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Trent Butler Shares 6 Theological Themes of the Book of Joshua
Ed Noort has said of the book of Joshua, “By the theological evaluation of the Old Testament, [it] most often ends up in the position of the villain or scoundrel.”
Yet in his newly revised and updated commentary on the book, Trent Butler maintains Joshua “occupies a key position in the Hebrew Bible.” (157) Not only does the book mark the historical transition from Moses to Joshua, “thematically, the book brings the transition from the experience of covenant curse to the experience of covenant obedience and renewal.” (157)
Butler summarizes these themes and the components of its Deuteronomistic theology in this way:
“a conquered land, which could be lost; a model for leadership, which was never again followed; a law given to Israel as covenant, but repeatedly disobeyed; and a God of the universe, who had chosen and helped Israel, fulfilling all his promises and blessings, but who remained the God holy and jealous, ready fulfill all his curses.” (182)
Join Butler in further exploring these important themes in his introduction.
1) Who is this God?
“The book of Joshua pulls no punches in its description of God,” Butler contends. Here is what the book of Joshua reveals about God’s nature (161):
- His name is Yahweh;
- He chose Moses to lead his people and Joshua to take over;
- He initiated covenant relationship;
- He punished disobedient people;
- He gave Israel the Torah and expected them to obey it;
- He gave Israel promises of land, nationhood, and victory over enemies;
- He claimed Israel for himself;
- He alone was Israel’s God.
One of the questions Israel asked was whether they could trust this God. Butler says they answer in the affirmative: “we can trust this God to be who he has always been and who he says he is and always will be. We can only serve him according to his covenant stands and trust him to be our God as we are God’s people.” (162)
2) Land and Rest
For Butler and others, Joshua is the book of the land; the promised gift of a specific land by Yahweh is central and key to this book. Butler highlights several aspects of this gift (165):
- The land was promised to the fathers;
- was given by God;
- was to be divided by Joshua as an inheritance for the people, and eventually was;
- was closely connected to the land east of the Jordan;
- was not difficult to take militarily because God had caused its inhabitance to tremble with fear;
- and was filled with other gods who tempted Israel.
“The book of Joshua records that land as gift was a promise fulfilled, but it also remained gift to be completely received. Gift remains a goal, a goal for a people committed to the Torah of God…As Israel wandered away from God, she would also wander away from land into exile.” (167)
One of the problems the books of Deuteronomy through Kings wrestle with is this: Who has the right to lead Israel, especially after Moses? The book of Joshua makes it clear: “Joshua stands as the role model for all Israel leaders after Moses, thus for all kings of Israel.” (170)
The single trait exemplified by Joshua and upheld for all of Israel’s leaders was not military might, but religious devotion. “Israel’s king was to be a leader of the nation in maintaining covenant expectations, in having personal trust in God, and in turning to God with heart, soul, strength, and mind…The leader must be loyal to the law of Moses and his example.” (168)
4) Law and Worship
“The author of Joshua made one thing perfectly clear: Canaan’s history, Canaan’s worship and Canaan’s fertility practices were to have no meaning for Israel.” (172)
Israel was a separate people belonging to Yahweh, and they were to have no part in the existing people of the promised land—so much so that God instituted a herem, a so-called “holy war.” We’ll address this further below, but Butler suggests this ban was “a basic part of the divine plan to fulfill God’s promises to Israel.” (173)
Furthermore, in contrast to serving and worshiping the Canaanite gods and obeying their religious law, Joshua outlines several legal and worship injunctions:
- Mediate on Torah day and night;
- Learn the commands of your God;
- Practice circumcision;
- Keep the Passover;
- Go to the place God chooses for worship;
- Renew your covenant with him.
5) The People of Yahweh
A summarizing question of Joshua is this, “What defines membership in the people of God?”
“At first glance, membership in Israel seems clear. Israel came from Egypt, a people descended from Abraham and the twelve sons of Jacob who agreed to covenant at Sinai…But such a definition ignores the nuances of the biblical narrative, and especially of the book of Joshua.” (174)
Butler outlines two qualities from Joshua that define the people of God:
- A people of promise: “God has a plan for his people and lets his people know that plan. The central part of the plan for Joshua’s day was the promise of land.” (175)
- A people of present of history: “God was, is, and will be the God who planned human history and directs it toward his eternal goals,” including and especially his people’s history. (175)
6) Warfare and Conquest
The book of Joshua has been held as an example of God behaving badly because of this final theme. The book has been called “an orgy of terror, violence, and mayhem” and “morally dubious.” Butler clears the rhetorical debris to note seven aspects of this theme from Joshua (181-182):
- War was a normal fact of life;
- All ANE warfare involved the gods and their reputation;
- Holy war was not invented by nor limited to Israel;
- In battle and in gathering spoils, participants were violent;
- In Israel, war was one element connected to God’s anger or wrath;
- Commentators must apply the violence of all Scripture using methods applied to Joshua and Judges;
- Modern military cannot claim right to destructive warfare based on Israelite wars.
No doubt this aspect of Joshua can be troubling. Yet Butler says the essential theme is still God himself.
I found Butler’s introduction to be a steady foundation to this sturdy commentary on Joshua. This updated and revised edition should prove to further his evangelical-critical approach and advance biblical scholarship for this important book, so be sure to add it to your library today.
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