Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Bible in a Year: Joshua

I’m reading through the Bible this year at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters divided by 52 weeks), and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week, I'm studying Joshua. The book of Joshua is a difficult book, full of violence and destruction and no moral reflection about the evils of war. To us, ideas of holy war and mass killing are frightening to read about and demand interpretation. One way of interpreting this material, is to realize that in the Deuteronomic theology of the book, the peoples of the Land were so wicked they had fallen under God's judgment, and so the advancing Israelites were not only inheritors of God’s promises but also instruments of God's wrath—similar to the fires of Sodom or the flood waters of Noah. It is a theology for Joshua's time period and not for all time!

The depicted slaughters seem not to have happened at all. One of my books, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, has an introduction that explains some of the difficulties of the account of the Israelite conquest (p. 307). Archaeological evidence points to a resettlement of the land in the period 1200-1000 BCE but not of a dramatic destruction of cities as described in Joshua. More likely is a slow process of settlement of Israelites, either as emerging from the peoples of the Land or immigrating from outside (p. 307). But the book of Joshua envisions a bold new beginning to the people, thanks to God’s help, and since the notion of “objective history” was centuries in the future when Joshua was written, the book provides a theological interpretation of events, probably to give confidence to the exiles about God’s faithful care of his people.

Thus, the moral issues of holy war and slaughter are not the concerns of the Deutereonomistic writer; there are plenty of other biblical passages that uphold God’s will for peace and wholeness for the world---including God's care and love for foreigners. Indeed, "[t]he main thrust of the Old Testament teaching is to show that Yahweh's steadfast love endures forever and that his love is for all kinds of people..." (Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible, p. 305).

Remember that Deuteronomy ends with the people camped on the east side of the Jordan River, and prior to his death, Moses is able to get a glimpse of the land to the west. As Joshua begins, the book’s namesake receives his commission from the Lord, and Joshua subsequently prepares the people for invasion of the land. The Jericho prostitute Rahab shelters and safeguards two Israelite spies, who escaping their enemies return to Joshua with a favorable report. THIS spy story works out better than the spy story in Numbers, which spelled disaster for the Israelites. (Rahab is praised in the New Testament, Hebrews 11:31 and James 2:25, and is a different woman than the one in Matthew 1:5.)

Joshua and the people left their camp at Shittim and moved toward the Jordan River, with the ark of the covenant carried by priests leading the way. The Lord parts the waters of the river so that the people and the ark cross in dryness. They all camp at Gilgal, where the new generation of Israelite men are circumcised, and the passover is celebrated (chapters 1-5). One of my books notes that, by this time, the provision of manna for the people is over, and so the celebration of the passover reflects a return to more typical food consumption, into which a festival like Pesach can be practiced.

I'll talk about the Jordan River last, but it’s worth commenting here about the theme of circumcision. Circumcision, now widely practiced as a routine medical procedure, has been a sign of God’s covenant with Israel since Genesis 17. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 118-119). Thus, in the theology of the book of Joshua, and indeed the theology of the God's covenant with Israel, the advance upon the Land is properly delayed until several thousand Israelite men can have their foreskins removed. As a theological theme, circumcision figures in the New Testament epistles as Paul seeks to articulate Christian freedom in the context of Jewish heritage.

Joshua 6-12 are stories of conquest. Gilgal was not far from Jericho, the first stop. The spiritual “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” has been stuck in my mind all week because of the famous story of the city’s destruction (chapter 6). Although God had authorized destruction of everyone in the city, and although God authorized the spoils of war placed in the people’s treasury, one Israelite named Achan kept some of the plunder. In the theological interpretation of the story, the sin of the one created hardship for all, and the first advance upon the city of Ai was unsuccessful. Once Achan’s sin was exposed, he was executed, and Ai was successfully taken (7:1-8:29).

Individual and collective responsibility is a significant biblical theme, which we find here as well as other passages. The Torah: A Modern Commentary has a section about it (pp. 1502-1503). Although collective responsibility is sometimes assumed in Bible stories (here in Joshua and also Deut. 5:9, 2 Sam. 3:29 and 21:1ff),  Deuteronomy 24:16 stresses individual responsibility for one’s actions, which Ezekiel 18 teaches as well, and this “became a cornerstone of Israel’s conception of justice” (p. 1503).

