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Invitation to Joshua

Like every other portion of Scripture, the Book of Joshua was written to further the kingdom of God on earth. It contributes to the spread of God’s reign as the first of six Old Testament books (Joshua, Judges, 1–2 Samuel, and 1–2 Kings) that focus on segments of Israel’s history with heavy reliance on the covenantal perspectives of the Pentateuch, especially in Deuteronomy. The storyline of the Book of Joshua begins just after the death of Moses, concentrates on Joshua’s leadership over Israel, and sets the stage for events reported in the Book of Judges. It extols the Lord as Israel’s divine king who wins victories for his people, grants them enduring inheritances in the Promised Land, and enforces his covenant with them. As such, the Book of Joshua guides God’s people in every age as they seek to advance the kingdom of God.

Authorship and Date

Outlooks on authorship and date vary widely because the Book of Joshua is anonymous. The Talmud assigns authorship to Joshua himself, with later additions from the high priest Eleazar and from Eleazar’s son Phinehas. Ancient Jewish and Christian scholars tended to follow this outlook.

Most modern critical scholars have interpreted our book in line with the highly influential theory of the Deuteronomistic History. In this view, a group or groups of Levites from northern Israel brought the Book of Joshua to completion along with Deuteronomy, Judges, Samuel, and Kings during the Babylonian exile.

Contemporary evangelical interpreters who acknowledge the full authority of Scripture generally agree that the author used sources and composed his book sometime from one generation after Joshua’s death to the Babylonian exile. The earliest possibility for completion is set by the mention of “the elders who outlived Joshua” (24:31). Some interpreters have suggested a later date during the divided kingdom because the traditional Hebrew text of 11:21 distinguishes between “Israel” and “Judah.” The Septuagint (ancient Greek translation), however, does not make this distinction and may represent a superior reading. As for the latest possible date of completion, several evidences (see 6:26; 1Kgs 16:34) suggest that the author of Kings relied on the Book of Joshua. If this assessment is correct, our book had to have been completed prior to the end of the Babylonian exile (see 2Kgs 25:27–30).

In all events, taking into account the options for authorship and date alerts us to a crucial interpretive posture toward the Book of Joshua. It was not written to impact the lives of Joshua’s contemporaries; rather, it presented events that took place in Joshua’s day to guide later generations of Israel as they served the Lord and his kingdom.


Each major division of our book begins with a temporal orientation and focuses on one of three prominent themes. Chapters 1–12 begin with events that took place “after the death of Moses” (1:1). These chapters concentrate on Israel’s victorious conquest in Canaan. Chapters 13–22 commence with Joshua “old and advanced in years” (13:1). This major division draws attention to Israel’s tribal inheritances. Chapters 23–24 turn to events that took place “a long time afterward” (23:1). They focus on Joshua’s call for covenant loyalty to God. As we will see, the New Testament has much to say about each of these themes and how they apply to followers of Christ.

Moral Challenge: Violence

The violence of Israel’s victorious conquest often offends modern moral convictions. How are we to do anything but strongly disapprove of what Israel did to the inhabitants of Canaan? To respond to this question, we must understand the basic contours of what the Old and New Testaments teach about Israel’s conquest.

Old Testament Context

Our author knew the Pentateuch, and he understood that Israel’s conquest of Canaan was not ordinary human aggression. It was a historical manifestation of a conflict that began with God’s early announcement of enmity between the offspring of the Serpent and the offspring of the woman (Gen 3:15). From that moment forward, human beings who gave their allegiance to the ways of the Serpent and his demons were in conflict with human beings who gave their allegiance to Eve in her service to the Lord. Early on, this enmity appeared between Cain and Abel, the descendants of Cain and Seth, Noah and others in the world, and among Noah’s three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth. Israel came to center stage in this conflict when God called Abraham and his descendants to bring God’s blessings to all the families of the earth from their homeland in Canaan (see Gen 12:1–3). In the days of Moses, the Lord freed Israel from Egypt and the gods of Egypt and brought the tribes of Israel to the Promised Land. Far from an ordinary conquest, our author made it clear that the Lord himself and the angelic “commander of the army of the Lord” (5:13–15) fought on the side of Israel against the Canaanites and their false gods.

Joshua’s conquest was one of many times the Lord dramatically intervened into history against egregious wickedness. According to Genesis and Exodus, the Lord brought severe judgment to human beings in Noah’s flood, at the Tower of Babel, at Sodom and Gomorrah, and in Egypt. Joshua’s conquest was another such divine intervention. The Lord told Abraham that he would keep Israel in Egypt for 400 years, “for the iniquity of the Amorites [was] not yet complete” (Gen 15:16). Archeological evidence from Canaan indicates that the land was full of horrors such as child sacrifice, sexual perversion, violence, and injustice. So, in his unsurpassed wisdom, the Lord determined to intervene with severe judgment against the Canaanites through Israel’s conquest.

These stelae in the Phoenician city of Carthage served as grave markers for victims of child sacrifice.
These stelae in the Phoenician city of Carthage served as grave markers for victims of child sacrifice. This practice substantiates the biblical claims regarding the practice in Canaanite culture. | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, GIRAUD Patrick, CC BY-SA 2.5

Joshua’s conquest was directed by one of many strategies the Lord called his faithful people to pursue in different historical periods. As difficult as it may be for us to comprehend, God ordered in the conquest that the Canaanites were to be “devoted to the Lord for destruction” (6:17). There were exceptions to this general policy as the Lord determined, but he sought to cleanse the Promised Land of the exceeding wickedness of the Canaanites and to protect Israel from corruption by them. In Moses’s regulations for worship, to “devote to destruction” referred to the process of dedicating special offerings of gratitude to the Lord (see Lev 27:28; Num 18:14; Ezek 44:29). The utter destruction of Canaanite society was Israel’s denial of plunder and spoil for themselves and their grateful acknowledgment that Canaan belonged entirely to the Lord.

The purpose of Israel’s conquest of Canaan was to move toward a much greater goal, the day when Abraham’s descendants would succeed in spreading the blessings of God throughout the earth (see Gen 12:1–3). The Promised Land was the place where God determined to establish Israel as a kingdom that one day would become a worldwide empire (see Ps 72). When this kingdom turned from the Lord, he exiled them from their homeland for centuries. Nevertheless, Israel’s prophets boldly proclaimed that after the exile, David’s righteous, royal son would take his throne and spread the kingdom of Israel to the ends of the earth (see Isa 9:6–7; Jer 23:5).

New Testament Context

The New Testament teaches that Jesus is this righteous son of David who extends the reign of God throughout the world. Even so, just as the Lord ordained a variety of strategies for his people to follow throughout the Old Testament, Jesus was called to inaugurate his kingdom during his earthly ministry with a remarkable twofold strategy. On the one side, Jesus broke Satan’s grip on the world through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension (see Col 2:15; Heb 2:14). In the power of the Holy Spirit, he and his apostles relentlessly attacked Satan and his demons (see Matt 17:18; Luke 10:18; Acts 16:16–18; 19:12). On the other side, Jesus also extended the kingdom of God against the kingdom of Satan by offering mercy to humanity. He devoted his life to calling people to defect to his kingdom by believing in him (see Matt 11:28–30; John 7:37). Jesus summed up his twofold strategy during the inauguration of his kingdom in John 12:31–32: “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Every Christian application of Israel’s victorious conquest must take into account that Christ inaugurated his worldwide kingdom with this twofold strategy.

Throughout the continuation of his kingdom, Jesus pursues a similar twofold strategy through his Spirit at work in the church. His followers are not to attack human beings, for “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against . . . the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Eph 6:12). At the same time, the church offers mercy in the name of Jesus to all who will “be reconciled to God” (2Cor 5:20) before the day of judgment. Each portion of Israel’s conquest in the Book of Joshua applies to daily Christian living in these two ways.

Joshua’s conquest also turns our hearts toward Christ’s final victory at the consummation of his kingdom. “[Christ] must reign [in heaven] until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1Cor 15:25). When Christ returns, the time of tolerating evil spirits and rebellious human beings will end. Satan will be crushed under the feet of those who follow Christ (see Rom 16:20), but those who have rejected the offer of salvation will suffer eternal judgment (see Rev 20:14–21:8). Every facet of Joshua’s conquest properly applies to Christ’s followers as we keep in view that one day “the kingdom of this world [will] become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Rev 11:15).

Recommended Resources

For further reading and additional perspectives on this issue, see the following resources:

Relevance Challenge: Inheritance

As much as the violence of Israel’s conquest raises moral issues for many Christians, the second division of our book raises questions of relevance. How does the allotment of inheritances to the tribes of Israel have any significance for followers of Christ? To answer this question, we must keep in view a number of Old and New Testament perspectives on Israel’s inheritance.

Old Testament Context

Israel’s inheritance in the Promised Land is rooted in the Lord’s primeval commission to our first parents in the garden of Eden (see Gen 1:26–30). There the supreme King over all creation called for Adam and Eve to serve his purposes by filling the entire earth and having dominion over it. After Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden and humanity spread to other regions of the earth, the Lord “gave to the nations their inheritance . . . according to the number of the sons of God” (Deut 32:8). That is to say, the Lord assigned portions of the earth as inheritances to nations under the governance of angelic authorities. For this reason, Israel recognized that the Lord is “a great king over all the earth” (Ps 47:3), but they also firmly believed he established a special “inheritance for us . . . whom he loves” (Ps 47:4). Israel’s special inheritance surrounded “the mountain of [the Lord’s] inheritance” (lit. Exod 15:17; see Ezek 28:14); it was “his holy land” (Ps 78:54) for his “holy nation” (Exod 19:6). Israel’s inheritance extended from the border regions of Egypt to the upper Euphrates (see Gen 15:18–21), the location of the land of Eden (see Gen 2:10–14). God granted this land to his people so that they would carry out his original commission for humanity to have dominion over the earth in service to him.

The Scriptures call Israel’s land its “inheritance” rather than its “property” because it was their enduring possession. Their inheritance was granted “forever” (see Exod 32:13; Lev 25:34, 46), and possession of it was subject only to the prerogative of the divine King who gave it to them. Moses conquered and allotted inheritances to the tribes east of the Jordan, and Joshua was called to conquer and to establish tribal allotments to the west of Jordan. Once Joshua accomplished this mission, the stage was set for a king from the royal tribe of Judah to build a temple for the Lord and to lead the nation in expanding their inheritance throughout the entire world. As the Lord said to David’s house “I will make the nations your inheritance, and the ends of the earth your possession” (Ps 2:8). The whole world would be Israel’s inheritance when the Lord determined to “judge the earth” and to “inherit all the nations” (Ps 82:8).

David’s dynasty was able to unite the tribes of Israel into a kingdom, to build a temple for the Lord, and to begin to expand Israel’s borders. However, Israel’s rebellion against the Lord eventually led to their exile from the Promised Land. For centuries Israel suffered the loss of their inheritance. Even so, the Lord promised through his prophets that one day Israel would return to their land to fulfill their service to him. A righteous son of David would take his throne, rebuild the Lord’s temple, and “one like a son of man” would receive “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Dan 7:13–14).

New Testament Context

For many followers of Christ, the chapters of our book on Israel’s tribal inheritance may seem tedious. Yet, these chapters are relevant for us because Christ is the Son of Man who will have dominion over all the earth. He is the “offspring” of Abraham who is the “heir of the world” (Rom 4:13). Jesus began to take possession of his worldwide inheritance in the inauguration of his kingdom during his earthly ministry. After his resurrection, the Father granted him “all authority in heaven and earth” (Matt 28:18). Jesus ascended to David’s throne and poured out the Holy Spirit as “the firstfruits” (Rom 8:23) and “the guarantee of our inheritance” (Eph 1:14). Jesus also called his apostles to begin the expansion of his kingdom among the Gentile nations, so that both Jews and Gentiles who believe in him “have obtained an inheritance” (Eph 1:11). All who follow him everywhere in the world are “ heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17). As we apply what the Book of Joshua taught Israel about tribal inheritances to our lives as Christians, we must be sure to view it all in the light of what Christ has already accomplished.

During the continuation of Christ’s reign from his throne in heaven, he extends his reign further through his Spirit at work in the church. The good news of Christ continues to be proclaimed in more regions of the world to increase the numbers of “fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17). More people who believe in Christ continue to receive the Holy Spirit as “the guarantee of [their] inheritance” (Eph 1:14). The Spirit empowers us to extend the rule of Christ as his “witnesses . . . to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). We wage war by the power of the Spirit because “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but . . . divine power to destroy strongholds” throughout the world (2Cor 10:4). The Holy Spirit unites us in this mission as each of us “is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1Cor 12:7). All applications of the account of Israel’s tribal inheritances in the Book of Joshua must also be shaped by these New Testament teachings.

Above all, the New Testament calls followers of Christ to set their hopes on possessing the fullness of their inheritance at the consummation of Christ’s kingdom. At the final judgment, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory . . . before him will be gathered all the nations . . . Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’” (Matt 25:31–34). Everything our author wrote about Israel’s tribal inheritances should turn the eyes of our hearts toward the day when we will experience “the hope to which he has called [us] . . . the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Eph 1:18).

Spiritual Challenge: Security

The first two divisions of our book raise questions about morality and relevance. More often than not, the third division on covenant loyalty brings up the spiritual issue of security, the security of salvation in Christ. On the basis of the Lord’s covenant with Israel, Joshua severely warned and threatened the tribes of Israel in these chapters. He called for Israel to renew their covenant with the Lord, lest they come under the Lord’s judgment. How do these warnings and threats have anything to do with us when the new covenant in Christ guarantees eternal salvation to all who believe in him? To answer this question, we must grasp several features of what the Old and New Testaments teach about Israel’s covenant with the Lord and the new covenant in Christ.

Old Testament Context

The Lord made covenants to reveal the major policies by which he governed his kingdom on the earth. In Joshua’s day, God’s interactions with Israel were governed by his covenant at Mount Sinai (see Exod 19–24). Yet, Moses demonstrated in the Pentateuch that the covenant at Mount Sinai was not in opposition to earlier covenants in the days of Adam (see Hos 6:7), Noah (see Gen 6:18; 9:8–17), and Abraham (see Gen 15:17–21; 17:1–14); rather, God’s covenant in Moses affirmed these earlier covenants and applied them to prepare Israel for life in the Promised Land. At that time, the people of Israel needed codified regulations for worship, for their courts, and for practical daily living. In this sense, the Law of Moses “promised life” (Rom 7:10); it was “holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7:12; see Ps 119). Along these lines, perhaps in the time of our author, the Lord also made a covenant with Israel in David (see Pss 89, 132). This covenant affirmed and applied earlier covenants to Israel’s permanent royal dynasty, the house of David. Much later, the Lord’s prophets also predicted that another covenant would come after Israel’s exile ended (see Isa 42:6; 49:8; 54:10; 55:3; 61:8; Jer 31:31–34; Ezek 34:25). This new covenant would bring about the ultimate end for which God designed all of his covenants: the glorious realities of God’s kingdom in the new creation.

Although the Lord’s covenants were not precisely the same, a set of basic dynamics characterized them all. First, all of the Lord’s covenants were initiated and sustained over time by the Lord’s benevolence, his love and kindness. Second, all covenants required human loyalty to God; that is, grateful devotion to the stipulations of covenant in response to God’s benevolence. Third, all covenants entailed consequences for human beings: curses for disobedience and blessings for obedience to the stipulations of the covenants. Through it all, the Lord reserved his divine royal prerogative to direct these dynamics according to his own, often inscrutable pleasure (see Pss 115:3; 135:6; Dan 4:35). Yet, the basic dynamics of divine benevolence, human loyalty, and the consequences of curses and blessings always governed his interactions with the people of his covenants.

These dynamics of covenant undergird every portion of the Book of Joshua, but our author appeals to them forthrightly in his account of Israel’s assemblies near the end of Joshua’s life (23:1–24:33). Joshua warned Israel not to “transgress the covenant of the Lord your God” (23:16) by turning to other gods. Yet, Joshua went beyond outward actions to the hearts of the Israelites, their inward motivations and deepest commitments. He called for them to “cling to the Lord” (23:8), to “love the Lord“ (23:11), and to serve him “in sincerity and in faithfulness” (24:14). Joshua focused on the depth of inward commitment because there were many spiritual conditions among the people of Israel in his day. There were those in Israel who had saving faith in the promises of God like their father Abraham (see Gen 15:6); yet there were also many who had superficial, temporary, or hypocritical faith. So, Joshua sought to ignite saving faith in some and fan the flames of saving faith in others. He reminded everyone of the many benevolences the Lord had granted them. He also warned them all that idolatry would lead to severe consequences, the loss of everything they had received from the Lord. He did all this to call Israel to renew their covenant with God so they would receive blessings from him.

New Testament Context

We now live in the time of the new covenant predicted by Israel’s prophets (see Luke 22:20; 1Cor 11:25; 2Cor 3:6; Heb 8:8; 9:15; 12:24). This covenant promised full forgiveness, righteousness, and peace with God for all the people of Israel in the new creation. Still, much like the impact of all Old Testament covenants emerged over time, the impact of the new covenant also emerges as Christ’s kingdom unfolds in three stages: its inauguration, its continuation, and its consummation.

It was inaugurated during Christ’s earthly ministry. In his benevolence, the Father sent Jesus to Israel after they suffered for centuries under the horrific curses of the Lord’s covenants in Moses and David. Throughout his life, Christ fulfilled every requirement of human loyalty by keeping the Law of Moses to fulfill his mission as the heir of David’s throne. He then died on the cross as the king of Israel to atone for the sins of all who follow him. As a consequence of his perfect loyalty, the Holy Spirit raised Christ from the dead and the Father seated him on the throne of David in heaven (see Acts 2:33–35). Christ poured out his Spirit and began the global expansion of his kingdom to the ends of the earth. From that time forward, everyone from every nation who believes the good news of Christ’s victory over sin and death participates in the new covenant.

The impact of the new covenant also emerges during the continuation of Christ’s kingdom. Through the power of the Spirit, Christ extends his reign further and further on earth through the proclamation of the good news. Still, just as it was during Jesus’s earthly ministry, people respond to this good news in different ways. Jesus explained that one “does not understand it”; another “receives it with joy” but only “endures for a while”; still another “hears . . . but the cares of the world . . . and riches choke the word”; finally, another “hears . . . understands . . . [and] bears fruit” (Matt 13:19–23). Christian theologians often identify this last response to the good news as “saving faith,” the kind of faith that leads to good works and loyalty to the Lord through the power of the Spirit (see Jas 2:14). Jesus boldly warned, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21). Only those who have saving faith are guaranteed the blessing of eternal life in the world to come. Those who reject the good news and “false brothers” within the church (1Cor 11:26; Gal 2:4) will face the consequence of eternal judgment under the wrath of God. In his day, Joshua called the entire visible nation of Israel to renew covenant. He sought to move the “false brothers” in Israel to saving faith and to encourage those who had saving faith to remain faithful. These same motivations lie behind the many warnings to the visible church in the New Testament (see 1Cor 10:1–13; 2Cor 13:5–10; Heb 6:1–8; 10:26–31).

At the consummation of Christ’s kingdom, the impact of the new covenant will reach its fullness. The kindness of God toward those who never exercise saving faith will end. They will perish forever under the judgment of God. Yet, those who acknowledge the benevolence of God in Christ and receive the gift of saving faith by his Spirit will most certainly inherit eternal life in the blessings of God. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt 25:48). In this sense, we can say with full assurance, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved” (Acts 16:31).


The book of Joshua was written to teach later generations of Israel how they were to further God’s kingdom on earth in their wars by possessing tribal inheritances and through covenant loyalty.

Key Verse

“And the people said to Joshua, ‘The Lord our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.’”

