Joshua 11-12: The king(s) in the north

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Having heard of, but not learned from, the Israelite conquests in the south, Jabin king of Hazor decides to form a new defensive pact with Jobab king of Madon and the unnamed kings of Shimron, Achshaph, the northern hill country, the Arabah south of Chinneroth, the lowlands, and Naphothdor. Altogether, he calls in Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, and Hivites, and they all encamp “at the waters of Merom, to fight with Israel” (Josh. 11:5).

God gives Joshua a quick pep talk, reminding him not to be afraid, oh and also to make sure that he hamstrings all the enemies’ horses and burns their chariots. Joshua and his army barely have to lift a finger until after the battle is over because God rushes ahead and smites all their enemies, scattering whatever survivors remain. Then Joshua and his men spring into action, hamstringing all the horses (seriously?) and burning all the chariots.

These seem like strange details to add, especially given how many times they are repeated. I still don’t understand why the horses needed to be hamstrung rather than, say, simply killed, but Victor Matthews provides some possible explanation for the burning of the chariots:

Israelites also used bronze weapons, but their lack of metallurgical knowledge, and the Philistine monopoly over the tin trade, probably forced many of their soldiers to use slings and farm implements to defend themselves. Some iron weapons were undoubtedly captured during raids by Israelite forces, but without the knowledge of metallurgy to repair and fabricate new weapons out of scrap metal, they would have become useless eventually. This may explain why the forces under Joshua chose to burn the chariots of the northern coalition of Canaanite kings rather than use them themselves (Josh 11:9). The Israelites could not repair the chariots, and they did not want to leave them behind for Canaanites to use against them in the future. Also, the chariots would have been of little use to Israelite bands operating out of the rugged hill country. (Manners & Customs in the Bible, p.59-60)

On to Hazor

Having removed the feet of the king of Hazor (get it? defeated? de-feeted? Oh, I slay me!), Joshua turns his sword toward the city itself – killing all its inhabitants and burning it down to the ground.

On Hazor, my study Bible indicates that it “was one of the largest cities of Galilee. Excavations have impressively demonstrated its importance in antiquity and confirmed the fact that it was captured at about the time indicated in this narrative” (p.277).

On the subject, Collins writes:

Similar results were obtained at Jericho and Ai, the two showpieces of the conquest in Joshua. Neither was a walled city in the Late Bronze period. Of nearly twenty [page break] identifiable sites that were captured in the biblical account, only two, Hazor and Bethel, have yielded archaeological evidence of destruction at the appropriate period. Ironically, Hazor is said to be still in Canaanite hands in Judges 4-5. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.96-98)

With Hazor out of the way, they move on to a bunch of other cities. These, however, they do not burn  to the ground. Rather, they kill all the people but keep the stuff for themselves. As if to fudge over that this is a clear violation of the rules governing holy war laid out in Deut. 20, the narrator tells us that in doing this, Joshua “left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses” (Josh. 11:15).

Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites, by Nicolas Poussin, c.1625

Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites, by Nicolas Poussin, c.1625

I also noticed that the narrative construction seems to flip-flop between this God>Moses>Joshua chain and the Moses>Joshua chain that we get, for example, in Josh. 11:12 (“[…] as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded”).

We are told that God “hardened” the hearts of the enemies so that they should seek to fight rather than make peace as Gibeon did, but I have to wonder, whose hearts did he harden, really? According to God’s instructions to the Israelites, they are forbidden from making peace, and have done so only when tricked into it. The consistency of the natives’ hearts seems somewhat irrelevant, given that God has already commanded that they all be slaughtered.

As a final note, we are told that Joshua also managed to kill most of the Anakim (except those in Gaza, Gath, and Ashdod), fulfilling the promise made in Deut. 9:3. If you’ll remember, the Anakim were first met by the Israelite scouting party way back in Numbers 13.

That done, Joshua was finished “and the land had rest from war” (Josh. 11:23). With that, I am given to understand that the narrative portion of Joshua is essentially over. Booo!

Summaries

According to Collins, the Deuteronomistic Histories favour certain narrative devices, such as speeches and narrative summaries (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.94-95). We’ve seen this, of course, in Deuteronomy. Most notably, all of Deut. 1-3 is a recap of Moses’s story.

