1 Chronicles 26-27: More Officials

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I mentioned in my last post that, while 1 Chron. 26 deals with more Temple-related positions, I was going to lump it in with the civic positions of 1 Chron. 27 for the sake of I-wanted-to-go-to-bed.

It’s a good thing, too, because there are parts of 1 Chron. 26 that gave me some trouble. I suspect that there’s been some textual garbling, or perhaps I’m just overtired (I write – though it won’t be posted for a month – as my son begins kindergarten, and adjusting to the new routine is taking its toll on everyone!).

In any case, on with post!

The Gatekeepers

We begin with the gatekeepers, whose gates will not be built for quite a while. Even if we accept that David did all of the planning work for the Temple, assembled all the materials, and then assigned the gatekeepers just before his death, 1 Kgs 9:10 tells us that the Temple still won’t be built until 20 years into Solomon’s reign. Given that we’ve already been told that David hasn’t bothered to count anyone under the age 20, the very youngest of the men he selects will be around 40 years old by the time any gates are around for them to keep. There’s a pretty good chance that many of these men will die before they ever see the job they’ve been assigned.

The chiefs of the army, by James Tissot

The chiefs of the army, by James Tissot

The only way to get around this is if we assume that David lived on for nearly two decades after he ceded his crown to Solomon. In which case, these assignments may have been given on his deathbed, perhaps as the Temple neared completion. Or perhaps the Chronicler is merely attributing to David what his sources (or the sources of his sources) had attributed to Solomon because he had a personal/theological/political reason to connect David directly to the origins of these positions. I’ll let Occam decide.

The leadership of the gatekeepers is held by a handful of families:

From among the Korahites, we get Meshelemiah son of Kore, who is descended from Asaph. He is joined by his sons: Zechariah (who upgraded from guarding the tent of meeting in 1 Chron. 9:21), Jediael, Zebadiah, Jathniel, Elam, Jehohanan, and Eliehoenai. Altogether, there are 18 members of his group.

In Obededom’s family, we get his sons: Shemaiah, Jehozabad, Joah, Sachar, Nethanel, Ammiel, Issachar, and Peullethai. Shemaiah’s sons, who were men of “great ability” (1 Chron. 26:6) were: Othni, Rephael, Obed, Elzabad, Elihi, and Semachiah. Altogether, there were 62 men in this from descended from Obededom (though he is described as being in a group of 68 in 1 Chron. 16:37-38 – albeit as ministers of the ark).

From Merari, we  have Hosah and his sons: Shimri (who becomes the leader of his household by his father’s decree, even though he wasn’t the firstborn), Hilkiah, Tebaliah, and Zechariah. Altogether, the sons and brethren of Hosah produce 13 members for the group.

There are a few familiar names here, such as Asaph and Obededom – both of whom are musicians. It seems that maybe the duties of gatekeeper and of musician were related in some way.

And speaking of Obededom, that name is definitely familiar. If this is the same person, we saw David entrusting the ark into his care for three months (1 Chron. 13:13-14), he – along with Jeiel – is listed as both a gatekeeper and a singer in 1 Chron. 15:18-21, then again as a musician (1 Chron. 16:5), and as a both musician and gatekeeper (1 Chron. 16:37-38). Clearly, the man was involved.

As with the other Temple staff, the gatekeepers are divided into groups. This time, however, each group is responsible for a different gate, rather than a different time of year:

  • The east gate group is led by Shelemiah, with 6 people working each day;
  • The north gate group is led by Shelemiah’s son, Zechariah (described as a “shrewd counsellor” in 1 Chron. 26:14), with 4 people working each day;
  • The south gate group is led by Obededom, with 4 people working each day;
  • The storehouse group is led by the sons of Obededom (all of them? do they rotate?), with 2 and 2 (presumably there were two doors) people working each day;
  • The west gate group is led by Shuppim and Hosah, with 4 people at the road each day, and 2 at the “parbar” (the meaning of which is apparently unknown).

This all presents us with two problems. The first is the math. If we look at each place where it mentions the number of gatekeepers, none of our numbers add up:

  • 93 is the total of members mentioned in each group above (1 Chron. 26:1-11);
  • 24 is the total of the people said to work each day at each gate;
  • 212 is the number of gatekeepers in 1 Chron. 9:22;
  • 4,000 is the number of Levites that David assigns as gatekeepers in 1 Chron. 23:5.

