The book of Joshua marks an important milestone in the history of the nation. Promise was made to Abram in Genesis chapter 12 of both a land and a nation. Abram and his immediate descendants had lived in the land, without occupying more than room to pitch a tent and owning only a place to bury their dead. In Genesis chapter 46, Jacob took his family into Egypt with the promise of God fresh in his mind, ‘Fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will there make of thee a great nation … and I will surely bring thee up again’, v. 3.
Now the great nation had been brought out of Egypt, through wilderness trials, to the borders of the land which ‘He sware unto their fathers’. A land of cities they had not built, houses full of good things, wells they had not dug, vineyards and olive groves they had not planted.
In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses had reviewed their history and set out the pathway which would result in blessing and enjoyment of the land. With equal clarity he gave warning of the consequences of self-will and disobedience. Then, having blessed the twelve tribes and with a final promise of their future prosperity, the great man of God turned and ascended Pisgah’s heights to view with undimmed eyes the land which his heart longed for.
In the purposes of God it was left to a man whose name means Jehovah is Saviour to bring the nation into their inheritance. But God is gracious, and, almost 1500 years later, Moses would stand in the land with Elijah and commune with the One who is the Saviour.
The people who stood on the wilderness side of Jordan, maybe as many as two-and-a-half to three million, had never known life without Moses. He had always been there – a father figure, a shepherd, an outstanding leader, but, above all, a man in touch with God. Now news was filtering back, Moses is dead. The nation wept.
It would have come as no surprise to the people, that the man who assumed the mantle of leadership was Joshua, the son of Nun of the tribe of Ephraim. For over forty years Joshua had been at Moses’ shoulder, watching, listening and learning from the man of God. He had led the army against Amalek, Exod. 17. 9; he is called Moses’ minister in chapter 24, his servant in chapter 33; he was one of the faithful spies, together with Caleb in Numbers chapter 13, and Moses successor, chosen by God, in chapter 27.
Joshua had waited in the foothills of Sinai as Moses met face to face with God. He had no part in the idolatry involving the golden calf but stayed in the tent pitched by Moses outside the camp. He was a young man of evident spiritual calibre, learning through a variety of trials to be a leader of God’s people. Now, as we come to the opening of Joshua chapter 1, there are conflicts to be engaged in, decisions to be made, and Moses is dead!
It is worthy of note that Joshua was quite content to wait God’s time before stepping forward to take the leader’s role; Joshua was no Diotrophes! But the years of learning bore very evident fruit as, throughout the book, his leadership is never questioned, his authority is paramount and his character unblemished. On only two occasions do shadows pass over the progress of the nation. First, in the matter of Achan, in chapter 7, and, later, the failure to ask ‘counsel at the mouth of the Lord’ regarding the scheming Gibeonites in chapter 9.
So it is that in chapter 1 verse 1, for the first time we read that ‘the Lord spake unto Joshua’. The words spoken on this occasion seem quite abrupt, ‘Moses my servant is dead; now therefore arise, go over this Jordan’. It brings to mind a quotation attributed to Charles Wesley which is inscribed on his tomb in Westminster Abbey, ‘God buries His workmen, but continues on His work’. So preparation must be made to cross over the Jordan in order that the inheritance can be enjoyed.
Chapter 11 verse 23 provides a brief and concise summary of the book, ‘So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the Lord said unto Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance unto Israel according to their divisions by their tribes. And the land rested from war’.
Chapters 1-12 describe the ‘taking’ of the land, while chapters 13-24 deal with the ‘giving’ of the inheritance.
The book covers a period of some twenty-five years up to the death of Joshua, and commences the history of the nation in their promised land. Jewish tradition attributes the authorship of the book to Joshua, and may well be accurate. Twelve times in the book, events and actions are recorded as being present ‘unto this day’, a phrase which signifies their relatively recent occurrence, and, most likely, the record of an eye witness.
Chapters 1-4 give details of preparation for and the crossing of the River Jordan. Just as the mighty hand of God was seen in bringing the people out of Egypt, so the same power was evident in bringing the nation into their inheritance. The crossing of the Red Sea on dry ground was still recalled in Jericho some forty years later, 2. 10. The fear and consternation generated by this gave Israel’s armies the initiative as they commenced the conquest of the land.
Chapters 5-8 record the remarkable account of Jericho’s fall; the army of Israel simply obeyed instructions given by the Lord through Joshua. The plan defied all human logic and reasoning, but, as always, obedience resulted in victory for the people of God. The Spirit of God faithfully records the sin of Achan and the set-back which followed at Ai. However, the matter was dealt with immediately, and, in chapter 8, Ai was soundly defeated and destroyed.
In chapter 9 the Gibeonites came to Joshua with an audacious and deceitful plan, seeking to ensure their own safety. Joshua, without asking counsel of the Lord, accepted their story and made a league with them. When the subterfuge was discovered, the leaders of Israel, to their credit, having given their word, stood by the agreement, but imposed a life of manual labour on the Gibeonites as ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ for the service of the tabernacle. Later, in the temple, and after the return from captivity, it may be that the Nethinims, mentioned as assisting the Levites, were the descendents of these same Gibeonites.
The treaty made with Israel called down the wrath of the neighbouring city-kingdoms upon the Gibeonites in chapter 10. An appeal for help was made to Joshua and the ensuing battle saw the annihilation of the confederacy of kings. Divine assistance ensured that their destruction was total. As they fled, two supernatural events occurred. A hailstorm of lethal force accounted for many of the Canaanite army and, at Joshua’s request, the day was lengthened to allow more daylight hours to complete the rout. ‘If God be for us … ‘!
Having dealt with the kings and their armies, the balance of chapter 10 records the destruction of their cities. The summary is found in verse 42, ‘All these kings and their land did Joshua take at one time, because the Lord God of Israel fought for Israel’.
Chapters 11 and 12 complete the record of Joshua’s victories. The remaining Canaanite rulers from the extremities of the land joined forces in a vain attempt to repel the invading army of Israel. Vain hope indeed, as word came from the Lord to Joshua, ‘Be not afraid because of them: for tomorrow about this time will I deliver them up all slain before Israel’, 11. 6. The totality of the devastation inflicted on the kingdoms and tribes of Canaan is a measure of the righteousness of God, and His abhorrence of sin. Time and opportunity had been given to the Canaanites to turn from idolatry and mend their ways. But the cup of iniquity was overflowing, to the extent that heaven could no longer remain simply an observer. A consideration of society’s ills in our present day begs the question, how much longer can heaven withhold just retribution?
Time has moved on at the commencement of chapter 13, for Joshua was now ‘old and stricken in years’. A review is given of land yet to be possessed, but, from verse 17, the division of the land begins. This occupies the latter part of the book to chapter 21, with a number of interesting and important lessons for the careful reader. Provision was made for cities of refuge, chapter 20, and for the settlement of the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh on the east bank of Jordan in chapter 22.
The closing chapters 23 and 24, record the last counsels of Joshua, together with a final charge reminding the people of God’s care for them and a challenge to, ‘fear the Lord, and serve Him in sincerity and in truth’, followed by his own commitment, ‘but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord’.