War, Massacres, and Conquests: Why on Earth Would You Study Joshua?

Poussin Nicolas, The Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites, c. 1625

By Dr. L. Daniel Hawk

In this guest post, Dr. L. Daniel Hawk discusses his approach for teaching the unsettling aspects of Joshua in Mobile Ed: OT315 Book Study: Joshua (12 hour course), now on pre-order.

One can understand why Joshua might not make many top-ten lists for the most-studied biblical books. For one thing, there’s all that killing! War, massacres, and conquests. Entire populations wiped out in obedience to God’s commands. Then there is chapter after chapter of tedious tribal boundary descriptions and city lists. Yes, the book provides some great verses of encouragement—“Be strong and courageous . . . for the Lord your God is with you” and “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”—but that’s about the extent of what many Christians find edifying in the book.

Joshua’s position in the biblical canon, however, signals its importance for the whole of the Old Testament. On the one hand, the book relates the fulfillment of God’s promise of a land for Abraham’s descendants, the anticipation of which drives the story and content of the entire Pentateuch. On the other hand, Joshua constitutes the first act of Israel’s life in the land and so offers an orientation to how we should read the rest of the drama which ends, ultimately, with Israel’s loss of the land at the end of 2 Kings.

I’ve been pondering and studying the book of Joshua for more than thirty years and have come to admire its remarkable sophistication and artistry. The book hides treasures that can only be discovered by close and comprehensive study, and by employing tools that address the unique rhetorical and narrative devices it employs. My class therefore is as much about how biblical narratives work and how they testify to what God has done through Israel as it is about the particulars of Joshua’s theological vision.

I begin the course by taking a close look at the conflicting perspectives that thread through the book. For example, the first main section of Joshua (chapters 2–12) presents Israel as a virtually unstoppable force that defeats powerful kings and captures city after city, slaughtering everything that breathes along the way, until the whole land is taken. Yet the second section (chapters 13–21) begins with a retrospective, set in Joshua’s old age, wherein God describes vast swaths of land that remain outside Israel’s power and possession and urges the nation to drive the remnant populations out of the land. There is also the matter of how the book portrays Israel in relationship to God and God’s commandments, at times meticulously following every direction and yet wavering or flagrantly disobeying God’s ordinances at other points.

The course of study that follows addresses the book’s complexities from many angles. There is, first of all, the question of the process by which Joshua was written, along with the related question of how it functions as a witness to Israel’s past. I devote particular attention to the latter, as the weight of archeological analysis is trending away from the notion that the book presents an accurate account of Israel’s origins in the land of Canaan. I also address the ethical challenges the book presents to contemporary Christians, who must make sense of Joshua in an age when religiously-justified violence is occurring all over the world.

A careful reading of the biblical text itself, however, comprises the main trajectory of the course. I work through Joshua with the conviction that faithful interpreters must attend both to its divine inspiration and to the human perspectives and contexts that shape it. I teach, in other words, with a determination to let Joshua instruct us, in its own way and in its own voice, about what we are to make of the story it tells—even if that story unsettles us.

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Explore the book of Joshua with Dr. L. Daniel Hawk in the new Mobile Ed: OT315 Book Study: Joshua (12 hour course), now on pre-order and shipping in August.

The title of this post is the addition of the editor.