Deuteronomy is the linchpin to the historical books. Deuteronomy is a covenant document that is the foundational constitutional document of the emerging Israelites. There is an astounding preview of Israel’s history at the end of Deuteronomy (chap. 27–30), which even warns of Israel’s distant exile should she prove unfaithful to her God, but with the added hope of restoration. The early history of the Israelites is illumined against the backdrop of the Mosaic covenant and the covenant of grace. In spite of the sins of Israel, God will make good on his promises to Abraham. The books of Joshua, Judges, and Ruth reveal God’s work in history and illumine two redemptive themes: First, safety comes through faith and obedience; second, disobedience is of no small consequence.
The Book of Joshua
The structure of the book of Joshua is clearly divided into two parts (1:1–12:24 and 13–24). After the circumcision at Gilgal, God meets with Joshua in a theophany (a manifestation of God) and appears to appoint Joshua as the new covenant-mediator following Moses (Josh. 5). Then, Joshua pursues the timely military policy of divide and conquer in Canaan. First, he descends on Jericho (Josh. 6), then on Ai and Bethel (Josh. 7–8). All three cities are conquered. The writer of Hebrews tells us, “By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days” (Heb. 11:30).
After renewing the covenant (Josh. 8:30–35), Joshua then proceeds to his southern campaign (Josh. 9–10) where he defeats the Amorites. Having divided the land and conquered the central and southern areas, Joshua leads his army in an invasion of Gilgal and the North, particularly in the Valley of Jezreel and Galilee.
Joshua attacks with speed (Josh. 11–12). In the area of Merom, the Canaanites’ chariots are rendered useless because of the forested and hilly topography of the land, and they flee eastward. Joshua proceeds to attack Hazor itself, destroying the city, its people, and their king, Jabin.
When we come to chapters 13–24, the narrative slows with a recounting of the division of the conquered land among the tribes. In the midst of this distribution comes the theme of the covenant once again (which was already renewed in chap. 8). Chapters 23 and 24 are literary high points in the book, reaffirming the covenantal relationship between God and His people. Joshua warns, “If you transgress the covenant…then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and you shall perish quickly from off the good land that he has given to you” (Josh. 23:16).
Although they enter the land of Canaan by God’s grace, their tenure in that land is conditionally connected with their corporate obedience. Now Joshua, old and about to die, delivers his farewell sermon urging the people to maintain their fidelity to God, fearing Him alone (Josh. 24). These demands the people will fail to do. God says, if you sin, you will surely be punished.
In the book of Joshua, we see several redemptive themes about how safety comes through faith: faith saves despite physical descent, but unbelief destroys regardless of physical descent (the author expresses his indebtedness to Dr. Rowland Ward, an Australian Presbyterian minister for this point). The New Testament clearly suggests that faith provides safety. The book of Hebrews recounts the story of Rahab: in spite of her disreputable occupation of prostitution, she “did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies” (Heb. 11:31). We see, however, in the case of Achan (Josh. 7), that although he is an Israelite, he is not of faith, and therefore he perishes with others. As the apostle Paul states, “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Rom. 9:6).
In the book of Joshua we see that salvation comes through judgment and mercy. Although Joshua was a great leader, he could not give them the final rest that was foreshadowed by the temporal rest in Canaan (Heb. 4); Jesus Christ, however, the one greater than Joshua who has the perfect gentleness, is able to help His people enter that heavenly rest, through the new covenant of His blood.
The Book of Judges
The period of the Judges is intended to continue the history begun in Joshua. The judges are the ones who deliver the people from their enemies. The focus, however, is not on any one particular character. All the positive conquest evidenced in Joshua is now eclipsed by the negative consequences of disobedience on the part of the people: they rush headlong into a downward spiritual spiral.
In Judges 1:1, we read: “After the death of Joshua, the people of Israel inquired of the Lord, ‘Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?’” By the end of the book (20:18), a similar line echoes the previous one but demonstrates the pit of sin into which the Israelites have sunk, “Who shall go up first for us to fight against the people of Benjamin?” Now this particular people of God is marked by fratricidal genocide, brother against brother, tribe against tribe! Linguists have noted that even the structure of the Hebrew language in this chapter is complicated and difficult, not because of alleged sloppy editorial work, but because the Israelites are to ask: “What has happened in the covenant community?”
The key to the book of Judges lies in understanding the first several chapters. Notice in chapter 1, the narrator repeatedly makes the point that tribes have failed to drive out the inhabitants. Why? There has been serious spiritual demise! Chapter 2 tells us: “But you have not obeyed my voice…. And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They went after other gods…” (vv. 2, 11–12).
Judges 2:11–23 provides the grid for the remainder of the deliverances in the book: “sin, punishment, lament, and deliverance.” Israel plays the harlot with other gods. The purpose of Judges 2–16 is to trace the period of the Judges and demonstrate why Israel’s history went from bad to worse. For example, after Gideon dies (Judg. 8:33–34), the people return to their old ways of whoring after other gods. After Samson emerges as a judge, some form of the same dominant theme emerges repeatedly, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). These early stories in Judges, however, beg the question: who will lead us? Who will protect them and provide safety?
The Book of Ruth
Ruth is one of the most charming books in the Hebrew Bible. It has a typical plot structure, moving from one chapter to the next with conflict leading to resolution. Unfortunately, many people, scholars included, misread the book.
The book is not to be read as a kind of “Veggie-Tale” story with primary emphasis given to characters with no regard for its deep theological profundity. Nor is the book of Ruth to be read merely as a good moral tale about loyalty that leads to reward! Rather, the book has a robust theological point to make.
Through the mystery of divine promise, the book’s main purpose is to show that a resolution to the story comes in King David’s genealogy at the end of the book. The New Testament reminds us that Ruth was the grandmother of King David. And the line of descent going forth from David leads directly to Jesus, according to the New Testament: Christ Jesus is the Davidic king! In Jesus, safety comes through faith. Jesus will ultimately be their king and lead them.
Remember the pronouncement of the angels: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). We saw in the book of Joshua that obedience is rewarded. Christ Jesus is the true son of Israel, whose perfect obedience and fulfillment of the Law wins the inheritance, namely, a people chosen and crafted by God Himself, brought into the heavenly rest itself. We saw in the book of Judges that disobedience leads to punishment. Christ Jesus took the punishment for sins upon Himself, bearing God’s wrath for sins not His own but rather providing atonement for His people. Moreover, the book of Ruth demonstrates that Christ Jesus is the true son of David (Matt. 1:1; Luke 1:68–75; Rom. 1:1–4) through whom the real kingdom will come. True safety comes through faith in Jesus. Jesus Christ is also the offspring of David (2 Tim. 2:8), the Savior of Israel (Acts 13:22-23), bringing peace and mercy even upon the “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).