The narrative of the journey from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land continues for the first 12 chapters of this book, but after that it gets less interesting, although it does raise some very interesting questions. The book ends with the people, now apparently settled, getting another pep-talk from Joshua, along similar lines to that from Moses at the end of Deuteronomy, and publicly renewing their covenant relationship with God. Joshua dies peacefully, and we reach the end of an era, with a brand new chapter starting in the next book, Judges.
The main problem with the land promised to the people of Israel by God is the fact that it is already populated by several nations who quite understandably are not too happy about this new nation coming in believing that their God has promised it to them. Put that together with the previous instructions to remain separate from the nations around them, and the Israelites seem to have little option but to embark on a bit of serious ethnic cleansing. That is exactly what they do, much to the consternation of today’s readers of the book who find it difficult to cope with a God who commands such inhumanity.
It is a standard principle of biblical interpretation that we use the Bible to interpret itself wherever we can, so on one level the question ‘Why did God command the slaughter of all those people?’ is easily answered, from Deuteronomy 9, where the take is that the nations deserved all they got because of their sin and idolatry, and that God was using Israel to bring upon them the punishment they so richly deserved. We might not like that, but it is clearly what the Bible teaches, and we can begin to realise the depth of God’s patience and mercy that he hasn’t (yet) done the same to Britain. It was Billy Graham’s wife who said that if God didn’t judge America, he would have to go back and apologise to Sodom and Gomorrah. And in fact subsequent history suggests that this policy was the right one: most of the trouble in which Israel later found herself came because of compromise, intermarriage and worship infected with idolatry. Even in this book the instructions to destroy the other nations completely are not fully carried out. The suffering of generations was the result of this kind of compromise: later we’ll see this truth worked out in the book of Amos. As one who has undergone extensive surgery for cancer I fully understand that some things need rooting out completely, lest they reinfect the whole body and lead to its death.
But on the plus side, though, we have here the story of a God of miracles, who acts powerfully for the salvation of his people. Walls collapse, water parts in a scaled-down version of Moses’ earlier miracle, thus validating Joshua’s leadership in the eyes of the people. Victories are won in battle against overwhelming odds, sin is revealed and rooted out, and even the sun stands still. So this book highlights in a very clear and powerful way the choice which is made explicit in the final chapter: ‘Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve’. To serve God means the powerful protection and salvation of a loving saviour, but to choose something else means that one makes an enemy of God and must face the consequences. This was the same challenge set before the people by Moses, and the same one which faces us today.