Joshua 22: Premature copying

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Satisfied with the conquest and ready to retire, Joshua calls up Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh. He thanks them for sticking around as they had promised to Moses back in Numbers 32 and, with that, sends them home.

It doesn’t take long before there’s trouble, however. Once they get home, the three Transjordan tribes build themselves a nice big altar.

Given the focus of the Deuteronomistic Histories on the centralization of worship, this is obviously a rather big mistake. Or, at least, it seems so. When the rest of the Israelites hear about it, they quickly muster at Shiloh, ready to get back to the holy war-making that had only too recently ended.

JoshuaPhinehas goes on ahead, accompanied by ten chiefs (one from each of the remaining tribes). You may remember Phinehas, by the way, from Numbers 25 where he murdered two lovers for being of different ethnicities. By doing so, he stopped a plague that God had sent to the people and was rewarded with a perpetual priesthood for himself and his descendants. Lovely stuff.

So here he is again, rushing to defend the faith. Only this time, it seems that he’s angered too quickly. The Transjordan tribes defend their altar, saying that it isn’t real, it’s just a replica. They had no intention of ever using it to make sacrifices (knowing that this is only to be done at the tabernacle). Rather, they made it as a “witness.” They were concerned, they explain, that “in time to come your children might say to our children, ‘what have you to do with the Lord, the God of Israel? For the Lord has made the Jordan as a boundary between us and you'” (Deut. 22:24-25).

It’s hard to imagine how building a second altar, explicitly breaking God’s law (even if they never planned to actually use it), would serve this purpose. It’s more likely, I think, that the story is used as justification for the continued existence of an altar that the author grew up near and has fond childhood memories of.

It’s also strange, given the context of a time when God is explicitly speaking to the people, that they would fear that the other tribe might (falsely) read God’s purpose in geographical design. It makes me think of all the instances of people doing precisely this today, like a hateful old man claiming that Haiti’s earthquake was divine punishment, or the idea that pain in childbirth must be a consequence of sin.

The Transjordan tribes’ concern is even stranger because Deuteronomy has, so far, been pretty easy-going as far as who can participate in worship. As long as your testicles are uncrushed, foreigners generally seem to be accepted within the congregation. We see this, for example, in Deut. 23:7-8.

Either way, the inclusion of Phinehas here has me scratching my head a little. In Numbers 25, his jumping in to defend the purity of the faith was seen as an unambiguous good. Here, however, that very same attitude gets him into trouble (sort of – he’s never punished or anything, but it’s clear that he was wrong and it’s implied that he goes home rebuked). I wonder if the author(s) of this passage used him on purpose as a jab at the hard-lining ethics of Numbers. It’s not an open criticism, obviously, since Phinehas isn’t punished or explicitly scolded, but it does feel implied.

Regardless, the explanation is accepted and the Israelites go home satisfied.

There are a few remaining details that I thought I’d mention:

When asking the Transjordan tribes why they have built their altar, Phinehas&co ask them to consider what happened when Achan disobeyed God in Joshua 7. In that chapter, he is referred to as Achan son of Carmi in Josh. 7:1, and then Achan son of Zerah in Josh. 7:24. Here, he is listed once again as Achan son of Zerah (Josh. 22:20).

When Phinehas&co meet with the Transjordan tribes, they do actually talk first rather than just rushing in with their spears. (Good thing, too.) Rather than just kill the tribes for their perceived heresy, they first offer a compromise: “If your land is unclean, pass over into the Lord’s land where the Lord’s tabernale stands, and take for yourselves a possession among us” (Josh. 22:19). It’s an interesting concept – that the land itself might be corruptive (and not, say, the locals, since Phinehas has amply demonstrated what he does to people who allow themselves to be corrupted by locals).

In the King James Version, Josh. 22:22 refers to God as “God of gods.” In my RSV, the line goes: “The Mighty One, God, the Lord!” Does anyone know enough Hebrew to comment on what the original text says?

