In this excerpt from Joshua: Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary, David Firth explains how the purpose and genre help explain the issues of violence in the book of Joshua.
The book of Joshua stands at an important point of transition both in the life of Israel and within the canon that reflects on that life. Appreciation of this shared transition is crucial if we are to read this text and continue to hear it as Scripture today. These points of transition have also played an important role in how the book has been understood through the years, not only in recent critical interpretation but also in the history of Christian interpretation.
The transitional function of the book is flagged by its opening verses, declaring that Moses was dead and Joshua was therefore to lead Israel into the land God was giving them. Moses had been the pivotal human figure in the Pentateuch, the one who led Israel out from Egypt and through whom the great body of God’s teaching at Sinai had been delivered. But Moses had died outside the land (Deut 34). Of the great promises to Abraham of blessing, a divine-human relationship, posterity, and land (which can be traced back to Gen 12:1–3), the promise of land remains unfulfilled by the end of Deuteronomy. So do we read Joshua as the completion of the promises from the Pentateuch? If so, does it matter that we no longer have Moses as the key figure? Or do we read Joshua as initiating something new in Israel’s life? If so, are we to read it primarily in terms of what follows?
The answers to these questions have largely shaped the interpretation of this book. Although there are no simple answers to the questions themselves, the view developed here is that Joshua is a bridge text. Janus-like, it looks back to the Pentateuch and the themes developed there while regarding itself as a discrete work, and it also anticipates Israel’s life in the land, planting seeds for a larger story while still being complete in itself. Overemphasizing either of these perspectives leads to a distortion in how this text is read. If we primarily look at its role in bringing the Pentateuch’s themes to completion, we underplay its preparation for what follows. Conversely, if we primarily look at how it prepares for events that follow, then we underplay its important links to what has gone before. We need instead to read Joshua as a distinctive work that relates both to what has gone before and what comes after, but without subsuming it into either.
Joshua as Narrated History and Scripture
We can describe Joshua as a work of narrated history. Although it is common to speak of “historical narrative,” this label arguably puts the terms in the wrong order. Reading Joshua as a work of history reminds us that, as with all history, it draws on the past to communicate something to a later audience. In other words, history is not recounted simply because it happened. Rather, history is recounted because it matters to a later generation. Yet it is narrated history—that is, it is told with artistry and selectivity. The elements of artistry have been noted above, but we need also to observe that this is a highly selective work.
The author of this book has not told us everything about Israel’s origins in the land because that was not the goal, and this alone is a good reason why the language of “conquest” to describe the book is not altogether helpful, even if some (though not all) of the land was conquered. We need only to note that Joshua 10 describes events in the far south of the land while Joshua 11 describes something similar in the far north without ever attempting to explain what happened in between. Caleb’s statement about the forty-five years since Moses had promised him an inheritance in the land (14:10) indicates a gap of about five years since Israel had entered the land, though we would be hard pressed to find those years on the basis of what is presented. Finally, Joshua 24 reports an event at Shechem, though at no point are we told about Israel taking control of that region (even if 8:30–35 might hint at this).
Examples such as these can be multiplied, but such selectivity (which is not concerned to provide a full report on Israel’s emergence in the land) indicates that although some elements of conquest are of interest, that is not the principal focus of the book. Rather, the mixture of elements that stress both the complete fulfillment of God’s promises and the fact that much remained to be taken directs us to the issue of the identity of the people of God. This theme comes into particular focus in the closing chapters, but has been of increasing importance as the book has progressed. If Joshua was written in the time of David, then these questions would be particularly important given the divide between the north and the south that had emerged under Saul, with his clear preference for the tribe of Benjamin (1 Sam 22:6–10). Moreover, various Canaanite groups continued to be of importance. Understanding how God had shaped Israel’s past would be significant, especially if that included both ethnic Israelite and Canaanite groups.
Joshua and the Problem of Violence
In light of the purpose and genre of Joshua, we come to what is often seen as the pressing problem with the book as a whole: its seeming destruction of the Canaanite population of the land. This issue becomes especially important because of the focus on books like Joshua by modern critics of Christian faith like Richard Dawkins, who compares the accounts of Israel’s entry into the land to various modern genocides. This reading of Joshua is not unique to him, and indeed many modern believers (Christian and Jewish) struggle with the book in the same way .Joshua is an ancient text, which means that it conforms to ancient expectations, not modern ones (even if it also challenges both).