— Joshua 24:24, ESV


I. Victorious Conquest (1:1–12:24)

A. Preparation for Victories (1:1–18)

i. The Lord’s Commission (1:1–9)

ii. Israel’s Response (1:10–18)

B. Victories over Two Cities (2:1–8:35)

i. The City of Jericho (2:1–6:27)

ii. The City of Ai (7:1–8:29)

iii. Covenant Renewal (8:30–35)

C. Victories over Two Alliances (9:1–11:23)

i. Introduction to Victories over Alliances (9:1–2)

ii. Victories over a Southern Alliance (9:3–10:43)

iii. Victories over a Northern Alliance (11:1–15)

iv. Conclusion to Victories over Alliances (11:16–23)

D. Conclusion of Widespread Victories (12:1–24)

i. Victories in Transjordan (12:1–6)

ii. Victories in Cisjordan (12:7–24)

II. Tribal Inheritances (13:1–22:34)

A. Allotments of Tribal Inheritances (13:1–21:45)

i. Many Lands Remaining (13:1–7)

ii. Allotments Given to Every Tribe (13:8–21:42)

iii. More Lands Given (21:43–45)

B. Preservation of Tribal Inheritances (22:1–34)

i. Construction of the Altar (22:1–10)

ii. Threat of War (22:11–14)

iii. Confrontation (22:15–31)

iv. Cessation of Threat (22:32–33)

v. Significance of the Altar (22:34)

III. Covenant Loyalty (23:1–22:33)

A. Assembly of Warning (23:1–16)

i. Joshua’s Summons to Assembly (23:1–2)

ii. Joshua’s Speech (23:3–16)

B. Assembly of Covenant Renewal (24:1–28)

i. Joshua’s Summons to Assembly (24:1)

ii. Declaration of Divine Benevolence (24:2–13)

iii. Calls and Responses (24:14–24)

iv. Codification of Covenant (24:25–28)

v. Joshua’s Dismissal of Assembly (24:28)

C. Outcomes of the Assemblies (24:29–33)

i. Joshua’s Service (24:29–31)

ii. Israel’s Service (24:31–33)

Part One: Victorious Conquest (1:1–12:24)

The first major division of our book focuses on Israel’s victorious conquest to guide them through the wars to which the Lord called them. As such, it also directs followers of Christ as we serve the expansion of his reign throughout the world. These chapters divide into four main sections. They begin with Israel’s preparations for victory in 1:1–18 and end with an overview of the widespread victories Israel won in 12:1–24. Between these bookends, our author turns first to Israel’s earlier victories over two Canaanite cities in 2:1–8:35 and then to later victories over two Canaanite alliances in 9:1–11:23.

Preparation for Victories (1:1–18)

The Lord’s Commission (1:1–9)

1:1–2 The conquest did not originate from sinful human desires. Instead, “the Lord said to Joshua” (1:1). Our author felt no need to explain why God initiated the conquest because he and his audience knew the background of this commission in the Pentateuch. The Lord had explained to Abraham that his descendants “will be afflicted for four hundred years . . . and they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites (here a generic term for the West-Semitic speaking inhabitants of Canaan) is not yet complete” (Gen 15:13–16). Israel’s divine King determined that the iniquity of the Canaanites could be tolerated no more. Much like the Lord intervened on a number of occasions to punish wickedness before the days of Joshua, he declared that it was time to bring his judgment against sin once again.

It was no coincidence that the man to whom God spoke was named “Joshua.” Moses had given his protege the name Joshua (“the Lord will save [deliver]” or “may the Lord save [deliver]”) because Joshua would deliver Israel from their enemies and into victory in the conquest of Canaan (Num 13:16). Christ was named Jesus, which is “Joshua” in Aramaic and Hebrew.

In a similar way, an angel explained that the child born to Mary was to be called Joshua because “he will save (deliver) his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). Christ delivers all who believe in him from the tyranny of evil and into glorious victory.

All of this occurred because “Moses my servant is dead” (1:2). The Lord had called Moses himself to lead Israel into Canaan, but with Moses’s passing Joshua would carry on toward the same goal, “just as I promised to Moses” (1:2). The unexpected failure of the first generation of the Exodus (see Num 13–14) and Moses’s own disqualifying sin (see Deut 3:26–29; 4:21–34) did not stop the Lord’s plan for Abraham’s descendants to possess the Promised Land and from there to extend God’s kingdom throughout the world (see Introduction).

1:3–5 The Lord spoke to Joshua with words that echoed what he had said to Moses, what he had “promised to Moses” (1:3). Joshua “and all this people,” the tribes of Israel, were called to take possession of lands from the upper “Euphrates . . . to the Great Sea,” the Mediterranean Sea (1:4). Israel did not possess the full extent of the lands mentioned here until the time of David. Later on, David’s royal house was to extend the reign of God to the ends of the earth (see Introduction). The Lord promised to be “with” Joshua as he had been “with” Moses (1:5). That is, he promised to fight on his behalf (see comments on 3:7–17). He would not “leave” nor “forsake” him (1:5; see Deut 31:6, 8; 1Chr 28:28). The same promise is made to faithful followers of Christ (Heb 13:5).

Stone tablet showing how the Babylonian King Nabu-apla-iddina confirmed a grant of land to a priest of the same name.
Tablet from Sippar portrays Babylonian King Nabu-apla-iddina providing a land grant to a priest around 870 BC. The language of a divine land grant to Israel is evident in Joshua 1. | Photo Credit: Frans Vandewalle, CC BY-NC 2.0

1:6–9 Joshua knew that the challenges of the conquest would be great; he had spied the land decades earlier (see Num 13:1–33). So, the Lord exhorted Joshua to prepare for battle by calling him three times to be “strong and [very (1:7)] courageous” (1:6–7, 9; see 10:25; Deut 31:6–7, 23). Joshua was to gain strength and courage because he was to “cause this people to inherit the land that [the Lord] swore to their fathers to give them” (1:6). Israel’s victories in Canaan were in fulfillment of God’s covenant with the patriarchs (see Introduction). Joshua was also to be strong and courageous by obeying “all the law that Moses my servant commanded you” (1:7). Here the Lord referred to “this Book of the Law” (1:8), which may have been the Book of Deuteronomy or a growing collection of regulations, blessings, and curses derived from Deuteronomy (see 8:35; 24:25). Violation of God’s law led to a serious setback for Joshua (see 7:1), and near the end of his life, Joshua warned Israel that violations of the Law of God would bring severe judgments (see 23:11–13; 24:19–28). Finally, Joshua was able to move forward with strength and courage; he was not to be “frightened . . . dismayed” (see comments on 10:8–9) because “the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (1:9). For God to be “with” Joshua meant that God would fight alongside him. Israel was always to rely on the Lord’s presence in battle (see comments on 3:7–17).

Every generation of Israel was to learn from Joshua’s call how they could have strength and courage in the wars to which God called them. Followers of Christ can also find the courage and strength they need in the same ways (see 2Cor 5:6; Phil 1:20; Eph 6:10; 1Tim 1:12).

Israel’s Response (1:10–18)

Joshua immediately called for all of the tribes of Israel to prepare for the conquest. Following Moses’s earlier command (see Deut 3:18–20), Joshua required those who were eventually to settle to the east of Jordan to join in the conquest with those who would settle in Cisjordan. They could return after the conquest and receive “rest” in their lands east of the Jordan (1:13; see comments on 13:8–33 as well as comments on 22:1–8). There are two Hebrew words often translated “rest” in many modern translations of the Book of Joshua. The Hebrew term in 1:13 also appears in 1:15, 22:4, and 23:1 and implies rest in relation to security after victory. The second term appears in 11:23 and 14:15 and is best translated “calm,” as a temporary condition. At this moment, the tribes of Transjordan agreed to obey Joshua as they had obeyed Moses (see comments on 3:7–17, on 4:11–14, as well as concluding comments on 24:29–31) and they expressed their hope that God would be “with you, as he was with Moses” (1:17).

1:18 Israel’s commitment was so strong that the tribes threatened to kill anyone who did not join with them in following Joshua. Throughout Israel’s history severe punishment was to be meted out to those in Israel who rebelled against the Lord and his ways (see comments on 7:1–26 and on 22:1–34). During the inauguration and continuation of Christ’s kingdom, church courts exercise the discipline of excommunication against those who have turned from the cause of Christ (see Matt 18:15–20; 1Cor 5:1–12; Titus 3:10). We do so with the hope of their repentance because we know that eternal salvation will come at the consummation of Christ’s kingdom only “to the one who conquers” (Rev 2:7; 3:21).

In this ideal portrait of Israel’s response to Joshua’s call to conquest, our author introduces a theme that he repeats many times in his book: the unity of the twelve tribes of Israel. He often underscores that all twelve tribes engaged in battle (see 3:1, 7, 17; 4:4, 8–9, 14, 20; 5:8). They crossed the Jordan together (see 4:11–14) and fought together at Jericho. Failure to remain unified at Ai led to defeat in battle (see 7:1–14). Joshua’s early covenant renewal involved all the tribes as well (see 8:33). Great victories were won in the southern regions of the Promised Land by “Joshua and all Israel with him” (10:29, 31, 34, 36, 38). Our author also stresses that inheritances were allotted to all the tribes (see comments on 14:1–5). Later, Joshua insisted that the tribes maintain their national unity in the future (see 22:1–34). All the tribes attended Joshua’s assemblies (see 23:2; 24:1, 28). The ideal of Israel’s unity permeates the Old Testament and sets the stage for the New Testament’s call for unity in the Christian church to the end that we may successfully extend the kingdom of God in our hostile world (see John 17:20–21; Eph 4:4–16).

Victories over Two Cities (2:1–8:35)

After reporting Israel’s preparations for conquest, our author turns to early victories over two cities in Canaan. He draws attention to the city of Jericho in 2:1–6:27 and to the city of Ai in 7:1–8:29. He then closes these materials with an account of Israel’s covenant renewal in 8:30–35.

The City of Jericho (2:1–6:27)

The account of victory over Jericho begins in 2:1–24 and ends in 6:22–27 with attention to Joshua’s spies and Rahab. Within this framework, the middle portions report on Israel crossing the Jordan in 3:1–5:12, receiving assurance from the commander of the Lord’s army in 5:13–15, and the destruction of Jericho in 6:1–21. All of these episodes present Israel in a very positive light. As a result, they provided many positive examples for future generations of Israel. Believers today also find many actions to imitate as they further God’s kingdom throughout the earth in Christ.

Joshua’s Spies and Rahab (2:1–24)

2:1–7 Following Moses’s example in the previous generation (see Num 13:2), Joshua planned for battle by sending spies into Jericho. Careful investigation and planning were the normal course for God’s people as they furthered his kingdom (see Josh 7:2). The spies stayed at an inn operated by a prostitute named Rahab (2:1). Her name likely referred to a Canaanite deity (see Job 9:13; 26:12; Pss 87:4; 89:10). Contrary to the suggestions of some recent interpreters, however, there is not the slightest hint that the spies had sexual relations with Rahab, nor anyone else during this time.

Tell Es-Sultan, site of ancient Jericho.

2:8–21 Rahab knew that “the Lord has given you this land” (2:8). She was also aware that the “inhabitants of the land melt away” before Israel (2:8). News had spread about what the Lord had done in Egypt and Transjordan (see 2:9). Jericho’s “hearts melted” in fear (2:11; see comments on 5:1–8), so Rahab asked the spies to swear to protect her and her family, and they agreed (2:12–14). The New Testament refers positively to Rahab, her faith, and her acceptance into Israel (see Heb 11:31; Jas 2:25). Israel was forbidden from making large-scale treaties with Canaanites (see Deut 20:10–20), yet individual Canaanites and their families who put their faith in the Lord would be spared from God’s judgment.

2:22–24 With Rahab’s help, the spies escaped from Jericho and returned to Joshua. No comment is made regarding the ethical character of Rahab’s deception of those who searched for the spies; instead, the text highlights how Rahab was an instrument of blessing for the spies. This experience convinced the spies that the Lord had given “all the inhabitants of the land into [their] hands” (2:24; see 10:22–28). The blessing of God at this time strengthened their confidence that greater blessings were to come in the future. The same is true for God’s faithful people in every age. Delight in blessings now gives us confidence that more blessings will be ours in the days ahead.

Crossing Jordan (3:1–5:12)

3:1–6 Before the tribes of Israel moved into battle at Jericho, they crossed the Jordan River in sacred ceremony that readied them for battle. Joshua instructed the Israelites to “consecrate,” or sanctify, themselves to God in preparation for crossing. The consecration of things and people for special engagement with the Lord appears throughout the Old Testament (e.g., 7:13; Exod 19:10; 22:31; 28:3, 38, 41; 29:1; 30:29). Israel was to turn from sinful and common activities in preparation for serving God’s purposes in Canaan. In much the same way, the Father consecrated Jesus in preparation for fulfilling his mission (see John 10:36). Christ consecrated himself so that his disciples would be consecrated as well (see John 17:19). Like the Israelites in Joshua’s day, followers of Christ must be sanctified in special ways to engage successfully in the spiritual war to which Christ has called us (see Eph 6:11–18).

3:7–17 The Lord explained that he would “begin to exalt [Joshua] in the sight of all Israel” (3:7; see comments on 1:18). Our author’s attention to this may have addressed controversies that later arose concerning Joshua’s leadership (see 4:14; 6:27), because acceptance of his leadership was crucial to the success of Israel’s conquest and to Israel in the future as well. God also promised to be “with” Joshua in battle as he “was with Moses” (3:7; see comments on 1:10–18, on 4:11–14, and on 24:29–31). For the Lord to be “with” Joshua meant that he would fight on his behalf. This language appears frequently in the Book of Joshua (see 1:5, 9, 17; 3:7; 6:27; 7:12; 14:12). It is the background to Jesus’s assurance to his disciples as he sent them into their mission (see 2Cor 10:3–5). As he put it, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20).

In line with Israel’s marching formation (see Num 10:35), the priests stepped first into the river with the ark. The ark is called “the ark of the covenant” (see 3:3, 6, 8, 11, 13, 14, 17; 4:7, 9, 18; 6:6; 8:33) because the Ten Commandments were within it. It was also the Lord’s royal “footstool,” the place toward which Israel bowed in service to their divine King (see Pss 99:5; 132:7; Isa 66:1; Lam 2:1). As in this passage, when the ark was associated with warfare, it was the Lord’s mobile “chariot” (1Chr 28:18) that led the tribes of Israel into battle. When the Levites stepped into the waters of the Jordan, the Lord led Israel. As a result, the waters parted much like the waters of the sea parted before Moses the Levite (see Exod 14:21–22).

4:1–10 While the priests remained in the Jordan, the Lord told Joshua to select one man from each tribe to take a stone from where the priests stood. In the Old Testament, stones were often used to memorialize God’s mighty acts (see comments on 7:16–26). The twelve stones acknowledge the participation of all twelve tribes of Israel as a unified army (see comments on 1:18).

The Jordan River
The Jordan River | Photo Credit: Phil Thompson, CC BY-SA 4.0

4:11–14 The twelve tribes of Israel passed across the Jordan, including the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. Our author emphasizes the significance of Joshua’s leadership over all the tribes by reporting that Joshua was exalted “in the sight of all Israel” (4:14). They “stood in awe” of Joshua as they “had stood in awe of Moses” (see 1:18, on 3:7–17, and on 24:29–31).

4:15–24 After all of Israel had crossed the river, the twelve stones were set on the western bank of the Jordan as a memorial (see comments on 7:16–26). There were two main purposes for these stones: they were set in place “so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty,” and “that you may fear the Lord your God forever” (4:24). All generations of Israel were to testify boldly to God’s power and to fear the Lord themselves. The same is true for the faithful today who know even greater displays of God’s power in Christ.

The Madaba Mosaic Map
The Madaba Mosaic Map is a Byzantine floor mosaic from the Church of St. George in the area near where John baptized in the Jordan River. The map depicts the 12 stones of Gilgal (low-center of the photo). | Photo Credit: Flickr, Elias Rovielo, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

5:1–8 When “the kings the Amorites” to the east of Jordan and “the kings of the Canaanites” heard that Israel crossed the Jordan in such a miraculous way, “their hearts melted” (5:1). The expression “hearts melted” describes paralyzing terror and utter dismay, especially in reaction to overwhelmingly supernatural interventions (see 5:13–15). This condition is mentioned on a number of occasions (see 2:11; 5:1; 7:5; 14:8; Exod 15:15; Deut 20:8; 2Sam 17:10; Isa 19:1). With his enemies in this condition, it was safe for all the Israelite men to be circumcised. The first generation of the Exodus had broken covenant by not circumcising their sons (see Josh 5:5–7). From the time of Abraham, faithful Israelites kept covenant with God by performing circumcision as an outward sign of a heart committed to keeping covenant (see Gen 17:10–14; Gal 5:3). God’s requirement of circumcision demonstrated how crucial it was for Israel to devote themselves to keeping covenant as they engaged their enemies. The same is true for those who are baptized into Christ (see Col 2:11–12).

5:6 The land of Canaan is described here in traditional language as “a land flowing with milk and honey.” This description appears only once in our book, but twenty times in the Old Testament. It refers to the fertility of the Promised Land where cows would produce so much milk and bees so much honey that milk and honey would “flow” throughout the land.

5:9 The place of these events was named “Gilgal.” Our author interprets the name as a wordplay with the Hebrew verb meaning “to roll away.” By “rolling away” the foreskins through circumcision, the Lord “rolled away the reproach of Egypt” (5:9), the shame of Israel’s suffering and disgrace during their Egyptian enslavement.

Probable location of Gilgal
The area of Gilgal. | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Rgrobman, CC BY-SA 4.0

5:10–12 Israel completed its sacred, ceremonial crossing of the Jordan by observing Passover. The first Passover was celebrated in Egypt, but something new happened on this day. Joshua’s celebration took place on “the plains of Jericho” (5:10), and the people “ate of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year” (5:12). The temporary provision of manna for the Lord’s traveling army had ended. Although the conquest was still ahead of them, the Israelites had reached a decisive moment in their history. They finally had begun to live in the place from which the Lord would extend his kingdom throughout the earth. Followers of Christ observe Passover in the Lord’s Supper as we experience the blessings of the continuation of Christ’s kingdom, but we wait to celebrate it with him in the fullness of his kingdom at the consummation (see Luke 22:16).

Assurance from the Commander (5:13–15)

5:13–15 Joshua arrived “by Jericho” (5:13), where a mysterious event took place that assured him of the Lord’s favor in the battles ahead. Joshua encountered “a man” (5:13), or “someone,” as it may be translated. Some interpreters have identified the “man” as a theophany or visible appearance of God. Many others have argued that this “man” was the pre-incarnate Christ. These viewpoints cannot be entirely dismissed; yet elsewhere in Scripture angels are described as “a man” (Dan 10:5; Ezek 9:2). The “man” before Joshua identified himself as “the commander (or “prince”) of the army (or “host”) of the Lord ” (Josh 5:14; see 5:15). It is difficult not to associate this designation with the angel called “the Prince (or “commander”) of the host (or “army”)” in Daniel 8:11. This “Prince” or “commander” in Daniel most likely was the angel Michael (see Dan 10:13; 12:1). Compare also “Michael and his angels,” the angelic army of God who fights together against the dragon (Rev 12:7; see Jude 9). This commander was “the angel of the Lord” who blessed only those who were faithful to the Lord. He assisted faithful Israel before the days of Joshua (see Exod 3:2; Num 22:22), but he refused to accompany disobedient Israelites into battle (see Judg 2:1–5). He reassured faithful Gideon of the Lord’s help in battle (Judg 6:11) but struck down 70,000 in Israel in reaction to David’s census (see 2Sam 24:15–17). Still, after Hezekiah repented, the angel of the Lord killed 185,000 Assyrians in defense of Jerusalem (see 2Kgs 19:35). It was also predicted that the angel of the Lord would play a central role in the worldwide victory of Israel after the exile (see Zech 1:11; 3:1; 12:8). For these reasons, Joshua’s encounter with the commander had much significance for every generation of Israel, as it does for Christ’s followers as we engage in the worldwide expansion of Christ’s kingdom.

In anticipation of the battle at Jericho, Joshua asked a crucial question in 5:13: “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” The “man” responded, “No (or “neither,” as it may be translated); but I am the commander of the army of the Lord” (5:14). In effect, the commander revealed that the angelic army of the Lord only fights on behalf of those who faithfully serve the Lord.

In response, Joshua rightly “fell on his face to the earth and worshiped” (5:14). He then asked the angelic commander, “What does my lord say to his servant?” Would the commander lead the Lord’s army into battle on Israel’s behalf, or not? The commander responded positively: “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy” (5:15). The precise significance of this ritual is not explained in other Scriptures, nor in other ancient sources. In some manner, however, the invitation to remove one’s sandals in the presence of God symbolized God’s welcome and approval. The parallel to Moses at the burning bush (see Exod 3:5) confirmed that God approved of Joshua as he had approved of Moses. The Lord’s army would fight for Israel.

Like Joshua, every generation of Israel was to humble itself before the Lord and seek the help of the Lord’s angelic army. Angels are mentioned frequently in the New Testament as those who speak for God and serve in his heavenly army (see Matt 26:53; Luke 2:13; Rev 9:12). They will play a crucial role in the consummation of our age as well (Rev 19:14). We should never dare to go into the spiritual battles we face without the army of the Lord on our side.

