Joshua 1–12, the first major division of the book, reports Israel’s preparation to occupy Canaan (1:1–5:12) and the conquest of the land (5:13–12:24). At points these chapters are strikingly similar to other ancient Near Eastern battle reports, so much so that one suspects Joshua’s authors were aware of and patterned chapters 1–12 after such extrabiblical texts (see the commentary on Joshua 3:1–5:1 and 5:13–15). Nevertheless, it is most important to notice that Joshua 1–12 is quite different from these parallel documents in some ways. Most important for our purposes, Joshua 1–12 draws attention to God as the primary actor, unlike the braggadocian royal recitals of Israel’s neighbors, told by kings to garner political support. In other words, Joshua 1–12 focuses on God’s grace, not on the political and military capability of a king or military general. It emphasizes that Canaan is God’s gift to Israel, in fulfillment of divine promises to Abraham (Gen. 12:7; Josh. 1:3), and recognition of that fact is a primary tenet of faith. Hence, the story is punctuated, not by records of how many Canaanites were killed in battle or by details of Joshua’s military strategy, but by accounts of Canaanites who were grafted into Israel because they acknowledged the power of the Lord (Josh. 2; 6:22–25; 9).
The fact that Joshua 1–12 is dominated by theological concerns should forewarn the reader that these chapters are not historical records in the modern sense. This point is borne out by comparing chapters 1–12 with the rest of Joshua and with Judges. The sweeping claims in Joshua 11:23 that “Joshua took the whole land” and “the land had rest from war” not only seem simplistic, but they do not square with material in other parts of Joshua. Indeed, Joshua 13–19, along with the book of Judges, portrays matters quite differently. It shows Israel living alongside other groups, giving sons and daughters to them in marriage, and sharing land and culture (Judg. 3:5). Most historians believe the delineation of early Israel in chapters 13–19 is closer to reality. Joshua 1–12 certainly has some historical roots, but this segment of the book is the product of theologians who collapsed varied and lengthy historical experiences into a story that first and foremost aims to make theological claims.