What Is the Background of Joshua?

Time: 20 Minutes

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The Background of Joshua


Author and Date

While this book mentions Joshua writing (Joshua 8:32; 24:26), it does not claim he wrote the book. The repeated references to something existing “to this day” (see Joshua 4:9; 5:9; 6:25; etc.) seem to suggest that there was a significant lapse of time between the events recorded in the book and the time when the writing of the book was completed. The final writing may have taken place in the time of the exile (post-587 BC), but the writing probably began much earlier.



Joshua records part two of God’s grandest work of redemption in the Old Testament period. In part one (the Pentateuch), the Lord redeemed his people out of slavery in Egypt and formalized his covenantal love for them at Sinai. Moses led the people during that time. Now in part two, under the leadership of Joshua, the Lord brings his people into the Land of Promise and gives them rest.


Purpose and Background

The book of Joshua seeks to explain God’s purpose in the events surrounding Israel’s capture of and settlement in Canaan. Those events are seen as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Such an account would have been relevant to ancient Israel from its earliest arrival in Canaan, and to every generation of God’s people to the present day.

Joshua comes immediately after the Pentateuch and in many ways completes its story. The theme of the first five books of the Bible is the progressive fulfillment of the “patriarchal promise,” made first to Abraham (Genesis 12:1–3) and repeated to his son Isaac (Genesis 26:2–4) and his grandson Jacob (Genesis 28:13–15; etc.). The Lord promised Abraham and his descendants that they would be blessed and would become a blessing to others, that they would grow to become a great nation, and that they would be given a land of their own—and that these blessings would be enjoyed within a close covenant relationship with God.

By the end of the Pentateuch, Israel has been brought into a covenant relationship with the Lord and has become a great people. But they remain outside the Land of Promise, on the plains of Moab. Forty years before, the Lord had chosen Moses to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt and to bring them to the land he had promised (Exodus 3:6–8; 6:2–8). Now, after so many years of wandering, Joshua, the “new Moses” (Joshua 1:1–9), is to lead God’s people into the land, take it, and divide it among them as their inheritance from the Lord.


Key Themes

1. The Lord’s continuing presence as the key to strength and courage (e.g., Joshua 1:5, 9).

2. The importance of the Lord’s instructions for succeeding in one’s mission and acting with wisdom (Joshua 1:7–8).

3. The ability of the Lord to save the “outsider” (Rahab), and the danger of the “insider” falling away (Achan; see ch. 2 and 7).

4. The Lord as divine Warrior and the reality of judgment (e.g., Joshua 10:42; 11:19–20).

5. The danger of failing to ask the Lord (e.g., Joshua 9:14).

6. The Lord as Protector of the covenant (e.g., Joshua 10:1–15, especially v. 11).

7. The unity of the people of God (Joshua 18:1–10; 22:34).

8. The sovereignty of God in giving his people a place and rest (Joshua 1:13; 11:23; 21:43–45).

9. The faithfulness of God in fulfilling all his good promises (Joshua 1:2; 21:43–45).

10. The necessity of removing false gods and worshiping God alone (ch. 24).



I. Crossing into the Land (1:1–5:15)
II. Taking the Land (6:1–12:24)
III. Dividing the Land (13:1–21:45)
IV. Serving the Lord in the Land (22:1–24:33)


The Setting of Joshua

Background of Joshua

The Global Message of Joshua


The Beginnings of a New Era

With the book of Joshua, one era of redemptive history comes to an end and a new one begins. Moses, leader of first-generation Israel and mediator of the Sinai covenant, has died (Joshua 1:1; see Deuteronomy 34:1–12). The Lord appoints Joshua to take Moses’ place and lead second-generation Israel into the Promised Land (Joshua 1:1–16). The original purpose of the book of Joshua was to document for Israel how the Lord fulfilled his promise to Abraham, to bring his descendants into the Promised Land (Joshua 1:6; 21:43–45; see Genesis 12:1–7; 13:14–15; 15:7–21).


The Return of the Creator-King

In the Lord’s conquest of Canaan through his people Israel, the Creator-King has returned to reclaim a portion of a world that is rightfully his but that has been usurped by Satan (see “The Global Message of Genesis”). Israel’s settlement in the land begins a significant new stage in the history of redemption.

The book of Joshua can be seen as a pattern and a platform. First, by settling his people in a place under his protection to take pleasure in his presence, God recreates Eden. This pattern is repeated throughout the Bible, giving ever-increasing clarity as to how the ultimate new creation will look when all is accomplished, when creation is liberated from its bondage to sin and renewed in Christ. Second, however, the land functions as a platform. The Lord establishes his holy dominion in the land, to use it as a base of operations from which he will advance his original intentions for creation, including the promise to bless all the nations of the world (see Genesis 12:3).


