I have been leading a small group Bible study in church as we worked our way through Joshua the group found the book too hot to handle. Sharp words were used to describe the books such as ‘too bloody’ ‘genocide’ ‘ethnic cleansing’ and others we don’t normally use to describe events in the Bible. I must confess that Joshua is not an easy read for the engaged reader but it has deep treasures for us today.
The book opens with a very encouraging, if over-quoted chapter. Be strong and courageous, Joshua is told by God and maybe that is a strong hint of what lies ahead of the book. You are going to need to be bold and courageous because Joshua is more a military battle front report than encouraging poetry or a romantic narrative. From the spying in the second chapter to a retiring general’s address in chapter 24, the book is clearly a military notebook. What else should we expect other than gory images, devastation, desolation, victory chants and looting.
Having said that, the book of Joshua is about God’s faithfulness in keeping His promises to His people. The means might be invasion, conquest and plunder but the end is the granting of the land to its rightful grantees. It reflects God’s sovereignty in ways we don’t think of it nowadays let alone condone. God will clearly demonstrate His love for His people even in very unusual ways like the Sun stopping (10: 13 -14)
The key to understanding the book therefore lies in seeing the covenant keeping God in action among and on behalf of His people. Joshua summarises that for us.
‘Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it and they settled there. And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as He had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.’
Joshua 21: 43 - 45
We can divide up Joshua into 3 main sections and an introduction and summary on either end.
1: Introduction – The calling and commissioning of Joshua.
2 – 5: Crossing into the Promised Land
6 – 12: Conquest of the Land
13 – 21: Allotment of the Land
22 – 24: Epilogue
Although I have listed the last 3 chapters as an epilogue, they point to us the purpose of it all – God has kept His Word and calls His people to serve Him in response. It is very interesting that the call to covenant renewal and worship comes after all the conquest. An important theological point emerges - God acts first in saving and then invites His people to serve Him – never the other way round. Joshua strongly reminds the people of God's faithfulness to the nation and then calls them to a personal decison. Will you serve Him? As for Joshua and His family (the other overly quoted bit) the choice was clear- we will serve the Lord.
There is a lot to draw from the book but I suggest the overarching message is God's faithfulness to His word. He promised to Abraham the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:7) and He has delivered on that promise. He has called Isreal a special people and a treasured possession and He has surely demonstrated it. From that we can safely deduce that the faithful God who called us in Christ will surely deliver on His promise of eternal life.
Although the message of Joshua may confuse the contemporary reader at first, it affirms a truly biblical theme – God loves his special, chosen people. This is clearly a counter-cultural idea but such is the message of the entire Bible – it always sits uncomfortably to human ears. While modern philosophy says God is for us all, the book of Joshua postulates a God who is for a special, favoured people. And that is Yahweh, the God of the Bible. No need to apologise for Him.
Secondly, Joshua mirror in the face of present realities. The world is full of strife, wars, conquests, murder and even genocide. We can be slightly put off by the descriptions in Joshua but in reality it is the same as reading a newspaper today. This must call us to an important truth I have found in my limited study of the Bible: God is always sovereign and faithful to His word, mankind is fallen and desperately in need of a saviour.
It is that saviour that mankind desperately needs that is foreshadowed in the book named like Him – Yeshua, Jesus the saviour. It is this Jesus who will win the land, security, status and identity of His special people through a bloody crucifixion on a Roman cross. In a sense therefore Joshua calls us to long for a lasting saviour who promises and delivers eternal rest for His chosen people.