Volume 20 - Issue 3

Studies in the book of Joshua

By Richard S. Hess


Studies in the book of Joshua have received new impetus from three directions. One is the increasing archaeological evidence that the surveys of the land of Israel have yielded. This is not only true for the period of time prior to the monarchy but also provides new evidence for the entire period of OT Israel. Scholars such as Fritz and Na’aman have begun to apply these results to the historical interpretation of texts of Joshua, particularly the tribal allocations of the second half of the book (cf. Hess 1993). The matter will not be addressed here except as it has an impact on literary forms and ideological issues. A second area of renewed interest has come from those literary studies that seek to make sense out of the final form of the text. As a result, the exciting stories of chapters 1–12 have received new attention as scholars such as Hawk and Mitchell discern literary strategies. Koopmans has applied the same process to the final chapter of the book, where Joshua renews God’s covenant with Israel. Ottosson and Svensson have attempted to look at the literary process at work in the allotments of Joshua 13–21. Comparative literary approaches constitute a separate category of literary methods. Weinfeld extends the comparisons to Greek and Ancient Near Eastern literatures. Schäfer-Lichtenberger studies the character of Joshua as a successor to Moses, drawing on comparisons of characterization in Deuteronomy and in Kings. In linguistics, discourse grammar has emphasized the final form of other OT texts. Winther-Nielsen applies this method to Joshua. A third area where one might expect new directions is the text-critical evidence provided by the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some recently published Qumran texts reflect the Masoretic text while others support a Hebrew precursor to the Septuagint as original (Greenspoon and Tov). This brief survey will focus upon the second area of development, the literary studies, with consideration of some of the comparative Ancient Near Eastern literature as well.

Continental studies on Joshua continue to appear. On the basis of linguistic and historical arguments, some of these accept a date before the monarchy for the composition of most or all of the book (Koorevaar and Holland). However, what will probably become the most influential recent contribution, that of Volkmar Fritz, does not accept this premise. His commentary appears in the same series as that of M. Noth’s 1938 study and represents the most recent study on the whole book. Fritz tends to follow the traditional historical-critical approach. He emphasizes the role of a series of Deuteronomistic and priestly redactors in the composition of the book. Thus each section of the commentary is divided by redactions. This renders the work difficult to use for those who do not accept Fritz’s premise. In addition, the work is hampered by an absence of interaction with the 1990 study by Younger that examined Joshua 9–12 in the light of Ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts. Younger identified numerous statements in the biblical texts that Noth and others had ascribed to later editors. Yet he found similar statements in comparable conquest accounts. This study called into question the methodology used to identify Deuteronomistic and other redactions in the book of Joshua. Unless other criteria can be employed to identify editors, their identification remains speculative.

Literary strategies

Several English-language books have proceeded in a different direction. Hawk’s work follows the literary studies of Polzin and Gunn. Hawk emphasizes the discontinuities found in Joshua. This is especially true with what he recognizes as two conflicting threads that run through the book: emphatic assertions of complete obedience juxtaposed with statements of Israel’s failure to obey and to achieve all that God had instructed. Thus the first chapter of Joshua asserts Joshua’s total dedication to God. However, this must be contrasted with the reluctance on the part of the Transjordanian tribes to accept Joshua’s authority except as he obeys God (1:17–18). The story of Rahab is an example of disobedience on the part of Joshua who sends the spies, and on the part of the spies who make a covenant with Rahab. 11:16–23 begins and ends with statements about Joshua’s conquest of the entire land, but places between them statements about the cities that were not conquered. Chapters 13–22 begin with an orderliness to Judah’s allotment but gradually disintegrate as the other tribes are described. Chapter 22 (the altar of the Transjordanian tribes) is a model of ambiguity and the concluding chapters strive to close the book with references to items found in the opening chapters, but also describe unresolved matters. Hawk explains these contrasting plots on the basis of different strategies (‘desires’) that he ascribes to Joshua, God, the author, and the reader.