Lastly, I think that David Plotz made a very interesting point about how portable this passage makes the worship of God:

This is a very important moment for Judaism, and perhaps for all religions. It marks the end of Judaism as a faith bounded by place. From now on, it can go anywhere. […] The moment when a religion creates its first copy is, in some sense, when it starts being a religion. Until now, God has literally been with all the Israelites. He travels with them in the tabernacle, and they are together inside the holy ground of the camp. Now that the tribes are scattering across Israel, they face the problem of how to keep God with them everywhere. On the west side of the Jordan, they will abide near the tabernacle and hold on to  their direct connection to God. But the trans-Jordan tribes needed to create a substitute for that tabernacle (just as all Jews had to create a substitute after the Temple was destroyed 2,000 years ago). So, the altar by the riverside marks the birth of Judaism as a worldwide religion: From now on, the Israelites can travel and stay away from the tabernacle, because they can create a copy. They can take God wherever they go. And so can we.

If we assume an authorship date around the time of King Josiah, we do have some scattering of the Israelites and the Babylonian Exile itself less than half a century later. It seems that this passage shows a softening of the “centralized worship” stance, perhaps an understanding of what distant Israelites felt they needed to do in order to stay connected to their shared god.

It’s nice. I like it.

Joshua 7-8: Ai, Ai, Ai!

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Joshua is officially the worst at picking spies. If you ever need to choose someone to spy for you, ask Joshua for his advice and then do the exact opposite. Seriously, this guy has not made a single solid decision since he took over leadership. (Perhaps this is all to reinforce that he really, really, really is the leader because of divine mandate and not because of any personal qualities – because look! Look at how inept he is!)

So Joshua picks a couple of spies to go check out Ai. When they return, they go on and on about how puny and weak Ai is, and swear that only 2,000-3,000 soldiers are needed. When Joshua has doubts, they convince him to send few men because it’s just such a burden to trudge a whole army (plus accompanying families and cattle) all the way up to Ai for a larger assault. Playing it safe within the anchoring the spies have set, Joshua sends a full 3,000 soldiers up to take Ai. Just to reinforce the confidence he has in this mission, he sends them off without any battle plan to speak of beyond “just smash yourselves against the city gates until they give up.”

Predictably, the attack fails and 36 Israelite soldiers are wounded.

But wait! This wasn’t because Joshua and his spies totally underestimated their enemy! This wasn’t because they launched an attack with far too few soldiers! And it certainly had nothing to do with the lack of a battle plan! Obviously, it must be because one among them had sinned, and that person’s sin caused God to turn away from the whole nation.

Thus begins an incredibly creepy chapter in which they essentially draw lots to work through which tribe contains the sinner (Judah), which family (the Zerahites), which household (Zabdi’s household), and, lastly, which individual (Achan). It turns out that Achan had kept some booty (a few shekels, a bar of gold, and a mantle) from Jericho, which had been expressly forbidden. To purge his sin from the Israelite nation, Achan, his children, his cattle and flocks, and all his possessions are taken to the Valley of Achor. There, they are stoned, burned, and then stoned again for good measure. This is how the valley got its name – Achor means “trouble.”

If any of that doesn’t sound like human sacrifice then you might not be paying attention.

If the story sounds familiar, there may be a reason. As David Plotz points out:

The rest of the chapter unfolds like Shirley Jackson’s famous short story “The Lottery.” (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that “The Lottery” is intentionally modeled on Chapter 7.) Slowly, with an ominous, telescoping rhythm, Joshua seeks the offender.

The whole story is rather strange coming so soon after Deut. 24:16, which is quite clear that “parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents.” It feels like an older story, something from the Exod. 20:5 tradition, that snuck by while our scribe was working a late night.

Of this, Collins says:

The story is presumably older than Deuteronomic law. According to Exod 20:5, the Lord punishes children for the iniquity of their parents even to the third and fourth generation, and this was the traditional idea in Israel, roughly down to the time of the Deuteronomic reform of the Babylonian exile. The doctrine of individual responsibility is an innovation in Deuteronomy 24. It is most strongly articulated in Ezekiel 18. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.102)

There’s some confusion about Achan’s parentage. In Josh. 7:1 and Josh. 7:18, he is Achan son of Carmi. In Josh. 7:24, he is Achan son of Zerah.

