The Problem of Joshua

Lately I’ve been listening once again to the early part of the Old Testament. Genesis √, Exodus √, Leviticus √, Numbers √, Deuteronomy … Ah OK maybe, … Joshua … here the problems really take root. Today I am deep into Judges … Wondering what we are to make of this cycle of events.  Many well known stories with heroes (who are not all that heroic), but what is really going on?

JoshuaSun_MartinA few weeks ago I put up a quote from Ronald Osborn’s book Death Before the Fall where he commented on the famous incident of Joshua 10.

On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel:

“Sun, stand still over Gibeon,
and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.”
So the sun stood still,
and the moon stopped,
till the nation avenged itself on its enemies,

as it is written in the Book of Jashar.

The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord listened to a human being. Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel!

Osborn suggested that in the quest to defend the Bible as the literal truth many fail to  raise the real theological questions found in this incident and, for that matter, in much of the rest of the so-called early Deuteronomistic history … Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges.  He made this explicit in a footnote:

The most pressing theological dilemma in the narrative of the destruction of the Amorites and the other tribes in the book of Joshua for modern readers, for example, is surely not whether or not we can come up with fantastical ad hoc speculations to somehow sustain its scientific accuracy but the disturbing fact of seemingly divinely authorized genocide – a problem that strict literalism only heightens. (p. 70)

Osborn hits a nerve here. The divinely commanded genocide in Joshua (although not really carried out throughout the book of Joshua) causes a real pause for thought.

John Walton in A Survey of the Old Testament in his introduction to the Deuteronomistic history suggests that we should look at these passages for the mission of God.

Though it is common to hear sermons built on the role models (good or bad) offered by the various people who cross these pages, it should be evident that God is the main character. It is not revelation of Joshua, Samson, David, Elijah or Josiah. It is revelation of God. (p. 171)

This doesn’t really help much in the early chapters of Joshua where total destruction is commanded.

A few pages later Walton notes:

The Old Testament historical literature needs to be understood within the frame of reference that it is a strategic part of God’s self-revelation. As we noted earlier, a modern tendency is to regard the message of the historical literature as being the role models offered by the persons who cross its pages. In contrast, as God’s self-revelation, its intention it to convey instruction and knowledge of God. This message is conveyed not so much by the individual narratives, but by the patterns and cycles of history portrayed generation after generation. (p. 174)

The message is certainly conveyed in the cyclic failure of the Israelites to love and worship the Lord their God alone. It seems less clear, to me at least, that the central message is knowledge of God.

I have some thoughts on what I might call the “problem of Joshua,” as of yet provisional, – but before putting them forward I would like to pose the questions and start a conversation.

What are we to make of the violence and bloodshed that permeates Joshua and Judges?

Is this a problem?

Should we read the text as straight history – or could it be a commentary from the perspective of later experience?

Is Walton right that the intention is to convey instruction and knowledge of God?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If you would like to comment please see The Problem of Joshua at Jesus Creed.

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