While there surely are conflicting elements in the book of Joshua, it is not clear that Hawk has accurately identified them. Part of this has to do with an absence of consideration of key concepts, such as the ‘ban’, elsewhere in the biblical and extra-biblical texts, and the lack of an awareness of Ancient Near Eastern writing styles for the sort of literature found here. For example, Lilley (see also Mitchell below) has demonstrated that the ‘ban’ did not require the slaughter of all animals in every case, nor did it always involve the burning of a city. Rahab’s commitment to the spies and to Israel’s God is nowhere described as a violation of God’s will. Nor is there explicit evidence in the biblical text that the spies (or Joshua) were wrong for making and accepting this agreement (see Winther-Nielsen below). Younger has shown how ‘hyperbole’ is characteristic of the conquest accounts in comparative literature. This is true at least in the sense that phrases like ‘all the land’ were not intended to be taken with a mathematical literacy. Mention of areas not conquered appears alongside the claim of taking all the land. Younger’s study is broader in scope than either Van Seters’ attempt to compare Joshua 1–12 with Neo-Assyrian accounts or Hoffmeier’s comparison with Egyptian New Kingdom narratives. Younger compares conquest stories from a variety of Ancient Near Eastern peoples and periods. Both the Ancient Near Eastern treaty form and the covenant form of books such as Deuteronomy allow for the absence of elements of closure at the end of the document. This includes the appearance of curses in the final chapters, something that Hawk finds problematic. Hawk’s volume is important for its serious treatment of the whole book of Joshua. Much analysis, particularly in the second half of the book, is of value.

Mitchell, on the other hand, attempts to incorporate form and tradition-historical studies into a literary analysis of the text. He examines the question, ‘Why is the express divine will that all the enemy are to be slaughtered contradicted by the examples of Rahab, the Gibeonites and others who are not slaughtered?’. The first half of the book considers forms and phrases related to the command to destroy all the inhabitants of the land and Israel’s failure to accomplish this. A major section of the study examines the ‘ban’ or ḥēremand concludes that there is a flexibility in the usage of the term throughout the Deuteronomistic history. For Mitchell a variety of usages of concepts like ḥērem, whether for a test of obedience or for cultic contamination, should be included in our interpretation of the texts. In the first part of his book Mitchell moves through Joshua 8–21, without much consideration of the broader (other than Assyria) Near Eastern context and with almost no mention of the historical geographical context suggested by Kallai, Na’aman and Boling. While this may be understandable in a literary study, Mitchell’s incorporation of historical comparative material elsewhere makes these omissions surprising. His literary conclusion, that the key theme of chapters 12–21 is the end of war, seems dubious in the light of chapter 22 and of Judges. While that emphasis does exist (11:23; 14:15), the helpful comparisons of Joshua 1 with chapters 21 and 22 in terms of fulfilment say more about the literary closure of the book, as Hawk asserts (cf. his work’s title, Every Promise Fulfilled), than they do about the expected cessation of warfare.

The second half of Mitchell’s book considers expressions related to the enemy nations and their continued occupation of the land. His conclusions stress the change from a unified group of nations opposed to Israel at the beginning of Joshua to a collection of isolated pockets of resistance by the time of the allotments (chs. 13–21). With Gottwald, Mitchell observes the emphasis upon the rulers of the nations that Israel conquered, as listed in Joshua 12. Survivors, such as Rahab and the Gibeonites, do not include the Canaanite rulers. Yet, Mitchell cannot avoid an ambiguity in the text, in which Israel is to drive out the inhabitants of the land but at the same time groups like Rahab and the Gibeonites survive with orthodox Yahwistic confessions. Mitchell does not in the end resolve these ambiguities, although he does include a final paragraph that attempts to relate them to historical realities of post-exilic Judaism. At times he moves from the literary device of juxtaposition of different perspectives to the charge of outright contradiction. For example, he maintains that Geshur and Maacah sometimes fall within the conquered territories of Transjordan (13:11) and sometimes they lie outside those lands (Dt. 3:14; Jos. 12:5). However, a closer examination of the two latter passages reveals that these texts do not claim to describe all of Israel’s conquered land in Transjordan. Mitchell seeks contradictions in the text in order to demonstrate an ideological bias. But this is not necessary, as theological ‘bias’ against ‘Canaanites’ or other groups can exist without the need for historical or literary contradictions (Hess 1993; 1994a). These comments aside, Mitchell has provided a useful service by summarizing much of the best in Continental scholarship and applying it to the study of key phrases in the text of Joshua.