The closest I can rationalize is that the 24 is the number working each day, but each group actually has a four day rotation. This gives us a total of 96 members, which would be our 93 figure plus Meshelemiah, Obededom, and Hosah. We can further assume that these are leaders, specifically, and that they have around 4,000 men at their command. That still leaves out the 212 figure, but I’m afraid I’m at a loss for that one.

The second problem we have is that the gates haven’t been built yet. So how do we know that one of the gates is named Shallecheth (1 Chron. 26:16)? How can David (via the Chronicler) describe one of the gates as the one with the road? Just how detailed are David’s plans?

If we assume that the Chronicler is assigning to David the job of assigning these roles for some personal/political/theological purpose, where do the names actually come from? Are these the first gatekeepers assigned once the Temple was built? It’s all very confusing.

The Treasurers

The second half of 1 Chron. 26 is given to the treasurers. This portion is a little garbled, but the best I can figure it is this: Ahijah, a Levite, oversaw all the treasuries. Under him, we have the Temple treasuries (in the charge of Jehieli, Zetham, and Joel) and the treasuries of dedicated gifts (in the charge of Shelomoth).

While Jehieli is here described as the father of Zetham and Joel (1 Chron. 26:22), the three of them are brothers (sons of Ladan the Gershonite) in 1 Chron. 23:8.

There’s also something in there about someone named Shebuel, another Gershonite, who was in charge of the Amramites, Izharites, Hebronites, and Uzzielites, who all looked over the treasuries.

Shelomoth, who is in charge of the treasuries of dedicated gifts, is the son of Zichri, son of Joram, son of Jeshaiah, son of Rehabiah, son of Eliezer. These dedicated gifts would be the things that David and the other prominent leaders of Israel had dedicated, plus any spoils of battle, plus the things that Samuel, Saul, Abner son of Ner, and Joab son of Zeruiah had dedicated. (Though Samuel, Saul, Abner, and likely Joab all died long before the Temple was built, it’s quite possible that they would have dedicated stuff to the ark/tabernacle, and that these were transferred over to the Temple holdings once there was a Temple to transfer to.)

Other Officials

Chenaniah and his sons (of the Izharites) are appointed throughout Israel as officers and judges.

There are also a number of men who are appointed for vaguer duties, simply for “all the work of the Lord and for the service of the king” (1 Chron. 26:30), whatever that means. In the CisJordan, this falls to 1700 Hebronites, led by Hashabiah. In the TransJordan, there are 2700 men under the direction of Jerijah (the chief of the Hebronites).

Commanders

This category is a little fuzzier. It seems that these men are in charge of the army (though I see some commenters claiming that they were in charge of David’s bodyguard only, which makes the number terribly absurd). They are divided into 12 divisions, each serving for one month out of the year. This is the same system we saw for the priests in 1 Chron. 24:7-19, albeit serving for twice the length of time. A rotation system like this would allow the individuals to fulfil their civic duties, while still leaving them the time to look after their personal households.

The divisions are led by:

