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Old Testament | Joshua | Summary

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Summary

Chapters 1–12

Joshua leads the tribes of Israel in the conquest of Canaan.

  • Israelite spies are sent to the city of Jericho to gather information. A prostitute named Rahab hides them in exchange for protection for her family when the Israelites conquer the city.
  • When the Israelites cross the flooded Jordan River, Yahweh holds back the waters in a miracle recalling the crossing of the Red Sea.
  • Joshua circumcises all the men of Israel and the Passover is observed.
  • The Israelites take Jericho and executes all the people and livestock, except Rahab's family.
  • The Israelites conquer Ai, and Joshua builds an altar at Mount Ebal.
  • Joshua's people defeat many cities—31 kings in all—in the Judahite hill country.

Chapters 13–24

The land of Canaan is divided among the tribes of Israel.

  • After the conquest is complete, the geographical limits of land apportioned to each of the 12 tribes of Israel are detailed.
  • Caleb receives his individual allotment first among the Judahites because he, along with Joshua, did not lose faith when sent to spy on the land by Moses in Numbers 13–14.
  • The priestly tribe of the Levites does not receive a discrete territory but is given 48 cities in which to reside, spread throughout the lands of the other tribes. Six of these Levitical cities are also designated "cities of refuge," where individuals who cause an accidental death are able to flee in order to escape retributive violence.
  • When three tribes build an altar, they have to assure the other Israelites that they won't use it for sacrifices.
  • Joshua assembles the leaders of the tribes at Shechem, retells the history of Yahweh's provision for the Israelites from Abraham to the present day, and admonishes the people not to be led astray by the foreign peoples that remain around them. There is a covenant renewal ceremony.
  • Joshua dies at age 110.

Analysis

Joshua presents significant challenges for the reader, especially regarding its relationship to history and the ethics of its holy war narrative.

The historicity of the events portrayed in Joshua has long been debated. Problems with the story are evident within the book itself: the few battles narrated with any detail cover only a limited area of the region they are supposed to possess. A full list of 31 kings and their cities who have been conquered is given in Joshua 12, but fewer than half of these are mentioned elsewhere in Joshua. Joshua is also in tension with Judges, which narrates significant warfare between the Canaanites and Israelites continuing after Joshua's death, despite the impression that the whole land had already been conquered.

Archaeological study in Israel has further complicated the historicity of Joshua's conquest story. While the ruins of Hazor do show a fiery destruction from the approximate time of Joshua, other cities portrayed in Joshua, such as Jericho and Ai, seem to have been uninhabited ruins in this period. Archaeology does show shifting settlement trends in the region during the period, and an Israelite society did emerge in Canaan one way or another. But a dramatic conquest like that portrayed in Joshua may not have been the sole or primary cause.

Also challenging for readers of Joshua is the holy war portrayed in the book. Despite ancestral claims to a handful of places within Canaan, Joshua's Israelite armies could reasonably be perceived as hostile foreign invaders waging an unprovoked, violent campaign justified by claims of a divine mandate. Not only do they attack and raze cities without provocation, they are commanded by Yahweh to "devote to destruction" all the inhabitants of the cities they conquer, "men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys." This program of the so-called "ban" (Hebrew: herem) is paralleled in a 9th-century BCE Moabite inscription, which uses the same terminology and prescribes similar slaughter of enemy captives. This raises a key point for understanding Joshua: However shocking to modern sensibilities, its theology and politics must be understood in their ancient context, where they are not so unusual.

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