Winther-Nielsen explores the first half of Joshua from a rhetorical linguistic perspective. His work applies the discourse grammar approach of Robert Longacre to Joshua. The first hundred pages introduce this approach using the text of Joshua as a source for examples. A special study of the encounter with Rahab (Jos. 2) demonstrates how the dialogues elaborate central concerns of the narrative. The central role of the conquest theme is emphasized by the syntax of the chapter, as is the decision of Rahab as an act of faith. The account of crossing the Jordan (chs. 3–4) is structured around the actions of the priests as they enter and emerge from the waters. The actions of these chapters have long been a source of debate due to their apparent repetition and contradiction. Winther-Nielsen proposes a unified and sequential structure to the whole. The conquest of Jericho focuses on the destruction of the site, an activity in which God serves as the major actor while Joshua and Israelites obey. Winther-Nielsen applies his technique to the whole of Joshua, observing how God’s speech of 1:2–5 sets forth the key themes of the book. As with past studies of other Hebrew texts, this application of functional discourse grammar demonstrates a textual and thematic unity to the book of Joshua.

Ottosson’s work emphasizes the importance of ancient cultic material as original to the book of Joshua, rather than as something inserted by a later redactor. Surely texts such as chapters 1, 6 and 22 do form part of the narrative and cannot be interpreted as later insertions. Ottosson’s work on chapters 14–22 has been further developed by Svensson. Svensson also stresses the importance of the appearance of Eleazer, the priest, along with Joshua in the accounts of the distribution of the land. Further, Ottosson’s understanding of Joshua as a priestly figure is developed by Svensson. Both find in these chapters an idealized land designed for a new David (prefigured by Joshua) who will restore the kingdom and expand it to include all the territory of the united monarchy.

Svensson provides a useful collection of data relating to the versional readings of the hundreds of place names in these chapters. He collects this material with discussion of how the historical and prophetic books treat each of the regions described. This is the chief contribution of his work. In this way the work is a historical geography, arranged not according to chronology (as Aharoni) but by region as delimited in Joshua 13–22. He does not propose new identifications for the sites but relies largely upon the earlier work of Ottosson and especially Kallai, with regular references to Engnell and to the appropriate entries in the Anchor Bible Dictionary. Svensson does not interact with the proposals of historical geographers such as Aharoni and Rainey. Na’aman’s earlier work receives attention but his 1991 study, which criticizes Kallai’s attempt to date the town lists of Judah to Hezekiah’s period, is not mentioned.

Ottosson and Svensson both seek to find a motivation for the book of Joshua, one that stresses the positive value of rulership in general and of David’s reign in particular. Kallai’s dating of the boundaries of chapters 13–19, as well as his overall perspective on the unitary composition and purpose of these texts, agrees with this concern. This explains why Svensson follows Kallai. Svensson describes his purpose as ‘a literary-structural close reading of Joshua 14–21’. It is not clear that he achieves this, at least not in the terms of modern literary readings. No attempt is made to discern the role of the narrative segments in these chapters, nor is consideration given to the rationale for the order and organization of the text as it now appears. The only overall literary analysis occurs when Svensson identifies two inclusios in chapters 13 and 22–23: the phrase ‘Joshua was old and advanced in years’ and the discussion of the two-and-a-half Transjordanian tribes. Readers seeking literary analysis must look elsewhere.

