The book of Joshua is concerned largely with Israel’s conquest of Canaan and the division of the land among its tribes. As early as the time of Abraham God promised that this land would belong to Israel (Gen 13:14-17), but several hundred years passed before Israel was large enough to conquer and occupy it.
Most of Israel’s population growth took place in Egypt, and when God’s time arrived Moses led the people out of Egypt towards Canaan (Exod 3:7-10; 12:40-41). However, when the people were close enough to Canaan to prepare for attack, they became fearful of the Canaanites and rebellious against God. Except for two of their tribal leaders, Joshua and Caleb, the people stubbornly refused to trust God and advance into Canaan. In punishment God left them in the wilderness, till the whole adult generation (except Joshua and Caleb) died and a new generation grew up (Num 14:28-35). Now, forty years after their parents left Egypt, the people of this new generation were about to enter Canaan. They were camped on the plains east of the Jordan River opposite Jericho (Num 22:1), Moses had just died (Deut 34:1-5), and Joshua was now the nation’s new leader (Deut 34:9; Josh 1:1-2).
Israel’s new leader
Joshua had grown up as a slave in Egypt, but the years of hardship helped him develop a strength of character and a faith in God that would one day make him an important national figure. When the Israelites at last escaped from Egypt, Joshua soon showed his leadership qualities by quickly organizing a fighting force and driving off an Amalekite attack (Exod 17:8-16). By the time Israel reached Mt Sinai, Joshua was Moses’ chief assistant. He alone went with Moses up into the mountain and kept watch while Moses entered the presence of God (Exod 24:13). Likewise he kept watch outside the tent where Moses met with God (Exod 33:11; cf. Num 11:28).
On the occasion of Israel’s rebellion against God in the wilderness, Joshua demonstrated his faith and his courage when he and Caleb stood firm against them (Num 14:6-9). His faith in God gave him patience and kept him from selfish ambition. He showed no jealousy of Moses as Israel’s leader, and even tried to defend him against any action that might have appeared to threaten his exalted position (Num 11:26-30).
God chose Joshua to succeed Moses as leader, but he made it clear that Joshua would not exercise the absolute authority that Moses had exercised. Moses’ position was unique, and he spoke to God face to face. But after his death the civil leadership and the religious leadership were separated. From that time on the usual procedure was for the civil leader to receive God’s instructions through the high priest (Num 27:18-23). Nevertheless, Joshua was a person who understood God. His experience as a spiritual guide, a civil administrator and a military leader fitted him well to lead the people of Israel into the new land and the new era that lay before them (Deut 31:7,14,23; 34:9).
Style of the book
The book of Joshua takes its name from the leading person in the story, but it does not record who wrote it. The writer may have based his material partly on what Joshua himself wrote (Josh 24:25-26), partly on other historical books of the era (Josh 10:13), and partly on various national and tribal records relating to places, families and events (Josh 18:8-9).
Although the book outlines the conquest of Canaan, it does not provide a detailed historical account of events. The battle for Canaan lasted a long time (Josh 11:18), at least five years (Josh 14:7,10), but the writer passes over some of the longer battles in only a few verses. By contrast, he describes events of little military importance in considerable detail.
The reason for this unevenness in the story is that the writer’s chief concern is not to provide a detailed military or political record, but to show what God was doing with his people. The writer is more a preacher than a keeper of statistics; more a prophet than a historian.
To the Israelites, a prophet was not primarily a person who predicted the future, but a person who revealed God’s will to his people (Isa 1:18-20; Jer 1:7,9; Amos 3:7-8; cf. Exod 4:10-16; 7:1-2). They viewed their history as a revelation of what God was doing, and for this reason most of the biblical books
that we call historical, they called prophetical. Many of Israel’s historians were prophets (1 Chron 29:29; 2 Chron 9:29; 12:15).
The Israelites divided their prophetical books into two sections, which they called the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings) and the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve so-called Minor Prophets). In the Former Prophets God revealed his purposes through the history of Israel, showing how the affairs of Israel, and in fact all nations, were under his control. In the Latter Prophets he revealed his purposes through the words of his spokesmen.
Because of this distinctively Israelite way of viewing history, the writer of Joshua has made no attempt to record everything that happened during the era. Neither has he recorded events in strict chronological order. Rather he has selected and arranged his material according to his prophetic purpose. He wants to lead his readers to a greater knowledge of God, through writing about those matters that are of greater significance in God’s dealings with his people.