Several months ago I was reading Edward Eggleston's The Hoosier Schoolboy to one of my sons. We'd had the book in our collection for some time but had never read it. Finally, Seth and I tackled it. He was quite taken with it and really became caught up in the story. In fact, he read the last chapter on his own so that he would know all along how 'it finally turned out'. That is not a bad idea—even for a biblical book. Normally, one might expect a writer to raise some of his foremost concerns in his introduction and conclusion. Hence, we propose to look at the very beginning and the very end of Joshua first in order to gain a perspective from which to view the whole book.
In the case of Joshua, this means that we find ourselves attending four funerals. Let's attend Moses' funeral first and save the rest for later in our discussion.
Before entering into an exposition of the themes of chapter 1, it will be well to notice how the chapter is put together. The chapter falls into two major sections, both of which follow the same main pattern:
Death of Moses, 1a
Yahweh's charge to Joshua, 1b-9
Yahweh's command to action, 1b-4
'The land I am giving...'
Yahweh's encouragement to Joshua, 5-9
'I will be/am with you' (beginning and end of section)
'Be strong and be bold' (three times in the middle of section)
Joshua's charge to Israel, 10-18
Joshua's command to prepare for action, 10-15
To people (via officers), 10-11
'You are going to cross over...'
'The land Yahweh... is giving'
To eastern tribes, 12-15
'You must cross over...'
'The land Yahweh... is giving'
People's encouragement to Joshua, 16-18
'Yahweh... be with you'
'Be strong and bold'
From this sketch at least two emphases emerge: the land is God's gift and yet there is the command to lay hold of that gift, and encouragement is given to the leader of God's people. The encouragement in both cases comes to Joshua, who, as we shall see, doubtless needed it greatly. This theme carries into chapters 3-4 (see 3:7; 4:14). Interestingly, chapter 1 is almost entirely direct speech rather than descriptive narrative; the writer uses the speeches of others to tell his story. Now for a more detailed exposition.
The first theme the writer underscores is the vitality of Yahweh's promise. The content of the promise has to do with Yahweh's gift of the land (vv. 2-4, 6, 11, 15). And some land! As in Genesis 15:18, Deuteronomy 1:7, and 11:24, the eastern boundary is the Euphrates River. You must get out your Bible atlas to believe or disbelieve it! But what is important to see is that this is the promise God made long ago to Abraham and company (Gen. 12:6-7; 13:14-15; 15:7, 18-21; 17:8; 24; 26:3-4; 28:13-14; 35:12; 48:3-4; 50:24). Hence the theological roots of Joshua 1 are sunk deeply into the soil of Genesis 12 and following, and that ancient promise is about to receive its contemporary fulfilment.
However, the context of the promise—'after the death of Moses' (v. 1)—is particularly significant. 'Moses my servant has died,' Yahweh says, 'and now, rise, cross over this Jordan... into the land which I am giving to them' (v. 2). In order to appreciate this reference to Moses' death, one must remember the pentateuchal tradition of the greatness of Moses. Israel stood within an inch of her covenant death in Exodus 32-34; Moses was the only Israelite in covenant fellowship with Yahweh (this is the implication of Exodus 33:7-11 in context), and, as Israel's mediator, he attached their destiny to his (33:16). Unlike prophets in general, Moses received revelation from Yahweh in the most direct manner (Num. 12:1-8). Indeed, Deuteronomy 34:10-12 (the three verses right before Joshua) makes crystal clear how incomparable Moses was. There was no one like Moses; no one as great as Moses until the One greater than Moses came. And now Moses had died. You can imagine the dismay in Israel. Although you expected it, were informed of it, were prepared for it (Deut. 31), what do you do when the servant of God dies and a raging river lies between you and the land you are to inherit? (You might wonder if Moses died after all—he is mentioned eleven times in Joshua 1!) What do you have left when everything the first five books of the Bible have been preparing you for ends in a funeral?
It is against this background of the death of 'Moses the Incomparable' that the writer sets the continuity of Yahweh's promise. 'Moses my servant has died, so you must wait'? No. 'You must weep'? No. But, 'Rise, cross over... into the land.' Moses may die; God's promise lives on. There is the passing of an era yet the endurance of the promise. Yahweh's fidelity does not hinge on the achievements of men, however gifted they may be, nor does it evaporate in the face of funerals or rivers.
