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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Joshua

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The Entry to the Land ( 1:1–5:12 )

( 1:1–9 ) Commissioning of Joshua

The overture to the book of Joshua forms a transition from the narratives of the wilderness wanderings of Israel into that of the settlement in Canaan. The underlying theology is the ancient promise that YHWH would give his people a land (vv. 3–4; cf. Gen 15:17–21; Ex 3:17; Deut 1:7–8 ). The commissioning of Joshua in succession to Moses is at the centre of this transitional narrative, and the reference to the latter's death makes an express link with the closing words of Deuteronomy.

The life of Moses had spanned Israel's Exodus from Egypt and its time in the wilderness. He was not to enter the promised land; rather, Joshua would do that. The tradition of a relationship between Moses and Joshua is found in Ex 17:8–16; Num 27:12–23 , and pursued in Deuteronomy ( 1:37–8; 3:21–8; 31:1–23; 34:9 ). Now the first command to Joshua is to cross the Jordan (v. 2 ), in order to enable the people to possess their land (v. 6 ).

If Joshua is second to Moses (he is Moses' ‘assistant’, v. 1 ), his present commissioning virtually puts him in Moses' place. The phrase ‘servant of YHWH’, marking both relationship and responsibility, is elsewhere used of Moses (v. 1; cf. Ex 14:31; Deut 34:5 ), and of King David (2 Sam 7:5 ). The present passage (vv. 6–9 ) strongly suggests a transfer of the privileges and role of Moses to Joshua, perhaps in a special ceremony (Lohfink 1962 ). The elements in this transfer are (1) the encouragement of Joshua (vv. 6, 7, 9 ); (2) the giving of a task, namely putting the people in possession of the land (v. 6 ), implying the distribution of its parts to the tribes, the subject of Josh 13–19 , and (3) the assurance of God's presence with him (v. 9 ). The theory of a ceremony should not be pressed to argue that Joshua is thus a ‘royal’ figure (by analogy with the passing of an office from David to Solomon, Gerbrandt 1986 ). But the three elements identified do characterize the role of Joshua as it emerges here.

Joshua's special position appears in the fact that YHWH addresses him several times in the singular in this passage. The promise that he will be with him is peculiarly his (v. 9 ). But Joshua is also to place himself under the authority of the word of God already given to Moses (v. 7 ). The terms of the responsibility recall the law of the king (Deut 17:14–20 ), but are valid for all who would lead in Israel, thus marking out such leadership from all other, in the sense that it is received and held only by way of God's gift, not by personal power (McCarthy 1971 ).

( 1:10–18 ) The Transjordanian Tribes

Joshua's first command emphasizes the military nature of the coming campaign, and follows Deuteronomy in thought and language (Deut 11:31 ). ‘Officers’ over the people are presupposed in Ex 5:10–19 , and there are narratives of commissioning in Num 1:16, Deut 1:15 . The latter makes them tribal officials. Their role here and in Deuteronomy is administrative; Numbers knows of a spiritual responsibility. The fine balance here between careful preparation and the recognition that the land is God's gift is a feature of Joshua.

If the crossing of the Jordan is the mark of land-occupation, a problem is posed by the settling of some Israelites east of the river (cf. Num 32; Deut 3:12–21 ). The topic is returned to in Josh 22 , thus virtually framing the book. Common to these narratives is the requirement that the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh should participate in the conquest of the land of Canaan, thus expressing their belonging in Israel, before settling finally in their own land. The region does not seem to be formally part of the promised land (Num 32 distinguishes it from the land of Canaan, vv. 29–30 ; for Deuteronomy, however, the war of conquest begins there).

The key theological idea here is ‘rest’ (vv. 12, 15; cf. Deut 12:9 ). Rest is a goal of the occupation narratives, entailing the complete possession of the land and the subduing of enemies (Josh 11:23 ). Its definitive enjoyment, however, is elusive (cf. again 2 Sam 7:1 ). Finally, the response of Israel is important here (vv. 16–18; see Barth 1971 ). Specifically, it could be either the officers accepting the command of v. 11 , or the Transjordanian tribes agreeing the terms of vv. 13–15 . More important is the pattern of command and response, essential to covenantal arrangements (cf. Ex 19:8; 24:3,7 ), and the words are as from Israel as a whole. Israel shows its willingness to submit to Joshua as successor of Moses, and thus to YHWH and his word.

