A Few Thoughts on the Book of Joshua

It’s funny what occurs to you when you read different books of the Bible simultaneously.

I’ve just finished reading Joshua in the Hebrew, in my grand quest to read the whole OT in Hebrew, and finished Leviticus prior to that. At the same time, a Greek reading group I’m involved with at our college, Melbourne School of Theology, has been working through the Gospel of John.

What I find in such parallel reading experiences is that you see new and exciting connections between the different books.

So, for the record, here are three connections I’d suggest for the book of Joshua:

  1. Scholars often talk about a ‘Deuteronomistic History’, that is, who would describe Joshua-Judges-Samuel-Kings as an ultimately unified historical work strongly conditioned by the theology that is most systematically articulated in Deuteronomy. This can be construed in a very diachronic way, i.e. almost purely in terms of how these books originated, or in a more synchronic way, seeking the theological and thematic continuities. In my mind both of these angles are interesting and relevant. But I would simply say here that this is an enlightening way to read Joshua. Chapter 1 is clearly designed to correspond to the later chapters of Deuteronomy, esp. ch. 31, or vice versa, with common language about the succession of Joshua for Moses and the importance of discarding fear. Chapter 8 features the covenant-making ceremony recalling the instructions given in Deuteronomy 27. Joshua 22 details at length a controversy about an altar built near the Jordan by the eastern tribes that recalls the instructions about a single altar in Deuteronomy 12 (e.g. see Josh. 22:29). And the historical recollection that prefaces the covenant ceremony of Joshua 24 in its consciousness of having roots ‘across the River’ in Mesopotamia reminds me of the famous confession of Deut. 26:5, “My father was a wandering Aramean.” So I see a clear Deuteronomic influence in Joshua that may be read in terms of a theology and in terms of an editorial stratum, and I don’t think these two angles are mutually exclusive. But that’s not what was new to me!
  2. Reading Joshua after Leviticus showed me just how ‘priestly’ the book of Joshua is. Priests lead the crossing of the Jordan. Even the infamous ‘ḥērem’ or program of extermination (‘ideal’ though it be) of the Canaanite occupants of the land seems to me to be conducted (or portrayed) in a very priestly and ceremonial manner, along with the punishment of its violation by Achan. On a similar note, but now contrasting with Leviticus, the Levites suddenly make their appearance in Josh. 13:14. Priestly action is unaccompanied by any mention of Levites to this point in Joshua. This is not unlike the Pentateuch: Leviticus does not so much as mention a Levite until ch. 25, and then only in two verses, Lev 25:32-33! It is, ironically, the book of Numbers that teems with references to the Levites. So it is in Joshua: no mention of Levites, but much to priests, in Joshua 1-12; then quite a focus on Levites and their part in the land distribution. While they are denied an inheritance like that of the other tribes, a region to call their own, Joshua 21 offers detailed description of the towns allocated to them to reside in. So I found these priestly/levitical connections interesting, and felt as though all of the historical reportage of Joshua has a kind of priestly, ceremonial frame.
  3. This might surprise you. I find Joshua akin to the Gospel of John. They might seem quite contrary: John all about how God “loved the world in such a way,” with a love that extends in a sense universally; Joshua making it clearer whom God hates than whom He loves, if that isn’t too pointy a phrasing. But they are Jekyll-and-Hyde alter egos of one another. Both are very theologically geared, more so than their neighbours. Theology constrains the telling of history much more in Joshua than in Judges or Samuel, I feel, and I would say the same about John in comparison with Matthew, Mark and Luke. The result is a much more schematic book in both cases, less shaped by the flow of events and far more by the theological truths needing to be conveyed. The two share a very simple vocabulary too: Joshua a good book for a new reader of biblical Hebrew, and John famously so for a new reader of NT Greek. Yet both offer a profound and quite challenging theology that belies the simplicity of their terminology. Perhaps we could be simplistic ourselves here and give a motto for each book’s message:
    1. Joshua: “Who ya gonna serve?”
    2. John: “Who ya gonna trust?”

Time for the real work of the day, but maybe this will challenge your thinking about these three biblical books.

