Introduction to the Book of Joshua
Dr. Jim Denison
Joshua before Joshua
The man known as Joshua was first named Hoshea (Numbers 13:8, 16), which means “salvation.” Later Moses changed his name to Joshua, meaning “the Lord saves” or “the Lord gives victory.” “Joshua” and “Jesus” are both derived from the same Hebrew word Yehoshua. The similarity of their names and work is striking—both led God’s people to salvation by conquest over the enemies of the Lord, establishing the possibility of eternal rest in the providence of the Father.
As the NavPress commentary makes clear, Joshua served a critical role in the early chapter of Israel’s history as a nation. When the people crossed the Red Sea, they met the Amalekites in their first military battle, and were led by Joshua to victory (Exodus 17:8-16). Joshua quickly became Moses’ understudy and disciple, sharing his experience atop Mt. Sinai (Exodus 24:9-13) and in the tabernacle (Exodus 33:7-11).
After Moses led the nation to the edge of the Promised Land, Joshua and Caleb were sent with ten other tribal representatives to spy out the land. Only they reported favorably; the nation shrunk from their heritage in fear, and their generation was forced to wander in the desert until they died. Moses then led them again to the boundary of the land, where he was taken to heaven. Leadership of God’s people now rested humanly in the hands of Joshua.
He would prove faithful to his calling. He would lead the nation miraculously across the Jordan, victoriously at Jericho and across Canaan, and strategically in dividing the land among the tribes. At the book’s end, he would challenge the people spiritually even as he had led them militarily.
At the book’s beginning, Moses was described as “the servant of the Lord,” and Joshua as his “aide” (1:1). At its end Joshua was granted the same title as his mentor: “the servant of the Lord” (24:29). His courageous faithfulness earned him such tribute.
Joshua the book
Setting and theme: The book opens with Israel on the edge of the Promised Land, camped on the eastern shore of the Jordan River. It ends with the people in possession of that land which will be the focus of divine activity and revelation from this point to the coming of their Messiah. And Joshua is the central figure and leader in this story of conquest and celebration.
The name of the book: The Hebrews used the first words of a book to constitute its name, thus calling our text “Now After the Death of Moses.” Those who translated the Hebrew into Greek (creating the Septuagint), three centuries before Christ, named the book “Joshua” in honor of its leading character. When Jerome later produced the Latin Vulgate, he expanded the book’s title to “The Book of Joshua.” And so it remains today.
Authorship: The book of Joshua does not name its author. In this it is similar to other Old Testament histories, all of which are named for their leading character rather than an identified writer. While Paul tells us who wrote Philippians, Joshua does not tell us its author’s name. As a result, questions regarding authorship are not crucial to understanding the book. And one authorship theory should not be defended as more “biblical” than another.
As the NavPress commentary notes, Jewish tradition claimed that Joshua wrote all of the book bearing his name except the descriptions of his and Eleazar’s deaths at the end (Josh 24:28-33). Modern opinion ranges from the belief that Joshua was alone responsible for the book to assertion that he had nothing to do with its composition, which occurred some eight centuries after the events the book describes.
Here is “internal evidence” (facts found within the book) which helps us form a position on this issue. We know that Joshua was himself literate, given that he carved the law onto stones (8:32) and later “recorded these things in the Book of the Law of God” (24:26). We find eyewitness accounts within the book, such as 5:1: “Now when all the Amorite kings west of the Jordan and all the Canaanite kings along the coast heard how the Lord had dried up the Jordan before the Israelites until we had crossed over . . .” (italics added). These facts, added to early Hebrew tradition, argue for Joshua as the author of most or all of the book.
Joshua 15:63 also contributes to an early authorship position: “Judah could not dislodge the Jebusites, who were living in Jerusalem; to this day the Jebusites live there with the people of Judah.” The men of Judah defeated the Jebusites later (Judges 1:8), and still later, David made the city his capital (2 Sam 5:6-10). But these events obviously occurred after Joshua was written, arguing for authorship at a time when the events transpired.
However, Joshua 4:9 suggests that an editor worked with the book after the events recorded had occurred: “Joshua set up the twelve stones that had been in the middle of the Jordan at the spot where the priests who carried the ark of the covenant had stood. And they are there to this day” (italics added).
My own belief is that the book was written primarily by Joshua, and that it was later edited by his followers into the form we have today, including an account of his death. But given that the book identifies no author, the issue is not foundational to the trustworthiness of Scripture or our interpretation of this text.
The nature of the book: Joshua is written as prophetic history. Like other books of biblical history, this is an interpretive narrative. The author’s purpose was not to detail or describe every event which occurred during the years encompassed by his work. Such would be no less possible then than today. Imagine writing a complete and exhaustive history of just this day in your life. All history is interpretive, by virtue of the sheer fact that what we include and exclude is the product of our own subjective purposes and biases.