I miss Moses.
When I first stared this book, I was excited for a new era and a new leader, but there’s a reason we don’t remember much of Joshua. He had no personality. Or at least, the writers of Joshua did not bother to imbue him with any. He just kind of…leads, and that’s fine, I guess. But who was he? What kept him up at night? Who did he love? What did he fear? What was his fatal flaw? What were his secret dreams? We don’t know, and will never know. I guess I get why the Lord loved him so much; he just sort of does exactly what he’s told and doesn’t seem to feel any way at all about it.
We don’t know who wrote Joshua, but scholarly consensus is that the books from Joshua to Kings make up the Deutoronimistic history and were written much later than the times they describe, at the court of King Josiah (the 16th king of Judah) in the late 7th century BCE by a single author, and significantly reworked by a second author in the 6th century. The Book of Joshua is as far as we know historically inaccurate, as there were many cities in the region destroyed during this time period, but only a few destroyed cities overlap with those actually listed in Joshua, and the others mentioned in Joshua were mostly unoccupied at the time.
Anyhow, the Lord begins the new chapter by telling Joshua he’s His new right-hand man: “as I was with Moses, so I will be with thee.” RUN, Joshua! Run like mad, and never look back! But alas, Joshua cannot escape his fate — once the Lord draws a bead on you, you’re done for. Also, as Joshua begins to mobilize the troops, they assure him, “according as we hearkened unto Moses in all things, so will we hearken unto thee.” Joshua is FUCKED.
So Joshua starts by sending two spies into Jericho and they go post up at a whorehouse run by a madam named Rahab. They are terrible spies, because they are immediately noticed and identified, and someone tells the king they are there. The king orders Rahab to turn them out, and she nobly hides them on her roof under some flax, and tells the king that they are gone, so the king’s men go chasing off after them. Then, Rahab tells the two spies that Israel’s fearsome reputation precedes it and everyone in Jericho knows what is coming, so she asks that they spare her and her family since she’s done them a kindness. They say of course, so she helps them escape by way of a scarlet thread out the window, and they tell her that thread will be the symbol that will let them all know to spare her household when they rampage back through. Why they were there in the first place, and what they managed to spy out in one night hiding on a rooftop is never explained, except that they now know everyone in the city knows who they are and they’re all afraid of them. They go back and tell Joshua.
The army moves out, and Joshua says that the priests carrying the arc of the covenant and one man from each of the 12 tribes should go first, and when the priests get to the Jordan river, the river will part at their feet. Which it does, and I’m sorry, but YAWN, this recycled bit was way more dramatic the first time around; this is just a sad imitation. The Lord instructs the representatives of the 12 tribes to each take a stone from where the priests are standing and carry it with them and put it in the lodging place where they will sleep that night, and then forever after, these stones will be a memorial, and when their children ask about them, they can tell the story of the parting of the Jordan. WHY? Can you imagine if you were one of the men selected to represent the 12 tribes as you march into warfare in a foreign land you’ve been promised is just spread on its back waiting for you, and you’ve been guaranteed riches beyond imagining, and you’re all keyed up for your first big mission, and God says, “Uh…so, you’re each going to pick up a rock! Yeah, a rock from here. And then, well, just carry it. Like, carry the rock all day. And then, when we get to the hotel, you’ll put it in your room. Where you sleep. And then, you know, we’ll just keep them forever, and it’ll be like a memento to this day you can tell a story about. Or whatever.”
They camp in Gilgal (and put the stones there). Lots more repetitive chatter about the stones and what just happened. I think the deal here is that Joshua is really anxious to live up to Moses’s legacy. It’s his first day on the job, and he doesn’t really know what to do. He knows everyone loves how Moses parted the Red Sea, so he starts off taking a page from that playbook, and now it’s the first night in camp, and he can’t stop talking about it. “You know how earlier the Lord parted the Jordan? That was cool. And here are these stones, and like he said, we’ll have them forever now, to remember that today the Lord parted the Jordan. Man! I just can’t believe it — Clyde, can you believe it, that just a few hours ago, the Lord straight up parted the Jordan for us? And this is only day one, you guys. Day one.”
