A Few Thoughts on the Book of Joshua

It’s funny what occurs to you when you read different books of the Bible simultaneously.

I’ve just finished reading Joshua in the Hebrew, in my grand quest to read the whole OT in Hebrew, and finished Leviticus prior to that. At the same time, a Greek reading group I’m involved with at our college, Melbourne School of Theology, has been working through the Gospel of John.

What I find in such parallel reading experiences is that you see new and exciting connections between the different books.

So, for the record, here are three connections I’d suggest for the book of Joshua:

  1. Scholars often talk about a ‘Deuteronomistic History’, that is, who would describe Joshua-Judges-Samuel-Kings as an ultimately unified historical work strongly conditioned by the theology that is most systematically articulated in Deuteronomy. This can be construed in a very diachronic way, i.e. almost purely in terms of how these books originated, or in a more synchronic way, seeking the theological and thematic continuities. In my mind both of these angles are interesting and relevant. But I would simply say here that this is an enlightening way to read Joshua. Chapter 1 is clearly designed to correspond to the later chapters of Deuteronomy, esp. ch. 31, or vice versa, with common language about the succession of Joshua for Moses and the importance of discarding fear. Chapter 8 features the covenant-making ceremony recalling the instructions given in Deuteronomy 27. Joshua 22 details at length a controversy about an altar built near the Jordan by the eastern tribes that recalls the instructions about a single altar in Deuteronomy 12 (e.g. see Josh. 22:29). And the historical recollection that prefaces the covenant ceremony of Joshua 24 in its consciousness of having roots ‘across the River’ in Mesopotamia reminds me of the famous confession of Deut. 26:5, “My father was a wandering Aramean.” So I see a clear Deuteronomic influence in Joshua that may be read in terms of a theology and in terms of an editorial stratum, and I don’t think these two angles are mutually exclusive. But that’s not what was new to me!
  2. Reading Joshua after Leviticus showed me just how ‘priestly’ the book of Joshua is. Priests lead the crossing of the Jordan. Even the infamous ‘ḥērem’ or program of extermination (‘ideal’ though it be) of the Canaanite occupants of the land seems to me to be conducted (or portrayed) in a very priestly and ceremonial manner, along with the punishment of its violation by Achan. On a similar note, but now contrasting with Leviticus, the Levites suddenly make their appearance in Josh. 13:14. Priestly action is unaccompanied by any mention of Levites to this point in Joshua. This is not unlike the Pentateuch: Leviticus does not so much as mention a Levite until ch. 25, and then only in two verses, Lev 25:32-33! It is, ironically, the book of Numbers that teems with references to the Levites. So it is in Joshua: no mention of Levites, but much to priests, in Joshua 1-12; then quite a focus on Levites and their part in the land distribution. While they are denied an inheritance like that of the other tribes, a region to call their own, Joshua 21 offers detailed description of the towns allocated to them to reside in. So I found these priestly/levitical connections interesting, and felt as though all of the historical reportage of Joshua has a kind of priestly, ceremonial frame.
  3. This might surprise you. I find Joshua akin to the Gospel of John. They might seem quite contrary: John all about how God “loved the world in such a way,” with a love that extends in a sense universally; Joshua making it clearer whom God hates than whom He loves, if that isn’t too pointy a phrasing. But they are Jekyll-and-Hyde alter egos of one another. Both are very theologically geared, more so than their neighbours. Theology constrains the telling of history much more in Joshua than in Judges or Samuel, I feel, and I would say the same about John in comparison with Matthew, Mark and Luke. The result is a much more schematic book in both cases, less shaped by the flow of events and far more by the theological truths needing to be conveyed. The two share a very simple vocabulary too: Joshua a good book for a new reader of biblical Hebrew, and John famously so for a new reader of NT Greek. Yet both offer a profound and quite challenging theology that belies the simplicity of their terminology. Perhaps we could be simplistic ourselves here and give a motto for each book’s message:
    1. Joshua: “Who ya gonna serve?”
    2. John: “Who ya gonna trust?”

Time for the real work of the day, but maybe this will challenge your thinking about these three biblical books.

Mini-Book Review: Sivertsen’s The Parting of the Sea

Book: Sivertsen, Barbara J. The Parting of the Sea: How Volcanoes, Earthquakes, and Plagues Shaped the Story of Exodus (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Looks like: Sivertsen - Parting of the Sea

Subject matter: largely the connection between tectonic and volcanic factors, like volcanic eruptions in western Arabia (the ‘harrat’) and dual eruptions of Mediterranean volcanoes (one, famously, the huge eruption of Thera/Santorini in the Aegean Sea about 1600 BC), and…

  • The plagues of Egypt described in Exodus 7-11;
  • The Red Sea crossing;
  • Events surrounding Mount Sinai, described in Exodus 19-24 and beyond;
  • Other wilderness experiences;
  • The defeat of Jericho, and other events related to the (now much-disputed) conquest of Canaan associated with Joshua;
  • And thus, to resolve the question of the dating of the Exodus events.


