Book Notice: The Message of Joshua

Book Notice: The Message of Joshua April 4, 2016

David Firth
The Message of Joshua (BST)
Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015.
Available at

By Jill Firth

Richard Dawkins describes the Book of Joshua as ‘a text remarkable for the bloody massacres it records and the xenophobic relish with which it does so.’ He continues by comparing the entry to the Promised Land as ‘morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein’s massacre of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs.’ Christian readers of Joshua might also find themselves at a loss to see the value of the Book of Joshua for preaching or edification, and they might struggle to reconcile the book with their image of the God who has been made known to us in Jesus Christ.

David Firth’s thinking on Joshua was developed in his years in South Africa (1993-1996) during the dismantling of apartheid. Attention to the themes of leadership and land was then uppermost in his mind, but more recent challenges from New Atheism and questions from within the church have helped develop his thinking on Joshua, violence and the land which he lays out in this new commentary from BST. The commentary is set out helpfully for Bible Study leaders and preachers, with practical application accompanying every segment of the text. It is highly recommended.

The issue of violence and the land is complex. Ancient rhetoric must be distinguished from actual practice, and the appropriateness of applying modern terms like ‘genocide’ to Joshua must be carefully compared with the Biblical framework of herem. Our modern worldview and the worldview of the ancients have some significant differences. Understanding the worldview and political realities in which the stories unfolded can give us a better grasp of their significance. While God is not captive to time, his work in the world is embodied in actual human lives in actual cultural settings. His choices may be made with a heavy heart (Stephen Williams). His work of judgement is an ‘alien work’ (Isaiah 28.21), it is for a purpose (Isaiah 28.28) and is designed for healing and flourishing in human society when ‘the tyrant shall be no more… all those who do evil shall be cut off…’ (Isaiah 29.20).

A distinction is made between the rhetoric of ‘utterly destroying’ and the reality described in the text. Communities of Canaanites survived in the land (Judges 1.27-36), and Canaanites were welcomed into the people of Israel, including Rahab and her whole family (Joshua 2-6). The Book of Joshua refers to ‘aliens and native born’ in the covenant ceremony and in provisions for protection for those who killed someone by accident (8.33; 20.9), indicating that non-Israelites were welcomed and protected in the covenant community. The Gibeonites, who established a covenant by trickery (Joshua 9) were protected, and when Saul later sought to wipe them out, he was reprimanded by God and David offered reparation to their descendants (2 Samuel 21.1-2). Caleb the Kennizite (14.6-15) seems to have descended from Esau, not from Jacob (Gen 36.11, 15, 42). The Arcites were not Israelites, but were given a portion in the land (16.2). Firth emphasises that those who did not oppose Israel were accepted and spared, but those who remained in the towns and opposed by military means were subject to warfare.

Firth notes that though the Canaanites were living in the land, the whole universe belonged to God, and any people in any place were tenants on their land, not owners. God had the right to deal with rebellious tenants who did not recognise his ownership. God told Abraham four hundred years earlier that he would punish the Amorites for their wickedness, but that it was ‘not yet complete’ (Genesis 16.16). The Amorites had four hundred years to change their ways, but they did not. God’s justice is clarified in the story of Abraham’s intercession for Sodom (Genesis 18.22-23) where God promises to act in mercy if righteous people can be found. God had the right to give the land to Israel, and to welcome any Canaanites who agreed to live under his Lordship. God also had the right to remove Israel from the land if they rebelled. The Israelites themselves were caused to leave their land in the Babylonian exile in 589BCE, and were exiled for over 50 years. This occurred about 800 years after Joshua, because Israel had not cared for the poor and needy, and had not worshipped God with their whole heart.

An understanding of ancient world views is also crucial in reading the text on its own terms. Today in secular politics, God and righteous living have little political weight, and physical life and death have a far greater importance than spiritual wellbeing, so it is difficult for us to enter the mindset of ancient peoples, whose values were so different from ours. Firstly, the people were religious, and connected their gods with possession of their lands. A god had the right to be worshipped on his lands. Secondly, they had a high concern for sin, and they expected a god to deal with wickedness, using force if necessary. Thirdly, they believed that gods had the right to make decisions about life and death. They did not have the embargo on the death penalty or the discomfort in going to war that we in the West have today.

The text of Joshua cannot be used to justify violence or colonialism today. It must be emphasised that the creation of the Promised Land was a one-off event in history related to the time of that covenant and has no modern parallel. It is not sanctioned as a model for colonialism or military takeover and has wrongly been applied in history to describe acts of political aggression against indigenous peoples. The issue of violence and land rights is of concern to all right thinking people today. We rightly review our history of colonialism, racial prejudice, and bigotry, and repent of mistakes we have made. Australians recognise that the declaration of Terra Nullius in 1889 was fraudulent. We are appalled at genocide and the enslavement of captive peoples, at forced conversion and at lack of religious tolerance. We remember that Jesus said ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18.36), and that he chose a way to change the world that involved self-sacrifice, not swords (John 18.11).

The early part of the Book of Joshua focuses not only on the welcome to Rahab the Canaanite and her family (Rahab became an ancestress of Jesus, Matthew 1.5), but also on the disobedience of Achan of Judah, who was excluded from Israel because he transgressed the covenant (Joshua 7.15, 25). This illustrates God’s concern with obedience, rather than a partiality to a particular ethnic group. The Book of Joshua helps us to gain an understanding of God’s desire that we would live righteously and obediently, and encourages us that God is faithful to his promises. The last three chapters of Joshua focus on the invitation to ‘choose … whom you will serve’ (Joshua 24.15). We too are invited to make this choice, the most important decision of our lives.

Some recent further resources are listed by David Firth in the Bibliography:

Brueggemann, W., Divine Presence Amid Violence: Contextualizing the Book of Joshua (2009).

Earl, Douglas S., The Joshua Delusion? Rethinking Genocide in the Bible (2010).

Hofreiter, C., ‘Genocide in Deuteronomy and Christian Interpretation,’ in D. G. Firth and P. S. Johnston (eds), Interpreting Deuteronomy: Issues and Approaches (2012).

McGrath, Alister, Why God Won’t Go Away: Engaging with the New Atheism (2011).

Williams S. N., ‘Could God have Commanded the Slaughter of the Canaanites?’ Tyndale Bulletin 63 (2012), pp. 161-178.

Wright, C. J. H., The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith (2008).


Jill Firth teaches Hebrew and Old Testament at Ridley College in Melbourne.

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