But Joshua does not have long to bask in his spectacle, because: “At that time the Lord said unto Joshua, Make thee sharp knives, and circumcise again the children of Israel the second time. And Joshua made him sharp knives, and circumcised the children of Israel at the hill of the foreskins.”
Somewhere Moses is having himself a little chuckle at this. Leadership isn’t all theatrics and sea parting, Joshua! It’s also showing your face around the coffee fire the morning after you cut off everyone’s foreskin.
They stay at Gilgal healing for a couple weeks, and during this time, something weird happens. A man shows up with his sword drawn and Joshua asks him if he’s a friend or an enemy, and the man says that he’s “captain of the host of the Lord” and Joshua just…falls to his face and worships the guy. This seems suspect? But all the guy tells Joshua to do is to take his shoe off, so it’s a nonevent in the end.
Now God tells Joshua the battle plan for Jericho — you’re probably familiar with this. They’ll march around the city walls once a day for six days, with seven priests carrying ram horn trumpets before the arc. On the seventh day, they’ll march around the city seven times and on the seventh, the priests will blow the trumpets and the wall of the city will fall down. Why not just make the wall fall down right now? Because the people who wrote this were good enough writers to know this needed a build up. Why explain all this in detail right before we see it happen, thus undercutting the tension and the action and making everything seem really repetitive? Because the people who wrote this weren’t good enough writers to know how to handle the build up.
Anyway, they do this, and then the walls fall flat, and they all go into the city and sack it and murder man, woman, child, and animal with their swords, except for Rahab and her family. They bring them outside the city and then they burn it to the ground, after taking only the silver, gold, and brass and iron vessels for the Lord’s treasury. We’re told that Rahab dwelleth in Israel even unto this day. Huge, if true!
By all accounts, it seems that this first conquest in the land of Canaan is a great success. BUT. Uh oh. A dude named Achan broke one of the rules — he took of the accursed thing. We’re not told what this is, but I’m assuming it’s a graven image or something. The Lord’s anger is thus kindled. Meanwhile, Joshua, unaware, sends some scouts up to Ai and they say it’s a small town, so he should just send a few thousand to take it, not the whole army. But when they do, the men of Ai kill 36 of them and the Israelites flee in terror. Joshua is hugely embarrassed and worried for their reputations. He grovels in the dirt, and the Lord tells him why He has done this — somewhere in the possessions of the Israelites now dwells the accursed thing.
It seems redundant at this point to point out how unfair and disproportionate the Lord is being here. I mean, he could have just killed Achan. But instead, he does this roundabout passive-aggressive thing as usual, and now that he deigns to tell Joshua what’s made him angry, there’s a whole to-do to solve this very simple problem. He has everyone line up before him and then burns the one who took the accursed thing with fire. Achan confesses to Joshua during all this and we find that the accursed thing was a goodly Babylonish garment, 200 shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold of 50 shekels weight. So the Israelites stone Achan and his family and then burn them.
Then, upon direction of the Lord, Joshua goes back to Ai with 30,000 men this time, and they do a kind of fun thing: they camp near the city and pretend to flee like the last time, but then as the men from Ai chase them, 5,000 men who Joshua has hidden elsewhere rise up and take the abandoned city and burn it. Meanwhile, the fleers turn around and attack their pursuers. They murder 12,000 people in all and bring the king alive to Joshua. Then they hang the king and then put him on a pile of stones in the gate of Ai that remain “even unto this day.”
There’s a ton of “even unto this day” language in Joshua, which (a) is distracting because it obviously isn’t true, and (b) really calls attention to the new author, because this is a very different style of writing than the previous books. On the whole, Joshua is much easier to comprehend and follow than is any part of the Torah, which is good. Things happen in a straightforward manner, and they are explained. The narrative is coherent (if uninspired).
Then Joshua builds a stone altar and they do some burnt offerings, and then Joshua writes on the stones a copy of Moses’s law, and then he reads it aloud to everyone who has all gathered together for the purpose. But fortunately, we do not have to hear the laws recited again! If this were the Torah, we most certainly would. But the writers of Joshua make do with simply asserting, “There was not a word of all that Moses commanded, which Joshua read not before all the congregation of Israel, with the women, and the little ones, and the strangers that were conversant among them.” First of all, my sympathies, but second, this is confusing, because we were told many times that the people of Israel stayed behind in the already conquered cities outside of Canaan and only the army marched in to take the land, but here everyone is outside of Ai suddenly.
