The book falls naturally into three divisions: (a) the conquest of Canaan (i.-xii.), (b) the settlement of the land (xiii.-xxii.), (c) the last words and death of Joshua (xxiii., xxiv.). This period seems to be better known than that of the wilderness wanderings, and, especially throughout the first twelve chapters, the story moves forward with a firm tread. On the death of Moses, Joshua assumes the leadership, and makes preparations for the advance (i.). After sending men to Jericho to spy and report upon the land (ii.), the people solemnly cross the Jordan, preceded by the ark (iii.); and, to commemorate the miracle by which their passage had been facilitated, memorial stones are set up (iv.). After circumcision had been imposed, v.1-9, the passover celebrated, v.10-12, and Joshua strengthened by a vision, v.13-15, the people assault and capture Jericho (vi.). This initial success was followed by a sharp and unexpected disaster at Ai, for which Achan, by his violation of the law of the ban, was held guilty and punished with death (vii.). A renewed assault upon Ai was this time successful. (viii.). Fear of Israel induced the powerful Gibeonite clan to make a league with the conquerors (ix.). Success continued to remain with Israel, so that south (x.) and north, xi.1-15, the arms of Israel were victorious, xi.16-xii. [Footnote 1: The book of Joshua describes only the southern and northern campaigns; it gives no details concerning the conquest of Central Palestine. This omission is apparently due to the Deuterouomic redactor, who, in place of the account itself, gives a brief idealization of its results in viii.30-35.]
Much of the land remained still unconquered, but arrangements were made for its ideal distribution. The two and a half tribes had already received their inheritance east of the Jordan, and the rest of the land was allotted on the west to the remaining tribes. Judah's boundaries and cities are first and most exhaustively given; then come Manasseh and Ephraim, with meagre records, followed by Benjamin, which again is exhaustive, then by Simeon, Zebulon, Issachar, Asher, Naphtali and Dan (xiii.-xix.). Three cities on either side of Jordan were then set apart as cities of refuge for innocent homicides, and for the Levites forty-eight cities with their pasture land, xx.1-xxi.42. As Israel was now in possession of the land in accordance with the divine promise, xxi.43-45, Joshua dismissed the two and a half tribes to their eastern home with commendation and exhortation, xxii.1-8. Incurring the severe displeasure of the other tribes by building what was supposed to be a schismatic altar, they explained that it was intended only as a memorial and as a witness of their kinship with Israel, xxii.9-34.
The book concludes with two farewell speeches, the first (xxiii.) couched in general, the second xxiv.1-23, in somewhat more particular terms, in which Joshua reminds the people of the goodness of their God, warns them against idolatry and intermarriage with the natives of the land, and urges upon them the peril of compromise and the duty of rendering Jehovah a whole-hearted service. The people solemnly pledge themselves to obedience, xxiv.23-28. Then Joshua's death and burial are recorded, and past was linked to present in the burial of Joseph's bones (Gen.1.25) at last in the promised land, xxiv.29-33.
The documentary sources which lie at the basis of the Pentateuch are present, though in different proportions, in the book of Joshua, and in their main features are easily recognizable. The story of the conquest (i.-xii.) is told by the prophetic document JE, while the geographical section on the distribution of the land (xiii.-xxii.) belongs in the main to the priestly document P. Joshua, in common with Judges, Samuel (in part) and Kings, has also been very plainly subjected to a redaction known to criticism as the Deuteronomic, because its phraseology and point of view are those of Deuteronomy. This redactional element, which, to any one fresh from the study of Deuteronomy, is very easy to detect, is more or less conspicuous in all of the first twelve chapters, but it is especially so in chs. i. and xxiii., and it would be well worth the student's while to read these two chapters very carefully, in order to familiarize himself with the nature of the influence of the Deuteronomic redaction upon the older prophetico-historical material. Very significant, e.g., are such phrases as "the land which Jehovah your God giveth you to possess," i.11, Deuteronomy xii.1: equally so is the emphasis upon the law, i.7, xxiii.6, and the injunction to "love Jehovah your God," xxiii.11.
The most serious effect of the Deuteronomic influence has been to present the history rather from an ideal than from a strictly historical point of view. According to the redaction, e.g., the conquest of Canaan was entirely effected within one generation and under Joshua, whereas it was not completely effected till long after Joshua's death: indeed the oldest source frankly admits that in many districts it was never thoroughly effected at all (Jud. i.27-36). A typical illustration of the Deuteronomic attitude to the history is to be found in the statement that Joshua obliterated the people of Gezer, x.33, which directly contradicts the older statement that Israel failed to drive them out, xvi.10. The Deuteronomist is, in reality, not a historian but a moralist, interpreting the history and the forces, divine as well as human, that were moulding it. To him the conquest was really complete in the generation of Joshua, as by that time the factors were all at work which would ultimately compel success. The persistency of the Deuteronomic influence, even long after the priestly code was written, is proved by xx.4-6, which, though embodied in a priestly passage, is in the spirit of Deuteronomy (cf. Deut. xix.). As this passage is not found in the Septuagint, it is probably as late as the third century B.C.
