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Introduction to the Book of Joshua

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General Info

In the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Joshua is the first of the Former Prophets (Nevi'im Rishonim), which also includes Judges, Samuel, and Kings.  In the Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox canons, Joshua is the first of the twelve OT Historical Books (Joshua to Esther in the Protestant), although a few scholars group Joshua with the Pentateuch (Five Books of Moses).  Joshua forms a link between the historical accounts in the Pentateuch and the remainder of Israel’s history through the conquest, monarchy, divided kingdom, exile and return.  Thus, the book fits equally well in either category, but we’ve followed the traditional categorization.  As with other historical books of the Bible, Joshua is not merely a record of the events of this particular era in Israel’s history, but an account of God fulfilling His covenant promises through the events and His dealings with His chosen people (21:43).

The Book of Joshua continues the story of the Israelites after the exodus from Egypt.  The book chronicles the approximately 30 years of Joshua’s leadership (~1405 ~1375 BC), after the death of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy.  After centuries of slavery in Egypt and decades of wandering the desert, the Israelites would finally enter the Promised Land.  Through three major military campaigns, the people of Israel learn that victory comes through faith in and obedience to God, rather than by their own military superiority.

Unlike the books of the Pentateuch, the Book of Joshua takes its name from the central character, called Hoshea (meaning “salvation”) earlier in his life (Num 13:8), but Moses later changed his name to Joshua (Yehosua – Num 13:16), meaning “the Lord (Yahweh) saves” or “the Lord is salvation”.  The Greek form of the name ('Iēsous) is “Jesus”.  Just as under the leadership of Joshua, God led the Jews into the Promised Land and gave them “rest”, Jesus brings all believers into our “eternal rest” (Heb 4:1-11).

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Brief Survey

Deuteronomy closes with the Israelites still camped in the Moab valley, just across the Jordan River from Canaan.  Now, after forty years of wilderness wanderings, the Joshua narrative opens with God’s command to pass through the Jordan River into the Promised Land.  Joshua sends two scouts to Jericho, who are aided by the harlot Rahab (ch 2), an ancestor of the coming Messiah.  Similar to the Red Sea crossing during the exodus from Egypt, the Jordon temporarily ceases flowing when the priests enter to allow the Israelites to cross (ch 3).  The central campaign of the conquest begins with the victory at Jericho, after God causes its walls to fall (ch 6).

The fall of Jericho opened the westward routes into the hill country, but because of disobedience by one man (Achan), the entire Israeli army suffered defeat at Ai.  After Achan’s sin was discovered and punished (ch 7), God gave the Israelites a decisive victory over Ai and a coalition of southern city-states, thus completing the southern campaign with one battle (ch 8-10).  So, we see throughout the book that God led Israel to triumph over all her enemies as long as they were obedient to His commands.  Joshua and his army then northward and, in a surprise attack, defeated a northern coalition, then destroyed the great city of Hazor (ch 11-12).  The entire hill country and the Jordan Valley were now cleared for Israelite settlement.

The next section of Joshua (ch 13-22), provides a detailed description of the territory allotments to the twelve tribes for settlement, with Judah receiving most of the southern portion and the two tribes of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, collecting the bulk of the north.  The Levites were to perform the priestly duties for all the tribes, so they received cities scattered throughout the whole land.  So, although there were still portions of the land to be conquered in the future, Israel was now at rest.  God’s promise of the land of Canaan to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (Israel) and Moses had been fulfilled (21:43-45).

The Book of Joshua then skips ahead about twenty years or so, when Joshua was well advanced in years.  He called together and charged the next generation of leaders to be strong and follow God’s Law (ch23).  He then convened the people to renew the covenant with God before he died (ch 24).  The Book closes with two important deaths, but three notable burials.  We witness the death and burials of Joshua and the High-Priest Eleazar, son of Moses’ brother Aaron.  We also see the fulfillment of Joseph’s final wish (Gen 50:25), as his bones were brought out of Egypt by Moses (Ex 13:19) and finally buried in the Promised Land (24:32).

