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.

Genesis 14: The Rescue of Lot

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In this chapter, we get the first of the Old Testament’s many wars. It reads like a list of names (which it is), so it manages to be both terribly confusing and terribly boring. I had to read it over a couple names before I could make any sense of what was going on.

The Battle

The attackers:

  • Amraphel, king of Shinar
  • Arioch, king of Ellasar
  • Chedorlaomer, king of Elam
  • Tidal, king of Goi’im (the King James Version identifies him instead as the “king of nations”)

The attackees:

  • Bera, king of Sodom
  • Birsha, king of Gomorrah
  • Shinab, king of Admah
  • Shemeber, king of Zeboi’im
  • The king of Bela (also called Zoar)

For twelve years, the attackees served Chedorlaomer, but they rebelled in the thirteenth year. I would have assumed that this refers to some sort of tribute paying arrangement, and that the rebel cities banded together and refused to pay. My study bible, however, says that “the object of the invasion may have been to secure the trade routes to Egypt and southern Arabia.” A Christian source I found online says that it has to do with the people of Sodom being the descendants of Canaan, and therefore condemned to slavery. The rebellion therefore has to do with them attempting “to shake of the yoke.”

Another year passes, and then Chedorlaomer and his allies “came and subdued” (Gen. 14:5) the Rephaim in Ashteroth Karnaim, the Zuzim in Ham, the Emim (or Emin, as they are called in the KJV) in Shaveh Kiriathaim, and the Horites in Mount Seir. Once they were done with this subduing, they turned around and “came to Enmishpat (that is, Kadesh)” (Gen. 14:7) and set to work subduing the Amalekites and the Amorites.

This is when our rebel kings head out to fight Chedorlaomer and his allies. They meet in the Valley of Siddim and promptly lose. The kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, so the enemy took their stuff. They also captured Lot, “and his goods” (Gen. 14:12). It’s important that we keep track of Lot’s goods, apparently.

Rescuing Lot

Someone escapes from the battlefield and tells Abram about Lot’s capture. Abram gets his allies, Mamre the Amorite and his brothers, Eshcol and Aner. We’re told that Abram only had 318 men, which is very small for an army. This would make their win very impressive, except that it doesn’t say how many men Abram’s allies had.

“Then he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his kinsman Lot” (Gen. 14:16). Rescue the goods first, then your kinsmen. Awesome.

Priest of God Most High

Melchizedek and Abram by Caspar Luiken 1712

Melchizedek and Abram by Caspar Luiken 1712

When Abram returns with his spoils of war, he’s met by the king of Sodom and Melchizedek, king of Salem (or Jerusalem) and priest of God Most High. Melchizedek serves bread and wine, and then blesses Abram. As a reward, Abram gives him “a tenth of everything” (Gen. 14:20). What’s “everything,” exactly? The stuff that had been plundered by the invaders? Is that really Abram’s to give away?

The king of Sodom tells Abram that he only wants his people back, and Abram can keep all their possessions. This is rather uncharacteristic for “wicked, great sinners against the Lord” (Gen. 13:13). But Abram refuses, saying that he’s “sworn to the Lord God Most High, maker of of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich'” (Gen. 14:22-23). Bit rude, honestly.

He does let Mamre, Aner, and Eshcol take their share of Sodom’s stuff.

Incidentally, I found some rather interesting stuff on Melchizedek while I was looking up this chapter. Apparently, there’s a whole lot of Christians out there who think that he’s a pre-incarnation of Jesus!

Genesis 11: The Tower of Babel

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The first half of Chapter 11 tells the story of the Tower of Babel (in a form much truncated from the one I received in Sunday school!), while the second half jumps back into genealogies. Yay.

The Tower

“Now the whole earth had one language and few words” (Gen. 11:1). I’m having trouble harmonizing the first line of this chapter with:

  • “These are the sons of Japheth in their lands, each with his own language, by their families, in their nations” (Gen. 10:5).
  • “These are the sons of Ham, by their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations” (Gen. 10:20).
  • “These are the sons of Shem, by their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations” (Gen. 10:31).

I wondered about the timing of events and whether it might be possible to reconcile Chapter 10 with Chapter 11 by assuming that we’ve gone back in time to before the descendants of the three brothers acquired their various languages. Possible. But then my study bible came around and knocked that theory out of the water: “This tradition is clearly independent of and different from the table of nations.”

Nimrod supervising the construction of the Tower of Babel by master of Jacques d'Armagnac c.1477

Nimrod supervising the construction of the Tower of Babel by master of Jacques d’Armagnac c.1477

In any case, humans in the land of Shinar invent bricks and mortar and decide to build themselves a city, “and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4). At the risk of relying too heavily on my study bible’s notes, it says that: “in the eyes of nomads Mesopotamian city culture was characterized by the ziggurat, a pyramidal temple tower whose summit was believed to be the gateway to heaven.”

I just want to point out that we’ve only seen somewhere between one and six generations since the entire world population was reduced to eight people. The idea that we have a need to start building cities, as opposed to hamlets or, depending on fecundity, villages is rather silly. But a city they build, and God comes down to see it.

At this point, the typical Sunday School interpretation is that God doesn’t like the tower because it displays hubris. The people were building a tower to reach heaven (and, if I remember my own childhood instruction correctly, trying to get into heaven without having to be good on earth), they were trying to position themselves as gods. This is what warranted punishment.