  1. Jashobeam son of Zabdiel (he is descended from Perez) – There is a Jashobeam, albeit the son of Hachmoni, who served as the chief of David’s Three (1 Chron. 11:11);
  2. Dodai the Ahohite – There is no Dodai among David’s mighty men, but there is an Eleazar, who is the son of Dodo the Ahohite in 1 Chron. 11:12;
  3. Benaiah son of Jehoiada (the priest) – He was one of David’s Thirty, and in charge of David’s bodyguard (1 Chron. 11:22-25). While he features a fair bit in 2 Samuel and 1 Kings, this is the first time it’s mentioned that his father was a priest. Referring to the story in 1 Kings 2 where Joab tries to hide from Solomon by clinging to the horns of the altar, James Bradford Pate wonders if “Solomon assign[ed] this task [to kill Joab] specifically to Benaiah because Benaiah was the son of priest and thus had a right to enter the sanctuary?”;
  4. Asahel, Joab’s brother, and his son Zebadiah after him – This fudges up our timeline a bit, since the text heavily implies that these divisions are set up in David’s old age, after he ceded his crown to Solomon (1 Chron. 23:1-2), but Asahel died in 2 Sam. 3, when David still ruled from Hebron (he wouldn’t become king of Israel until 2 Sam. 5). So when was Asahel able to run the fourth month?’
  5. Shamhuth the Izrahite (there is no match for Shamhuth, unless he is Shammoth of Harod, described as one of the “warriors of the armies” in 1 Chron. 11:26-47);
  6. Ira son of Ikkesh the Tekoite (another of the “warriors of the armies”);
  7. Helez the Pelonite, of the sons of Ephraim (another of the “warriors of the armies”);
  8. Sibbecai the Hushathite, of the Zerahites (another of the “warriors of the armies”);
  9. Abiezer of Anathoth, a Benjaminite (another of the “warriors of the armies”);
  10. Maharai of Netophah, of the Zerahites (another of the “warriors of the armies”);
  11. Benaiah of Pirathon, of the sons of Ephraim (another of the “warriors of the armies”);
  12. Heldai the Netophathite, of Othniel (the closest match is Heled son of Baanah of Netophah, who is one of the “warriors of the armies”).

The Tribal Chiefs

We turn now to what appears to be the results of David’s ill-fated census from 1 Chron. 21, the leaders of each tribe:

  1. Reuben: Eliezer son of Zichri;
  2. Simeon: Shephatiah son of Maacah;
  3. Levi: Hashabiah son of Kemuel;
  4. Aaron: Zadok;
  5. Judah: Elihu, described as one of David’s brothers (possibly Eliab from 1 Sam. 16:6 and 1 Chron. 2:13);
  6. Issachar: Omri son of Michael;
  7. Zebulun: Ishmaiah son of Obadiah;
  8. Nephtali: Jeremoth son of Azriel;
  9. Ephraim: Hoshea son of Azaziah;
  10. CisJordan half of Manasseh: Joel son of Pedaiah;
  11. TransJordan half of Manasseh: Iddo son of Zechariah;
  12. Benjamin: Jaasiel son of Abner;
  13. Dan: Azarel son of Jeroham.

There are a few interesting things going on here. The first, of course, is that both Gad and Asher are omitted. The second is that Aaron is listed as a separate tribe. I won’t even try to unpack that, but Paul Davidson does discuss the evolution of the tribes and how they are presented on his blog, Is that in the Bible?

We are reminded that David hadn’t bothered to count up the number of people under the age 20. We are also told that Joab had started counting, but didn’t finish (a reference to 1 Chron. 21:5-6, in which Joab chose not to count Levi and Benjamin in defiance of David). Even so, the counting still earned God’s wrath, and so it was never entered in the chronicles of King David. Except, of course, that numbers are given in both 1 Chron. 21:5-6 and 2 Sam. 24:9 (albeit wildly different numbers).

David’s Stewards

To finish up, we get the “miscellaneous other” category of civil positions:

  • Charge of the king’s treasuries: Azmaveth son of Adiel;
  • Charge of the national treasuries: Jonathan son of Uzzian;
  • Command over the field workers: Ezri son of Chelub;
  • Charge of the vineyards: Shimei the Rathmathite;
  • Charge of the wine cellars and the produce from the vineyards: Zabdi the Shiphmite;
  • Charge of the sycamore and olive trees in the Shephelah: Baalhanan the Gederite;
  • Charge of the stores of oil: Joash;
  • Charge of the herds that pasture in Sharon: Shitrai the Sharonite;
  • Charge of the herds in the valleys: Shaphat son of Adlei;
  • Charge of the camels: Obil the Ishmaelite;
  • Charge of the female donkeys: Jehdeiah the Meronothite (the male donkeys are, it seems, allowed to just run wild!);
  • Charge of the flocks: Jaziz the Higrite.

David’s sons are tutored by Jonathan, David’s uncle (who is described as a counsellor, a man of understanding, and a scribe), and Jehiel son of Hachmoni.