Destruction of Jericho (6:1–21)

6:1–5 The actual destruction of Jericho begins with the Lord’s instructions to Joshua. Jericho was prepared for a lengthy siege, but rather than commanding a siege or a direct assault, God ordered a unique tactic to demonstrate that he and his angels won this victory. The priests were to lead the way once again by carrying the ark of the covenant, the royal chariot of God (see comments on 3:7–17). They were to circle the city once a day for six days with soldiers accompanying them. On the seventh day, they were to go around the city seven times. Seven priests were to blow seven horns to call the Lord’s angelic army to battle (see Zech 9:14–15; Matt 24:31; 1Cor 15:52). On the seventh day, the ram’s horn and the trumpets were to sound seven times, and “all the people” of Israel were to shout (6:5; see comments on 1:18). The Lord assured Joshua that the walls of Jericho would fall and open the way for a great victory. Without a doubt, this was a battle to be won by supernatural force (see comments on 5:13–15).

Tower of Jericho, c. 8000 BC
The significance of Jericho is seen in one of the earliest known stone buildings, the Tower of Jericho—dating around 8000 BC. | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Reinhard Dietrich, Public Domain

The number “seven” appears fourteen times in this chapter to associate the battle of Jericho with God’s ordering of the dark and chaotic creation in Genesis 1:1–2:3. As the Lord ordered the world in the beginning, he displayed his power over the darkness and chaos of Canaanite wickedness through the defeat of Jericho. Jericho was a new beginning, the time when God started to set the world back on its original course. Not surprisingly, Joshua himself described the entire Promised Land in ways that recalled the story of creation. It was “good” (23:13, 15, 16). He said earlier it is “exceedingly (or “very,” as it may be translated) good” (Num 14:7; see comments on 23:15–16).

6:6–16 Our author goes on to explain why Joshua was successful at Jericho. He meticulously obeyed God’s commands. Joshua was so mindful of the need to obey God’s instructions that he repeatedly warned Israel not to shout until the seventh day (see 6:10).

6:17–21 Joshua ordered that “the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction” (6:17). Moses instructed Israel to offer peace treaties to peoples outside of Canaan, but the people of Canaan were to be destroyed or devoted to the Lord (see Deut 20:10–18). The “devotion to destruction” of the Canaanites was designed to remove the abhorrent evil of Canaanite society from the Promised Land (see Exod 34:11–16; Num 33:50–56; Deut 7:1–5). In the Levitical system, to “devote to destruction” referred to special offerings that worshipers offered to the Lord (see Lev 27:28; Num 18:14; Ezek 44:29; see Introduction). In this sense, the “devotion to destruction” of Canaanite society was Israel’s worshipful, self-denial of plunder and spoil. Here, however, the Lord made an exception for “Rahab . . . and her house” (6:17). Moreover, everyone and everything else was to be destroyed, except the “silver and gold, and every vessel of bronze and iron,” which was to be dedicated to “the treasury of the Lord,” that is, to the Tabernacle (6:19). In this and other cases, the Lord exercised his divine royal prerogative and set aside the requirement of “devotion to destruction” as it suited his often inscrutable purposes (see 6:19, 24; 8:27; 11:14).

Canaanite Bull figurine
Canaanite figurine of a bull deity was excavated in Dhahrat et-Tawileh and dates c. 1200 BC. Objects such at these would have been committed to destruction at Jericho. | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Nathaniel Ritmeyer, CC BY 4.0

Joshua’s Spies and Rahab (6:22–27)

6:22–25 To close out Israel’s victory at Jericho, the narrative returns to the solemn agreement between Joshua’s spies and Rahab (2:1–24). The spies fulfilled their vow by keeping Rahab and her family safe. Meanwhile, Israel burned everything with fire except the metals given to the “treasury of the house of the Lord” (6:24). The author added the remarkable note that Rahab “has lived in Israel to this day” (6:25). The inclusion of Rahab was important for later generations of Israel because she joined the royal tribe of Judah by marriage and became an ancestress of David. She is also significant for Christians because she was an ancestress of David’s righteous royal son, Jesus (see Matt 1:5). Rahab reminds us that everyone who has saving faith becomes crucial to the service of the Lord’s kingdom.

6:26–27 Afterwards, Joshua placed a curse on anyone who rebuilt the city (cf. 1Kgs 16:34). The ruins of the city were to display the decisive initial victory God had given Israel in the Promised Land. The author closes by noting God’s pleasure with Joshua at this time. The Lord was “with him and his fame was in all the land” (Josh 6:27). The victory at Jericho made it nearly impossible for anyone to discount what the Lord had done through his leadership (see comments on 3:7–17). In many ways, Jesus’s victories during the inauguration of his kingdom similarly testify of him.

The City of Ai (7:1–8:29)

According to our author, up to this point Israel had behaved in ways that were ideal; he has made no mention of their sins. The account of the events at the city of Ai in 7:1–8:29 abruptly ends this ideal portrait. As such, it offers examples of actions and attitudes to be rejected and to be imitated by future generations of Israel and by followers of Christ. The record divides into three segments: Israel‘s failure in 7:1–5, the resolution of this failure in 7:6–26, and Israel‘s victory over the city in 8:1–29.

Failure at Ai (7:1–5)

7:1 The battle for Ai begins with the shocking comment that “the people broke faith in regard to the devoted things” (7:1). To “break faith” (or “to act treacherously,” as it may be translated) connotes utterly serious violations that lead to severe consequences (see 22:16, 20, 31; Num 5:6, 12; Ezek 14:13; 15:8; 17:20; 18:24; 20:27). Here, the violation involved “devoted things” (see comments on 6:17–21).

Fortress of Khirbet el-Maqatir, possible location of biblical Ai, was destroyed c. 1400 BC.

7:2–4 Israel’s disregard of the Lord’s commands started early. The people of Ai were few in number, and the spies insisted that Joshua should not make “all the people go up” and “toil” (7:3). This advice stood in contrast with what happened in Jericho and discounted God’s command that all the tribes fight as one people (see comments on 1:18). The Lord himself specifically corrected this error in the second battle for Ai (see 8:1).

7:5 Israel‘s first battle at Ai ended in defeat, and “the hearts of the [Israelites] melted” (7:5; see comments on 5:1–8). To stress the severity of this crisis, our author pointed out that the Israelites reacted here as the Canaanites did in other circumstances. For the time, they had become God’s defeated enemies.

Israel was to learn from this event the importance of remaining unified as they faced the many battles to which the Lord called them. Followers of Christ must also be diligent to maintain the unity of the Spirit so that the church may move forward in its global mission (see Eph 4:1–16).

Failure Resolved (7:6–26)

7:6–9 Our author paints a scene of intense grief. At his first defeat, Joshua “tore his clothes and fell to the earth on his face” (7:6). He and the elders went “before the ark of the Lord until the evening” with “dust on their heads” (7:6). Joshua cried out in lament. He asked “why” God had brought Israel across the Jordan only “to destroy us” (7:7). The Lord had removed the reproach of Egypt from them (see 5:9), but now Joshua feared that Israel’s enemies were going to “cut off [Israel’s] name from the earth” (7:9a). Rather than asking God to save the people for their own sakes, Joshua asked God to remember his own glory and to give them victory for his own “great name” (7:9b). These motifs appear in a number of laments in the Psalms as well.

7:10–12 God responded to Joshua’s lament with explanations and instructions. Divine responses to laments appear in a variety of ways in Scripture (see 1Sam 1:17; Pss 12:5; 27:14; 60:6–8; 91:14–16). Here, the Lord spoke directly to Joshua saying that Israel had “transgressed (“stepped outside of” or “overstepped,” as it may be translated) my covenant” (7:11). He says this again later in this passage (see 7:15).

This is the first of three times in our book when the term “covenant” is used (7:11), apart from references to the “ark of the covenant” at the ceremonial crossing of the Jordan in chapters 3–6 and 8 (see comments on 3:7–17) and the covenant made between Israel and the Gibeonites in chapter 9. Here the Lord refers to it as “my covenant” (7:11). Joshua referred to it as “the covenant of the Lord your God” (23:16), and our author reports that “Joshua made a covenant with the people” (or “on behalf of the people,” as it may be translated) with the Lord (24:25). As in many places in Exodus through Deuteronomy, the Lord’s covenant refers to the covenant made at Mount Sinai and its precursors in Adam, Noah, and Abraham reported in Genesis (see Introduction).

To “transgress” (7:11; see 7:15; 23:16) is not a small matter. It signifies a serious violation of the stipulations of the covenant that always stirred severe displays of God’s wrath. Like Achan, Saul transgressed by avoiding “devotion to destruction” after battle and lost his throne (see 1Sam 15:24). Other forms of transgression also led to defeat (see Num 14:41; 2Kgs 18:12). Transgression is often associated with allegiance to other gods, which resulted in death, defeat in battle, and exile (see 23:16; Deut 17:2; Judg 2:20; Hos 6:7; 8:1; Jer 34:18; 2Chr 24:20).

The courts of Israel in every generation needed to distinguish between shortcomings that characterize every person’s life and flagrant transgressions of covenant that stir the severe wrath of God against his people. Jesus himself distinguished the “weightier matters of the law” from other sorts of sin (Matt 23:23), thereby declaring that there are sins that deserve greater judgment than others (see Matt 11:20–23). He also called for his disciples to discern carefully that some sins are more egregious than others (see Matt 7:5).

The situation at Ai was so dire that the Lord had to call Joshua to “Get up!” twice (7:10, 13) because someone had taken “some of the devoted things” (7:11, 7:15), those things God had ordered for “devotion to destruction” as an act of worship (see comments on 6:17–21). The Lord threatened a catastrophe: “I will be with you no more” (7:12; see Exod 33:1–23). He would no longer fight on Israel’s behalf (see comments on 3:7–17).

7:13–15 In his mercy, God directed Joshua to “consecrate” the people again (7:13; see comments on 3:1–6). He called for the “lot” to be cast to identify the tribe of the one who had taken things that were to be devoted to the Lord (7:14). Our author frequently mentions casting lots as a way of receiving guidance from God (see comments on 14:1–5). This search was necessary because someone had committed a serious offense; he had “transgressed the covenant of the Lord” (7:15; see comments on 7:10–12).

7:16–26 Joshua carried out the Lord’s instructions without hesitation, and Achan was identified as the offender. Joshua mixed pity with firm commitment to the Lord’s instructions. He called Achan “my son” and encouraged him to “give glory and praise to the Lord” (7:19). Despite Achan’s compliance, the Lord did not lift his judgment. “All Israel” (7:25; see comments on 1:18) as one people stoned and burned Achan along with “the silver and the cloak and the bar of gold, and his sons and daughters and his oxen and donkeys and sheep and his tent and all that he had” (7:24). Our author notes that “a great heap of stones” remained “to this day” as a warning (7:26), so that future generations would avoid doing what Achan had done. In the Book of Joshua, stones are used to memorialize both blessings and curses from the Lord (see 4:1–20; 7:26; 8:29; 24:26–27).

Modern readers are often troubled that God called for the death of Achan’s entire family. We should note, however, that Achan’s family may have been complicit, at least by attempting to keep his sin a secret. In all events, it is crucial to keep in view that all of the Lord’s judgments are true, just, and good. They are the judgments of the divine imperial court, not the judgments of limited human courts. Human judges in Israel were restrained from excessive sentences by the principle of “eye for eye” (Lev 24:20). In fact, human judges were required to ensure that “each one shall be put to death for his own sin” (Deut 24:16). Yet, often in biblical history, the Lord exercised his divine prerogative and poured out curses and blessings on those who were not directly involved in the actions that prompted his decisions (see Exod 20:5–6; Num 14:18; Pss 79:8; 109:14; Isa 65:6–7; Jer 32:11). Time and again, in the Lord’s supreme knowledge and wisdom, many suffer because of the sin of a majority, a few, or even one, the supreme example being Adam (see 1Cor 15:22). Later in our book, the tribes of Cisjordan pointed to specific ways they had suffered the Lord’s judgment because of others (see comments on 22:15–20). However, the opposite was also often the case. In the Lord’s unsurpassed mercy, the righteousness of a majority, a few, or even one often leads to blessings for many, the supreme example being Christ (see 1Cor 15:22).

The death of Achan reflects the manner in which serious transgressions of the Law of God were handled through the courts of Israel in Old Testament days. It corresponds to the exercise of church discipline by the courts of the church in the New Testament age, the discipline of excommunication (see comments on 1:18).

Victory at Ai (8:1–29)

8:1–2 In striking contrast with the misguided advice Joshua received earlier (see 7:3), the Lord insisted that “all the fighting men” were to go up against the city of Ai in the second battle (8:1; see comments on 1:18). The Lord also commanded the “[devotion to] destruction” of Ai, with one exception: he gave permission for the army to take “its spoil and its livestock . . . as plunder for yourselves” (8:2; 8:27; see comments on 6:17–21). The sad irony is palpable. In the first battle for Ai, Achan was severely punished for taking something for himself; but God granted spoil to the faithful after the second battle.

8:3–13 God gave more instructions, and Joshua prepared Israel’s army accordingly. Joshua was confident that they would be victorious (see 8:7), but he was careful to remind the people, “You shall do according to the word of the Lord” (8:8), something they had neglected to do in the first disastrous battle at Ai.

8:14–23 As “Joshua and all Israel” (1:18; 8:15) pretended to flee in fear, “all the people” who were in Ai “pursued” (8:16). Then the Lord called Joshua to “stretch out the javelin . . . toward Ai” (8:18). His action was reminiscent of Moses’s action during the battle at Rephidim (see Exod 17:8–16). Joshua’s obedience to the Lord led to victory. The Israelites entered the nearly deserted city and captured it. No one survived the attack, except the king of Ai.

8:24–29 Joshua “devoted all the inhabitants of Ai to destruction” (8:26) as an offering to God. Then, “according to the word of the Lord” (8:27), Israel was permitted to resupply with the spoils of battle (see comments on 6:17–21). “A great heap of stones” memorialized these events and was still there “to this day” (8:29; see comments on 7:16–26). Future generations of Israel were to learn that victory was possible even after a great failure in war, if God’s people would turn from their sins and follow the Lord’s commands.

Covenant Renewal (8:30–35)

Our author closes his account of victories over two cities with a record of Israel’s covenant renewal at Mount Gerezim and Mount Ebal. These two mountains formed a natural amphitheater with the city of Shechem (modern Nablus) located in a small pass between them. It was the perfect setting for the ceremony of covenant renewal depicted in Deuteronomy 11:29–32; 27:1–26 (see comments on 24:1).

Panorama of Gerazim, Nablus, and Ebal
Panorama taken from Mount Ebal, overlooking the modern city of Nablus (biblical Schechem), with Mount Gerazim on the left of frame. | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 1.0

We should note that various ancient texts of Joshua place this narrative in different places in our book. The traditional Hebrew Bible puts it here in 8:30–35. Scrolls of Joshua from the fourth cave at Qumran (4QJosha) locate it just after 5:1 to conform Joshua’s actions to Moses’s call for covenant renewal immediately upon entering the Promised Land (see Deut 11:29–32;). For no discernable reason, the Old Greek translation (LXXB) places the episode after the introduction to the southern Canaanite coalition in 9:2.

The opening Hebrew expression translated “at that time” (8:30) is ambiguous (see 10:12; 22:1). It may very well have meant “next” or “after this.” Yet, it may also have meant “back then,” sometime during the time of the entire set of preceding events. If this translation is correct, our author presented this episode as an analepsis, a narrative that takes the audience back in time. By placing this earlier event here, our author reminded his audience of Israel’s fundamental loyalty to God that undergirded the victories at Jericho and Ai.

Joshua’s ceremony is often called a covenant renewal. Covenant renewal is a generic term that signifies a corporate reaffirmation of the stipulations of loyalty to God set forth in his covenants. There is variety among covenant ceremonies in Moses’s day (see Exod 19–24; Num 25:10–13; Deut 11:29–32; 27:1–26; Deut 29:1–30:19), later in Joshua’s day (Josh 24:1–28) and also in Israel’s monarchical history (see 2Kgs 23:1–27; 2Chr 29:3–30:27). The record here appears quite abbreviated, but it coordinates reasonably well with Moses’s earlier instructions (see Deut 27:1–26). The elements of covenant renewal reflect patterns that appear in ancient Near Eastern international treaties (see Introduction). Joshua built an altar and offered “burnt offerings” and “peace offerings” (8:31). He then wrote “on the stones a copy of the Law of Moses” (8:32). “All Israel,” as well as others with them (8:33; see comments on 1:18), stood on opposite sides of the altar in the directions of Mount Gerezim and Mount Ebal. Joshua blessed them and read “all the words of the law,” “the blessing and the curse” (or “the blessings and the curses,” as it may be translated) (8:34). These blessings and curses were then “written in the Book of the Law,” probably a written collection of a set of regulations derived from Deuteronomy (see Josh 1:8; 24:26).

Early site of Israelite worship on Mount Ebal, identified by some as “Joshua’s Altar.” | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, zstadler, CC BY-SA 4.0

This passage was relevant for our author‘s audience because Israel frequently renewed covenant by reaffirming their loyalty to the Lord. It has significance for followers of Christ because Israel‘s prophets predicted a covenant renewal after Israel‘s exile (see Isa 54:10; Jer 31:31–34; Ezek 34:25; 37:26). These predictions are fulfilled in the new (or renewed) covenant in Christ. Features of this covenant renewal have practical implications for daily life and have impacted the practice of worship throughout Christian history (see Introduction).

Victories over Two Alliances (9:1–11:23)

The Book of Joshua turns from Israel’s successes against two cities to greater threats and victories involving two Canaanite alliances in 9:1–11:23. Our author introduces the threats of the alliances in 9:1–2 and closes with observations about Israel’s victories over the alliances in 11:16–23. Within this framework, he deals first with a southern alliance in 9:3–10:43 and then with a northern alliance in 11:1–15.

Introduction to Victories over Alliances (9:1–2)

9:1–2 News spread about what the Lord had done in Jericho and Ai, and “all the kings” (9:1) of Canaan, from east to west and north to south, “gathered together as one” (9:2) to oppose the Israelite invaders. The accounts of alliances against Israel in Canaan were pertinent to later generations of Israel who frequently faced powerful alliances (see Judg 3:13; 6:3; 2Kgs 16:7; 24:2; 2Chr 12:3; 20:1; Obad 1:10–14; Ps 137:7–8). Israel’s prophets predicted that after Israel’s return from exile, massive alliances would be defeated by David’s righteous son (see Ezek 38:14–39:8; Zech 14). This victory began when Christ appeared, continues today, and will be won by Christ at his return (see Rev 11:15).

Victories over a Southern Alliance (9:3–10:43)

The first alliance Israel faced in the southern regions of Canaan is reported in 9:3–10:43. The account focuses on why the alliance formed in 9:3–10:5, the initial battle with the alliance in 10:6–28, and further victories in the south in 10:29–43.

Formation of a Southern Alliance (9:3–10:5)

The southern Canaanite alliance began in reaction to a treaty Israel made with the Gibeonites in 9:3–27, and the southern kings reacted by forming an alliance against Israel in 10:1–5.

9:3–27 Establishment of Treaty. Moses had instructed Israel not to establish treaties with the inhabitants of Canaan (Deut 20:10–20). They were to “devote them to complete destruction” (Deut 20:17; see Josh 6:17–21). The Gibeonites, however, deceived Israel into thinking that they came from outside the land of Canaan. They wore “patched sandals on their feet, and worn-out clothes”; they carried “dry and crumbly” provisions (9:5).

9:9–13 God had given Israel victory over Egypt and kings east of the Jordan. Joshua’s fame had spread far and wide (see 6:27). The Gibeonites also knew what had happened nearby in Jericho and Ai, and they came “because of the name of the Lord your God” (9:9). Israel invoked the name of the Lord in their battles (see 1Kgs 8:33). For this reason, the Gibeonites had good reason to fear what Israel might do to them.

9:14–15 Our author was careful to point out that Joshua took this situation at face value: he “did not ask counsel from the Lord” (Josh 9:14) for specific guidance before making a treaty with the Gibeonites. Joshua’s presumption led to a serious error and reminds God’s people in every age of our need to apply the Word of God by prayerfully seeking guidance from the Lord in the different situations we face.

9:16–27 To emphasize that Joshua had no intention of violating God’s regulation against treaties with Canaanites (see Deut 20:10–20), our author once again clarifies that the Gibeonites had deceived Israel (see Josh 9:22). Moreover, Joshua is also presented as righteous and kind. When the truth was discovered, he mercifully protected the Gibeonites from some of the men of Israel who wanted revenge. He upheld the treaty with the qualification that “some of you shall never be anything but servants, cutters of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God” (9:23; see Deut 29:11). The Gibeonites continued to live among the Israelites. By the time of Judah’s return from exile, however, the Gibeonites were fully absorbed into Israel and counted among those who returned to build the temple in Jerusalem (see Neh 3:7; 7:25).

