In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Pete ruins the book of Joshua and evangelical home décor in one fell swoop by examining the historicity of the conquest narrative and the theological consequences of a warrior God who condones violence. Join Pete as he answers the following questions:
- When was Joshua written?
- What is Joshua actually about?
- What is the Deuteronomistic History?
- What’s interesting about the translation of Joshua into Greek?
- Why do so many of the Joshua stories parallel Moses stories?
- How does Rahab play into the narrative of the conquest of the land? Does she really convert to believing in Yahweh?
- Did the conquest of Canaan actually happen as described? Or at all? What about the walls tumbling down at Jericho?
- What does it say about God that he orders the extermination of an indigenous people so that others could move in and claim it for their own?
- If the story of the conquest of Canaan isn’t historically accurate, where did the biblical story of the conquests come from?
- How are we to handle the biblical tradition of violence seemingly ordered by God?
- What’s the deal with the sun standing still in Joshua 10?
- What clues do we get about who might have been the author of Joshua?
- How do lessons from the book of Joshua segue into the next few books of the Bible?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Pete you can share.
- Joshua sets up the remainder of the Deuteronomistic History by detailing the conquest of the land, the division of the land then among the twelve tribes, and reminding the Israelites about their covenant with God and the necessity of strict obedience to the law of Yahweh. — @peteenns
- The Greek of Joshua differs from the Hebrew not because of the translator having issues, but because the translator was working with a different Hebrew version of Joshua altogether. We have not one version of Joshua, but at least two. — @peteenns
- The point being made, it seems to me, is that the conquest of the land is a continuation, actually an extension, of the Exodus story, as if the Exodus story is not yet complete. — @peteenns
- The same God is with the Israelites now under Joshua, and he’s with them under Joshua as he was with the Israelites coming up out of Egypt under Moses. The only difference is that this time, the Israelites are told not to cave into fear and screw it up again. Hence Joshua’s admonition to be “strong and courageous, do not be frightened or dismayed.” — @peteenns
- There’s a real marked tendency in this early literature to remove moral ambiguities or flaws from biblical figures so they can be complete black and white models of virtue or vice. You don’t have mixed moral messages from some of these heroes from the past. — @peteenns
- Did the conquest happen? There is a general and very strong agreement among biblical scholars that the conquest of Canaan, as described in Joshua 6-12, did not happen. — @peteenns
- The archaeological data do not support the massive military sweep that the book of Joshua lays out, which seems quite exaggerated. — @peteenns
- The biblical story is an ideological exaggeration that portrays God as their mighty warrior, leading the people into battle, which reflects the general portrayal of the gods as warriors at that time. But archaeology suggests things were not quite like this. — @peteenns
- Even if the biblical conquest narrative is not historical, the point is that the ideology of extermination is still part of the biblical tradition, and that has to be taken seriously and not avoided. — @peteenns
- It may be hard, sometimes impossible, to see God well in some of Israel’s stories, but we do get a good picture of how these ancient Israelites experienced God. — @peteenns
- Reading the Bible responsibly and respectfully today, I really think means learning what it meant for ancient Israelites to talk about God the way they did, and not pushing modern alien expectations onto texts written long ago and far away. — @peteenns
- The ancient tribal description of God as warrior is not the last word for either Judaism or Christianity. Taking someone’s land through violence is simply not a gospel way of living. — @peteenns
- Christians today have an obligation not to follow the Bible here in Joshua, not to allow the ancient tribal description of God of the Old Testament to be the last word. — @peteenns
- These ancient writers had an adequate understanding of God for their time and in their time, but not for all time. And if we take that to heart, we will actually be in a better position to respect these ancient voices and to see what they have to say, rather than making up explanations or excuses to ease our stress. — @peteenns
Mentioned in This Episode
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- The Bible Tells Me So by Pete Enns
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You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
And I’m Jared Byas.[Jaunty intro music plays]
Hey, everybody, welcome to this episode of the podcast. And, you know, my last solo episode was on Deuteronomy so let’s keep the momentum going and hit the next book of the Bible: Joshua.[Music plays under teaser clip of Pete speaking] “The ancient tribal description of God as warrior is not the last word for either Judaism or Christianity. Taking someone’s land through violence is simply not a gospel way of living. For Christians, the gospel has always been the lens through which Israel’s stories are read, which means not every Bible story has the final word about what God is like.” [Music ends] [Ad break]
So, Joshua is the first of the so called historical books of the Hebrew Bible and this is a common Christian designation for the books of Joshua through Esther, and they tell the story of the conquest of Canaan (which is the book of Joshua), the early settlement of the land, which is in Judges before the time of the monarchy, and then a brief story of David’s lineage in the book of Ruth, and then the story of the monarchy itself ending in exile, and that’s 1 and 2 Samuel 1 and 2 Kings. And next, we have 1 and 2 Chronicles, which tells the tale of the monarchy from a much later perspective, followed by Ezra and Nehemiah which recount the return to the land after the exile and finally Esther, which takes place in the Persian period.
These books cover hundreds of years, roughly 700 or so. Now, that’s the Christian canon. The Jewish Canon has it a bit differently. We have Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings and these books are called the former prophets, as distinct from the guess what, latter prophets. And those would be books like the prophetic books that we know as Christians: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the 12 minor prophets. The other historical books—what Christians call historical books—the other historical books: Ruth Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther, are found in an entirely different section of the Hebrew Bible referred to as the Writings. Now personally, I do prefer the title former prophets for Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings to “historical books.” And you might be asking why? Well, here’s why. Because labeling them “historical books” always prejudices us toward assuming that the book’s primary function is to, let’s say, report data—to give historical information.