In fact, Ottosson does observe a literary significance to the allotments. He suggests that the more towns named, the more positive the evaluation of the tribe. Thus Judah (ch. 15), with the most towns named, is most highly regarded by the author. Hawk also finds a positive evaluation for Judah. For him this is because Judah has a complete set of boundaries and a clearly distinguished town list. Other tribes, without boundaries or where boundaries and town lists are mixed (e.g. Ephraim and Manasseh) are targets of a negative evaluation by the author.

The form of the boundary descriptions and town lists reflects both the ideal of the early settlement and their usage as a legal and administrative document in later periods. The early origin that the text assigns to these documents is supported by their topographical similarity with Late Bronze Age city states of Palestine, by the need for some sort of boundaries given the sociological dynamics present in the settlement of the land, and by the archaeological evidence of settlement in the hill country of Palestine from 1200 bc (Hess 1994b). The similarity of the boundary descriptions to those found in treaties and their context between the covenants of Joshua 8 and 24 suggest that the literary structure of these documents was as much determined by the legal and administrative realities of Israel and Judah as it was by some other overall literary structuring of the author. This is not to say that the documents served no literary purpose (as with the insertions of the narratives about Caleb, Achsah, the daughters of Zelophehad and Joseph), but that purpose should be integrated within a covenantal context and theology.

Comparative literary approaches

Weinfeld moves the literary studies almost entirely into the realm of the comparative. He does not identify forms or discuss the usage of theologically significant words and phrases without recourse to comparative materials from the Ancient Near Eastern and classical worlds. Drawing together materials he has already published elsewhere and adding new insights, Weinfeld’s work includes comparisons with a variety of materials in the Hebrew Bible. Of special interest for Joshua are his studies on Greek and Hebrew settlement traditions. Although other chapters detail Weinfeld’s view on the history of the Joshua traditions and their origins, as well as the different accounts of this event as preserved in the Bible, it is in the area of comparative settlement traditions (pp. 22–51) that Weinfeld makes important contributions. Comparisons with the Greek traditions of settlement reveal a number of important similarities with the biblical accounts. For example, both include inquiries at the shrine, priestly guidance, divine obligations, the founder’s tomb, naming and dividing the land, divine promises, setting up stones and building an altar. Both also follow a sequence: (1) oracular confirmation; (2) erection of monuments and altars, along with sacrifices; (3) the use of divine lot to allocate the land; (4) divinely given laws for the settlers; and (5) according a prominent position to a leader-founder who co-operates with a priest. The leader-founder (e.g. Joshua) is a leader of settlers, a builder of a city, and a legislator.

A literary study of royal successors and succession narratives in the house of David is presented by Schäfer-Lichtenberger, who examines and compares Joshua and Solomon. Both follow charismatic leaders (Moses and David) and both stand at the beginning of a line of successors, Joshua before the judges and Solomon before the kings of the divided monarchy. Schäfer-Lichtenberger argues that both were literary creations that served as patterns for the political and social leadership in the crisis and reorganization of Judah that followed the death of Josiah. Joshua was the ideal while Solomon served as the ‘anti-ideal’. The book of Deuteronomy served as the source material from which the Deuteronomists constructed their characterizations, especially the laws regulating the righteous king and the true prophet (17:14–20; 18:9–22). For Joshua Schäfer-Lichtenberger studies all relevant texts in the Pentateuch and Joshua, with an eye toward detailed source and redaction critical analysis.

