Reading the Bible as Literature
Week Eleven: Joshua 5 – Judges 2
The book of Joshua unfolds as a sequence of battles, one after the other, which demonstrates Joshua’s prowess as a military leader and ultimately result in the total settlement of Israel. The most prominent anecdotes include the sacking of Jericho and of Ai, as well as the alliance with the Gibeons and, finally, Joshua’s death. Judges, which is much less unified in its telling, will make it clear, however, that the Israelites were not as clearly successful and progressively advancing as the book of Joshua would suggest. Rather than a regular string of successes, the battles for Canaan were much longer, messier, and humbling than earlier described. The reason for this is probably that Joshua’s legacy is at stake in the first book: a legend is being crafted and perpetuated, and so, with rare exceptions, his total domination and superior command must be depicted without question. It seems Judges, however, is compiled from a great deal of ancient historical documents, without much effort to tell any single storyline, and thus might suggest more factual accounts of this period than the lore of Joshua does.
Winning: Joshua 5-12 is essentially the recounting of a number of battles fought and won. Some of the most important and memorable battles come early, such as the sacking of Jericho. Over the course of 6 days, the Israelites circle the city of Jericho once and blow their trumpets. On the seventh day, they circle 7 times (the city must have been rather small) and blow their trumpets each time. After the last cycle, Joshua commands that the people shout with all their might along with the seventh trumpet-sounding. This “causes” the walls to fall down. Of course, what is more likely is that Joshua had some men chipping away at a part of the wall the entire time, while distracting the inhabitants of Jericho with the marching and trumpeting, even masking the sound. After Jericho comes the battle of Ai, which is significant because their first attack on it fails. This is blamed on Achan’s stealing gold, silver, and robes from Jericho, something explicitly forbidden. After stoning Achan and his family to death, they attack Ai once more (through some military trickery) and succeed, burning it to the ground and killing 12,000 people in the process. The next big event comes with the alliance to the Gibeons and Joshua’s slaughter of the 5 most powerful regional kings. During this period, Joshua causes the sun to stand still (10:12-14), an event for which there is still no explanation. The next couple of books recount more military successes.
Maps: After the many military successes, over the course of decades, Joshua reaches the ripe old age of 110. He knows he is going to die, so he spends his final days reminding the Israelites of their inheritances, which is to say the lands they shall settle based on tribe (with the Levites inheriting no land because they have been called to be priests). Essentially, we get a summary of Moses’s final words, right down to the reminders not to transgress against god or to revert to the old religions, nor to tolerate others’ gods/idols. Like Moses, he “gifts” the people their lands, tells them to be good, reminds them of their rich history from Abraham to Isaac and Jacob, down to Esau, Moses, and Aaron, and then dies. The second half of this book, then, is essentially a combination of area map with tribal history; in other words, a synthesis of the old and the new.
Judges: Although we are not far into the Book of Judges, we can already see a difference between it and the previous books, especially its closest relative, Joshua. In this case, Judges is essentially a history of Israel immediately following the conquest of Canaan by Joshua and the Israelites. Instead of being told as a linear story, however, it is a miscellaneous collection of historical documents, most that pre-date the writing of the book by many generations, and the documents are not always related. Therefore, what is compiles is not a unified tale; it also raises questions about Joshua’s unfaltering military leadership (Judges 1 recounts the struggles of many disorganized tribes, fighting solitary to survive; there is no single leader and few alliances). Some historical facts to keep in mind: the Israelites are rising to power in Canaan in-between the Bronze Age (c 2500+) and the Iron Age (c 1400 BC). Their rise takes place just between the decline of the Egyptian empire and the rise of the Assyrians, which is why they had some time to establish themselves in Canaan. It’s also important to note that the Israelites, historically Egyptian, rely on earlier bronze weaponry rather than the more advanced iron, which they would encounter in battles with some tribes, such as the Ai. This is a likely reason why they struggled to win against many the Canaanite tribes, those who may have been in contact with other advanced cultures.
OTHER INTERESTING BITS
The Judges: The so-called judges referred to in the title of this book were essentially minor rules of the various tribes. They were tasked with keeping the peace and pursuing justice. In the bible, of course, there is a direct connection between tribal and godly “judgment.” Each time the people defy god, they are delivered into the hands of their enemy. When they repent, god sends a “judge” (a new leader) to save them. Eventually, the period of judges develops into what will become a formal Kingdom of Israel.
Jericho: Much like many other sacked cities in the bible, Joshua commands that no one shall ever rebuilt Jericho lest they suffer the consequences (and in 1 Kings 16:34, a king who defies this edict does indeed suffer. As promised, both his eldest and his youngest son are killed). The problem is, Jericho is in an ideal area. Ultimately, the city of Jericho was re-built about 300-years after it fell to the Israelites and lasted into New Testament times. It was then destroyed again by the Persians and the Arabs in the 7th Century (AD). It was rebuilt again by Crusaders about 400 years later and remains there to this day, in Palestine.
The Bible and Science: The story of Joshua making the sun stand still had such an influence in early history that 2500 years later, opponents of Copernicus’s revelation that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the reverse, used it to “refute” him. What really happened? Some have suggested that the sun simply wasn’t shining as brightly that day, which gave the Israelites an advantage (and was remembered, instead, as a day of perpetual sunshine). Others suggest a random refraction of sunlight, similar to what happens for half of the year in very northern parts of the globe, such as Alaska; but how/why that would have happened is unknown. Apparently, no one has solved this particular mystery just yet.