The summary begins with Moses’s exploits on the eastern side of the Jordan, describing his defeating of King Sihon of Heshbon and King Og of Bashan, because we cannot ever be allowed to forget that Moses beat these two guys. Like, ever. These lands, we are told once again, were given over to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and half the tribe of Manasseh.

The rest of the chapter covers Joshua’s exploits, who are helpfully listed:

  1. The king of Jericho
  2. The king of Ai (which we are told once more is next to Bethel)
  3. The king of Jerusalem
  4. The king of Hebron
  5. The king of Jarmuth
  6. The king of Lachish
  7. The king of Eglon
  8. The king of Gezer
  9. The king of Debir
  10. The king of Geder
  11. The king of Hormah
  12. The king of Arad
  13. The king of Libnah
  14. The king of Adullam
  15. The king of Makkedah
  16. The king of Bethel
  17. The king of Tappuah
  18. The king of Hepher
  19. The king of Aphek
  20. The king of Lasharon
  21. The king of Madon
  22. The king of Hazor
  23. The king of Shimron-meron
  24. The king of Achshaph
  25. The king of Taanach
  26. The king of Megiddo
  27. The king of Kedesh
  28. The king of Jokneam in Carmel
  29. The king of Dor in Naphath-dor
  30. The king of Goiim in Galilee (which my study Bible tells me is Gilgal’s Greek name)
  31. The king of Tirzah

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.

Joshua 6: The walls of Jericho come tumbling down

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God decides to ease the Israelites into this war business, so he gives them a fairly easy first assignment; they are to take Jericho, but they won’t have to fight for it! Rather, God will do the bulk of the work (barring some magical ritual).

So, if you ever find yourself trying to siege a city, here’s your recipe for success:

  1. Carry the ark, accompanied by seven priests each blowing ram’s horn trumpets, around the perimeter of the city accompanied by all your soldiers each day for six days straight.
  2. On the seventh day, have them all walk around the perimeter of the city seven times (hopefully your city is small enough for this to be feasible).
  3. At the conclusion of the seventh trip on the seventh day, have the priests blast their horn trumpets, which is a signal for all your people to let out a loud shout.
  4. ???
  5. Profit!

(Presumably, war is exempt from sabbath requirements.)

The Fall  of Jericho, by Jean Fouquet, c.1470-1475

The Fall of Jericho, by Jean Fouquet, c.1470-1475

Joshua adds to these rules that the people are to be completely silent through all of this until the moment of the great shouting on the seventh day. There’s no word if this is to apply to the babies and small children who are following the army along until they have a place to settle.

When the time finally comes and the priests begin blasting their trumpets, Joshua yells to the people to “SHOUT!!!” And then immediately launches into a rather lengthy lecture that includes additional instructions. Perhaps he was a little pre-emptive in ordering the week-long silence and really needed this moment to give these additional instructions. Still, it seems rather poorly timed. I can imagine that the priests were quite out of sorts trying to maintain their trumpet blasts long enough for him to finish.

In any case, his instructions are a repeat of what we got in Deuteronomy 20 – namely, that everyone must die, the city be razed, and all the stuff burned. The only addition is to say that the really nice stuff should be spared and given to God, c/o the priests (Josh. 6:19, Josh. 6:24). I’m sure that got no eye rolls from the people….

The second miracle of this chapter is that they manage to find Rahab and her family alive, despite the fact that their home was built into Jericho’s wall (Josh. 2:15), which all too recently came a-tumbling down. Rahab and her Rahabites are given permission to live among the Israelites.

Closing off the chapter, Joshua curses whatever future person rebuilds Jericho, saying that it will cost him his first-born to lay the foundation and his youngest son to set up the gates. According to Brant Clements, this curse will be revisited when we get to 1 Kings, so we have that to look forward to! He also wonders if it refers to an act of child sacrifice.

Historical Jericho

The image of Jericho as a city large enough for city walls seems to be anachronistic. Take it away, Kenneth C. Davis:

Recent archaeology has tempered the biblical account of the Conquest. In the thirteenth century BCE, the likely date of the entry of the Israelites into Canaan, Jericho was an unfortified village. In other words, the familiar account was most likely embroidered upon in later telling. The Jordan River valley in which Jericho lies sites on a major rift, or geological fault zone. One explanation for the river stopping and the walls tumbling is that both events were earthquake-induced. However, there is no archaeological evidence of those tumbled walls at Jericho. (Don’t Know Much About the Bible, p.151)

As far as the fault-line stuff, here’s a map to illustrate:

Joshua 6 - Earthquake Zones

It could be that a story of Jericho’s walls crumbling suddenly (due to an earthquake) was later woven into a conquest story.