( 2:1–24 ) Rahab and the Spies

The mission of the spies recalls the first such mission, which had resulted in failure to take the promised inheritance because of fear (Num 13–14 ). The present enterprise focuses on Jericho. Some therefore see the story as originally an aetiological tale, explaining the continuing presence in Israel of a family or group associated with Rahab (Josh 6:25; Wagner 1964; cf. Long 1968 ). However, the reference to ‘the land’ alongside ‘Jericho’, v. 1 , puts this story in the context of the larger narrative of conquest; there is also an echo of the first mission, recalling that such efforts can fail. The outcome this time is successful, however, in so far as the spies return to encourage the people (v. 24 ; contrast Num 13:31–3 ).

Yet this is an odd beginning to the conquest (vv. 1–3 ). Joshua has no command from God to send spies (contrast Num 13:1–3 ). The secrecy of the project (v. 1 ) seems inconsistent with a victorious march into the land, and in any case is not sustained (vv. 2–3 ). And the involvement of the Canaanite prostitute Rahab in Israel's advance seems to compromise its integrity.

The involvement of the ‘king of Jericho’ (v. 2 ) reminds us of the real issues at stake, namely Israel's challenge to the city-states of Canaan, the more profound because Israel's only king is YHWH. The king is well aware (as Balak, king of Moab, had been, Num 22:2–4 ) of the threat posed by Israel to the whole land (v. 3 ).

These great issues sit oddly with the setting of the action in a prostitute's bedroom. The next scene (vv. 4–7 ) has an element of farce, the secret police being easily dispatched in the wrong direction. The city-gate closes to keep enemies out, but they are already inside, and settling down for the night.

Rahab's words (vv. 8–11 ) borrow the language of Israel's confessions of faith. Her admission of the city's fear at Israel's progress corresponds to God's promise (cf. Ex 23:27; Num 22:3 ). And she sees the victories in Transjordan as evidence that they will carry the day in Canaan (Deut 3:21–2 ). The confession of YHWH's universal rule in heaven and on earth (v. 11 ) has Deuteronomic overtones (Deut 4:39 ). This may be intelligible as a matter of strategy (cf. the Gibeonites' tactics, Josh 9 ). Yet the author may wish to show ironically the superior faith of the enemy in YHWH's power.

Rahab demands the life of herself and her family, borrowing a significant Hebrew term, ḥesed, ‘deal kindly’ (v. 12 ), denoting the loyalty expected in a covenant relationship (cf. 1 Sam 20:8 ). The spies agree, in spite of the Holy War theology which underlies their presence there (Deut 2:32–7; 7:1–5; 20:16–18 ). The men swear on their own lives that they will guarantee those of Rahab and family (vv. 14, 19 ), provided she does not ‘tell this business of ours’ (vv. 14, 20 ). It is hard to know what is left to tell that the Jericho authorities do not know! But the reader feels that the Israelites have somehow entrusted the success of their cause to a Canaanite. Polzin has rightly detected the irony of the whole episode, and its suggestion that Israel, already, has failed to adhere to the terms of the ḥērem (Polzin 1980 ).

In the event the present adventure would play no part in the entry to Canaan or the fall of the city—except perhaps to warn the inhabitants that it is coming ( 6:1 )!—since YHWH's power is irresistible.

( 3:1–5:1 ) Crossing the Jordan

There now comes the account of the entry of the whole people to the land ( 3:1–5:12 ). This great culmination of promise makes express connections with the Exodus story. The crossing of the Jordan by a miraculous parting of the waters (Josh 3:16 ) recalls the crossing of the Reed Sea (Ex 14:21–2 ); the first Passover kept in the new land (Josh 5:10–12 ) corresponds to the first of all, in Egypt (Ex 12–13 ); the centrality of the ark here symbolizes the guidance of YHWH on the way to the land (Mann 1977 ), and prepares for the Holy War ahead (Num 10:33–6 ).

The narrative in 3:1–5:1 has resisted alignment with the traditional Pentateuchal sources. While a number of elements in it occur twice (e.g. the selection of men to carry the stones, 3:12; 4:2 ; the setting up of the stones, 4:8–9, 20 ) the central incident, the passage of the ark through the river, is told only once ( 4:11 ). It has been widely seen as an aetiological liturgical narrative from the sanctuary at Gilgal, near Jericho on the banks of the Jordan (possibly Khirbet-Mafjar). This was an important cultic centre in the monarchic period (1 Sam 11:14–15 ), and perhaps earlier. The festival would have celebrated the memory of exodus together with the triumphant entry to the land (Kraus 1951 ), perhaps in the context of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, or maṣṣôt (cf. 5:10–12; Otto 1975 ; otherwise Halbe 1975: 329–44). The crossing of the Jordan would have echoed that of the Reed Sea (cf. Ps 114:3, 5; Mic 6:4–5 ). This type of explanation may account better for the prominence of ark and priests in the narrative than the ‘literary’ solution of Noth and others (Noth 1953; Fritz 1994 ), which postulates ‘post-Priestly’ additions to a Deuteronomic narrative.

