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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Joshua and Jihad: Part II of Joshua, Jesus and Jihad

Is it only the end or purpose of jihad that we want to quibble with Islamic State over, or is it the means as well?

Explosions at Miramar Airshow.jpg
Explosions at Miramar Airshow“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

To address this part of our two-part series, now addressing ‘Joshua and Jihad’, I will interact with an article by Andrew Shead in Eternity magazine from late last year:

“HOLY WAR: Islamic State & Israel in the Old Testament.” Eternity, November 2014, 19-20. Published by the Bible Society. Also accessible online at http://www.biblesociety.org.au/news/holy-war-islamic-state-israel-old-testament.

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Samuel – A Temple Slave?

Two quick questions raised by a single verse, 1 Samuel 1:28, and in fact, a single word…

  1. In response to her answered prayer, Hannah brings the very young Samuel back to the Shiloh temple to be devoted to the LORD’s service for life. Now multiple times in Ezra-Nehemiah, albeit books that narrate a much later time, we encounter a category of the post-exilic population called ‘Nethinim’, the ‘given ones’, apparently meaning a kind of dedicated person, a temple slave of some kind. The word occurs in 1 Chr. 9:2; Ezr. 2:43, 58, 70; 7:7; 8:17, 20; Neh. 3:26, 31; 7:46, 60, 72; 10:29; 11:3, 21, and nowhere else in the Old Testament. Ezra 8:20 attributes the formation of this class of persons to David, though there is no reference to them in narratives of pre-exilic times. So my first question is, should we view the character Samuel in these terms, as one of the ‘given ones’, a ‘nātîn‘ or temple slave? He is certainly something like it, though the formal category may come later.
  2. However, the word for ‘given’ (in all English versions I’ve checked) is different in 1 Samuel 1:28. It is ‘šāʾûl‘. Look familiar? It should, for it is identical to a name that occurs numerous times in the same book from 9:2 and following: Saul. At one level this is odd, because the Hebrew form is the qal passive, which I would expect normally to mean ‘requested’, or ‘asked’. Its meaning in its context can be debated: I haven’t yet looked into it in detail. But my second question is this: Why does the story so carefully connect Samuel to Saul through this distinct anticipation of his name so early in the book? The English reader can’t see it, but it’s obvious in the Hebrew. Samuel himself is the first ‘shaul’ in the book of Samuel. To conclude, here is the BibleWorks chart showing occurrences of this word form in the Old Testament. Aside from its use as Saul’s name, this form is extremely rare. Its occurrence in 1 Samuel 1:28 in description of Samuel is no accident!

'Shaul' in Genesis to 2 Samuel 4'Shaul' in 2 Samuel 5 to end OT

The Workings of Hebrew Narrative in the Hezekiah Stories in 2 Kings

My kids have just come home from school with the fact that the world’s best-selling book is the Bible and not any part of the Harry Potter series, or even Lord of the Rings.

It isn’t surprising when we look closely at the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (to say nothing of the all-important Final Quarter).  I’m constantly amazed at the artistry and profundity of both poetic and narrative texts of the OT.  And some of it escapes us until we read the Hebrew.

Having reached the end of 2 Kings 20 this morning, let me mention a couple of great little nuggets from 2 Kings 18-20, those riveting and sometimes perplexing stories about Hezekiah.  (Pretty well all of these things will apply also to Isaiah 36-39, but I am not taking the time to check each detail there right now.)

  • There is a fundamental tension within the story of the Assyrian crisis when Sennacherib invades.  Here it comes out in Christopher J. H. Wright’s brief historical survey in The Message of Jeremiah, Bible Speaks Today Series (2014), p. 18:

“When Sennacherib marched west to put down the rebellion in 701 BC, he invaded and ravaged Judah fiercely and then besieged Jerusalem itself.  Panic once again in Jerusalem.  This time Isaiah’s counsel prevailed, Hezekiah sought the Lord, and the city was spared with a miraculous deliverance (though Hezekiah did in fact submit to heavy tribute).”

That is a clear tension in the story, and the submission is narrated first, before the story of miraculous deliverance!  There’s no concealment or gilding the lily at this point.  But even the silence about conquest evident in the Sennacherib Prism might suggest that the failure to actually take Jerusalem is the elephant in Sennacherib’s room: “(Hezekiah) himself, like a caged bird I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city.”

