Deriving its title from the name of its protagonist, Joshua is the sixth book of the Bible. It is a narrative that reports how Joshua, following the death of Moses (Deut. 34), led the people of Israel in occupying the Promised Land, apportioned it to the twelve tribes, and led them in the renewal of their covenant with Yahweh.

Structure and Literary Characteristics.

The contents of the book may be outlined as follows:

  •  I. Stories of Israel's occupation of the land (chaps. 1–12)
  • A. Prologue, with an account of Yahweh's designation of Joshua as Moses' successor (chap. 1)
  • B. The spies in Jericho (chap. 2)
  • C. The crossing of the Jordan and the camp at Gilgal (chaps. 3–5)
  • D. The fall of Jericho (chap. 6)
  • E. Ahan's sin and the conquest of Ai (7.1–8.29)
  • F. A covenant on Mount Ebal (8.30–35)
  • G. Treaty with the Gibeonites (chap. 9)
  • H. Conflict with Amorite kings and the southern campaign (chap. 10)
  • I. The northern campaign (11.1–15)
  • J. Summary of the occupation (11.16–12.24)
  •  II. Account of the division of the land (chaps. 13–21)
  • A. Prologue, with an account of the unconquered lands and summary of trans‐Jordanian territory (chap. 13)
  • B. Allotments of Judah, Ephraim, and (Western) Manasseh (chaps. 14–17)
  • C. Allotments of Benjamin, Simeon, Zebulun, Issachar, Asher, Naphtali, and Dan (chaps. 18–19)
  • D. Cities of refuge and Levitical cities (chaps. 20–21)
  • III. Concluding events (chaps. 22–24)
  • A. Dismissal of Transjordanian tribes (chap. 22)
  • B. Joshua's last words (chap. 23)
  • C. The covenant at Shechem (24.1–28)
  • D. The graves of Joshua, Joseph, and Eleazar (24.29–33)

Although the book of Joshua is a narrative work, it does not have a carefully developed plot like the books of Ruth, Jonah, and Esther. As the outline indicates, the book is a composition made up of a great many individual and diverse elements. In terms both of contents and genre, each of the three parts of the book consists of quite different types of traditions. Most elements of the first part (Josh. 1–12) are stories of the events in the occupation of the land. With few exceptions, the elements of the second part (Josh. 13–21) are geographical descriptions or lists. Speeches and reports of ceremonies predominate in the final section (Josh. 22–24).

There is, however, narrative movement, if not an explicit and developed plot. At the beginning, the people stand on the edge of the land, poised to take it, and in the end they are in the land, making a covenant with their God. How they got there, and the details of their settlement are the questions answered by the book. What unifies the work is the movement of the people of Israel toward a particular goal, their settlement of the land. Although on close examination one finds that this goal was not fully reached, it is nevertheless the major theme of the narrative. The book is also unified in the particular leader whose name symbolizes the era. Joshua was not only the person who led Israel in the realization of the promise of the land but also the last leader considered fully acceptable to Yahweh.

History of Composition.

Consideration of the literary history of the book of Joshua must begin with an examination of its relationship to its context. The fundamental question is whether the book of Joshua should be seen more as a part of what precedes or what follows. Answers to this question have in large measure shaped interpretations of the book's literary history.

On the one hand, the book of Joshua continues the story begun in Genesis and brings to full circle the traditions of the Pentateuch, recording the fulfillment of the promises to the ancestors reported in Genesis 12–50. Thus, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the source‐critical analysis of the Pentateuch was extended into the book of Joshua, and scholars found there the same sources (J, E, D, and P) recognized in the earlier books. Later form‐critical and traditio‐historical study by Gerhard von Rad argued that Israel's most ancient story included the events now reported in Genesis through Joshua, that is, the Hexateuch. Whether or not there was an ancient little historical credo, as von Rad argued, certainly in a great many places Israel's past was summarized in terms of a series of saving events, including the promise to the ancestors, the Egyptian sojourn and Exodus, the wandering in the wilderness, and the settlement of the land. In that circle, the subject matter contained in the book of Joshua would have been the concluding part.

In terms of the organization of the canon, however, there is a distinct break between the first five books (the Torah or Pentateuch) and the section that begins with Joshua (the Former Prophets in Jewish tradition). That organization is doubtless the last stage in a long history of development, and stems in large measure from the legal contents of the Torah and its association with the authority of Moses.

