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Back to the Bible - Revisiting the Old Testament

Jim Moyers


Joshua is a controversial book.  Many people have pointed to its depiction of the slaughter of the people who happened to be living in his chosen people's Promised Land as reason for rejecting a God who would order the mass killing of people simply because they didn’t worship him.  

The other major point of controversy concerns the historical accuracy of Joshua.  Despite many years of archaeological excavation in Israel, to date no evidence has been found that would indicate the kind of massive invasion and rapid conquest depicted in Joshua.  Of the cities Joshua describes as destroyed by the Israelites, only at the sites of Hazor and Lachish is there evidence of destruction during the probable time frame of the book.  The first two cities, Jericho and Ai, destroyed in the biblical account weren’t even occupied between the earliest and latest possible dates for Israelite arrival in Canaan.  Ai had been reduced to ruins a thousand years before.  Jericho was destroyed several centuries before the probable time of Joshua and remained unoccupied until around the time of King David.  Jericho is one of the earliest, 9500-9000 BCE, inhabited cities in the world with the oldest known protective wall which was constructed around 8000 BCE (  It would be natural for a tradition about Israelite entry into Canaan to assume that the otherwise mysterious ruins of Ali and Jericho’s wall were related to the triumph of Yahve’s chosen people.  

As is true for the Bible as a whole, the primary concern of the book of Joshua is not historical but theological.  The narrative is about the often difficult relationship of Yahve and his chosen people, demonstrating, to again quote Rabbi Sandmel, that “God works in history; obey his law, lovingly, and he will work good for you, but disobey, and he will work ill for you” (p. 415)

While it is possible, as is the case with the Bible as a whole, to rationalize arguments for Joshua as literal history, such arguments don’t carry much weight outside of fundamentalist circles where the basic accumption that the Bible is the infalliable word of God preempts everything that might indicate otherwise.  The current scholarly consensus is that the book of Joshua, like the other books of the Deuteronomic history, drew from ancient written sources, some of which are cited in the text, which combined historical memories, myth, and folktale to present a particular theological view.  Over time the writing was edited and added to without deleting earlier, sometimes conflicting accounts with the final form reached sometime in the late monarchical or early post-exilic period.  

The lack of evidence for the conquest of Canaan as described in Joshua has produced a long-standing scholarly debate about how the ancient nation of Israel came to be.  A 1209 inscription known as the Merneptah Stele, in which is described a group of people called Israel who lived between three Canaanite towns in the hill region of southern Palestine, is the earliest known non-biblical reference to Israel.  Some scholars believe the Israelites were originally nomadic pastoralists who gradually migrated from the hill country of Palestine to a more settled life in villages.  There is in fact archaeological evidence of an increase from a few fortified centers to several hundred villages between the thirteenth and twelfth centuries BCE, matching the likely timeframe of Joshua.  The Exodus story may be based on cultural memories of historic fact involving migrations from Egypt perhaps related to the mid-twelfth century disintegration of the Egyptian New Kingdom.  Likely there were multiple factors, most of which will probably never be known with certainty, involved in the early history of the nation of Israel.  Whatever the sources may have been for the book of Joshua, the story it tells is one of faithfulness to Yahve resulting in triumph over people who worshiped other gods.

As with the pre-conquest instances of ethnic cleansing depicted in Deuteronomy, Joshua’s wholesale slaughter of Canaanites is appalling for modern sensibilities.  Although it must be acknowledged that until relatively recently the ruthless killing of native peoples by “superior” colonialists, while perhaps regrettable, was generally considered acceptable.  Sandmel compares the attitude towards the Canaanites in Joshua to American settlers feelings about the people they found in “the New World;” in Joshua, with a few exceptions, the only good Canaanite is a dead Canaanite.  Indeed it could be argued that Bible believing people who thousands of years later displaced native peoples from the lands they “discovered” took their cue from the book of Joshua.  I also remember standing in places in England and Ireland where Catholics were brutally executed for practicing a religion that had fallen out of favor with the ruling power.  But wars of conquest and religious persecution are hardly unique to Christian nations or the book of Joshua, having occurred in many cultures throughout history.  

The Oxford Annotated Bible’s introduction to Joshua describes the book’s representation of Yahve “as a purely nationalistic deity, the ‘God of Battles.' ”  The destruction of the Canaanites and their gods provided evidence of the superiority of Yahve over other gods and the efficaciousness of his blessing the chosen people who at his direction had forsaken the worship of those gods.