But calling them prophets suggests that these books were written primarily not to convey historical information, but to lay some claim on the lives of the readers. Like the prophetic books, the latter prophets, these books also are about, let’s say, lessons from God that need to be remembered. Now, biblical scholarship adds another perspective on these books. And scholars have come to regard Joshua as the first book of the so-called Deuteronomistic History—which is made up of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Now, we touched on this in my last episode on Deuteronomy, but let me just sum it up here a little bit briefly, if I can. These six books are called the Deuteronomistic History, because they seem to have been written from a theological perspective that we find in the book of Deuteronomy. Now two key elements of the theology of Deuteronomy are the, first, centralization of worship in Jerusalem—sacrifice nowhere else—and secondly, total devotion to the covenant, and the exclusive worship of Yahweh, so worship to no other God, just the one God, Yahweh.
So one connection between Deuteronomy and Joshua specifically, is the command in Deuteronomy 7 and 20 to invade Canaan and kill everything that breathes—and this conquest of Canaan, well, that is the main storyline of the book of Joshua. So as the first book of the so-called Deuteronomistic History, Joshua sets up the remainder of the Deuteronomistic History by, well, detailing the conquest of the land, the division of the land then among the 12 tribes, and reminding the Israelites about their covenant with God and the necessity of strict obedience to the law of Yahweh.
So anyway, when was Joshua written? Well, good question. As part of the Deuteronomistic History, the book emerged likely over time and in stages, beginning with older oral traditions that eventually were shaped into the heart of the book, probably during the monarchy, and then the final editing of the book, probably done in light of the Babylonian exile. And that is the basic scholarly description of at least where the book of Joshua came from. Now, one important piece of information that helps us get a sense of when Joshua was written, is the recurring phrase “To this day,”—For example, erecting a heap of stones in the middle of the Jordan River, that’s in 4:9, or to mark the burial spot of the rebel Achan (or A-khan), and that’s in 7:26, or the burial spot of the king of Ai, which is an 8:29, all those structures just, for example, are said to be standing still, “to this day.” So this phrase occur several times to explain, for example, the presence of the non-Israelites in the land. And one example is Joshua 15:63, and quoting here, “But the people of Judah could not drive out the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so the Jebusites live with the people of Judah in Jerusalem to this day.” Jebusites, by the way, are a subgroup of Canaanites, inhabitants of the land.
Now, it’s intriguing to think of who wrote this line, and when. We don’t really know. But “to this day,” it does seem to imply a pretty decent passage of time. And we saw this phrase to in the Deuteronomy episode, where at the very end of the book, we read that no one knows where Moses’s burial site is, “to this day.” Again, see, this phrase only has force—and this is what we got into in the last episode—this phrase only has force if some considerable length of time has passed. How much time? Valid question. Given how this phrase is used elsewhere in Torah, my sense—and this is not at all an uncommon position—but my sense is that we’re talking no earlier than at some point during the period of the monarchy and the divided monarchy, and probably late in that period, namely, the time of King Josiah, in the late seventh century, with even later revisions in the exilic and post-exilic periods. A lot to swallow there. But you know, these are not the easiest and clearest things to navigate. But that’s pretty much where people are, at least the academic world is, with the dating of the book of Joshua.
And one more introductory point. And this concerns the translation of Joshua into Greek. And I like mentioning this sort of thing, and I do so in other podcasts when I can, because I think it’s so revealing about ancient attitudes toward Israel’s written texts. You may remember that the conquest of Judea by Alexander the Great—the Greek conqueror in 332 BCE—that eventually led to the need to translate the Hebrew Bible into what was becoming the common language of Judaism, which is Greek. Now, here’s the thing: the Greek version of Joshua isn’t exactly the same as the Hebrew version. It’s about 5% shorter than the Hebrew and there are other sorts of issues between them. And the question is, “Okay, what accounts for this? Why is the Greek translation rather significantly different than the Hebrew version?” Well, there was a time in biblical scholarship where it was thought—and reasonably so—that the Greek translator was not very good, and just made some mistakes, or perhaps this Greek translator had ideological reasons for making deliberate changes.
The actual reason, however, is a bit more complicated, but I think also way more interesting. The Greek of Joshua differs from the Hebrew not because of the translator having issues, but because the translator was working with a different Hebrew version of Joshua altogether. In other words, what we have actually is a pluriformity of textual traditions, which are pre-Christian. We have not one version of Joshua, but at least two. And thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls, we can also see this in other books of the Hebrew Bible like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and 1 and 2 Samuel. See the punch line—and this is why I like bringing this up—the punchline is that way back in antiquity, as far back as we have evidence for—again before the time of Christ—the Hebrew Bible did not exist in some pristine, perfect form, but in various forms. And at these early stages, we do not see an agreed upon Bible. There’s fluidity. Right, anyway, if you’d like this sort of thing and if you want to dig in a little bit more into topics like where the Bible comes from, if you’re interested, you can see my solo episode 164.
Okay, so let’s move on to the book itself. And here’s an outline, it’s in four parts. And if you listen to my podcast, you know I love outlines. I like having big pictures that we can sort of hang information on. It’s sort of like hooks, you know, for organizing a bedroom or something like that. I really like outlines. So here’s a four part outline:
First part: chapters 1–5, and this is all about preparations to conquer the land of Canaan under Joshua, who is Moses’s successor. The second part is chapter 6–12, and there we read of the rather bloody account of the conquest itself. And this brings us to the end of the first half. Chapters 1–12 are basically the first half of the book divided into two parts. In the next section, this is chapters 13–22, here, Canaan, the land of Canaan has been conquered, it’s now being divided among the twelve tribes of Israel. Not the most scintillating section of the Bible, but there you have it. And then at the, in the last section, this is chapters 23–24, we see Joshua exhorting the people to be faithful to the covenant, especially in a big ceremony at a place called Shechem, a very important site in ancient Israel.