10:1–5 Reaction to Treaty. The king of Jerusalem, Adoni-zedek, had heard not only of what happened at Jericho and Ai, but also of Israel’s treaty with the Gibeonites. As a result, “he feared greatly because Gibeon was a great city . . . and all its men were warriors” (10:2). Israel’s treaty with Gibeon was a serious threat to the entire southern region of Canaan.

Twice our author draws attention to Adoni-zedek’s name (10:1, 3), which meant “lord of righteousness” or “my lord is righteousness,” a praise of a local Canaanite deity. His name recalled Melchizedek, the earlier king of Salem (which was Jerusalem; see Ps 76:2), whose name meant “king of righteousness” or “my king is righteousness,” a praise of the Lord, the God of Abraham. Melchizedek had celebrated Abraham’s victory over an alliance of kings (see Gen 14:17–18). Israel later referred to Melchizedek as an order of a royal priesthood like that of David’s house (see Ps 110:4) and of Jesus (see Heb 5:6; 6:20; 7:1). This king of Jerusalem, however, organized an alliance against Israel. He gathered a very large southern alliance that “encamped against Gibeon and made war against it” (10:5).

Battles with the Southern Alliance (10:6–28)

The account of battles between Israel and the southern alliance begins with Gibeon itself in 10:6–15 and then turns to the aftermath of the battle in 10:16–28.

10:6–15 Battle at Gibeon. The Gibeonites called for Joshua to save them from the southern alliance, and Israel was obligated to defend them. Although the Gibeonites had deceived Israel, Israel still had “sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel” (9:19). Such fidelity was expected of righteous men (see Ps 15:4). Joshua engaged the alliance with “all the people of war . . . and all the mighty men of valor” (10:7; see comments on 1:18). The Lord rewarded Joshua with a great victory.

10:8–9 God commanded Joshua not to have fear or dismay when he faced this Canaanite alliance and assured him of victory. The Lord assured both Moses and Joshua in much the same way at other times (see Deut 1:29; 7:21; 20:3; Josh 1:9; 8:1; 11:6). Joshua passed the same encouragement to others (see 10:25). The task of battling evil in the world in every age is difficult. Fear and dismay are common reactions, even from the most faithful servants of God. The New Testament similarly assures us that there is no need to fear as we engage the hostile world in service to Christ (see Rev 1:17; 2:10).

10:10–11 Joshua’s faithful and courageous service to the Lord threw the enemy into panic, and Israel struck down many of them. Moreover, the Lord himself intervened. He threw down “large stones,” “hailstones” (perhaps meteorites), and killed more of the enemy than the Israelites killed (10:11).

10:12–15 This passage recounting the sun and moon standing still while Joshua pursued his enemies is well known. The precise nature of this event can be understood in a variety of ways. Without a doubt, a supernatural event occurred (see comments on 5:13–15). The Lord could easily have altered the normal rotation of the earth or caused an extraordinary extension of daylight in some other way. Nothing is beyond his power. It is important to note, however, that the Lord’s command for the sun and moon to be still is in the form of poetry (see 10:12). This change in genre may indicate that the halting of the sun and moon was figurative language (see Hab 3:11). In all events, the author of Joshua supports the veracity of his account by mentioning that he drew it from “the Book of Jashar” (10:13), a book of poetry that was available at least as early as David’s day (see 2Sam 1:17–27).

Our author expresses his own amazement at what took place by commenting that “there has been no day like it before or since” because of the manner in which “the Lord heeded the voice of a man” (10:14). The decisive role Joshua’s prayer played in this supernatural victory called future generations of Israel to prayer when they faced their foes (see 2Chr 12:6; 13:14; 14:11–12; 15:4; 20:5–12). “Praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” is also essential for the spiritual warfare to which Christ calls his followers (Eph 6:18).

10:16–28 Aftermath of Battle. Our author now turns to what happened after God’s intervention. Joshua pursued the kings who had fled from Gibeon southward to Makkedah, where they shamefully hid in a cave. The battle continued, but these kings had deserted their people to save themselves.

10:20–21 The Israelites “finished striking [their enemies] with a great blow until they were wiped out,” except for a few that fled to neighboring fortified cities (10:20). This pursuit was so catastrophic that no one “moved his tongue against . . . Israel” (10:21). No one in the region dared to speak against the Israelites, much less make war against them.

Sickle sword
Assyrian sickle sword, 1307–1275 BC | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

10:22–28 Afterwards, Joshua returned to the kings who had hidden in the cave at Makkedah. He “summoned all the men of Israel” (see comments on 1:18) to put their “feet on the necks of these kings” (10:24; cf. Gen 49:8; 2Sam 22:41; Psa 18:40) to assure them that “thus the Lord will do to all your enemies against whom you fight” (10:25; cf. 1:6–9; Deut 31:6–8). The same was true for later generations of Israel who turned to the Lord for help as Joshua did. Christ’s victory in his death and resurrection and the victories he has won for his faithful people throughout the millennia give us confidence that he will one day “put all his enemies under his feet” (1Cor 15:25) and that God will “crush Satan under [our] feet” as well (Rom 16:20).

After Joshua executed the five kings who had deserted their people, he hanged them on trees until evening to warn all others of the severity of God’s judgment. He also “set large stones against the mouth of the cave, which remain to this very day” (10:27) so that future generations of Israel would take heart as they faced battles against alliances in their day (see comments on 7:16–26).

Our author closes these materials with a note that Joshua “devoted to destruction every person” in Makkedah (10:28). The entire city was given over to the Lord as an act of gratitude for his magnificent intervention (see comments on 6:17–21).

Further Victories in the South (10:29–43)

10:29–39 The defeat of the southern alliance opened the way for Joshua to press further into the southern regions of Canaan. A series of reports quickly portray Israel’s victories at Libnah (see 10:29–30), Lachish (see 10:31–33), Eglon (see 10:34–35), Hebron (see 10:36–37), and at Debir (see 10:38–39). To highlight that Israel fought in these places with the blessing of God, our author repeats that Joshua fulfilled two directives for Israel’s wars. First, “Joshua and all Israel with him” fought each of these battles (10:29, 31, 34, 36, 38; see comments on 1:18). Second, “every person” was killed and “devoted . . . to destruction” before the Lord (10:30, 32, 35, 37, 39; see comments on 6:17–21).

10:40–43 The result of Israel’s compliance with the Lord’s commands had a very positive outcome. Joshua “struck the whole land” (10:40; see 11:23), meaning throughout the southern region of Canaan. These widespread victories occurred “because the Lord God of Israel fought for Israel” (10:42; see comments on 3:7–17).

The biblical record indicates that the Lord’s instructions for battle changed as he determined. Yet, as Israel fought wars in service to the Lord, they could hope that the Lord would fight for them if they followed the tactics that he dictated in various circumstances. Followers of Christ must carefully follow how the New Testament instructs us to pursue Christ’s worldwide conquest today, as we look back at what Christ has already done and forward to what he will do at his glorious return. Only then should we expect the Lord to fight for us as he did for Joshua.

Victories over a Northern Alliance (11:1–15)

11:1–5 After Israel’s victories in the south, the king of Hazor formed an enormous alliance in the north. He gathered “a great horde, in number like the sand that is on the seashore, with very many horses and chariots” (11:4). Within the Book of Joshua, this is the only army with numbers “like the sand” (see 1Sam 13:5) and with “many horses and chariots” (Josh 11:4; see 17:16). In human terms, the size and sophistication of the northern alliance threatened Israel more than any other enemy.

Relief depicting Hittite war chariot
Relief depicting Hittite war chariot c. 8th century BC, held in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Georges Jansoone, CC BY-SA 3.0

11:6–9 As during the conflicts with the southern alliance, the Lord commanded Joshua, “Do not be afraid of them” (11:6; see comments on 10:8–9). Joshua responded obediently with a direct attack against the horses and chariots that threatened Israel. The alliance was defeated and fled. Joshua pursued these enemies and put them to death “until he left none remaining” (11:8; see comments on 10:29–39).

11:10–15 Joshua then went to Hazor, “the head of all of those kingdoms” (11:10). Joshua burned the city of Hazor to the ground, as he did in Jericho and Ai (see 6:24; 8:28). He also devoted the people of Hazor to destruction to the Lord (11:11; see comments on 6:17–21). He did not, however, utterly destroy everything. As at Ai, Israel took “spoil” from the “cities and livestock” that were not devoted to the Lord (11:14; see 8:2, 27). Our author reassures his readers that taking this plunder was not in violation of God’s will by adding that “[Joshua] left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses” (11:15).

The ruins of Hazor, where excavations have confirmed the city’s importance and function as a fortress at the time of Joshua’s conquest.

Conclusion to Victories over Alliances (11:16–23)

11:16–18 In balance with the introduction to the threat of alliances in 9:1–2, we find a conclusion and explanation of Israel’s victories over these alliances. The scope of this conclusion includes the southern and northern regions of the Promised Land (see 11:16–17) and acknowledges that “Joshua made war a long time” (11:18).

11:19–20 Both in biblical history and in common experience, early victories by an invader often lead others in the area to seek appeasement, yet no one except “the inhabitants of Gibeon” sought peace with Israel (11:19). Our author offers a crucial theological explanation for the Canaanites’ unusual behavior by revealing the hidden purposes of God (see Judg 14:4): “It was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts” (11:20). To understand his outlook, we must recall that Israel had been kept in Egypt “until the iniquity of the Amorites [was] complete” (Gen 15:16). In fact, by the time of Israel’s conquest, sin had so corrupted the Canaanites that humility before Israel was rare (see 2:8–14; 9:3–11). So, God justly hardened the Canaanite hearts so that they would “come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed” (11:20; see comments on 6:17–21). Israel crushed the inhabitants of Canaan because the Lord had consigned them to that fate. Other Scriptures confirm that God often hardens the hearts of sinners (see Exod 4:21; 7:3; 8:15, 32; 9:12, 35; 10:1, 20; 11:10; Deut 2:30; Ps 81:12; Lam 3:65; Isa 63:17; John 12:40; Rom 9:18; 11:7, 25).

11:21–22 To stress how astonishing Israel’s victories were, our author turns to the Anakim, who lived in the hill country and were among the most prominent warriors in Canaan. Moses’s unfaithful spies led the first generation of the Exodus to turn back from the conquest for fear of them (see Num 13:28, 33; Deut 1:28). However, Moses assured the second generation of Israel that they would have victory over the Anakim, even though they were “great and tall” (Deut 9:2). Joshua destroyed the Anakim, except for a few who remained in Gath and Ashdod. Caleb later expelled Anak’s three sons from Hebron (see 14:12; 15:13–14). Goliath of Gath and other giants (2Sam 21:16–22; 1Chr 20:4–8) were among the last Anakim.

11:23 The author of Joshua sums up Israel’s victories over the Canaanite alliances by saying that Joshua won “the whole land, according to all that the Lord had spoken to Moses” (see 10:40). We must be careful not to overestimate this claim. Joshua’s conquest of Canaan was extensive, but Joshua’s generation did not utterly eradicate the Canaanites (see comments on 13:1–14 and on 15:63). Our author looked forward in time and reported that Joshua later gave Cisjordan “for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments” (see 13:1–21:45) and that “the land had rest from war” (11:23; see comments on 1:13).

Conclusion of Widespread Victories (12:1–24)

This last portion of Israel’s victorious conquest summarizes the widespread results of Joshua’s preparations, battles with two cities and with two alliances. This chapter turns first to Transjordan in 12:1–6 and then to Cisjordan in 12:7–24.

Victories in Transjordan (12:1–6)

Our author’s summary begins with victories in the “land beyond the Jordan toward the sunrise” (12:1). In the days of Moses, Israel had defeated “Sihon king of the Amorites” (12:2; see Num 21:21–30; Deut 2:26–35). He also had defeated “Og king of Bashan” who was a greater threat because he was “one of the remnant of the Rephaim” (12:4; see comments on 13:8–12). The Rephaim were a people of great stature, “as tall as the Anakim” (Deut 2:21), but Israel was victorious over them (see Num 21:31–35; Deut 3:1–11).

Victories in Cisjordan (12:7–24)

Victories “on the west side of the Jordan” (12:7) were won under Joshua’s leadership. To demonstrate how widespread his victories were, our author lists kings and locations from north to south. To end this division of his book on a high note, he remarks that “in all,” Joshua defeated “thirty-one kings” in Cisjordan (12:24). Joshua’s victories in Cisjordan were beyond compare.

Our author closes the first division of his book with this panoramic view of Joshua’s victories to honor the Lord for all he had done and to open the eyes of his audience to what the Lord could do in their day. Joshua furthered the advance of God’s kingdom through his faithful service. The hearts of every generation of Israel should have been inspired to do the same. Beyond this, every generation of the Christian church can see that Christ has already won even greater victories than Joshua. We who serve in the power of the Sprit should yearn to see God’s kingdom advance even further through our service today. In the end Joshua’s victorious conquest over Canaan calls us to put our hope in Christ’s victory over the entire world that we will see at his glorious return.

Part Two: Tribal Inheritances (13:1–22:34)

The second major division of our book in 13:1–22:34 concentrates on Israel’s tribal inheritances in the Promised Land to address a number of challenges later generations of Israel faced. As such, it also speaks to many facets of the inheritance followers of Christ receive in him (see Introduction). These chapters divide into two main parts. They begin with Joshua’s allotments of tribal inheritances in 13:1–21:45. Then they turn to the preservation of these inheritances in 22:1–34.

Allotments of Tribal Inheritances (13:1–21:45)

The account of Israel’s tribal inheritances in 13:1–21:45 begins in 13:1–7 with the problem that others still inhabited many portions of Cisjordan. It closes with Joshua having expanded Israel’s possession of Cisjordan in 21:43–45. Within this framework, our author presents how lands were allotted to each of the tribes of Israel in 13:8–21:42.

Prior to this division of our book, our author only briefly mentioned Israel’s “inheritance” twice (see 1:6; 11:23). At this point in the book, he has written nine chapters about Israel’s inheritance. Thirty-eight of the forty-two times the noun “inheritance” appears in the Book of Joshua occur in these chapters.

The Promised Land was Israel’s “inheritance” rather than their property or homeland because it was an enduring inheritance. The Lord “swore” with absolute royal authority (see 14:9; 21:43, 44) and “promised” from his throne to give it to Israel (see 14:10, 12; 20:1; 21:45; 22:4). He gave it “forever” (14:9; see Exod 32:13; Lev 25:34, 46;) and spoke of it as the place where certain practices were to be observed “forever” (see Exod 12:24–25; Lev 23:9–14; 1Chr 16:14–18). For this reason, it was passed from generation to generation (see 17:3–6; Gen 35:12; 38:8–9; Lev 25:46; Num 27:1–11; Deut 25:5–10; Ruth 4:10; 1Kgs 21:1–29; Ezra 9:12). Only the Lord himself had the prerogative of taking away the inheritance he had given (see comments on 23:3–16 as well as comments on 24:1–28).

The enduring nature of Israel’s inheritance meant that the tribal allotments reported here were not just for that day. Future generations of Israel were to comply with these allotments as well. Any deviation, apart from God’s own subsequent directives, was a violation of his royal authority.

Lands Remaining in Cisjordan (13:1–7)

Our author begins this division of his book with a problem that Joshua faced near the end of the conquest—the tribes of Israel had not conquered many of the lands that they were to possess in Cisjordan.

13:1 This section begins with a short narrative that draws attention to the fact that “Joshua was old and advanced in years” (13:1a; see 1:1; 23:1). The Lord himself confirmed this was true as he spoke to Joshua (13:1b). Joshua’s age presented a challenge because “there remain[ed] yet very much land to possess” in Cisjordan (13:1c). Broadly speaking, Joshua conquered “the whole land” during his southern and northern campaigns (see 10:40; 11:23). Yet, others still inhabited significant portions of the land of Canaan, and Joshua was far too old to conquer them.

13:2–6a The Lord described some territories still under the control of others from the south to the north. “All the regions of the Philistines and . . . of the Geshurites” (13:2) remained. These people were not indigenous to Canaan. The Philistines had migrated from Caphtor, modern Crete (see Deut 2:23; Jer 47:4), and the Geshurites had come from “Shihor . . . east of Egypt” (13:3). So, they were not to be “devoted to destruction” unless they refused to make peace with Israel (see comments on 9:3–27). The Lord also listed northern locations along the coast and inland in Phoenicia (see 13:4b–5a). He then turned further to the northeast, to the hill country of Lebanon (see 13:5b–6a).

13:6b–7 Joshua was too old to go into battle, so the Lord assured him, “I myself will drive them out from before the people of Israel” (13:6b; see comments on 23:5). In the meantime, Joshua was not to wait for the Lord to act. He was to “allot . . . the land to Israel for an inheritance” (13:6b) and “divide this land for an inheritance” (13:7), while others still inhabited much of it. In effect, by faith in the promise of God (see Gen 15:6), Joshua was to claim all of Cisjordan as Israel’s inheritance by dividing and allotting all of it for the tribes of Israel.

The Lord’s directive required Joshua to have faith as he waited for the Lord to fulfill his promise. He was to go ahead and allot all of the lands, even though Israel had not conquered them all. Every generation of Israel was to do the same as they continued to deal with other inhabitants in the Promised Land. Followers of Christ in every age face a similar situation. We already have “the guarantee of our inheritance” in the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:14), but we must wait until the return of Christ to receive the fullness of our inheritance (see Introduction). In the meantime, by faith in the promise of God, we go about proclaiming that the whole world is Christ’s inheritance and that we are already “coheirs with him” (see Rom 8:17; Gal 4:28–31).

Allotments Given to Every Tribe (13:8–21:42)

Having established that the Israelites were to divide and allot their inheritances before all the inhabitants of Canaan were driven out, our author focuses on how Joshua did this in 13:8–21:42. In chronological order, he turns first to the tribes of Transjordan in 13:8–33, then to the tribes of Cisjordan in 14:1–19:51, and finally to the tribe of Levi who lived on both sides of the Jordan River in 20:1–21:42.

Transjordan (13:8–33)

Joshua had ordered the tribes of Transjordan to fight in Canaan and to return only after victory (see comments on 1:18 and on 22:1–8). Allotments of inheritance to the tribes of Transjordan took place under the leadership of Moses before Joshua’s conquest, so they hold first place in this chronological presentation. Our author begins with an introduction to Transjordan in 13:7–14. Then he deals separately with the tribes of Reuben in 13:15–23, Gad in 13:24–28, and the half-tribe of Manasseh in 13:29–31.

13:8–14 Introduction to Transjordan. Years earlier, Moses had already divided lands among the half-tribe of Manasseh, the Reubenites, and the Gadites in Transjordan, “beyond the Jordan eastward” (13:8; see Num 32:33–42; Deut 3:8–17). These tribes had “received their inheritance” (13:8). “Moses had struck and driven out” many of the inhabitants of Transjordan (13:12). More details of these victories are provided later (see 13:15–33). Here our author mentions Og as one “of the remnant of the Rephaim” (13:12). “Rephaim” can refer to spirits (see Ps 88:10; Isa 14:9; 26:14), but here it signifies fierce warriors like the Anakim and the Emites, or Emim who are mentioned elsewhere (see comments on 14:7–15; see also Deut 2:10–11, 20–21).

Nevertheless, our author also points out a reason for the tribes of Transjordan to have humility toward the other tribes. “The people of Israel did not drive out the Geshurites or the Maacathites.” In fact, “Geshur and Maacath dwell in the midst of Israel to this day” (13:13; see 2Sam 3:3; 23:34; 2Kgs 25:23; 1Chr 2:23; Jer 40:8). Presumably, these were just two examples of many other inhabitants of Transjordan whom Israel had not driven out. Later, similar failures are noted for other tribes as well (see comments on 15:63).

13:14 Our author adds a brief note in anticipation of an issue he would address on several occasions: the inheritance of the tribe of Levi (see comments on 21:1–2). He places this note here out of his chronological interest in what Moses had done before Joshua. At this point, he simply reminds his audience that “Moses gave no inheritance” to the tribe of Levi. Instead, “the offerings by fire to the Lord God of Israel are their inheritance.”

13:15–23 Reuben. Having given an introductory overview of Transjordan, our author directs his attention specifically to Reuben in 13:15–23. Reuben was Jacob’s firstborn, but he lost that status because of incest (see Gen 35:22). Jacob called him “unstable as water” and explained “you shall not have preeminence, because you went up to your father’s bed” (Gen 49:4). As this record shows, however, Reuben was blessed with a number of lands.

13:24–28 Gad. Leah named her son Gad using a wordplay with the term meaning “happy” or “fortunate.” Jacob took the name to mean “raider,” saying “Raiders shall raid Gad, but he shall raid at their heels” (Gen 49:19). Here our author briefly acknowledges that he successfully took many lands from his enemies.