But I don’t see this reading in the text itself. God tells us why he doesn’t like the tower: “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Gen. 11:6). In other words, God is worried that humanity – when able to work together – may become too powerful. God doesn’t want us working together to accomplish our goals. He wants miscommunication, he wants confusion, he wants factioning.

There’s a lesson for us here: we can accomplish anything if we’re willing to work together. But the Bible doesn’t want empowered people. It wants us to be ignorant and subservient, awed by the power of a God whose might we can collectively match. This God is a jealous god.

Is pettiness really an acceptable trait for the recipient of worship?

Moving on, God confuses their language and “scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth” (Gen. 11:9). Once again, “all the earth” refers only to the regions in or around the Middle East, and we’re only talking about, at most, the number of people that can be produced in six generations. If the incest forced by the Adam & Eve and Noah bottlenecks wasn’t enough, we’ve now split up an already very small number of people. Excellent.

Ebonmuse has a great post up on Daylight Atheism dealing with the Tower of Babel story.

The Sons of Shem

Getting sick of genealogies yet? We still have a long way to go…

  • Shem: 100 when Arphaxad is born, 600 at death.
  • Arphaxad: 35 when Shelah is born, 438 at death.
  • Shelah: 30 when Eber is born, 433 at death.
  • Eber: 34 when Peleg is born, 464 at death.
  • Peleg: 30 when Reu is born, 239 at death.
  • Reu: 32 when Serug is born, 239 at death.
  • Serug: 30 when Nahor is born, 230 at death.
  • Nahor: 29 when Terah is born, 148 at death.
  • Terah: 70 when Abram, Nahor, and Haran are born (triplets?), 205 at death.
  • Haran: Father of Lot, Milcah, and Iscah.

I found it interesting that both Arphaxad and Shelah lived exactly 403 years after the birth of their respective named sons. After them, Eber lived for 430 years after the birth of his son. And look at all those repetitions of the number 30! I also like how many of the ages in the genealogies are in multiples of five – which is precisely what I would think of if I were making up a bunch of numbers.

The Migration of Terah

Haran dies young, while his father is still alive. To break up the sausage-fest a bit, we finally get some women in this story. Abram marries Sarai and Nahor marries Milcah (his niece). Sarai, of course, is barren (because nothing could possibly be wrong with Abram’s equipment, I’m sure).

Terah, Abram, Lot, and Sarai all leave Ur (“of the Chaldeans”) and head for Canaan. On their way, they come to Haran (not to be confused with Haran the deceased son) and decide to settle there. Terah dies in Haran. Incidentally, my study bible says that “the migration from Mesopotamia into Canaan was a phase of population movements in the early part of the second millennium B.C., occasioned by the influx of Amorites from the Arabian desert.”

Genesis 10: Genealogy – The Sons of Noah

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This is another one of those boring genealogy chapters. In this one, we’re told that the three sons of Noah went off into their own territories, coming up with their own languages. I found it interesting as I was reading that this seemed such a “Just So…” story, explaining the origins of all people. But the problem with that is that “all people” seems to refer exclusively to the regions of the Middle East. Which of the brothers is the ancestor of the Mayans?

The Sons of Japheth

  • Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras.
  • Gomer: Ashkenaz, Riphath, and Togarmah.
  • Javan: Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim.

The sons of Japheth became “the coastland peoples” (Gen. 10:5), which my study bible says would make their political centre in Asia Minor, “the former territory of the Hittites.”

The Sons of Ham

  • Ham: Cush, Egypt*, Phut, and Canaan.
  • Cush: Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah, and Sabtechah.*
  • Raamah: Sheba and Dedan.
  • Egypt: Ludim, An’amim, Lehabim, Naphtuhim, Pathrusim, Casluhim, and Caphtorim.
  • Canaan: Sidon and Heth. He is the ancestor of the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites. “the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon, in the direction of Gerar, as far as Gaze, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboi’im, as far as Lasha” (Gen. 10:29).

*In some translations, Egypt is named Mizraim (which is the Hebrew word for Egypt).

*Cush is also the father of Nimrod, even though he isn’t in the original list of sons. Nimrod “was the first on earth to be a mighty man. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord” (Gen. 10:8-9). By the way, my study bible has this to say about Nimrod: “An old fragment of tradition relates how Nimrod, a successful warrior, built a kingdom in Shinar (Babylonia) and Assyria.”

Ham starts off in Babel, Erech, and Accad – “all of them in the land of Shinar” (Gen. 10:10).  After that, he went to Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth, Calah, and Resen. The Philistines come from his grandson, Casluhim.

The Sons of Shem

Of Shem, we’re told that he is “the father of all the children of Eber” (Gen. 10:21), which my study bible notes makes him the progenitor of the Hebrews.

  • Shem: Elam, Asshur, Arphaxad, Lud, and Aram.
  • Aram: Uz, Hul, Gether, and Mash.
  • Arphaxad: Shelah.
  • Shelah: Eber.
  • Eber: Peleg and Joktan.
  • Joktan: Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, Obal, Abimael, Sheba, Ophir, Havilah, and Jobab.

The descendants of Shem lived in a territory that “extended from Mesha in the direction of Sephar to the hill country of the east” (Gen. 10:30).

Phew! We made it to the end of Chapter 10!