Looking ahead, after the death of Joshua, no other national leader would emerge until the period of the monarchy over three centuries later.  The Israelites would now enter a recurring and downward spiral pattern of disobedience and apostasy, during which God would raise up temporary leaders to save the nation for her oppressors, followed by rejection of God once again by the people (Jdg 2:6-23).

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Key Verses

Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. (1:7-8)

That day the LORD exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel; and they revered him all the days of his life, just as they had revered Moses. (4:14)

Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, "Are you for us or for our enemies?" "Neither," he replied, "but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come." Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, "What message does my Lord have for his servant?" The commander of the LORD's army replied, "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy." And Joshua did so. (5:13-15)

Then the LORD said to Joshua, "See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men. (6:2)

On the day the LORD gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the LORD in the presence of Israel: "O sun, stand still over Gibeon, O moon, over the Valley of Aijalon." So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the LORD listened to a man. Surely the LORD was fighting for Israel! (10:12-14)

So Joshua took the entire land, just as the LORD had directed Moses, and he gave it as an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal divisions. Then the land had rest from war. (11:23)

So Joshua said to the Israelites: "How long will you wait before you begin to take possession of the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, has given you? (18:3)

So the LORD gave Israel all the land he had sworn to give their forefathers, and they took possession of it and settled there. The LORD gave them rest on every side, just as he had sworn to their forefathers. Not one of their enemies withstood them; the LORD handed all their enemies over to them. Not one of all the LORD's good promises to the house of Israel failed; every one was fulfilled. (21:43-45)

"Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD." (24:14-14)

After these things, Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of a hundred and ten. And they buried him in the land of his inheritance, at Timnath Serah in the hill country of Ephraim, north of Mount Gaash. Israel served the LORD throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had experienced everything the LORD had done for Israel. And Joseph's bones, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem in the tract of land that Jacob bought for a hundred pieces of silver from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem. This became the inheritance of Joseph's descendants. (24:29-32)

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Author and Date

Although the Book of Joshua does not explicitly name its author, Joshua, the son of Nun, the main character most likely wrote much of the book between 1400 and 1375 BC.  Jewish tradition (Talmud) ascribed the book to Joshua, and we have internal evidence that some portions were recorded by him (8:32, 18:8-9, 24:26).  The presence of the “we” pronouns indicates that some portions were written by an eyewitness to the events.  In addition, the author was familiar with the city names of the period, such as “the Jebusite city” and “Kiriath Arba”, which became Jerusalem and Hebron respectively.  The account of Joshua’s and Eleazar’s deaths was probably added by Eleazar’s son Phinehas, who succeeded him as High-Priest.  Moreover, the frequent occurrence of the “to this day” phrase and reference to The Book of Jashar as a source for the report of the sun standing still (10:1-14) indicates that final editing and compilation of the book occurred later, probably by the early part of the monarchy.  Some scholars believe that Samuel may have assembled the book, but the final human author(s) remain anonymous.

The Life of Joshua

Hoshea, the son of Num, was born into the tribe of Ephraim (Num 13:8) about 1485 BC, during the time Israel was still enslaved in Egypt.  As a youth, he witnessed God’s miracles of the plagues, the exodus, and the parting of the Red Sea.  He then led Israel’s army to victory over the Amalekites during the wanderings in the Sinai desert while Moses stood on top of a nearby hill with the staff of God lifted toward heaven (Ex 17:8-13).  As Moses' assistant, he was present at the tabernacle when God would speak to Moses “face to face” (Ex 33:11), accompanied him at least partway up Mt Sinai (Ex 24:13, 32:17) to meet with God, and was being trained as his future successor.

