The Complete Book of Joshua
That Joshua could teach Defense Secretary Rumsfeld a thing or two about strategy (and the value of overwhelming force). Joshua returns to Ai with 30,000 soldiers, 10 times as many as for the first battle. The Israelites fake a retreat, drawing the entire army of Ai in pursuit. Ai's army falls right into Joshua's trap. The Israelites close the ambush and kill every enemy soldier. Then, the Israelites return to the defenseless city, slaughter the women and children, hang the king, and burn it to the ground. The enemy had killed 36 Israelites during the first battle of Ai. Joshua pays them back by slaughtering all 12,000 Aians. I guess that execution of Achan really did appease the Lord.
Until Joshua, the Israelites' conflicts have all had the aura of inevitability about them. We knew they were going to rout the enemy because God was leading them, or that they were going to be routed because they had displeased the Lord. In either case, the Bible ignored the human element—the general's strategy, the enemy's tactics, etc.—because the divine will was all that mattered. But what's captivating about Joshua is that the outcome is uncertain, because God is leaving the work up to His people. The result is a thrilling series of stories about strategy, deceit, and intimidation—a lesson in biblical game theory.
Last chapter, for example, Joshua duped Ai with a fake retreat. In this chapter, it's Joshua who's the con victim. The Gibeonites—who are Joshua's next target—hear about Jericho and Ai, and they're understandably terrified. How can they save themselves from Joshua's exterminating army? The Gibeonites dress up in tattered clothing and appear at the Israelite camp, pretending to be ambassadors from a "very far country." They tell Joshua they've heard about the Israelites' grand victories and want to make a peace treaty. As evidence of their long journey, they display moldy bread, worn-out wineskins, and ragged clothes (the ancient equivalent of distressed jeans). Joshua falls for their deceit and "guarantees their lives" in a treaty. Three days later, the Israelites realize they've been scammed by the neighboring Gibeonites. But they can't carry out the usual sack, murder, and obliteration that they perfected in Jericho and Ai, because they swore an oath to God to safeguard the Gibeonites. Joshua and the Israelites let the Gibeonites live, but they do indenture them as servants, assigning them to gather wood and draw water for their Israelite masters.
The moment when Joshua discovers that the Gibeonites have bamboozled him is astonishing, because it suggests Joshua is extraordinarily obtuse. Joshua asks them, apparently in earnest, "Why did you deceive us, saying 'we are very far from you,' while in fact you are living among us?" To which the Gibeonites respond, sensibly: Uh, because you exterminate your enemies! Is Joshua serious when he asks this question? Is he so lacking in empathy that he doesn't understand why the Gibeonites would try to save their own skins?
A reader wrote me that the Book of Joshua was why he stopped believing in God. I bet this is the chapter that put him over the edge. It's a grim affair. Five Ammonite kings unite against the Gibeonites and the Israelites. Joshua catches wind of their plans, marches his army all night, and surprises the Ammonites. The Israelites rout them in the field, and then God finishes them off, sending a brutal hailstorm that kills more Ammonites than the army did.
(This battle includes a baffling incident, much commemorated in song and story. Joshua asks the sun to stand still while Israel takes its revenge on the Ammonites. God holds the sun up in the sky for a whole day. The Bible says, "there has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded a human voice." I must be thick, because I don't see why this is important. First of all, it's clearly not the first time the Lord has heeded a human voice, since He often listened to the pleas of Moses and Abraham. The sun standing still testifies to God's power, but not as vividly or directly as other miracles. So, what's the big theological point I am missing? Astronomers, a question: Is this incident more interesting for scientific than religious reasons? Could it be vestigial documentary evidence of a curious astronomical event of 1400 B.C.—a weird eclipse, or a close approach of a very bright comet?)
Anyway, back to the disturbing part of the chapter. After the battle is won, the Israelites capture the five fleeing Ammonite kings. Joshua drags the monarchs before him and orders his generals to "put your feet on the neck of these kings." As they stand on the kings' throats, Joshua tells his commanders, "Do not be afraid or dismayed: Be strong and courageous; for thus the Lord will do to all the enemies against whom you fight." Then, Joshua himself executes the kings and hangs their bodies in the trees. This episode is so proudly barbaric that it's painful to read. It's clear that we readers are supposed to take the Israelites' side here—they're conquering the Promised Land, they're God's Chosen People, the Ammonites are vile statue-worshippers, etc.—but the unapologetic savagery is hard to bear. This probably reveals a profound weakness in me, but I imagined myself—in the way one always imagines oneself inside a book—not as one of my own ancestors, the victorious Israelite generals, but as a heathen king with a boot on my neck, moments from a brutal death.
Joshua and the Israelites have been doing nothing but killing in this book—killing by the thousands, killing women, killing children, killing animals—but it is the death of these five men, who aren't even innocents, that inspires the most revulsion. There's an obvious reason for this, one Stalin understood: "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." All the other killings in Joshua are mass killings. This is the only time the book of Joshua gives us death in a tight close-up, and it's appalling.
The rest of the chapter is gruesome, but in the statistical way. Joshua sweeps from city to city across southern Canaan, sacking them one after another:
Joshua took Makkedah on that day, and struck it and its king with the edge of the sword; he utterly destroyed every person in it; he left no one remaining …
Then Joshua passed on … to Libnah … He struck it with the edge of the sword, and every person in it; he left no one remaining in it …
To Lacshish … He took it on the second day, and struck it with the edge of the sword, and every person in it …
Gezer … Joshua struck him and his people, leaving him no survivors …
To Eglon … [They] struck it with the edge of the sword, and every person in it he utterly destroyed that day … etc. etc.
