Joshua 5: Is it worse the second time around?


Gird your loins because this chapter tries to explain a few place names, and there may be some sympathy pains a-coming.

The crossing of the Jordan was apparently quite a bit more spectacular than it reads (maybe it’s one of those “you had to be there” things), because it’s got the kings of the Amarites and Canaanites shaking in their boots.

Mass circumcision

Even though we had all that talk earlier about going on the march in three days’ time, God decides that now is the time to stop and have Joshua circumcise everyone (personally?). The wording is rather unfortunate, as he tells Joshua to do it “again the second time” (Josh. 5:2). Oh myyyy…. what was left?

Modern representation of relief in the 6th Dynasty tomb of the royal architect Ankh-ma-hor at Saqqara

Modern representation of relief in the 6th Dynasty tomb of the royal architect Ankh-ma-hor at Saqqara

But no, it seems that it’s referring to a second generation, rather than a second hacking, as the text later explains that the Israelites who had come out of Egypt were all circumcised, but that circumcisions hadn’t been happening while they were in the wilderness.

There’s no reason given for this neglect. It seems to just be a rather forced explanation to tie some local tradition into the larger narrative. And, indeed, the story seems to be a way to explain how Gibeath-haaraloth (“Hill of the Foreskins”) got its name.

Now, as we all learned back in Genesis 34 when Jacob’s sons defeat the Shechemites by tricking them into circumcising themselves so that they’d be unable to fight when attacked, a mass circumcision ritual is a pretty silly way to inaugurate a military campaign.

Throwing that whole “we leave in three days” thing complete out the window, the army now has to wait around until everyone has had a chance to heal.

While we wait, we get the story of how Gilgal gets its name. It is named, says God, because the day of mass circumcision marks when he “rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you” (Josh. 5:9).

My study Bible objects: “The Hebrew verb meaning rolled away is from the same root as Gilgal, but the etymology is far-fetched; the true meaning of Gilgal is ‘circle [of stones]'” (p.268). In other words a megalith. It seems to me that the name must have more to do with the stones Joshua supposedly put up in Joshua 4, rather than with any rolling away of reproach.

But even if we take the explanation at face value, what is this reproach? Was this reproach earned in Egypt? When the people were supposedly suffering as slaves? Or is God still going on about the wilderness rebellions?

To close off the pre-campaign ceremonies, they celebrate Passover in Gilgal. They then do some foraging for food and, once they eat it, the manna stops coming. Now that they are in the Promised Land, they’ll have to let it sustain them rather than depending on breadsnow.

The Commander

To close off the chapter, we get what appears to be a fragment of a story – Joshua meets a strange man with a drawn sword. Rather than just shooting first, he asks the stranger whether he is friend or foe. The stranger answers that he’s come to be the commander of God’s army.

Joshua falls on his face “and worshipped” (Josh. 5:14). We’ve had no face-falling for a whole book, so it’s great to see it again! As for the worshipping, is that idolatry? The man is there to command God’s army, which suggests that he isn’t God. Is Joshua worshipping him when he falls on his face, or is he just worshipping in general?

In either case, the stranger tells Joshua to remove his shoes, “for the place where you stand is holy” (Josh. 5:15). This is almost exactly what God said to Moses in Exodus 3, which either means that the authors of Joshua are trying very hard to argue that Joshua really (no, really!) is a legitimate successor to Moses, or that both started off as regional variations of the same founding character.

Then the story just ends, and the Commander is never seen again. Presumably, the original story featured some command or divine advice, perhaps even a call like Moses received from the burning bush, but this – if it ever existed – has been lost.

Joshua 3-4: Throwing rocks in the water


Likely itching at the sandals, the Israelites finally move out from Shittim and camp on the banks of the Jordan River to wait out the final three days before the conquest is officially slated to begin.

At Joshua’s request, the officers tell the soldiers to keep an eye out for the ark; when Aslan – I mean the ark – is on the move, they must follow. But they must also practice good road safety and travel a minimum of 2,000 cubits behind, just in case the ark needs to hit the brakes.