As far as the “crush, kill, destroy” portion of the conquest, where Joshua commands his soldiers to slaughter everyone in town and burn all their possessions, Collins explains that this is not a command unique to Hebrew scripture/culture:

The custom was known outside Israel. King Mesha of Moab, in the ninth century B.C.E., boasted that he took Nebo from Israel, “slaying all, seven thousand men, boys, women, girls and maidservants, for I had devoted them to destruction for (the god) Ashtar-Chemosh” […] The story of the capture of Jericho is almost certainly fictitious, but this only makes the problem more acute. We are not dealing in Joshua with a factual report of the ways of ancient warfare. Rather, the slaughter of the Canaanites, here and elsewhere, is presented as a theologically correct ideal. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.101)

Joshua 5: Is it worse the second time around?

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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

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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

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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!

Deuteronomy 34: The Secret Burial

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After reminding all the people of the laws and blessing them, Moses finally goes up to Mount Nebo – and, somehow, also to the top of Pisgah – to look on the Promised Land and die.

Moses's Testament and Death (detail), by Luca Signorelli, 1482

Moses’s Testament and Death (detail), by Luca Signorelli, 1482

If Moses’s simultaneous duo-location doesn’t seem to make sense,my study Bible explains: “Two traditions about the place of Moses’ death are included here: Mount Nebo is in Transjordan east of Jericho; Mount Pisgah is a peak in the same range, slightly west” (p.262).

So while the giant Moses was standing with one foot on each peak, he looked out on the Promised Land. He saw all the different tribal lands, and even as far as the “Western Sea” (which I assume must be the Mediterranean).

After he sees the whole of the Promised Land (no word on his reaction to the sight, which is a real missed narrative opportunity), Moses dies and God gives him a secret burial somewhere in Moab, opposite Bethpeor (Deut. 34:6).

The text specifically tells us that “no man knows the place of his burial to this day” (Deut. 34:6). The possibilities are, of course, that a burial site was known but was lost, that God really did bury Moses personally, or that there was no Moses to begin with. Assuming the second possibility for the sake of narrative, I’d like to think it had to do with the possibility of idolatry.

We are told that Moses was 120 years old when he died, and that he was in perfect health (Deut. 34:7). In Deut. 32:1, Moses said that he is “no longer able to go out and come in,” which could be a reference to the limitations of his health and therefore a contradiction.

The people mourned Moses’s passing for 30 days, then turned to Joshua as their new leader. Prior to this, with Moses as the king-like secular leader and his brother/nephew as the high priest and religious leader, power was concentrated in Levite hands (though Moses’s membership in the tribe of Levi is never emphasized, and it would be easy enough to see him as some kind of Divergent).

Now that the secular leadership has passed to Joshua – who is apparently from Ephraim (Num. 13:8) – the power structure evens out just a little.

Deuteronomy 32: God’s chart topper

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At the end of the last chapter, Moses gathered together all the elders and officers of Israel to teach them God’s new song. This, finally, is that song.

It begins in the usual way: With a description of how awesome and totally cool God is, but everything goes wrong and it’s always someone else’s fault. The people didn’t respect him enough, so “they are no longer his children because of their blemish” (Deut. 32:5). While the sentiment is reversed within a couple lines, where Moses rhetorically asks: “Is he not your father, who created you, who made you and established you?” (Deut. 32:6) – which is it’s own little parental mindfuck – I find it rather horrifying that God would go there. I mean, a god turning away from a people who aren’t worshipping him properly is all well and good, but if he’s to use the parental imagery, he loses the right to keep pulling this “I turn away from you, you are no longer my children” stuff.

Moses and the Promised Land, by Joni Ware, 2009

Moses and the Promised Land, by Joni Ware, 2009

In his description of how God created the people, Moses sings about the sons of men, and how God “fixed the bounds of the peoples according tot he number of the sons of God” (Deut. 32:8). According to my study Bible, this line is supposed to mean that God allows other members of the heavenly court to govern the other nations, while God sees to Israel personally. Given that other parts of this very song come off very monotheistic, I really wish we had a more explicit cosmology to look at.

