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Joshua

The book of Joshua begins with God giving the man Joshua a promise: “Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you” (Joshua 1:5b). These are very encouraging words to hear from God indeed, and Joshua must have been happy to receive this promise. Yet the promise also came with a command:
Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go (Joshua 1:6-9).
God knew that the coming times would try the people of Israel as they conquered Canaan, and therefore her leader needed to have a durable character. This is why Joshua is commanded three separate times to be strong and courageous. Yet God does not intend Joshua to manufacture his own strength and courage, for He has provided him with a reason to be strong and courageous (“I will be with you”) and the means to succeed at both (he can “meditate on [the Law] day and night”).

The Law therefore functions not just as a moral guide and a way to keep Israel holy and distinct from her neighbors, but it is also the means by which “you will have good success.” Obedience to God will always result in blessings while disobedience will quite often result in a curse (although God is frequently merciful for a time even when you are in disobedience).

The commission of Joshua is now complete. He needs to only obey the commands of God and he will have success, and he can be strong and courageous because God is going to be with him exactly as He was with Moses. Things are looking up for Israel, so Joshua sends two spies into the area with an emphasis to scope out Jericho.

But in Joshua 2:2, we discover that the king of Jericho learned about the spies and that they had lodged in the house of a prostitute named Rahab. The king ordered Rahab to give up the spies, but instead Rahab hid them. Verses 4 and 5 record her saying: “True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from. And when the gate was about to be closed at dark, the men went out. I do not know where the men went. Pursue them quickly, for you will overtake them.”

As a result of this lie, the spies were saved. Rahab gave her reasons for the lie:
“I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father’s house, and give me a sure sign that you will save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death” (Joshua 2:8b-13).
And the spies agreed that “when the LORD gives us the land we will deal kindly and faithfully with you” (verse 14). We see both from this and the fact that the king of Jericho was searching for the spies that what God had been doing for Israel was well known in Canaan. In fact, they knew that God had promised the land to Israel, and they had heard of the miracles that had been done throughout the sojourn from Egypt through the wilderness. This provoked two different reactions. The king sought to kill the spies and fight against God, whereas Rahab knew that God would be victorious and asked for mercy.

Of course, we cannot continue without talking about the elephant in the room. Rahab lied to save the spies, yet lying was forbidden by God. This naturally raises the question: was Rahab sinning when she lied here?

We note first of all that the Bible passes no judgment one way or the other in Joshua. It does not say she sinned, nor does it say she was guiltless. But we do know that when Jericho was captured, Rahab was spared. Consequently, it appears to me that while the Bible never out-right says that Rahab was not sinning, it is very heavily implied that she committed no sin when she lied to the king of Jericho’s men.

If this is true, how do we reconcile it with the command not to lie? We have to remember a couple of very important facts when we look at this. First, we have seen time and again that mankind is depraved and evil from birth. Men are also very intelligent in their evil and it is possible for evil men to use God’s Law in an evil manner. That is to say that men are quite capable of putting others in a “no win” situation, where no matter what they do they will have to violate some command of God. We have seen this happen even during our grandparent’s generation, when the Nazis rounded up Jews to execute and would sometimes go house-to-house asking if the owners were hiding any Jews, and then executing any that were found.

Because this is a scenario that is modern, not just something that happened deep in the past, it is important for us to know how to balance everything. The Bible teaches that the most important commandment is to love God with all of our heart, soul, and might. It likewise teaches that we are to love others as ourselves. These commands are the most important to follow, and therefore if anything comes into conflict then we need to go with the option that will show the most love to God as well as the most love to others.

I believe that Rahab made that very choice. She followed God, and to do so meant that she had to protect His people. The king of Jericho had set himself up against God and was therefore an enemy of God. As a result, to yield to his demand to give up the spies would have resulted in an action against God. So Rahab would have violated the greatest commandment had that happened.

Additionally, Rahab knew that the only way she and her family could be spared would be if they were not killed with the other inhabitants of Jericho, because God was going to win. There was no doubt about it. Therefore, in siding with Israel, she also was showing love toward her family and any other believers who would have lodged with her during the fall of Jericho. Thus, she actually followed the second greatest commandment when she lied about the location of the spies.