Hoshea was one of the twelve tribal representatives sent in to scout the land (Num 13:8) and Moses changed his name to Joshua (Num 13:16).  Only Joshua and Caleb urged the Israelites to have faith in God for victory over the inhabitants (Num 14:6-9), and as a result of the people’s rebellion, they were the only two adults from the first generation allowed to enter the land of Canaan (Num 32:9-13).  Even Moses died before entering the land, but God instructed him to commission Joshua, who also possessed the Spirit, as his successor to lead the people into the Promised Land (Num 27:12-23, Dt 1:38, 3:28, 31:23, 34:9).

Joshua was faithful to his divine appointment, leading God’s army during the conquest of Canaan, directing the lord’s division of the territories, and exhorting the people to remain loyal to the covenant with the Lord.  Thus, Joshua was a prominent OT type (prefigure or foreshadow) of Christ.  As mentioned above, just as under the leadership of Joshua, God led the Jews into the Promised Land and gave them “rest”, Jesus brings all believers into our “eternal rest” (Heb 4:1-11).

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Historical Background

In the five Books of Moses (Genesis – Deuteronomy), we observed the formation of the nation of Israel as God’s chosen people.  In Genesis, God promised Abraham that he would be the ancestor of a great nation, and renewed this covenant with his son Isaac, and grandson Jacob (whose name God changed to Israel).  Through Jacob’s son Joseph, God preserved the family in Egypt during the great drought, but even though they greatly increased in number, they were later enslaved.

After about four hundred years in Egypt, God raised up Moses to lead His chosen people out of captivity, to receive the law at Mt Sinai, and to build the tabernacle (aka Tent of the Meeting) for the dwelling of His glory among His people as recorded in Exodus.  In Leviticus, God provided instructions for holy living and proper worship.  Due to a lack of trust in God despite witnessing the miracles of the exodus, the people were sentenced by God to wander in the desert for about forty years until the adults of the first generation died (except for Joshua and Caleb, who would enter the land due to their faith) as chronicled in the book of Numbers.  In Deuteronomy, we witnessed a restatement and renewal of the covenant laws with the next generation and just before his death, Moses transitioned leadership to Joshua.  Thus, as the book of Joshua opens about 1405 BC, the people were now finally ready to enter, conquer, and settle the land promised to their forefathers by God.

Canaan: Geographical, Political, Historical, and Cultural Settings

Ancient Canaan (later known as Palestine) was bordered on the east by the Jordan River and the Dead Sea (two and a half Israeli tribes settled east of the Jordan in an area called the Transjordan.  The hill country runs north and south through the central area of Canaan, from the mountainous region of Galilee in the north to the Negev (desert area) in the south.  The Mediterranean Sea formed the western border, separated from the hill country by the Costal Plains, except at the north end, where Mt Carmel protrudes into the sea.

At the time of the conquest, most of the external powers in the Middle East were relatively weak.  Neither Babylon nor Egypt was strong enough to maintain a local military presence.  The Hittites were greatly diminished and the Assyrians would not come on the scene for several centuries, so most of the resistance to Israel’s invasion came from the Canaanite inhabitants.

The political and governmental makeup for most of Canaan consisted of independent city-states, each ruled by their own king.  Since there was no central government, a conqueror would normally have to defeat each city separately.  Often however, these city-states would form alliances and band together against common enemies.  During the conquest, Joshua was able to defeat a coalition of states at once during the southern campaign.  Israel also faced a coalition of several city-states in the north, thus decreasing the number of battles that had to be fought during that campaign.

The Canaanite infrastructure, technology, and culture were fairly advanced during this late Bronze Age (1550-1200 BC) era.  In addition, an extensive foreign trade system was established with surrounding territories, so Israel was able to build on much of these established systems.