Moses then goes on to talk about how God took care of Jacob, making him “suck honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock” (Deut. 32:13) – a miracle, obviously, but also some very maternal imagery. Given that God is later conflated with a Rock (my study Bible capitalizes the word), it certainly makes it seem like God is playing the part of a Mother Goddess figure, nursing Jacob at the breast of the land. All of this is doubly interesting because I can’t recall anything in Genesis that would give an indication of this sort of relationship – except that it is Jacob’s descendent who are the tribal founders, making Jacob the founder of the whole nation.

Moses then goes on to talk about a Jeshurun, which from the context appears to be a anthropomorphism of Israel, who grows fat and complacent, eventually forsaking God. Ironically, Jeshurun apparently means “the Upright One,” according to my study Bible.

Then, he “stirred him [God] to jealousy with strange gods” (Deut. 32:16). I find all the references to God’s jealousy quite interesting. I have a friend in a poly relationship who once explained to me that jealousy comes from a lack of self-confidence, from feeling insecure in your position in a relationship. In other words, if you feel (consciously or subconsciously) that you are not worthy enough for your partner, you react with jealousy when you see your partner in a situation where they might encounter someone better. So take of that what you will.

With Jeshurun being such a meanie, God decides that he will provoke him back by sending a “foolish nation” (Deut. 32:21) after the Israelites, to heap evils on them and kill them – even “the suckling child” (Deut. 32:25). So there’s that mercy and ‘slow to anger’ stuff he’s been talking about. In fact, it seems that the only thing preventing him from destroying the people entirely is that the nations he sends in to do his dirty work might come to think that they achieved their victories for themselves, rather than crediting God with being so totally awesome.

God will also rub it all in a bit. When the people have been conquered, he will ask them Where are your gods now? “Let them rise up and help you, let them be your protection!” (Deut. 32:38).

Then God goes on for a bit about what a gross, vindictive jerk he is.

Go up the mountain

With the song finished, God sends Moses up to Abarim, Mount Nebo, to look down on the Promised Land. Once there, he will die, as Aaron died, because they “broke faith with me [God] at the waters of Meribath-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin; because you did not revere me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel” (Deut. 32:51).

Meribath-kadesh seems to be yet another name for Massah and Meribah from the stories we saw in Exodus 17 and Numbers 20.

Numbers 36: More inheritance issues

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Back in Numbers 27, we found out about Zelophehad – a man who had died leaving several daughters but no sons. At the time, his daughters petitioned Moses for the right to inherit their father’s hypothetical land. Moses – and God – agreed that they should, and revised the inheritance rules accordingly.

Numbers 36Unfortunately, they forgot what we extrapolated from Numbers 30 – that women, as subject to their fathers/husbands, are not citizens. So while they may be granted stewardship of a man’s land if he is deceased, they can never truly own anything. That’s the crux of this chapter.

Zelophehad’s peers – the heads of the Gileadite families – come forward to petition Moses. Since women may only have stewardship of land without access to the tribal affiliations that go with it, Zelophehad’s land will pass on to whomever they marry. If they marry outside of their tribe, those lands will be lost to Gilead forever.

God, having apparently not thought of this earlier, agrees with them, and he determines that an inheriting woman must marry “within the family of the tribe of their father” (v.6). That’s all well and good if the women happen not to have married yet, but there’s no clarification if they are.

  • Would a married woman be excluded from the inheritance?
  • Would she have to get a divorce?
  • Would she only have the lands for as long as she lives, and they must pass on to her cousin’s sons upon her death?
  • Does she only get to keep her inheritance until the next Jubilee and then it passes to the families of her father’s brothers?

There’s no mention that this might even have been a consideration because, luckily (or not?) for Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah, they seem to all be available for marriage to their cousins and the question is averted.

Inherited weirdness

I’m quite interested in inheritance laws. I grew up in Switzerland, where the lack of arable land makes a gavelkind sort of inheritance system very problematic. If more than one son inherits the family farm, individual plots would, very quickly, become far too small to support the families they belong to. Because of this, Swiss men who didn’t have the fortune of being first sons were often left up to their own devices – giving rise to the reputation of the Swiss as mercenaries.

This would conceivably be an issue anywhere, given enough time, but the lack of farming land in Switzerland makes it a particularly pressing concern.

