The book of Joshua represents an important turning point in the story of the Old Testament.
The first five books of the Bible, referred to as the Pentateuch, end with the death of Moses, Israel’s beloved leader. They also end with a sense of expectation: the Israelites are on the brink of the Promised Land. God had brought his people out of slavery and bondage in Egypt. He led them through the wilderness, and they stand at the edge of their inheritance (Genesis 12:1-3). Now what?
The book of Joshua.
God raised up Moses’ servant Joshua to be the next leader of Israel, and to lead them to war against the people currently in the promised land. He encouraged Joshua with these words: “Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them” (Joshua 1:5-6 ESV). This book reminds us that, even in uncertainty, God does not leave or abandon his people.
Joshua trusted God, and wisely led Israel to trust in the leadership of the Lord. He reminded the people that it is ultimately “the Lord your God” who provides for them and leads them into the land.
Most of the book of Joshua recounts the Israelites’ conquest of the land and its distribution between the tribes of Israel. Between Joshua 13 and the end of the book, the word “inheritance” is repeated 56 times. This is a sweet reminder to us that the land of Israel was God’s gift to his people, like an inheritance given by a father to his son.
Yet the book of Joshua presents serious theological and ethical questions for Christians to wrestle through. There is a lot of killing and destruction. What is God trying to teach us through this book? Does the Bible condone genocide? We don’t think so—not even close. So, then, what do we do with the book of Joshua?
First, we should read it with humility before God, asking him to teach us what he wants us to learn.
Then, we must remember that the Canaanites were not innocent victims. They were extravagant sinners, entirely unrepentant before God. They sacrificed children in their religious rituals (Deuteronomy 18:9-10) and promoted wide sexual immorality (Leviticus 18). God had given them plenty of time to repent of their sins and turn to him and they refused (Genesis 15:16).
Remember also that Israel’s conquest of the Canaanites doesn’t mean that Israel was morally superior to the Canaanites. In fact, later in Israel’s history, God uses other nations to uproot them from the land and destroy them also. The Canaanites were sinners in need of judgement—and Israel was the means of that judgement, just like Assyria or Babylon would be for Israel in years to come.
Israel’s devotion to God was fickle and they were sinners in need of a deeper saving than freedom from their Egyptian oppressors.
In fact, the ending of the book of Joshua foreshadows Israel’s fall. For unlike Moses, Joshua does not handpick a successor to lead and unite the people. So Israel later falls into disarray and moral collapse. Although Joshua led God’s people into their promised rest (the land of Canaan), this rest was temporary and insecure. For, Israel’s devotion to God was fickle and they were sinners in need of a deeper saving than freedom from their Egyptian oppressors. Israel needed permanent leadership and rest, and ultimately salvation from their own hard-hearted rebellion towards God.
The book of Hebrews reminds us that the book of Joshua is ultimately about Jesus Christ—a greater Joshua, who came to lead us into our true and final rest. Jesus Christ permanently and finally destroys our enemies, Sin and Death—something Joshua couldn’t conquer. Jesus provides rest for our souls (Hebrews 4:1-11). Have you asked Jesus to lead you into that rest?