The Righteous Judge of All the Earth

With its documentation of a divinely sanctioned holy war, the book of Joshua tends to make Christians uncomfortable. Yet the church must understand, first, that the conquest under Joshua is a unique event within redemptive history and provides no basis for the church—or any other faith community—to take up similar military campaigns. Second, the Canaanites were not innocent people. We learn, for example, that one of the main reasons for their destruction was that they burned their own children in sacrifices to their gods (Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:9–12). In light of their brutal practices, and because no international organization was available to intervene, the righteous Judge of all the earth invaded history and rendered judgment (see Genesis 15:16). Third, on the last day of history the world’s rightful King will return to lead his heavenly armies into the ultimate holy war (Revelation 19:11–21), the pattern for which we see in the book of Joshua.


Universal Themes in Joshua

The Lord as Covenant-Keeper

The book of Joshua presents the Lord as a covenant-keeping God. The Lord made a promise more than four hundred years earlier to Abraham, to give his descendants the Promised Land and to bless all nations through them. Joshua shows how the Lord brought the twelve tribes of Israel into possession of the land, fulfilling his promise (Genesis 15:13; Exodus 12:40; Joshua 21:43–45).

The True People of God

Joshua chapters 2–7 tells the stories of two vastly different characters and invites the reader to contemplate the significance of their unexpected role reversal. The first character is Rahab, an inhabitant of Jericho, a Canaanite city bound for destruction (Joshua 2:1–3). Rahab is a pagan. She is also female, the unprivileged gender of her patriarchal world, as well as a prostitute, the lowest and most dishonorable of professions (Joshua 2:1). Rahab is a person of no importance, and one would expect her to be swept away with the rest of her city. The second character, Achan, is quite different. He is an Israelite, from the favored tribe of Judah, and is of a noble clan and a wealthy family (Joshua 7:18, 24). Achan is male, the privileged gender of his patriarchal world, and he is a select warrior, chosen as one of only three thousand soldiers for a special military operation against the city of Ai (Joshua 7:2–4). In summary, Achan is an honored Israelite, bound for a life of prosperity in the land “flowing with milk and honey.”

In a stunning reversal, however, Rahab becomes a full member of the people of God and Achan is executed as if he were a pagan Canaanite (Joshua 6:25; 7:11–12, 15, 24–26). Why did such a role reversal occur? The answer revolves around faith. Rahab, by faith, hid the Israelite spies out of reverent fear of the God of Israel (Joshua 2:8–13; see Hebrews 11:31). Achan’s unbelief, however, became clear to all when he coveted and stole treasures devoted to the Lord, breaking two of the Ten Commandments (Joshua 7:21; see Deuteronomy 5:19, 21). A Gentile becomes a full member of the people of God, while an Israelite forfeits this inheritance through unbelief.

The New Testament is not the first instance of Gentile inclusion within the people of God on the basis of faith alone! Rahab’s faith functions as an example for how every person of the global community— both Jew and Gentile— must respond to the one true God as revealed in the gospel (Romans 1:16–18).


The Global Message of Joshua for Today

The Global Problem of Religious Violence

A crucial theme of Joshua for global Christians today is that of the relationship between religion and violence. Religion and war have a long history of collaboration, and the past century has witnessed some of its most lethal results. Ideologically inspired assaults will come to mind for people in all parts of the world. European Jews will recall how the racist doctrines of Nazism fueled a “holy war” against them. In Sudan and Nigeria, atrocities committed by an Islamic north against a Christian south come to mind. U.S. citizens will immediately think of “9/11” and Al Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In India, militant Hindu fundamentalism in recent times has stirred up its adherents to hostility against Muslims and Christians, who are viewed as unwelcome propagators of foreign religions. And the Christian church is not innocent in this matter. The bloody medieval crusades against Muslims occupying the Holy Land were church-sanctioned holy wars. They remain a blight upon the church’s history.

The Way of the Cross Versus the Way of the Crusade

The book of Joshua tells of God using his people on a single mission as his agents in judgment on corrupt societies in the Promised Land. It offers no encouragement whatsoever for any modern community to take up arms against another in the name of its ideology. Rather it instructs us concerning God’s faithfulness to keep his promises and to destroy evil from the face of the earth. Meanwhile, we remember that Jesus took the way of a cross, not a crusade, and calls his disciples to do likewise (Matthew 16:24). The gospel is spread not by causing others to suffer, but by our glad suffering.

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