I was excited going into Joshua. In my mind, the first of the historical books would be jam-packed with action, violence, intrigue, and heroism.
To be fair, the beginning does have a bit of those things. But the vast majority of Joshua is actually taken up by the tribes of Israel drawing lots for who gets to live where. You’re hit with dozens of names, both of people and of geographical locations, and told nothing other than “this happened,” following the pattern of:
“The fourth lot came out for Issachar…Its territory included Jezreel, Chesulloth, Shunem, [et al.]…its boundary ends at the Jordan – sixteen towns with their villages. This is the inheritance of the tribe of Issachar, according to its families – the towns with their villages” (19:17-23).
It was while reading this mind-numbing list and trying not to fall asleep that I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. The historical books are when this is supposed to get good, aren’t they? I’ve already endured thousands upon thousands of words of laws and wanderings through deserts. I wanted to get to the action of these stories.
Furthermore, I wondered why the Deuteronomist bothered writing all of this down. I mean, did ancient Jews really, really care about which towns were occupied by the tribe of Dan, or the actual names of every king Joshua conquered?
Of course I was being petulant and irritable because I was reading this book in the complete wrong way. For whatever reason I went into it like I would read a piece of modern literature, looking for things like plot and action and characters and story-based thematic elements. I realized this halfway through, mentally kicked myself, and went back and started over.
Those long descriptions of drawing lots for land are a good place to start. To the Deuteronomist, writing in exile to make sense of his surroundings and the situation his people found themselves in, cut off from their homeland, God’s temple destroyed, and most of the tribes long since lost, spending so much time on tribal geography was a way to emphasize the centrality of the land itself in his theology. The drawing of lots implies that God was in control of the whole ordeal, and by extension that He was still in control and would deliver the Israelites when He and they were both ready to. It’s actually a marvelous bit of literary skill.
The book is also heavy on etiologies, especially of various standing stones and locations (my favorite is the “Hill of Foreskins”). Realizing this, I was able to see Joshua not as a stuffy ancient history book, but as a piece of Exilic propaganda meant to inspire a sort of proto-patriotism, as well as reassure himself and others that God was in control of their situation.
Finally, I want to mention Rahab, because her story is the best part of this book and she provides the model for the “hooker with a heart of gold” archetype. Whether or not she was a real person, the fact that the Deuteronomist felt comfortable enough to include a virtuous prostitute character who ended up assisting with the Jewish conquest of the promised land illustrates the universality of God’s devices. If He can work through a lowly Gentile prostitute (so long as she turns to him), He can work through anybody.
At the end of the day Joshua will serve as a reminder to me that it is not enough to passively “know” that it’s better to read the Bible in its historical context. You have to actively keep that in mind while reading.