New evidence for Jewish exiles found in clay tablets

Just about to check out the Chavalas article, but was pleasantly surprised to learn in recent years that there are direct references in Babylonian records to Jehoiachin and his sons as held in exile from Judah. These references appear in food ration lists. See Becking, Bob, Alex Cannegieter, Wilfred van de Poll, and Anne-Marieke Wetter. “In Babylon: The Exile as Historical (Re)Construction,” in From Babylon to Eternity: The Exile Remembered and Constructed in Text and Tradition (BibleWorld; London: Equinox, 2009), 4–33, @14-15.

With Meagre Powers

Here’s a brief article by Mark Chavalas (University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse) about some clay tablets that reveal what life was like for Judeans exiled from their homeland by the Babylonians in the sixth century BC.

A snippet:

The texts were written by professional Babylonian scribes on behalf of their Jewish lower middle-class clients, who engaged in the cultivation of grains and date palms, bought and sold cattle, rented houses, loaned silver, sold slaves, and engaged in marriage alliances. Though some even prospered economically, most were settled in state-owned land in return for military service for Babylon, By a cursory study of the personal names in the tablets, it appears that at least three generations of Jews lived in Al-Yahudu and surrounding towns.

Read more here: Mark Chavalas: New evidence for Jewish exiles found in clay tablets.

You’ll even discover the origin of Zumba!

A clay tablet from 572 BCE, the earliest known text…

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An Embryonic Example of Teaching Hebrew Vocabulary Visually in Semantic Fields

This is a work in progress, lacking order and featuring only one or two hundred of the most common terms from OT biblical Hebrew, but you can see the principle I’m pursuing: representing vocabulary words that students need to learn in natural association and with visual clues. I’ve tried out more than one principle of association, and would like to cluster the circles together in related bubble masses in time, though the prezi will at some point begin to grind to a stop with its graphical content. So there is builder’s rubble and scaffolding lying around here.

Heb Vocab Fams Scrshot Smaller

The impetus for this visual aid I owe to David Gormley-O’Brien, whom I heard speak at the SCD Teaching & Learning Conference in Sydney last September, where he called for the teaching of biblical languages in semantic domains, while I was there presenting a paper on, yes, visual communication in the theological classroom. So this is my attempt to put David’s call into practice, such as it is so far.

From a method point of view, I have had to create the frame in prezi, take a screenshot of that and paste it into an Inkscape (i.e. vector graphics) document, type in Hebrew terms in SBL Hebrew font and manipulate them as needed, then select assemblages of Hebrew terms and export them as png files which I could then open from within prezi and drop into place, where they were tailored to fit as needed.

The link: https://prezi.com/cbqtqi7bqwgs/hebrew-vocabulary-by-semantic-fields/

Feedback is most welcome.

‘Why should I study Hebrew?’

Well put by a fellow Hebrew instructor!

With Meagre Powers

I’m often asked by people going to theological college or seminary, “Why should I study Hebrew?’ Less often, they ask, “Why should I study Greek?”

They’re good questions. Vital questions.

To answer, I want you to imagine this scenario.

You’ve just arrived at university, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. You’re there to study French literature. In fact, it’s been your dream for a few years now to study French literature. You love French culture. You’ve travelled to Paris and fallen in love with the place. You adore French cuisine. Now you want to sink your teeth into the masterpieces that French authors have produced. So you’ve enrolled in the course, bought all the books, and checked your timetable. You’re ready to begin.

And so the day finally arrives. You find the classroom. You walk in, find a seat, and try to get comfortable. But you find yourself shuffling in your seat with nervous anticipation.

Then the Professor walks in.

Your excitement piques…

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Mini-Book Review: Sivertsen’s The Parting of the Sea

Book: Sivertsen, Barbara J. The Parting of the Sea: How Volcanoes, Earthquakes, and Plagues Shaped the Story of Exodus (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Looks like: Sivertsen - Parting of the Sea

Subject matter: largely the connection between tectonic and volcanic factors, like volcanic eruptions in western Arabia (the ‘harrat’) and dual eruptions of Mediterranean volcanoes (one, famously, the huge eruption of Thera/Santorini in the Aegean Sea about 1600 BC), and…

  • The plagues of Egypt described in Exodus 7-11;
  • The Red Sea crossing;
  • Events surrounding Mount Sinai, described in Exodus 19-24 and beyond;
  • Other wilderness experiences;
  • The defeat of Jericho, and other events related to the (now much-disputed) conquest of Canaan associated with Joshua;
  • And thus, to resolve the question of the dating of the Exodus events.


