Joshua was a prophet of YHWH God. To be sure, he is not someone that we automatically think of when we think of the prophets — some candidates for those we think of first would be the likes of Elijah or Isaiah or Jeremiah. Nevertheless, his spoken word was the revealed word of God in the same way that the spoken word of Moses had been. Prophecy includes telling the future, but it does not only tell us the decretive will of God (what God has decreed will come to pass, i.e., the future) but also the preceptive will of God (what God wants us to do). Prophecy is not just telling (phecy) beforehand (pro), but also telling (phecy) forth (pro) God’s will. So part of the failure to see Joshua first as a prophet arises from our limited expectations concerning the nature of prophecy itself. But also when we say that Joshua is among the Prophets we are indicating the genre of writing. It is unfortunate that most people classify Joshua as a historical book rather than as a prophetic book. It is unfortunate because the book tells us more than just about our history as the people of God (though it does that, of course). It is unfortunate because the book is not simply just relating history to us that has no bearing on us today. And it is unfortunate because we come to it with the expectations of modern historical method when we call it a historical book. But Joshua is among the Prophets. The Prophets is the second of three divisions of the completed Hebrew Canon consisting of eight books: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings and Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and The Book of the Twelve. Knowing what kind (genre) of writing you are studying as you explore Joshua will make a huge difference in your understanding.
To be sure, the former four prophets are of a different sort than the latter four prophets. Simply reading the books gives us this sense. This is part of the reason that Biblical scholars sometimes want to go with the label of history rather than prophets. However, the history of Biblical scholarship in recognizing these things has often refered to the former four as the former prophets and the latter four as the latter prophets. It is worth noting that it is important to read these eight books in this order rather than to try to reconstruct some kind of chronological sequence to follow in your reading. The Prophets have been artificially organized into eight books (which could have been more had the Book of the Twelve not been stiched together). This structure actually teaches us something. The wisdom teachers who stiched together the Twelve and who otherwise stiched Deuteronomy and Joshua together and the end of the Twelve to Psalm 1 organized the Prophets into two groups of four on purpose. I have written on this elsewhere (see the canon commentary section under teaching), but the structure tells us that there is a 3+1, 3+1 pattern where the +1 is the punch. More about that with the plus one books, but for now note that Joshua is the first book of the Prophets.
In any case, the point of bringing up the wisdom structure of the Prophets and the stiching together of the canon by these wisdom teachers is to note that the opening of Joshua will set us up to read the Prophets in a wisdom fashion. The end of Deuteronomy and the opening of Joshua prepare us to read the whole of the Prophets as wisdom literature. First of all, Deuteronomy 34:9 written by the wisdom editors of Scripture says, “Joshua the son of Nun was full of the Spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him.” Thus the end of Deuteronomy prepares for us to see Joshua (and therefore any true prophet) as a wisdom teacher. This prepares us for the age when prophecy had ceased and what you had to know the will of God was the written works of the Prophets since the spoken word had stopped. So then Joshua 1 notes, “[Be] careful to do according to all the Torah that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success [ESV footnote, “act wisely”] wherever you go. This Book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous and you will have good success” (Joshua 1:7-8). This is wisdom language echoed in Psalm 1 concerning the way of wisdom. The implication is that you should study the written works of the Torah and now the Prophets for wisdom. This is important because of that transition from the spoken word to the written word.
Aside from minor editing, the most extensive of which we mentioned already, the book of Joshua must have been written around the time of the events that it describes. We will see later that Judges relies on Joshua and we can date Judges to the early days of David’s reign, as you will see in the Judges posts to come later. By this point Joshua was clearly understood to be part of the canon of Scripture. In fact, the book claims for itself this canonical status, which is confirmed by the witness of the Holy Spirit, as it says, “And Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Torah of God” (Joshua 24:26). The book is claiming canonical status by appealing to the only existing canon at the time — the Torah of Moses — thus Joshua is the sixth book of the Torah of God. One might argue, as many have, that we should therefore see Joshua as the sixth book of the Torah rather than the first of the Prophets, but it is better to see Joshua as the sixth book of the Torah of God in the larger sense — the sixth book of Scripture — and therefore now that the Prophets have been written as the first book of the Prophets. Today we are to study Scripture as it comes to us in the finished canon.