The Religions of Canaan

At the time of the conquest, the wickedness of the Canaanites had reached the point predicted to Abraham in Genesis 15:16.  Their principle objects of worship were Baal (weather and agricultural god) and Asherah (fertility and mother earth goddess).  Their religious rituals included perverse sexual practices such as male and female temple prostitutes, and infant sacrifices.  Archeologists continue to be shocked by new discoveries of these horrendous rituals, including pottery containing the remains of children or infants who had been sacrificed to their false gods.  Evil had infected every level of their religion, but their society in general.  It was so contaminated that that, when God would use the Israelites to have the land spew them out (Lev 18:24-25), one of the prime directives was destruction of their cultic shrines and devices.  Thus, while the chief reason for the conquest was the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, God also passed judgment on the depraved inhabitants of Canaan.

Historicity of Joshua

The authenticity of the OT’s historical components was accepted without question by Jesus, the NT authors, the early church, and by almost all Bible scholars for almost two millennia.  In the past couple of centuries however, many liberal "scholars" began to seriously question the historical reliability of these books.  We’ve already dealt with many objections in the Historicity of the OT Historical Books, so we’ll briefly touch on a few concerns of particular relevance to Joshua.

Perhaps the most frequent opposition to the historicity of Joshua is the presence of its supernatural or miraculous elements.  These objections are not based upon any facts or evidence, but on the presupposition that the natural world is a closed system where miracles are precluded.  Just as in the days of Moses, God uses miracles in Joshua, such as the Jordan River crossing (Jsh 3), the fall of Jericho (Jsh 6), and the hailstorm and sun standing still (Jsh 10) to accomplish His divine purposes.  Since we can’t duplicate these supernatural events, we are challenged to either accept or reject them.

It is not really a stretch to believe the miracles.  If God can create the entire universe ex nihilo (out of nothing), He can certainly manipulate certain parts of His creation as He sees fit.  In accomplishing His eternal plan of redemption, he performed the supernatural to display His power and grace, to strengthen His adopted people of Israel, and to frighten and weaken her enemies.  To deny the supernatural is to deny the one true God.

Another common attempt to discredit the historical validity of Joshua typically involves the contention that many of the cities (such as Ai and Jericho) along with the Transjordan area were uninhabited during the time that Israel entered Canaan.  Archaeological evidence easily refutes these claims, both by data found at the various sites and by documents retrieved from foreign nations.

Others question Joshua’s authority based upon details of various events from other historical documents that are not found in Joshua.  We must take into consideration that Joshua, like the other Bible books of history, are not extensive accounts of the epoch.  Instead, the book provides a selective history of the conquest and settlement of Canaan from a prophetic perspective.  It is true and reliable in all it records.

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See OT History for timeline of additional historical events.

~ 1406 BC (1) Death of Moses; Joshua assumes leadership of Israelites
~ 1405 BC Israelites Enter the Promised Land and Begin the Conquest
~ 1395 BC Israel Begins Settlement of the Land
~ 1375 BC Death of Joshua
~ 1375 BC Period of the Judges Begins

Determining the Date of the Conquest

The conquest began approximately forty years after the exodus.  The following is a brief overview of the two primary schools of thought for dating the exodus/conquest.  We’ll have a more detailed article elsewhere.

The traditional early date of ~1446 BC for the exodus (~1405 BC for the conquest) is derived from the Scriptures while the later dates of ~1290/1250 BC result from the interpretation of certain archaeological data and Egyptian history.  There are respected scholars on both sides of the argument, so many published writings include both the early and later date.

We lean to the traditional earlier dates based upon the 480 year span from Israel’s release from Egyptian slavery to the beginning of Solomon’s temple (1Kg 6:1), which began about 966 BC.  Similarly, Judges 11:26 states that Israel had lived in Canaan for 300 years at the time of Jephthah (~1150 BC), which would produce a date of ~1400 BC for the settlement.  Proponents of the later date take these figures as being symbolic.  In addition, the later date would compress the time of the Judges to about 170 years, while the later date would allow about 325 years, which is more consistent with the book of Judges itself.