And so here’s what we’re going to do: as is my pattern in these podcasts, let’s take each of these four sections, do sort of the big picture overview and then focus on some highlights that are either just interesting—at least I find them interesting—or at the very least helpful for gaining a sense of the book as a whole.
Okay, so first, chapters 1-5. The book begins with Joshua as Moses’s successor, which happened in Deuteronomy, and Joshua here is encouraging the people to be “strong and courageous. Do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” That’s verse 9 of chapter one. Now, that is a passage that I’ve heard as a general sort of pep talk when going through tough times. But just remember that the context here is Israel about to invade Canaan and kill everyone to possess their land. And I think that sort of takes the shine off of it. Joshua also charges them to keep the law and the people respond expressing their total dedication to obeying Joshua, as they obeyed Moses. That’s how the line goes. I’m not sure how much they actually obeyed Moses, but more or less, they did. Some rebellion going on too in Moses’s lifetime. But anyway, and also just looking ahead a bit, the book of Joshua ends in a similar way with a ceremony, sort of a pep talk at Shechem—and that’s a common literary technique in the Hebrew Bible to sort of bookend books or to bookend scenes or chapters or things like that with a similar action. So. It’s just part of the creative, intentionally creative nature of this literature. People really put some thought into how they want to say what they’re gonna say.
So anyway, that being said, spies now are sent out to Jericho, since that is the first Canaanite town they’re going to encounter. And then next they crossed the Jordan River, which was cut off, allowing the Israelites to cross over on dry land. And I sure hope that sounds familiar, it parallels Moses and the Exodus—and we’ll get to that in a minute. And this crossing is memorialized by setting up a pile of 12 stones, one for each tribe. And those stones are taken from the middle of the Jordan River. And these stones were set up at Gilgal, which is a site just east of Jericho. And all this cast fear upon the peoples of Canaan, “Here come the Israelites, my goodness, what are we going to do?” Then the Israelites who were born during the 40-year wilderness period—which begins way back in the book of Numbers—and we’ve talked about that a lot too, I think at length. But the Israelites who were born during that 40-year wilderness period are now circumcised at a place called Gibeat-haaraloth, which means [laughing] it means “Foreskins Hill.” Descriptive, not the most creative thing. It’s sort of like, I don’t know, “Placenta Avenue.” I don’t really know what the point is, anyway. Okay.
This section ends with a Passover celebration at Gilgal and Joshua having a very Moses like vision of the Lord who even tells him to quote, “Remove the sandals from your feet for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” That’s in 5:15, and of course, this evokes memories of what Moses was told at Mount Sinai. And you know, since we’re speaking of Moses, one thing to point out here is how deliberately Joshua is modeled after Moses. And not just here, but elsewhere in Joshua. For example, both Moses and Joshua lead the Israelites through a dried up body of water and into new territory. Both send out spies to scout the land, both immediately lead a military campaign, both give orders for circumcision and the celebration of Passover, both are told to remove their sandals on holy ground. Joshua takes on Moses’s mantle of authority, both assigned territories to the tribes, including cities of refuge, and both are called “servant of the Lord.” Now, I’m probably missing something, but this is a pretty impressive list nonetheless. The point being made, it seems to me, is that the conquest of the land is a continuation, actually an extension, of the Exodus story, as if the Exodus story is not yet complete.
See, the same God is with the Israelites now under Joshua—Joshua is sort of a Moses 2.0—and he’s with them under Joshua as he was with the Israelites coming up out of Egypt under Moses. The only difference is that this time, the Israelites are told not to cave into fear and screw it up again. Hence Joshua’s admonition to be, again, “strong and courageous, do not be frightened or dismayed.” “We don’t want 40 more years in the wilderness.”
Now, let me make one comment about the Passover celebration—this is in 5:10-12—it was at this point that the manna ceased—remember, that’s where they had to eat the bread that came from heaven and you know, the dew on the ground collects and it becomes like bread, during the 40 years of wilderness wandering. But it’s at this point that this manna ceased. Why? Well, the period of wandering is over. And a new chapter is beginning, one where they will in short order have a land of their own completely with kings and everything. Also, a striking thing that scholars talk about is how adamant Moses was in Exodus about celebrating the Passover when you get into the land. Now, here’s the thing. There’s no record—I mean, that’s in the book of Exodus—but there is no record in the Deuteronomistic History of the Passover ever being celebrated, at least not until the reign of Josiah. Now he was the king of Judah in the late seventh century. Now not to digress, but this is the kind of thing scholars ought to talk about, but this scenario might make sense of what we read in 2 Kings 23, especially in verses 21-23, where King Josiah orders the people to keep the Passover, which had apparently not been done since the days of the judges, and not even during the reigns of the kings.
Now, there’s certainly no record of Passover in the book of Judges for what that’s worth. But it is certainly true that no king, including David, is said to observe this right. What might explain this huge gap—and this is where it gets really into the woods here—but what might explain this huge gap is that the Passover perhaps had in fact been celebrated, but only on the family level—which is how Exodus 12 says it should be celebrated. Not on the national level, which is Josiah’s concern. Now, remember, again, a lot of moving parts here, just hang with me. But remember that according to Deuteronomistic theology, the theology of Deuteronomy, which is the theology that the Deuteronomistic History—like the book of Joshua—follows. According to Deuteronomy, in Deuteronomy 16, the Passover was a temple-centered national event, not a family event to be held at home, as in Exodus 12.