In tracing Joshua’s development in the Pentateuch, Schäfer-Lichtenberger observes the difference in the authority of Moses and Joshua. Despite the fact that Joshua is Moses’ successor, he retains a measure of independence as exemplified by his name Hoshea. This appears as Joshua’s original name in Numbers 32:16 before Moses changed his name to Joshua. Hoshea reappears in Deuteronomy 32:44 when Joshua is about to succeed Moses. It, along with other features, represents Joshua as a distinctive individual as well as a successor. A more important difference between Joshua and Moses is that described in Deuteronomy 34:9–12, where Joshua’s succession is described in the same context as the emphasis upon the unique prophetic role of Moses. Moses received his authority directly from God; Joshua received his through Moses, though it also came from a divine decision.

Schäfer-Lichtenberger discusses the first chapter of Joshua in some detail, emphasizing the references to and quotations from the words of Moses. After examining some of the later references in the book of Joshua, it is affirmed that here as well Joshua is not a new Moses nor a dynastic successor to his predecessor. Instead, he has an authority that stands under the rule of the Mosaic law. This is compared to Solomon whose authority derives from his role as a dynastic successor. In the view of the Deuteronomistic historian this role is not the ideal of Joshua and is not the one to follow. Instead, Joshua, who is presented as a model of one who observes the Mosaic law, becomes the ideal. Schäfer-Lichtenberger’s presentation is an important contribution to the study of succession in the Bible. It would have been valuable to devote greater attention to the book of Joshua and to consider how this role is exemplified in detail in the numerous words and deeds of Moses’ successor.

McConville also addresses theological concerns in his discussion of the date of Joshua. He relies upon the works of Younger, of Polzin who plays upon the parallels of a land not fully conquered by a people not completely obedient, and of Koorevaar, whose structural analysis of the allocations of Joshua 13–21 focuses upon 18:1–10, where the ark of the covenant is established at Shiloh. The location of the sanctuary at Shiloh argues for the early period of Israel’s history as a date of the origins of the accounts in Joshua. In his study of holy war, McConville focuses on the role of Israel’s God as a successful combatant against Baal and other deities. Although this may be true for other books in the Bible, it does not help much with Joshua, where deities other than the God of Israel receive little mention. However, McConville does provide a useful literary context for central themes of Joshua as developed from Deuteronomy in anticipation of the subsequent Deuteronomistic History.

Future studies of Joshua should: (1) take into account the implications of recent literary approaches, including studies of syntax, discourse and characterization; (2) carry forward the theological content of the book of Joshua in terms closer to its ancient literary forms of conquest account, land grant and covenant; (3) recognize that these forms are cast in a new light that demonstrates Joshua as the divinely appointed successor to Moses, and the conquest and occupation as Israel’s opportunity to respond in obedience to God’s covenant.


Aharoni, Yohanan

1979    The Land of the Bible. A Historical Geography. Revised and translated by A.F. Rainey. Philadelphia: Westminster

Cortese, Enzo

1990    Josua 13–21: Ein priesterschriftlicher Abschnitt im deuteronomistischen Geschichtswerk. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 94, Fribourg: Editions universitaires; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht

Fritz, Volkmar

1994    Das Buch Josua. Handbuch zum Alten Testament I/7. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck)

Greenspoon, L.

1992    ‘The Qumran Fragments of Joshua: Which Puzzle are They Part of and Where Do They Fit?’, in Septuagint, Scrolls and Cognate Writings: Papers Presented to the International Symposium on the Septuagint and Its Relations to the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Writings (Manchester 1990), pp. 159–194. G.J. Brooke and B. Lindars (eds). Society of Biblical Literature Septuagint and Cognate Studies Series 33, Atlanta: Scholars Press

Gunn, David M.

1987    ‘Joshua and Judges’, in R. Alter and F. Kermode (eds), The Literary Guide to the Bible, pp. 102–121. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap/Harvard

Hawk, L. Daniel

1991    Every Promise Fulfilled. Contesting Plots in Joshua. Literary Currents in Biblical Interpretation, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox

Hess, R.S.

1993    ‘Early Israel in Canaan: A Survey of Recent Evidence and Interpretations’, Palestine Exploration Quarterly 126: 125–142.