Archaeological data from Jericho, Ai, and Hazor (the only three cities burned during the conquest) appear to show evidence of destruction during the late fifteenth century BC, which is consistent with the traditional date.  In addition, no evidence has been found for the occupation of Jericho in the thirteenth century (as would be required by the later date).  We must also consider however, that many other groups such as the Egyptians and Philistines were involved in military campaigns in the region (not to mention a great deal of intercity conflicts between the Canaanite inhabitants) during both time periods.

Therefore, attempts to date the conquest based upon the level of findings we have at present is a somewhat dubious undertaking.  Likewise, various documents for Egyptian history have been produced to support both dates.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

The main purpose of the book of Joshua is to record the events of Israel’s conquest and settlement of the Promised Land of Canaan from a theological and prophetic viewpoint.  An emphasis is also placed upon God’s fulfillment of His promises to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Gen 12:5-7; 15:18-21; 17:5-8,19; 26:2-5; 28:13-15; Ex 2:24; Lev 26:42).  It is evident that Israel could not have possessed the land by their military strength alone, but had to rely on the faithfulness of God.

Two central interrelated themes permeate the book of Joshua.  First, that God is faithful in fulfilling His promises.  The second is that, the ultimate success of Israel’s mission in the land depended upon their obedience to the Lord’s commands and covenants.  God in His sovereignty would bring His people into the Promised Land.  The ease by which they would conquer and settle the land was in direct proportion to their obedience to the covenant.

A corollary to the second theme is Israel’s failure to completely follow the Lord’s commands to drive out all the pagan inhabitants and remove the false idols.  We see the tragic consequences of this disobedience in the first few chapters of the book of Judges.  Finally, despite God’s command to eliminate all inhabitants, His grace is extended to foreigners such as Rahab, who acknowledged Him as the true God (Jsh 2:11).  At the same time, we also see the danger of the “insider”, with Achan’s defiance in chapter 7.

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

As we addressed in Interpreting the OT History Books, the events of these books should be interpreted in the context of God’s dealing with His chosen people as a means to bring salvation to all nations, taking into account both the theological and historical aspects.  God providentially directs and controls the destiny of each nation and individual.  Thus, Joshua should ultimately be interpreted in the context of God’s promises and plan of redemption.

The overall genre type used in the book of Joshua is prose narrative.  Thus, the accounts should be interpreted as straightforward descriptions of real events, regardless of whether miracles or just ordinary incidents are involved.  With the campaign strategies, the suspenseful plots, the exciting battles, the extensive lists, the familiar human experiences, and the drawing of lots to settle the land, Joshua could even be considered a historical epic.

Interpretive Challenges Prominent in Joshua

One of the most challenging and troubling aspects of the OT history books is the role of warfare.  The conquest of the Promised Land of Canaan by Israel is particularly disturbing to some.  We see some early battles in the Pentateuch, and the conquering of additional territory by Saul, David and Solomon in the Books of the Kingdom (1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings), but the initial conquest and settlement of the land is recorded in the book of Joshua. Due to its complexity, we’ve dealt with this issue in a separate article, The Ethical Question of War in the Conquest of Canaan.

Another challenge is the apparent conflict between unconditional promise of the land given by God to Abraham for his descendants vs the requirement of the people’s obedience in order to secure the blessing.  God, in His sovereignty, will lead the Israelites into battle to secure and settle the land, but the results of the individual battles would depend on the compliance of the people to God’s commands.  In other words, the final outcome was guaranteed, but the ease or difficulty by which victory would come about depended on the peoples’ response (compare the battles of Joshua and Ai in chapters 6-8).

One troubling event is the communal responsibility for the sin of one person.  In chapter 7, we see that the sin of Achan results not only in the death of many Israeli solders at Ai, but in the execution of his entire family.  This is difficult for us to understand, especially in our modern day, but in Biblical times, the Jews thought of themselves first as members of the community, then as an individual second.  Because Israel was set apart as a people unto God, the evil must be purged from among them.  We are not told whether or not Achan’s family was aware of the theft, but since we’re all under the curse of Adam and Eve’s original sin (Gen 3), we are all subject to the consequences of sin in the world.  Almost daily, we hear of someone dying due to the carelessness or outright sin of another (eg drunk drivers, murder etc).  While this appears to us to be unfair, we can be confident that God will ultimately bring about His perfect justice (intertwined with His grace and mercy) in His own time because of the substitutionary work of Jesus.