While they wait, they must sanctify themselves. It’s quite clear that this is to be a holy war, not just an invasion.

Crossing the Jordan River, by Christoph Unterberger, 1780s.

Crossing the Jordan River, by Christoph Unterberger, 1780s.

Meanwhile, God hands Joshua the keys, telling him that he has the authority to tell the priests where to go. It feels like this points to monarchic involvement (perhaps commissioning or patronizing) in the composition of Joshua. It’s like for all that the Deuteronomic History we’ve read so far as consolidated power in Levitical hands and warned the future monarchy against getting grabby, we’ve also seen little reminders like these that the king is still king.

Because God just can’t see a river without seeing an opportunity for a little peacocking, he makes the Israelites stand on the shores of the Jordan and watch while the Levites step into the river with the ark. The river’s flow miraculously stops, and “the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap” (Josh. 3:16). Downriver, the flow was cut off entirely (yet another of Joshua’s lovely narrative details – I’m really enjoying this book much more than the slog we’ve been having since Genesis ended!).

This is clearly a repetition of the Red Sea parting, linking Joshua to Moses and indicating a continuity of leadership. Numbers had mentions of Joshua continuing after Moses, but I get the impression that Deuteronomy and Joshua have really been thumping the point, making me wonder if perhaps there was an alternative successor that the Deuteronomic History authors were competing against. Anyone know if there’s something to this?

It would never have occurred to me to look into the actual depth of the Jordan, but David Plotz mentioned it in his post: “I know what those of you who have been to Israel are thinking: The Jordan “river” is about as deep my bathtub, and not much wider! But the book specifies that the crossing was at flood stage, when the river is somewhat more intimidating.”

Tim Bulkeley also commented on how unimpressive the Jordan River is today, and warns his listeners against using today’s river to imagine what Joshua’s army would have encountered. It would have had a very variable flow in ancient times. And, “even today the Jordan valley has (in places) dense bush, making it a strange and dangerous place for people more used to dry pastureland.”

Joshua’s stones

40,000 soldiers cross with the ark.

At some point during this time, something happens involving twelve stones. Unfortunately for literalists, what happens is a little fuzzy.

Joshua calls for one representative from each tribe to collect one rock each from the river bed (while it’s still exposed) and bring them to their first camp-site in the Promised Land – in Gilgal. Joshua also places twelve stones into the riverbed (replacing the ones taken?) which the book’s author(s) claim are still there to their day. But then Joshua brings the twelve stones to Gilgal and sets them up there, so that they clearly can’t still be in the river.

It seems that two, or possibly three, separate narratives got shoved in together.

J.R. Porter writes:

The character of the Gilgal legend indicates that it was a pre-Israelite holy place, probably the site of a Canaanite festival, which re-enacted the victory of a deity over the forces of chaos, as in the stories of the gods Baal and Marduk. The events at the Jordan and at Gilgal may well be the real source of the tradition of Israel’s crossing of the sea. (The new Illustrated Companion to the Bible, p.63)

In other words, it’s possible that this episode wasn’t added to link Joshua onto Moses’s authority, but rather that Moses was given his crossing to link him to this holy site.

I wrote in What’s the deal with Joshua that his appearances in Exodus and Numbers feel very forced, like he was stitched in to lend legitimacy to his future appearance as Moses’ successor. Now, I wonder if he wasn’t at one time a competing Moses figure (which would explain his presence on the mountain in Exodus 24 while Moses is receiving the commandments, his presence with Moses again during a revelation in Exodus 32, and his association with the tent of meeting in Exodus 33).

Pure conjecture on my part, but I wonder if Joshua wasn’t at one time a competing forefather figure who lost out to the far larger Moses camp. Yet, he had achieved enough of a following to remain in the oral narrative canon, eventually becoming a successor rather than competitor.