1994a  ‘Asking Historical Questions of Joshua 13–19: Recent Discussion Concerning the Date of the Boundary Lists’, in Faith, Tradition, History: Old Testament Historiography in Its Near Eastern Context, pp. 191–205. A.R. Millard, J.K. Hoffmeier and D.W. Baker (eds). Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns

1994b  ‘Late Bronze Age and Biblical Boundary Descriptions of the West Semitic World’, in Ugarit and the Bible: Proceedings of the International Symposium on Ugarit and the Bible, Manchester, September 1992, pp. 123–138. G. Brooke, A. Curtis and J. Healey (eds). Ugaritisch-Biblische Literatur Band 11, Münster: Ugarit-Verlag

Hoffmeier, James K.

1994    ‘The Structure oJoshua 1–11 and the Annals of Thutrmose III’, in Faith, Tradition, and History. Old Testament Historiography in Its Near Eastern Context, pp. 165–179. A.R. Millard, J.K. Hoffmeier and D.W. Baker (eds). Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns

Holland, Martin

1993    Das Buch Josua. Wuppertaler Studienbibel, AT, Wuppertal/Zurich: Brockhaus

Koopmans, William T.

1990    Joshua 24as Poetic Narrative. JSOT Supplement 93, Sheffield: JSOT

1993    ‘Josh. 23 and 24 Again: A Response to Klaas Spronk’, in Verse in Ancient Near Eastern Prose, pp. 261–263. J.C. deMoor and W.G.E. Watson (eds). Alter Orient) und Altes Testament 42, Kevelaer: Butzon & Bercker; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener

Koorevaar, H.J.

1990    De Opbouw van het Boek Jozua. Heverlee: Centrum voor Bijbelse Vorming België

Lilley, J.P.U.

1993    ‘Understanding the Ḥerem’, Tyndale Bulletin 44:169–177

McConville, J. Gordon

1993    Grace in the End. A Study in Deuteronomic Theology. Studies in Old Testament Biblical Theology, Carlisle: Paternoster

Mitchell, Gordon

1993    Together in the Land. A Reading of the Book of Joshua. JSOT Supplement 134, Sheffield: JSOT

Na’aman, Nadav

1991    ‘The Kingdom of Judah under Josiah’, Tel Aviv 18:3–71

Ottosson, Magnus

1991    Josuaboken: En programskrift for davidisk restauration. Acta Universitatis upsaliensis, Studia biblica pusaliensia 1, Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell

Polzin, Robert

1980    Moses and the Deuteronomist: A Literary Study of the Deuteronomistic History. New York: Seabury

Schäfer-Lichtenberger, Christa

1995    Josua & Salomo. Eine Studie zu Autorität & Legitimität des Nachfolgers im Alten Testament. Vetus Testamentum Supplements 58, Leiden: Brill

Svensson, Jan

1994    Towns and Toponyms in the Old Testament with Special Emphasis on Joshua 14–21. Coniectanea Biblica Old Testament Series 38, Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell

Tov, Emanuel

1992    ‘4QJoshbb’, in Intertestamental Essays in Honour of Józef Tadeusz Milik, pp. 205–212. Z.J. Kapera (ed). Cracow: Enigma; Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz

Van Seters, John

1990    ‘Joshua’s Campaign of Canaan and Near Eastern Historiography’, Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 4:1–12

Weinfeld, Moshe

1993    The Promise of the Land. The Inheritance of the Land of Canaan by the Israelites. The Taubman Lectures in Jewish Studies, Berkeley: University of California Press

Winther-Nielsen, Nicolai

1995    A Functional Discourse Grammar of Joshua. A Computer-Assisted Rhetorical Structure Analysis. Coniectanea Biblica Old Testament Series 40, Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell

Younger, K. Lawson, Jr.

1990    Ancient Conquest Accounts. A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing. JSOT Supplement 98, Sheffield: JSOT

Richard S. Hess

Denver Seminary, Denver