Now, my point here is that the Deuteronomistic Historians claim about “no Passover being celebrated since the time of Joshua” concerns the national celebration of Passover, for which there is no record between the days of Joshua and the days of Josiah. Okay, if that didn’t help, just ignore it, we’re gonna keep going here.
One more point here concerns the spies in chapter 2, which Joshua was sent out to spy on Jericho. So Moses, you might recall, also sent spies out to spy the land, but it strikes me that here the spies first stop…Hmmm…was a night at the home of Rahab the prostitute, as she’s called in the Bible. Now the story doesn’t say that they availed themselves of her services or of anybody else there, maybe she was a madam or something, I don’t know. But we might be left to fill in the gaps. Like, what are they doing there? And here’s the thing, immediately it was reported, in the very next verse it’s reported to the king of Jericho that Israelites are among them. That was quick. Well, yeah, of course, it was quick! Rahab’s house was Grand Central Station, a place where the men of Jericho spent some free time, which raises the point—how utterly stupid these spies were to hang out in such a high traffic area where they would be at such obvious risk.
And now, this is where Rahab comes to the rescue. Now the king, he wants these guys found, but Rahab hides them, saying that news of what happened in Egypt and other exploits has reached everyone’s ears and they are full of dread. So she’s afraid, and hides the spies in return for a promise of her own safety once the battle rages. And for this act Rahab has become a model of faith in the New Testament, and we read that in Hebrews 11, or a model of good works, which is in James 2. And she’s also mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. That’s hugely important! Now, some Jewish sources speak of her as an innkeeper rather than prostitute, which is understandable, I suppose. She does a good thing, she can’t be a prostitute, right? So personally, I have to say, I do like the idea that a marginalized woman—at least from a biblical point of view—a marginalized woman has such a central role in making sure the conquest of Jericho doesn’t go off the rails, imperiled as it was by the spies’ stupidity. I’m not sure however, whether calling her a convert to Israelite religion is really warranted—and it may be, but I have to pull back a little bit here. See, she is in panic stricken mode at the thought of Yahweh laying waste to her home and so she makes a deal with the spies. And in doing so she acknowledges that Yahweh is “Indeed God in heaven above and on Earth below.” This is 2:11.
But here’s the thing, this does not indicate a conversion necessarily. Why? Well, polytheistic cultures have no trouble adding a deity or two to their own pantheons if advantageous, and I see no—forgive me—heartfelt transformation on Rahab’s part other than wanting to not die. But I also acknowledge that I’m kicking against a good bit of Jewish and Christian interpretation here, I know that. But I also know that Jewish and Christian interpretation are in no way bound to the contexts of the stories, but tend rather to be quite creative in handling the biblical text. This is especially true in early Judaism, which spread to Christianity as well. But there’s a tendency, a real marked tendency in this early literature, to remove moral ambiguities or flaws from biblical figures so they can be complete black and white, essentially, models of virtue or vice. You don’t have mixed moral messages from some of these heroes from the past as Judaism and Christianity continued on their journeys. So there are many examples of this in early Judaism, but that’s another podcast altogether. My point here simply is that I think Rahab is a means by which the sack of Jericho becomes possible. And she plays an instrumental role in that, not an unimportant role at all. But I think to call her a convert to Yahwehism is probably more a modern, I would say specifically Christian, way of thinking about religious commitment that is not really part of the ancient world, at least not in the story.[Ad break]
Okay, let’s move on now to the next section, which is chapters 6–12, and the very heart of the matter, the actual conquest of Canaan. And of course, this begins with a famous story of the fall of Jericho, followed by the capture of mainly southern towns and then at the end, there was a trek made way up north to capture Hazor, which is about 10 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. And, you know, we’re going to spend a little bit of time here in this episode on this because this is, this is the thing that people talk about when it comes to the book of Joshua: this violence. So let’s just talk about this here for a bit.
Let’s start this way: according to chapter 12, at the very end of the section, according to chapter 12, the total number of kings defeated by the Israelites is 31. And this, this is a literary fact, what’s written here in the book of Joshua, this raises two perennial issues. The first is, well did the conquest of Canaan actually happen like this or at all? And secondly—so that’s a historical question—secondly, is more of a moral question. Namely—this is the big one—what does this say about God, who orders the extermination of an indigenous people so that others could move in and claim it for their own?
Now, as for the first question, let’s talk about that. Did the conquest happen? There is a general and very strong agreement among biblical scholars that the conquest of Canaan, as described in Joshua 6 through 12, did not happen. We say that, again, the conquest of Canaan, as described in Joshua 6 through 12, did not happen. The archaeological data do not support the massive military sweep that Joshua, the book of Joshua, lays out, which seems quite exaggerated. See, of those 31 towns listed in Joshua 12, 16 were destroyed according to the stories in the books of Numbers and Joshua and Judges. And some were taken without a struggle, but 16 were destroyed. Now, here’s the thing. Of those 16, three, maybe four, cities show signs of violent destruction at the general time when Joshua and his army would have been plowing through Canaan, which is generally accepted to be like the 13th or 12th centuries BCE. That’s it! Three, maybe four, out of 16 towns mentioned.