I must be clear. None of this is to argue that lying is not a sin in general! My words have been distorted by others in the past as if I made that claim, but I categorically deny it. There is never a situation that will come about in your normal life where lying would not be a sin. However, the reality is that there are extraordinary circumstances—circumstances that you are “this close” to being guaranteed never to experience—where we are faced with having to obey the most important aspect of the Law instead of the exact letter of it, and if we do so I do not believe we have sinned. Thus, to bring it back to those who hid Jews: I believe it would violate the two greatest commandments to do anything at all that would help Nazis kill innocent Jews during World War II, so it would not only have been moral to lie to them, but it may very well have been immoral not to lie to them if you were protecting Jews in your house.

Again, most of us will never be in such a position, but we still must think through our morality and be able to provide a reason for what we believe, because even though we might never be in that position it is obvious through history that some believers are put into that very situation. How unfortunate it would be that misunderstanding the reason for God’s laws would result in you believing you are behaving righteously when your actions actually result in the very deaths of innocent people!

Let us now return to the events in Joshua. After the spies escaped Jericho, Joshua led Israel to the Jordan River. The priests led the way carrying the ark of the covenant, and Joshua had the people consecrate themselves. As they did so, God told Joshua, “Today I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with you” (Joshua 3:7). By these means, God would publicly confirm the promise He made to Joshua back in chapter one, that He would be with him.

So Joshua called the people together and told them:
“Here is how you shall know that the living God is among you and that he will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, and the Jebusites. Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is passing over before you into the Jordan. Now therefore take twelve men from the tribes of Israel, from each tribe a man. And when the soles of the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off from flowing, and the waters coming down from above shall stand in one heap” (Joshua 3:10-13).
So not only did this miracle exalt Joshua, but also confirmed to Israel that the Canaanites would fall before them. Just as God had divided the Red Sea, He divides the Jordan River, and the people passed on dry ground. This time, they crossed not to escape an army but to become one.

When they got on the other side, Joshua had them set up twelve memorial stones (chapter 4) to remind them of the miracle that God had done. This was also a tangible reminder for them to see in the future to remind them of what happened, and it should remind us of the command that God gave Joshua to always mediate on His Law, as well as the command God gave about the tassels on the garments that we examined earlier in this book. With these giant rocks we see another method to help with remembering things. The establishment of large physical reminders as memorial stones makes it hard to forget. Even today, it does us good to anchor memories to some objects that help us remember God in times of trial.

Immediately after the neighboring countries heard of the miraculous crossing of the Jordan River, “their hearts melted” (c.f. Joshua 5:1). The LORD then commanded Joshua to make flint knives and “circumcise the sons of Israel a second time” (verse 2). At first, it might be confusing as to how it would even be possible to be circumcised a second time, but the chapter quickly explains that while all men who had come out of Egypt had been circumcised, they had all died in the wilderness. The new generation who had been born in the wilderness had not been circumcised despite the fact that it had been commanded.

While they healed from their surgery, they remained in their camp and celebrated the first Passover in Canaan (verses 10-12). God no longer provided manna because they were able to eat from the fruits of the land. We then reach a peculiar passage:
When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” And the commander of the LORD’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so (Joshua 5:13-15).
At first glimpse, we might suspect this to be an angel, but the fact that Joshua worshipped at His feet and the commander of the army of the LORD did not correct him indicates that this was God, and perhaps even a pre-incarnate Christ.

The LORD then instructs Joshua how to capture the city of Jericho without even fighting. Most of us are familiar with the story so I will be brief. The army of Israel would march around the city for six days. On the seventh day, they would march around seven times. After the seventh time, they were commanded to shout at the signal of the trumpet, and the wall of the city would fall flat.

I have heard some Christians speculate before that the sound of the shout could have caused reverberations in the walls which could have shaken them so that they fell, but this does not seem remotely plausible as an explanation. The walls of Jericho were too strongly built and even the shouts of a large group of people are not sufficient to cause earthquakes (think of sporting events which occasionally set the record for the most decibels of the loudest crowds, yet they are not causing earthquakes that would flatten walls). The only genuine explanation is that God worked a miracle so that the walls of Jericho were destroyed at the instant the people shouted.

God commanded Israel to burn the entire city and kill everyone in it, sparing only Rahab and her family in her house, and not to take any loot. As we have mentioned before, this sort of command does cause many people to dislike the God of the Old Testament (not realizing that He is the same as the God of the New Testament too and you cannot worship one without the other). But before we can delve into it, I must warn you that things will become even more difficult.

After the battle was over, Joshua gave an oath: “Cursed before the LORD be the man who rises up and rebuilds this city, Jericho” (Joshua 6:26). The people then moved on to the next city: Ai. This time, when the spies scouted out the land, they reported that Joshua did not need to send everyone, but only about two or three thousand men. So three thousand men marched on the city and they were defeated, losing thirty-six men (Joshua 7:5).

