Lesson 4 of 5
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Joshua

The Deuteronomistic history

Joshua is the first book of what scholars call the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings), which tells the story of Israel from Moses’ death to the Babylonian exile. Its name comes from the fact that the writers or compilers of the history used the book of Deuteronomy as the theological basis for their work and the introduction to it. Indeed, the “book of the law” referred to in Joshua seems to be the book of Deuteronomy (Joshua 1:7-8; 8:30-35; 23:6; 24:26). The Deuteronomistic History is marked by concern for covenant obedience, an emphasis on centralized power, and a pattern of human sin, divine punishment, and divine mercy.

Holy war

Many modern readers of Joshua find the book disturbing because of its depiction of holy war; that is, war that is commanded by God. Conquest of native peoples, especially “devoting” people to destruction, is an idea foreign to most Christians’ conception of God. In pondering this legitimate theological problem, two things should be kept in mind. First, the book of Joshua was addressed in its final form to an oppressed people in exile who had no military ability to engage in holy war. Second, archaeological evidence demonstrates–and the book of Joshua itself acknowledges–that the “conquest” of Canaan did not result in the annihilation of the native population (see Joshua 11:22; 13:1-6; 15:63; 16:10; 17:12-13). In other words, the theological ideal in Joshua of a land settled only by Israelites and devoted to the law of Moses does not reflect historical reality.


The book of Joshua is concerned with the question of Israelite identity, an important issue during the exile, when the book reached its final form. The tribes east of the Jordan are careful to assert their identity as Israelites, though most of their fellow Israelites have settled west of the Jordan (Joshua 22). There are warnings in the book not to associate with the peoples of the land, lest the Israelites be tempted to worship foreign gods (23:6-13; 24:19-28). The destruction of “devoted things,” both possessions and people, seems to be motivated by this fear of assimilation (see Deuteronomy 20:16-18). It is noteworthy, however, that a few non-Israelites are treated positively in the book, namely, Rahab and the Gibeonites, who both profess faith in the Lord, the God of Israel (Joshua 2:11; 9:9-10). The outsiders become insiders, and, at times, the insiders (native Israelites) become “devoted things” themselves when they break the covenant (Joshua 7).

Joshua and archaeology

The story in Joshua of an invasion and occupation of the land of Canaan by a large external force in the thirteenth-twelfth centuries B.C.E. is not supported by the findings of archaeology. The cities of Jericho and Ai, for instance, which play a prominent role in the book of Joshua, were not major population centers in that time period. The emergence of a distinct people called “Israel” in Canaan is traced by archaeologists to hundreds of small settlements in the central hill country founded in the thirteenth-twelfth centuries B.C.E. Features of these settlements suggest that they were made up of egalitarian agricultural societies not under the control of the Canaanite city-states. The Amarna letters (documents from the fourteenth century B.C.E.) give us evidence that these Canaanite city-states were governed by kings, priests, and nobles, who oppressed the people of lower classes. Many of the oppressed people left this Canaanite social structure and became armed outlaws known as “Habiru.” It has been suggested that the book of Joshua reflects the historical memory of an outside group, worshipers of the Lord, who came into Canaan and joined with the Habiru and other disaffected people to form a new, egalitarian, agriculturally based society, which later identified itself as “Israel.”

Joshua and history

As noted in “Joshua and archaeology,” the story in the book of Joshua about a large-scale invasion and occupation of the land of Canaan by Israel is not supported by the archaeological evidence. Though Joshua is part of the Deuteronomistic History, it should not be read as one reads modern history books. It includes some historical memories, but it is also compiled of many other types of literature: hero legends, folktales, administrative lists, liturgical texts, etc. Its concern is not so much with historical dates and events, but with a story of origins: How did this entity known as “Israel” come to be in the land? How did God fulfill God’s promises to Israel? The book may very well contain a historical memory of those origins, the memory of a group of worshipers of the Lord who came into Canaan and joined with disaffected Canaanites to form a new nation, centered on the law of Moses. The historical parts of the book of Joshua, however, have more to do with the time of its compilation than with the time of Joshua. The lists of land allotments in chapters 13-19, for instance, are probably derived from administrative lists during the time of the monarchy, when the first “edition” of Joshua was probably completed.

What are “devoted things”?

The Lord commands the Israelites on a number of occasions to “devote” things or people to destruction. The Canaanite cities they conquer are to be utterly destroyed, along with everyone and everything in them. This command seems to have the primary purpose of maintaining religious purity, so that the Israelites will not be tempted by the Canaanites to worship other gods (see Deuteronomy 20:16-18; Joshua 23:4-13). The command about devoted things also has sacrificial overtones. The devoted things are devoted “to the LORD,” and they are to be burned with fire, like a burnt offering (Joshua 6:17, 24; 7:11, 15). For more on this topic, see “Identity” and “Holy War.”