P is very largely represented. Its presence is recognized, as usual, by its language, its point of view, and its dependence upon other parts of the Pentateuch, demonstrably priestly. While in the older sources, e.g., it is Joshua who divides the land, xviii.10, in P not only is Eleazar the priest associated with him as Aaron with Moses (Exod. viii.5, 16), but he is even named before him (xiv.1, cf. Num. xxxiv.17). It is naturally also this document which records the first passover in the promised land, v.10-12. The cities of refuge and the Levitical cities are set apart (xx., xxi.) in accordance with the terms prescribed in a priestly chapter of Numbers (xxxv.). The prominence of Judah and Benjamin in the allocation of the land is also significant. The section on the memorial altar, xxii.9-34, apparently belonging to a later stratum of P, is clearly stamped as priestly by its whole temper -- its formality, v, 14, its representation of the "congregation" as acting unanimously, v.16, its repetitions and stereotyped phraseology, and by the prominence it gives to "Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest," vv.30-32. That this document in Joshua was partly narrative so well as statistical is also suggested by its very brief account of Achan's sin in ch. vii., and of the treachery and punishment of the Gibeonites, ix. l7-2l -- an account which may well have been fuller in the original form of the document.
The most valuable part of Joshua for historical purposes is naturally that which comes from the prophetic document, which is the oldest. It is here that the interesting and concrete detail lies, notably in chs. i.-xii., but also scattered throughout the rest of the book in some extremely important fragments, which indicate how severe and occasionally unsuccessful was the struggle of Israel to gain a secure footing upon certain parts of the country. Many of the difficulties revealed by a minute study of i.-xii. make it absolutely certain that the prophetic document is really composite (JE), but owing to the thorough blending of the sources the analysis is peculiarly difficult and uncertain. That there are various sources, however, admits of no doubt. The story of the crossing of the Jordan in chs. iii., iv., if we follow it carefully step by step, is seen to be unintelligible on the assumption that it is a unity. In iii.17 all the people are already over the Jordan, but in iv.4, 5, the implication is that they are only about to cross. Ch. iv.2 repeats iii.12 almost word for word. In iv.9 the memorial stones are to be placed in the Jordan, in iv.20 at Gilgal. In vii.25b, 26a, Achan alone appears to be stoned, in
Enough has been said to show that the prophetic document, as we have it, is composite, though there can seldom be any manner of certainty about the ultimate analysis into its J and E constituents. There is reason to believe that most of the isolated notices of the struggle with the Canaanites scattered throughout xiii.-xxii. and repeated in Judges i. are from J, while ch. xxiv., with its interest in Shechem and Joseph, and its simple but significant statement, "They presented themselves before God (Elohim)," xxiv.1, is almost entirely from E.
It used to be maintained, on the strength of a phrase in v.1 -- "until we were passed over" -- that the book of Joshua must have been written by a contemporary. But the true reading there is undoubtedly that given by the Septuagint -- until they passed over-which involves only a very slight change in the Hebrew. On what, then, do the narratives of the book really rest? The answer is suggested by x.12, 13, where the historian appeals to the book of Jashar in confirmation of an incident in Joshua's southern campaign. Doubtless the whole battle was described in one of the war-ballads in this famous collection (cf. Jud. v.), and it is not unreasonable to suppose that other narratives in the book of Joshua similarly rest upon other ballads now for ever lost. The capture of Jericho, e.g., may well have been commemorated in a stirring song which was an inspiration alike to faith and patriotism.
If, however, it be true that the book of Joshua has thus a poetic basis, it is only fair to remember that its prose narratives must not be treated as bald historical annals; they must be interpreted in a poetic spirit. There is the more reason to insist upon this, as a later editor, by a too inflexible literalism, has misinterpreted the very passage from the book of Jashar to which we have alluded. What the precise meaning of Joshua's fine apostrophe to sun and moon may be, is doubtful -- whether a prayer for the prolongation of the day or rather perhaps a prayer for the sudden oncoming of darkness. The words mean, "Sun, be thou still," and if this be the prayer, it would perhaps be answered by the furious storm which followed. But, in either case, the appeal to the sun and moon to lend their help to Israel in her battles is obviously poetic -- a fine conception, but grotesque if literally pressed. This, however, is just what has been done by the editor who added x.14, and thus created a miracle out of the bold but appropriate imagery of the poet. Similarly it is not necessary to suppose that the walls of Jericho fell down without the striking of a blow on the part of Israel, for this too may be poetry. It may be just the imaginative way of saying that no walls can stand before Jehovah when He fights for His people. That this is the real meaning of the story, and that there was more of a struggle than the poetical narrative of ch. vi. would lead us to believe, is made highly probable by, the altogether incidental but very explicit statement in xxiv.11, "The men of Jericho fought against you."
With its large geographical element the book of Joshua is not particularly rich in scenes of direct religious value; yet the whole narrative is inspired by a sublime faith in the divine purpose and its sure triumph over every obstacle. In particular, the story of the Gibeonites suggests the permanent obligation of reckoning with God in affairs of national policy, ix.14, while Gilgal is a reminder of the duty of formally commemorating the beneficent providences of life (iii., iv.). The story of Achan reveals the national bearings of individual conduct and the large and disastrous consequences of individual sin. The valedictory addresses of Joshua are touched by a fine sense of the importance of a grateful and uncompromising fidelity to God. But perhaps the greatest thing in the book is the vision of the heavenly leader encouraging Joshua on the eve of his perilous campaign, v.13-15, a noble imagination, fitted to remind those who are fighting the battles of the Lord that they are sustained and aided by forces unseen.