In the book of Joshua, God fulfills his promise to God’s people of life in the land of Canaan. God originally promised the land to Abram at the time of Abram’s initial call (Gen 12:1, 7). This promise was reaffirmed to Abram’s descendants Isaac and Jacob and remained a central theme of the Pentateuch (Genesis - Deuteronomy). As we read and study the book of Joshua over the coming weeks, it is vital to set God’s promise of land into the context of God’s overarching plans for humanity. God promised Abram and his descendants the land of Canaan not merely for their own sake but for the sake of all nations. Genesis 12:2-3 reads, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (italics added). In other words, God raised up Israel as his agents through whom he would bless all peoples. Israel’s vocation to serve as a means of blessing was reaffirmed at the feet of Mount Sinai. In Exod 19:5-6, God announced, “Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” Precisely because God is king over all Creation he has appointed Israel to serve as a special people among all of the other peoples that inhabit the earth. They are to serve a priestly or missional function of connecting the nations to God by reflecting and embodying God’s character before the nations.
How does the promised land of Canaan fit into God’s mission? The land represents a foothold for God’s kingdom as God works to bring blessing and salvation to humanity and all creation following the spread of disobedience and sin as described in Genesis 3-11. God establishes a tiny foothold in the world because it will be in this land and through this people Israel that God will reveal himself most fully in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. But we are getting ahead of ourselves in the biblical story…Nevertheless it is vital to understand the broad story of God’s salvation in order to make sense of the book of Joshua.
As the book of Joshua opens, God’s people stand on the cusp of entering the land. But there are three challenges facing them: Moses is dead, the land is not empty, and Joshua, the new leader, must lead the people forward. But God’s people have a key advantage - they are not alone. God is powerfully present.
The book of Joshua begins with a commissioning speech by God for Joshua. It occurs after the death of Moses. Moses’ death was reported in Deut 34. Moses died with Israel still outside of Canaan on the plains of Moab. God now speaks to Joshua directly in order to empower him to lead God’s people forward in fulfillment of God’s promises. God begins by stating the obvious, “My servant Moses is dead.” The implication is clear. Joshua is now God’s man. It is his time to step into God’s call for his life. The mission is a big one–Joshua is to cross the Jordan River and move into the land that God has promised to them. The emphasis here is on the gift of the land. God is giving it to them. But the gift does not come without action. If our text is steadfast in its insistence that the land of Canaan is a gracious grant from God to God’s people, it also clearly assumes that Joshua and the people must actively move to occupy it. Verse three affirms that God’s promise of land corresponds to the places where the people will actually place their feet. The land is a gift, but it is Israel’s role to occupy it. Verse four describes the boundaries of the land. The land that God is giving to God’s people is a vast one. It extends far beyond what we commonly think of as Canaan. It represents approximately the amount of land that Israel will possess during the heyday of the empire of David and Solomon (2 Sam 8:3-14; 1 Kgs 8:65). The vastness of the gift emphasizes to Joshua the generosity of God. But a gift without the possibility of success is a fleeting one. The reader must remember that Israel is not a super power. It is a people without a land. It is a people without the primary weapons of war: the horse and chariot. Israel is not a military power. It is a people who were enslaved only a generation earlier. The story of Israel’s move into the land is not an invasion by a superior force of arms. Israel will not be successful because Joshua is a skilled general and the people are fierce warriors. Verse five reinforces the previous promises by emphasizing presence of the Lord. The name of Moses is again invoked. The LORD will be with Joshua just as He was with Moses. This language echoes the LORD’s promise of presence to Moses at the burning bush (Exod 3:12). In other words, the God of the Exodus who delivered Israel mightily will now work through Joshua to bring God’s people into the promised land.
The preceding promises serve as the basis for a final exhortation to Joshua in v. 6 “Be strong and courageous.” God’s promises open up a new future for Joshua and Israel. But it is a future into which Joshua and Israel must enter. The future is not dependent upon the physical strength, battlefield ingenuity, or military prowess of Joshua. The LORD is with Joshua. The LORD has guaranteed victory, but Joshua must act. He will be the human agent through whom the LORD will bring Israel into the land. Therefore, Joshua is exhorted to be resolute and courageous. Courage is the key that opens the door to the future that God is offering his people. Joshua must embody this virtue because He is God’s chosen servant for this mission. Courage is the key for Joshua to obey faithfully the LORD’s commands.