Secondly, Joshua 1 highlights the encouragement of Yahweh's presence. 'I will be with you' (v. 5). It is interesting to note that these simple words were spoken once before to a very reticent, backward, excuse-making, ask-George-not-me sort of fellow, that is, Moses, in Exodus 3:12, when he was called to face both Israel and pharaoh. The same God now gives the same assurance in similar threatening circumstances to Joshua. Indeed, a case can be made for the name Yahweh being intended as theological (or devotional) shorthand for the implications and message of the statement 'I will be with you' (see Exod. 3:14-15 in light of 3:12). Hence Moses has died, but Yahweh has not changed. He is still Yahweh, the God who is present with his servant and his people to help and deliver (contrast Hosea 1:9).
It is because of this assurance that Yahweh can exhort Joshua to 'be strong and bold' (vv. 6, 7, 9). Joshua is not told to grit his teeth and screw up his courage on his own; he is to be strong only because Yahweh is with him (v. 9) and not because Yahweh prefers leaders who are positive thinkers. Note how this assurance keeps reappearing throughout the book (2:24; 3:7, 10; 4:14; 6:27; 10:14, 42; 13:6; 14:12; 21:44; 23:3, 10).
A contemporary Christian reader might see this and say that's all very nice for Joshua, but he was a noteworthy character; he had to lead all of Israel. What about the plain Christian like me? Is this promise for ordinary Christians? Look at the use of this promise in Hebrews 13:5-6:
Keep your life free from love of money,
and be content with what you have;
for he has said, 'I will never fail you nor forsake you.'
Hence we can confidently say,
'The Lord is my helper,
I will not be afraid;
what can man do to me?' [RSV].
Here the promise of Joshua 1:5 is applied to a Christian congregation. The promise of God's abiding presence in Joshua 1 is also for you (note the 'for' in Hebrews 13:5b) and is the solution to the sin of covetousness and discontent, which in turn (note the 'hence' of Hebrews 13:6) leads to the great freedom of life without fear! There is nothing more essential for the people of God than to hear their God repeating to them amid all their changing circumstances, 'I will be with you' or 'I will not forsake you.'
The third theme we observe is the centrality of Yahweh's word. Joshua is commanded to be especially strong and bold 'to be careful to do according to all the torah (instruction) which Moses my servant commanded you' (v. 7). God does not withhold the formula that leads to such obedience: 'you shall meditate (mutter) over this torah document day and night, so that you will be careful to do according to all that is written in it' (v. 8). Constant, careful absorbing of the word of God leads to obedience to it. Lack of study results in lack of obedience. Notice how the writer stresses this urgency of obedience to Yahweh's word in the last chapters as well (22:5; 23:6; cf. 8:30-35).
This command is given specifically to Joshua as the leader of God's people. Can we legitimately assume that it also obligates every Israelite or Christian? Yes. If we don't like Joshua 1:7-8, we still have to face Psalm 1:2, which describes what should be true of every godly believer (i.e. 'but his delight is in Yahweh's torah, and in his torah he meditates day and night'). There is no escape! Indeed, the torah should be our delight. Life in the kingdom of God must be lived out of the Word of God. Joshua 1 and Psalm 1 alike tell us that a life pleasing to God does not arise from mystical experiences or warm feelings or from a new gimmick advocated in a current release from one of our evangelical publishers; no, it comes from the word God has already spoken and from obedience to that word.
Finally, Joshua 1 uses much space to describe the unity of Yahweh's people. One might think there is little theological meat in these verses, but when they are read in light of Numbers 32 they take on new significance. When the two (or two and one-half) tribes request Moses to assign them an inheritance to the east of the Jordan, Moses suspects that their query hides a fresh conspiracy to abort the fulfilment of God's promise. In a flash of white heat he lambastes them as a 'brood of sinful men' (Num. 32:14), apparently content to possess their land now, sit out the Cis-jordan conquest, allow the other tribes to fend for themselves, and thus to discourage and dishearten (Num. 32:7) the majority of God's people. So, Moses says, there will be another Kadesh-barnea! Numbers 13-14 all over again! It is in the light of the peril of rebellion against Yahweh that the unity of God's people becomes so crucial (Num. 32:16-27).
