15:18b–21).
Another important description used of the land is its fertility, abundance, and luxury — a land “flowing with milk and honey” (see Leviticus 20:24; Joshua 5:6), another paradise. This would be the New Eden, that garden-like land where God will pitch his tabernacle (temple-tent) and “walk around” with his people, just as he used to do in Eden (Genesis 3:8).
However, like any good story, the protagonists (the people of Israel) face many obstacles and hardships in the pursuit of this divine promise of land, national strength, and blessing. The fulfillment lies dormant for many years as Israel lies trapped in Egypt under the thumb of Pharaoh. Through the destiny of a Jewish baby riding on the waves of the Nile (Moses), the LORD is setting the next phase of his redemptive and restorative plan in motion.
The story of Moses’ awakening comes to a climax in his encounter with the God of the burning bush: “I have observed the misery of my people … and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites ….” (Exodus 3:8).
The God of the fiery bush becomes the God of the fiery pillar who guided his people out of Egypt, to Mount Sinai to receive the covenantal law (Torah), and to the border of the Promised Land (Exodus 13–Deuteronomy 34:12).
Episode Three: Receiving the Land of Promise
The book of Joshua is that climactic journey in which Israel takes hold of God’s promise and gains control of the land of Canaan. I am reminded of the final book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy when Frodo and Sam are finally at the land of Mordor, where they were sent to destroy the evil “One Ring.” All of the journeys and battles of the previous stories led up to this one moment. While success in the prior trials and tribulations was necessary, this last test is most difficult of all.
So it is with Canaan. At the end of Deuteronomy, Israel stares at this land of inheritance from the LORD, a land they possess, and yet they must be single-minded in their claiming of this promise despite intimidating opposition and the seductive temptations of greed and idolatry. This “episode” divides into four parts.
- Entry Into the Land (1:1–5:12)
- Possession of the Land (5:13–12:24)
- Division of the Land (13:1–21:45)
- Worship of the LORD in the Land (22:1–24:33)
While the story of the claiming of Canaan has its high points and low points, as all good stories do, the end of the book of Joshua recounts the (short-lived) fulfillment of the renewed commitment of Israel to obey their one Lord:
So Joshua sent the people away to their inheritances … Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the LORD did for Israel (24:28, 31).
Required Accessories: Shovel or Popcorn?
I have described the book of Joshua above as a drama, a narrative, a tale — as if it were a good novel or movie. That raises the question: what kind of book is the book of Joshua? This is an important question because the way we approach a book often determines what we want out of it and what kinds of things we seek to learn from it. My wife likes documentaries, but they are “entertaining” in an entirely different way from a good Martin Scorsese film. Should we approach Joshua as a history book, shovel in hand, hoping to learn about the ancient cities of Jericho or the Negev? Or do we just sit back (popcorn in hand) and learn from the themes of the story, without really taking any interest in whether any of this really “happened”?
Scholars have battled over this very question, arguing over whether books like Joshua are “myth” or “history.” This is an extremely complex discussion that goes far beyond what we can treat here, but I will argue briefly for a third option that avoids the either-or approach.
On the one hand, Israel undoubtedly believed that what they were recording in books like Joshua was the real deeds of their saving God. On the other hand, the Israelites were not setting out to write a neutral, “objective” report of “the facts” — their record was not part of their “annals of history” that was to be deposited in a library and consulted in history class and used for game show questions. The recording and retelling of these stories was supposed to be theologically instructive and inspirational.
To give a modern example, we have the movie genre of the “biopic” — an artistic movie that focuses on the life of a real, historical person. It is built into the DNA of the genre to present as much historically accurate information as possible, whether of President Kennedy (JFK), Nelson Mandela (Invictus), or Mark Zuckerberg (The Social Network).
These are not documentaries, though. They are plot-driven, inspiring stories where a writer and director collaborate to inform, move, and persuade an audience. Characters, events, and crises are highlighted towards these ends. Sometimes, artistic license is necessary to convey the central message. However, an abuse of this license would naturally detract from the importance of telling a story about a real person, their real experiences, and the real failures and victories that made that story famous.
Readers of Joshua, accepting this analogy, should be cautioned against treating it as a simplistic fable to warm the heart. The writer(s) take great care in giving details that set this story in real places at real times with real people.
At the same time, due attention should be given to the story and its plot, characterization, themes, and lessons. One scholar refers to this kind of genre as “leaning history” — the placing of an audience before a series of historical events on a theological trajectory. We set forth this theological direction of Joshua below as a mixture of “the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”
The Good …
The book of Joshua is about land, but it is most importantly about the fulfillment of God’s promise to make things right through Israel. Set before the Israelites is the daunting task of successfully taking the land of the Canaanites. They must trust in their God — that he knows what he is doing, and that he will guide them and protect them in this impossible mission. Regularly throughout the text, they must lean on the divine promise: “I will be with you” (1:5; 3:7; 7:12).
… The Bad …
While Israel eventually enters the land and claims it as their inheritance, there are clearly points where they failed to fix their eyes on their God. Woven through the story are moments of greed, infidelity, and vacillation. One of the key themes expressed in many Old Testament books, including Joshua, is the idea that the Most High God graciously includes his human creatures as agents in his plan of redemption and restoration. Not everyone lives up to this great privilege.
… And the Ugly
For modern readers of Joshua, the way that Israel wages war and ostensibly annihilates whole groups of people is inexplicable at best. Why would God choose a land for Israel to possess that requires them to kill the inhabitants? If he is God, why wouldn’t he convince the Canaanites to leave? Or drive them out by famine or storm? Why not spare the women? I would not dare to offer a simple answer as a panacea for this problem, though we will address it in due course.
Remembering the God of Promise
It is helpful to take the perspective that, though the book is called “Joshua” and Joshua is the primary leader from beginning to end, the focus remains on the God of Joshua, the God of promise. When Israel obeys and succeeds, it underscores the LORD’s going ahead and providential care. When Israel sins and fails, the LORD disciplines according to his covenant, but he is always ready to forgive and restore. While the biblical book is named after a man, Joshua, his name means “Yahweh saves (or rescues).” The divine name Yahweh is explained in Exodus 3:14, where the LORD tells Moses his personal name, which means “I AM WHO I AM” — and who is he?
As “Joshua” attests, he is the God who saves.
Questions for Further Reflection
- By and large, Joshua is about “land.” There are many famous movies and novels about the taking or defending of land. Can you think of any? Why do you suppose this theme is so important to human experience?
- How is the language “Promised Land” used in modern parlance (in a nonreligious, metaphorical sense)?
- Some of you may have read Joshua before, others just a bit, and others none at all. Regardless of where you are on this continuum, what ideas and stories do you associate with this book? Is your gut reaction to this book primarily positive or negative? What do you hope to learn through engaging with the text in this series?
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