So the observations above teach us about how we are to study the written words that we have, but the TransJordan tribes clearly viewed Joshua as a prophet — that is, obedience to God was obedience to the spoken words of the Prophet Joshua. Thus Joshua 1 says, “All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go…whoever rebels against your commandment and disobeys your words, whatever you command him, shall be put to death” (Joshua 1:16, 18). This understanding of Joshua as a prophet also opens us up to see prophecy and then immediate fulfillment — obey and you will live, disobey and you will die. To oversimply the difference between the former prophets and the latter prophets one might note that in the former prophets you usually see the prophecy and fulfillment recorded one after the other whereas in the latter prophets the fulfillment is often years in the future. This is a generalization that does not always reflect the nature of these books. For example, Isaiah will sometimes record a prophecy and its fulfillment and Joshua does sometimes prophecy something that does not take place for a very long time beyond the scope of the book. In any case, the point is that while Joshua-The Twelve is all the same genre of the Prophets there are two subgenres in the OT Prophets with the first four representing one kind of subgenre and the latter four representing the other kind of subgenre. It is also worth recognizing that the New Testament book of Acts is of the same genre as Joshua and therefore both books require a similar reading and interpretive strategy. There are a number of parallels conceptually between Joshua and Acts that we could explore in this light.
Actually, we can back up and see parallels not just with the content of the book of Acts but of the age of Acts inaugurated and led by the risen Christ. Thus Joshua 1 and the Great Commission of Matthew 28 reveal a number of very important parallels. The Book of Joshua relates to us a holy war for the Promised Land. And so it makes sense that this would begin with a call to be courageous. “Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the Torah that Moses my servant commanded you” (Joshua 1:6-7). “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for YHWH your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). And again on the lips of the TransJordan tribes, “Only be strong and courageous” (1:18). This language, and all of the other language in this chapter concerning God being with Joshua as He had been with Moses (Joshua 1:5, 1:17) is very similar to the purpose of the Great Commission. Indeed, the Great Commission ends, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). Conceptually then it is easy to see that we are likewise involved in a holy war and need to take courage to declare our faith publicly as Joshua and Caleb had done after spying out the land and courage to then share the good news with those in the land who seem like giants to us. Courage then to go out and make disciples of Jesus Christ.
Jesus and Joshua are the same name, the former being the Greek form and the latter being the Hebrew form of the name. And so when Jesus gives the Great Commission He is speaking as the new Joshua leading the people into the Promised Land, only this time the land is not just “from the wilderness and this Lebanon as far as the great river, the River Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites to the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun shall be your territory” (Joshua 1:4) but the entire earth. Thus Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28). Both texts then also emphasize discipleship as Jesus said, “Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” And likewise the language noted earlier of being careful to do according to ALL the Torah of Moses.
Today, like Joshua, we are on a crusade. Christians are not on a crusade to exterminate those who do not worship the true and living God. Our invasion of the earth is a crusade to share the good news of salvation in Jesus and thus for us to worship in thanksgiving. But Joshua does remind us that one day this crusade will come to an end, one day the sins of the earth will reach its climax, and the final judgment will resume. In fact, this is the reason that many have a problem with the God of Joshua. People like a forgiving God but not a just God. People reject the idea of holy war. It is worth noting, however, that those who do so also do not believe that hell exists. This reveals a big clue about what was going on in the book of Joshua. The command to exterminate the Canaanites was a command for the people of God at that one point in the history of salvation and not one that continues today. Some use the phrase “intrusion ethics” to describe these rules. Intrustion ethics is when the final judgment intrudes ahead of time into history. Thus we see in Joshua a prophetic picture of the final judgment to come. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were not called to exterminate the Canaanites (and when Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi did so it deeply disturbed him) and the people of Israel living during the exile would not be called to exterminate the Canaanites either. These intrusion ethics applied to a particular period of time in the history of Israel. So obedience to the word of God in the written book of Joshua for other times in history (like the exile, like today) does not consist in crucifying the kings of our enemies.
So how would one understand the book as applying to your life during the time of the exile? If we could answer that question, it might also help us to see how to apply the book to our exile-like setting today. The main thing it taught Israel during the exile was to be on the lookout for a new Joshua. The surprise as the story unfolds in the NT would be that this new Joshua would not lead the people militarily like Joshua in His first coming and throw off their oppressors and set up a new nation-state of Israel. But the new Joshua would speak the very words of God, meditate on them day and night, the territory of the new Joshua would include all nations and He would allot their inheritances, indeed the new Joshua would be the Commander of the Army of YHWH (Joshua 5:13-15) in the flesh. Secondarily then, the application of the book of Joshua would be to offer prayers of confession for the nation of Israel as the sin of some is problematic for all Israel, it would be to see that God can give and take away land and to bow before His sovereignty, it would be to throw out your household idols and say with Joshua, “as for me and my house, we will serve YHWH.” Indeed the application would be one of worshiping YHWH, which is a major theme of the whole book. Joshua is among the Prophets and the written book is indeed relevant to us today.