Firth, David G. Joshua. Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary. Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2020. xvi+425 pp.; Hb.; $49.99. Link to Lexham Press
Lexham’s Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary was originally published by Broadman & Holman as the Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation series. Lexham has repackaged four volumes (Hebrews, Romans and 1-2 Timothy, Titus) and added three new volumes: Joshua (David G. Firth), Psalms (two volumes; James M. Hamilton), Daniel (Joe Sprinkle, reviewed here) and Galatians (Matthew S. Harmon). The series introduction indicates forty volumes are slated for the series. Firth (PhD, University of Pretoria) is tutor in Old Testament at Trinity College, Bristol. He previously published a monograph Including the Stranger: Foreigners in the Former Prophets (NSBT 50; IVP Academic, 2019) and a major commentary, 1 & 2 Samuel (Apollos Old Testament Commentary; IVP Academic, 2020). He also wrote The Message of Esther (2016) and The Message Joshua (2022) in the Bible Speaks Today series from IVP Academic.
The commentary series uses the text of the Christian Standard Bible (Broadman & Holman) although the exegetical commentary itself is based on the Hebrew and Aramaic text of Daniel. As expected from the original publisher, although the authors of the series come from a variety of backgrounds, they all affirm inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture (xv).
The forty-four-page describes the book of Joshua as transitional, looking back from Moses to Joshua, but also from the wilderness to the land. Is Joshua the completion of the promises made in the Pentateuch, or is the book something new in the life of Israel? The book of Joshua looks back to the Pentateuch but forward to Israel’s life in the land.
Regarding date authorship and purpose, Firth observes there are sixteen occurrences of the phrase “until this day” in the book that imply a date beyond the “historical Joshua.” For example, Joshua 15:63 indicates the Jebusites “inhabit Jerusalem to this day,” suggesting a date before David captured the city (2 Samuel 5:6-10). The earliest edition of Joshua must have existed before David captured Jerusalem, possibly originating in the court of David (4). he suggests the purpose of the book is to bring the Pentateuch to a close. The writer is deliberately reaches back to the promise of land which was not fulfilled when the Pentateuch ends. Joshua therefore tells the story of the fulfillment of the promise of land made to Abraham.
Since this commentary focuses on biblical theology, Firth suggests several ways Joshua functions in the wider canon of scripture. Although Joshua is less prominent than exodus, there are a few allusions in the prophets (Amos 2:9, Micah 6:5). Psalm 47:1-4and 114:3-6 allude to crossing the Jordan River and Nehemiah 9:24-25 refers to Joshua and God’s faithfulness. Although there are no indisputable citations of Joshua in the New Testament, Acts 7:45 may allude to the story of Joshua and Rahab appears in Hebrews 11:30-31 and James 2:25 as a model of faith. Hebrews 4:8 refers to Joshua and the rest Israel experienced when they entered the land.
Regarding the genre of Joshua, Firth surveys two options before concluding that Joshua is both narrative and history and scripture. The book cannot simply be treated as a work of history, nor only as a book of sacred scripture. The book is certainly a narrative, but it functions within the constraints of the Old Testament narrative conventions. With respect to Joshua’s history, defining ancient history is difficult, but Joshua attempts to describe the origin of Israel. Joshua is therefore history, even if it is a theological history. Firth does not offer any detailed arguments for the historicity of Joshua, either in the introduction or in the commentary itself. Following Lawson Younger, he simply observes ancient conquest narratives “look like this” (22).
Every commentary on Joshua must deal with the difficult problem of violence in Joshua. In Joshua 6:24 God commands genocide: kill all the people in Jericho. Most modern readers find this offensive. How could a loving God command the death of innocent people (women, children and animals)? in response, Firth makes three observations. First, there is certainly violence in the book, but not as much as is often assumed. Mostly, the violence is restricted to chapters 6, 10, and 11, all part of Israel’s military campaigns. Second, Joshua is narrated history using the conventions of the period. Following John Walton, he observes ancient people believed land belonged to their god, who gives it to whom he chooses. The land did not belong to any one people, it always belongs to God who gave it to Abraham and his descendants. Third, he suggests that the stories describing the total slaughter of Canaanite people are hyperbole. He observes that in 10:37, the city of Hebron is “completely destroyed.” But in 14:6-15 (only five years later) Hebron is an inhabited and defended city. It does not seem likely it was completely destroyed in 10:37 (26). I would suggest this is the same sort of hyperbole found on the Merneptah Stele which claims to have laid Israel to waste in the wilderness, so that “his seed will be no more.”
