First order of business: As I wrote last time, I need a new Bible, since the translation I have been reading stopped after Deuteronomy. So, armed with your hundreds of recommendations, I picked one. Or rather, I picked three. I will read the Jewish Publication Society translation, which is beautiful, much praised for its accuracy, and—duh—Jewish, which I appreciate because I’m Jewish, too. (It also turns out to be the continuation of the Etz Hayim Torah I used for the first five books.) I will also read the highly lauded New Revised Standard Version. And just because it’s so gorgeous, I’ll dip into the King James Bible occasionally, too.
The Book of Joshua
With Moses dead, Joshua consolidates his power, first by checking in with the Lord, then by giving a pep talk to the tribal leaders. Get ready for D-Day, he says: The invasion of the Promised Land starts in three days.
The most interesting moment in the chapter occurs during God’s conversation with Joshua. The Lord instructs Joshua to read “the book of the law” that Moses prepared—that is, I suppose, the five books of the Torah we just finished reading. He tells Joshua: “You shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful.” God never told Moses to read the law book, because Moses wrote the law book. This, in other words, marks the beginning of biblical scholarship. The Lord, like Justice Antonin Scalia, obviously believes in original intent. He certainly isn’t telling Joshua to interpret laws, just to follow them. But without Moses to clarify, those laws must be discussed and analyzed. So let 4,000 years of argument begin!
Joshua dispatches two spies to Jericho, where they take shelter in the house of the prostitute Rahab. When the king of Jericho catches wind of the spies and confronts Rahab, she hides them on her roof. When the danger passes, she explains to the spies why she’s helping them. She says she has heard of the Lord’s mighty deeds—the Red Sea crossing, the defeat of King Og, etc.—which have made the Canaanites’ hearts “melt” with terror. She begs them to spare her and her family when the Israelites conquer Jericho. The spies promise to protect her, and escape back to Joshua. Rahab is proof that God’s propaganda policy really works. Back in Exodus, you may remember, God prolongs the 10 plagues because He wants the Israelites to tell stories about His might. The Israelites kept recording God’s triumphs—composing poems and telling stories that spotlight His greatness. It’s clear that a key purpose of these stories, and of the Bible itself, is to alarm and terrify God’s enemies. And here we see that the psych-war campaign pays off. The stories of God’s awesomeness have spread so far that the battle for Canaan is halfway won. The Canaanites already know they’re going to lose. As Rahab says, “There was no courage left in any of us because of you.”
On to sexier matters! This chapter raises a rude but pressing question: What’s with all the prostitutes? There’s scarcely an unmarried woman in the Bible so far who isn’t a prostitute, or treated like one! There’s Tamar, who turns a trick with her father-in-law Judah. The Moabite women, who whore themselves to the Israelites. The Midianite harlot who’s murdered by Phineas. Jacob’s daughter Dinah, whose loose behavior sparks mass slaughter. No wonder they call prostitution the oldest profession—it’s the only profession that biblical women seem to have.
I have a rudimentary theory about this. In many tribal cultures, women have been essentially banished from the public sphere in order to control their virtue. We see this in strict Islamic cultures today, where women are punished for speaking to men besides their husbands and relatives. Throughout the Bible, the Israelites have been obsessed with controlling the sexual behavior of their girls and women—this is why there are so many darn laws about female purity, sexual misbehavior, and intermarriage. The Israelite women seem to have played no role in public life. Except for Moses’ sister Miriam (and, in passing, Noa and her sisters), there hasn’t been a single woman since the Exodus who’s had any kind of public responsibility. So, why do we read about prostitutes? Perhaps because prostitutes were the only women involved in the Israelites’ public life.
Chapter 3 and Chapter 4
Wait a minute, we’ve seen this trick before! The Israelites, all 2 million of them, must cross the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land. One man from each tribe stands in the middle of the river. The river stops, all the water piles up in a wall on the upstream side, and the Israelites and the Ark cross on dry land. (I know what those of you who have been to Israel are thinking: The Jordan “river” is about as deep my bathtub, and not much wider! But the book specifies that the crossing was at flood stage, when the river is somewhat more intimidating.) Why do this kiddie-pool rip-off of the Red Sea crossing? (Even the language is similar—the water forming a wall, all the Israelites crossing on dry ground, etc.) The parallelism reminds us that God has again allowed us to cross into a new world. From the Red Sea crossing came the giving of the laws, the rise of Moses, and the transformation of Israel from a surly band into a great nation beloved of God. From the Jordan River crossing will come the conquest of the Promised Land and the fulfillment of God’s covenant.
