The Land (Joshua 2-12)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
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Throughout both Joshua and Judges, the land is of such central importance that it is virtually a character unto itself: “And the land had rest” (Judges 3:11, 3:30, etc.). The major action of the book of Joshua is Israel’s conquest of the land God had promised their ancestors (Joshua 2:24, following 1:6). The land is the central stage upon which God’s drama with Israel is played out, and it rests at the core of God’s promises to the nation. The Law of Moses itself is inextricably bound to the land. Many of the Law’s chief provisions only make sense for Israel in the land, and the chief punishment under the covenant consists of expulsion from the land.

I will devastate the land, so that your enemies who come to settle in it shall be appalled at it. And you I will scatter among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword against you; your land shall be a desolation, and your cities a waste. (Leviticus 26:32–33)

The land—the earth, the ground under our feet—is where our existence takes place. (Even those who take to the sea and the air spend most of their lives on land.) God’s promise to his people is not a disembodied abstraction, but a concrete place where his will is done and his presence is found. The place we are at any moment is the place we encounter God and the only place we have to go about his work. Creation can be a place where either evil or good dwells. Our task is to work good in the actual creation and culture where we work. Joshua was given the task of making the land of Canaan holy by adhering to God’s covenant there. We are given the task of making our workplaces holy by working according to God’s covenant also.

Working the Land (Joshua 5)

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The land was of course bountiful by the standards of the Ancient Near East. But the blessings of the land went beyond the favorable climate, abundant water, and other natural benefits provided by the hand of the Creator. Israel would also inherit a well-developed infrastructure from the Canaanites. “I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive yards that you did not plant” (Joshua 24:13, cf. Deuteronomy 6:10-11). Even the signature description of the land as “flowing with milk and honey” (Joshua 5:6, cf. Exodus 3:8) assumes some degree of livestock management and beekeeping.

There is thus an inextricable link between land and labor. Our ability to produce does not arise solely from our ability or diligence, but also from the resources available to us. Conversely, the land does not work itself. By the sweat of our faces must we produce bread (Genesis 3:19). This point is made quite precisely in Joshua 5:11-12. “On the day after the Passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.” Israel has survived on the divine gift of manna throughout their wilderness wanderings, but God had no intention of making this a permanent solution to the problem of provision. The land was to be worked. Sufficient resources and fruitful labor were integral elements of the Promised Land.

The point may seem obvious, but it is worth making nonetheless. While God may provide miraculously at times for our physical needs, the norm is for us to subsist on the fruit of our labors.

Conquering the Land - Does God Endorse Conquest? (Joshua 6-12)

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The fact that the Israelites’ productive economy was founded on dispossessing the Canaanites from the land, does however, raise uncomfortable questions. Does God endorse conquest as a means for a nation to acquire land? Does God tolerate ethnic war? Was Israel more deserving of the land than the Canaanites were? A full theological analysis of the conquest is beyond the scope of this article.[1] While we cannot hope to answer the myriad issues that spring up, there are at least a few things to keep in mind:

  1. God chooses to come to his people in the rough-and-tumble of the actual ancient Near East, where the forces arrayed against Israel are vast and violent.
  2. The work of military conquest is certainly the most prominent work in the book of Joshua, but it is not presented as a model for any work that follows it. We find aspects of work or leadership in Joshua and Judges that are applicable today, but the dispossession of people from land is not one of them.
  3. The command to dispossess the Canaanites (Joshua 1:1-5) is a highly specific one and is not indicative of the general disposition of God’s commands to the Israelites or any other people group.
  4. The eradication of the Canaanites stems from their notoriously wicked ways. The Canaanites were known to practice child sacrifice, divination, sorcery and necromancy, which God could not tolerate in the midst of the people he had chosen to be a blessing to the world (Deuteronomy 18:10-12). The land was to be stripped of idolatry so that the world might have the opportunity to see the nature of the one true God, creator of heaven and earth.[2]
  5. Repentant Canaanites like Rahab (Joshua 2:1-21; 6:22-26) are spared – and indeed the putative wholesale destruction of the Canaanites is never fully realized (see below).
  6. Israel will in turn practice much of the same wickedness as the Canaanites, giving a firm answer of “no” to the question of whether Israel was more deserving of the land. Like the Canaanites, the Israelites will also suffer displacement from the land through conquest by others, which the Bible likewise attributes to the hand of God. Israel is subject to God’s judgment too (see Amos 3:1-2 for example).
  7. The full Christian ethic of power is not to be found in the book of Joshua, but in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who embodies all of God’s Word. The Bible’s definitive model for the use of power is not that God conquers nations for his people, but that the Son of God lays down his life for all who come to him (Mark 10:42; John 10:11-18). The biblical ethic of power is ultimately founded on humility and sacrifice.

Remembering God’s Presence in the Land (Joshua 4:1-9)

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The ultimate blessing for the people in the land is that God will be with them. The people celebrate this blessing by passing in front of the ark of the Lord—the abode of his presence—and dropping memorial stones in the Jordan riverbed. Israel’s prosperity and security in the land are to come from the hand of God. Israel’s work is always derived from the prior work of God on their behalf. Whenever they become disconnected from the presence of God, the trajectory of their labor turns downward. Witness the somber note sounded in Judges 2:10-11: “Moreover, that whole generation was gathered to their ancestors, and another generation grew up after them, who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.” The subsequent problems of Israel stem from their failure to acknowledge God’s work on their behalf.

We also could ask ourselves whether we are paying attention to God’s work on our behalf. The question here is not whether we are working well for God, but whether we can see him at work for us. At work, most of us find a tension between advancing ourselves and serving others, or between “a very I-centered system of self-interest” and “the welfare of the other side,” as Laura Nash puts it in her excellent exploration of this dynamic.[1] Could it be that we are trying too hard to look out for number one because we are afraid no one else cares about us?

What if we made it a practice to keep track of the things God does on our behalf? Many of us keep mementos of our successes at work—awards, plaques, photos, commendations, certificates and the like. What if every time our eyes passed over them we thought, “God has been with me every day here,” rather than “I’ve got what it takes.” Would that free us to care more generously for others, yet still feel more taken care of ourselves? A simple way to start would be to mentally note or even jot down each unexpected good thing that happens during the day, whether it happens to you or to someone else through you. Each of these could become a kind of memorial stone to God, like the stones the Israelites placed in the waters of Jordan to remember how God brought them into the Promised Land. According to the text, this was a very powerful reminder to them “and they are there to this day” (Joshua 4:1-9).

Engaging the Lord in our Decisions (Joshua 9:12-15)

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Joshua chapter 9 describes how the people of Gibeon deceived the people of Israel. They wanted the Israelites to believe they lived far away from the land of Canaan, and therefore posed no threat to Israel. In fact they lived nearby. To accomplish their deceit they wore old clothes and patched sandals, and carried provisions that indicated a long trip.

Here is our bread; it was still warm when we took it from our houses as our food for the journey, on the day we set out to come to you, but now, see, it is dry and moldy; these wineskins were new when we filled them, and see, they are burst; and these garments and sandals of ours are worn out from the very long journey.” So the leaders partook of their provisions, and did not ask direction from the Lord. And Joshua made peace with them, guaranteeing their lives by a treaty; and the leaders of the congregation swore an oath to them. (Joshua 9:12-15).

The Israelites were deceived because they depended on their own observations and did not “ask direction from the Lord.” This can happen to us today as well. Based on what we believe, we draw a conclusion, quickly make a decision, but forget to ask God’s guidance. It is too easy to rely on our own insights when we think we understand the situation, rather than asking God for his insight.