Joshua 2: A fortuitous distraction


In his first act as the big cheese of the Israelite people, Joshua sends out two spies to get a feel for the territory, instructing them to pay special attention to Jericho. Unfortunately, Joshua experiences a bit of the first timer’s misfire, picking quite possibly the most ludicrously unqualified of all the possible spies available to him. Thankfully, he also has a fair bit of beginner’s luck, as we shall soon see.

These bungling spies head out from the Israelite camp and seem, almost immediately, to end up in the home of a prostitute. To be fair, they’ve been hanging out in the wilderness their entire lives, but still. There’s no word that they even attempted to do as Joshua instructed.

My poor study Bible, apparently trying to provide a more flattering excuse for the spies’ priorities, includes a note saying that the spies chose to approach Rahab because, as a prostitute, strange men coming to her house would have been less conspicuous (p.264). Nice try, editors!

As Abbie from Better Than Esdras points out, that’s not even the worst of their blundering, because Jericho’s king hears of their presence in the city almost immediately.

Which is where the beginner’s luck comes in. Rahab, the prostitute, just so happens to be on the Israelites’ side, so, in an episode worth of Don Juan, she hides the spies among the flax stalks on her roof when the king’s guards come a’knocking.

She tells the guards that the spies had been there (but that she hadn’t known they were spies), but had already left. The guards, on her instruction, rush out to find the two spies.

Back on the roof

Back with the spies, Rahab explains that word of God’s power displays among the Egyptians and Amorites travelled much faster than the Israelites did, so some plural “we” heard of them and “our hearts melted” (Josh. 2:11). It’s not indicated whether she’s referring exclusively to her own family, or more broadly to the residents of Jericho, or even to the residents of Palestine.

Rahab and the Emissaries of Joshua, 17th century

Rahab and the Emissaries of Joshua, 17th century

In any case, she makes them swear that they will spare her and her family in exchange for her having sent the guards away. Interestingly, her family members are listed as her father, her mother, her brothers, her sisters, and all their households. It would seem that she is unmarried and, perhaps also, living with her parents. At first, this made me wonder how old she is supposed to be. Then I wondered if this means that her parents are complicit/involved in her prostitution.

The spies agree to her terms, telling her to tie a red cord in her window and gather her whole family together in her house. Following her advice, they will hide in the hills for three days until the guards give up, and then head back to Joshua.

Conveniently, Rahab’s home has been built into Jericho’s wall, so she tosses a rope out the window and the spies are able to make their escape.

Final notes

The red cord that the spies tell Rahab to tie in her window may be a way to connect her to the last prostitute heroine we saw, Tamar:

Remember Tamar, the woman who pretended to be a prostitute with Judah back in Genesis? When her twins were born, a red cord was tied around the hand of one, Zerah. That cord provides a symbolic connection to the red cord Rahab dangles out her window. (Kenneth C. Davis, Don’t Know Much About the Bible, p.150)

I also saw a connection between the red cord in the window and the lamb’s blood the Israelites were to paint onto their door frames during the Passover.

With regards to prostitution, Brant Clements points out that we’ve seen no moral judgement on men who’ve bought the services of prostitutes:

It is interesting, at the least, to notice that Israelite men consort with prostitutes and no moral judgment is pronounced upon them in the text. When Judah slept with Tamar (Genesis 38) he was not judged for patronizing a sex worker, but for withholding his son Shelah from his widowed daughter-in-law.

Prostitution in general seems to get something of a pass as far as sexual morality goes. There’s the prohibition on Israelites (of any gender) becoming cultic prostitutes in Deut. 23:17-18, but that’s all I can think of. Meanwhile, in both narratives featuring actual prostitutes (or, at least, acting in such a capacity for a single client in Tamar’s case), the women are pictured as heroines and rewarded.