As soon as the Israelites have crossed the Jordan, God orders Joshua to “make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites.” Apparently circumcisions were suspended during the wilderness years. (I’m guessing they were cancelled due to a shortage of bagels and lox.) Anyway, Joshua and his men proceed to circumcise all of the Israelite males—that’s a cool million of them, and these aren’t kids either. They’re grown men. Ouch! The Lord is delighted and says the maxi-surgery has “rolled away the disgrace of Egypt.” The Israelites name the spot where they’re camped “the Hill of the Foreskins.” (Now that’s a place I don’t want to visit next time I’m in Israel. Can you imagine going there with kids? Jacob, don’t pick that up! No, Rachel, you can’t keep that “ring” you found.)
The Israelites eat their last meal of manna! Imagine the rejoicing. From now on, they can eat the crops of Canaan.
A man appears before Joshua, carrying a sword. He turns out to be an angel, sent to command the Lord’s army. He orders Joshua to remove his shoes, because he’s standing on holy ground. This angel and the crossing of the Jordan are interesting because they’re so clearly written to echo earlier, even more important biblical moments. Just as the Jordan crossing replays the Red Sea, and so this angel encounter hearkens back to two critical early face-offs—Jacob’s wrestling match with the mysterious angel, and Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush (where Moses, too, is ordered to take off his shoes). This reminds the Israelites that the whole adventure—from all the way back to the patriarchs—has been God’s plan.
Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho
Joshua fought the battle of Jericho
And the walls came tumblin’ down.
But they didn’t fight a battle of Jericho. Here is my biblical ignorance in full flower. I always thought that there was a pitched battle for Jericho. But no. Joshua has the Israelites circle the city once a day for six days. On the seventh day, they circle the city seven times, with seven priests blowing seven rams’ horns. (Question: If they were circling the city for seven days straight, how did they observe the Sabbath? Also, it’s nice to see seven finally replace 40 as the holy number.) At the end of the final circuit (the 13th total, actually, not the seventh), Jericho’s walls collapse in a heap. The Israelites charge and sack the city without a fight, killing every living thing—all the people and animals—except for the prostitute Rahab and her family.
Now that Jericho’s down, I figured the rest of the conquest would go easy. But it very quickly turns ugly. The Israelites dispatch too small an army to the next city, Ai. Ai repels the 3,000 Israelites, and kills 36 of them. The hearts of the Israelites “melted and turned to water”—a phrase that the Book of Joshua has used many times already, but always to describe the routed enemy. A devastated Joshua tears his clothes in mourning, and tries to figure out what went wrong. (Don’t you wish our leaders took war as seriously?) Joshua wails to God: Why did you bring us all the way to the Promised Land if you were just going to destroy us? God, with a thrilling directness, orders Joshua to be a man. “Stand up! Why have you fallen on your face?” God rebukes. God tells Joshua they’re in trouble because some Israelite stole devotional objects belonging to God. Joshua needs to root out the villain and punish him to restore the Israelites to grace.
The rest of the chapter unfolds like Shirley Jackson’s famous short story “The Lottery.” (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that “The Lottery” is intentionally modeled on Chapter 7.) Slowly, with an ominous, telescoping rhythm, Joshua seeks the offender. He surveys all the tribes, and selects Judah. He examines every clan of Judah, and picks out the Zerahites. He quizzes every family in the clan, and settles on the Zabdis. He goes one by one through the Zabdi household, and finally fingers the young man Achan as the thief. Joshua’s cross-examination of Achan is gently, horribly devastating—a cinematic highlight. Listen to Joshua’s ingratiating, but arm-twisting, language:
“My son, give glory to the Lord God of Israel and make confession to Him. Tell me now what you have done; do not hide it from me.”
Achan instantly confesses to stealing silver, gold, and cloth, and tells Joshua where to find them. Joshua’s men collect the loot, and offer it back to God. Good cop Joshua disappears, replaced by the ruthless avenger. Joshua tells Achan, with what almost sounds like very black humor but is probably just malevolence: “Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord is bringing trouble on you today.” The Israelites stone Achan to death, then burn his corpse and incinerate his family, then heap their bodies with stones. (Another nasty collective punishment for the kiddies.) What’s troubling about the Achan episode—or if you’re a very observant Jew, what may be compelling about it—is this notion that the fate of the Israelites hangs on the behavior of an individual. The sin of a single insignificant man is enough to shatter God’s covenant with Israel and stop the conquest of the Promised Land. The implication of the story is that when we steal, cheat, lie, kill, commit adultery—we are not mere sinners or simple criminals. We are Achan, threatening to ruin our families, and our tribe, and our city, and our whole nation.
Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)