The account of the crossing is connected to that of the spies (ch. 2 ) by the further mention of Shittim ( 3:1 ). The first verse sets the theme when it brings Joshua, together with ‘all the Israelites’, to the verge of Jordan for the crossing (cf. v. 17 ). The tribal officials play their part, and the due timing is observed (vv. 2–3; cf. 1:10–11 ). The theme of the ark as a guide on the journey (v. 4a ) is connected (as in Num 10:33–6 ) with that of Holy War (v. 10 ), anticipating the sack of Jericho. The crossing respects the requirements of holiness, the ark being attended by the properly authorized personnel (vv. 3, 6; cf. Num 3:5–10, 31 ), and the people keeping due distance. In this respect the story recalls the encounter with YHWH at Sinai (cf. Ex 19:10–12 ).

Preparations for the crossing are now joined with a reaffirmation of Joshua's leadership, and of YHWH's special promise to accompany him ( 3:7; cf. 1:5 ). YHWH's fundamental promise to Israel (Ex 3:12 ) is thus applied to Joshua himself. The themes of his leadership, YHWH's law (words), his powerful presence and his promise to dispossess the enemy (cf. Ex 3:17 ) are all closely combined here (vv. 10–11 ). The phrase ‘the LORD, the Lord of all the earth’ (v. 13; cf. Mic 4:13; Ps 97:5 ) is a claim to absolute universal dominion, similar to claims made by other ancient Near-Eastern deities. Baal, for example, was known at Ugarit as zbl b῾l arṣ (‘the prince, lord of the earth’; see Fritz 1994: 51–2).

Following the scene-setting there is an initial, succinct report of the crossing (vv. 14–17 ), with only a note to make the point that it was truly miraculous, the river being in its spring flood (v. 15 ). This passage has a complex relationship with the following (ch. 4 ), both anticipating that fuller account of the crossing, and participating in it (only here is the entry into the water by the priests narrated).

There now follows ( 4:1–5:1 ) an extended account of the crossing, though it has been briefly narrated just before. Parallel and anticipatory accounts of events are known elsewhere in the OT (cf. 2 Kings 18:13–16; 18:17–19:37 ). v. 1 , which refers to the crossing as if complete, yet introduces instructions about actions to be performed before or during it, may be intelligible as a link with ch. 3 , and a kind of announcement that what follows tells how the crossing was accomplished. This intersection of temporal points of view, both here and at the conclusion of ch. 3 , may be a function of the liturgical character of the text.

The twelve tribal representatives ( 3:12; 4:2 ) are now appointed to carry stones from the midst of the Jordan to the far side. The stones present a difficulty. Did Joshua set up twelve stones in the Jordan besides those which the people carried across, as suggested by NRSV's parenthesis (v. 9 )? A better solution is to see v. 9a as explaining how it came about that twelve suitable stones were found in the middle of the Jordan (cf. v. 3 ). Thus v. 9b (‘and they are there to this day’) should fall outside the parenthesis, and be seen as a continuation of v. 8b (with Ehrlich 1968: 16).

The liturgical function of the actions performed is clear. That is, the narrative is not merely relating events, but also instituting an act of worship for all future generations (vv. 6–7, 21–2 ). In this it resembles the narrative of the first Passover (cf. Ex 12:24–7 ).

The importance of Joshua's performance of the commands given to Moses is now re-emphasized, together with his comparable standing in Israel (vv. 10–14 ). In heralding the accomplishment of the crossing this passage echoes the signal given of Joshua's importance at its beginning ( 3:7–8 ). The two passages mark out the key players in the whole action, namely Joshua (the bearer of God's commands), the priests (guardians of his holiness), and the people, constituted as an army ( 4:13 ). The numbers of warriors here are small by comparison with those given in the tribal lists in Num 1 . In that place they may simply be exaggerated (see NUM 1). It is also possible that the word translated ‘thousand’ really means ‘platoon’ in such cases, and therefore implies smaller and indeterminate numbers.

Finally, the priests, who have been in the water with the ark during the crossing of the people and the ceremonies with the stones ( 4:10 ), emerge last from it, and when they do the river resumes its normal course ( 4:15–18 ).