In other words, there seems to be no connection between prostitution and any sort of moral degeneracy. I didn’t expect to find this attitude at all, though I suppose I shouldn’t be as surprised as I have been. While a woman clearly isn’t allowed to lie about her virginity (as evidenced in Deut. 22:13-21), lack of virginity itself doesn’t seem to disqualify a woman from having positive reputation – as we see in discussions about remarriage after divorce, or the requirement that women marry their sexual partners (so long as the sexual encounter doesn’t meet Deuteronomy’s criteria for rape, as explained later in Deut. 22).

David Plotz wondered why so many of the women who get narrative time are prostitutes (or, at least, having sexual encounters outside of the marriage bed – a definition expanded to include Dinah from Genesis 34). He theorizes:

I have a rudimentary theory about this. In many tribal cultures, women have been essentially banished from the public sphere in order to control their virtue. We see this in strict Islamic cultures today, where women are punished for speaking to men besides their husbands and relatives. Throughout the Bible, the Israelites have been obsessed with controlling the sexual behavior of their girls and women—this is why there are so many darn laws about female purity, sexual misbehavior, and intermarriage. The Israelite women seem to have played no role in public life. Except for Moses’ sister Miriam (and, in passing, Noa and her sisters), there hasn’t been a single woman since the Exodus who’s had any kind of public responsibility. So, why do we read about prostitutes? Perhaps because prostitutes were the only women involved in the Israelites’ public life.

The last interesting facet of Rahab’s story is that she is rewarded for lying. I’ve frequently heard of the missionary tactic used by Ray Comfort where the missionee is asked “Have you ever told a lie?” If the answer is yes, the missionee is declared a bad person worthy of hell (and, therefore, in need of divine mercy, Christ’s sacrifice, and all the rest of the spiel).

This is certainly backed throughout our reading: Exodus 20:16, Exodus 23:1-7, Leviticus 6:2-4, Leviticus 19:11, and Deuteronomy 5:20. Nowhere is there any mention of mitigating factors. Nowhere is the “Anne Frank is hiding in your attic and the Nazis are at your door” thought-experiment invoked.

And yet when we see characters lie in the narrative, they are almost invariably on the Goodie side. Whether it’s Jacob tricking his brother out of his inheritance (Genesis 27), or the midwives lying to the authorities to save the Israelite babies (Exodus 1:18-20), or Rahab lying to save the Israelite spies.

This is precisely why, if we’re going to be talking about biblical morality, we cannot employ the “clobber-text” method. If we look only at the rules and not the narrative, we do not get to see the complete picture, because while the rules may be defined and, often, very stark, the narratives fill in the missing nuance.

In other words, Ray Comfort is wrong. Lying, alone, is not a sin condemned by God. Over and over again, God is pleased with lying, he even commands it (as in Exodus 12 where he gets the Israelites out of Egypt under a false pretext).

I really enjoyed Rahab’s narrative. It’s full of narrative details (the house built into the wall to facilitate the spies’ escape, the red thread, the hiding of the spies in the flax, etc.) the likes of which we haven’t seen since Genesis!

Joshua 1: The king is dead, long live the king!


In this chapter, we have Joshua’s official commissioning, where God tells Joshua that he is to be Moses’s successor. Three separate times in this speech, God instructs Joshua to be strong and courageous (Josh. 1:6, Josh. 1:7, and Josh. 1:9). It’s an interesting configuration, clearly important enough to the author that he felt the need to repeat it so many times. I have no theories about the strength portion of the formula, but the courage portion reminds me of Deut. 20:8 where faint-hearted soldiers are instructed to just stay home. Holy war, urges God/Moses, is only for the brave.

Joshua, by Marc Chagall, 1931

Joshua, by Marc Chagall, 1931

In his speech, God says: “Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you” (Josh. 1:5). Over and over again, it’s made clear that Joshua isn’t qualified for leadership because of any personal quality, but rather because he has been chosen by God. It’s tidbits like these that make me think that the people who wrote this book must have had political power – “It doesn’t matter if we’re unqualified for leadership,” the text argues. “We are your leaders and therefore have divine sanction on our side!”