At first, the king’s counsellor is Ahithophel. He was then succeeded by Jehoiada son of Benaiah, and Abiathar. Elsewhere, the warrior Benaiah is described as the son of Jehoiada. It’s possible that this is the same Benaiah, and that he gave his son the same name as his father.

Joab, of course, commanded David’s army.

Finally, there’s Hushai the Archite, who is described as the “king’s friend” (1 Chron. 27:33), which has to be the saddest job title. Curious, I poked around to see what this is all about. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Hushai the King’s Friend. He appeared in 2 Sam. 15:32-37, described in the same terms. There, David sends him back into Jerusalem to spy on Absalom after he’s been forced into hiding, which he does in 2 Sam. 16:15-19. In 2 Sam. 17, Hushai is able to use his position at Absalom’s side to convince him not to hunt David down right away (giving Hushai time to warn David to flee).

As for the phrase itself, it’s clearly a title. In the roster of Solomon’s cabinet 1 Kgs 4:1-6, we find Zabud son of Nathan serving as Solomon’s king’s friend. But where did the title come from, and what did the position entail?

I’m finding several throwaway references to the title being Egyptian in origin, imported. But other sources claim that the Egyptian title refers to what is essentially a courtier class, a way of designating a group of people as those closest to the king, rather than a position that would, presumably, come with its own set of responsibilities. Obviously, I lack the expertise in all relevant fields to say which side has the right in this.

But I did find a hint that the title might possibly be Canaanite in origin. In Genesis 26:26, King Abimelech of Gerar comes to negotiate with Isaac. He is accompanied by two men: His advisor Ahuzath, and his army commander Phicol. Some translations, such as the KJV, give Ahuzath as Abimelech’s friend, rather than his advisor.

Of course, none of the commentaries I could lay my hands on gave any explanation of the different translation choices. Because why would they do something so helpful? In desperation, I thought to check a translation of the Septuagint, just to see what it says. Sure enough, Abimelech shows up to the meeting with Phichol, and with “Ochozath his friend”.

So my conclusion is that “King’s Friend” was definitely an official position, with its own responsibilities (possibly similar to that of advisor or confidant), and I’m tentatively assuming that it’s a Canaanite custom rather than an Egyptian one.

1 Chronicles 8: False Start

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For this penultimate genealogical chapter, we turn back to Benjamin. The tribe has already been covered in 1 Chron. 7:6-12, and there seems to be considerable discussion as to why it should then be repeated here (one theory being that the chapter 7 version was originally intended to be about Zebulun and Dan, but was made to be about Benjamin through corruption).

Assuming that the chapter 7 version really is meant to be about Benjamin, the first thing that stands out is that the construction is different here. In chapter 7, the lineage followed a “the sons of A were…” formula, whereas here, we get a “A fathered B” formula. There’s no reason for the Chronicler to switch back and forth between these formulas, unless the Chronicler is simply copying whatever is being used by his source materials. This, alone, strongly suggests that two separate sources are being used for each of these lineages. (I mean, the fact that that the two contain rather extreme variants makes this rather conclusive, but I thought the note about formulas was rather interesting.)

Another detail worth noting is that the chapter 7 version had more commonalities with Gen. 46:21, whereas the version we get here seems more similar to Num. 26:38-41. Even so, there are more differences than common points. It seems that the Benjaminites were either terrible record keepers, or perhaps a certain usurping dynasty did a little expunging when it came into power.

We begin with Benjamin’s sons: Bela, Ashbel, Aharah, Nohah, and Rapha. Bela and Ashbel both appear in Num. 26:38, but the rest of the names, from either list, don’t match. My New Bible Commentary makes an interesting observation here: The construction in this passage names “Bela his first-born” (1 Chron. 8:1), whereas in 1 Chron. 7:6, we got “Bela, Becher, and Jediael.” According to the Commentary, “In Hebrew, ‘Becher’ and ‘firstborn’ have the same consonants” (p.375). It’s possible, therefore, that the source the Chronicler used in chapter 7 (evidently the same source as was used in Genesis 46:21) incorrectly interpreted the title of “first-born” as a proper name, the same of a second son.

We next move down through Bela (the only son of Benjamin who is named in all four of our lineages!), whose sons were: Addar, Gera, Abihud, Abishua, Naaman, Ahoah, Gera, Shephuphan, and Huram.