Joshua was distraught at this and prayed asking why they had been defeated: “For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear of it and will surround us and cut off our name from the earth. And what will you do for your great name?” (verse 9).

Notice that Joshua’s prayer here is very similar to how Moses prayed, in that he is focusing on God’s Name. How is it that God could not be concerned that His Name is being sullied?

It turns out that that is precisely what God is concerned about though. In verse 11, He points out that Israel has sinned and broken the commandment not to loot Jericho. So the next day, Joshua had the people draw lots to determine who had violated the commandment. The lots fell upon Achan and Achan admitted that he had stolen a cloak, 200 shekels of silver, and a bar of gold that weighed 50 shekels, and had hidden them in his tent.

Because of that, the people took Achan, his sons, his daughters, and stoned them to death. They then burned all of his belongings. After that, we read: “Then the LORD turned from his burning anger” (Joshua 7:26).

What does this passage teach us then? First, we can see that God was sovereign over the lots, because though they were cast at random they fell upon the very man who had violated God’s commandments and stolen bounty from Jericho. Because of his sin, thirty-six men had been killed and that attack on Ai failed. And not only that, Achan’s sin also resulted in the deaths of everyone in his family.

Why did the entire family die? It could be that they were all complicit in it, but the Bible doesn’t say so. Rather, it is consistent with the rest of Scripture to view Achan as head of the family, and thereby he represented the entire family in what he did. In a way, it is similar to the fact that all of humanity was cursed in the Fall because Adam sinned. Adam was the head of all humanity; Achan was the head of his family. Each of them represented everyone beneath his headship, and as a result the consequences of his behavior trickled down to all those under that headship.

We do not typically have this function in our own families today, but there is nothing inherently illogical about having a representative head. In fact, we do engage in a very similar behavior when it comes to government. We elect representatives who then make laws that we have to follow. This can include even our own deaths in the instances where a representative chooses to involve us in a war, for example. So the concept of this sort of representation is not completely foreign to us, and since it seems that God often acts through entire families it seems consistent here too.

Still, the question remains in most of our minds: is it fair that all of Achan’s family was killed for his sin? Of course, we could also ask: is it any less unfair that everyone, including children, were killed in the towns that were conquered? These are all part of the larger question of how it is that God could command the deaths of people who we view as being innocent, and it does a disservice to Christianity to sweep all this under the rug, or—what’s even worse—for churches to claim that the Old Testament must not have been inspired because they cannot reconcile these problems with their views of God. We need to wrestle with this. This is telling us who God is. We must wrestle with this if we are to know Him.

After the stoning of Achen and the destruction of his property, God tells Joshua to attack Ai. He tells Joshua to ambush the city by feigning a retreat to draw out the army from the city. Once again, they are commanded to set fire to the city when it is conquered. This time, however, God permitted Israel to take livestock and other plunder before the town was completely destroyed.

And once again, although it was the Israelite army that fought, God says: “I will give it [Ai] into your hand” (Joshua 8:18), indicating that God was sovereign over the course of the battle. Again, it is difficult to see how this can be so without some form of compatibilism being true. It sounds a bit like a broken record to say it, but that’s only because compatibilism is the default mode of Scripture.

Now that Israel had defeated two strong cities, the surrounding inhabitants were even more terrified. Those in Gibeon dressed in worn out clothing and appeared before Joshua, claiming to be from a great distance away. They agreed to become the servants of Israel in exchange for not being conquered. Critically, the elders of Israel, we are told, “did not ask counsel from the LORD” (Joshua 9:14) and Joshua made a peace covenant with them.

Only then did they discover that Gibeon had deceived them. When Joshua demanded to know why they had been deceitful, they responded: “Because it was told to your servants for a certainty that the LORD your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you—so we feared greatly for our lives because of you and did this thing” (Joshua 9:24).

Now we could ask, how did they know for certain about this? It could have been because of false prophets like Balaam, who nevertheless could not curse Israel. Or it could have been that they had heard the prophecies from what Moses had written down and believed them. Either way, this shows that the people in the area were well aware that God had pronounced judgment upon them.

Bear that in mind when you consider the fact that God commanded the utter destruction of the Canaanites: the Canaanites were aware of this order from God. It was not taking them by surprise, and they therefore had the ability to flee the area before Israel arrived. Not only the people of Gibeon, but also Rahab testified that she was aware of the coming destruction. In other words, it is not as if God did not give the inhabitants any warning that they needed to leave the land. Much like when the state uses force to evict a tenant who will not vacate an apartment, the use of force is not inherently unjust or illogical.