Chapters 9-10 concerns the southern kings uniting against Joshua and the people, while the citizens of Gibeon create a scheme to save themselves. The scheme backfired, resulting in the conquest of that city as well as the defeat of the five kings. To prove God’s providential faithfulness, the story teller tells of the unique day when the sun stood still until God gained the victory over the people’s enemies (10:12-14). 10:16-43 shortens the narrative by providing the names of several kings and kingdoms that the people destroyed, “So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed (kherem) all that breathed, as the Lord commanded (10:40). The conquest of northern Canaan is briefly described in chapter 11, with a similar summary of heroism and providence (11:19-20), and the kings conquered by both Moses and Joshua are remembered (chapter 12). Yet certain areas remained unconquered, though enough land was open for tribal allotment (13:1-7).

13:8-21:45 provide details of land that the Israelite tribes gained. including the trans-Jordan tribes Gad and Reuben and a portion of Manasseh, and including the Levitical cities and the cities of refuge. A helpful site, with a map, is http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/tribes.html I shared more information from that site here: http://changingbibles.blogspot.com/2016/04/tribes-of-israel.html )

Chapter 22 is a transitional chapter that deals with an altar beyond the Jordan for the eastern tribes. It almost leads to war! But the tribes beyond the Jordan (the Reubenites, Gadites, and half-tribe of Manasseh) assured the other tribes of their intentions, satisfying the other tribes (as well the priest Phinehas, son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron).

The book ends with Joshua’s speech in his old age, and the covenant with God is renewed. Joshua dies at age 110 and is buried in his land, the hill country of Ephraim, as is the priest Eleazar. Meanwhile, the bones of Joseph (carried all this time by the Israelites since the Exodus escape from Egypt) are buried at Shechem (24:29-33). One of my books reminds us that both Joseph and Joshua died at the same age, forming another kind of implied connection.

And yet... the story is far from completed. The next Bible book, Judges, provides us contrasting traditions of a land still unconquered, with ongoing conflicts and difficulties that vex the Israelites from outside and from within.


Here is an article about the crossroads town of Shechem, which provides numerous biblical connections. As that article points out, it is the first town tow which Abram and his family arrived (Genesis 12:6), and it was a place where Jacob and his family lived (Gen. 33:17-20, 37:12-17), so that Joseph fatefully left Shechem to go find his brothers. Shechem was the place where Moses pronounced blessings and curses (Deut. 27:4). The town was a city of refuge, and appears in Judges and Kings; it became capital of the northern kingdom after the division during the 900s BCE. Shechem is the location of Jacob's Well, where Jesus met and talked to the unnamed Samarian woman (John 4:5–6).  Famously, Shechem was the place where Joshua gave his speech to the Israelite tribes, urging them:

Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord (Josh. 24:15, NRSV).


James Tissot, "The Ark Passes Over the Jordan," c. 1896-1902
About the Jordan River: I wrote about the river in my Lenten Bible study Walking with Jesus through the Old Testament (Westminster John Knox Press, 2015): "[T]he river has tremendous significance in biblical history. Water is frequently a symbol of God's life and of God's rescue. God's splitting of the sea in Exodus is one of the most momentous events of Scripture, but read Joshua 3-4 and you'll also see how momentous is God's splitting of the Jordan river... The stories of the Bible [since Abraham] had been building to this moment ... Now they were here---and the river split so they could cross on dry land. The short Psalm 114 connects the God of creation with the exodus and with the crossing of the Jordan" (p. 27).

As I write there, too, Gilgal is mentioned in Micah 6:4-5, with the Jordan River implicit in verse 5. These two verse which encapsulate a lot of history:

I brought you up out of Egypt
    and redeemed you from the land of slavery.
I sent Moses to lead you,
    also Aaron and Miriam.
My people, remember
    what Balak king of Moab plotted
    and what Balaam son of Beor answered.
Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal,
    that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord (NIV)

Gilgal and the Jordan are also mentioned in 2 Kings 2, where Elijah splits the river and is soon taken up into Heaven, after which Elisha inherits his spirit. Gilgal is also the place where Samuel anointed Saul. Jesus was baptized near the place, too. Drawing all these connections together, this place where the Israelites crossed the Jordan brings together several important biblical figures: Abraham and Moses and Aaron and Miriam and Joshua and Jesus, Moses and Balaam and Joshua, Samuel and David and Jesus, Elijah and Elisha and John and Jesus  (pp. 27-28).

And ... certainly "crossing the Jordan" is a spiritual metaphor for eternal life that many of us hold dear.  I've saved a bottle of Jordan River water for many years.

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