I find it interesting that Joshua is, apparently, from the tribe of Ephraim (Num. 11:28 and Num. 13:8). He is not  from Judah, the secular leaders, nor from Levi, the ones we might expect to be those who commune with God. I feel like this has to have some sort of meaning, but I have no idea what.

God’s speech seems a little confused. In Josh. 1:5, he says that “no man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life.” Yet, a mere two verses later, he warns Joshua not to turn away from the law, “that you may have success wherever you go” (Josh. 1:7), implying that his blessing is in no way a promise – or at least not a promise without some mighty strings attached. And, of course, we’ll read later about one of Joshua’s attacks failing.

Finally, God says:

This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. (Josh. 1:8)

I’ve been mulling this verse over for a few days now, and the best interpretation I can come up with is that Joshua’s job is to follow the law (as representative and leader of the people), not to teach it. In other words, I think that this is a response to a church/state sort of debate, perhaps one in which the Levites were concerned about encroachment from the monarchy (like, say, a king *coughJoshiahcough* initiating fairly major cultic reforms).

Or, perhaps, it was Josiah’s own attempt to seal his reforms, warning future kings not to get into the pontification business and move the country away from the reforms he had intended for it.

The speech that launched a thousand ships

According to Collins, one of the traits of the Deuteronomistic History books is that “key points in this history are marked by speeches” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.94). In this chapter, we see the speech that marks the beginning of the conquest.

In it, Joshua tells his officers to make ready to cross the Jordan, which he has planned to do in three days’ time.

He also reminds Reuben, Gad, and the settled half of Manasseh that Moses commanded them (not God, just Moses – Josh. 1:13) to send their fighters along with the Israelite army until the very end of the conquest. Though, of course, their families can get to business settling.

Conquering Morality

The Israelites in this book are, unquestionably, presented as foreign conquerors. Yes, they had already lived in the vicinity for a few generations several hundred years ago, but the land was never theirs. Even if it had been, Jacob was not compelled to move his family into Egypt. He determined that conditions would be better for his family in Egypt, so he packed up and moved.

The idea that the Israelites might have claim to Palestine is hinged entirely on God’s say so – a deity who belongs to the Israelites and not, notably, to those currently occupying Palestine. In other words, the situation feels a bit like if I were to walk into my neighbour’s house and say “My cat told me that she wanted me living here, so it’s time for you to leave.” (And my cat’s name is Kali, so the cat/god distinction is even flimsier than it is ordinarily.)

It’s all very dubious.

But it becomes all the more dubiouserer when we see that God doesn’t just demand an occupation, but an actual genocide.

This is certainly one of those examples that makes me nervous when people talk about the value of “biblical morality.”

The whole discussion is further complicated by the archeological evidence, which seems to be telling us that there isn’t actually a distinction between Israelite and Canaanite. The two appear to have been a single culture, divided at some point by  a theological schism cemented in place by a narrative of separate provenance.

This becomes rather important when people defend the conquest by saying that it was as much a punishment of the Canaanites for their sins as it was a reward for the faith of the Israelites. As James McGrath puts it: “The practices that are so strongly condemned as “Canaanite” in the Bible were traditional Israelite ones, whoever else may also have had these traditions.”

Joshua: Introduction

Leave a comment

The book of Joshua is named after its central figure, Joshua son of Nun, successor to the secular aspects of Moses’ leadership. The book chronicles Joshua’s efforts to Canaan and distribute its land among the nine remaining landless tribes (as Levi has been set apart as landless, and Reuben and Gad have already been established on the eastern side of the Jordan river).

According to Collins, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel, and 1&2 Kings form the collection known as the Deuteronomistic History. With the exception of Deuteronomy, these books are also referred to as the Former Prophets (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.94).