The Second Attempt

Achan may be dead, but Joshua is still playing it safe the second time around. Rather than the 3,000 soldiers he sent the first time, he’s now sending a full 30,000 soldiers (to fight a town that only has 12,000 inhabitants, according to Josh. 8:25).

Illustration from the Morgan Bible of the Israelites being repulsed from Ai

Illustration from the Morgan Bible of the Israelites being repulsed from Ai

He’s also going in with a plan. He hides 30,000 men behind the city, ready for an ambush. How one hides such an army is something of a mystery, but let’s just assume that they had cardboard painted “trees” they could each hide behind, and that some lookout from Ai wondered how that forest grew overnight and, hey, did that tree just sneeze?

Meanwhile, Joshua sent 5,000 soldiers to assault the gates as he had in the first, failed attempt. The citizens of Ai, probably thanking their gods for sending them such easy pickings, head off in pursuit. While they chase the decoy army around, the real army marches in through the back door.

Joshua stretches out his javelin, reminiscent of Moses needing to keep his hands raised while Joshua fights the Amalekites in Exodus 17. He keeps his javelin in the air until the battle is over. Unlike Moses’s trick, however, Joshua’s has the plausible effect of signalling to the ambushers that it’s time to attack.

The soldiers of Ai realize their mistake when they turn around to see their city burning and belching out 30,000 Israelite soldiers to catch them in an inescapable pincer attack.

It’s all rather mid-2000s historical epic.

Strangely, Bethel sneaks into the narrative once, when the soldiers of Ai rush out in pursuit of the faux-routing army: “There was not a man left in Ai or Bethel, who did not go out after Israel” (Josh. 8:17). Bethel is not mentioned again, and there’s no reason given for their soldiers to have joined in.

According to my study Bible: “Many scholars hold that this story is not really an account of the battle for Ai, but for Bethel, since otherwise the book of Joshua contains no account of the capture of this important site” (p.270).

If that’s true and, perhaps, two separate stories were stitched together, it may be that a confused scribe included Bethel’s army in this one passage because his sources said that Bethel was somehow involved, while making the editorial choice of putting the spotlight on Ai.

As for why the shift to Ai may have happened in the first place, it seems that the story may be an attempt to explain a ruin:

Ai has also proven to be a puzzle. Excavations conducted at this site by Joseph Callaway between 1965 and 1975 demonstrated that the mound was unoccupied from 2400 to 1200 B.C. It is possible that it was used as a military outpost by the nearby city of Bethel, which does show evidence of destruction in the thirteenth century, but there was no settlement at Ai such as that described in Joshua. Its name, which means “the ruin,” may have led the Israelites to attach it to Joshua’s list of conquests. (Victor Matthews, Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.47)

Finishing up, the king of Ai is hanged from a tree until evening, then his body is buried under a heap of stones set at the entrance to the city, a memorial that “stands there to this day” (Josh. 8:29).

The Altar

In the middle of all this action, we get a sudden veer left into cultic territory, when Joshua decides to fulfil some stuff that Moses had commanded in Deuteronomy 27.

He builds an altar on Mount Ebal, makes a burnt offering and a peace offering, the writes the law of Moses on the altar stones. That done, the people are divided into two groups – one half to stand before Mount Ebal and the other half to stand before Mount Gerizim. Once they are positioned, Joshua reads out the words of the law, including the blessings and the curses, for all the Israelites and whatever sojourners have decided to follow them can hear (rather odd phrasing given that the Israelites are, themselves, still sojourners).

Of this passage, my study Bible says: “Since this section interrupts the narrative of the conquest (note how naturally 8.29 connects with 9.3), it is probably not original here” (p.273).

As Abbie from Better Than Esdras points out:

You may notice that Josh is a bit behind schedule- God said to do it “on that day you cross the Jordan” but they’ve razed two cities before getting around to this. One possibility is that this is a bad editing job: this story should have been placed earlier in the text. (Another possibility is that I’m simply interpreting “on that day” too literally. Must get around to learning Hebrew!)

While I still have the URL in my pasting clipboard, definitely read Abbie’s post about this episode. She goes into quite a bit of detail comparing the text from Deuteronomy 27 and the passage here in Joshua 8, and it’s all very interesting.