This article was originally written for 1517.
Certain parts of the Bible tend to be seldom visited — more than others, that is. If you’ve ever attempted to do one of those “read through the Bible in a year plans,” you’re likely all too familiar with this difficulty. You zoom through Genesis and most of Exodus but are stopped dead in your tracks when you get to Leviticus. For whatever reason, reading the minutiae of God’s holiness is too labor-intensive and not nearly Instagram-worthy enough (which is probably part of the point). I’d love to gather data on the number of Bible reading programs that are jettisoned when Leviticus is next in the queue. The same could be said, though, for a rather large chunk of Joshua. Chapters 11—22 are among the most “skippable” chapters in the Bible. But should they be?
In Joshua 10, 11, and 12, we are given the account of the Israelites’ conquests as they occupy the Promised Land, according to God’s covenant with them. Then from chapter 13 to 21, we’re told how these new territories would be divided among God’s people as their “inheritance.” In excruciating detail, we’re told how these new lands should be portioned to the various tribes of Israel.
At face value, it’s hard to decipher the precise application of these chapters for the likes of you and me. What’s the benefit of reading about how this territory belongs to this tribe and that territory belongs to this tribe, ad nauseam? We aren’t crusading to conquer neighboring nations. We aren’t laying waste to our enemies. We aren’t engaged on a God-ordained mission to “occupy Promised Land.” Even still, these arduous chapters in Israel’s history have tremendous significance for where you and I are right now.
You see, Israel is riding high after their victory over the Amorites (Josh. 10:40–43). Among these conquests is the miracle of the sun pausing in its course while the Israelites prevail over the Amorite confederation of kings (Josh. 10:12–13). Meanwhile, Jabin, king of Hazor, gets word of Israel’s triumphs and sets out to prepare his own nation (and his neighbors) for war (Josh. 11:1–5). Jabin’s plan is to do the same exact thing that the Amorite kings did, which eventually led to their brutal, Tarantino-eqsue execution (Josh. 10:16–27). Jabin apparently didn’t heed the lesson of Adonizedec.
Nevertheless, a vast number of kings get together and form another axis of powers to fight against Israel (Josh. 11:1–5). And as they marshal their armies, God marshals a message of deliverance to his people. “Do not be afraid of them,” the Lord declares, “for at this time tomorrow I will cause all of them to be killed before Israel” (Josh. 11:6; cf. 10:8). The army whose size was as vast “as the sand on the seashore” would be reduced to nothing — precisely because God was going to fight for them. Here, yet again, Joshua’s given the assurance of guaranteed victory before a pinky is raised to grasp a sword. “Don’t worry, I got this,” God seems to say. “Don’t be afraid; you’ve already won. I’ve won for you.” The victory was theirs before they stepped foot on the battlefield.
Joshua and his men come up against Jabin and his allies with a sudden counterattack (Josh. 11:7–9). And like the other nations before them, Israel’s victory over Hazor is absolute (Josh. 11:10–11). The victories don’t stop there, though. They keep coming and coming and coming (Josh. 11:16–18). The point of it all is for us to see God’s calculated and comprehensive deliverance of his people. Nothing was left unaccounted for. This record of Israel’s conquest isn’t meant to amaze us with Joshua’s military prowess. It’s intended to stupefy us with the evidence of God’s great faithfulness.
Every single time we read of how Israel defeated their enemies, God’s faithfulness is on display. Over and over and over again, the Lord shows Israel (and us) that there is nothing his people cannot overcome because he has overcome the world. Victory after victory is confirmation upon confirmation that God is faithful.
There’s an incredible juxtaposition, though, that arises at the beginning of chapter 13. After the two-chapter catalog of victory after victory after victory for Joshua and Israel, there’s seemingly nothing that God’s people cannot overcome. They appear invincible. And yet, the Lord’s words to his captain are strikingly unimpressed. “You have become old, advanced in age,” the Lord says to Joshua, “but a great deal of the land remains to be possessed” (Josh. 13:1). Those words are deafening, disarming. “What? There’s still more to do?” Joshua is likely 100-years-old at this point. His whole life has been marked by conquest after conquest, siege after siege of enemy nations. And yet, after a career of conflict and bloodshed, you come to the end of it all, and God unexpectedly informs you that there’s still more that needs to be done.
Honestly, I’d have a hard time accepting that. “Aren’t my accomplishments enough?” “Haven’t I done enough?” “Look at all I’ve achieved?” “Look at all my victories and triumphs?” Despite all the times Joshua prevailed, there was still more that needed to be done. This was indeed a disheartening word from the Lord. But even in this, God is faithful. In fact, that’s precisely the point. The inference of God’s words to Joshua attests to the fact that God’s plans and purposes aren’t tied to any one person.
As he has done previously, God assures Israel of the outcome before they’ve even stepped foot in these lands to possess them. He identifies the remaining territories that need to be occupied and then proceeds to explain how these territories should be divided “as an inheritance” (Josh. 13:1—21:42). It’s as if it’s already done. Israel’s already won. The Lord speaks to his people from the vantage point that it’s already guaranteed, so they can begin divvying up these lands among their people. I was always told, “don’t count your chickens before they hatch” — but that doesn’t apply to God. His word assures them of victory before they even lifted a finger.
Israel’s future conquests were secured, not by Joshua’s fortitude, but by God’s faithfulness. Joshua wasn’t at the center of Israel’s victories. God was. Joshua might have been the captain of the Israel army, but he wasn’t the victor. God was. Therefore, when Joshua passes away, Israel’s hope and confidence was still secure precisely because it wasn’t tethered to someone “down here.” It was tied to someone “up there.”
Just like Joshua, there will never come a moment when we can declare “mission accomplished.” “I’ve done it, no one else to serve or love.” Until Jesus returns, the Great Commission will remain unfinished. Isn’t it strange that the Lord assigns us a task that will never be fully complete? As a completist, I find that odd. But such is why the encouragement Joshua receives is so affecting. Namely, it’s the assurance that generations after we’re dead and gone, God’s work will continue.
We’re so prone to think that God’s kingdom depends on us: that it’s all on our shoulders, that if we don’t succeed, neither will God, that we are the gears that keep the machine of God’s purposes moving forward. But the fact of the matter is, you and I are not that important. God’s plans and purposes for this world aren’t dependent upon us. They’re dependent upon him. This means our faith is liberated. We are free to keep going despite the circumstances, despite the outcomes, knowing that God is sovereign over his work in this world.
Our work with God is never “done.” But, thanks be to God, in Christ (the greater Joshua), the work is “already done.” “It is finished.” In that way, then, these chapters in Joshua read like a résumé of faithfulness — just not ours. “None of the good promises the Lord had made to the house of Israel failed. Everything was fulfilled” (Josh. 21:45). This is God’s résumé of unending faithfulness. He is the faithful One — then, now, and forever. He is the one who guarantees victory and brings it about just as he said. His faithfulness, not ours, is our only hope.