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.

The Lord’s Prayer – An Alternate Illustration of Structure

Some time ago I posted a self-guided PowerPoint intended to demonstrate how the Lord’s Prayer is careful Greek poetry as well as profound theology in the form of a prayer: seen here. Here’s a screenshot of the main screen when complete:

Lord's Prayer S'shot

I was pleasantly surprised to read an article recently and find out that a scholar in the U.S. had attempted the same thing. Her focus is more on syntax (sentence structure), whereas I was focusing on sound, i.e. rhyming, and semantics (meaning). And she illustrates differently, e.g. using indentation. But the basic idea is similar. So here is her effort, from an appendix at the end of her article,

Pfeiffer, Cara. ‘The Contour Methodology: Teaching the Bible in the Digital Age’, Conversations with the Biblical World 31 (2011), 204–216. (This is available in the ATLAS database, held by many Bible colleges.)
Lord's Prayer Contour Rendering - Cara Pfeiffer
She has been constrained by the limits of what’s possible within the strict confines of a journal article, but notice her use of colour coding and her sensitivity to poetic structure. Encore!

A Tasty Snippet from Jeremiah 10

Well, just wrote a whole post on this and lost the lot just before saving. Hmph.

To be brief, then, there’s a ripper little near-palindrome and the only piece of Aramaic in the Old Testament outside of Ezra and Daniel except for two words used as a name for a pile of rocks by Laban in Genesis.

It’s seemingly given to Jewish exiles in Babylon as a comeback line for locals who want to mock them for worshipping the invisible (and lone) god of an insignificant and now conquered people.

Here’s a line they can use:

“Tell them this: ‘These gods, who did not make the heavens and the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens.'” (Jer 10:11 NIV)

Like any good comeback line, it has the virtues of carrying a truth, and also of sounding cool. This diagram shows that it is almost a palindrome, one of those lines like ‘racecar’ or ‘a man, a plan, a canal, panama’, that works the same way forwards and backwards. This one mainly works aurally rather than visually, but here it is with the transliterated Aramaic to give you the idea. (Created using Prezi.)

Jeremiah 10.11

There’s the Maker God, and there are the made gods. Big difference. Another gem from a fascinating book!

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.

But What Do YOU Think about the Creation Week in Genesis???

So I’ve written my book.  And I’ve finished the doctorate.  And when I tell interested friends and acquaintances that the topic of each is, “A History of Christian Interpretation of the Creation Week in Genesis 1:1-2:3,” (though buyer beware, it only goes up to the early 1860s!), if they ask any further about it (proving that they are indeed interested!), they say something like,

So what do you think about the creation week?

Continue reading

Romans 12 as Poetry, and a Draft Translation

Here’s a simple draft translation of this chapter of Romans, prepared for a small group study.  It gives limited allowance to text-critical issues and could be improved upon, but is meant to show that Paul was writing poetry when he wrote this chapter, or else his amanuensis (penman) was quite a literary scholar himself.  Paul may have decided to abandon his eloquence when he met the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 2:1-4), but he called upon every rhetorical skill he had available as he urged the Roman Christians to live a Christ-inspired life in Romans 12.  Just for example, spend some time finding all of the rhyme and assonance, not to mention matching line lengths at times, in the Greek column.

Romans 12 Greek and Translation Web Version

My take-away from this chapter?  Clearly the Roman Christians were already taking some heat for their Christian confession, and much of Paul’s urging is that they “let go of hate”, as yoda might say.  I’m reminded again, as so often, of the way of Jesus – the warning, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”  It is so tempting when facing hostility to take up the sword ourselves, to fight fire with fire.  But it is not the way of Christ, and never has been.

The Three Kinds of Writing in Joshua and Their Purposes

The book of Joshua is a great example of a biblical book that contains different genres (kinds of writing) that predominate in different sections of the book, and each has its reason for being there.  I think that when the average reader tackles a book like Joshua, a narrative or history-telling book of the Old Testament (OT), s/he sets out reading it as narrative, the genre that tells a story.  And that is not wrong, because narrative provides the ‘matrix’ that holds the book together.  But embedded in the narrative is another genre that, as Robert Alter once pointed out in his essay, ‘Sacred History and Prose Fiction’ (in The Creation of Sacred Literature, ed. R. E. Friedman, p. 17), dialogue carries much of the meaning in OT narrative, and this is particularly true in a book like Joshua.  What appears within the speeches in Joshua, whether by God or by Joshua or even by others, is programmatic, of defining importance for the theological claims of the book, which determine how the narrated and recreated history is to be understood.  That is why dialogue predominates when counted by verse in the earliest and latest chapters of the book:

Genres of Joshua Chart

Notice also the other main genre in Joshua here, which is usually called (from memory) ‘boundary lists’.  We normally skip that section, or pay it little attention, but it could offer insights into what period that kind of detailed territorial information was in high demand, i.e. where in Israel’s history its first audience could be situated.  It seems to me that its relevance has to be pre-exilic.  That would tie into the significance of the famous (or notorious) ‘to this day’ statements that are so abundant in Joshua and tip the hand to the time period in which the book was written.  See Joshua 4:9; 5:9; 6:25; 7:26; 8:28-29; 9:27; 10:27; 13:13; 15:63; 16:10; 22:22; 23:9; 24:15.  Josh. 15:63 is a telling example; it reports the Jebusites of Jerusalem as not yet dislodged from there.  Since this was something achieved early in David’s reign according to 2 Sam. 5:6-10, we have a clue that the Joshua map lists or much, most or all of the book might have been produced as early as this, in the 10th century B.C.