So let us take up the question of whether it was fair for God to command the deaths of so many people in that light. Achan knew that God had commanded him not to loot anything, and so did his family. They had seen what happened to Korah’s rebellion, to the Egyptian army, to the city of Jericho.

Likewise, the king of Jericho knew about the fall of the other kings, Sihon and Og. He could have fled, he could have tried to trick Israel like Gibeon did, or he could have repented of his sin and become the foreigner living within Israel with the same rights as the native born citizen. Yet instead he chose to remain in rebellion against God. Rahab was able to rescue herself from Jericho by turning to God; there is no reason that anyone else could not have done so as well. And finally, we know from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah that God would have spared the cities if there had been even ten righteous people. Taking all this together, the morality of the destruction of the towns in Canaan is not quite as bleak as it looked before.

Now that Ai has been destroyed, the conquest of Canaan began in earnest. The king of Jerusalem, hearing of the destruction of Ai and also how Gibeon had made peace with Israel, gathered together a coalition from Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish, and Eglon to war against Israel. Once again, God informed Joshua: “Do not fear them, for I have given them into your hands. Not a man of them shall stand before you” (Joshua 10:8). And indeed, during the battle “the LORD threw down large stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died. There were more who died because of the hailstones than the sons of Israel killed with the sword” (verse 11).

There would be another miracle in this battle. Joshua prayed for God to make the sun stand still, and it did. The writer of Joshua marvels at this, saying: “There has been no day like it before or since, when the LORD heeded the voice of a man, for the LORD fought for Israel” (verse 14).

After this, Joshua conquered southern Canaan then turned to the north. Again, the LORD gave the enemies into Joshua’s hands and he killed all he fought against. In the end, Israel had taken over nearly all of Canaan. Joshua 12 records the kings that Moses defeated, and then the kings that Joshua defeated. There only remained a few parts of land that were yet unconquered, and God assured Joshua: “I myself will drive them out from before the people of Israel” (Joshua 13:6).

God said this because Joshua was getting quite old (verse 1) and it was time for the land that had been conquered to be given to the tribes of Israel, according to their inheritance. This makes up the bulk of the next ten chapters. Then in chapter 23, Joshua summons the elders and tells them to “be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left…but you shall cling to the LORD your God just as you have done to this day” (Joshua 23:6, 8). This is very similar to the commission Joshua had received himself in chapter one. And it is critical that the people understand this:
For the LORD has driven out before you great and strong nations. And as for you, no man has been able to stand before you to this day. One man of you puts to flight a thousand, since it is the LORD your God who fights for you, just as he promised you. Be very careful, therefore, to love the LORD your God. For if you turn back and cling to the remnant of these nations remaining among you and make marriages with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, know for certain that the LORD your God will no longer drive out these nations before you, but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the LORD your God has given you (Joshua 23:9-13).
It is only because the LORD is fighting for Israel that Israel keeps winning her battles, and Joshua cautions that if the people turn from God, God will no longer support her. Because of the importance of getting this right, Joshua renewed the covenant in chapter 24, ending with the iconic statement: “And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (verse 15).

The people affirm “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods” (verse 16), but Joshua’s response is rather striking: “You are not able to serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins” (verse 19).

Given that we have no hope at all if God does not forgive sins, we have to ask: why is Joshua saying this? I think it is because the people respond once again that they will most assuredly serve the LORD, and Joshua then says: “you are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him.” In other words, Joshua told them the stakes they were risking by this covenant. They have to obey God perfectly. They must have no expectation of forgiveness if they worship false gods. And the people resoundingly affirm they will serve the real God only, so the covenant is confirmed once more.

This foreshadows what will happen in our next book, of course, for Israel will constantly run after false gods. Just as the cities in Canaan had been warned by God that they were going to be destroyed by Israel, so too Israel was warned about her own destruction for turning away from God.

The book of Joshua ends with Joshua’s death. In addition, we discover that Joseph’s bones had been brought out of Israel and buried in the land that Jacob had bought four hundred years before. Finally, Eleazar (the son of Aaron) died and was also buried. Thus, the old guard of Israel passed away. Canaan had been mostly conquered and Israel had been given her inheritance, and the people had agreed to follow God alone. It looked to be a promising start in the Promised Land.

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