Now perhaps we can see why the unity of all Israel portrayed in Joshua 1 was so critical. Here Reuben. Gad, and half-Manasseh are models of willing obedience and instruments of encouragement. Indifference on their part or snubbing their noses at the western tribes would have discouraged and disheartened the rest of God's people and led to rebellion and unbelief. It is interesting to note the concern for 'all Israel' throughout the Book of Joshua (chs. 3-4; chs. 7-8; 10:29ff.; 22:12, 16; 23:2; 24:1).
One can detect implications here for the doctrine and practice of the church—unity among God's people is no idle luxury. This does not mean that we have to feel all sticky and gooey about each other, but it does mean that we must care enough that we don't want any of the Lord's children to get discouraged. It seems that such caring encouragement should take place in our public meetings (Heb. 10:25; see a beautiful example in 1 Sam. 23:16). And it is crucial because, ultimately, unity is a prerequisite for fidelity.
So Moses has died. But Yahweh has not left Israel—or us—orphans; we still have God's promise, God's presence, God's Word, and God's people. And that should be enough until the kingdom of God comes in power and great glory.
These verses seem to be a rather dry-as-dust way to end an otherwise interesting book: an obituary column for a conclusion. However, we should ask why the writer closes his book this way. Does he want merely to supply burial details, provide a 'where they are now' section about the main cast, or furnish information so that relatives can find the right graves for Veterans' Day each year? I propose that these are theological obituaries and that the writer has deliberately placed them at the end of the book to underscore his concerns.
First, he emphasizes the veracity of Yahweh's promise. Observe the places where Joshua, the bones of Joseph, and Eleazar are said to be buried (vv. 30, 32, 33). Obviously a definite location is given in each case, but the important point is that each of them is buried in the land that Yahweh promised them. They have died; but their tombstones are monuments to the fidelity of Yahweh to his promise of the land.
The reference to the 'bones of Joseph' is particularly interesting (v. 32). The Book of Genesis closes with Joseph clinging to God's promise of the land. It is an astounding picture. Joseph is both over Egypt and in Egypt but certainly not of Egypt; for even as he dies his eyes are glued to another land, which Yahweh has promised. He is so taken with that promise—it is such a passion with him—that he requires his kin to take his bones to that land when God leads them out of Egypt (cf. Heb. 11:22), which they did (Exod. 13:19). And now (Josh. 24:32) they find their resting place.
A tremendous amount of time has elapsed since Abraham received the promise—500 to 600 years! But, so our writer avers, the passage of time does not void the promises of God. Joshua, Joseph, Eleazar—these, being dead, yet speak.
Secondly, our writer hints at the test for Yahweh's people. Verse 31 seems to be both positive and negative: 'Israel served Yahweh all the days of Joshua and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had known all the work of Yahweh that he had done for Israel.' Here is a record of fidelity and a hint of wavering. In this section we hear of the deaths of both Joshua and Eleazar. The Book of Joshua constantly links Eleazar and Joshua (14:1; 17:4; 19:51; 21:1) just as the Pentateuch links Aaron and Moses. Thus the deaths of Eleazar and Joshua signify the complete passing of that conquest generation. So the question lingers: Whither Israel? Will Israel still serve Yahweh now that Joshua and Eleazar and the elders are gone? In verse 31 the writer already seems to see the situation of Judges 2:10 and fears the answer is no. (Maybe that's why he wrote this book—to depict the fidelity of Yahweh so that a wavering Israel might respond in kind before it was too late.)
Can the church remain faithful after the eyewitnesses are gone? That is no small test. Here is the continual danger of second-generation religion: Will we remain warm and faithful without the gentle pressure of our spiritual mentors on whom we once leaned? Although we ourselves have not seen the cutting off of the Jordan and the crumbling of Jericho, can we still cling to the God who did these acts?
Third, perhaps we are not wrong in seeing here the need for Yahweh's victory. True, these graves witness to the fulfilment of Yahweh's promise and yet there is an incompleteness, a tragedy about it, since it is marked by death. Why does Israel's saga of faith and life have to keep closing its chapters with death notices? Genesis ends with Joseph's death. Deuteronomy ends with Moses' death. The Book of Joshua ends with Joshua's death. Is this not the sting of sin we see here amid the fidelity of God? Is this not a sign of the wrath of God against us (Ps. 90:9, 11-12)? How much better when the One who 'abolished death' (2 Tim. 1:10) causes the last chapters to shimmer with resurrection (Matt. 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20-21).