A summary of Joshua

I concluded my weekly essays on the biblical book Joshua, one chapter a week for 24 weeks. The following is a summary of some of what was in these chapters. This week I will begin presenting discussions every week on the 21 chapters in the biblical book Judges.

The book of Joshua describes the entry of the Israelites into Canaan under the leadership of Joshua after the death of Moses. Joshua led the nine and a half tribes who planned to settle in Canaan as well as soldiers from the two and a half tribes who preferred to remain in Trans-Jordan in seven years of battles to conquer Canaan. While many Canaanite areas were not defeated and occupied, Joshua assigned various portions of Canaanite land to the nine and a half tribes, including land still under Canaanite control. The book includes some fascinating descriptions, such as the covenant that Joshua made with his people as they entered Canaan and just before his death, as well as some interesting battle episodes, such as the seeming miracle at Jericho, Joshua’s war tactics, the trick that the Gibeonites played on him, the strange tale of Achsah, and Caleb’s war against Hebron.

I examined the book of Joshua in detail to discover what the book is actually saying, in contrast to the imaginative ideas that people read into the scriptural events and statements. By doing so, I was able to discuss the writing styles in Joshua, which parallel the methods used throughout the Bible, such as Scripture’s frequent utilization of hyperbole, poetic statements, and metaphors, which made the text more interesting but taught us not to take what is stated literally. I showed that Scripture frequently makes a general statement about an event but does not give details until later. Many events are repeated and when this occurs the story is told somewhat differently, which creates a tension but gives us a deeper multi-dimensional understanding. Some incidences are reported out of order and the text abounds in ambiguities and obscurities; both of these styles prompt us to take a second and third look at what is stated to decipher the tales. Some miracles are described, but a close look at what Scripture says and how it says it reveals that they may not have been supernatural events, but poetic descriptions of heroic or somewhat unusual happenings.

I showed what appears to be many internal conflicts, two contrasting versions of a single event, such as chapter 4 where one version has a monument set in the middle of the Jordan River, while a second places it near the river. Chapter 8 mentions that Joshua arranged an ambush of 30,000 Israelites, but a second version has 5,000. In chapter 9, the Gibeonites deal with the tribal leaders in one version and with Joshua in another. Chapter 10 declares all Canaanites in the locality were killed, however a second discloses that some Canaanites escaped. Chapter 11 narrates that Joshua vanquished Hebron during the seven years of occupation, but Caleb does so in chapter 14 after the seven year period. In chapter 14, Joshua gifted Caleb with the city Hebron, but assigned it to the Levites in 21:12. The book has sentences saying Joshua triumphed over all of Canaan, while others reveal he was not successful. Some statements in Joshua also differ with those in the book of Judges. According to Joshua, Canaanite territory was taken in battles conducted by all of Israel, but in Judges 1 and 2 the campaigns were engagements by individual tribes who seized their own territories. In Joshua 12 Joshua conquered Megiddo but Judges 1:27 reveals the city was not captured;

Such apparent disagreements also exist in other biblical books, including the Five Books of Moses. Scholars took various approaches in explaining them. Critical scholars wrote that the differences show that more than a single author, perhaps as many as four, wrote the early drafts of Joshua and they were assembled by an editor who not realizing the book would later be canonized chose not to resolve them. Traditional scholars suggested solutions for each apparent conflict, frequently asserting that each is describing the same event,[1] but approaching it from a different perspective; or saying that both are true that, for example, Joshua set two ambushes of 5,000 and of 30,000.

I highlighted different views about when this book was composed: Y. Kaufman, for instance, pointed to the idiom “remaining nations,” repeated often in Joshua and mentioned later in the beginning of Judges, but in no later book.[2]  This and other facts in the book persuaded him that Joshua “must have been composed at the beginning of the era of the judges.” In contrast, the division of land which was not conquered until King David did so, and other facts, led many scholars[3] to conclude that the book was composed after the era of King David, possibly as late as the time of the reformation by King Josiah.

I showed some surprising facts about Joshua. Most readers expected to see him portrayed in a heroic and successful manner. Yet he was unable to conquer all of Canaan, the mission that God had given him. He is frequently described as being hesitant and unsure that God will help him, as when despite divine assurances, he sent spies to Canaan to determine if he can conquer it. He is portrayed as being old and weak while Caleb is depicted as being strong. He was fooled in chapter 9 when he accepted the ruse of the Gibeonites. It is possible that the book was edited by a person who wanted to extol the tribe of Judah and to minimize the tribe of Ephraim to which Joshua belonged.

Most astonishing is the view of some commentators that the book reveals that the Israelites knew nothing about Moses’ Torah. There is, for example, no indication in Joshua or other biblical books prior to the time of King Josiah, who died in 609 BCE, more than five centuries after Joshua, that the Israelites observed biblical commandments such as the Sabbath.

Additionally, no biblical leader or prophet of the early period, who constantly criticized the nation for idol worship, reprimanded them for not observing Torah commands.

There are conflicts with what is stated in the Pentateuch. A glaring apparent inconsistency is that according to Deuteronomy 20:10-14 the Israelites must try to establish peace with Canaanite nations prior to engaging in a battle with them, but Joshua never did that, nor does the book suggest he even considered it.