The date of the people's emergence from the river is significant, the tenth day of the ‘first month’ being part of the Passover celebration, when the lamb was prepared for the feast (Ex 12:2–3 ). (On calendars in Israel and the date of the Passover see Clines 1976 .) Thus, the crossing of the river is expressly connected with that of the Reed Sea. The two events frame the larger narrative of exodus and conquest, as archetypal acts of salvation. The stones taken from the river are set up in Gilgal (v. 20 ), and the link between exodus and entry is established.

Finally, in the perspective of the larger narrative, the purpose of the demonstration of God's power in this event is that all the peoples of the earth might know it. The narrative thus points towards the triumphs of YHWH that lie ahead. The effect of the Israelites' approach on the inhabitants of the land is devastating ( 5:1 ). Their designation ‘Amorites’ and ‘Canaanites’ follows Deut 1–3 , e.g. Deut 1:7 . That passage recorded how it was the Israelites whose hearts ‘melted’ ( 1:28 ), and how they then rashly took on the enemy unprepared ( 1:41–5 ). Now it is the turn of the Amorites; the misadventure of Moab is in the past, and the land trembles before the approach of Israel and YHWH.

( 5:2–15 ) Circumcision and Passover

Before the march of Jericho, three things occur. The first is a circumcision of Israel, designed to ensure that the nation is properly constituted ritually. Circumcision was widespread among ancient Semites. In Israel, however, it marked the convenantal relationship with God. Its institution is traced in the Old Testament back to Abraham, and is told in a text which states that no uncircumcised male can be regarded as an Israelite (Gen 17:9–14 ). The institution of the Passover reiterates the requirement, allowing resident aliens in Israel to be included on condition that they are circumcised (Ex 12:43–9 ).

The connection between circumcision and Passover is important; Israel must be ritually pure to celebrate its central memorial feast. That connection is re-established here, at a place not otherwise known, Gibeath-haaraloth, or ‘the Hill of the Foreskins’. The name of the place is presumably connected aetiologically with the action. How it relates to Gilgal, which is also named as a result of this action (v. 9 ), is unclear. Perhaps there was a special site in the locality for the ceremony (Soggin 1972: 70).

According to MT, the circumcision was necessary because the wilderness generation had not been circumcised (vv. 4–7 ), though it is not clear why this was so. (Against MT, LXX adds that some Israelites who came out of Egypt had not been circumcised; but this is unlikely to be a better tradition.) God's decree banning the Sinai generation from seeing the land of Canaan is prominent here (vv. 4, 6; cf. Num 14:22–3; Deut 1:34–40 ). The point is that as that generation had been unfit to go into the land, this generation will be fit. The circumcision of adult males would therefore have been a necessary precaution. The term ‘a second time’ shows, however, that Joshua did not initiate the practice in Israel.

The first section of the passage ends with an aetiology of the name of Gilgal. In the phrase ‘I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt’ the verb closely resembles the name Gilgal. The explanation is of a sort that is frequent in the OT, not a scientific etymology, but rather a paronomasia designed to bring out a connection between word and event (cf. the renaming of Jacob ‘Israel’, Gen 32:27–8 ). Gilgal thus becomes a necessary stage, theologically speaking, in the progress to the land, the place where the people were made fit to possess their inheritance. The ‘disgrace’ of Egypt cannot refer to the mere fact of uncircumcision (though Gen 34:14 might suggest so), for the people were circumcised there (v. 5 ). The reference is probably to the social disgrace of servitude; the entry to the land will mean freedom, and a realization of who Israel properly is.

Gilgal then becomes the place of the first Passover held in the land (vv. 10–12 )—the second event preparatory to taking possession. The allusion to Jericho (v. 10 ) has ominous overtones for the Canaanite population. While the correct date is given for the Passover, the cultic rituals are not spelt out in detail (there is no account of the Feast of Unleavened Bread that followed Passover for seven days, Lev 23:5–6 ; and the language, especially the combination ‘unleavened cakes and parched grain’, does not suggest the P source). Rather, the Passover is here associated with the ceasing of the manna (cf. Ex 16 ) and the eating of the produce of land. Yet the ‘unleavened cakes’ also recall the ‘unleavened bread’ which had been the food of hasty flight from Egypt (Ex 12:15–20; Deut 16:3 ). The eating of it now, along with ‘parched grain’, is consistent with a people not yet settled; nevertheless, they have already begun to enjoy what they themselves had not planted or laboured over—a sign of the beginning of legitimate possession (Deut 6:10–11 ). With circumcision and Passover, the cessation of manna and the bounty of the land, a full circle has been turned since the departure from Egypt.

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