I’m curious as to what would have been the practice in ancient Israel. On the one hand, all of Zelophehad’s daughters are named as inheritors, so it does seem as though something like gavelkind is in use. On the other hand, the Jacob and Esau narrative in Genesis 25 and Genesis 27 points to a focus on primogeniture (albeit with the possibility of being revoked or altered).

We also have many stories of brothers splitting off and each founding their own tribe (as Jacob’s sons did) or nationalities (as Noah’s sons did). This seems to suggest a more informal system of inheritance that deals with overcrowding by groups splitting off and finding their own space to settle – something that seems impossible given the rules of the Jubilee (where all property must revert back to the families of the original owner).

I looked up the question and found the following answer from a page on the University of Manitoba’s anthropology department website:

The inheritance of land and other property was channeled along patrilineal lines. Primogeniture, or succession by the eldest son, seems to have been the preferred rule as this institution is explicitly promulgated in one passage ( Deuteronomy 21:15-17), and is implicitly assumed in many accounts of individual cases. However, biblical acknowledgement of primogeniture usually occurs in contexts where the rule is broken as in the life histories of important religious and political figures, including Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and David.

We may interpret these curious accounts in two different ways.

  1. They indicate that the rule had a limited application, perhaps only to intestacy, and could be overridden by gift or will.
  2. Or more plausibly, they attribute special statuses and powers to key characters by portraying them as breaking the rules to which exceptions were not normally allowed.

[…]

The treatment of inheritance through a daughter also provides evidence that marriage may have involved the adoption of a woman into her husband’s lineage and the discontinuation of rights in her natal group. Such an arrangement is indicated in other biblical passages as in the marriages of Eve and Ruth. It is also documented for a number of patrilineal systems including ancient Rome and contemporary Chinese and Arabic societies. An alternative pattern, in which women retain natal identities after marriage, is apparent in many West African patrilineal systems.

Numbers 34: Redistribution of wealth

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It’s not even theirs yet, but the Israelites have decided that it’s already time to start planning how they will divvy up the loot. There’s a relevant saying, something about chickens hatching.

They begin by setting out the boundaries of the ideal Israelite country:

  1. The southern side should include some of the wilderness of Zin, along the border of Edom. The boundary will start in the east from the southern tip of the Salt Sea (which some translations give as the Dead Sea), then south of Akrabbim, cross the wilderness of Zin, and south of Kadeshbarnea. From there, it should go on to Hazaraddar, and then on from Azmon to the Brook of Egypt (which may be the Nile, or something else, who knows?), ending at the Mediterranean.
  2. The western boundary should be the coast of the Mediterranean.
  3. The northern side should run from the Mediterranean to Mount Hor (which is confusing because the Mount Hor we’ve been reading about is to the south of Canaan. Apparently, there are two of them?). From there, the boundary goes out to the entrance of Hamath, ending at Zedad. It then goes to Ziphron, ending at Hazarenan.
  4. The eastern boundary should run from Hazarenan to Shepham, then down to Riblah (on the east side of Ain), and then along the slopes east of the Sea of Chinnereth (which some translations give as the Sea of Galilea). Then hit should head down along the Jordan and end at the Salt/Dead Sea.

According to my Study Bible, the northern border wasn’t actually reached until the time of David – citing 2 Sam. 8:3-14 and 1 Kg. 8:65 (p.210). If true, that leaves us with two options: Either the boundaries presented here are an accidental anachronism written by someone living after the time of David, or the boundaries were written in/modified to legitimize Israelite claims to those lands.

Gad, Reuben, and half of Manasseh have all gotten their spots already, so they don’t have to be part of this process. The Levites are also excluded because, as with the census, they get their own chapter. For the rest, God selects a leader for each tribe to handle the assigning of lands:

  • Judah: Caleb, son of Jephunneh
  • Simeon: Shemuel, son of Ammihud
  • Benjamin: Elidad, son of Kislon
  • Dan: Bukki, son of Jogli
  • Joseph, Manasseh: Hanniel, son of Ephod
  • Joseph, Ephraim: Kemuel, son of Shiphtan
  • Zebulun: Elizaphan, son of Parnak
  • Issachar: Paltiel, son of Azzan
  • Asher: Ahihud, son of Shelomi
  • Naphtali: Pedahel, son of Ammihud

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