13:29–31 Half-tribe of Manasseh. Manasseh was one of the sons of Joseph who, along with Ephraim, was treated as an equal of his uncles (see comments on 14:1–5). He took control of lands to the west and the east of Jordan. Jacob predicted that Joseph, and thus Ephraim and Manasseh, would be greatly blessed “up to the bounties of the everlasting hills” (Gen 49:26). Our author points out that the half-tribe of Manasseh was more prominent than Reuben and Gad in Transjordan.

The narrative in 22:1–34 reveals that the tribes of Cisjordan thought themselves superior to the tribes of Transjordan in the days of Joshua. Moreover, the tribes to the east of Jordan often struggled to keep control of their lands throughout their history. These factors led our author to highlight the significance of allotments in Transjordan in at least five ways.

For example, our author calls the lands of each tribe its “inheritance,” its enduring possession, subject to no one but the Lord himself. Contrary to some modern translations, the Hebrew texts of 13:15, 24, 29 do not include the term “inheritance”; they simply read, “and Moses gave . . .” Still, the term “inheritance” appears in the introduction (13:8), in the closing words concerning Reuben (13:23) and Gad (13:28), and in the final summary (13:31). This terminology made it clear that future generations of Israel should respect these allotments.

In addition to this, six times our author points out that these inheritances were assigned to “clans,” or “families,” within Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh. The records of each tribe open and close with the phrase “according to their clans” (13:15, 23, 24, 28, 29, 31). Clans were the smallest societal unit to receive specific inheritances and represented the level at which continuity of tribal inheritance was to be maintained across generations (see 15:13–19; 17:3–6). So, this detail sets the need for the continuity of inheritances in Transjordan at the same level as it was expected for the tribes of Cisjordan (see 15:1, 12, 20; 16:5, 8; 17:2 [2x]; 18:11, 20, 21, 28; 19:1, 8, 10, 16, 17, 23, 24, 31, 32, 39, 40, 48). On both sides of the River, clan inheritances could be bought and sold only temporarily. In the year of Jubilee, every fifty years, any portion that had been lost was to be returned (see Lev 25:23–34).

Our author also referred seven times to the fact that Moses established the tribal allotments in Transjordan (see 13:8 [2x], 12, 15, 24, 29, 32). Moses had led the victories and granted inheritances to each of the tribes. For any future generation of Israel to discount the significance of tribal inheritances to the east of the Jordan was for them to disregard the authority of Israel’s premiere leader, Moses.

Moreover, the allotments in Transjordan were won by supernatural divine interventions (see comments on 5:13–15). These verses refer to miraculous victories over the “Rephaim” (13:12), the Amorite kings Sihon (13:21, 27; see Num 21:21–30; Deut 2:26–35) and Og (13:12, 30–31; see Deut 3:11), as well as the victory involving Balaam and the Moabites (13:22; see Num 22–24). Up to this point in his book, our author has emphasized the supernatural nature of victories that took place in Cisjordan (see Josh 2:1–11:23; 12:7–24), so he reminds his audience of these supernatural victories that were well-known from the books of Moses. Anyone in Israel who devalued inheritances to the east of Jordan failed to honor the Lord for his interventions.

Beyond this, it was impossible to ignore the tremendous blessings these inheritances represented for the entire nation of Israel. They received “all the cities of Sihon” (13:10), “all Bashan to Salecah” (13:11), and ”all the kingdom of Og” (13:12). Reuben and Gad received “all the cities” in their territories (13:17, 21, 25). Manasseh received at least “sixty cities” (13:30–31). These cities were enormous blessings that the people of these tribes had not built (see 15:20–62; 17:7–13: 18:11–48; 24:13; Deut 6:10; Ps 105:44). Losing them would result in a tremendous loss of the prosperity that the Lord promised to Israel.

Israel was to learn from these records that they needed for the tribal inheritances in Transjordan to be secure. In much the same way, followers of Christ must acknowledge the importance of every manifestation of Christ’s inheritance in the church. Believers everywhere in the world have been given the down payment of their inheritance in the Spirit and his gifts. We neglect those gifts to the harm of the church and our mission (see 1Cor 12:12–30).

Cisjordan (14:1–19:51)

Our author gives a great deal of attention to allotments in Cisjordan in 14:1–19:51, in part because his entire book concentrates on Joshua as the leader of Israel. He also addresses controversies and conflicts among the tribes of Cisjordan in these chapters.

These records begin with an introduction in 14:1–5 and close with a summary in 19:51. Within this framework, these chapters are chronological and give attention first to the tribes that received larger allotments in 14:6–17:18, and then to the tribes that received smaller allotments in 18:1–19:50.

14:1–5 Introduction to Cisjordan. The introduction set the stage for what follows in at least three ways. First, our author refers to allotments “in the land of Canaan” (14:1) as enduring “inheritance” five times (14:1 [2x], 2, 3 [2x]). Before he addresses controversial matters, he establishes that these tribal allotments were subject only to the will of God.

Second, the allotments to the tribes in Cisjordan were authorized by the Lord’s chosen leaders—”Eleazar the priest and Joshua . . . and the heads of the fathers’ houses” (14:1). Moreover, under their direction many of these allotments were granted “by lot just as the Lord had commanded by the hand of Moses” (14:2). Casting lots disclosed the will of God (see 7:14; 15:1; 17:1, 14; 18:6, 8, 10, 11; 19:1, 10, 17, 24, 32, 40, 51; 21:4–11, 20; cf, Prov 16:33; Acts 1:26). The lands given in Cisjordan were not the result of favoritism or greed; they were granted by God himself.

Third, our author also points out that the tribal allotments in Cisjordan completed the goal of all twelve tribes of Israel having inheritances in the Promised Land (see comments on 1:18). To resolve any objection that may have been raised, he explains how he counted the tribes. “Nine and one-half tribes” had lands to the west of Jordan (14:2) and “two and one-half tribes” to the east of Jordan. Yet, as he noted before, Levi had “no inheritance among them” (14:3; see comments on 21:1–2). So, our author explains that “the people of Joseph . . . Ephraim and Manasseh” were counted as “two tribes” (14:4). The status of Ephraim and Manasseh is addressed so carefully in Genesis 48 that this arrangement must have been somewhat controversial, even in the days of Moses. Our author affirms what Moses taught. He indicates that Ephraim and Manasseh were prominent tribes of Israel. So, he pauses to remind his audience that Joseph had been promoted to the status of Jacob’s firstborn and that he received a double portion of Jacob’s inheritance (see Deut 21:17).

The Book of Genesis explains why allotments to all twelve tribes of Israel was so important to our author. Abraham’s inheritance was passed to Isaac (not Ishmael) and to Jacob (not Esau). Jacob then passed it to all twelve of his sons, the heads of Israel’s tribes (see Gen 49). From that moment forward, the tribes of Israel were to receive their inheritance together. Saul, David, and Solomon ruled over all the tribes as one nation. Hezekiah reunited the divided kingdom (see 2Chr 30). Representatives of all Israel were taken into exile, and the hopes of Israel after the exile were closely tied to the restoration of all twelve tribes (see Ezek 40–48).

Our author assures his audience that Joshua had given allotments to the entire nation of Israel. Future generations of Israel were to take his outlook to heart and do all they could to ensure that this ideal was met in their day as well. This perspective explains why Jesus’s apostles were so deeply devoted to replacing Judas (see Acts 1:12–26). As the remnant of Israel, Jesus called twelve disciples who symbolically corresponded to the twelve tribes of Israel. They are foundational to the church (see Eph 2:20), and their teaching will always be crucial to the spread of Christ’s kingdom throughout the world (see John 17:18–21; Eph 4:11).

At Gilgal (14:6–17:18)

The tribes of Judah, Ephraim, and Manasseh received large allotments “at Gilgal” (14:6; cf. 18:1). These records recalled the honor bestowed on Judah in 14:6–15:63 and on Joseph in 16:1–17:18, and they explained much about how this honor was to be viewed by every generation in Israel.

14:6–15:63 Allotments for Judah. First place among the tribes was given to Judah because Jacob exalted Judah as Israel’s royal tribe (see Gen 49:10). Judah was designated to lead the other tribes into battle during the period of the Judges for the same reason (see Judg 1:2). Later, the Lord established David’s house as Israel’s permanent royal dynasty (2Sam 7:16). The leadership of Judah’s royal line was also essential to the restoration of Israel after the exile (see Isa 9:6–7). The tribe of Judah is also prominent in the New Testament because Jesus was from the tribe of Judah. In contrast to the failures of David’s royal lineage, Jesus was the perfectly righteous son of David.

Given the importance of Judah, our author gives more attention to it than to any other tribe in Cisjordan. The record of Judah’s allotments divides into a brief introduction in 14:6, followed by an assortment of materials in 14:7–15:62 and a short conclusion in 15:63.

14:6 Introduction to Judah. The stage is set for the account of Judah’s tribal allotment. It took place “when the people of Judah came to Joshua at Gilgal” (14:6) to receive their portion of the Promised Land.

14:7–15 Caleb’s Inheritance in Judah. The honor given to Judah is displayed first by attention to one of the tribe’s most prominent figures, Caleb. Caleb was well known for his faithful service as one who spied the Promised Land in the previous generation (see Num 13–14). He “wholly followed the Lord” when the other spies “made the heart of the people melt” (Josh 14:8; see comments on 5:1–7). So, our author begins his account of the prominence of Judah with him.

This narrative is the first of six that draws attention to special, perhaps somewhat controversial, circumstances related to tribal allotments in Cisjordan (see 15:13–19; 17:3–6, 14–18; 18:1–6; 19:49–50). Caleb received Hebron as an inheritance for his clan. This was a special honor because Israel’s patriarchal figures were buried there (see Gen 23:1–9, 19; 25:9; 35:27; 37:14). Joshua had conquered Hebron during his southern campaign (see 10:36–37), but the Anakim (see Deut 2:10–11, 20–21; see comments on 13:8–12) had taken it back (see 14:12–15). Caleb prayed that “the Lord will be with me” so that he could win the battle (14:12; see comments on 3:7–17). He conquered the Anakim and receive Hebron because in these circumstances “he wholly followed the Lord, the God of Israel” (14:14; see 14:8). As a result, the area of Hebron had “rest from war” (see comments on 1:10–18). Later on, our author will recall Caleb’s inheritance at Hebron in his list of Levitical cities (see 21:12). At this point in his book, however, he stresses that Hebron was “an inheritance for you and your children forever” (14:9). Every generation of Israel was to acknowledge it as such.

Our author exalts Judah by honoring Caleb’s courageous, wholehearted service to the Lord. As followers of Christ, we also exalt the tribe of Judah and honor Caleb as well. As much as we should take heart as we learn about Caleb, the New Testament honors another member of the tribe of Judah even more. Jesus was perfectly courageous and offered unmatched wholehearted service to God every moment of his life. He is the supreme model for all to follow today (see Phil 2:5–11).

15:1–12 Territories of Judah. Caleb’s possession of Hebron was just one of many inheritances allotted to Judah “according to their clans” (15:1, 12; see comments on 13:15–32). Judah received more land than any other tribe. This list draws attention to the far-reaching boundaries within which every family of Judah received its portion. The opening words literally read, “and there was the lot” (15:1). The ceremony of casting lots was performed to counter any disputes that may have arisen among the tribes or among the clans of Judah in the future (see comments on 14:1–5).

This record of Judah anticipated the day when the house of David would rule over the entire nation of Judah and encouraged every Israelite to bow before the throne of David. Christians now serve the great son of David who sits on David’s throne and rules over the entire world, and we should honor him as our king (see Acts 2:30–32).

15:13–19 Caleb’s Daughter in Judah. Our author turns to a second narrative closely related to the first (see 14:7–15). Caleb went up against Debir and offered his daughter, Achsah, in marriage to the man who conquered the city. Othniel captured the city and married Achsah. At her request, Othniel asked Caleb for a field for her new family, and Caleb granted it. Beyond this, Achsah directly asked Caleb for “a blessing” of a precious resource in the region, “springs of water” (15:19). In response, Caleb granted her more than she asked, “the upper springs and the lower springs” (15:19). This is the first of two times our author addresses an apparently controversial issue: high regard for women in the process of establishing and perpetuating the inheritances of their clans (see 17:3–4).

Given the cultural milieu of Israel in Old Testament times, our author’s focus on women here and in 17:3–4 was probably motivated by recurring controversies over women and clan inheritances. The fact that this occurred in the highly honored tribe of Judah meant that it should be followed in all other tribes as well. Paul reflected a similar outlook when he claimed that “there is no male or female” and added “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:28–29). High regard for women as “co-heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17) is a value to be promoted in the Christian church.

15:20–62 Cities of Judah. Judah’s tribal inheritance turns to more examples of allotments “according to their clans” (15:20; see comments on 13:15–32). Our author continues to exalt Judah by noting that a total of 112 cities were given to Judah’s clans. He also repeats ten times that Judah received “cities with their villages,” cities that were large enough to have villages around them (15:32, 36, 41, 44, 51, 54, 57, 59, 60, 62; see also 18:24, 28; 19:6, 7, 15, 16, 22, 23, 30, 31, 38, 39, 48). He does this to raise Judah’s profile as the tribe that the Lord blessed beyond measure (see 24:2–13).

The exaltation of Judah above all other tribes called for every generation of Israel to acknowledge Judah as the leading tribe of Israel. Despite the many shortcomings of the royal family of Judah centuries later, David’s dynasty remained Israel’s hope for the future. As followers of Christ, we should keep in view that Judah was the tribe of Jesus, the perfectly righteous son of David who now has “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt 28:18) and leads his people until the day when he rules over all.

15:63 Conclusion to Judah. Despite the prominence Judah received, our author closes with a call for the tribe of Judah to have humility: “The Jebusites dwell with the people of Judah at Jerusalem to this day.” The presence of Jebusites in Israel was problematic for many generations. They troubled Israel during the period of the Judges (see Judg 1:21; 19:11). David freed Jerusalem from Jebusite control (2Sam 5:6–9), but some interpreters suggest that he only excluded them from the smaller portion of Jerusalem known as the city of David. The Jebusites were never driven out of the Promised Land. Our author called for humility in similar ways from other larger tribes (see 13:13; 16:10; 17:12; 17:14–18). Despite the honor the Lord gave to Judah, the Judahites had no cause for pride over other tribes. God’s people throughout the ages easily become filled with undue pride because of the blessings they receive from the Lord. Such pride must be tempered by a humble awareness of our temptations (see 2Cor 10:13–17; Jas 1:9–10). No one is “to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Rom 12:3).

16:1–17:18 Allotments for Joseph. Having dealt with Judah’s large tribal inheritance to the south, our author turns to the allotments made to Joseph’s tribes in the north. These materials divide into an introduction in 16:1–4, attention to Ephraim in 16:5–10, and attention to Manasseh in 17:1–13.

16:1–4 Introduction to Joseph. Due to the lack of a different geographical reference, it is likely that these allotments also took place at Gilgal (see 14:6: 18:1). This introduction quickly sketches the large lands given to “the people of Joseph” (16:1). Our author identifies “the people of Joseph” as “Ephraim and Manasseh” (16:4) to remind his audience once more (see 14:1–5) why these two tribes were so prominent. Together Joseph’s tribes were granted territories second only to Judah. So, our author acknowledges their prominence by covering their allotments next.

16:5–10 Ephraim. Although Manasseh was Joseph’s first born, by special divine providence Jacob exalted Ephraim over Manasseh (see Gen 48:13–20). Our author notes twice that this land was distributed among Ephraimites “by their clans” (16:5, 8; see comments on 13:15–32). He also sketches the broad boundaries of Ephraim’s land that marked off a relatively large portion of Cisjordan (16:5–8). Three times he referred to these lands as “inheritance” (16:5, 8, 9) to indicate that no clan in Ephraim was to lose its enduring allotment apart from the decree of the Lord. In addition, our author renders judgment on unusual allotments that must have become controversial with the passage of time. Some “towns … within the inheritance of the Manassites” belonged to Ephraim (16:9). The record closes, however, with a call for humility in Ephraim much like Judah (see 15:63). This prominent tribe “did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer” (16:10), so it also had no cause for pride over other tribes (see comments on 15:63).

Figurine of Canaanite creator deity, El, discovered in Megiddo and dated between 1400–1200 BC.
Figurine of Canaanite creator deity, El, discovered in Megiddo and dated between 1400–1200 BC. | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Daderot, Public Domain

17:1–13 Manasseh. The material on Manasseh continues to focus on the distribution of lands “by their clans” (17:2 [2x]; see comments on 13:15–32). It begins with the expression “and there was the lot” (lit. 17:1see comments on 14:1–5) to remind the audience that God himself directed these distributions. At this point, our author also mentions six prominent descendants of Manasseh and notes that they were “the male descendants of Manasseh” (17:2) to introduce the narrative that follows.

17:3–6 Zelophehad’s Daughters in Manasseh. This narrative is the third of six (see comments on 14:7–15) and the second to draw attention to women (see 15:13–19). “Zelophehad” had five daughters and “no sons” (17:3), and he had died in the wilderness (see Num 27:1–11). So, Zelophehad’s daughters approached “Eleazar . . . Joshua . . . and the leaders” (17:4) for an authoritative answer to a crucial issue: How was Zelophehad’s clan inheritance to be protected for future generations? The daughters insisted that when their father died, “the Lord commanded Moses” that they were to have “an inheritance,” an enduring possession (17:4), along with “[their] brothers” (or “uncles” or “cousins,” as it may be translated). Every generation of Israel was to learn from this narrative that daughters were legitimate heirs of their clans’ enduring inheritances. Thus, the church of Christ promotes the belief that men and women who follow Christ are “Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:28–29).

17:7–13 Manasseh’s Territories. The record of Manasseh closes with a sketch of the territories, borders, cities, and villages that belonged to Manasseh. Because of the proximity of Ephraim, ownership of a number of “cities” had to be clarified for future generations (17:9; see 16:9). A call for humility follows. “The people of Manasseh could not take possession” of certain cities because “the Canaanites [were] there” (17:12). They had no cause for pride (cf. 15:63).

17:14–18 Conclusion to Joseph. Our author closes this section with a short narrative concerning the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh together as “the people of Joseph” (17:14; see 16:1–4). This narrative is the fourth of six such narratives and casts a remarkably dark shadow over both of the tribes of Joseph. They complained to Joshua that the lot needed to be cast again because of their large population (see 17:14). Joshua offered for them to expand their territories, but they feared the Canaanites there because they had “chariots of iron” (17:16; see Judg 1:19; 4:3). Joshua agreed to a second casting of the lot (see 17:17) and assured them that “the hill country shall be yours . . . to its farthest borders,” despite the strength of the Canaanites in the area (17:18).

Chariot of King Tutankhamun
One of the chariots of King Tutankhamun as displayed in the Luxor Museum | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Heidi Kontkanen, CC BY-SA 2.0

Through this narrative, our author presses the need for the people of Joseph to be even more deeply humble than Judah. This special attention to failure was appropriate, because during the divided kingdom, these tribes led in rebellion against Judah’s royal family and the Lord by establishing their own king and worship centers in opposition to the Temple in Jerusalem (see 1Kgs 12:1–14:20). Even so, our author honors Ephraim and Manasseh as the prominent tribes of the northern region. This outlook appears at various times in Israel’s history. Hezekiah called the faithful of these tribes to join him for Passover in Jerusalem (see 2Chr 30), and they were welcomed by the post-exilic community as they supported God’s work in Jerusalem (see 1Chr 9:3).

The author of Joshua handled the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh with great wisdom. He did not deny the blessings of these tribes in the past, but he did not ignore their rebellion against the Lord either. Followers of Christ must do the same. Throughout history, segments of the church that were once faithful and highly honored have turned from Christ. Their blessings are not to be forgotten, but their apostasies are not to be ignored. Faithful followers of Christ are commanded to call for repentance and to offer forgiveness and restoration (see Rev 2:1–3:22).

At Shiloh (18:1–19:50)

Having given his attention to the more prominent tribes in Cisjordan, our author turns to the tribes that received significantly smaller allotments at Shiloh in 18:1–19:50. He introduces these materials by summarizing the processes followed in 18:1–10 and closes with a brief affirmation of their significance in 19:51. The main body of these chapters reports the lands given to each of these tribes in 18:11–19:50.

18:1–10 Introduction to Shiloh. Our author begins with the fifth of his six narratives to acknowledge that both the Lord and the people of Israel sanctioned these allotments. On the one side, the “congregation . . . assembled” (18:1). The “congregation” often refers to a sacred gathering of Israel in the presence of God (see 22:16–17; Exod 12:3, 6; Num 14:5; 27:17; 31:16). This event occurred at “Shiloh” in the presence of God at “the tent of meeting” (18:1). On the other side, the assembly included “the whole . . . of the people of Israel” (18:1). These allotments did not occur in secret but with the consent of all the people (see comments on 1:10–18).

