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.” (ESV) - Joshua 1:9
If the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) is conceived as a series on the life of Moses, then the book of Joshua is a spinoff. Joshua plays a prominent and positive role in the books of the Law. He serves alongside Caleb as one of the two faithful spies to Canaan and is Moses's right-hand man.
Yahweh's conversation with Joshua to kick off the book sets the tone for the rest of the book. The Book of Joshua records a mostly flawless history of Israelite success following the death of Moses. Joshua is a worthy successor. When read in light of Moses's final pleas for faithfulness in the book of Deuteronomy, the people of Israel look to be off to a great start. Sadly, the book is in stark contrast to the stories that will follow in the book of Judges.
An Outline of Joshua
Joshua represents the story of how the first generation to enter the Promised Land fared as they went about conquering and settling in the land.
Chapters 1-6 record the miraculous crossing of the Jordan and the approach to the first city to be conquered: Jericho. Chapters 7-8 record the sin of Achan and the people's initial defeat at the hands of Ai. Achan's sin is discovered and punished before the people go on to defeat Ai handily. Chapters 9-12 describe in rapid fashion the large number of kings and territories defeated, with the Gibeonites excepted. Chapter 9 records how the Gibeonites pretend to be from a distant land and succeed in securing a covenant with Israel before Joshua consults Yahweh on the matter. As a result, Joshua is forced to come to their aid when they are threatened.
By chapter 13, Joshua is old and God tells him so (Josh. 13:1). Yahweh commands Joshua to divide the rest of the land among the remaining tribes. This apportioning is described all the way through chapter 21, and at the end of the chapter there is a summary statement of Yahweh's faithfulness to the people in keeping every promise he made to them (Josh. 21:44-45).
Joshua 22 records the miscommunication that happened when the tribe of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh returned to their land on the other side of the Jordan. These groups built their own altar as a reminder to them and their children of their ties with the rest of the people of Israel on the other side of the Jordan. But the rest of Israel interpreted it as an act of rebellion against Yahweh (Josh. 22:16). The rest of Israel gathered to make war against them. But the remainder of the chapter gives their rationale for building the altar as a memorial rather than to be used, and tempers cool.
Joshua's final acts are recorded in chapters 23 and 24. He charges the people to remain faithful to Yahweh and makes a covenant with them before he dies. Two final facts are mentioned to close the book. The first is that the people of Israel served Yahweh for as long as there were elders from the time of Joshua still alive (Josh. 24:31). The second is that the people of Israel buried the bones of Joseph in Shechem, which their forefather Jacob had purchased (Josh. 24:32).
The Benefits of Joshua
We have much to learn as we read Joshua. One benefit of reading Joshua is to be encouraged by a rather unusual bright spot in biblical history of faithfulness to Yahweh. There are not many places in Scripture where an entire generation's faithfulness is recorded, but we have such a recording in Joshua. The story of Joshua can serve as a helpful boost to God's people today to remain steadfast in our service to him and trust him with the results.
There is much wisdom to be gained from Joshua as well. Joshua was a good leader who followed Yahweh and sought to obey him and serve him faithfully. Joshua was not perfect, but he was faithful. And when he made the mistake of trusting the Gibeonites without consulting Yahweh, he accepted the consequence of his error and kept his word to them.
Joshua also ends his life with a rather staggering warning to the people: they are not able to serve Yahweh because he is a jealous God who will not forgive their iniquity (Josh. 24:19-20). Joshua warns them that for all their talk of wanting to serve Yahweh, he knows it is mostly bluster. And when it proves to be bluster by their unfaithfulness and disobedience, they will be consumed by Yahweh. This turns out to be a chilling foreshadowing of what is to come.
But in this, Joshua teaches us about human nature. Only in chapter 22, the people were so worked up about the apparent rebellion against Yahweh by the tribes on the other side of the Jordan that they were ready to destroy their own in the name of loyalty to Yahweh. Although it was unnecessary, it was an admirable sentiment. How fickle we are. This reminds us that faithfulness is not measured by feelings or token gestures but by consistency over time.
But perhaps Joshua teaches us most about the faithfulness of God. Scripture sounds this theme over and over again. Joshua can be read as a résumé of God's faithfulness to keep his promises. Not one of them fails. And as we read stories like Joshua, we can be assured that God's promises to us will not fail either.
We can take our reading of Joshua to the New Testament and consider our relationship with Christ. What God has promised, that he will do. And praise God for that, because apart from Christ paying for our sin, we would certainly be consumed.