In my study Bible, the book of Joshua is helpfully divided into the following parts:

  1. Crossing the Jordan River and sacking Jericho (chs. 1-6)
  2. The capture of Ai (chs. 7-8)
  3. Hebrews are tricked into an alliance of the Gibeonites (ch. 9)
  4. The conquest of the South (ch. 10)
  5. The complete destruction of Canaanite power in Palestine (ch. 11)
  6. A summary of Joshua’s triumphs (ch. 12)
  7. The land is divided among the tribes (chs. 13-23)
  8. Summary of Israel’s entry into the covenant with God (ch. 24)

What’s the deal with Joshua?

Leave a comment

So far, Joshua has been something of a secondary character. He does get mentioned, but the context is usually that he’s assisting someone, or shadowing some other character around.

The River Jordan, by JW McGarvey, 1894

The River Jordan, by JW McGarvey, 1894

Exodus 17: In our first encounter with Joshua, he is leading the battle against the Amalekites while Moses waves his arms in the air to cheer them on (his unwavering support giving Joshua’s forces the drive they needed to win the day). This story feels out of place in the narrative – What were the Amalekites doing there, anyway? Why is the defeat of the Amalekites not mentioned again – say, when the Hebrews actually get close to Amalekite territories? It feels like there was a tradition where Moses casts his weird hand-waving spell to win a battle and, when it was being added to the narrative, the editor/author added Joshua – known leader of armies – into the story.

Exodus 24: Joshua goes up the mountain with Moses, then mysteriously disappears. At the time, I wondered if there might be a separate strain of narratives about Joshua that included a bit where he gets to meet God on Mt. Sinai – with or without Moses – and that this portion of the story was grafted onto the tale of Moses receiving the commandments. Another possibility being that a pro-Joshua camp has been trying to lend him (or his descendants) extra legitimacy by setting him up as some sort of apprentice or trusted friend to Moses.

Exodus 32: Joshua is suddenly on the mountain with Moses again when they hear noises coming from below. In a cutesy bit of foreshadowing (perhaps a joke about how war-obsessed Joshua will later prove himself to be), Joshua assumes that it’s the sound of battle. Moses, more level-headed, recognizes the sound of partying and idol worship.

Exodus 33: Joshua is pitted against Aaron in two competing traditions. According to the Levites, the tent of meeting is located in the centre of the camp and it is tended by the priests. But in Exodus 33, the tent is located outside of camp and it’s tended by Joshua.

Numbers 11: When two elders suddenly start prophesying in the middle of camp, Joshua fears that they might be competition for Moses. He runs to warn Moses of the possible threat and is rebuked because the elders are legit. In this story, Joshua is set up as being a do-gooder, looking out for Moses. And while he is rebuked, he isn’t given leprosy or stricken with a plague as others are when they misinterpret something God has said or done. From this, I get the impression that Joshua was grafted in an existing story to show how loyal he is to Moses.

Numbers 13: Oshea, son of Nun Joshua, is listed among the spies sent into Canaan. While all the other spies are only mentioned once, his presence is highlighted a second time, emphasising him (and possibly indicating him as the leader of the spies, though this is unclear). The name is clearly similar to that of Joshua, son of Nun, but it still differs from every other instance that we’ve seen so far. When the spies give their “evil report,” only Caleb is mentioned opposing them. From the context, it seems that Oshea is going along with what the others are saying.

Numbers 14: In our most recent sighting, Joshua is quite clearly shown as part of Moses’ inner circle, and he is aligned with Caleb among the spies. Though we are never told that Joshua had sided with Caleb in Numbers 13, the two of them are the only spies spared of the original 12.

If I had to venture a guess, it would be that the Oshea in Numbers 13 is part of one tradition and may or may not refer to the Joshua we meet just a chapter later,  though that Joshua has clearly assumed Oshea’s role as the story progresses.

But in all of these examples, Joshua feels unnatural, as though he’s been stitched into the narrative. The purpose seems propagandish – he is clearly being set up as a successor to Moses, and therefore shown assisting him and displaying his loyalty. Does anyone else have thoughts about the possible reasons for pasting Joshua into these stories? Or want to tell me that I’m reading into it too much?

Newer Entries