Tel Shiloh

Mindful of how important it was for all twelve tribes to receive allotments, our author notes that at this time there were still seven tribes “whose inheritance had not yet been apportioned” (18:2). The Lord directed these allotments but in a way that built confidence in the people. Joshua called for three representatives from each of these seven tribes to survey the lands that remained, to divide them into seven portions, and to bring a written description to him (see 18:4–9). In the end, however, Joshua “cast lots for them in Shiloh before the Lord” (18:10) to apportion the lands according to the Lord’s will. In the light of these actions, future generations of Israel were to affirm and maintain these tribal allotments.

18:11–28 Benjamin. The first of seven lots fell to Benjamin, and the land was divided “according to its clans” (18:11). As in other lists, every record of these seven tribes begins and ends with references to their clans (see 18:11, 28; 19:1, 8, 10, 16, 17, 23, 24, 31, 32, 39, 40, 48). These smaller allotments were to be respected in every generation. Needless to say, this was difficult to do for the tribe of Benjamin. Benjamin came close to elimination because of its wickedness during the period of the Judges (see Judg 19:16–30). Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin, and later on, Benjaminites divided their loyalties between the northern and southern kingdoms. Still, Benjamin played a special role among the remnant of Israel that returned from exile (see 1Chr 9:3). For these and other reasons, our author spends more time on Benjamin than on any other of the seven tribes. He reports the extent of Benjamin’s tribal inheritance “boundary by boundary all around” (18:20) and notes the blessing of “twelve cities with their villages” (18:24; see comments on 15:20–62)

19:1–9 Simeon. Our author notes that the land of Simeon was also allotted “according to their clans (19:1, 8; see comments on 13:15–32) and that the tribe received the blessing of more than “four cities with their villages” (19:7–8; see comments on 15:20–62). He stresses, however, that Simeon was “in the midst of the inheritance of the people of Judah” (19:1, 9). Jacob had predicted that God would “divide” and “scatter” Simeon along with Levi because of their excessive violence in response to their sister’s defilement (see Gen 34:1–31; 49:7). The close association between Simeon and Judah began as early as the first chapters of Judges where Simeon joined with Judah in leading Israel into battle (Judg 1:3).

19:10–39 Zebulun, Issachar, Asher, Naphtali. Our author sketches the territories of these tribes to reaffirm their rights to these inheritances “according to their clans” (19:10, 16, 17, 23, 24, 31, 32, 39). He also highlights their special blessings from God by noting the number of “cities with villages” each tribe received: “twelve” for Zebulun (19:15–16), “sixteen” for Issachar (19: 22, 23), “twenty-two” for Asher (19:30, 31) and “nineteen” for Naphtali (19:38–39).

19:40–48 Dan. The record of the tribe of Dan barely mentions “cities with their villages” at the end (19:48). Rather, it focuses on a terrible set of circumstances that took place with the tribe of Dan. Dan’s original allotment was in the south near Judah, but the tribe of Dan was not able to take its originally allotted territories (see Judg 1:34; 18:27–31). So, the people of Dan left that allotment and “went up and fought against Leshem . . . and settled in it, calling Leshem, Dan” (19:47). It was also called “Laish” (Judg 18:27, 29). Our author focuses on this event because this location was infamous during the time of the divided kingdom. Jeroboam I erected an idolatrous golden calf there as an alternative to worship in Jerusalem (see 1Kgs 12:28–29). In all likelihood, our author reports the migration of Dan to call for all the tribes to insist that Dan turn back to the Lord and return to their original inheritance.

19:49–50 Joshua’s Inheritance. The account of Joshua’s inheritance is the last of six narratives that focuses on special allotments. Joshua was an Ephraimite (see Num 13:8), but our author places this record here for the sake of chronology. This passage also correlates with the narrative of Caleb’s inheritance at the beginning of allotments in Cisjordan (see 14:7–15). Along with Caleb, Joshua was a faithful spy in Moses’s service (see Num 13–14). He was honored with “Timnath-serah in the hill country of Ephraim” (19:50) This grant was indisputable because it came “by command of the Lord” (19:50). This special attention to Joshua is particularly important to followers of Christ, whose name was “Joshua” in Hebrew and Aramaic (see comments on 1:1–2).

19:51 Closure. In balance with the introduction to events at Shiloh (see 18:1–10), our author closes with a strong affirmation of the abiding significance of these tribal inheritances. They were established by the authorities God had ordained, “Eleazar the priest and Joshua the son of Nun and the heads of the fathers’ houses” (19:51). They were also made “by lot at Shiloh before the Lord “ (19:51).

Future generations of Israel faced many difficulties in maintaining and re-establishing the allotments given to the smaller tribes in Cisjordan, but our author insists that it was their sacred duty to do so. Although these tribes did not have the prominence of Judah, Ephraim, and Manasseh, they were to be counted among the people of Israel. In the Christian church, we must also be careful to honor those who do not receive much prominence. Every manifestation of the firstfruits of the Spirit is essential to the well-being of the body of Christ (see 1Cor 12:1–26), so that “if one member suffers, all suffer together” (1Cor 12:26). We are also to strengthen the weak and strive for peace in the church to ensure that “no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble” (see Heb 12:12–15).

20:1–21:42 Additional Cities at Shiloh. Joshua’s task was not complete. Presumably at Shiloh (see 21:2), he appointed cities that were given to the tribe of Levi. On four occasions our author has already mentioned that the tribe of Levi did not have an inheritance like the other tribes (see comments on 21:1–2); yet the tribe of Levi was given cities scattered among the other tribes to provide enormously important services to the entire nation. These chapters give attention first to the Levitical cities of refuge (20:1–9) and then to other cities appointed for the tribe of Levi (21:1–42).

20:1–9 Cities of Refuge. Our author does not mention the tribe of Levi in this chapter. Apparently, he assumed that his audience understood that the cities of refuge were six of the forty-eight cities that were appointed for the clans of Levi (see comments on 21:9–42). Having just dealt with matters of controversy and conflict among the tribes, he places these materials here to illustrate the importance of maintaining peace among the clans and tribes of Israel. He focuses on a specific kind of legal situation that likely arose quite often in Israel: What was to be done when someone from one clan or tribe accidentally killed someone from another clan or tribe? Our author first summarizes the instructions Joshua receive from the Lord (20:1–6). He then explains how Israel followed these instructions (20:7–9).

20:1–6 Instructions for Cities of Refuge. The Lord commanded Joshua, “Say to the people of Israel” (20:1), so, rather than addressing the leaders of Israel, Joshua turned to the people. These instructions involved complex activities in locations that were far from Joshua and the other leaders in Shiloh. The people were to “appoint cities of refuge,” cities scattered among the tribes on both sides of the Jordan River. God himself had commanded this “through Moses” (20:1). Moses had ordered six cities appointed to Levi to protect those who killed someone unintentionally or unknowingly (see Exod 21:12–14; Num 35:6–29; Deut 19:1–10). Moses himself had already appointed three cities in Transjordan (see Deut 4:41–43). At this time, the Lord called for Joshua to ensure that three other cities were established in Cisjordan.

The Lord gave Joshua a brief summary of what was to happen in these cities. Anyone who kills another unintentionally may flee to one of these cities to escape “the avenger of blood” (20:3), a close relative of the slain person who sought revenge. Assyrian documents confirm what was a widespread practice in Joshua’s day, as it is in a number of cultures even today. In cultures outside of Israel, a close relative had the right to seek payment from or even the death of anyone who killed a member of his clan or tribe, even if the act was accidental. In Israel this was not to be the case. The manslayer was to flee to a city of refuge and to explain his situation to the elders. The elders were to give him protection until he was exonerated and after a period of waiting until the current high priest died. Thus, revenge killings were to be eliminated from Israel “throughout your generations” (Num 35:29).

20:7–9 Appointments of Cities of Refuge. In time, Israel did precisely as the Lord commanded. From the north to the south in Cisjordan, the people set apart “Kadesh . . . Shechem . . . and Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron)” (20:7). From south to north, they also appointed “Bezer . . . Ramoth . . . and Golan” in Transjordan as Moses had commanded (20:8). These cities were positioned throughout the lands to fulfill their crucial service to Israel.

The cities of refuge brought to light one of the crucial services the Levites provided for all the other tribes. Under their watchful eye, the Lord protected the innocent and restrained anger and revenge in Israel. These cities in Israel provide an important background to the New Testament instruction to “live peaceably with all [and] never avenge yourselves” (Rom 12:18–19; see 2Cor 13:11; 1Pet 3:9). The protection of the innocent and the restraint of anger and revenge remain a crucial service that leaders of the church provide in every age.

21:1–42 Levitical Cities. Having introduced the vital service provided by the tribe of Levi in the six cities of refuge, our author expands his vision to all of the Levitical cities. His record divides into two parts: the establishment of these cities in 21:1–2 and lists of these Levitical cities in 21:4–42.

21:1–2 Establishment of Levitical Cities. In previous chapters, our author pointed out four times the tribe of Levi did not receive lands like the other tribes (see 13:14, 33; 14:3; 18:7). Their enduring inheritance included their special service in worship at the Tabernacle and later at the Temple. On a more practical level, however, their inheritance also included the tithes they received from the other tribes as they carried out their services in Israel’s centralized worship (see Num 18:1–32).

In this chapter, our author points to another kind of service the Levites provided. They had responsibilities for teaching and applying the Law of Moses to daily life among all the tribes of Israel (see Lev 10:11; Deut 33:10; 2Chr 15:3; 17:7–9; 35:3; Ezra 7:10; Neh 8:7–9; Ezek 44:23–24; Mal 2:6–9). These services required Levites to be scattered throughout the nation so they could have easy access to all the tribes. On the plains of Moab, Moses had given specific instructions for the tribe of Levi to be granted these cities throughout Cisjordan and Transjordan (see 20:1; Num 35:1–8). For this reason, “the heads of the fathers’ houses of the Levites” (21:1) approached the divinely authorized leaders of Israel, “Eleazar the priest . . . Joshua . . . and . . . the heads of the fathers’ houses of the tribes” (21:1). They asked for “cities to dwell in, along with their pasturelands for [their] livestock” (21:3). The Levites not only needed places to live among the tribes, but they also needed “pasturelands.” Pasturelands were so important that our author mentions them fifty-eight times in this chapter. In fact, Moses gave specific instructions about their size (see Num 35:1–8). Once the other tribes had been allotted their lands, if they were to be faithful to the Lord, the Levites had to be granted these cities.

The establishment of Levitical cities had ongoing significance because Phinehas, the son of Eleazer, demonstrated unmatched zeal for the sanctity of the Tabernacle at Peor (see Num 25:1–9). As a result of his zeal, the Lord gave to him a “covenant of peace” (Num 25:13). This was not a temporary measure; rather, the Lord gave “to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood” (Num 25:13). Every generation of Israel was to acknowledge the priesthood and the system of Levitical services associated with it. They led the worship of Israel, and they ensured that Israel learned the Law of God. Nothing was more critical for the nation.

The New Testament acknowledges this necessity as well. It does this, however, in the light of Christ and his supreme, imperial priesthood as the righteous son of David (see Heb 7:1–28). After Christ’s final sacrifice of himself on the cross, rituals of sacrifice associated with the tribe of Levi that offered only temporary atonement for sin became outdated. Beyond this, however, those who lead in worship and teach the Word of God are still vital to the church. The apostle Paul recognized this when he identified those who “get their living by the gospel” as the continuation of the tribe of Levi (see 2Cor 9:13–14). As they lead worship and teach the Word of God to the entire Christian church, they are to receive generous support from blessings that others in the church have received from God.

21:3–42 Appointment of Levitical Cities. The appointment of Levitical cities begins with an overview of clans of Levi and their support from other tribes in 21:3–8. It then turns to more detailed lists of cities in 21:9–42.

21:3–8 The Levitical cities were not the inheritance of the tribe of Levi. The “cities and pasturelands” were portions of the “inheritance” of other tribes (21:3). Between the opening and closing summations in 21:3, 8, the record divides according to the three sons of Levi (see Gen 46:11): Kohath in 21:4–5, Gershon in 21:6, and Merari in 21:7. Much like the records of other tribes (see 13:15–32), this list of Levitical cities mentions the clans of Levi (see 21:4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 20, 26, 27, 33, 34, 40 [2x]). These families of Levi received cities and pasturelands from various tribes in Cisjordan and Transjordan (see 21:4–7). To reassure his audience that these decisions occurred according to God’s will, our author notes that they were made by “lot” (21:4 [2x], 5, 6, 8). The same is true for those who carry on as Levites in the church today; they are to serve according to God’s appointment without human favoritism or advantage.

21:9–42 Specific cities are named for the Kohathites who descended from the high priest Aaron in 21:9–19 and the other Kohathites in 21:20–26. Other cities are identified with the Gershonites in 21:27–32 and with the Merarites in 21:33–40. Our author explicitly ties these materials to chapter 20 by noting that a “city of refuge for the manslayer” was associated with each of the three families of the tribe of Levi (21:13, 21, 27, 32, 38). He also referred to his earlier account of the special status of Hebron as Caleb’s enduring inheritance (21:12; see comments on 14:7–15). These materials end with the author’s enthusiastic report that “forty-eight cities with their pasturelands” (21:41) were established. The needs of the tribe of Levi were met in full (see 21:42) so that the tribe of Levi could serve all the other tribes in worship and in teaching the Law of God.

More Lands Given (21:43–45)

In balance with the opening section that drew attention to lands remaining beyond Israel’s control in 13:1–7), our author enthusiastically closes his account in 21:43–45 with the increase of land Israel received. Israel’s success in gaining larger areas of land was in fulfillment of what the Lord “swore to give to their fathers “ (21:44). With enthusiastic doxology, our author affirms that not one word . . . had failed” (21:45).

Many translations lead to the misimpression that every other inhabitant had been driven from the land of promise at this time: “the Lord gave to Israel all the land . . . they took possession . . . settled there . . . rest on every side . . . not one of all their enemies had withstood them . . . all came to pass” (21:43–45). Yet, our author has already noted that other inhabitants remained in the land (see 15:63; 16:10; 17:12). Later, he will report that Joshua encouraged hope that the Lord “will push them back . . . and drive them out of your sight” (23:5) in the future. The opening chapters of the Book of Judges confirms that this was still a problem after Joshua’s death. It is important to note, however, that the Hebrew here can be translated as progressive action in the past: “the Lord was giving to Israel all the land . . . they were taking possession of it . . . they were settling there . . . not one of all their enemies was withstanding them . . . all was coming to pass.” To be sure, Israel continued to increase its possession of Canaan, but there was still much to be done.

Preservation of Tribal Inheritances (22:1–34)

Our author ends his attention to tribal inheritances for all twelve tribes by focusing on the preservation of those inheritances. It was time for the tribes of Transjordan to return to their lands. As they did, however, war nearly broke out among the tribes, a war that threatened to undo what had been accomplished. Our author draws upon this event to address a need that every generation of Israel experienced: the need to preserve tribal inheritances of the entire nation of Israel. There is much to be learned from this chapter for the people of God today. It demonstrates the need for a willingness to exercise discipline within the church, the need for careful attention to controversy and disagreement, and the commitment to ensuring that our unity is found in loyalty to our Lord.

This account in 22:1–34 sets forth a path for navigating fear, suspicions, and distrust that often threatened the unity of Israel’s tribes. Israel’s tribal allotments would be sustained only as the tribes remained unified in their commitment to the Lord. This narrative divides into five main steps: the construction of an altar in 22:1–10, the growing threat in 22:11–14, the confrontation in 22:15–31, the cessation of threat in 22:32–33, and the naming of the altar in 22:34.

Construction of the Altar (22:1–10)

22:1–10 The narrative begins with Joshua’s directive for the tribes of Transjordan to return to their inheritance in 22:1–8 and the tribes’ response in 22:9–10.

22:1–8 Joshua’s Directive. Joseph addressed the tribes of Transjordan “then” (22:1), at some point shortly after the tribal allotments of preceding chapters had ended “at Shiloh” (see 21:7, 9). Joshua’s words recall the opening of our book where he ordered the tribes of Transjordan to join with the other tribes until the conquest of Canaan had ended (see 1:10–18; 13:8–33). At this time, they would receive their “rest” (22:4; see comments on 1:10–18). Joshua’s conquest had ended, so he “blessed” them and “sent them away” (2:6, 7).

22:1–6 Joshua had many positive things to say about “Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh” (22:1). He affirmed that they had been obedient to all that Moses and he had commanded (see 22:2). They had “not forsaken” and had proven unfaithful to their “brothers,” the tribes of Cisjordan (22:2). He also called Manasseh on both sides of the Jordan “brothers” (22:7, 8, 9). So, now that “rest” or victory in war had come in Cisjordan (22:4), it was time for them to “turn and go to . . . the land” of their possession, their enduring inheritance “on the other side of Jordan” (22:4).

Still, Joshua warned the tribes of Transjordan to be “very careful” (22:5; see 23:11). He ordered them “to observe the commandment and the law” (22:5). Joshua recalled what Moses had commanded, “Love the Lord your God” (22:5; see 23:11; Deut 6:5; 10:12; 11:1, 13, 22; Matt 22:37). This injunction correlated with royal documents from the ancient Near East in which kings called for their subjects to “love” them, to serve them with deep-seated, grateful devotion and loyalty, in response to the love their king had shown to them (see Deut 7:7, 8, 9, 13; 10:15). As the Transjordan tribes ventured away from the other tribes, they needed to be fully committed to personal, heartfelt, grateful loyalty for the Lord himself. They were “to cling,” to hold tightly “to him with all [their] heart and with all [their] soul” (22:5), much like loving husbands and wives (see Gen 2:24) and devoted mothers and daughters (see Ruth 1:14) cling to each other (see comments on 23:6–8). With that, Joshua “blessed them and sent them away” (22:6).

22:7–8 Our author then turns to what Joshua said to the tribe of Manasseh about something that was apparently somewhat controversial. The entire tribe of Manasseh had fought jointly “beside their brothers in the land west of the Jordan” (22:7). So, Joshua ordered that it was right for the half-tribe of Manasseh to depart “with much wealth and with very much livestock, with silver, gold, bronze, and iron, and with much clothing” (22:8) that they had received in Cisjordan. They shared the “spoil” of battles with their “brothers” (22:8) when the Lord ordered it in Canaan (see comments on 6:17–21).

22:9–10 The Tribes’ Response. The tribes began their journey home toward “the land of Gilead” in Transjordan (22:9). Yet, surprisingly and inexplicably at first, the tribes of Transjordan stopped “in the region of the Jordan that is in the land of Canaan,” perhaps near Gilgal (22:9). There they built an “altar” (22:10). Our author simply describes it as an “altar,” a structure built for sacrifices. To make matters worse, it was an “altar of imposing size,” or “an ostentatious altar” (2:10), apparently intended to belittle the altar at the Tabernacle. The problem was immediately evident to faithful Israelites in every generation. Moses had commanded Israel to make sacrifices only at the altar of the Lord at the Tabernacle and later at the Temple (see Lev 17:1–9; Deut 12:13–14). From all appearances, it seemed that the tribes of Transjordan had already flagrantly violated Joshua’s warning (see 22:5).

Threat of War (22:11–14)

Eventually, the people of Cisjordan heard about this altar. It would have been bad enough for it to have been built east of the Jordan. Yet, they furiously complained that the Transjordan tribes built “at the frontier of the land of Canaan . . . on the side that belongs to the people of Israel” (22:11). Immediately, “the whole assembly” (22:12; see 22:16, 18) gathered, the kind of sacred assembly both for worship and intertribal judgment (see Exod 12:6; Judg 20:1). This assembly determined “to make war against” the Tribes of Transjordan (22:12). Individuals who performed sacrifices apart from the altar at the Tabernacle or Temple were to be “cut off” or executed (see Lev 17:1–9). Here the violation was so largescale that the other tribes were obligated to go to war against their fellow Israelites, as they did on other occasions (see Deut 13:12–15; Judg 20:1–48; 1Sam 11:6–8).

Such a war was not to be taken lightly. It would have devastated the progress Israel had made under Joshua’s leadership. So, the assembly sent Phinehas (22:13), a trustworthy representative. He was well known for his zeal for the sanctity of the Tent of Meeting that he displayed at Peor (see 22:17; Num 25:1–18). Along with Phinehas were “ten chiefs, one from each of the tribal families of Israel” (22:14) who ensured that the will of the entire assembly was represented.

Confrontation (22:15–31)

The complex turning point of this narrative in 22:15–31 divides into three parts. It reports the accusations of the delegation in 22:15–20, then the response of the tribes of Transjordan in 22:21–29, and the decision of the delegation in 22:30–31.

