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Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Joshua Overview



The Book of Joshua - A Commentary

By. Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons London) DD


Like most books in the Old Testament the Book of Joshua is based on sources. The most obvious is the Book of Jashar (Joshua 10:13). Another is found in the material on which the chapters about the division of the land were based. Where dealing with covenant matters it was commonplace to record the history surrounding them almost immediately, and the author would no doubt have had a number of such records to call on. Wholesale word for word copying was a method of the day.

But if we seek to differentiate them we must be careful. We must not see Joshua as a modern book written on modern principles. It was not a history (although based on historical material) but a record of God’s covenant activity. And it was written to be listened to, not just read. So called ‘doublets’ were part of the ancient style to ensure that facts became imbedded in the minds of the listeners and so that they could ‘go along’ with them as they listened. They were commonplace in much ancient literature. They do not necessarily demonstrate dual authorship.

The Book of Joshua was written in a country which centuries before had produced a remarkable alphabetical script which had made writing and reading available to the common man. This is evidenced from signs scratched on pottery and metal found in Palestine dating before 1500 BC and from the turquoise mines of Sinai (sixteenth century BC) where slaves had written on the walls in proto-Hebrew many centuries before the time of Joshua. We can compare the young man who wrote information down for Gideon at Succoth in Transjordan (Judges 8:14). This was in direct contrast to the cuneiform Akkadian script used in the Amarna letters (mainly letters from Pharaoh to vassals and letters back to him, connected with Canaan, Syria and elsewhere) although many are written in western Semitic dialects of Akkadian. Fourteen tablets in cuneiform Akkadian have also been discovered at the site of Taanach. A clay tablet inscribed in a Canaanite cuneiform alphabet was also found there.

As to who wrote the book we do not know. There are, however, many indications that at least part of it was written within the lifetime of those who participated in its activities. Consider the regular use of ‘to this day’, occurring throughout the book. This was especially so as Rahab was said to be living among them ‘to this day’ and the context makes it clear that Rahab herself was meant (see on Joshua 6:25). Consider also the use of ‘we’ in Joshua 5:1. Furthermore the use of ancient names for cities confirms the ancientness of the sources (e.g. Baalah - Joshua 15:9 - which in 1 Samuel 7:1 is Kiriath-jearim).

We can also consider the fact that Manasseh was still being treated, along with Ephraim, as a sub-tribe of Joseph (Joshua 16:1), while Levi was still seen as one of the twelve, albeit a special one. Thus all the tribes apart from Manasseh have said about them ‘this is the inheritance of the children of --- according to their families’. For this summary description with respect to the tribes compare Joshua 13:23 (Reuben); Joshua 13:28 (Gad); Joshua 15:20 (Judah); Joshua 16:8 (Ephraim); Joshua 18:28 (Benjamin); Joshua 19:8 (Simeon); Joshua 19:16 (Zebulun); Joshua 19:23 (Issachar); Joshua 19:31 (Asher); Joshua 19:39 (Naphtali); Joshua 19:48 (Dan). Levi’s inheritance was YHWH Himself (Joshua 13:33). By this phrase the inheritance of each tribe was summed up. It was a period of transition towards Manasseh becoming a full tribe and Levi ceasing to be regarded as one in practise.

But in the end there is only one certainty for us to work on and that is the book as it has come to us, as incorporated into the Scriptures in the Massoretic text in the latest editions, warts and all. It is on that that we have commented. (That is not to deny that we can use versions and translations, or even other Hebrew texts where they are available, it is only in order to fix a standpoint of comparative certainty from which we will work).


The first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) have depicted the establishment of a people for God who were intended to be ‘a kingdom of priests’ (Exodus 19:6), taking YHWH’s message to the world. It began in Genesis with the call of Abraham, accompanied by the twofold promise of the establishing of his descendants and through them achieving the blessing of the whole world (Genesis 12:2-3; Genesis 18:18; Genesis 22:18). It continued through Isaac and Jacob (whose other name was Israel), and then through his twelve sons who became the ‘fathers’ of the twelve tribes of Israel. ‘Israel’ originally here means the patriarch Jacob (for they are ‘the children of Israel’) but eventually ‘Israel’ becomes the name of the people. It should, however, be noted that Israel was not made up simply of people directly descended from Abraham. Right from the beginning the majority of ‘th children of Israel’ were in fact children of the servants who belonged to the household.