Now, we also read in the Bible that 12 towns specifically were taken over without a fight. They just gave up. But again, it gets complicated when you look at it from a historical point of view. Of those 12, only seven were even occupied at the time, according to archaeological findings. And of those same 12 towns that the Bible says weren’t destroyed, three actually do show signs of destruction. Now, in other words, archaeology and the biblical story don’t line up well, at all. Jericho, the first of the towns to be razed, is the most famous example. This has been debated for a few generations now, about 100 years or so, but it seems to most that Jericho was minimally inhabited at best at the time, and had no massive protective walls, which means that the biblical story of the walls of Jericho tumbling down becomes a problem historically. Or at least that’s what 100 years of digging there has shown. Now debates do rage, and I don’t want to be overly simplistic. There are especially a lot of more Evangelically-oriented scholars who are making arguments for why the data have been misinterpreted. I’m just letting you know that. I’m going to leave it alone. Most would disagree, but there is a debate, there is a discussion here. But generally speaking, Jericho doesn’t fit really with the biblical story…The archaeology of Jericho doesn’t fit with the biblical story.
The two cities that do fit best with what we read in Joshua are Bethel and Hazor, and perhaps a third city Debir. Another city, the fourth city is Lachish, which was destroyed, but here’s the thing—probably about 100 years later, long after the swift victory tour described in the book of Joshua. And also to complicate things further, archaeologically speaking, there’s no sure way of knowing who was responsible for the destruction. Nothing says “outsiders invaded and did this.” In fact, these look more like in-house Canaanite skirmishes. So Israel’s beginnings are mysterious from an archaeological point of view. So we can’t be academically dogmatic about explaining how and when Israel began, but it does seem that a nation eventually called Israel probably came on the scene gradually and relatively peacefully. The Israelites were probably originally made up of a mixture of groups, including an indigenous population of Canaan and also some outsiders, likely nomads or others who wandered freely into this part of the world after a couple of significant power vacuums happened in the ancient world around this time. First is the Egyptians to the south, and the Hittites to the north. They came out of power, so to speak, and left a power vacuum in that part of the world, which gave people free rein to move around. The destructions at Bethel and Hazor, then, well, they’re not self-evident bits of proof or evidence for the conquest of Canaan from the outside, but probably, or very likely, of internal rebellion, or some other type of conflict that ancient tribes just couldn’t keep from getting into.
So where did the biblical story of the conquests come from? Well, that’s a great question and you know, welcome to the world of biblical scholarship. It seems that as time went on, and Israel became a nation—like after 1000 BCE, which is roughly the time of David—as time went on, stories of these earlier skirmishes grew and turned into exaggerated stories of Israel’s “wars against the Canaanites” and the days of old. And these stories probably tell us more about Israel’s later conflicts with the original population of the land, during the time of Israel’s kings, tells us more about that time period than what happened centuries earlier. Now, the exact explanation I just gave may not be completely right and it’s not a hill I’m willing to die on and we all do need to keep an open mind about things that are just tucked behind the veil of history. But it’s reasonable, given what we know at present.
What most everyone is certain about, however, is that the Bible’s version of events is not an accurate historical account of what happened. It is embellished. At least that is the case with the list of towns in chapter 12. Listen to this, this is how chapter 11 ends. Let me quote this one verse here, “So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the LORD had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel, according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war.” This is how chapter 11 ends, and it seems like the Israelites made short work of the Canaanites and just pretty much wiped them out. And the list of towns in chapter 12 reflects this notion. But chapter 13 begins with a list of Canaanite towns that were not conquered. And the same idea is seen in Judges 1-3. More conquering work has to be done. Now, I don’t know, I think this is very interesting. There are two views in Joshua concerning the success of the military campaign. One claims complete victory in accord to what Yahweh told Moses in Deuteronomy. And the other claims partial victory with more to do. The common explanation is one that is used to explain many such similar scenarios in the Bible: these two takes reflect two different traditions, and the second is more sober of an account that reflects political complexities during the monarchy, and the former is more ideal. It’s more ideological.
Now, having said all this—we’re still in this section here talking about the conquest and history and things like that—having said all this, there is one bit of extrabiblical information that supports at least part of the biblical story. And I think this is actually very important. Between about 1200 and 1000 BCE—which is generally the time of Joshua and the book of Judges, you know, more or less chronologically—during this time, the number of settlements in the hill country increased dramatically. And you might say there was a population explosion. Throughout Joshua, we read about the Israelites settling in the hill country. Now, true, the biblical story explains this expansion as a result of warfare, which the archaeological data don’t really fully support, but the expansion itself is supported archaeologically. And one common academic conclusion is that the hill country population increased dramatically, by at least in part, at least, Canaanites moving out into the country as it were. And also then by an influx of outsiders in this power vacuum that I mentioned just before. The biblical portrait of warfare being the cause of the population increase is then often understood as, as I said, a product of a later time envisioning a glorious beginning for the nation.
Anyway, here’s why going through the historical stuff, I think is important theologically, because all this puts the question of, you know, how could God have commanded that all those Canaanites be put to death? I think it puts that moral question in a different light indeed. The answer seems to be—and this is very much my opinion—that God didn’t command this. The biblical story is an ideological exaggeration that portrays God as their mighty warrior, leading the people into battle, which reflects the general portrayal of the gods as warriors at that time. This makes perfect sense to write this way. But archaeology suggests things were not quite like this.
