As the book of Joshua begins, the people of Israel are preparing to settle into Canaan, their Promised Land. Moses, their leader from Egypt to now, has died and Joshua has succeeded him. This is the opening scene in the narrative about Israel’s life in its new land. Optimism and excitement are the predominant moods of the people. They are ready to live in the land that God had promised them.
The book of Joshua simplifies what was a long and complex process by which the Israelite tribes came to settle in Canaan. According to commentators, the narrative does not reflect the actual course of events. Instead, some details are missing; others are rearranged. One commentator writes, “Archaeological excavations, supplemented by sociological analysis, have helped reconstruct the history of the settlement period. All this has made it clear that the book of Joshua, using an idealized historical narrative, intends to describe Israel, past and future, its relationship with God, and the kind of society it wished to be.”
In American history, think about the stories of the “white man” settling the American Frontier and their relationship with the tribes already living on the land. Today, we have a very different picture of those days. With a little perspective on how we wish we would have treated those tribes, we can describe the horrible things the whites, the American government, did to those sovereign tribes. With the backing of a government and the organization of a military, the American Frontier was “claimed” for future generations. Often times, the justification for such conduct was found in Joshua and the American belief that God wanted them to have this land, regardless of who was living there.
Now, go back to Joshua for a minute. Think about what life might have been like for the tribes of Israel seeking to settle the land. In spite of what the book of Joshua tells us, there was probably very little agreement and coordination among the tribes of Israel. Instead, each tribe wanted to go its own way. After all, that was what life in the wilderness must have been like — confusing, people grumbling, and wanting to do it their way, not Moses’. Now, with new leadership, the tribes are more likely to be disorganized, less unified with differences among the tribes and their leadership. Instead, at a time when Israel lacked a real leader, one is created for them and they rally under Joshua’s leadership. Could this be more of what the people wanted under David’s reign several hundred years later? Israel wanted a strong leader, a unifying spirit, and an awesome presence in the face of their adversaries. I wonder if you, too, hear these echoes today as a new presidential administration seeks to lead our country.
The format of the content of Joshua divides into three parts: 1) Chapters 1-12 describe the settlement of the Israelite tribes in Canaan as a result of a successful military campaign led by Joshua against the Canaanites. 2) Chapters 13-21 report the distribution of the land among the victorious tribes. These geographical lists probably come from the period of the Israelite monarchy. Here they serve to describe the extent of the Israelite occupation of Canaan. 3) Chapters 22-24 include three stories that focus on the loyalty that Israelite tribes owe to their God who has given them the land they now occupy.
I have to admit that the violence depicted in the settlement period turns me off. For years, I have ignored Joshua altogether because of it. In a time when our country is at war (with competing ideologies foreign and domestic), there is a tendency for folks to call upon the book of Joshua and spiritualize the violence showing God’s favor for “our side”. I think that’s what those settling the American Frontier believed and their actions toward those tribes were justified because of it. I believe that violence that serves to unsettle individuals, families, and/or groups of families from their land is evil — no matter who is being violent or by what justification they believe they have.
One commentator writes: “What the book of Joshua affirms is that God’s purpose for Israel was served even by this evil. The aim of the book was not to edify but to move its readers to obedience. For ancient Israel this obedience was an act of faith in the God who brings good out of evil.” I must trust that the redemptive power of God continues to be at work in the world — continuing to bring good out of the evil so prevalent in our experience today.