Now that we have reviewed the events preceding the conquest of the promised land (see earlier post below), it is time to examine the central themes and events found in the book of Joshua. Under the leadership of Moses, the Lord redeemed his people from their bondage in Egypt and established his everlasting covenant with them at Sinai. However, Moses and the vast majority of those who left Egypt never saw the promised land. It was only after the death of Moses, under the leadership of Joshua, that the people of God entered into the land of promise, the land sworn to their ancestor Abraham (see map on sidebar).
The book of Joshua is the first in a series of books referred to either as the "former prophets" or the "historical books." The purpose of the book of Joshua is to recount the events surrounding the conquest and settlement of the land of Canaan ("the promised land"). In chapter 1, which is the reading for today, Joshua is commissioned by God and given the promise that the Lord will be with him wherever he goes. Joshua then begins to prepare the leaders of the tribe of Israel for the crossing of the Jordan River into the land of Canaan.
The book of Joshua powerfully describes the victory of the people of Israel as they boldly possess the land the Lord their God has given them. However, there also are significant moral and theological questions that arise from a careful reading of this book. The most important question centers around the annihilation of the Canannite inhabitants of the land. Those who are antagonistic toward the bible see in the book of Joshua an example of "ethnic cleansing" and a barbaric god who tolerates genicide. How do we handle these challenges?
First, it is important that we acknowledge that these questions are important and legitimate. Next, it is imperative that we understand the book of Joshua both within its literary and historical context. Within the literary context, we find that although the command to utterly destroy the Canaanites appears implacable, there are exceptions and examples where the Canaanites were allowed to remain. It is also important that we understand the theological point that is being made. God is not being depicted as a barbarian who ruthlessly destroys nations, but rather God is the one who has chosen the Israelites as his covenant people, through whom he will bless all nations. The conquest of the promised land is part of this much larger plan of salvation and blessing. Within its historical context, we find that the rules and regulations of warfare that are outlined in the book of Joshua are in accordance with widely accepted customs within the ancient Near Eastern world. There is much more that could be said in response to these issues, but it must be emphatically stated that the bible does not condone practices of ethnic cleansing or genocide and the conquest account found in the book of Joshua must not be used to defend these injustices.