Which brings us to the second issue here with respect to the conquest of Canaan, but it’s the violence of God in Joshua. And this is probably, I have to say, the most asked, or one of the most asked questions by my college students, when we study the Bible: violence. God seems easily provoked. Even if the biblical conquest narrative is not historical, the point is that the ideology of extermination is still part of the biblical tradition, and that has to be taken seriously and not avoided. The question is, how are we to handle this? Now some, I know, some well-meaning Christians are not bothered by the violence at all. And then they say something like, “Well, God is God. And God can do whatever God wants. And if God wants to kill, so be it, who am I to question?” But I have to say more often, it seems to me this sort of thing raises big moral questions for readers about what the God of the Bible is like.
So briefly, allow me to give you my general approach to this moral issue. If you’re interested, I lay it out in a little bit more detail, and I think very popular detail, in The Bible Tells Me So. But let me just sort of summarize what I’m going after here. The Bible, from back to front, is the story of God told from the limited point of view of real people living at certain places and at certain times. See, it’s not like the Israelites were debating whether or not to go ahead and describe God as a mighty warrior that slays his enemies. In a real sense, they had no choice. That’s just how it was done. That was their cultural language at the time period. And if the writers had somehow been able to step outside of their culture and invent a new way of talking about God, their story might not have made sense to anyone. See, the Bible portrays God as a warrior, because, as a seminary professor of mine put it, “Because God lets his children tell the story.” See, compared to God, all humans are like children by analogy, right? Children who see the world from their limited gaze. This goes for all of us. A second grader might give a class presentation on what mom does all day. And she’ll talk about her mom from her point of view rooted in love and devotion, and she’ll filter unconsciously, and in an age appropriate manner, she’ll filter her mother’s daily activities through how she perceives her family and her role in the family as a child. And she’ll get some things more or less correct, but she will also misunderstand some things and still get other things perhaps completely wrong.
Or think about how young boys in the schoolyard can talk about their dads, right? There are ways of telling the story of your dad, that there are ways of doing that to get the point across to make sure everyone knows that you have the best dad around. I mean, just for example, I remember telling my friends in elementary school that my father was an engineer who left a promising academic career in Russia before coming to America after World War Two. He also knew how to handle a rifle. Now, there was historical truth in there, but you had to know where to look. And the way I told my story reflected my context: I was a young boy in the school yard, following without thinking, without criticism, without analysis, the unstated cultural rules for how these stories are told. The truth is my father wasn’t an engineer, but a blue collar machinist. I actually confused engineer with machinist because I didn’t know what either was. I grew up a poor kid in a rich town believing my dad was great and that he could match up toe-to-toe with the suit-and-tie crowd. But he wore blue work clothes that smelled like machine oil and shaved metal, and he didn’t leave a promising academic career. He was a good student, he always liked to remind me, through secondary school and he wanted to be a schoolteacher—but Stalin took his parents’ farm away, threw his father into a concentration camp, his mother died of typhoid fever. And when World War Two happened, he went off to war and he barely finished high school. And as for the war, it was never really an option in the schoolyard to give all the details. See, my father began on the Russian side, but was captured by the Nazis and served out the rest of the war as a reluctant translator for the Nazis, because he was fluent in German—he was actually German. He saw action at first, but not much, and raised as a German Mennonite, he was a pacifist and didn’t like to talk about the possibility that he may have killed someone. Now the thing is, I saw him shoot a rifle once. He hit the bullseye, and won a turkey at the police station turkey shoot. And in my well intentioned mind, I imagined him doing the same in battle. See, I made him into a war hero in my own mind, and that’s what I projected to the kids in the school yard. And I definitely never mentioned to my schoolmates the many things my father did that were actually heroic, but not quite as exciting for school aged boys. You know, my father, he rushed home from his dirty job without changing to get to all my little league games, and I always noticed how many of the fathers with the suit-and-tie jobs never seemed to get there. He held me once in the middle of the night catching my vomit in a napkin. He worked himself ragged weekend after weekend for months and years to turn our tattered and tiny home into something a bit nicer. And he and my mom chose to put up some paneling in the basement for their bedroom so my sister and I could each have our own bedroom in our tiny house. And he resigned himself to working long hours in an unfulfilling job that he tolerated, at best, to make sure we had the proverbial roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, cars to drive, and could go to college.
FYI, my mom gets a lot of credit here, too. But you see, as I matured, I was able to understand and then articulate all this on a deeper level. But as a young boy, the truer and bigger picture of my father wasn’t on my radar screen. And if it had been, had I talked like that? It would have ruined my reputation, and my dad’s, in the schoolyard culture. See, I believed my dad really was the best, and I made sure my friends knew it. I was defending him, and I was a storyteller more than a historian. See, I think the violence passages in the Bible—and you know, here especially the conquest of Canaan—I think they work something like that. It may be hard, sometimes impossible, to see God well in some of Israel’s stories, but we do get a good picture of how these ancient Israelites experienced God. Reading the Bible responsibly and respectfully today, I really think means learning what it meant for ancient Israelites to talk about God the way they did, and not pushing modern alien expectations onto texts written long ago and far away.
Now, Christians, as well as Jews, over the centuries have had to come to terms with the violent tribal portrait of God, and they’ve moved on. The ancient tribal description of God as warrior is not the last word for either Judaism or Christianity. And speaking as a Christian, here, taking someone’s land through violence is simply not a gospel way of living. Christians today, therefore, I think, have an obligation—this is, I feel pretty strongly about this, this is my opinion, take it with whatever grain of salt you want—but Christians today, I think, have an obligation not to follow the Bible here in Joshua, not to allow the ancient tribal description of God of the Old Testament to be the last word. These ancient writers had an adequate understanding of God for their time and in their time, but not for all time. And if we take that to heart, we will actually be in a better position to respect these ancient voices and to see what they have to say, rather than making up explanations or excuses to ease our stress. And again, for Christians, the Gospel has always been the lens through which Israel’s stories are read, which means for Christians, Jesus, not every Bible story has the final word about what God is like.
