In the beginning of the book of Joshua the people of Israel are standing on the edge of the Promised Land. Immediately as the book begins Joshua is commanded by Yahweh, “arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land which I am giving them, to the sons of Israel” (Josh. 1:2). While the text of Joshua doesn’t disclose the exact location of the people of Israel (other than their proximity to the Jordan River) according to Numbers 22:1 they are stationed on the plains of Moab; east of the Jordan River. There’s a symbolic significance to their geographic location. Firstly the plains of Moab, and specifically the land of Shittim – where we find out later is where Israel is located (Josh. 2:1), are associated with acacia trees. When we connect the imagery of trees and water a garden motif arises which evokes imagery of the Garden of Eden. Secondly, to strengthen the garden motif, the fact that the people of Israel are encamped in a garden like land to the east of the Promised Land likewise echoes of the Garden of Eden, which God planted in the east of Eden (Gen. 2:8). The text is thereby presenting Israel as a new corporate Adam has been placed by God in a new Edenic Garden. Unlike the first Adam, who through disobedience was cast out further east from the Garden, this new corporate Adam will be faithful and pass westward beyond the garden and into the land itself.
Connected to this theme of Israel as a corporate Adam and the land as a new Eden is both temple and priestly imagery. The Genesis narrative presents both the land in temple language as well as Adam as a priestly figure. As James B. Jordan notes in his book Through New Eyes the establishment of the earth is tripartite, just as the tabernacle and temples will be, “the Bible tells us that God planted a garden in Eden, on the east side of the land (Genesis 2:8). This establishes three environments on the earth: Garden, Eden, [and] World.”i The placement of the garden in the east, with Adam being placed by God in the garden, placed Adam on a westward course out of the garden and into the land, as Peter Leithart notes in A House For My Name, “Adam’s highest achievement will be to move from the garden into the land of Eden. He was not created to serve in the garden only but to rule in the land.”ii The placing of Adam in the garden corresponds to the entering of the levitical priests into the Holy Place and just as animals were brought to Adam so animals were brought to the priests. Adam is called to serve in the garden just as the levitical priests serve in the Holy Place. Therefore Adamic imagery is connected to the priesthood while Edenic imagery is connected to the temple.
What we see in the beginning of Joshua then is a priestly Israel abiding in the Holy Place of the land. What becomes readily apparent, following this imagery, is the entrance into the Promised Land serving as a symbolic entrance into the Holy of Holies. This is heightened by the fact that Israel passes through a natural veil, the Jordan River, that separates the land of Shittim from the Promised Land (just as the inner veil separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies). On top of that the crossing of the Jordan River is carried out as a liturgical procession where Israel is preceded by priests bearing the ark of the covenant (Josh. 3:7-8, 14-17). The carrying of the ark of the covenant into the Promised Land through the Jordan River images the placing of the ark of the covenant beyond the inner veil into the Holy of Holies. Further strengthening the temple imagery of the land the crossing of the Jordan River with the ark of the covenant clearly delineates the Promised Land as a geographic Holy of Holies.
With the Promised Land being designated as the Holy of Holies the movement of priestly Israel into the Promised Land portrays Israel as being a corporate high priest. Leviticus 16 states that only the high priest, and only once a year, was allowed the enter the Holy of Holies (Lev. 16:1-4, 34). By following behind the ark of the covenant past the watery veil of the River Jordan the people of Israel are ordained as a high priestly people to serve before the presence of Yahweh.
In light of the Holy of Holies and high priestly imagery of the entrance into the land it follows that the conquest of Canaan can be seen as a militarized Day of Atonement. As noted earlier above the only time the high priest entered into the Holy of Holies was once a year on the Day of Atonement. The offerings described in Leviticus 16 for the Day of Atonement purposed to sanctify and cleanse the entire nation of Israel of all her impurities and uncleanliness. In describing the Day of Atonement the text of Leviticus 23:27 dictates that, “you shall humble your souls and offer a whole burnt offering to the Lord.” Interestingly enough within the Torah whole burnt offerings weren’t limited to animal offerings alone. In Deuteronomy 13:16 the ritual burning of a city is described as being a whole burnt offering. With this in mind we can see more clearly how the conquest of Canaan is in fact a militarized Day of Atonement. The conquest features three cities being burned down; Joshua, Ai, and Hazor. In light of Deuteronomy 13:16 these are whole burnt offerings to Yahweh by the high priestly Israel. Just as the offerings on the Day of Atonement were for the cleansing of Israel from ceremonial uncleanliness so the conquest of Canaan is a removal of the unclean Gentiles from the land. Through the conquest Israel is cleansing the future land of the nation of Israel from uncleanliness through liturgical warefare.
The entrance of Israel into the Promised Land isn’t merely the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and the patriarchs that their descents will inherit the land; the story is much deeper and richer than that. On top of divine promise the story pictures Israel as a corporate priestly Adam going where the first Adam never did; westward into the land. Based on the temple arrangement of the land, along with the procession of the ark of the covenant, the Promised Land is thus seen to be a geographic Holy of Holies. The priestly Israel becomes a high priestly people as they pass beyond the watery veil into the geographic Holy of Holies. Since the only time the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies, according to Levitical law, was on the Day of Atonement, the conquest of Canaan, replete with the offering of cities as whole burnt offerings and cleansing the land of unclean Gentiles, is itself a militarized Day of Atonement.
iJames B. Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World, Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999, pg. 152.
iiPeter Leithart, A House For My Name, Moscow: Canon Press, 2000, pg. 53.