  • Solid research in the relevant fields, as it seemed to me, including studies in Exodus, OT historiography and the geology of the region of Palestine
  • Awareness of what I think is a real factor in Israel’s history as described in the OT, that is, the place of tectonic/volcanic events. These seem to be a rich source of OT metaphors (e.g. in Psalm 46, or early in Micah 1), which suggests some real experience of such events by Israel or her ancestors.
  • An instinct for integrating disparate facts into a coherent whole
  • An at times apt feel for the way cultures may represent past experiences in story form
  • The courage not to abandon, as many biblical scholars have, any quest for real historical background to the earlier narratives of the OT. It is difficult, admittedly, to clarify the historical scenes lying behind the narratives of Exodus, or Numbers, or Joshua. But it represents a kind of cowardly resignation, if that isn’t too strong, to simply declare these narratives utterly unrelated to history. It’s a petulant alternative to having to admit to not knowing as much as we’d like to know.


  • An inclination to utilize almost exclusively naturalistic explanations. I think to do justice to OT presentations of the ‘signs’ of God’s dramatic work on his people’s behalf, we must neither prohibit natural factors, since I don’t think that biblical writers drew a sharp line here the way we do, nor limit ourselves exclusively to natural factors, since they certainly didn’t do that either. I felt as if Sivertsen was undertaking a program of demythologization.
  • A desire to explain too much, i.e. to leave no overlap of mystery. I’m always a little suspicious when a scheme presents as removing all mystery from what must, at such a historical remove, remain somewhat mysterious. It comes out too ‘neat’ in my opinion.
  • A complex explanation, of “two volcanic eruptions and two exoduses related to the Exodus found in the Bible” (p. 148)
  • A speculative explanation, that relies too much on a hypothetical reconstruction of events that is difficult to either verify or falsify.

Outro: a great book for introduction to the issues involved in seeking historical connections, causes and explanations for the narratives of Exodus to Joshua. You can learn a lot from Sivertsen’s solid grasp of the data, but I would advise caution about accepting her conclusions.

A New Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Study Tool Online

From time to time I add a new pin to my Pinterest board on tools for studying biblical Hebrew: https://www.pinterest.com/abrown5929/biblical-hebrew-teaching-and-learning/

But occasionally there comes along a new tool that’s worth noting more fully. Care of a student of Matthew Anstey (and of mine, at intervals), I’ve found out about one called Shebanq, which appears to permit searching of anything you’d like to find out about the Hebrew Bible/OT. I’m sure it can do a great range of different things, and you may want to explore the possibilities. Let me mention just one.

Some time back, I explored manual representation of distribution of important OT terms by means of a heat map. If you don’t know what a heat map is, it is a kind of chart commonly used in data visualization circles. Here is an effort done up in Prezi to show where Levites are mentioned in the OT, and where they aren’t: https://prezi.com/uhjbcpw1xiyn/references-to-levites-in-joshua-kings-chronicles/

Levite Refs in Hist'l Books Sshot

However, much better than a template that has to be filled in manually is a tool that creates a heat map (such as the circular one above) automatically. That is one thing that Shebanq does. As an experiment, I searched for the prefixed relative pronoun that usually appears as ‘שֶׁ’, typically in late biblical Hebrew contexts. In concert with a whole range of other terminological data, including the use of Aramaic and, more tellingly, Persian terms, it gives away parts of the OT canon as clearly postexilic, notably Book V of the Psalms, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. You’ll see what I mean in this screenshot from the program:

Shebanq rel pron example

You’ll find this at http://shebanq.ancient-data.org/hebrew/text, and the relevant term is tagged with the number 2640. To get there, select ‘Words’ in the header menu, select the Hebrew letter ‘שׁ’, then find ‘שַׁ’, the first option under that letter. Then, in the LH dialogue box, select ‘chart’, and (as we say here) ‘Bob’s your uncle’! A heat chart making the distribution of the term clear at a glance!

I find this kind of tool an instant buzz, and a doorway both into diachronic studies of term frequencies (over time) in biblical Hebrew, and into ‘synchronic’ studies of key biblical themes accessed through tracing ‘giveaway’ words for those themes.

Did I mention that it’s free?