The prominence of the land is bothersome to those who believe that we should spurn all material things in this world in favor of the spiritual.  The Holy Scriptures clearly proclaim that God made all things good, including the earth and all its creatures (Gen 1:31).  While all is presently in a fallen state, even nature will be included in the final redemption (Rom 8:19-23).

Types / Foreshadows In Joshua

In theology, a “type” (Gk typos) is a special picture or symbol which God designs and places at a certain time in history which points forward to a larger or ultimate fulfillment at a later time in history, which could either be in the past or still in the future in relationship to today.  Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of most of the OT shadows, although some can point elsewhere.

Joshua himself is a foreshadowing of the Christ.  As mentioned above, his name Yeshua, a contracted form of Yehoshua which means “Yahweh is salvation,” is the Greek equivalent of the name Jesus.  Joshua is actually called by the name Iēsou (Jesus) in Acts 7:45.  Just as under the leadership of Joshua, God led the Jews into the Promised Land and gave them “rest”, Jesus brings all believers into our “eternal rest” (Heb 4:1-11).  Just as Joshua interceded for the Israel’s sins (Jsh 7:6-15), Jesus continually intercedes for us as our Advocate (Rom 8:34, Heb 7:25, 1Jn 2:1).  There are no direct messianic prophecies in Joshua, but we do witness a Christophany (a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ) by the Commander of the Lord’s Army (Jsh 5:13-15).

The story of Rahab the prostitute (Jsh 2) is a great picture of salvation by faith, and the scarlet cord which protected her from death portrays the blood of Christ, which protects us from spiritual death.  Rahab became the great-great grandmother of King David and an ancestor of the Messiah (Mt 1:5-6).

The crossing of the Jordan River (Jsh 3), Israel’s physical conflicts, and God finally giving her physical rest in the Promised Land (Jsh 21:43-45) is a great image of our spiritual crossing from death to life, our spiritual conflict and triumph, and the anticipation of our final spiritual rest in our heavenly Promised Land.  This is all accomplished on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ and through our relationship with Him.

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The book of Joshua can be divided into four sections, beginning with crossing of the Jordan River into the Promised Land (chapters 1-5).  We next have the approximated seven year period of the conquest (chapters 6-12), and the dividing of and settlement of the land (chapters 13-21) which probably took an additional 8-10 years.  We then skip ahead to the Consecration of the People (chapters 22–24), about 30 years after the entry into the land.

1:1 – 1:18 The Commissioning of Joshua and Command to Enter the Land
2:1 – 2:24 The Spies and Rahab the Prostitute
3:1 – 4:24 Crossing the Jordan River
5:1 – 5:15 Consecration of the People at Gilgal; Commander of the Lord’s Army
6:1 – 6:27 The Conquest Begins with Victory at Jericho (Central Campaign)
7:1 – 8:35 Sin, Defeat and Corporate Failure; Fall of Ai; Renewal of the Covenant
9:1 – 10:43 The Southern Campaign; The Gibeonite Treaty; The Sun Stands Still
11:1 – 12:24 The Northern Campaign
13:1 – 13:33 Land Still to be Conquered; Inheritance of the Transjordan Tribes
14:1 – 19:51 Allotment of the Land
20:1 – 21:45 Cities for Refuge; Cities for the Levites; The Nation at Rest
22:1 – 22:34 The Eastern (Transjordan) Tribes Return Home and Set-up Altar of Witness
23:1 – 23:16 Joshua’s Farewell Address to Israel’s Leaders
24:1 – 24:33 The Covenant Renewal at Shechem; The Death of Joshua and Eleazar the Priest; Buriel of Joseph's Bones

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