  • There is a good example of ‘repetition with variation’ in Hebrew narrative.  The first message from Sennacherib’s chronies in 2 Kings 18:19-25 is seemingly careful not to incite the enmity of Yahweh, instead (disingenuously) claiming that Hezekiah’s centralization of worship to Jerusalem makes him less faithful to Yahweh than Sennacherib himself is, who has come to invade Judah, he says, on Yahweh’s instructions!  In v. 29 he adds, “Do not let Hezekiah deceive you. He cannot deliver you from my hand.”  But notice the word of the second backup threat to Hezekiah in 19:10: “”Do not let the god you depend on deceive you when he says, ‘Jerusalem will not be handed over to the kind of Assyria.’  …Did the gods of the nations that were destroyed by my forefathers deliver them…?  Much of the wording is identical, but in place of ‘Hezekiah’, now it is Yahweh’s competence being questioned.  Perhaps that is why the second prophetic denunciation through Isaiah is so much the stronger than the first!  Can I emphasize that this is a principle for understanding all OT narrative?  Pay attention to the little variations within the repetition!  They make the big points!  (This is also what makes good music good!)
  • Isaiah’s first, much briefer message in 19:6-7 uses a great word that I hadn’t noticed before:

6 Isaiah said to them, “Tell your master, ‘This is what the LORD says: Do not be afraid of what you have heard– those words with which the underlings of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me.
7 Listen! When he hears a certain report, I will make him want to return to his own country, and there I will have him cut down with the sword. ‘” (2Ki 19:6-7 NIV)

The word rendered ‘underlings’ is one Hebrew word for children or teenagers, and can by derivation mean ‘servants..  It’s effectively labeling Sennacherib’s highest officials as his ‘boys’, trivial figures who just say and do what they’re told.  It’s a Churchillian one-word put-down.

By the way, Isaiah’s first message, as brief as it is, is links to the final judgment on Sennacherib, his eventual assassination (2 Kings 19:37).  Enclosed within this prophecy and fulfilment is another, the larger oracle/s of Isaiah (19:21-34) and their fulfilment in the plague that drives the Assyrians from the walls of Jerusalem (19:35-36).

Here are some of the things that feature twice in the narrative in 2 Kings 18-20; see if you can locate the two aspects of each feature:

Inclusios or Doublets in 2 Kings 18-20

  • And to illustrate just one brief example of the many deliberate doublets in this narrative: the account of Hezekiah’s career finishes where the Assyrian crisis began in 2 Kings 18:17 – at the aqueduct of the upper pool…a piece of infrastructure that 2 Kings 20:20 finally tells us was a key achievement of Hezekiah.  And, characteristically for Hebrew narrative, the two Hebrew terms for this structure are mentioned in reverse in the Hebrew text!  The book of Isaiah does even more with this particular narrative setting, but that’s another story.

Blasphemy Laws Ancient and Modern

Sometimes Old Testament narratives can provide striking parallels to social realities in modern traditional societies.

Reading 1 Kings 21, I find that the way Naboth can be removed as an obstacle to land acquisition by Ahab and Jezebel in ancient Israel is by means of a trumped-up blasphemy charge.  Upon the accusation of two witnesses-for-hire, “Naboth has blasphemed God and the king,” Naboth is taken outside the city and stoned to death (1 Kings 21:13).

You might remember hearing a story in the news where something similar has been done recently in a couple of traditional societies, in one case using bricks.  I recently heard a thoroughly researched presentation describing how blasphemy laws in Pakistan have been utilized at an exponentially increasing rate in the last two decades, and at the same time, hardened so that a life sentence has been ruled out as the lenient option.  On conviction, it is death alone.

Aside from the ethics of prosecuting blasphemy with death, which I would propose is already an ugly side of a theocratic society, this sort of law leaves itself open to this kind of vindictive abuse – a way to get even with or get rid of an enemy, or someone refusing to co-operate with one’s own evil plan.  Another fact that came out in the abovementioned presentation was that since the witness cannot repeat the blasphemy without incurring guilt himself or herself, all that is needed is the accusation, without further evidence.

Upright and evenhanded law is a prized possession in any society.  Let none of us take it lightly.

And where righteous law is unenforced, endangered or lost, there is comfort in this passage: “In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth, dogs shall lick your blood, even yours” (1 Kings 21:19).  Only notice that this is not achieved by vengeance killing by Naboth’s family.  That way lies neverending conflict.  “”Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord” (Heb. 10:30, from Deut. 32:35).  If we choose to live by the sword, we will die by the sword (Matt. 26:52).  The way of Christ is the way of the yielded sword.