To begin with, Joshua does indeed describe a significant amount of war violence, though perhaps not as much as is sometimes suggested in popular discourse. Most of the violence is contained in chapters 6, 10, and 11, all of which describe aspects of Israel’s military campaign in the land. As a proportion of text, and given the importance of Israel taking the land, this is not especially high. What tends to trouble modern readers far more are statements such as we find in 6:21: “They completely destroyed everything in the city with the sword—every man and woman, both young and old, and every ox, sheep, and donkey.” Even if we understand the death of combatants in warfare, a line has been crossed with the deaths of noncombatants who have been killed simply for being where they were. This in turn is linked to the larger issue of the justice of God in giving to Israel a land already occupied by another people, which strikes many modern people as an example of colonialism. As one person put it to me recently, “Israel may have thought God was giving them the land, but that doesn’t mean he was.”
These are complex issues, but we can begin to address them by noting both Joshua’s bridging function and its genre as narrated history that operates with its own period’s conventions. As a bridging text, Joshua is structured to begin by having us reflect on Deuteronomy (Josh 1:1–9), but then it gradually introduces more of the Pentateuch, with reference to Numbers in the balance of Joshua 1. Since these are the two main points of reference for the book, this element is important. Nevertheless, Joshua 24 concludes the book by taking readers back to Genesis (Josh 24:1–12) before looking beyond the life of Joshua to the generations that followed (24:31). Joshua thus connects the Pentateuch to the rest of the books of the Former Prophets. With the mention of Abraham in the conclusion, readers are reminded of the need to understand Israel’s place in the land in terms of the promise to him (Gen 12:7; 15:7–21). This promise is a crucial component of the whole story of the Pentateuch, and indeed from the time of Abraham’s call the land is always central. And something acknowledged already in these earlier texts is that the land was occupied by the various Canaanite peoples.
A central idea of the Pentateuch, therefore, is that the land of Canaan does not belong to any one people. It belongs to God, and he has the right to give it to whomever he chooses. In this case, the land he chose to give to Israel was the land of Canaan. The exodus, it should be noted, always had the goal of leading the people to the land. Even though Numbers 13–14 reports an initial failure on Israel’s part in taking the land, the clear links between Josh 5:1–12 and the Passover account in Exodus 12 demonstrate that Israel’s entry to the land was the fulfillment of the hope of the exodus. Joshua therefore forms part of a larger narrative that insists the land did not belong to the Canaanite peoples but rather to God, and that without Israel taking the land the exodus would be meaningless. The rest of the story of Israel in the land (Judges, Samuel, Kings) can thus look back on the events in Joshua and interpret Israel’s life in light of God’s faithfulness to the covenant and the implications of this for Israel.
Alongside this bridging function, we also read Joshua as an example of ancient narrated history, and in particular conquest narratives. As noted above, an important feature of this genre is its use of hyperbole. Examples of this are easily discernible within the text, and also have implications for how we understand words associated with the root חרם (usually rendered something like “destroy completely”).
Once we consider the genre, it is far more likely that Joshua uses the language of total destruction to refer to a comprehensive victory. As a modern analogy, I have heard football fans claim their team “totally destroyed” their opponents. But within the genre of modern sports banter, we know that no such thing has happened, and that this language means one team had a comprehensive victory, not that the opponents were left without any living players. If something like this was written down and then read by a new audience three thousand years later, they might believe that ours is a more violent society than it is. But for Israel, this language also provides reassurance, highlighted at key structural points in the book (10:14, 42; 23:3, 10), that God had fought for Israel. As a people who committed themselves to the covenant (24:1–28), Israel could know that God would continue to fight for them in a violent world where they too would suffer violence. At the same time, the covenant reminded Israel that God could also take the land from them, just as he had taken it from the Canaanites.
Ultimately, we do not read Joshua as simply a work of history or narrative (though it is both), but as Scripture, as one part of the word of God. Whether or not those who composed it were conscious of this, its place as Scripture is the most important reason it is read today. Reading it as such cannot mean sidestepping the complex challenges its interpretation presents. But honoring it as Scripture means first understanding it as a historically situated message from which we continue to hear God.
This post is adapted from Joshua: Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary by David Firth (Lexham Press, 2021).