Read the passage here.
Today we are returning to the Old Testament for a new series. Or perhaps it might be more accurate to say we’re resuming our series on the Old Testament. We are going to spend a few months going through Joshua, Judges, and Ruth. I’m not intending on spending too much time here – just hitting some highlights. But, without making assumptions on how familiar (or unfamiliar) anyone is with these books, we want to continue our effort to have as complete as possible of a picture of the entire biblical story. Which is to say, we want to understand how God is working throughout human history, and try to understand what that means for us.
So, having said that, it’s important to recognize that, having completed our survey of the gospel according to Matthew, we are not exactly leaving Matthew behind. Rather, the story of Matthew (or more precisely the story of Jesus) is the culmination, the pinnacle, of the story of which Genesis to Deuteronomy, and Joshua, Judges, and Ruth are a part. Which is simply to say that we want to try to understand how all of scripture hangs together.
And so, we read Joshua (because we’re starting with Joshua), remembering the story of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and the Israelites that we have covered so far. And we read Joshua anticipating, from our vantage point, and knowing the outcome described in the gospel accounts – which is to say that it all points to Jesus and the work accomplished in and by Jesus.
So, as we dive into the book of Joshua, today will essentially be an introduction to the book, and we’ll consider some of the main themes that we’ll encounter in the book.
Now we’re not going to get into a full review of the Pentateuch – the history of Israel so far. But I do want to quickly note that Joshua picks up the history of the nation of Israel. We remember that God spoke to Abraham and told him that through him, God would raise up a nation that would be blessed to be a blessing – and this is understood in the context of a world that is fallen in sin, a story that we saw from Adam through Cain and Abel, through Babel and through Noah. The story of Abraham continues through Isaac and Jacob to Joseph. And the story of Joseph leads us to Egypt. After hundreds of years of slavery, God calls Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and into the promised land. Through the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, we see the beginnings of the nation of Israel with all its ups and downs, all its successes and failures, all held together by the faithfulness of God.
There are a number of themes that are important to pay attention to throughout that history, the most important, perhaps, having to do with human sin and repeated rebellion, God’s grace and faithfulness, and covenant.
So the book of Joshua begins (pretty much) precisely where Deuteronomy leaves off. Deuteronomy closes with the death of Moses and Joshua begins with Joshua being given the mantle of leadership (although this passing is discussed in Deuteronomy). In Deuteronomy, we saw Israel at the border of Canaan, the promised land. However, when Israel initially arrived there, they refused to enter because of fear of the inhabitants. This led to their wandering in the desert for 40 years. Now, with the old generation (those who refused to enter) passed away, a new Israel finds themselves again at the entrance to Canaan.
This is where we find the opening words of the book.
1 After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ aide: 2 “Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them—to the Israelites. 3 I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. 4 Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates—all the Hittite country—to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. 5 No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. 6 Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.Joshua 1:1-6
What we’re seeing here is God renewing his promise to Moses (for the people of Israel) under the new auspices of Joshua’s leadership – In other words, God is saying, “What I promised to Moses, I now promise to you, Joshua (and by extension, Israel).”
Ex. 3:8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.Exodus 3:8
Deut. 11:24 Every place where you set your foot will be yours: Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the Euphrates River to the Mediterranean Sea. 25 No one will be able to stand against you. The Lord your God, as he promised you, will put the terror and fear of you on the whole land, wherever you go.And others…Deuteronomy 11:24-25
So the passage we’re looking at today serves as both transition (from Deuteronomy) and introduction (to the rest of Joshua). And by way of introducing the book, I want to lay out some of the major themes right off the bat.
Firstly, as we see here in the opening verses, the book begins with the promise to fulfill to and through Joshua the promises made to Moses regarding inheriting and inhabiting the land of Canaan.
The theme of land is very important in the opening books of the Bible (stretching back to Genesis) – indeed, to the whole Old Testament. We’ve talked about some of the ideas related to land before but what we want to focus on here is the relationship between land and nationhood. To put it another way, Israel’s possessing of the land is part of their becoming a people or a nation. And it’s specifically this nationhood or peoplehood that is the point in the early books of the Bible. The land, therefore, is important inasmuch as it is part of becoming a people.
According to Bruce Waltke, in the Ancient Near East the criteria for nationhood includes four things (that is, in order to be a nation, you need four things):
- Common people
- Common land
- Common constitution
- Common king
We’ve already seen the institution of a common people (that is, the descendants of Abraham – this is further worked out through the Egypt and Exodus episode). And we’ve already seen the institution of a common constitution (that is, the covenant laws – we saw this mostly in Exodus through Deuteronomy). The common king is to come (Initially king Saul, though David is the archetypal king for Israel. There’s more to say about this, especially Israel’s desire for a human king, thereby rejecting their divine king – but it’s enough to understand that).