The family tribe of Israel then moved down to Egypt (Genesis 46; Exodus 1:1-7). Their ‘households’ would include servants and others who had joined their tribe for mutual benefit - thus numbering a few thousand. We should recall that Abraham could call on 318 fighting men ‘born in his house’ (Genesis 14:14).

In Exodus we are told how Moses led these people’s descendants, together with a great multitude of people from mixed races (Exodus 12:38) who were also suffering under Egypt’s harshness and took advantage of the opportunity presented to leave with them, out of Egypt with a view to entering Canaan and establishing themselves there. This large body of people of many races all aligned themselves with the twelve tribes and from then on proudly looked on themselves as ‘children of Israel’, eventually tracing their ‘descent’ (by adoption) back to one or other of the patriarchs. So ‘Israel’ was multiracial from the start. Their subsequent adventures on the way to Canaan are depicted in Exodus and Numbers.

Under God Moses organised this group of conglomerate peoples into tribes which were joined in confederacy around a central sanctuary. But this fact alone proves that the roots of the tribes were already there, fiercely and jealously guarded. They were separate tribes with their own leaders but united by their worship of YHWH, and ideally they would meet three times a year at that central sanctuary to worship together, to express their unity, to hear the Law (Torah - Instruction), and to celebrate their harvests and make atonement for sin. And every seven years the Law of YHWH would be read out in full. All were bound by that covenant, and if any tribe found itself assailed by its enemies it could send out a call and the other tribes would come to its aid. It was a mutual help confederacy.

Meanwhile Moses appointed a young man to be his close associate and trainee, his ‘servant’ or personal assistant. His name was Joshua. He was trained to be a capable general under the hand of Moses, whose training in Egypt had been of the best. Thus when Moses died on the final approach to the promised land the reins fell into the hands of Joshua. He it was who was to lead the people into Canaan. He had a twofold commission. To establish the people in the land, dividing it up among them, and to destroy or drive out the natives of Canaan so that they would not pollute Israel with idolatry and evil ways. The Book of Joshua describes how he did successfully establish the people in the land, largely in the hill country and in the forest lands, gradually moving outwards, although still with ‘much land to be possessed’.

His first task was to secure Israel’s presence in the land and he accomplished that by a series of victories against different kings in different parts of Canaan. But this did not mean that the land was possessed, for having gained one vitory he would move on to te next, the defeated people meanwhile re-establishing themselves in many of their cities, having however learned the lesson to leave Israel alone.

The establishment of the people in the land was enabled by a number of factors. The primary one was that when they were obedient to God He would fight for them, then, secondly, that the Canaanites were split up into tribes and city states and depended on loose confederations, so that they could be picked off one by one, thirdly that just across Jordan from the point at which they invaded was the hill country, which was comparatively sparsely inhabited, but could now be settled because of the invention of lime plaster enabling the preservation of water in reliable cisterns, and fourthly because there were thick forests even on the lowlands which enabled settlement in uninhabited areas until they were strong enough to take on the sophisticated Canaanites (and eventually the Philistines), who on the coastal plain and in the wide valleys had chariots.

The settling in did rely on non-interference by Egypt who looked on Canaan as tributary to them, although sometimes only loosely, and this was especially so around the 12th and 11th centuries BC, which is why neither Joshua nor Judges give any hint of Egyptian interference. That there was limited interference comes out in that Pharaoh Merenptah (c.1220 BC) records (rather optimistically) destroying ‘Israel’, as a result of which he declared ‘her seed is not’. Whether ‘her seed’ meant her crops or her people we do not know. If the latter it demonstrates that Egypt was not fully aware of what was going on. They were used to the fact of constant civil wars in Canaan and wandering Habiru (stateless people) attacking cities (see the Amarna letters). But on the whole Egypt at this time tended to leave Israel alone, especially in the hill country.

Certainly Israel’s first intent was to establish themselves in the less populated hill country, if for no other reason than because that was the first land they came to once they had crossed the Jordan and had captured Jericho in the Jordan rift valley (the long rift valley largely below sea level called the Arabah stretching from the source of the Jordan in the North, through the Sea of Galilee (or Chinnereth) down to the Dead Sea and beyond, with mountains on either side). This separated the mountainous country of Transjordan from the mountains and hill country of Canaan and was below sea level.