On the other hand, certainly in its present literary formulation, the book of Joshua is part of the history that begins with Deuteronomy. Whether there are traces of the other Pentateuchal documents or not, its clearest literary affinities are with the book of Deuteronomy. It was Martin Noth who recognized that the book of Joshua is the second major section of a Deuteronomic history, the account of Israel's past that includes the books of Deuteronomy through 2 Kings as they are organized in the Hebrew canon, that is, without the book of Ruth.

The diverse evidence points to the following conclusions. At an early stage in their oral transmission, Israel's traditions about the occupation of the land would have been the concluding element in the story that began with the promise of the land to the ancestors. At the latest stage, when the Hebrew books were being recognized as canonical, the book of Joshua was part of the second group of scriptures, the Prophets. But at the dominant level of their literary formulation, Joshua belongs with the Deuteronomic historical work that begins with the book of Deuteronomy.

There is abundant evidence in the book of Joshua for the Deuteronomic historians' editorial hand. These scribes—for there must have been more than one—did not create the story but rather drew upon older written and oral materials, organized and interpreted them, and at various points tied the story together with their editorial additions. These latter, recognizable by their similarities to the style and theology of the book of Deuteronomy, tend to occur at key transitions in the history, as well as to consist of speeches by the main characters in the story. Joshua 1 and 23 are such editorial contributions.

The final edition of the history must have been written not long after the last events it reports, in an anecdote concerning King Jehoiachin in Babylon. Thus it dates from ca. 560 BCE, during the Babylonian captivity, and could have been written in either Babylon or Judah. It is highly likely that there were earlier editions of the history. Evidence for two stages is seen in the two conclusions to the book of Joshua (chaps. 23 and 24), both of which bear the clear imprint of the style and theology of Deuteronomy.

In general, the final Deuteronomic editor(s) were at once historians and theologians. In a time of national disaster it was important to preserve the story of the people, especially since the institutions that transmitted the national memory were in disarray. As theologians, they interpreted their present—the Babylonian exile—as the results of a sinful past. Because of Israel's unfaithfulness to the covenant with Yahweh, the prophetic announcements of judgment had now come to pass.

Older Traditions.

When the Deuteronomic editors began to compose the book of Joshua they had at their disposal a great many oral and written materials, some doubtless quite ancient, and some already organized into collections. Most of the individual traditions in chaps. 1–12 are etiological tales, at least in their structure and intention, that is, they tend to conclude with explanations of an existing place, practice, or name in terms of some event during the time of Joshua. Thus, twelve stones at Gilgal are to be explained to future generations as those taken from the Jordan during the crossing (4.19–24), and the name Gilgal is said to come from the first circumcision in the Promised Land (5.2–9; cf. also 6.22–25; 7.24–26).

Most of the individual stories in Joshua 1–12 relate to events in a single region, that of the tribe of Benjamin and the area near Gilgal (see Map 3:5X), an old sanctuary. What at first glance is an account of the conquest of the entire land turns out to concern the occupation of a small region. The exceptions are the reports of a southern campaign (10.28–43) and a northern one (11.1–23). It seems very likely, then, that the traditions of the tribe of Benjamin and of the sanctuary at Gilgal formed an old collection that became the core of other stories.

Most of the lists that form the basis for the account of the division of the land in chaps. 13–21 existed before the final edition of the book. These include a list of towns and a boundary list. The town lists (15.20–62; 18.21–28) present the names of cities belonging to various tribes. Although twelve groups are given, they do not correspond to the twelve tribes; rather, they list only cities in the southern part of the country. Thus, the town lists probably give the administrative districts of Judah during the monarchy, either from the time of Josiah (639–609 BCE) or earlier. The boundary lists (15.1–19; 17; 18.11–20; 19.10–16) trace out the frontiers between the tribes as on a Map. Although the actual tribal holdings might have changed frequently, it appears that the boundary lists give a premonarchic version of the land claimed by each tribe. This list is the basis for most contemporary maps of the tribal boundaries in the time of the judges.

Chaps. 13–21 also contain lists of the cities of refuge and of the Levitical cities (chap. 21) and some individual stories of specific groups such as the Calebites. Some of these, which appear also in Judges 1, concern territories not captured under Joshua; they probably reflect quite ancient tradition. In the final section of the book, chap. 24 calls for special comment. Although the account of the covenant at Shechem has been edited by the Deuteronomic historians, it probably rests upon early Israelite practice, as does the related passage in 8:30–35.

