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.”