So what we’re seeing here is the fulfillment of the particular criterion of nationhood, that of the possessing/inhabiting of the land. In other words, all of that is to say that we need to understand what we’re reading here in Joshua through the lens of “creating a nation” or “creating a people.” (And this, of course, should be a theme that resonates with what we talked about through the gospel of Matthew – we’ll come back to that).
It’s important that we understand this because we need to distinguish what’s going on – creating a people – as distinct from a Western understanding of colonialism or imperialism. It’s not as if, for example, Israel is trying to take over the world (as they know it) – it’s not about taking over the pagan or heathen nations. It doesn’t have to do (I think) with dominance. Rather, I’d like to understand it as God establishing a particular people, a chosen kingdom, in the midst of a fallen and sinful and broken world. A people who will be blessed in order to be a blessing.
I make this distinction because Joshua can be an exceedingly disturbing or controversial book.
What we read about a lot in Joshua is a foreign people – a people without a land, that is, Israel – coming into Canaan and defeating, destroying, killing whole cities, and taking over. When we read stories like this, it can be troubling because we get the impression that the Israelites are a violent, imperialistic, pitiless people. And we likewise can infer that God, who is ordering and directing these attacks, is a capricious, bloodthirsty, genocidal God. Excluding the fact that this seems to contradict the God of love that we read about in the New Testament, such a picture of God seems contrary to what we simply feel God should be – it doesn’t seem like the kind of God we would want to serve.
And the first thing that I want to say about that is that, though there was undoubtedly military conflict and conquest involved, the idea that the Israelites killed all of the people of Canaan (every single Canaanite) is likely unrealistic. Without getting into various theories about what the Israelite settlement of Canaan actually looked like, what we see is that the various peoples that Israel is reported to have “totally destroyed” are still around in later parts of the Bible.
Now there’s much more to be said about that. This includes discussions around the concept of “holy war,” judgement on ungodly nations or practices, as well as discussions about the similarities between the book of Joshua and other conquest narratives in the ancient near East – all of which would point to the fact that there’s more going on than may appear at the surface. We may or may not get into some of this in further depth as we continue in Joshua. And I don’t want to ignore the difficulties but I want to focus on the idea that, ultimately, what’s going on is that God is creating a people. Another way to say that is that the point of what is written, how it is written, and what we are (probably) meant to understand is God’s purposes in creating a people, which is part of God’s purposes to redeem creation.
On that note, we continue in our passage today:
7 “Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. 8 Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. 9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”Joshua 1:7-9
What we see here is a reminder that Israel’s possession of the land is a matter of covenant relationship. And remember that the covenant Law is not merely a matter of things that Israel must do and must not do but a matter of being a people who are set apart – a particular people. Israel is called to be a people of God and not merely one more of the peoples of the world.
Having the land (and the rest of it) is meaningless if Israel is not going to keep the covenant – if Israel is just going to be like every other people. Which is, in fact, exactly what winds up happening later in their history. When we get to the Kings and Chronicles, Israel has all of the trappings of nationhood, but it’s precisely their failure to keep covenant – to keep relationship with God – that results in their downfall.
And this should remind us of the gospel of Matthew. Because it’s part of the same story. It’s all the story of God’s work of redemption in human history. And in the story of Jesus, the promises first made to Abraham, and worked out through Moses, Joshua, and many others are ultimately fulfilled. But where Israel was trapped in the cycle of sin, the sinless Jesus establishes the true kingdom across all places, all peoples, and all times. And the same question that was posed to Joshua’s Israel is posed to us today – of what Kingdom do we want to be a part?
So as we read through the book of Joshua, as we see God continue to work out His purposes to create this particular people, I’d like us to try to keep these things in mind. Again, we’re going to go through the book quite quickly, skipping a lot of the text. But I hope you read through the whole book for yourselves as we go through it. What we’ll find is many stories of battles, stories of politics and treaties; we’ll read about the administration of the land, how it is shared out among the 12 tribes of Israel, and some other legal issues; and we’ll read about the renewing of covenant once again.
Through all of that, we’re going to try to keep in mind, we’re going to try to notice, God’s unfailing faithfulness. We want to see how God led the people into a new land to live a new kind of life, to be a new kind of people. This isn’t the kingdom – not the true one. But it can help point us to the kingdom. In Joshua chapter 21, we read what can be seen as the theme of the book.
21:43 So the Lord gave Israel all the land he had sworn to give their ancestors, and they took possession of it and settled there. 44 The Lord gave them rest on every side, just as he had sworn to their ancestors. Not one of their enemies withstood them; the Lord gave all their enemies into their hands. 45 Not one of all the Lord’s good promises to Israel failed; every one was fulfilled.Joshua 21:43-45
Ultimately, this is our goal as well as God’s promise – to find rest. Our desire is to enter into God’s rest. The place where we are His people and He alone is our God.