But there are also instances in which Canaanites weren’t ruthlessly slaughtered.  The prostitute Rahab who sheltered the spies sent in advance of the attack on Jericho was spared along with her family.  According to the Gospel of Matthew (1:5) she married into the tribe of Judah and was an ancestor of David as well as Jesus.  The people of Gibeon, fearing what would happen when Joshua and company arrived at their city, tricked the Israelites into thinking that they had journeyed from outside Canaan to join the Israelites about whom they had heard good things.  Remembering that Moses had given permission for alliances with non-Canaanites, Israel made a covenant with them.  A few days later they discovered that the Gibeonites were from a nearby Canaanite city.  As the word of Israel had been given not to harm their new allies, the Gibeonites were spared but only on condition that they become servants of the Israelites (9).  Some other Canaanites were “put to forced labor” rather than killed (17:13).  According to some scholars, these instances helped to explain why some Canaanites survived to live alongside the Israelites.

The book of Joshua begins with its namesake assuming leadership of Israel as preparations were made for the crossing of the River Jordan into Canaan.  Yahve spoke to Joshua as he did to Moses, giving instructions for the move into the Promised Land.  In a repeat of the crossing of the Red/Reed Sea, the flow of the Jordan, which was at spring flood, stopped to allow the Israelites to cross on dry land.  There are two differing accounts about a memorial set up to commemorate the crossing of the Jordan.  In one it is set up in the middle of the river; the other places it at Gilgal, the Isrelites first camp in Canaan (4:8-9, 20).  

As no circumcisions had been done in the wilderness, all the males, except Caleb and Joshua who were the only surviving members of the circumcised generation that left Egypt, were uncircumcised.  So a mass circumcision was done at “The Hill of the Foreskins” (5:2-7).  As the Israelites waited in camp for the men to heal, the “Commander of Yahve’s Army” appeared to Joshua who asked what commands there were for him.  The account breaks off without a response given (5:13-15);  the last part of the text is apparently missing.  

Joshua’s most famous episode, occupying more chapters than any other story in the book, is the “battle” of Jericho in which the walls “came tumbling down” in response to a “great shout” by the Israelites at the conclusion of seven days of marching around the city.  Taking of booty was forbidden with everything, including all the people of Jericho except Rahab and her family, “devoted to the Lord for destruction” (6:17).  However one Achan took some things for himself which he concealed.  

In their next assault on the city of Ai the Israelites were driven off.  In despair Joshua and the elders “rent (their) clothes and fell to the earth upon (their) face(s) before the ark of Yahve . . .  and put dust upon their heads” (7:6).  Yahve told them that “Israel has sinned” and “transgressed the covenant.”  Apparently the disobedience of one person contaminated the whole of Israel.  Joshua was instructed to bring the tribes for Yahve to “take” (the text is unclear as to just what is meant, perhaps a casting of lots or the use of the oracle of the stones on the priest’s breastplate) first the guilty tribe, then the guilty family, then the guilty household, and finally the guilty person.  Achan “was taken” and confessed.  He along with his entire family, and all of his possessions including his animals, all evidently contaminated and made unclean by Achan’s sin, was “burned with fire and stoned with stones” by “all Israel.”  “A great heap of stones” was raised over what was left of the guilty man, his family, and possessions which “remains to this day” (7).  I can’t help but wonder what “heap of stones” the writer was referring to.  There are several instances of “remains to this day” in Joshua, an indication that the writer must have been aware of things associated with the traditions from which he was drawing.

After the execution of Achan a second assault involving the luring of Ai’s army into ambush went well.  Twelve thousand residents of the city were killed with only the king taken captive to be executed by hanging.  The city, whose name literally means “ruin,” was left “for ever a heap of ruins, as it is to this day.”  But this time Yahve, perhaps avoiding the possibility of a repeat of the incident with Achan, allowed the taking of booty (8:1-29).