Since this commentary focuses on themes of biblical theology, Firth includes a second chapter tracing theological themes found in the text of Joshua through the rest of the Old Testament and into the New. He does not want to imply that the later texts knew and used Joshua (although this is possible). These are broad theological themes found throughout the canon of scripture. I will only summarize a few of these Firth’s eight themes here. First, an important theme of the book of Joshua is God’s faithfulness and the obedience of his people. He observes the importance of God’s word at the beginning of each major section of the book, (1:6-9; 6:1-5; 13:1-7). God made promises in the Torah and his people are to hear that word of God and obey. Obedience comes through meditating on the Law and allowing it to shape one’s life. When Joshua relies on the word of the Lord, there is success (Jericho), but when he does not, there is failure (Ai). Rahab Has heard of God, and she allows that knowledge of God to shape her life, express faith in the God of Israel, and become a part of Israel. He sees this theme in Psalm 1 (the one who meditates on God’s word flourishes), Malachi 4: 4-6, and the latter prophets. In the New Testament, God Jesus calls his people to both hear the word and do it Matthew 7: 21- 23. Jesus is teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is another example of meditating on the Law and allowing it to shape one’s life (Matthew 5:21-30).
A second example is the importance of land as God’s gift in the book of Joshua. Here he follows Walter Brueggemann’s now classic The Land (Second Edition, Fortress, 2002). What is perhaps unique in Joshua is that the land is a gift already given (something mentioned at least twenty times in the book), but it is also a gift promised; anticipating the capture of the land. Firth sees this as a balance between God’s faithfulness and Israel’s initiative. “The importance of the land is a theological theme across the Old Testament cannot be underestimated” (49). This land theme is not prominent in the New Testament, although he mentions in a footnote, he has avoided the question of a future aspect of the land promises (50, note 21).
First divides the body of the commentary into sections beginning with the Christian Standard Bible translation. A paragraph setting the context of the passage follows the English translation. The exegetical section proceeds verse by verse, although sometimes several verses are grouped together. He occasionally refers to Hebrew, but the commentary is mostly on the English text. Firth rarely comments on Hebrew syntactical or lexical minutiae. A commentary on Joshua 13-21 are either too brief, ignoring all the historical details, or far too extensive to be of use for pastors preaching the geographical section (see the excellent second volume of Trent Butler’s Joshua commentary in the WBC series). The footnotes, however, are extensive. He interacts with secondary literature, showing this is a well-researched commentary.
The last unit of each commentary section is entitled “Bridge.” These are theological and application comments aimed at making canonical connections, as expected in a biblical theology commentary. Although this might appear something like “preaching Christ in Joshua,” his eight theological emphases usually guide Firth’s theological conclusions from the introduction. For example, commenting on the geographically detailed of 19he observes that these chapters are extremely difficult for modern readers and present challenges for modern preachers. He therefore observed that this material looks back to key moments in the Pentateuch and looking forward to Israel’s story to come. He recommends seeing these chapters in the context of Israel’s worship. Citing Deuteronomy 12, “Israel was to have a central sanctuary around which they would gather rather than local shrines following the Canaanite model” (329), something which becomes clear by taking all the geographical details together as a whole. The last paragraph of this section tries to connect this central worship to Christian worship, which is focused on Jesus Christ as our temple (John 2:1-22). Firth also suggests this focus on worship could look forward to the restructuring of the new creation (Revelation 21:9-14; Ezekiel 48). In his biblical theology conclusions on the cities of refuge (Josh 20-21), Firth recalls the theme of God’s faithfulness, especially in the closing summary of this section (21:43-45). As Firth does throughout the book, this theme looks back to the Pentateuch, especially the calling of Abraham forward to the Sabbath rest described in Hebrews 4.
Conclusion. David Firth’s biblical theology commentary on Joshua provides balanced exegesis and explanation of the details of the book of Joshua from an evangelical perspective. His biblical theology sections are judicious and avoid typological excess which sometimes plagues these kinds of commentaries. This volume will be helpful for anyone preaching or teaching Joshua.
NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.