It’s perhaps getting redundant to point out that the sons of Bela bear no resemblance whatsoever to the sons listed in 1 Chron. 7:7. We do a little better in Num. 26:40, where his sons are named Ard and Naaman (Ard might be a corruption, or vice versa, of Addar, and Naaman is present in both lists).

The inclusion of two sons named Gera is likely yet another scribal error.

Ehud

We next come to the sons of Ehud. This, of course, poses a problem since no Ehud has been mentioned so far. According to my New Bible Commentary, this might be caused by a mistake similar to the one that birthed Becher. Abihud, named in 1 Chron. 8:3, may have originally been two separate words, which would replace “Abihud” with “[Gera] the father of Ehud” (p.375).

Some commentaries identify him as the left-handed Ehud the Benjaminite, who was the son of Gera, named in Judges 3:15. This would, of course, require that Ehud be Gera’s son, which would in turn require the assumption I mentioned above regarding Abihud.

The descendants of Ehud lived in Geba, and were taken into exile to Manahath. His sons were: Naaman, Ahijah, and Gera (of which the text says “Gera, that is, Heglam” – 1 Chron. 8:7). Gera fathered Uzza and Ahihud.

Shaharaim

From Ehud, we move on to someone named Shaharaim, whose connection to Benjamin’s lineage is not stated. We are told that he had sons in Moab, after he had sent away his wives, Hushim and Baara.

Benjamin and Joseph

Benjamin and Joseph

We might wonder what Shaharaim was doing raising a family in Moab, rather than in the Benjaminite tribal lands. The obvious answer was that he was escaping a famine, just like Elimelech in Ruth 1:1. We see the same famine-driven movements a few times in Genesis, as well.

More perplexing is the phrase “after he had sent away Hushim and Baara his wives” (1 Chron. 8:8). James Pate provides a few possible explanations, but I think that the most compelling is that he divorced Hushim and Baara, then later took a new wife (perhaps a Moabite) with whom he had children in Moab.

We then learn that he had sons with Hodesh, his wife (presumably the one he married after divorcing Hushim and Baara). These sons were: Jobab, Zibia, Mesha, Malcam, Jeuz, Sachia, and Mirmah. The name ‘Mesha’ stood out at me, since it’s the name of the king recorded in the Mesha Stele. It seems that Shaharaim was giving his sons good Moabite names.

He also had some sons by his earlier wife, Hushim: Abitub and Elpaal. Elpaal fathered Eber, Misham, and Shemed. Shemed is said to have built Ono and Lod.

Other Expat Benjaminites

Beriah and Shema are named, though disconnected from the previous lineage. I initially thought them further sons of Elpaal, but the grammar is rather tricky. Of them, we learn that they lived in Aijalon, and that they (or their descendants) fought against the people of Gath, which would mean Philistines.

The list continues, shifting to a different formula. In this one, we get a list of names first, then we are told whose sons they are. It’s a rather annoying way of presenting information, I must say! In any case, the sons of Beriah are: Ahio, Shashak, Jeremoth, Zebadiah, Arad, Eder, Michael, Ishpah, and Joha.

We then move back up to the sons of Elpaal, perhaps further sons or perhaps we are dealing with a different Elpaal: Zebadiah, Meshullam, Hizki, Heber, Ishmerai, Izliah, and Jobab.

Disconnected from Shaharaim’s lineage, we get the sons of Shimei: Jakim, Zichri, Zabdi, Elienai, Zillethai, Eliel, Adaiah, Beraiah, and Shimrah.

Then the sons of Shashak: Ishpan, Eber, Eliel, ABdon, Zichri, Hanan, Hananiah, Elam, Anthothijah, Iphdeiah, and Penuel.

Jeroham’s sons were: Shamsherai, Shehariah, Athaliah, Jaareshiah, Elijah, and Zichri. These, we are told, lived in Jerusalem.  (Perhaps along with the Jebusites, as per Judges 1:21, or perhaps during the Davidic dynasty, or perhaps even in post-exilic times – it’s rather impossible to situation the lineage in time.)