After the destruction of Ai, following instructions “as is written in the Book of the Law of Moses” (Deut. 27), Joshua moved north to build an altar on Mount Ebal, opposite Mount Gerizim, on which sacrifices were offered and a “copy of the law of Moses” was written “upon the stones” (it’s unclear whether on the stones of the altar or a separate set of memorial stones).  The people were divided to stand half in front of one mountain and the other half in front of the opposite mountain while “all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law” were read (8:30-35).  Interestingly, a Dead Sea Scroll of Joshua places this incident at Gilgal, the first camp in Canaan after crossing the Jordan as does the first century CE Jewish historian, Josephus.  The text of the scroll also indicates that a reference in an early version of Joshua to Mount Gerizim, which was many centuries later sacred to the Samaritans who were viewed as heretics by the Jews, was later changed to Mount Ebal which had no Samaritan associations.  In seeming support of the location in the Dead Sea Scroll and Josphus, Gilgal continued to be an important worship site for Israel; Mount Ebal is never again mentioned in the Bible as a place for worship.  

Chapter 9 relates the semi-comical account of the Gibeonite, who are also called Hivites, deception.  After the covenant between Israel and Gibeon was established, five Canaanite kings joined forces to wage war against Gibeon.  Joshua, with the assistance of Yahve who “threw down great hailstones from heaven” and made the sun and moon “stand still” at Joshua’s command to allow time for completion of the battle (the other well-known account in Joshua), came to the rescue.  The five kings were entrapped in a cave from which they were taken captive, humiliated, and hanged (10:1-27).  In another intriguing reminder of how much of the past has been lost, “The Book of Jashar” (also referenced in 1 Samuel 1:18) is cited as the source of a brief poetic account of the sun and moon standing still.   Brief accounts of the conquest of Southern and Northern Palestine follow after the story of the battle on the longest day in the history of the world.

Joshua 12 is a summary of Israelite conquests outside Canaan under Moses and those of Joshua against the Canaanites.  Then chapter 13 leads off with Yahve telling Joshua that he is “old and advanced in years” with “there remaining very much land to be possessed.”  Except for Philistine cities, most of the as yet unconquered land listed was outside the bounds of Palestine, but Yahve promised to drive the inhabitants of those lands out and give them to Israel.  A description of the tribal division of the land with much tedious description of the land and tribes runs through chapter twenty-one.

Among seemingly endless references to otherwise unknown people and places is an interesting account of Hebron being given to Caleb, the other survivor with Joshua of the original group who set out from Egypt (14:6-15) which is repeated with more detail in the next chapter (15:13-19; also in Judges 1:11-15).  According to the second account, Caleb drove out three giants from Hebron,  He then conquered another city, Debir, and gave his daughter as wife to the man who killed its king.  His daughter urged her husband to ask Caleb for a field, but then, with no explanation given for the apparent change (or perhaps it was an additional request?), asked her father for a gift and was given “the upper springs and the lower springs.”  There must have been some reason which perhaps was common knowledge for contemporaries of the writer for including this brief but detailed account, but just what the implications of the story might originally have been are long lost.

Joshua 22 relates a misunderstanding between the tribes settled on the east side of the Jordan and those in Canaan.  The tribes on the other side of the river, now released from their agreed upon involvement in the conquest of Canaan, built what appeared to be an altar “of great size” on the side of the river belonging to the other tribes.  As sacrifice was prohibited outside of an established central location they were accused of “rebellion against Yahve.”  In response, the Transjordan tribes explained that they had constructed not an altar for sacrifice but a memorial “witness” of their unity with the rest of Israel in recognizing “that Yahve is God.”  Which “pleased well” the priest and “the heads of the families of Israel” who came to confront them and all was again well between the tribes.

Joshua, “old and well advanced in years,” “summoned all Israel” to promise them that Yahve would drive out “those nations that remain” to give them the entirety of their promised inheritance “from the Jordan to the Great Sea in the west” if they did "all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses” and not “turn back, and join the remnant of those nations left here among you” (23:2, 4-13).  In what may be another version of the same event, he then “gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem,” the place where Yahve had many centuries earlier confirmed his covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:6-8).  After reviewing the history of Israel beginning with Abraham’s departure from “beyond the Euphrates” through the conquest of Canaan, Joshua and the assembly of Israel renewed the covenant to serve and obey Yahve, all of which Joshua then recorded in the Book of the Law of Moses.  A “great stone” memorial was set up as a “witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God” (24:1-28).

“After these things Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of Yahve, died, being a hundred and ten years old” (24:29).  (Biblical ages were becoming more realistic!)  “The bones of Joseph which the people of Israel brought up from Egypt were buried at Shechem” (24:32).  So ends the book of Joshua with Israel at last firmly established in the Promised Land.     

© 2021 James Moyers