The worst parts of Leviticus seem positively joyful compared with this smug roster of slaughter.
Joshua does the same to the northern part of the country. This is the final line of the chapter, after every living soul in the enemy cities has been killed: "And the land had rest from war."
But that's not enough for the chronicler of Joshua. Chapter 12 lists all 31 kings defeated by Israel.
Chapter 13 through Chapter 19
Believe it or not, though the Israelites seem to have killed everyone around, they actually haven't conquered the entire Promised Land! There's a lot of unannexed territory, particularly in the plains, where the enemy has fearsome metal chariots. But Joshua's getting old, and everyone seems sick of war, so the distribution of land begins. These seven chapters are about as exciting as property records, which is exactly what they are. Joshua apportions the various parcels to the tribes by lot. (Scholars—does this literally mean "by lot"—as in, they rolled the dice and let luck decide who got which tract?) A few dramatic moments leaven the list of places and names. Caleb, Joshua's fellow spy and the only person besides Joshua who survived the Exodus and was allowed into the Promised Land, says that 45 years ago, right after the spy mission, Moses had promised him the hill country of Hebron. This promise was not recorded anywhere, but Joshua doesn't dispute the claim. He blesses his old comrade and gives him that land. In Chapter 17, my favorite quintet, the litigious daughters of Zelophehad, reappear to claim their plot. Joshua gives them their allotment without complaint—the only women who get any Promised-Land land.
Chapter 20 and Chapter 21
Joshua builds refuge cities where people who have committed accidental killings can seek asylum. He also allocates cities to the Levites—the priestly caste descended from that slug Aaron.
The final lines of Chapter 21 are revealing: "Not one of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all had come to pass." This captures the underlying dutifulness in the Book of Joshua: This book resolves all the open questions left by the first five books. In just 24 chapters, it conquers the Promised Land, distributes land to the tribes, affirms the place of the priestly class, and sets the law in place. It takes care of a huge amount of business extremely quickly—particularly in the last half of the book. The effect of this is that Joshua lacks the idiosyncratic weirdness, digressions, and anecdotes that made the first five books so enthralling. Think about what's not in Joshua: There are no laws, almost no stories (except for Achan and the Gibeonites), and hardly any God. There's just a lot of work.
Here's a fascinating, tense moment. The Promised Land under control, Joshua allows the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh to cross back to the other side of the Jordan, where they will settle. Back on the east side, the three tribes build a huge altar. The tribes in the Promised Land hear about this altar, and because the only permitted altar is the one in the tabernacle, they believe that the three trans-Jordan tribes are starting to worship Baal or some other false god. The tribes in the Promised Land prepare to go to war to crush this idolatry. They dispatch Phineas—the hotheaded priest who murdered the Midianite harlot—to rebuke the altar-building tribes. The leaders of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh tell him there has been a terrible misunderstanding. They didn't build the altar for sacrifices. It's just for show. It's a "witness" for their children, a "copy" of the real altar. Because they're on the far side of the Jordan, away from the ark and tabernacle, they want to make sure that their kids remember the Lord. This stand-in altar will remind their kids to love God. The other tribes accept this explanation and stand down. They even thank the altar builders for their attention to God.
This is a very important moment for Judaism, and perhaps for all religions. It marks the end of Judaism as a faith bounded by place. From now on, it can go anywhere. All religions, I suspect, begin with a central sacred place or object, but can only grow when they accept a stand-in for the holy of holies, when they allow the semisacred to take the place of the sacred. The crucifix in churches is an example of this, and so is the carved Ten Commandments in synagogues. The moment when a religion creates its first copy is, in some sense, when it starts being a religion. Until now, God has literally been with all the Israelites. He travels with them in the tabernacle, and they are together inside the holy ground of the camp. Now that the tribes are scattering across Israel, they face the problem of how to keep God with them everywhere. On the west side of the Jordan, they will abide near the tabernacle and hold on to their direct connection to God. But the trans-Jordan tribes needed to create a substitute for that tabernacle (just as all Jews had to create a substitute after the Temple was destroyed 2,000 years ago). So, the altar by the riverside marks the birth of Judaism as a worldwide religion: From now on, the Israelites can travel and stay away from the tabernacle, because they can create a copy. They can take God wherever they go. And so can we.
Joshua, never much of a wordsmith, gives a pallid farewell address. He mines the same themes Moses did in his deathbed speech—prosperity and joy if you're faithful, unfathomable misery if you're not—but it's very cursory compared with the epic threats of Deuteronomy.
Joshua's farewell speech continues and improves. It contains one of the best lines yet about our debt to God. "I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant." This is a very persuasive case. No wonder parents still use exactly the same lines (well, not the "oliveyards" part) when they're hectoring their teenagers to behave. This is my house you're living in. That's my cell phone you're talking on, and as long as I am paying the bills …
Sometimes, the most fascinating parts of the Bible are what's been left out. Remember the story of Dinah, the one that caused me to start blogging the Bible to begin with? The final verses of Joshua are a curious reminder. Joshua dies at age 110 and is buried. The bones of Joseph, which have been carried all the way from Egypt, are buried in the Promised Land, too: "in the portion of ground that Jacob had bought from the children of Hamor, the father of Shechem, for 100 pieces of money." What it doesn't say is that Jacob bought the land from the children of Hamor before Jacob's sons tricked and murdered them.
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David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.