Themes in the Book of Joshua

Caution: You have to read Joshua chapters 1 to 12.

The Book of Joshua is a lot more than about Joshua fighting the battle of Jericho, and it’s easier to understand than you might think – and personally challenging.

The book of Joshua really provides a fulfillment of the five books of Moses. It may be divided into two major sections chapters 1-12 cover the conquest of Canaan and chapters 13-24 the division of the land. As is typical of Hebrew history writing, a theological purpose shapes the form in which the narrative is given, and much is omitted about the conquest which should be included if a full record was desired. The importance of a form suited for a largely oral society is also reflected in the structure, a structure in which narratives are paired in different ways.

The content of the first half of Joshua’s book can be set out as follows:

Conquest of Canaan

1st phase – entering Canaan (chs 1-8)

1. Rahab spared 2:1-24

2. Jordon ‘stopped’ [Hebrew: ‘amad] 3-5

3. Jericho captured and burned 6:1-27

4. Achan put to death 7:1-8:29


2nd phase – conquering Canaan Chs 9-12

1. Gibeonites spared 9:3-27

2. Sun ‘stopped’ [Hebrew: ‘amad] 10

3. Hazor captured and burned 11:1-15

4. Canaanites put to death 11:16-23

If we now compare these pairs we see some very important points are being made.

1. Faith saves not physical descent

The book opens with encouragement to Joshua and the people to trust the LORD. The incident of Rahab, which often gets lost in arguments about her deception and lie, highlights that faith in the LORD brings deliverance. For all her personal hang-ups, and given her profession and Canaanite upbringing they’re not surprising, she risks her own life in order to save it . Hebrews 11:31 is right!
In the second phase the men of Gibeon also practice deception. But consider their position. They know the Canaanites are under the ban and that Joshua is obliged to kill them. They can’t simply go up to Joshua and ask to be spared. However, like Rahab, they are convinced that God is with Joshua. They therefore see no future unless they can secure a covenant with him. This they do by deception.

While their strategem is soon discovered they are safe because of that covenant. You could do worse than be a woodcutter or a water-carrier in Israel. The covenant with the Gibeonites was to be kept (10:6-7), and the LIRD avenged their slaughter by over-zealous Saul (2 Samuel 21). So the incident is not a warning to the church about receiving new members without enough enquiry, but a reminder that faith in the LORD is the key to blessing. As the Psalmist put it, he would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of the LORD than dwell in the tents of the wicked (Ps. 84:10).

2. The LORD acts for his people

On the way to Canaan the barrier of the Jordan river faces the Israelites. God removes this barrier by causing a blockage upstream so that the river is ‘stopped’ and the people can cross safely. From one viewpoint it’s a ‘natural’ event, but Biblically there is no such thing as a purely natural event for all is under the control and direction of the LORD. The incident recalls the earlier deliverance under Moses at the Red Sea, and the timing points to the hand of the LORD. It is he who gives them the land, not their swords or bows (Ps. 44:3).

Later Joshua is called on to save the Gibeonites from the Amorites. Joshua’s men must have been tired after their forced march the 30kms from Gilgal the night before, but they put the Amorites to flight. God sent a great hailstorm on the Amorites which killed many of them, and Israel gained a complete victory. This followed on Joshua’s cry to the LORD at midday (10:13) for the sun and moon to ‘stop’ (in context does this mean ‘to cease to shine’?).

It looks as though God answered Joshua by sending peculiar weather which included the severe hail and perhaps reflected the light of the sun and moon in a strange way, so that it gave respite from the heat to Joshua’s weary soldiers, yet light for them to continue their pursuit, while the Amorite army were struck by the storm which reduced it to a remnant easily finished off. Whatever the precise explanation it is clear that the LORD fights for his people.

3. The Capture of the Canaanite cities

The capture of Jericho is done in a peculiar way. Why the elaborate strategy? Even if we rejig the numbers of the Israelites to say the 18,000 fighting men John Wenham suggests (on the ground of translation error) we still have a significant fighting force. Jericho was not a very large place – a population of under 10,000 and a wall less than a kilometre long, according to the archaeologists. However, it was fortified and it represents the barrier to conquest. So what happens to it is the key to everything.

The soldiers, with the ark carried by the priests, go around the city every day, and on the seventh, which I reckon was a Sabbath, they go around seven times, and the walls fall at the blast of the trumpets. There is surely more than psychological warfare here. We have a picture of the overthrow of the kingdom of man on the great day which shall usher in the kingdom of God and the everlasting Sabbath. If this is right then the total destruction is fitting: fitting because the iniquity of the Canaanites was now fully developed; fitting because it pictures the Last Judgment in which all the wicked will perish, and the people of God enter into their true rest.

While certain other key Canaanite cities are destroyed, the Israelites were allowed to plunder Ai and also Hazor when Joshua destroyed them (chs. 8, 11).  Why is it we so often think God has nothing good in store for us?

4. Unbelief destroys regardless of physical descent

At first the Israelites are defeated trying to take Ai, a small place, and the problem is traced to Achan, who had taken plunder from Jericho. The sin of Achan is indeed serious. Although an Israelite he is not a person of true faith, and so perishes with the ungodly. If he had only trusted the LORD the opportunity to enjoy the bounty of Canaan would have been his as soon as Ai was taken.

Kings and great men of the unbelieving Canaanites are put to death (ch. 12), but neither are Israelites spared if they are unbelieving. If they do not trust their extraordinary God, if they do not rely on his covenant, they perish too.


So this little survey of the first half of the book of Joshua helps us see that there is much more here than a few bits of ancient history. The powerful message about safety only through faith in the LORD who had given his covenant to the fathers and proclaimed it through Joshua, is clear. And not all descended from Israel are Israel in truth (Romans 9:6).

‘These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.’(1 Cor 10:11)