Moses’ mission finished at Mt. Nebo. As we see in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses had been called by God to ‘bring up the people’, from the slavery of Egypt to the gates of the Promised land. The people are there facing this territory and it is now Joshua, the first Jesus—Joshua and Jesus are one and the same word in Hebrew—who is to lead the people into the land of promise.
Can we even speak of a people? Actually there are no more than a few clans guided by Moses across the desert, increased doubtless by new elements they have met at the holy place Qadesh-Barné. However few in number, these nomads carry such a religious experience that it will become, after meeting other tribes that did not leave Palestine, the spiritual heritage of them all.
Facing the Canaanites who inhabit the towns and cultivate the surrounding land, those nomads gradually become aware of their identity. He who revealed himself on Mt. Sinai and multiplied marvels in favor of these escapees from Egypt, Yahweh-God, has made a covenant with this nomadic people; he has entrusted to them at the same time his promises. From now on they are the people he has chosen; and he is their God. It is during this period of Joshua and the Judges that the people of Israel will be truly formed.
Although laden as they are with favors from Yahweh, these nomads cannot but admire the Canaanites among whom they live. This period of the second millennium before Jesus Christ has doubtless been the most prestigious period of Palestine history from a cultural point of view. Compared to the Canaanite towns with their ramparts, their temples and palaces with cedar panelling and inlaid ivory the nomads cut a poor figure. The contrast was the same on the religious level; the Canaanites in the towns multiplied celebrations, feasts and rituals under the eyes of tribes who hadn’t even a temple.
The books of Joshua and Judges as well as Samuel and Kings show us how easily the Israelites let themselves be influenced. Attracted by this brilliant civilization, they abandoned their customs and faith to adopt the cults of the country.
The Reality of a Conquest
A people seduced by Canaanite culture, leaders who resist and proclaim a call to fidelity—such is the permanent conflict presented by the Bible texts of this period. The Book of Joshua seems to present a systematic conquest of the country led by Joshua at the head of the clans; but actually it must have happened quite differently.
Town dwellers and nomads were certainly very different and the obligation of both to cohabit on common land did not prevent conflicts: at one time the Canaanites were stronger, at another the nomads. But gradually the tribes imposed their law on the former inhabitants of the land, and at the time of Saul, the one-time nomads, now citizens of the country had the power to rule. David and later Solomon were to confirm such a situation.
Active minorities are the ones that make history: when we speak of the Church and its impact on the world it is often a matter of a minority of the faithful. The prophets who, several centuries after Joshua, assemble the traditions and documents on the “conquest,” made no pretense of giving us an exact account and complete history. Let us not be deceived by the triumphal tone of these accounts where Joshua and all Israel won fantastic victories. The Book of Joshua narrates small events that make up great history.