More remarkably, Deuteronomy 20:10 mandates that the Israelites must expel every Canaanite from the land lest they seduce the Israelites to worship idols. But the Israelites allowed Canaanites to remain in the country and took tribute from them, until the Canaanites grew strong and enticed many to worship idols. The Israelites not only failed to obey this Torah divine command, there is no indication they considered it; suggesting they did not know this Torah command.

The idea that the Torah was not in existence during the days of Joshua until close to the end of the first temple period explains another problem. Exodus 28:30, Leviticus 8:8, Numbers 27:21, and Deuteronomy 33:8 speak about an Urim that the high priest wore to communicate with God to secure divine guidance. This Urim is not mentioned in any of the early post-Pentateuch biblical books. Israelite leaders did not utilize it when decisions needed to be made.[4]

Moses’s Torah states that cities of refuge must be established, but there is no evidence that such cities were ever created, either in biblical books or other literature. True, they are mentioned in a Joshua chapter, but since there is no indication they were ever used and in view of other evidence, scholars[5] feel that this chapter was composed centuries after the time of Joshua[6] and it reflects an ideal situation that was never realized.[7]

Another seeming proof that the early Israelites did not know about Moses’s Torah is Deuteronomy 17:14–20. It states that when Israelites settle in Canaan and desire to appoint a king, they may[8] do so, but the king is restricted in certain ways. Yet I Samuel 8 and 12 describe Israelites requesting the prophet Samuel to appoint a king for them, and he scolds them and says he is opposed to a monarchy. Why didn’t the people respond by reminding him of Deuteronomy 17? Is it possible that neither they nor he knew anything about Deuteronomy 17?

Still another example is the Mishkan which was a core element of the religious practices according to the Five Books of Moses but is not mentioned in post-Pentateuch books.[9]

Deuteronomy 12:10-14 states[10] that when the Israelites settle in Canaan, they may not “offer your burnt-offerings in every place that you see, but only in the place that the Lord will choose in one of your tribes,” and this place was Shiloh. Yet we know the Israelites built altars, as in Judges 18, and the two altars established when Israel broke away from Judah during the early reign of King Solomon’s son. The fact that none of the biblical books mention anyone criticizing the building of altars as a violation of Deuteronomy 12 seems to add another possible indication that the pre-King Josiah Israelites knew nothing about Moses’s Torah.

In Joshua 22, the Israelites assert they still suffer from the crime of Peor.[11] This claim seems to be another possible indication that the post-Moses Israelites did not know of the existence of the Torah until the time of King Josiah. They say that they are still not cleansed from the crime of Peor,[12] apparently not knowing that Numbers 25:13 and Deuteronomy 4: 3, 4 state that the Israelites who survived the plague that followed the crime were absolved of all guilt.[13]

Additionally, some post-Moses practices are significantly different than those mentioned in Moses’s Torah such as the levirate marriage of Ruth. One might ask, why did they change the Torah practice?[14]

The ancient rabbis recognized these apparent problems, just as they knew about the conflicting statements mentioned above, and they provide answers that they felt showed that the Torah was observed after the time of Moses. I discussed some of their solutions in the prior chapters.

In short, we found many interesting ideas and stories in this biblical book, and a close examination of statements and events raised questions that are thought provoking.


[1] In Genesis 24, for example, one version of Abraham’s servant’s trip to secure a wife for Isaac told the tale as it actually occurred, while the second version related it from the servant’s perspective. Exodus 20 quotes the Decalogue revealed by God, while Deuteronomy 5’s version is the same Decalogue from Moses’s perspective.

[2] Kaufman felt that this language described the situation of the short period following the death of Joshua.

[3] Such as those quoted Olam Hatanakh and the Cambridge Bible Commentary.

[4] The Urim is mentioned in Ezra 2:63 and Nehemiah 7:65 as a hope for the future, but it was not used at the time and these books were composed after the first temple period when all agree that the Torah existed. The first temple was destroyed in 586 BCE. The sole time it is mentioned earlier is in I Samuel 28:6 where it states that God did not answer King Saul by any means, not by dreams, the Urim, or prophets. This does not say the Urim was used and it may be a late interpolation.

[5] Discussed in Olam Hatanakh’s treatment of this chapter.

[6] Some of the cities assigned as cities of refuge and as Levite towns were not conquered by Israel until the time of King David suggesting a late composition of the book Joshua (Olam Hatanakh).

[7] Its reference to Moses does not suggest that his Torah was known during the early period of Joshua since these scholars argue that the Torah was not composed until centuries after Joshua’s death.

[8] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 1:1, understood that the Torah obligated the Israelites to appoint a king when they entered Canaan.

[9] This is mentioned in detail in chapter 21.

[10] See also Midrash Sifrei on this verse and Babylonian Talmud, Zevachim 118b that discuss this prohibition. Rashi understood that the western tribes were bothered because of the violation of Deuteronomy 12.

[11] Numbers 25.

[12] 22:17.

[13] It could be argued that they knew of these statements but were saying despite what God said there we still feel guilty.

[14] I explained in other books such as “Mysteries of Judaism” that the Torah allowed, even encouraged, the development of laws to fit changed circumstances, and the rabbis did so.