Part II – The Text
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Suggestions For Study
If we can leave exercises in misappropriating history to the politicians, we can return to the text itself. How should we engage a rather difficult book of the Bible?
Among Jews who take Torah study seriously, Joshua is not the book of the Hebrew Bible that you will find most dog-eared. So much of it deals with boundaries and place names that are not so instantly inviting. There are fewer commentaries available, which makes it even harder for the student.
All of this is relative, however. There is plenty of discussion to be had, and lots of enlightenment to be found, in studying the text.
I would identify two kinds of topics in the book: smaller ones that are localized within individual narratives, and a few mega-issues. I will try to inventory some of those in the first group, and speak at greater length about the second. First, the smaller issues:
How do the two “spy” episodes – the one in Joshua 2 and the one in Numbers 13 – compare? Why the different number of spies? Why the different reactions?
The declining role of apparent miracles relative to the earlier books of the Bible (Chapters 3, 6)
When a community is held accountable for the actions of a minority, or even an individual? (Chapter 7)
A covenant is a contract. Deception will invalidate any contract. Why wasn’t the covenant with the Gibeonites simply rejected as invalid? When is perception more important than reality? (Chapters 9-10)
Accidental homicide – why is it seemingly the only crime without intent that is treated so dramatically? (Chapter 20)
Public service personnel on the public dole – the cities of Priests and Levites (Chapter 21)
Why did the orderly, prearranged departure of part of the people almost turn into civil war? (Chapter 22)
Farewell speeches (Chapters 23-24 and Deuteronomy 33)
The astute reader may surmise that concentrating on the above issues may simply be a distraction from paying attention to the multiple elephants in the room. In my mind the two largest pachyderms are a) the holiness of land, and b) how to deal with narratives about G-d that depict Him contrary to our expectations.
Long essays from me are probably not what you can use from me. Instead, I will do what I rarely get to do in my own community. A large part of traditional Jewish study – perhaps the largest part – is in asking questions. All sorts of questions, pointing out inconsistencies, contradictions, loose ends, and more. Most of the time, students expect answers as well. Here I have a rare opportunity to briefly tease out some topics and questions, without providing satisfactory answers. (Anyone who really wants to hear what I have to say about by way of answers is welcome to contact me at email@example.com )
An underlying theme of the book is the holiness of the Land, meaning a physical, geographical location. The exact borders are very important, as well as the internal boundaries between the different tribes. Every group wants a piece of the action. The two and a half tribes which strike a deal and opt for the more promising cattle-ranch land to the east of the Jordan are eyed with suspicion. We find more material about the nature of the Land’s specialness in the earlier books of the Bible. The Land is promised multiple times. We are told that a host of commandments only apply within the boundaries of the Land. Two people could occupy plots on opposite sides of the street. One will be obligated to leave over multiple portions for the poor, while the other will not. The people are warned that disobedience within the Land is not like in other places. Those who do not live elevated lives will be “vomited out” of the Land.
What emerges is a picture of Land being not only special, but holy.
But just what is holiness? To what does it apply? How do we capture it and use it?
Many different concepts have been used to explain or even define holiness. Holy can mean set aside, designated for a particular purpose. This includes, but is not limited to, the idea of being special. Even without any different intrinsic properties, things may be holy when they are unusual, and designated to help us mark or remember important events. (We recall that the prostitute in the Genesis story of Judah and Tamar is called in the Hebrew text a kedeshah, from the identical Hebrew root (KDSH) as the word for holy. The same word in used for “sacred prostitute.” There is nothing holy about prostitution. The word is used because the someone designates herself as available for a certain occupation.)
Some see it as connoting transcendence – meaning something that rises above the limitations of physical existence.
Leviticus 19 talks about G-d being holy – and that therefore Man should be holy as well. What a non-sequitur! It is easy for Him! But we are not Him, and never forget it. How can His holiness inspire – nay, demand – ours.