Living in Gibeon, we get Jeiel – named the father of Gibeon – and his wife Maacah. Their sons are: Abdon, Zur, Kish, Baal, Nadab, Gedor, Ahio, Zecher, and Mikloth. Mikloth fathered Shimeah.

There’s an odd verse here: “Now these also dwelt opposite their kinsmen in Jerusalem, with their kinsmen” (1 Chron. 8:33). It seems odd that this should refer to Jeiel’s family, right after we are told that they were living in Gibeon. One possibility is that the sons moved to Jerusalem from Gibeon. Another is that Gibeon is geographically quite close to Jerusalem, and perhaps either fell under Jerusalem’s authority, or there was at least a good deal of traffic between the two towns. Yet another is that this verse is meant to apply to the next lineage, and not to Jeiel’s.

The Genealogy of Saul

In the final section of the chapter, we learn the lineage of Saul, beginning with Ner, who fathered Kish, who fathered Saul (1 Chron. 8:33). This contradicts 1 Sam. 9:1, where Kish is the son of Abiel. Further, if we look to 1 Sam. 14:51, we find Kish and Ner listed as brothers, both the sons of Abiel.

Another detail worth pointing out is that 1 Sam. 9:1 goes further back. It begins with Aphiah, who fathers Becorath, who fathers Zeror, who fathers Abiel, and only then do we get to Kish. Did the Chronicler not have access to those additional generations? Or did he choose not to include them?

The sons of Saul are listed as: Jonathan, Malchishua, Abinadab, and Eshbaal. In 1 Sam. 14:49, Saul’s sons are listed as: Jonathan, Ishvi, and Malchishua. This could be an error, or perhaps Ishvi was another of Eshbaal’s names; a nickname, for example. It could also be an error that Abinadab is omitted, or perhaps he died young and the author didn’t find him worth listing. This latter view is supported by 1 Samuel 31:6, where we learn that Saul and his “three” sons died on the battlefield. Either Abinadab was added to 1 Chron. 8:33 by error, or he was dead prior to the events of 1 Sam. 31:6 (or otherwise out of the picture, but I feel like David’s account would require an explanation for bypassing Abinadab in the succession).

Jonathan fathered Meribbaal, who fathered Micah. Micah fathered Pithon, Melech, Tarea, and Ahaz. Ahaz fathered Jehoaddah, who fathered Alemeth Azmaveth, and Zimri. Zimri fathered Moza, and Moza fathered Binea. Binea fathered Raphah, who fathered Eleasah, who fathered Azel. Azel’s sons are: Azrikam, Bocheru, Ishmael, Sheariah, Obadiah, and Hanan.

Azel also had a brother, Eshek, who fathered Ulam, Jeush, and Eliphelet. Ulam fathered (directly or indirectly, sons and grandsons) 150 mighty warriors).

It’s worth noting that there is a son of Saul named Ishbosheth in 2 Sam. 2:8 and elsewhere. Ishbosheth would be translated as “man of shame”, as opposed to Eshbaal, which would be “man of Baal.” The son of Jonathan named Meribbaal (“Baal contends”) here is apparently the same person as Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth (“From the mouth of shame”), appearing in 2 Sam. 4:4 and elsewhere.

The reason for the author of 2 Samuel to altar these names is theological, concealing the honouring of Baal in the names of the sons of Israel’s first anointed king, and the beloved of the second. It seems clear that Saul and Jonathan worshipped Baal, instead of or as well as YHWH, and that the author of Samuel wanted to fudge that over.

That much is obvious, but the more interesting question is why the Chronicler would keep the original names intact. He could be working with a different source, one that hadn’t bowdlerized the names.

Another possibility is that the Chronicler views David as the true first king of Israel, the perfect monarch to which all others must be compared. It’s “Golden Age” thinking, where there was a perfect time when everything was set up the way God wanted it, and that we fell from that state of grace. The existence of prior YHWH-approved king complicates that narrative, especially if our archetypal king overthrew that original dynasty in a coup.

This provides the motivation to disparage Saul and his dynasty, to deny its legitimacy and therefore to argue that David was actually the first true YHWH-approved king. Keeping hints that the Saulide dynasty worshipped Baal certainly achieves that purpose, if subtly.

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.