At this point, every other city across the Jordan gets wise to what’s happening, and they all join forces. And one city, Gibeon, tries something “wilily” and gathers all their oldest bread and wine and so on, and piles it on their asses and they dress in tattered rags, and march out to meet Joshua and tell him they want to make peace and form an alliance. And Joshua asks where they’re from, and they say they are from very, very far away, and he can see this by how all their fresh victuals have molded and spoiled and their clothes have fallen apart, that’s how far they’ve traveled. Recall that the Israelites were instructed to slay everyone in the near cities and take no mercy, but for cities beyond the land of Canaan, they could accept surrender. I guess this has gotten around somehow. So Joshua takes this at face value and swears into an agreement with them. Then, of course, he finds out they actually live only a day away, but at that point, he’s already sworn to let them live. But Joshua does curse them and he forces them into slavery, to be hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of the Lord.
Now the king of Jerusalem, Adonizedec, hears of all this, and he is nervous, and he makes an alliance with a lot of cities and goes to smite Gibeon for their traitorous move. Apparently Gibeon is a mighty royal city and a big loss for…whatever nation this is. So they all go make war against Gibeon, which seems like a stupid thing to do when they’re actually preparing to be invaded by Gibeon’s new slavedriving army that is backed by the Lord and is also right there? Gibeon complains to Joshua, and Joshua brings the army over and routes the whole camp, and as they flee, the Lord throws down mighty hailstones from heaven and this kills more of them than died by the sword. Now we’re talking! I have suffered through three long dull books full of laws and censuses and desert wanderings, and here is my reward — clashing armies and a vengeful God straight up bowling people down with hailstones! Not since the plagues of Exodus have we had so much action!
Not only does God do this, but he also freezes the sun and moon in the sky until he is finished wiping out the kings of Canaan who’d marched on Gibeon! “Is not this written in the book of Jasher?” asks the Bible, and the Bible is holding out on us, because I am not familiar with the book of Jasher! “So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.”
So, like, just the usual sort of day then?
Anyway, they kill everyone but five kings get away and go hide in a cave at Makkedah. And at this point, I’m starting to think “king” is a bit of an inflated title, because first of all, there are apparently thousands of kings in Canaan, and second, these “kings” go out and fight on the front lines. Anyway, these five hide in a cave in Makkedah, and Joshua has some of his men roll big boulders over the mouth of the cave and sit on it, while the rest go sack and burn all the cities the recently slaughtered alliance came from. After that, they bring the kings out and Joshua has his captains put their feet on the necks of the kings, and Joshua tells everyone not to fear for this is what the Lord will do to all their enemies. Then, they kill the five kings and hang them in five trees until the evening, and then cut them down, throw them back in the cave, and replace the stones. Then they take Makkedah while they’re there.
Then, they just go along smiting and taking a bunch of cities, and this is sort of a montage — we just see these ones in summary. And fast-forward and in sum (here, I really appreciate the new writers): they kill everyone and reign victorious over all the land. We have one boring chapter just listing all the various kings who have been conquered and the territory which has been gained.
Which brings us to chapter 13:
“Now Joshua was old and stricken in years; and the Lord said unto him, Thou art old and stricken in years, and there remaineth yet very much land to be possessed.”
The usual sort of unappreciative kick in the nuts from terrible motivational speaker and worst boss, the Lord. Somewhere Moses is snorting, “SEE?”
The Lord gives already ancient personality-less Joshua a long list of territory he’d best get to conquering before he’s allowed to retire. Get your old ass up, Joshua! These pagans aren’t going to pillage themselves! This listing of territories, and who gets what territories, and what Moses promised to various tribes goes on for some time, and it’s possible there is other stuff in there too, but I cannot tell you, for reader, I skimmed it.
