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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

The Continuing Significance of the Book of Joshua

Most Christians who read the book of Joshua have a difficult time with the image of God that the book appears to have. It is a God who orders an invasion of Canaan and the annihilation of the armies sent to oppose the Israelites, and even of the civilian population of towns under attack by Israel. The conflicts depicted in the book of Joshua have been described as examples of “holy war,” but this expression never appears in Joshua or anywhere else in the Bible. Still, it is true that ancient Israel did acquire control over Canaan, in some measure, by violent means. But it is difficult to be more specific than this when trying to reconstruct the process of Israel's emergence in Canaan. It is clear, however, that the image of a large Israelite armed force, organized under Joshua's leadership, invading Canaan from the east and quickly gaining control over the whole land has its roots in the religious imagination of ancient Israel rather than in the experience of the Israelite tribes.

There were serious and widespread conflicts in Canaan of the thirteenth century BC. Archaeology has shown that. But the conflicts were probably not initiated by an invading military force. They began as the centralized political and military authority over the region exercised by Egypt began to deteriorate in the fourteenth century. Canaanite city‐states began fighting one another for dominance in the region. Some peasant farmers of Canaan, who bore the burden of these conflicts, withdrew their allegiance from these city‐states and began to develop an alternate polity. In the central highlands, groups united by kinship and the worship of the Lord emerged as a significant force. It is possible that a group of people who worshipped the Lord, and who had escaped from slavery in Egypt, energized the people of the central highlands to resist their oppressors by telling their stories of a miraculous escape made possible by their God. In any case, the people of Israel rejected the hegemony of the city‐states and ruled themselves according to traditional norms of behavior as interpreted by their elders. Over time the power of the city‐states waned, and the Israelite tribes were able to strengthen their hold on the central highlands and enjoy a measure of peace and prosperity with the Lord, rather than with a human being as their sovereign. Instead of paying taxes to a human overlord, they offered tithes of their agricultural produce to the Lord at the shrines where they thanked God for the gift of the land. The Israelites believed that it was the God of their ancestors who made it possible for them to take control over their lives and destinies. This reconstruction of the emergence of the Israelite tribes in Canaan is based on the results of archaeological excavations, combined with what is known from the Bible and other ancient Near Eastern texts using models derived from anthropology and sociology.

This, however, is not the story related in the book of Joshua. That story was not written to describe the process by which the Israelite tribes came to dominate parts of Canaan. The book of Joshua was composed to encourage the exiles of Judah and Jerusalem to believe in the power of their ancestral deity to lead them from exile in Babylon back to the land promised to Abraham's descendants. The fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of its Temple, and the end of the dynasty and national state led the people of Judah to wonder about the power and the willingness of their God to save. The book of Lamentations gives voice to the questions that the exile raised in the hearts of believers. It begs God to remember what has happened to Israel and to start acting like God (Lam 5, 1.19 ), but Lamentations ends with what is best translated as a plaintive question: “Have you utterly rejected us?” (Lam 5, 22 ). The book of Joshua, then, is best understood as a response to questions such as this one—not to questions about how ancient Israel acquired its land.

The great irony of the book of Joshua was that its stories about the Israelite army conquering great cities and annihilating their populace were written at a time when ancient Israel was at its lowest ebb politically and militarily. The two Israelite national states no longer existed. Their territory was absorbed into the Babylonian provincial system. The leading citizens of Judah were taken to Babylon to prevent them from fomenting any resistance to the new order in the region. Those Judahites who remained in the land were subsistence farmers and not in a position to challenge Babylonian rule. Certainly the stories about the mighty Israelite army winning victory after victory under Joshua was a parody of the military and political impotence of Judah in the sixth century BC.

Unfortunately, the stories of the book of Joshua have served to provide support for the wars of conquest waged by Christians over the centuries. The Crusades, the wars against the Native Americans, and the Boer conquest of South Africa are just three examples of the lethal mixture of war and religion. The book of Joshua was written not to inculcate a martial spirit in its readers but instead a spirit of obedience and commitment to the Torah. The book assumes that the exile of Israel from the land that God gave it was not due to any military misadventures. Israel lost its land because of its failure to keep the Torah that God revealed to Moses. The only hope for restoration was for Judah to join their ancestors in recommitting themselves to their God: “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord for the service of other gods. For it was the Lord, our God, who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, out of a state of slavery. He performed those great miracles before our very eyes and protected us along our entire journey and among all the peoples through whom we passed. At our approach the Lord drove out [all the peoples, including] the Amorites who dwelt in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God” (Jos 24, 16–18 ).

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