Overview of the Book of Joshua


Overview of the Book of Joshua

Author: The author is unknown.


To present the fulfillments of God's promises in the days of Joshua and to teach future generations in Israel how to serve the Lord in battle, in distributing the promised land among the tribes and in renewing their covenant with the Lord.

Date: c. 1000-561 B.C.

Key Truths:

  • Through Joshua God blessed Israel with many victories in the promised land, but there were many battles yet to be fought.
  • Through Joshua, God distributed the land in the way it was to be maintained in the future.
  • The covenant renewal that took place in Joshua's day provides a model for renewal in future generations.


The author of the book of Joshua is unknown, and attempts to associate him with a particular time period depend on the interpretation of certain clues within the book. Theories range from the view that the book was largely composed by Joshua himself (the tradition of the Talmud) to the hypothesis that it was written by someone late in the postexilic period. It is likely that its final form resulted from a compiler or compilers working with an earlier version of the book, but it is difficult and unprofitable to try to separate these various strata. See "Introduction to the Historical Books."

Time and Place of Writing:

The time of the composition of the book of Joshua is not clear. Comments within the book itself, such as notices that something is true "to this day," suggest that many of its sources came from a time between the death of Joshua (Josh. 24:29-31) and the time of Samuel (c. 1050 B.C.). Because Sidon was still reckoned as Phoenicia's leading city (Josh. 11:8; 19:28), some would date the book no later than 1200 B.C.; after that time Tyre gained the ascendancy. Jerusalem was as yet unconquered by the Israelites (Josh. 15:63), a feat that would be accomplished by David (2 Sam. 5:6-10), and Gezer was not as yet under Solomons rule (Josh. 16:10; 1 Kings 9:16). The notice about Rahab in Joshua 6:25 may refer to her descendants, and a reliable Hebrew tradition reads Joshua 5:1 as "they," not "we." The "we/us" in Joshua 5:6 may have been used by a later generation out of a sense of solidarity with the generation that entered the land.

A number of passages indicate that the final composition was later than the days of Joshua. Updated equivalents for older place names are given (Josh. 15:9, 49, 54), and several events recorded in the book probably took place Joshua's lifetime, such as Caleb's conquest of Hebron (Josh. 15:13; Judges 1:8-10), Othniel's victory over Debir (Josh. 15:15-17; Judges 1:11-13), and the northward migration of the Danites (Josh. 19:47; Judges 18:27-29). It is also possible that Joshua 11:21 distinguishes between Judah and Israel in ways that would have been appropriate only after the national division into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. The last chapter certainly extends to the elders who outlived Joshua (Josh. 24:31). We may therefore conclude that the book came to its final form no earlier than a generation or so after Joshua. In fact, the prominence given to the tribe of Judah (see notes on Josh. 15:1-63) may indicate that the Davidic throne had already been established (c. 1000 B.C.) by the time of final composition. If this earlier orientation is correct, the book was compiled in the promised land to encourage the nation to continue the work that Joshua had begun.

The latest likely date is established by 1 Kings 16:34, which alludes to Joshua's curse (Josh. 6:26). The book of Kings may be firmly dated (see "Introduction to Kings: Time and Place of Writing") between the release of Jehoiachin (561 B.C.) and the Cyrus edict (538 B.C.). If the book is to be dated this late, it was compiled in during the Babylonian exile to encourage the exiles to complete Joshua's work when they returned to the land.

A number of difficulties arise when relating archaeological data to the Biblical record of Joshua's conquest. In addition to disputes over the locations of specific sites, the larger question of the date of Joshua's conquest has been problematic.

Among interpreters who hold to the veracity of the Biblical presentation, some have argued in recent years that archaeological data (such as the destruction of Canaanite cities and occupation patterns) point to a violent and successful Israelite invasion of Canaan around 1250 B.C. Others argue that there is archaeological evidence (such as that at Jericho) to support the more traditional view that the conquest took place earlier, around 1400 B.C. This view coincides more closely with other passages (e.g., Exod. 12:40; Judges 11:26; 1 Kings 6:1). Difficulties continue, however, from uncertainties over the identification of ancient sites, disputes over the dating of archaeological data and disagreements over the interpretation of Biblical chronological references.