Now one more brief comment if you will allow it—and you don’t have a choice because I’m recording this, anyway—one more brief comment on a famous passage in this section. And this is where the sun stands still to make possible the defeat of the Amorites, and the Amorites were one of several indigenous people groups of Canaan. So this is in chapter 10. Joshua called out to God to make the sun and moon stop in the heavens, apparently to prolong the daylight hours for battle. And the biblical writer certainly seems to understand this literally, you can see this in verses 13 and 14, “Is this not written in the Book of Jashar?” Actually, I have to stop there and explain what this is. The book of Jashar, no one knows what this is, but scholars surmise that it is probably an ancient collection of battle stories that goes back who knows how far? We wish we had the book of Jashar available. We don’t. But even in this story, you have the biblical writer appealing to oral tradition. So this is something that’s, you know, a whole other issue, which we can’t get into here. But anyway, again, he says, “Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in mid-heaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day. There has been no day like it before or since, when the LORD heeded a human voice; for the LORD fought for Israel.” Now, this causes some issues for people like us. For it would mean that the Earth would stop revolving around the sun. The sun doesn’t move when we do. And it would mean that the moon would stop revolving around the Earth. Now for ancient people, the sun and moon, they move along their daily travels in the heavens, so for God to hold them steady for a few hours is relatively speaking no big deal. But for us, it’s certainly strange credulity. I mean, among other things—I’m no scientist—but for this to have happened would have wreaked havoc on our planet.
Now, some will say that part of the miracle is that God would have kept all that collateral destruction from happening and if that is where some of you listening might want to settle, that’s fine with me. But for me, I see this as another example of reflections on the part of ancient storytellers. But I will say that—and I mean this, I really harp on this when I get a chance—this story is not a lie. It’s not a deception on the part of the writers, it’s just them being ancient people, describing things in ways that make sense to them and people who looked at the world differently than we do. And putting it this way, I’m showing no disrespect for the Bible, again, I’m merely trying to understand it as a product of an ancient culture and for me, to do so is to respect it.[Ad break]
Okay, moving on to the next section more briefly. This is chapters 13–22. So here Joshua is “old and advanced in years.” That’s how chapter 13 begins, verse one. And here he oversees the land allotment for the tribes, according to Moses’s order. So since Joshua is now old, some time seems to have passed since the events in the previous section, the battles. That’s fine, no big deal. So the allotment of the land includes two and a half tribes—which is Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Manasseh—and includes them settling on the east side of the Jordan. So, not in the land of Canaan, but in the territories occupied by the Ammonites and the Moabites, which sets up some clashes between them elsewhere in the Bible. And by the way, it’s worth knowing I think, the Ammonites and Moabites are introduced in the Bible in Genesis 19. This is where the daughters of Lot, after the Sodom and Gomorrah episode, the daughters of Lot are impregnated by the drunken father, resulting in the Ammonite and Moabite lines, which strikes pretty much everybody as a little bit of political propaganda. But anyway…
Next is the territories on the western side of the Jordan, this is in Canaan. And there, what’s really striking is how much detail is given to the territory of Judah. I mean, compare chapter 15 to the other chapters in this section. The account of Judah includes a long list of dozens of towns. Clearly, Judah is well known to this writer and featured prominently, which raises a point that is not at all controversial among biblical scholars. Judah is prominent because the writers or at least the editors of the Hebrew Bible, and the Deuteronomistic History, are Judahites, right? Remember that Judah—the southern kingdom—Judah alone survived exile. The northern kingdom was exiled by the Assyrians around 722 BCE, never to be heard from again. Judah survived their exile in 586 by the Babylonians, and the survivors shaped the final form of the story for their people. And if you want another example of this, look at the treatment of Judah in Genesis 49, these are Jacob’s last words to his sons. And again, here Judah is clearly the top dog.
Also the cities of refuge and the cities allotted to the Levites, they’re mentioned here, too. They in fact round out the section. The six cities of refuge—say that 10 times fast—they’re cities where a person can flee to if they kill someone accidentally. There they will be protected from the “avenger of blood,” like a relative who wants to set the record straight and you know, kill the person that killed the relative. So, there, they will be protected from this avenger of blood until there can be a fair trial and everything can be sorted out—which is actually a beautiful thing. And the Levites, because their job is to care for the religious “system,” let’s say, in Jerusalem, they don’t have their own territory but they’re given 48 towns along with pasture lands within the territories. I mean, they have to live someplace, right? And so, Moses had commanded that they’d be given their own towns, and now they get them.
Okay, so this section ends, then, in chapter 22—which is about the eastern tribes building an altar on the border, but on the Canaanite side, the western side. So the Western tribes, they see this, and they sort of freak out. This is an act of sacrilege. No altars are to be found in Israel, since the tabernacle is where the sacrifices should happen. In other words, you have the centralization of worship, which is a big deal in the book of Deuteronomy. And so, these western tribes freak out a little bit, but the eastern tribes respond, they say, “Oh, no, no, no, no, this altar isn’t for sacrifice, but it’s a memorial. It’s a reminder, lest you Westerners forget that we Easterners are still part of Israel.” And so the Westerners agreed that this is a good idea and war between them was averted. And a good time was had by all.
