Transitions from one leader to another can often lead to disastrous results, particularly when a new leader, like Joshua, follows a long-time strong and effective leader like Moses. But God had prepared Israel for this time by appointing Joshua, Moses’s assistant (numbers 11:28), as his successor even before that highly respected leader had died (numbers 27:12–23).
Not much time passed between the death of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy and the start of Joshua, but a whole new period of time begins as God commissions Joshua to take Moses’s place as leader of his people Israel. God calls Joshua “to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you” (joshua 1:7) and assures him that he will be with him “wherever you go” (1:9).
As they crossed the Jordan to enter the Promised Land, God stopped the waters of the river just as the feet of the priests who were carrying the ark touched the water (joshua 3–4). This act was not just a matter of convenience giving them easy access, but rather reminded them of the time forty years earlier when God separated the waters to allow their ancestors to escape the Egyptian army (exodus 14–15). God in essence was telling them that he, the God who defeated Egypt, was with them as they entered into the Promised Land to face an enemy greater than they were.
That enemy was the Canaanites. God had promised the land to Abraham but told him that his descendants would not possess the land for centuries because “the sin of the Amorites [another name for Canaanites] has not yet reached its full measure” (genesis 15:16). In other words, the battle to follow was not simply for the benefit of Israel. God was using Israel as an agent of his judgment against a sinful people. Noting this point is important because the book of Joshua has gained substantial criticism, even from Christians, because of all the divinely sanctioned violence. Some wrongly suggest that the Old Testament and the New Testament are not on the same wavelength when it comes to the nature of God. They pit an angry God of the Old Testament against the divine compassion in the New Testament. But God is both compassionate and a just judge in both the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, the conquest of Canaan can be seen as a preview (and a warning) of the final judgment described in the book of Revelation.
After the crossing, the Israelites fight Jericho first (joshua 5:13–6:27). Jericho was known for its fortification, but God brought the walls down with the result that this strong city easily fell to the Israelites. A critical part in this story is the role played by a prostitute named Rahab who helped the Israelite spies (joshua 2). She and her family were spared, showing that the Canaanites could escape their fate simply by choosing to follow Israel’s God.
After Jericho came the battle against Ai. From the story (joshua 7–8), readers can quickly tell that Ai is nothing like the formidable Jericho. The Hebrew word Ai actually means “ruin,” indicating it’s not much of a place. That said, the people of Ai soundly defeat Israel. God then tells Joshua that it was because someone stole plunder from Jericho, something God prohibited (deuteronomy 7:25–26). The culprit was a man named Achan who was then executed, showing that disobedient Israelites would be treated like Canaanites. After this, Israel could defeat “Ruin” city.
So far Israel has learned that they could defeat the strongest city if they followed God’s instructions, but the weakest city would beat them if they were disobedient. In the next stage, Joshua entered into an alliance with the Gibeonites. God had told the Israelites not to enter into any treaty with people in the land, but he could with nations outside the land (see deuteronomy 20:10–18). However, Joshua thought they came from outside the land. The Gibeonites deceived him, and after he entered into the treaty he found out they were from just down the road! Joshua made the fateful mistake because he did not ask God beforehand (joshua 9:14).
The narrative gives attention to these three episodes (Jericho, Ai, and Gibeon) at the end of which Israel now controlled the middle of the Promised Land. At this point the Canaanite city kings, despite being at odds with each other, banded together into two groups, one in the south and one in the north. They took to the open battlefield, and the Israelites with God’s help defeated both coalitions.
The conquest under Joshua was now done! The second half of the book of Joshua (chaps. 13–24) recounts how God distributes the land to the various tribes of Israel. While modern readers get bogged down in the many references to geographical features, small villages, and other boundary features, just imagine the excitement on the part of the Israelites at the time! Keep this in mind as you read the conclusion to Joshua. Abraham’s descendants were finally getting the land that God had promised so many centuries before. They were learning that God keeps his promises. We can bank on that too.
However, along with the excitement, we learn something else when reading the book of Joshua: the conquest was just the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. There were still plenty of Canaanites around (joshua 13:1–7). More fighting loomed ahead.
Joshua contains a vital message for future Israel. God the warrior, who had long ago promised that Abraham’s descendants would become a “great nation” (genesis 12:2), has conquered the land. Through the casting of the sacred lots to determine his will (joshua 14:2), God distributed the land to the tribes. He has provided them with a home where they could rest.
The New Testament tells us that Jesus is a warrior against evil, but he has heightened and intensified the battle so that it is now directed toward the spiritual powers and authorities. He defeats these powers, not by killing, but by dying (colossians 2:13–15). And he will return again to complete the victory over evil in his second coming (revelation 19:11–21).