A Bumpy start to the Book of Joshua

I am returning to blogging after a long absence, now that two nearly simultaneous book projects are complete, at least in the sense that I have handed them to the editors and have a brief pause before work on revisions and proofs. A new course I am teaching  called “The Story of Ancient Israel in the Land” will probably keep much of my attention on Joshua-Kings and Chronicles for the next few months.

For a long time, my surface-level reading of Joshua 1-5 has focused on the literary effort to make the character named Joshua look like Moses. He mediates between YHWH and the Israelites, sends out spies, facilitates a miraculous crossing of water, builds a stone monument, and experiences a theophanic vision in which he is told to remove his shoes. It is difficult to miss the point, yet this reading misses the many incongruities of the text. An excellent paper at the Society of Biblical Literature back in November by Melissa Jackson and Mark Biddle called “Rahab’s Visitors: Spies, Spokesmen, or Stooges” illustrated many of the absurdities of the story. The “spies” speak to Rahab in 2:20 as if the Israelite invasion of the land is a secret plan, yet statements like those in 2:8-10 and 5:1 indicate that everybody knows about it, and that the intimidation and fear created by this knowing aids the success of the invasion. The books on either side of Joshua repeatedly condemn the Israelites to death and destruction for any kind of accommodation to the inhabitants of Canaan, so by the end of the “spy” story Rahab seems to have played the two Israelites and their Canaanite “pursuers”.

The account of the first Passover in the land in Joshua 5:10-12 is obviously an important tradition that also serves to connect Joshua to Moses, who led the initial Passover event and the first anniversary celebration at Mount Sinai, but its link to the cessation of the manna and eating “the produce of the land” creates a striking level of narrative incoherence. How could these refugees who just entered Canaan already be growing and harvesting crops? Looking carefully at this little text by itself reveals the absence of Joshua within it. Only his presence in the verses immediate preceding and following create the sense that he might be presiding over the occasion.

This is a place where both attention to the literary purposes of the “author” and careful consideration of the traditions with which the author had to work provide the path toward better understanding of the text.


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