Okay, let’s move on to the last section as we close out this episode. Chapters 23–24. Here, Joshua gives two speeches to rally the troops. Now chapter 23, specifically, reinforces Israel’s separation from the Canaanite population—so don’t intermarry. And in fact, as we read, the remaining Canaanites will eventually be pushed out by God’s hand. “Your only concern, Israel, is to remain faithful to the covenant. Not to be influenced by those who worship false gods.” Which means do not marry somebody who has a different God. See, if they do intermarry, the Lord will not drive out the remaining Canaanites and instead, God will allow them to remain and to become a snare and trap for the Israelites until they themselves are officially driven from the land—which is a clear allusion to the exile and in my estimation suggest that these words at least were written with the exile already as part of Judas consciousness, so written later. So Joshua rounds out the speech by telling them that he will die soon, so it is very important indeed that they commit themselves to obeying the covenant, he’s not going to be there to watch over them.
So then chapter 24, the last chapter, Joshua presides over a covenant renewal ceremony as it’s called, which is a public declaration of fidelity to the covenant, to the Law of Moses—which, again, I don’t want to repeat things from past episodes necessarily, but in Deuteronomy, as in the Deuteronomistic History, the Law of Moses does not refer to Genesis through Deuteronomy, it refers to Deuteronomy, or at least a big part of it. That’s what the Law of Moses is for this writer. That’s what he’s appealing to. Anyway, most of the speech that Joshua gives here in chapter 24 is a review of Israel’s history from Abraham up to the time right before the conquest of Canaan. It’s sort of like, “here’s where you’ve been, let’s remember where we are going.” And by the way, Moses does this to a more extended version of it. But he does this in Deuteronomy 1-4, rehearsing the past as we consider our present.
Now, something here is quite interesting to me, and we saw it in Deuteronomy as well. This biblical writer has Joshua speaking to his audience as if they were the ones whom God brought out of Egypt. So verse 7, “Your own eyes saw what I did to Egypt.” Remember that generation in Egypt? They died in the 40-year wilderness wandering, that was the whole point of that 40-year period, to have that rebellious generation die out. So those present at this covenant renewal ceremony, were by definition, not eyewitnesses to the Exodus. But again, this is not a mistake on the part of the writer, but it’s a huge theological point. See, as we saw in Deuteronomy, the author of Joshua, well, he makes his readers—who lived far after the events—he makes his readers contemporaneous with the epic past of the Exodus. They are there. And it’s not just the literary audience of Joshua—hang with me here, folks—it’s not just the literary audience of Joshua, which is those people standing before him in this scene who had lived through 40 years in the wilderness after the Exodus story. But it’s the actual historical audience of the book of Joshua, which is much later—seventh century and beyond. They, the real readers of this book, the ones for whom it was written, they too are present at the Exodus. See, “the past is very much present to you. God did not simply act in the past, but is still with you today.” That’s a really powerful thing that this Deuteronomistic Historian does, and the book of Deuteronomy does: “You are still a part of that past.”
Okay, something else here—and without getting into it too deeply—but in my Deuteronomy episode, I spent some time talking about how Deuteronomy seems to be, well, I think it’s fairly clearly modeled on the suzerain treaty genre we know from Hittites and Assyrians. Well, this chapter, 24, is another example of Israel’s use of this treaty formula, as it’s called, to foster obedience to their suzerain, to their overlord, to Yahweh. So, that’s another connection between Joshua and Deuteronomy. And it’s also in this chapter that we come to a pretty famous line in the book, which I swear seems to be a required wall hanging in Evangelical homes. And here’s the setup for this famous line. “Long ago,” this is what Joshua says, “Long ago, Israel’s ancestors,” Abraham and family, “lived in Babylon.” We know this from Genesis, right? They lived in Babylon, and Joshua adds, “and worshiped the gods of Babylon.” Now, Genesis does not say anything about Abraham worshiping the gods of Babylon, but Joshua does. He sort of assumes that like, as we all know…interesting take.
Anyway, Abraham, what he did was he put those old gods behind him, and he learned to worship Yahweh instead. Now the Israelites are in Canaanite territory, and they might be tempted to worship the gods of Canaan, just like Abraham had worshiped the gods of Babylon. So, Joshua challenges them with these famous words. He says, “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods of your ancestors, or the gods of the Amorites,” Right? [Laughs]. The gods of your ancestors, the gods of Abraham, in other words, the Babylonian Gods, “choose this day whom you will serve,” whether the gods of Abraham’s past, or the gods of the Amorites. That’s the current situation, right? Remember, Joshua was not giving the people a choice between these two. Because he goes on to say, “But as for me, in my household, we will serve the Lord.” See, “Be like Abraham in renouncing the religious practices of the culture. Do today what Abraham did back then. Don’t worship the gods Abraham worshiped, obviously, and don’t worship the gods of the Amorites when we are settling in this land, stay separate from them.”
Hmm. Well, anyway, bringing this to a close here, Joshua comes to an end with the death of Joshua at the age of 110. Ten years shy of Moses, by the way, which is interesting. And that’s also repeated in the book of Judges. Stay tuned for that, that’ll be the next episode, but his death is spoken of twice. And also the death of Eleazar, we read about here in the book of Joshua. Eleazar is the son of Aaron. And that’s how the book ends, and with that, we are now set up for the book of Judges and how quickly things unravel the further we get from Moses. And when we get to the book of Judges we’ll see it unravels exponentially within the book of Judges. And that will bring us then to 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel, which is all about the establishment of the monarchy, because clearly this situation with Judges is not going to work. But that’s for next time, folks. Hey, thanks for listening, and I will see you next time.
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