Original Audience:

See "Time and Place of Writing."

Purpose and Distinctives:

The main theological idea in the book of Joshua is that just as Israel under Joshua's leadership was to serve the Lord with gratitude for his fulfilled promises, so the readers were to continue grateful service in the light of the divine promises fulfilled. The book testifies to God's faithfulness to his promises by recounting the successful entry of the Israelites into the land (Josh. 2:1-5:12), the dispossession of its inhabitants (Josh. 5:13-12:24; see notes on Gen. 15:13-16), the allocation of the territory to the 12 tribes (Josh. 13-21) and the renewal of the covenant between the Lord and Israel (Josh. 22-24).

The book of Joshua indicates that much of what God had promised was yet to be realized (e.g., Josh.13:1; 23:5; Gen. 13:5) and that the possibility of losing the land through disobedience was real (e.g., Josh. 23:12-13,15-16). This implied to the original readers that much still had to be done. As a result, they were to imitate the obedience of Joshua and Israel and reject the disobedience reflected in the failures recorded in the book.

Joshua should be understood in relation to the Pentateuch. God made a wondrous promise to Abraham, delivered his people from Egypt to Mount Sinai, and blessed them along their journey through the wilderness. Because the first generation of the exodus flagrantly violated the covenant with the Lord, the Pentateuch ends with the people still outside the promised land. The great hope of taking possession of Canaan still remained to be fulfilled. The book of Joshua brings that promise to fulfillment.

Joshua should also be understood in relation to what follows it, namely, the continuing history of Israel in the land, which is recorded in Judges, Samuel, and Kings (called, along with Joshua, the Former Prophets). This story is a tragic one as far as Israel is concerned. The nation failed to follow the Lord wholeheartedly and was all but destroyed by God's judgment through the successive assaults of the Assyrians in the eighth century B.C. (2 Kings 17:1-41) and the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C. (2 Kings 25:1-30). The book of Joshua begins this history with the account of God's rich blessings toward Israel in the conquest. The rebellion that led to exile occurred in the face of the fulfillment of gracious divine promises.

Christ in Joshua:

The book of Joshua points to Christ in many different ways. As the first portion of the book presents Joshua as a warrior leading the conquest of Canaan, the New Testament speaks of Christ as the great Warrior who leads his people to take possession of the new heavens and the new earth. What Joshua merely began, Christ has fulfilled in his defeat of the devil in his first coming (Eph. 4:8-9; Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14-15), is continuing to fulfill in the spiritual holy war now being waged through the Church (Acts 15:15-17; Eph. 6:10-18), and will ultimately fulfill in his second coming (Rev. 19:11-21; 21:1-5).

As the second portion of the book focuses on the allotment of Israel's inheritance to every tribe as God had designed, the New Testament explains that Christ gives his people their inheritance. In his resurrection and ascension, Christ received many blessings from God that he distributes to his people in the gifts of the Spirit (Eph. 4:4-13). Thus the Spirit is the deposit guaranteeing our inheritance to come (Eph. 1:13-14). When Christ returns in glory, he will grant his people their full and eternal inheritance: to reign with him eternally over the new heavens and the new earth (Rev. 5:10; 22:5).

As the third portion of the book focuses on the necessity of faithful covenant living, the New Testament teaches that Christ fulfilled all covenant obligations for those who trust in him so that they become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). He perfectly fulfilled all of God's holy law, and his righteousness is imputed to those who believe (Rom. 3:21-24; 4:3-13; Gal. 2:16). At the same time, however, life in covenant with God remains a time of testing, for we prove the faith that we profess by conforming our lives to the requirements of God's covenant with us (Matt. 24:12-14; Phil. 2:12-13; Heb. 3:14; 10:15-39; Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 26, 28; 3:21).

Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Historical Books


Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.