The History of the Settlement.

As a source for the history of ancient Israel, the book of Joshua is useful but limited. In particular, as evidence for the period it reports, there are several reasons why its account cannot be read uncritically. First, while the Deuteronomic editorial framework gives the impression of an invasion of all of Canaan by all of Israel under the leadership of Joshua, a careful reading of the individual sections reveals a different picture. All of the stories account for only part of the land, mainly in the central hill country, and there is even a summary of unconquered territory (13.1–6). Second, the historian of this period needs to take into account a great many other passages that deal directly or indirectly with the period and its events, especially Judges 1. Others are Genesis 34, which appears to concern the settlement of the tribes of Levi and Simeon in the area of Shechem, and Numbers 13–14, which seems to assume the conquest of the southern plateau by the tribe of Judah. Third, the historian needs to take note of whatever external evidence can be brought to bear, including the results of archaeological research. There is, for example, evidence of the destruction of several Palestinian cities ca. 1200 BCE, and the appearance of a new and materially inferior culture at about that time, but the details of Israel's emergence in her homeland remain uncertain. One of the most useful historical sources in the book is the list of tribal boundaries, reflecting the situation in the period of the judges.

One general point is quite clear. It is far more accurate, both theologically and historically, to speak of what happened in the era of Joshua as the settlement rather than the conquest of the land. Theologically, virtually all levels of the tradition insist that Israel received the land as a gift from Yahweh, in fulfillment of the promise to the ancestors. The battles were understood as episodes in a holy war in which the conflict was won by Israel's God. Historically, Israel's movement into Canaan was not a sudden series of military campaigns but a gradual settlement over a long period of time, probably more than a century. Certainly, this settlement would have seen military conflict with the native population, but more often by individual tribes than by the entire people of Israel. (See also Conquest of Canaan.)

Theological Themes.

The dominant theological perspective of the book of Joshua is that of its final editors, who wrote during the Babylonian exile to interpret that disaster for those who had experienced it. These thinkers viewed the history of Israel as a series of eras, each characterized by particular leaders. Moses was, of course, the leader without peer, the only one with whom Yahweh spoke face to face (Deut. 34.10; etc.). The period of Joshua was the last era of harmony, when an obedient people experienced the fulfillment of the promise of the land. In various ways, the life of Joshua is shown to parallel that of Moses; as Moses led the people through the sea, Joshua led them across the Jordan River, and both men led the people in the establishment and renewal of the covenant with their God. The next era, that of the Judges, was a time of testing, and the monarchy—with the primary exception of the reigns of David and Josiah—was a history of apostasy leading up to the exile.

In this scheme, the book of Joshua stresses the importance of the land as a divine gift, addressed finally to a people that has lost that inheritance. Thus, the lists of cities and tribal holdings in chaps. 13–21 are at least as significant as the stories of battles won in chaps. 1–12. The land belongs, ultimately, to the Lord, and the people hold it in trust as an inheritance. One message of the book is that the proper social structure for maintaining that trust is that of the family and the tribe. Land, therefore, is not a commodity to be traded.

Both directly and indirectly, the book addresses the problem of syncretism. To what extent can the people of Israel adopt the religious and cultural patterns of the Canaanites? The Deuteronomic tradition argued vigorously that any compromise with foreign religions and cultures was a betrayal of the covenant and would lead ultimately to ruin. By commanding the total destruction of the native population, the writers express the dogma of a radical means to avoid the problem. This dogma had its roots in the ancient holy war tradition, in which all captives and all booty were subjected to the ban. But the writers of the book of Joshua knew that the native population had by no means been exterminated; for the most part, they continued to live alongside the Israelites. Thus, the book of Judges reports that the Canaanites and their religious practices were left in order to test the faith of Israel (Judg. 3.1, 4).

Another theme that runs through the book is the relationship between obedience and blessing. Although Israel receives the land as an unmerited gift, in fulfillment of the promise to the ancestors, she will remain in the land and enjoy its fruits so long as the people are faithful to the covenant. The meaning of faithfulness is expressed in the law (even understood as the “book of the law,” 1.8) and the covenant stipulations (8.30–35; 21.13–20; 23.6–13; 24.14–28). Above all, this relationship between obedience and blessing is a corporate rather than an individualistic one. As the story of Achan indicates (chap. 7), the people as a whole may suffer for the sins of some of its members.

Gene M. Tucker