22:15–20 Accusations. The delegation vigorously called what the tribes of Transjordan had done “a breach of faith” (22:16), a term that appears two other times in this narrative (22:20, 31). This strong terminology for flagrant sin also describes Israel’s rebellion at Ai (see comments on 7:1). The violation was not a trifling matter; it was a direct afront “against the Lord . . . in rebellion against the Lord” (22:16). As a result, the delegation from Cisjordan feared that the Lord would bring judgment on the entire nation. The delegation had good reason for this fear; egregious sin often led to divine judgment that swept up others who had not personally participated in the sin (see 7:16–26). The delegation justified their feelings by pointing out that “we have not cleansed ourselves” of the “plague upon the congregation” that occurred years ago at Peor (22:17; see Num 25:1–18). The judgment against that sin still impacted their lives. They also feared that the rebellion of the Transjordan tribes might “make us as rebels” in the eyes of God (22:19). Moreover, they recounted the case of Achan at the battle for Ai (see 7:1), where all the tribes suffered because of what one man had done. “Achan [broke] faith” and “wrath fell upon all the congregation of Israel . . . he did not perish alone for his iniquity” (22:20; see 22:16).

In desperation, the delegation offered a possible resolution: if the tribes of Transjordan considered their inheritance east of the Jordan too “unclean” for their altar, then they could “pass over . . . where the Lord’s tabernacle stands, and take for yourselves a possession among us” (22:19). They could live in Cisjordan and worship properly at the Tabernacle.

Resting place of the Tabernacle at Shiloh
The resting place of the Tabernacle at Shiloh | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Deror Avi, CC BY-SA 4.0

22:21–29 Response. The leaders from Transjordan responded with a passionate explanation of their innocence. They took an oath before the Lord, expressing their deep devotion by calling him “the Mighty One, God, the Lord! The Mighty One, God, the Lord!” (22:22). They were confident that “He knows,” but they prayed, “let Israel itself know” as well (22:22). They then placed themselves at the mercy of their accusers. If their accusers were right, then “do not spare us” (22:22). If they had made their altar for sacrifices, then “may the Lord himself take vengeance” (22:23). Then they went on to explain their true motivation. They had not intended to turn from the Lord; on the contrary, they feared that in the future, “your children might make our children cease to worship the Lord” (22:25) by prohibiting them from joining in worship at the Tabernacle. If this were to happen, they would point their children to “the copy of the altar of the Lord” (22:28). The tribes of Transjordan did not call their altar “the altar of the Lord” but a mere “copy” or replica of it. It was “not for burnt offerings, nor for sacrifice” (22:28). They had no intention of creating an alternative to “the altar of the Lord our God that stands before his tabernacle” (22:29).

The altar at the Jordan had a very different purpose. It was built simply “to be a witness between us and you” (22:29). The term “witness” (“testimony” or “evidence,” as it may be translated) was used of people who testify, often in legal settings (see Exod 20:16; Lev 5:1; Num 35:30). It was also used of physical things like monuments that gave evidence of a claim (see 24:22a). The altar at the Jordan was designed to serve as an ongoing evidence, a witness to the faith sincerely shared by the tribes in Transjordan and Cisjordan, their common commitment to the ways of the Lord.

22:30–31 Decision. When the delegation heard this explanation, “it was good in their eyes” (22:30). Phinehas exclaimed, “Today we know that the Lord is in our midst” (22:31). The Lord had graciously intervened. The tribes of Transjordan had “not committed this breach of faith” (22:31; see comments on 7:1). Through their humble and sincere explanation, they “delivered the people of Israel from the hand of the Lord” (22:31), that is, the wrathful hand of the Lord. These events charted a course for all generations of Israel to follow whenever similar controversies rose among the tribes. It also points to the care with which accusations of sin within the body of Christ must be handled (see Gal 6:1).

Cessation of Threat (22:32–33)

In balance with the growing threat of war in 22:11–14, our author reports that “Phinehas . . . and the chiefs . . . returned to the land of Canaan” (22:32). “The people of Israel” in Cisjordan “blessed God and spoke no more of making war” (22:33). Joy spread through the tribes of Cisjordan because God had mercifully preserved the inheritance of Israel.

Significance of the Altar (22:34)

The tension of this narrative comes to full resolution with a reminder of what future generations in Israel should take from it. The name of the altar had already come to the foreground in this story (see 22:27), yet our author underscores the importance of this name and its ongoing significance by repeating it here. The tribes in Transjordan “called the altar Witness” because “it is a witness between us that the Lord is God” (see comments on 24:22a).

Generation after generation of the faithful in Israel who heard of or saw the altar at the Jordan would know the significance of loyalty to the Lord as the source of Israel’s unity. Our author’s delight in the name given to this copy of the altar also reminds us of the importance of loyalty to the Lord as the source of unity among followers of Christ during the inauguration, continuation, and consummation of his kingdom.

Part Three: Covenant Loyalty (23:1–24:33)

The third and final major division of our book in 23:1–24:33 concentrates on Israel’s covenant loyalty. These chapters provide theological lenses through which our author hopes his audience would assess the significance of everything in his book. Prior to this division, he conveyed his own point of view primarily through the actions of his characters and their words embedded within those actions. As he closes his book with these chapters, he takes a dramatically different approach. He writes two narratives, but narratives with very little action. Joshua’s voice becomes the primary vehicle of his own outlooks. Through Joshua’s words, our author calls for the tribes of Israel to be loyal as people in covenant with the Lord. As such, Joshua’s words also call Christians to be loyal as the people of the new covenant in Christ (see Introduction).

This account divides into three main sections: an assembly in which Joshua warns Israel against transgressing the covenant in 23:1–16, an assembly in which Joshua leads Israel through a renewal of their covenant with the Lord in 24:1–28, and our author’s closing reflections on the outcomes of these assemblies in 24:29–33.

Assembly of Warning (23:1–16)

Our author turns first in 23:1–16 to an assembly in which Joshua warns the tribes not to transgress the Lord’s covenant. His record of this event divides into two sections. It begins with Joshua’s summons of the assembly in 23:1–2 and then moves to Joshua’s warnings of the consequences for transgression of the covenant in 23:3–16.

Joshua’s Summons to Assembly (23:1–2)

The third division of our book starts with a notice of a significant temporal gap (see 1:1; 13:1). These events occurred “a long time afterward” (23:1a), after Israel had received “rest . . . from all their surrounding enemies” (23:1a). Our author repeats that Joshua was “old and well advanced in years” (23:1b; see 13:1a), but this time with a bit of irony. Previously, the Lord confirmed that Joshua was “advanced in years” (13:1b), but enough time had passed that Joshua now had to admit his own age: “I am now old and well advanced in years” (23:2b). In fact, Joshua’s age was on his mind to such an extent that later in his speech he confessed, “I am about to go the way of all the earth” (23:13). Not surprisingly, Joshua spoke to the leaders of Israel in ways that resembled Moses’s last speech prior to his death.

The location of this gathering is not specified. It may have taken place in Shiloh (see 22:12), but the absence of a dismissal at the end of this chapter suggests this meeting may have occurred in Shechem in preparation for the assembly that occurred there (see 24:1). In all events, Joshua “summoned all Israel, its elders . . . heads . . . judges and officers” (23:2a) as he did in the second assembly (see 24:1). This list of leaders differs from others in our book in that it does not mention the priests who play such important roles at other times (see 14:1; 17:4; 19:51; 21:1). Rather, Joshua spoke to leaders who had more direct contact with the daily lives of the people of Israel. They would be able to enforce the critical things that Joshua had to say and provide practical guidance to families and individuals.

Joshua’s Speech (23:3–16)

The Hebrew syntax of this speech reveals Joshua’s emotional intensity; it was not a sober, formal presentation. Joshua fervently called on the tribes of Israel not to “transgress the covenant of the Lord your God” (23:16). As his speech makes clear, this was no small matter (see comments on 7:11). Joshua drew upon all three facets of covenant dynamics: God’s benevolences, the requirement of loyalty, and the consequences for disobedience and obedience. These were crucial facets of the Lord’s interactions with people in all biblical covenants, and they resemble the dynamics of ancient Near Eastern royal international treaties (see Introduction).

Even so, the three segments of Joshua’s speech do not deal evenly with these dynamics of the interactions between the Lord and his people. The first segment of his speech in 23:2–8 only mentions benevolence and the requirement of loyalty. The second segment in 23:9–13 mentions benevolence, loyalty, and the consequences of disobedience. The third segment in 23:14–16 goes directly from divine benevolences to severe consequences of disobedience. By speaking to Israel in this way, Joshua sought to alarm the people of Israel about the terrible curses that would befall them if they transgressed the Lord’s covenant.

23:3–8 Benevolence and Loyalty. The first segment of Joshua’s speech begins with two examples of God’s benevolence in 23:3–5 and then moves to a call for Israel’s loyalty in 23:6–8. Joshua recalled the kindnesses of the Lord first by turning to what “the Lord had done to all these nations for your sake” (23:3), the content of the first division of our book (see 1:1–12:24). As our author has pointed out many times, Israel had not won their victories in Canaan; the Lord and his angelic army had intervened (see comments on 6:1–5 and on 10:12–15; see Introduction). To be sure, the army of Israel fought; all Israel fought. Yet, in the final analysis, “it is the Lord your God who has fought for you” (23:4). Israel’s enemies were so great that Israel would have faced certain defeat if the Lord had not been with them, fighting alongside them (see comments on 3:7–17).

23:4–5 Joshua also recalls the content of the second major division of our book (see 13:1–22:34) by focusing on the benevolence of tribal allotments in Cisjordan. He appealed to the tribes from his heart by stating, “I have allotted” and “I have already cut off” many nations (23:4). He then reminded them that the Lord said, “the nations that remain . . . you shall possess their land” (23:4–5; see 13:6) because the Lord said that he “will push them back . . . and drive them out of your sight” (23:5).

Every generation of Israel after Joshua’s day was to be grateful for God’s benevolence in the past, and the same is true for Christ’s followers today. We look back at what he has done on our behalf and the promises he has made for our future as we live for him day by day.

23:6–8 After rehearsing God’s benevolences, Joshua turns to the requirement of grateful loyalty from Israel. He alluded to what the Lord had said to him as he prepared for the conquest years earlier. The tribes of Israel were to “be very strong” and “to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses” and not to deviate “to the right or to the left” (23:6).

Israel was to keep “all that is written in the Book of the Law” (23:6), but Joshua immediately went to the heart of the matter at hand: the temptation of idolatry. It was common in the ancient world, we might even say commonsensical, to deal with the hardships of life by serving many gods, asking one for this and another for that. Yet, this practice was condemned in Israel in the strongest terms before Joshua’s day (see Exod 20:3–6; Deut 4:15–31; Lev 16:1). Israel’s prophets looked upon it as the source of all kinds of evils during the monarchical period (see Amos 4:1–13; Isa 44:9–20). Idolatry was also the final cause for the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile (2Chr 33:3–9). So, Joshua’s warnings here spoke plainly throughout Israel’s history, as they do to New Testament believers who are tempted to do much the same (see Gal 5:20; Col 3:5–10).

Joshua then focuses on various ways Israel might fall into idolatry. The tribes were not to “mix with the Canaanites,” a reference to intermarriage (23:7; see Deut 7:2–3). Joshua did not forbid interracial or interethnic marriage; after all, Moses married a Midianite (see Exod 2:16–22), Salmon married Rahab, a Canaanite (see Matt 1:5), and Boaz married Ruth, a Moabite (see Ruth 4:13). Rather, Joshua forbade inter-religious marriage because it often led to corruption in Israel (see 1Kgs 11:1–2; 16:31–32; Ezr 10:1–5). The threat of Israel’s corruption was so great that it was one of the reasons the inhabitants of Canaan were to be “devoted to destruction” (Exod 34:11–16; Num 33:50–56; Deut 7:1–5). Inter-religious marriage is forbidden in the New Testament for the same reason (see 1Cor 7:12–16; 2Cor 6:14–18).

Joshua called for the people of Israel not to “make mention of (or “commemorate,” as it is better translated) the names of their gods” (23:7; see Exod 23:13). Given that godly biblical figures and authors mention the names of other gods, this prohibition is against remembering or commemorating false gods by calling on them and celebrating them.

In a similar fashion, Israel was not to “swear” to other gods (23:7); they were to swear only in the name of the Lord (see Deut 6:13–15), and that not in vain (see Exod 20:7). Taking an oath in the name of another god was a serious offense to the Lord because doing so indicated fear for what that god might do if the oath was broken (see Jer 5:7).

Israel was not to “serve them” (23:7). This terminology refers both to worship and to broader activities of life. The tribes were not to engage in serving false gods in any way. Nor were they to “bow down to them” (23:7), a direct reference to participation in Canaanite worship centers scattered throughout the Promised Land.

Joshua ends his call for Israel’s loyalty with a deeper insight into what constituted true loyalty to the Lord. It was not mere outward obedience or behavioral conformity to a set of rules; rather, Joshua chose language that was appropriate for the temptation of idolatry. Idolatry in Canaan and in other regions of the ancient world was deeply connected to “sacred prostitution,” the sexual employment of women (see Deut 23:18; Hos 4:14) and men (see Deut 23:17; 1Kgs 14:24; 15:12; 2Kgs 23:7) in fertility rituals of worship. In contrast to giving in to the sexual seduction of idolatry, the tribes of Israel were to “cling (hold tightly) to the Lord,” as Joshua claimed they had, for the most part at least, “to this day” (23:8). The command to “cling” described human intimacy between husbands and wives, as well as between mothers and daughters (see 22:5; Gen 2:24; Ruth 1:14). As such, this call to covenant loyalty provides background to Hosea’s reflections on Israel as the Lord’s bride (see Hos 2:14–20) and to the New Testament portrait of the church as the bride of Christ (see Eph 5:21–24; Rev 19:7–8). Loyalty to the Lord always entails wholehearted, intimate clinging to him.

23:9–13 Benevolence, Loyalty, and Consequences. The second segment of Joshua’s speech focuses on all three dynamics of the Lord’s covenant. It begins with divine benevolence in 23:9–10, then it turns to Israel’s loyalty in 23:11, and it ends with the consequences of disobedience in 23:12–13.

23:9–10 Joshua returned to God’s kindness in the past. “For the Lord (or simply “And the Lord,“ as it may be translated) has driven out before you great and strong nations” (23:9). With doxological hyperbole Joshua added that “no man has been able to stand before you to this day” (23:9; see 1:5; 10:8; 21:44). In the same spirit, he added that “one man of you puts to flight a thousand” (23:10; see Lev 26:8; Deut 32:30). All of this was because the Lord “fights for you” (23:10; see 3:7–17). The astonishing victories of the past offered hope that more victories would come in the future.

23:11 Joshua then called for Israel to be loyal to the Lord in 23:11. He insisted that they “be very careful” (see 1:7; 22:5); he was about to tell them what was most important. Israel was not simply to avoid idols; they were to “love the Lord your God” (23:11). They were to have heartfelt, sincere devotion to their divine King for the many kindnesses he had shown them (see 22:1–6; 23:6–8).

23:12–13 For the first time in this speech, Joshua turns to the consequences of curses that would come upon Israel if they did not love the Lord. Why was loyalty to the Lord so crucial? Because curses and blessings in the future were conditional. If the tribes chose to “cling to the remnant of the nations” that remained in Canaan instead of clinging to the Lord (23:12), to “make marriages” (23:12; see 23:7), or to “associate with them and they with you” too closely (23:12), then the results would be horrific. They could “know for certain” what would happen. The Lord will “no longer drive out these nations” (23:13). The Canaanites will become an inescapable “snare” and “trap,” a painful “whip” and torturous “thorns in your eyes” (23:13; see Exod 23:33; Num 33:55; Deut 7:16). Then, eventually, Israel will “perish from off this good ground” (23:13, 15–16).

Joshua’s words spoke forcefully to Israel in every generation. As early as the period of the Judges, the Canaanites became “thorns” and “their gods . . . a snare” (Judg 2:3). The tribes of Israel also endured the quagmire of political engagements and wars with Assyria and Babylon. Eventually, Samaria fell to Assyria, and most of the population was scattered far and wide. The Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and drove Judah into exile. Joshua warned that all of these terrible curses from the Lord would come if they turned to idolatry. This threat also warns us of the severe temporary and eternal consequences that await those who turn away from Christ (see Heb 6:1–4; 10:26–31; 12:3–17).

23:14–16 Benevolence and Consequences. In the third segment of his speech, Joshua again refers to God’s benevolence (23:14). Then he turns directly to the consequences of curses from God in 23:15–16.

23:14 In his brief discourse on the Lord’s kindness here, Joshua appeals very personally to his audience. “I am about to go the way of all the earth” (23:14; see 23:2). Joshua had served Israel faithfully to the end of his life, so his testimony was trustworthy when he said that “not one word” of God’s promises “has failed” (23:14; see 21:45). He also directly addresses his audience. The Lord’s promises were made “concerning you” (23:14). The Lord had not been kind in the abstract or in the distant past; he had been benevolent to the ones standing before him on that day.

23:15–16 Without reiterating a call to loyalty (see 23:6–8, 11), Joshua immediately warns the tribes of the consequences that disloyalty would bring upon them. As much as “the good things” the Lord had promised “concerning you” were being fulfilled, he will bring “all the evil things” that Joshua has just threatened “upon you” (23:15; see Isa 45:7) if they turn from him. These evils will drive Israel “from off this . . . land” (23:15). Joshua did not threaten this severe judgment if Israel merely fell short of perfection; after all, no one reaches perfection in this life. It will occur “if you transgress the covenant” (23:16). To “transgress the covenant” was to violate the most fundamental stipulations of the covenant (see comments on 7:10–12). Transgression occurs when Israel rejects the Lord and follows “other gods” (23:16; see 23:12–13). If Israel does this, then “the anger of the Lord” will bring defeat and exile “from off the good land” that the Lord had so kindly given to them (23:16). Five times in this speech Joshua spoke of what Israel received from the Lord as “good”: “good ground” (23:13), “good things” (23:14, 15a), and “good land” (23:15b, 16). This focus on “good” expresses our author’s belief that the Promised Land was the place on earth that was on course to be like the world when it was first made, a land of righteousness and plenty, a place that was “very good” (see 6:1–5; Gen 1:31).

Joshua tells Israel in no uncertain terms that they would lose more than they could imagine if they turned to other gods. Every generation of Israel was to take this to heart. They stood to lose the blessings of God if they turned to other gods. In the same way, those who profess the name of Christ will not experience the blessings of salvation if they turn from him (see Heb 6:4–6).

Assembly of Covenant Renewal (24:1–28)

Having warned Israel of the severe consequences of idolatry, Joshua holds a gathering in which he leads Israel through a covenant renewal in 24:1–28, a recommitment to loyalty to God. Like his speech beforehand (see 23:3–16), this renewal of covenant also reflects the fundamental dynamics of life in covenant with the Lord (see Introduction). As such, it parallels several features of the ratification of suzerain-vassal treaties in the ancient Near East. It begins with Israel’s summons to this assembly in 24:1 and closes with their dismissal in 24:28. Within this framework, Joshua gives a speech concerning the benevolence of God in 24:2–13, leads a series of exhortations and responses in 24:14–24, and ceremonially codifies the covenant in 24:25–27.

Joshua’s Summons to Assembly (24:1)

Joshua gathers Israel “to Shechem” (24:1; see 23:1–2). Shechem (modern Nablus) was situated in the small pass between Mount Gerizim to the south and Mount Ebal to the north. The area is so small that the activities of this assembly could easily have involved the two mountains, much like Israel’s earlier covenant renewal (see 8:30–35). It is possible, however, that this assembly was entirely separate from the previous meeting (see 23:1–16). In support of this view, the last geographical reference has Israel in Shiloh (see 21:7, 9), but this meeting was held in Shechem. The most significant difference between chapters 23 and 24 is that here Joshua and Israel “presented themselves before God” (24:1; see 1Sam 10:19), a reference to approaching the Tent of Meeting, “the sanctuary of the Lord” (24:26). At the same time, several factors support the view that the earlier gathering in chapter 23 was at Shechem as well. The lists of participants are nearly identical: “all Israel” (23:2b) and “all the tribes of Israel” (24:1), along with “elders . . . heads . . . judges and officers” (23:2b; 24:1). Also, the first words of this chapter do not acknowledge the significant temporal gap that would have been required for the twelve-mile journey from Shiloh to Shechem. Whatever the case, the content of chapter 23 sets the stage for the content of chapter 24. The former warns of the severe consequences that will befall Israel if the people of Israel “transgress the covenant of the Lord” (23:16). The latter focuses on Israel’s renewed commitment to keeping covenant in the light of that threat.