Elsewhere, we encounter holiness applied to time (Sabbath and the holidays) and people (priests), as well as place.
Can we come up with a theory that can tie up all the loose ends? Can we find merit that G-d, too, takes some places and makes them special? That He elevates them, enhances them with some intrinsic qualities? That He chooses special, holy places where His Presence can be felt by humans (who sometimes need out of the ordinary tools to learn out of the ordinary lessons)?
Why is it that the holiest place described in the Bible is the future site of the Temple – but not the mountain whereupon G-d revealed Himself to humanity as a lawgiver – the holiest place in the earlier books?
Is holiness made by people, or drawn from a preexisting font of it?
Holiness is uplifting and exhilarating. Slaughtering people is not. The darker mega-question in Joshua is its sanctioned violence. Why does a G-d of love dispatch people in wholesale numbers to their deaths?
The issue has to be seen in the context of all the earlier material about the inhabitants of the Land, and the ethics of war. G-d tells Abraham that He will not sanction an early entry into the Promised Land, because the inhabitants have not yet un-unearned their lease on it. That would have to wait. They need a few more chances, a few more opportunities to get it right. Four hundred years worth, to be exact.
Deuteronomy spells out rules about warfare that may have applied to Joshua’s wars of conquest: first suing for peace, offering terms, allowing both soldiers and noncombatants to flee besieged cities.
Still, the bottom line is not a love-fest. Those who resist are slaughtered.
The question is a larger one than the wars of Joshua. It is dealing with a G-d Who remains inscrutable. He may tell us that He is about love (and in Jewish tradition about judgment as well, although making it clear that the judgmental side is an adjunct to the primary persona of love), but then act in a way that we as humans cannot possibly fathom as love.
This happens not only in antiquity, but probably in the lives of most people. How do we deal with the apparent inconsistencies – even as we realize that as humans, there will always be much about G-d that we do not comprehend?
These questions, of course, touch on the even larger question of theodicy.
Jewish thinkers have been grappling with these issues for millennia. I wish I could say that there wasa series of good, brief answers. My favorite approach, only partially satisfying, is a very recent one. It may not find favor with Christians, because it deals with a facet of G-d – as Judge and Arbiter of law – that Christianity often downplays. It was written by a contemporary thinker, Shalom Carmy. Entitled “The Origins of Nations and the Shadow of Violence: Theological Perspectives on Canaan and Amalek,” it appeared in Tradition, Winter 2006 (39:4) 57-88. Briefly, it points to a very old Jewish observation about the Names of G-d used in the Genesis story. In the beginning (excuse the pun), the text uses only the Name Elokim, which refers to G-d’s role as imposer of law and judgment. (This seems right. We all prefer a world whose behavior is lawful and predictable; it makes sense that law should be emphasized in a Creation story.) Only with the creation of Adam and Eve is a different Name added – the Tetragrammaton, which refers to G-d’s (primary) trait of love and compassion.
In a section he entitles “The Full Harshness of the Terrifying,” Carmy notes that when Divine Judgment alone is displayed, the consequences are beyond what we think are endurable. “The Bible grants G-d the untrammeled and unqualified moral authority to dispose of nations according to their deserts.” He sentences Amalek and the seven nations of Canaan to death for their sins, and does exactly the same to the Israelites for their sin of the Golden Calf.”
There is something important and mysterious in G-d telling us this, despite His moving to the much more frequent display of the attribute of love. Carmy posits that just as the “the history of G-d’s interaction with His world is marked by the thunderclap of judgment, modified by the tidings of mercy,” so too is the history of the Land. The first conquest is rooted in the absoluteness of judgment. The return to the Land in the days of Ezra – the one that in Jewish thought was never annulled – occurred through peaceful means.
All of the above is an alternative route to exploring Joshua. It is only the very skeleton of a study guide. If you find merit in the approach, I am sure you will find much satisfaction in fleshing it out. And if any insights from a few millennia of Jewish study will help you, I will be most happy to assist you.