Finding the Macro-Structure of Joshua, with a Note for Expositional Preachers to Widen Their Vision


In recent years, few practices have been more fruitful for my Bible reading and preaching than (attempting to find and) discovering the structure of a biblical passage. Dave Helm and the good folks at Simeon Trust call this structure the “bone and marrow” of any passage. Just like the human body is built with interconnected bones that give shape to the body, so the arguments, narratives, and poetry of the Bible has a recognizable skeletal structure that gives shape to the passage.

This is true at the microscopic level, where biblical authors organize a few verses around a chiasm or some other literary structure. It is also true at the macroscopic level, where we can recognize the literary structure of entire books. This latter macrostructure is most helpful for discovering the main argument of a book and why the author is writing what he is writing in the way he is writing.

Recently, I have found help on this front from a book by David Dorsey. In his Literary Structure of the Old Testamentthis Old Testament scholar provides the macro-structure of every book in the Hebrew Bible, as well as many smaller literary structures in various books. At present, I have not read the whole book nor have I agreed with everything I have read, but by and large, Dorsey’s careful treatment of the Bible provides a helpful outline of every book.

As our church begins to look at Joshua this Sunday, I thought I’d share a couple of his outlines, simplified and color-coded, to help us see how the macro-structure of Joshua clarifies the main point of this book. Indeed, as Joshua has some longer section regarding land divisions, etc., I believe seeing the larger scope of the book will help us understand the main points.

The Structure of Joshua in Three Sections

The book of Joshua can be divided into three major sections. Chapters 1–8 record how Joshua led Israel to enter the land and conquer the nations. Chapters 9–12 continue in this theme, but draw attention to Israel’s defeat of the nations. And chapters 13–24 record how the land was apportioned to the tribes of Israel. In all three sections, we find the pivotal role of Joshua, along with the way, this servant of the Lord led God’s people to keep covenant with God.

In what follows, I am outlining the book in three sections, derived and simplified from the literary and linguistic observations of David Dorsey (Literary Structure of the Old Testament, 91–94). If you are studying Joshua, you will find plenty more content in his treatment of Joshua, including how Joshua relates to the Pentateuch. For now, here is a basic outline to the three main sections of the book.

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What do you think?

I find this outline most helpful and will keep it in mind as I begin to look at the book of Joshua verse-by-verse. On this point of keeping the macrostructure of the book in mind, let me add a note addressed to expositional preachers.

Widen Your Vision: A Note For Expositional Preachers

For those committed to preaching books of the Bible verse-by-verse, you know the challenge of outlining a sermon series. Indeed, many have no clear path for determining how many sermons a book will yield until they’ve preached it. Verse-by-verse may mean biting off a bit of Scripture each week and feeding it to the congregation, with little forethought to how many bites it will be.

Others, go in the opposite direction. From the start, they may tightly define their sermons series, even publicizing their sermons months in advance. In this case, the sermon series must fit the predetermined length, regardless of what happens in the course of the book.

There are good reasons for both of these practices. Providing a “sermon card” with all the forthcoming sermons encourages church members to read the passage ahead of time. Conversely, by not defining what will be preached helps the pastor address the text along with any questions it generates or congregational needs it encounters.

Still, of these two approaches, I believe an uncertain plodding through a book for the sake of being thorough, may (unintentionally) result in the preacher and the congregation missing the shape of the book itself. When we lose touch with the shape of the whole book, we will have difficult keeping the message of Moses, Isaiah, John, or Paul in mind.

Instead of biblical exposition at that point,  verse-by-verse sermons become systematic theology squeezed through the few verses we are preaching. If that preachers systematic theology is good, the end result is usually biblically-saturated teaching that edifies and instructs. Yet, the end result is a kind of preaching that reinforces one’s system of theology. Such microscopic preaching is less likely to renew the mind or challenge the theology of a preacher or congregation.

Better, in my estimation, is an approach that works hard to ascertain the literary shape of the book at the outset of a sermon series. In this way, the macrostructure of the book is given its due attention. And this larger context will help define and explain smaller parts of the text. This approach does not deny the fact that every verse contributes to the whole book, but what seems to be lacking in much expositional preaching today (at least in Reformed and Bible churches) is an intentional awareness of a book’s macrostructure.

Verse-by-verse exposition respects the inspiration and authority of the Bible and all of its words. With respect to method, however, it is prone to make the mistake of finding meaning in words disconnected from sentences and sentences disconnected from the whole book. I believe many in an effort to be faithful to the Bible undermine their preaching by not paying attention to the macrostructure of a book.

As a result, they preach 60 sermons from Ephesians or take two years to go through Leviticus. The Bible is an unfathomable mine of rich truth, but I question if such approaches are actually exposition. I would submit they are actually systematic theology and ethical application squeezed through a given text. (If you are a preacher or sit under the word regularly, I’d love to know what you think).

To paraphrase Joshua, as for me and my house, I will continue to serve the Lord seeking to understand the text of Scripture at the microscopic and macroscopic levels. Indeed, this is no easy task, but like studying the cosmos itself, there is glory under the microscope and glory in the grand canopy of sky that covers the earth. Just the same in Scripture, we need to see what God has done in the stitches of grammar and in the unified fabric of the whole Bible.

For that reason I would urge you to keep the big picture of the Bible in view and to look for the macrostructure of every book. I believe, it will make you a better preacher, and it will help your people better understand God’s word. David Dorsey’s book certainly aids in this task, but more foundationally—we who go deep in the Bible must also go broad and read the books over and over to see the shape of the whole.

May God give us desire, time, and ability to do this and may our preaching flourish with a greater knowledge of God and his word!

Soli Deo Gloria, ds