Tel Balata, location of biblical Shechem
Tel Balata, location of biblical Shechem. Note the Standing Stone (left, near green dot) that once stood 7 feet (2.2 meters) tall and may possibly be the stone mentioned in Joshua 24:26. | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

The ceremonies of covenant ratification and renewal vary in the Old Testament depending on the circumstances (see Gen 6:18–22; 9:1–17; 15:17–21; 17:1–14; Exod 19–24; Num 25:10–13; Deut 11:29–32; 27:1–26; 2Kgs 22, 23; 2Chr 34:29–33; Neh 8, 9; Pss 89, 132). Here, Joshua followed a pattern that resembled Moses at Mount Sinai (see Exod 19–24).

Declaration of Divine Benevolence (24:2–13)

Joshua began, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel,” and spoke on God’s behalf in the first person (24:2). He stood squarely in the tradition of Moses (see Exod 4:22; 5:1; 20:22–26; Deut 29:6) and of Israel’s later prophets (see Judg 6:8; 1Sam 10:18). Here, the Lord speaks of how he has shown kindness to Israel (see Isa 41:8–10; Jer 2:7; Mic 6:4–5). He speaks in ways that resemble the practice of human kings in the ancient Near East. He declares how he has benefitted the tribes of Israel by overcoming their enemies and the gods of their enemies. The Lord’s rehearsal of what he has done for Israel divides into four segments that summarize information found in the Pentateuch.

24:2–3 First, the Lord speaks of a time “long ago,” when “your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates” and “served other gods” (24:2). This characterization of the fathers as servants of other gods coincides with the main focus of Joshua’s assemblies: Israel’s temptation to serve other gods (see 23:11–13, 16; 24:14–16). The Lord goes on to say that he had led Abraham throughout Canaan and “made his offspring many” (24:3). He “gave Esau,” the father of the Edomites who were well-known idolators, “the hill country of Seir” to the south and adjacent to the Promised Land (24:4; see 15:1, 21).

24:5–7 Second, the Lord recalls how he delivered Israel from Egypt. He sent Moses and Aaron and then “plagued” the Egyptians (24:5). This deliverance did not simply involve “man and beast” but “all the gods of Egypt” as well (Exod 12:12). Also, at the Sea, the Lord was celebrated as “a man of war” (Exod 15:3) who is greater than all other gods (see Exod 15:11).

24:8–10 Third, the Lord won victories in Transjordan. “I destroyed them before you” (24:8) and “delivered you” from defeat to victory over “Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab” (24:9). Moab was another nation nearby that served false gods (see 2Kgs 3:27; 23:12).

24:11–12a Fourth, the Lord declares that he had won the victories in Cisjordan against “the king of Jericho” and seven other peoples in the land of Canaan whom he had promised to destroy (see 3:10). The “hornet” went before Israel as predicted (see Exod 23:28; Deut 7:20), either literally or metaphorically. The “two kings of the Amorites” in view here (24:12) were likely the heads of the southern and northern alliances, Adoni-zedek (see 10:1) and Jabin (see 11:1), who also worshipped idols.

24:12b–13 The Lord’s many victories leads him to declare that the assembly should have been unendingly grateful. He reminds them that these victories were not “by your sword or by your bow” (24:12b; see Ps 44:3). Their efforts were useless apart from his supernatural intervention (see 5:13–15). In fact, they received a land on which “you have not labored” (24:13). They lived in cities that they had “not built” (24:13; see 13:15–33). And they ate from vineyards and olive orchards they “did not plant” (24:13; see Deut 6:11). Israel experienced the wonderful blessings of the Promised Land because the Lord, their mighty royal warrior, had defeated their enemies.

Calls and Responses (24:14–24)

After the Lord’s own declaration of his benevolence to Israel in the first person in 24:2–13, Joshua resumes speaking in the third person. He leads Israel in four sets of calls and responses in 24:14–18, 19–21, 22 and 23–34.

24:14–18 First Call and Response. Joshua begins “now therefore,” a way to call for a response in words or actions when followed by an imperative, as it is here (24:14).

24:14–15 Joshua calls for the people to respond in three ways: to “fear,” to “serve,” and to “put away” (24:14). “To fear” in this setting meant to have appropriate reverence for the power of Israel’s divine royal warrior, especially in the judgments that were threatened in the previous chapter and that will be threatened later in this chapter. This is the only time in our book that the “fear” of the Lord is presented positively, but it appears elsewhere in the Scriptures (see Deut 4:10; 5:29; 6:2; 8:6; 10:12; 13:4). In this sense, to fear God is “clean, enduring forever” (Ps 19:9) and the “beginning of wisdom” (Prov 9:10).

To “serve” the Lord (24:14) means to obey him as a humble, faithful servant. In the immediate context, service to the Lord (see 24:14, 18, 19, 21, 24) is contrasted with service to other gods (see 24:14, 15). Service is not merely to be given to the Lord outwardly; it was to be given “in sincerity and in faithfulness” (24:14), with enthusiasm and without compromise.

To “put away the gods that your fathers served” (24:14) implies that at least some of the assembly had idols in their possession. This was a common problem throughout Israel’s history, even in Jerusalem. It was a widely accepted, even an expected, practice in the ancient world to seek protection and blessings from many gods (see comments on 23:6–8). At this point, Joshua did not forthrightly accuse anyone before him of serving other gods. He said, “if” (or “unless,” as it may be translated) anyone thought that serving the Lord is “evil” (24:15). Such a thought would have been unimaginable for most of the people at the assembly. Even those who followed the custom of mixing their worship of the Lord with idol worship would not have thought that serving the Lord was evil (see Exod 32:3–6). But Joshua drew the line. The Lord required exclusive loyalty from Israel. Exclusive loyalty to him may have been considered evil by some in Israel because they blamed troubles such as disease, defeat, and death on their neglect of other gods. This possibility led Joshua to call for Israel make a decision, to “choose this day whom you will serve” (24:15). They may choose to serve the false “gods of their fathers” (24:15; see 24:2) or the gods of the “Amorites,” here another designation for the Canaanites (24:15). Yet, they were no longer to mix their faith with the faiths of others. Joshua led the way by revealing his own intentions (see 23:5). “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (24:15).

24:16–18 The people respond to Joshua’s call, “Far be it” (or “never,” as it may be translated). They claimed that they would never forsake the Lord. They responded with a short version of what the Lord had just declared about his benevolence (see 24:2–13). The Lord “brought us and our fathers up” from Egypt; he performed “great signs” and “preserved us” as he “drove out . . . the Amorites” during their travels toward the Promised Land (24:17–18). For this reason, the people affirmed wholeheartedly “we will serve the Lord” because “he is our God” (24:18). The Lord was the only God for Israel.

24:19–21 Second Call and Response. Joshua calls out to the assembly a second time, and they respond again with another firm commitment to the Lord.

24:19–20 Joshua cautions the assembly, “You are not able (or “You may not be able,” as it should be translated) to serve the Lord” in the future (24:19). He knew that the temptation to worship other gods was strong. They had failed many times already. This inability to remain faithful was an enormous problem because the Lord is “a jealous God” (24:19); he will not tolerate them sharing their devotion with other gods. To do so would have serious consequences for many generations (see Exod 20:5; Deut 4:24; 5:9). Joshua impressed upon the tribes that renewing covenant had serious implications. If Israel turned to other gods after professing renewed loyalty to the Lord, the Lord will “do you harm and consume you, after having done you good” (24:20). As Joshua had warned the assembly earlier (see 23:15–16), the consequences of judgment would be great, especially considering how much good God had done for them.

24:21 In response, the people vigorously reaffirm their commitment again. “No” (or “absolutely not,” as it may be translated). They were determined. “We will serve the Lord” (24:21) and reject all other gods (see 23:6–8).

24:22 Third Call and Response. Despite their weaknesses in the past, the people were ready to renew their covenant with the Lord. So, Joshua’s last call explicitly raises their exchange to the level of formal legality.

24:22a Joshua announces that if the people prove to be unfaithful, they could end up standing as “witnesses against yourselves” (24:22a). The term “witness” is often used for evidence and for people who offer testimony in human courts (see 22:21–29), as well as in the heavenly court of the Lord, where he can also be a witness (see Isa 43:9; Jer 29:23). As in ancient Near Eastern international treaties, Joshua had in mind Israel serving as witnesses in their own future trials before the Lord if they transgressed the covenant (see Deut 4:26; 31:19, 21).

24:22b Even in the face of such a threat, the people agreed, “We are witnesses.” They agreed to offer no excuses but to accuse themselves if they proved to be unfaithful. This commitment reflected the solemn oaths of self-malediction that appeared in the slaughter of animals and in circumcision in God’s covenant with Abraham (see Gen 15:9–19; 17:10–14). Swearing to accept one’s own curse for disloyalty to the Lord was an essential part of Israel’s covenant renewal.

24:23–24 Fourth Call and Response. On the basis of what had already been said, Joshua calls for decisive action regarding idols, and the people respond.

24:23 Joshua orders the people of the assembly to turn away from their idols and to turn toward the Lord. In effect, he called for them to repent, to turn from one thing and toward another. On one side, they were to “put away the foreign gods that are among you” (see 24:14–15); on the other side, they were also to “incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel.” To “incline” one’s heart (or “bend/direct/turn,” as it may be translated) indicates a change of direction, a reorientation of the heart away from the foreign gods to the Lord. Their deepest loyalties were to be exclusively in the direction of the Lord, “the God of Israel,” not toward other gods.

The Lord called Israel to repentance time and again throughout its history, especially when the nation had faced curses from him (see Deut 4:30; 30:2; Isa 55:7; Hos 6:1; 14:2; Joel 2:13). Turning or returning to the Lord is always two-sided. It is rooted both in gratitude for his many kindnesses and in the threat of his judgment. It entails leaving sin and idolatry in its many forms and turning toward the Lord. The same is true of the New Testament call for repentance (see Matt 3:2, 8; Mark 6:12; Luke 3:3; Acts 8:22; 17:30; 2Tim 2:25).

24:24 The assembly now declares the reorientation of their hearts. Rather than mixing their faith with other faiths, it is the “ Lord our God we serve” (see 24:14–15). Rather than listening to any other voices, it is “his voice” that “we will obey.” They pledged to live with grateful obedience to the words of the Lord (see 24:2–13).

Joshua addressed an assembly in which there were some who said these words insincerely as their first experience of saving faith and some who said them as an expression of their ongoing saving faith. The same is true in the New Testament. While some repent but have no fruit to indicate their sincerity (see Matt 3:7–8), others repent as an initial act of saving faith (see Acts 17:30–31; 20:21), and still others repent as an act of ongoing saving faith (see 2Cor 7:8–13).

Codification of Covenant (24:25–28)

After these calls and responses, Joshua “made a covenant” (lit. “cut a covenant”) (24:25). This terminology reflects cutting rituals involved in oaths of self-malediction associated with solemn agreements in the ancient Near East and with biblical covenants (see 24:22a). Joshua made this covenant “with the people” (or “for” or “on behalf of” the people, as it should be translated). This was not a covenant between Joshua and the assembly; it was a renewal of covenant between the Lord and the assembly that Joshua mediated.

Joshua closes his covenant renewal with a common practice in ancient Near Eastern rituals for royal treaty ratifications. He codified the terms of the covenant between the Lord and Israel. His actions here reflect what Moses did at Mount Sinai (see Exod 24:7, 8) and his own earlier covenant renewal ceremony (see Josh 9:32). He “put in place statutes and rules for them” (24:25). It is possible to translate this phrase more literally as “a statute and a rule for it (i.e. the covenant).” On some occasions, these terms appear together in the singular and refer to regulations for particular situations (see Exod 15:25; 1Sam 30:25; Ezra 7:10; Ps 81:4). Joshua “wrote these words,” likely specific rules concerning service to other gods, “in the Book of the Law of God,” probably a collection of regulations along with blessings and curses derived from Deuteronomy (24:26; see 1:8; 8:35).

The description of Joshua’s actions at this point are significantly abbreviated. In all likelihood he performed all the elements of his earlier covenant renewal (see 7:16–26). Here we are told that Joshua set up “a large stone . . . by the sanctuary of the Lord” (24:26), so it is possible that Joshua offered burnt offerings and peace offerings as he did in 8:31. This stone may have had the “statute and rule” (24:25) written on it. Joshua apparently read these words aloud as in 8:34 because the stone “heard” them (24:27). We are also told explicitly that Joshua added another witness, or evidence. Not only could the people be witnesses against themselves in the future (see 24:22–24), but Joshua also says the stone “shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God” (24:27; see 22:34). If the people of Israel turn to the other gods, then the stone would be brought forward as evidence against them, proof that they transgressed their covenant with the Lord. Followers of Christ have yet another witness to testify for or against us, “a cloud of witnesses” whose examples call us to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely” and to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb 12:1).

Dismissal of Assembly (24:28)

With this second witness in place, Joshua sends everyone away “to his inheritance” (24:28). The tribes had renewed their covenant with the Lord, so they rightly returned to their enduring inheritances to live in loyal service to God. Their renewal of covenant called for every generation of Israel, and ultimately followers of Christ in every age, to renew covenant so that they also may live for the Lord in their inheritance in this world and in the next.

Outcomes of the Assemblies (24:29–33)

Our author closes his account of Joshua‘s assemblies with a brief summary of their aftermath in 24:29–33. What resulted from Joshua’s speech and covenant renewal? We find here a short but very positive portrait, a summary of what every generation of Israel should desire for their own lives. The Hebrew syntax divides these verses into two segments: Joshua’s service in 24:29–30 and Israel’s service in 24:31–33.

Joshua’s Service (24:29–31)

Joshua died “After these things” (24:29). We don’t know how long it was before Joshua died. In his last assembly, Joshua himself anticipated that he was “about to go the way of all the earth” (24:14). Our author honors Joshua as a man who had remained true to the covenant renewal that took place in his assembly in at least three ways.

First, he calls him “the servant of the Lord” (24:29). This designation was applied to Moses in Deut 34:5, and our author referred to Moses in this way eight times in his book (see 1:1; 8:31; 11:12; 12:6; 13:8; 14:7; 18:7; 22:2). Other positive comparisons between Joshua and Moses appear early in our book (see 1:17–18; 3:7–17; 4:14), but here the title “servant of the Lord” is transferred to Joshua. This transfer also appears in the Book of Judges (Judg 2:8). This title was particularly poignant in this context because both assemblies contrasted service to other gods with service to the Lord, especially near the end of the second assembly (see 23:7, 16; 24:2, 14 [2x], 15 [4x], 16, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 24). Joshua declared that he and his family would “serve the Lord” rather than any other god (24:15). He died having fulfilled this commitment.

Second, our author notes that Joshua lived to be “110 years old” (24:29). Once again, he favorably compares Joshua to Moses, who lived only ten years longer (see Deut 34:7). Long life is a sign of the Lord’s favor (see Exod 20:12; Prov 16:31; Eph 6:3). Joshua’s long life showed that the Lord himself acknowledged his faithful service.

Third, Joshua was buried “in his own inheritance” (24:30; see comments on 13:6b–7). As our author noted earlier in his book, “Timnath-serah” was specifically granted to Joshua and his clan as an enduring inheritance “by command of the Lord” (19:50). In his assemblies, Joshua warned that those who transgressed the covenant would be driven “from off this good land” (23:15). His burial in his inheritance demonstrated that he had remained faithful to the Lord.

The Old Testament Scriptures often honor leaders who remained loyal servants of the Lord throughout their lives. They not only brought blessings to themselves, but their faithfulness benefitted Israel in countless ways as well. Joshua’s example also sets the pace for leaders in the church. Youthful zeal can further the kingdom of God in remarkable ways, but a leader who clings to the Lord to the end leaves a legacy that endures.

Israel’s Service (24:31–33)

Having drawn attention to the impact of the assemblies on Joshua’s own life, our author turns to the entire nation (24:31–33). He refers to “Israel,” a generic designation for all the tribes and their leaders. Israel had heard Joshua’s warnings and threats, and they had responded to his call for covenant renewal. Following Joshua’s personal commitment, they responded, “we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God” (24:18). Here our author confirms that the people of Israel carried through with their commitment. “Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua” (24:31). Once again, our author emphasizes that they “served,” a strong connection with Joshua’s assemblies (see 24:29–31). More than this, he elaborates that Israel’s faithful service extended throughout “all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua” (24:31). These elders “had known,” they had experienced firsthand, “all the work that the Lord did for Israel (24:31). They had witnessed and participated in the victories in Canaan, the allotments of tribal inheritances and Joshua’s assemblies (see comments on 23:1–2). This remark indicates that they were fully aware of the benevolences and blessings God had shown, as well as the countless challenges that Israel faced in the past and in their current circumstances. Yet, these elders were exemplary in their loyalty to the Lord and led Israel in the same direction. To illustrate how this was so, our author briefly mentions two ways the elders led the people of Israel in service to God.

First, the people of Israel buried “the bones of Joseph” that “the people of Israel brought up from Egypt” (24:32). Decades earlier, Joseph had his brothers swear that they would bring his bones to the Promised Land (see Gen 50:25), and Moses brought them as he led Israel out of Egypt (see Exod 13:19). After Joshua’s death, it would have been easy for Israel to neglect this project, yet our author reports that “they buried” Joseph’s bones in a very special place, “in the piece of land that Jacob bought” (24:32; see Gen 33:19). Joshua’s assemblies were so impactful that the people of Israel ensured that Joseph’s wish, the patriarchs’ oath, and Moses’s efforts were properly honored. They buried Joseph’s bones in “an inheritance of the descendants “ (24:33; see 16:1–4), much like they put Joshua to rest in his inheritance (see 24:32).

Israel’s extraordinary devotion rose out of the deep-seated clinging to the Lord that Joshua hoped would characterize the nation after his assemblies. Hearts given to the Lord in every age do all they can to honor and serve the needs and desires of others. Christ himself exemplified that we should “in humility count others more significant than [ourselves]” (Phil 2:3).

Second, our author also illustrates how Israel served the Lord under the elders who outlived Joshua by reporting Eleazar’s death and burial in 24:33. Eleazar was “the son of Aaron” and the high priest when Joshua led Israel. His name appears eight times in our book and always in a very positive light. This consistent characterization of Eleazar and the fact that our author ended his book with attention to Eleazar and his son Phinehas strongly suggests that our author was a member of the priesthood himself. In all events, our author was pleased to close his book by pointing out that Israel’s loyalty to the Lord was reflected in the honor they gave to their high priest. He was buried “at Gibeah, the town of Phinehas his son . . . in the hill country of Ephraim” (24:33).

Once again, our author draws his audience into the emphases of Joshua’s assemblies. There Joshua insisted time and again that the people of Israel should reject all forms of idolatry for the worship of the Lord (see 23:6–8). The honor Israel gave to the high priest Eleazar revealed that they did just that. As a result of Joshua’s assemblies, Israel sought guidance, found forgiveness, and offered praise and thanksgiving through the worship of the true God. As followers of Christ, the test of our loyalty is our devotion to the worship of the Lord through our “great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God” (Heb 4:14).


Boice, James M., Joshua: An Expositional Commentary. Boice Commentary Series, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006.

Butler, Trent C., Joshua. Word Biblical Themes, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991.

Davis, Dale R., Joshua: No Falling Words. Focus on the Bible, Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2000.

Hess, Richard S., Joshua: An Introduction and Commentary. Volume 6, Nottingham, UK: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008.

Howard Jr., David M. Joshua. The New American Commentary, Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998.

Woudstra, Marten H., The Book of Joshua. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981.


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Joshua 1


God Commissions Joshua

1:1 After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, “Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel. Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses. From the wilderness and this Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites to the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun shall be your territory. No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success1 wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”

Joshua Assumes Command

10 And Joshua commanded the officers of the people, 11 “Pass through the midst of the camp and command the people, ‘Prepare your provisions, for within three days you are to pass over this Jordan to go in to take possession of the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess.’”

12 And to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh Joshua said, 13 “Remember the word that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you, saying, ‘The LORD your God is providing you a place of rest and will give you this land.’ 14 Your wives, your little ones, and your livestock shall remain in the land that Moses gave you beyond the Jordan, but all the men of valor among you shall pass over armed before your brothers and shall help them, 15 until the LORD gives rest to your brothers as he has to you, and they also take possession of the land that the LORD your God is giving them. Then you shall return to the land of your possession and shall possess it, the land that Moses the servant of the LORD gave you beyond the Jordan toward the sunrise.”

16 And they answered Joshua, “All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go. 17 Just as we obeyed Moses in all things, so we will obey you. Only may the LORD your God be with you, as he was with Moses! 18 Whoever rebels against your commandment and disobeys your words, whatever you command him, shall be put to death. Only be strong and courageous.”


[1] 1:7 Or may act wisely