Reprinted with permission from The Commentary published by Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
Joshua assumed the leadership of his people at a crucial time in Near East history. From Egypt to the borders of India, the superpowers were tottering and had lost their ability to control their vassals. These in turn grasped the opportunity to cut themselves loose, thereby upsetting traditional structures and turning the birthplace of major civilizations into a cauldron of armed conflicts. It was also the time when the so-called Sea Peoples migrated eastward in the Mediterranean and settled along the coast of Canaan and Lebanon.
These upheavals coincided with the use of iron for fashioning various instruments, primary among them the plow. Its introduction propelled agriculture into a dominant position, displacing nomads and semi-nomads in the process. Thus, the events described in the book of Joshua fit the general picture of migrations and territorial struggles of the time, and describe what took place in a small strip of land, located between the eastern desert and the western sea.
Joshua’s earlier life is described in the Torah: he was an Ephraimite who was one of the spies sent to explore the Promised land and who (with Caleb) rendered an encouraging report (Numbers 13). He became Moses’ trusted assistant and eventually was chosen by God to be his successor (Numbers 27:15-23). His military prowess bore the stamp of divine approval and was embellished by legends about the crumbling walls of Jericho and the sun standing still at his bidding.
Still, despite the book’s detailed accounts of his leadership, he does not emerge as a distinct personality, and we know nothing about his personal life. Though called a prophet who could say with assurance, "Thus says the Eternal One" (Joshua 24:29), he remained in the shadow of his great predecessor. His overriding conviction was the same: Do God’s will, and the land will be yours.
The book concludes by recording his death to have occurred at the age of 110, exactly duplicating the life span of Joseph. Thus, tradition closes the circle by linking Joseph and Joshua: one caused his people to leave Canaan, the other brought them back.
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Pronounced: hahf-TOErah or hahf-TOE-ruh, Origin: Hebrew, a selection from one of the biblical books of the Prophets that is read in synagogue immediately following the Torah reading.