  • Solid research in the relevant fields, as it seemed to me, including studies in Exodus, OT historiography and the geology of the region of Palestine
  • Awareness of what I think is a real factor in Israel’s history as described in the OT, that is, the place of tectonic/volcanic events. These seem to be a rich source of OT metaphors (e.g. in Psalm 46, or early in Micah 1), which suggests some real experience of such events by Israel or her ancestors.
  • An instinct for integrating disparate facts into a coherent whole
  • An at times apt feel for the way cultures may represent past experiences in story form
  • The courage not to abandon, as many biblical scholars have, any quest for real historical background to the earlier narratives of the OT. It is difficult, admittedly, to clarify the historical scenes lying behind the narratives of Exodus, or Numbers, or Joshua. But it represents a kind of cowardly resignation, if that isn’t too strong, to simply declare these narratives utterly unrelated to history. It’s a petulant alternative to having to admit to not knowing as much as we’d like to know.


  • An inclination to utilize almost exclusively naturalistic explanations. I think to do justice to OT presentations of the ‘signs’ of God’s dramatic work on his people’s behalf, we must neither prohibit natural factors, since I don’t think that biblical writers drew a sharp line here the way we do, nor limit ourselves exclusively to natural factors, since they certainly didn’t do that either. I felt as if Sivertsen was undertaking a program of demythologization.
  • A desire to explain too much, i.e. to leave no overlap of mystery. I’m always a little suspicious when a scheme presents as removing all mystery from what must, at such a historical remove, remain somewhat mysterious. It comes out too ‘neat’ in my opinion.
  • A complex explanation, of “two volcanic eruptions and two exoduses related to the Exodus found in the Bible” (p. 148)
  • A speculative explanation, that relies too much on a hypothetical reconstruction of events that is difficult to either verify or falsify.

Outro: a great book for introduction to the issues involved in seeking historical connections, causes and explanations for the narratives of Exodus to Joshua. You can learn a lot from Sivertsen’s solid grasp of the data, but I would advise caution about accepting her conclusions.

Joshua and Jihad: Part II of Joshua, Jesus and Jihad

Is it only the end or purpose of jihad that we want to quibble with Islamic State over, or is it the means as well?

Explosions at Miramar Airshow.jpg
Explosions at Miramar Airshow“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

To address this part of our two-part series, now addressing ‘Joshua and Jihad’, I will interact with an article by Andrew Shead in Eternity magazine from late last year:

“HOLY WAR: Islamic State & Israel in the Old Testament.” Eternity, November 2014, 19-20. Published by the Bible Society. Also accessible online at http://www.biblesociety.org.au/news/holy-war-islamic-state-israel-old-testament.

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The Three Kinds of Writing in Joshua and Their Purposes

The book of Joshua is a great example of a biblical book that contains different genres (kinds of writing) that predominate in different sections of the book, and each has its reason for being there.  I think that when the average reader tackles a book like Joshua, a narrative or history-telling book of the Old Testament (OT), s/he sets out reading it as narrative, the genre that tells a story.  And that is not wrong, because narrative provides the ‘matrix’ that holds the book together.  But embedded in the narrative is another genre that, as Robert Alter once pointed out in his essay, ‘Sacred History and Prose Fiction’ (in The Creation of Sacred Literature, ed. R. E. Friedman, p. 17), dialogue carries much of the meaning in OT narrative, and this is particularly true in a book like Joshua.  What appears within the speeches in Joshua, whether by God or by Joshua or even by others, is programmatic, of defining importance for the theological claims of the book, which determine how the narrated and recreated history is to be understood.  That is why dialogue predominates when counted by verse in the earliest and latest chapters of the book:

Genres of Joshua Chart

Notice also the other main genre in Joshua here, which is usually called (from memory) ‘boundary lists’.  We normally skip that section, or pay it little attention, but it could offer insights into what period that kind of detailed territorial information was in high demand, i.e. where in Israel’s history its first audience could be situated.  It seems to me that its relevance has to be pre-exilic.  That would tie into the significance of the famous (or notorious) ‘to this day’ statements that are so abundant in Joshua and tip the hand to the time period in which the book was written.  See Joshua 4:9; 5:9; 6:25; 7:26; 8:28-29; 9:27; 10:27; 13:13; 15:63; 16:10; 22:22; 23:9; 24:15.  Josh. 15:63 is a telling example; it reports the Jebusites of Jerusalem as not yet dislodged from there.  Since this was something achieved early in David’s reign according to 2 Sam. 5:6-10, we have a clue that the Joshua map lists or much, most or all of the book might have been produced as early as this, in the 10th century B.C.