We must recognise the difficulty of what Joshua had to do. It is one thing to win battles and capture cities, it is quite another to settle those cities and maintain a hold on them and on the land. We must remember that the mountains and forests, which were such a help to Israel, could also help those attacked to disappear and then return again, which undoubtedly regularly happened. When invading a country you cannot afford to leave too many men behind to retain possession of what is captured. Thus cities were captured, repossessed by the Canaanites and then had to be captured again. And archaeology bears witness to the frequent sacking of cities around this time. One important point as regards ‘cities’. These could vary from the huge Megiddo (60,000 inhabitants?), through Hazor and Taanach (40,000 inhabitants each?), down to many ‘cities’ of a few hundred inhabitants, or even less. And each could have their ‘king’.

But the aim of the book is to show that Joshua succeeded in settling Israel into the land. It does deliberately portray his victories as though he swept all before him, and in some ways he did do so, for he did successfully implant Israel in the land. But its other purpose was to show the triumph of YHWH. It was a true account, for what it recorded was true, but it was also a prophetic writing, a selection of events to present an idea, and not a strictly unbiased history. It presented an image and a theology, and initially mainly ignored the problems and difficulties that would come.

On the other hand, unlike the panegyrics of the Egyptian Pharaohs and the Assyrian kings, having presented the image it then went on, because it was concerned with truth, to point out the difficulties honestly. In the end, having gained the first optimistic impression, we are left in no doubt about the actual position. It was all a matter of perspective. And we must remember that people who lived in those times were aware of the true situation when invasions took place, and what they could accomplish. They did not see Joshua’s victories from an armchair. They knew what happened after a victory had been won and the victor passed on to other battles.

The truth is that history is always written by selection of the facts. There is no other way (except to invent it) and for that reason one writer’s view of history often seems diametrically opposed to another’s. So in Joshua it was the triumphant facts that were deliberately emphasised, the others being mentioned because of the basic honesty of the writer. In Judges the opposite was the case. The good times were merely stated as ‘the land had rest for so many years’. We actually get the impression that there were not many good times at all, but a careful reading soon confirms that that was not true, otherwise indeed Israel would not have survived. And to be fair the writer did declare his intention from the very beginning.

Note on the use of numbers in Joshua.

Today we read in the Scriptures of numbers in ‘tens’, ‘hundreds’ and ‘thousands’, and to us these have specific number meanings. We think mathematically. (Although we actually do regularly use ‘hundreds’ and ‘thousands’ simply to mean ‘lots’, e.g. when we say, ‘I’ve got hundreds of them’, or when we say ‘I have a thousand and one things to do’). If we had lived among the Australian aborigines or similar tribes around the world in the last century our counting would be limited to twenty at the maximum, and more probably ten or less. We would not think mathematically at all. This latter situation is much nearer to the true situation for the tribes of Israel, who were mainly cattle herders and shepherds, and it was indeed true for the majority of the Canaanites as well. (This is not to suggest that they were primitive, but merely that they were like the vast majority of people at the time and had little use for numbers except for trading). Thus their use of larger ‘numbers’ was vague. They thought rather in terms of groups. Words were used for different sized groups which would later gradually be transferred to be used for specific numbers. People were reckoned ‘by families’.

We know that their word for ‘a thousand’ (‘eleph’) could also be used of ‘a family’, ‘a captain’, ‘a sub-tribe’, ‘a military unit’ and so on, and that was what it originally meant. The same probably applied to ‘a ten’ and ‘a hundred’. Certainly ‘ten’ could mean ‘a number of’ (Genesis 31:41). The main classifications used were ‘tens’, ‘hundreds’ and ‘thousands’ (Judges 20:10; compare Exodus 18:25; Deuteronomy 1:15 ). But reckoning was overall done ‘by families’ (Genesis 10:5 and continually through the Bible), and these ‘numbers words’ therefore initially probably indicated ‘a close family’, ‘a wider family’, and ‘a sub-clan’, (compare Joshua 7:16-17), the size of each varying with the peoples using them. Note how in 1 Samuel 10:19-21 ‘thousands’ in 1 Samuel 10:19 becomes ‘families’ in 1 Samuel 10:21. It is therefore extremely questionable how far we can take such larger numbers as signifying exact quantity before the time of the kingship when it would be necessary to use such in transactions between kings and for taxation purposes.

In the same way we must recognise that ‘three days’ was probably a stereotyped phrase for a short period between one and a half (part of a day, a day and part of a day) and six days. It was the equivalent of ‘a day or two’ or ‘a few days’. The next step upwards would be ‘seven days’. Compare how in Genesis journeys were always shorter (‘a three days journey’) or longer (‘a seven days journey’). ‘Three’ and ‘seven’ were the popular numbers of antiquity in all countries throughout the Ancient Near East and could be used in a general way as well as specifically.


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Joshua:4 Overview". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". 2013.

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