Next thing I know, Caleb (remember Caleb is the other guy the Lord liked from desert days other than Joshua) is blathering at Joshua some long confusing story about how he feels he’s been ill-treated. Joshua is probably relating to Moses more and more every day. Near as I can tell, Caleb’s story is that 40 years ago, Moses asked him to spy on some territory for him, and he did that, and was a loyal servant to Moses, but his family who went with him “made the heart of the people melt.” This is not explained. But anyhow, Moses promised Caleb that land he’d spied out for his inheritance once it had been conquered. And it has been 45 years since then, and Caleb is feeling very strong and spry, and he has come to collect. Joshua is fine with this. It’s Hebron that Caleb wants, and he gets it.
So Caleb goes up there and takes a bunch of people. And he marries off his daughter Achsah to his brother Othniel, who had conquered the nearby city of Kirjathsepher. And I retract everything I said earlier about the writers of Joshua being an improvement on the Torah in terms of comprehensibility, because they seem to have gotten drunk halfway through putting Joshua down on paper. I mean:
“And it came to pass, as she came unto him, that she moved him to ask of her father a field: and she lighted off her ass; and Caleb said unto her, What wouldest thou?”
I think him is Caleb? And his daughter has come on an ass to ask him if she and his brother/her uncle-husband can have an additional field? She then asks for some springs to go with the south land, and he gives her upper and nether springs.
And then we go right back into the long list of territorial distribution! What the hell was that all about, then? Why did we need to know about this one conversation that one daughter of Caleb had with him, or about Caleb at all? I’m so confused!
The people eventually squabble at Joshua that they don’t all feel the distribution of all this land is exactly fair, and some of them can’t get the pagans entirely out of theirs, and so on, and Joshua deals with that. And then there are seven tribes left over that didn’t get anything, and Joshua has them go look over the remaining land and describe it to him and then he casts lots for which of them will get what.
And listen, I’m sorry I ever complained about the endless statutes and regulations, because the Torah was an absolute page-turner compared to this 50-page description of exactly which fence line belongs to which person, and which river carves up three cities between these five tribes and whatever and WHO THE FUCK CARES they are still all fighting about who owns which city block in that patch of desert to this very day and meanwhile, nobody even lives in Wyoming!
I’m sorry, that was politically insensitive.
Twenty chapters and three lifetimes later (obviously, I take it all back about the new writers), the Lord finally moves on and talks to Joshua about the refuge cities. Remember, these are the cities talked about in Deuteronomy where people who accidentally kill someone can go to live. Anyone who has cause to flee to a sanctuary city is to remain there until the high priest at the time dies; then that person can return to their homeland. This is pretty interesting! I mean, comparatively speaking; it’s no Game of Thrones or anything.
We continue on with the land distribution for several more chapters. We are reminded that the Lord has done everything he said he would do, and Joshua calls all the heads of the tribes together and points this out to them, also, and reminds them that they are to keep Moses’s laws per the earlier agreement.
Then, a confusing thing happens. Everyone is dispersing to their various lands, and the children of Reuben, the children of Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh go off to go to Gilead, which is theirs. And when they come to the borders of Jordan, they build a big altar there. So the children of Israel hear about this and mass to go to war against these people.
I do not understand this at all. Who are these people? What is the problem with the altar? Why does anyone care? It seems like the issue is that Israel has its recognized central temple and altar and whatever, so the fact that these people build their own altar on a border is an indication that they plan to worship separately (and possibly other gods) rather than along with everyone else. So the nation of Israel sends Phineas, son of Eleazar the priest, to talk to the upstart altar-builders and Phineas asks them what the story is, and says that if their land had turned out to be unclean (?) they could have just come back, rather than rebel against the Lord and the nation of Israel.
The rebels respond with an even more confusing explanation — I can’t really parse it, but I think they say that the altar is so that there’s a marker of their connection to the Lord on the border, because their land is so far away that they’re worried that in succeeding generations, their connection to Israel will be forgotten and they’ll be seen as strangers. But now, they will be able to point to the altar, and say, see, this altar is here because we’re the same religion and come from you. I think they also say that they aren’t going to do any actual offerings or sacrifices at it (which would be the problem); it’s more just a symbolic altar. So, everyone’s really happy with that explanation, which makes me wonder why we wasted any time on it at all.
They name the altar Ed.
Now Joshua is old and dying. He calls the elders together and gives a sort of watered down imitation of Moses’s farewell — the Lord has your backs, keep all the covenants. Then, he dies. Farewell, Joshua, we barely knew ye, and from what little we did, ye bored us.