The Bible in and as History: Joshua

The Book of Joshua marks a transition in both the bible itself and in my readings.  By tradition Joshua is the first of the post-Moses prophets.  Jewish(and by proxy most pre-modern Christian) belief held that the first five books of the bible were authored by Moses, much of them on the direct inspiration of God.  Joshua is presented as either being written by Joshua, or about him by contemporaries.

The other points of transition are one of historicity and one of personal note; I noted the later in my last post, that this is the point in which I am really ‘into the deep end’ bible wise.  I have very little knowledge about the books that follow until we hit the New Testament, save in the broadest senses on a few of them, and thus I’m reading with a lot fewer preconceptions.  Secondly, we are hitting points for which there is at least some archeological evidence.  While there is no evidence to suggest the Exodus occurred, and a deal to suggest it was a mythological fabrication, Joshua has some points for it.  Now it’s important to remember that having some historical evidence backing up your claims is not the same as verification.  The Odyssey and Iliad chronicle a War we have historical evidence for happening.  We know there was a Troy.  We know it was invaded and destroyed and we have archeological evidence to that fact.  We generally don’t hold the existence of Troy as evidence for the existence of Aphrodite.  Mythology can, and readily is, grafted onto actual historical events, and while it’s not always possible, as the title says I’m trying to deal with the work here as a historical text.

Alright, so Joshua seems to inherit Moses’ mantel and is given to the further conquest of the Holy Land.  After the previous books there is plenty of ‘more of the same’.  More admonitions to obey God.  More talk about how he brought the people out of Egypt and how they suffered forty years in the wilderness for their lack of faith.  Alot of this reads as further admonitions to obey the priesthood.  In any case the actual historical stuff quickly follows in a tale of conquests and what can really only be called genocides.  That is the systematic mass slaughter of populations.  Now this isn’t universal by any means, but several of the places which the Isrealites go up against are slaughtered in the text and in such a way as to infer their complete destruction, as well as the essential justness of the Isrealites.  This strikes me as more bronze-age history.  We vanquished our foes, see how might we are.

We see city after city fall.  One, the Gibeonites, trick the Isrealites into entering an alliance with them, thus sparing themselves destruction but ultimately becoming slaves.  Others are marked for near total destruction.  When all is said and done, the occupied land is than divided between the various houses and we are given another set of long lists explaining who owns what and why.  Lastly there is an admonition again to obey God and the Law given to Moses, with a bunch more instructions on how bad it would be to worship other gods, or to deviate from obedient worship of ‘The Lord’.

As I mentioned earlier this book touches on Historicity in a way earlier ones don’t.  However, scholarship and archaeology tend not to back up large sections of it’s account.  Mostly in that while the period in question is definitely one of violence and city-conquest, the cities that are mentioned don’t appear to have been conquered in the corresponding time-lines.  This leads to most concluding, also given a few other elements of evidence such as the cities which are recorded and the structure of the book and the books that follow, to have been authored before, during and slightly after the Babylonian Captivity.  As we will continue to see, this event forms a large basis of the structure of surviving Judaism, and thus also in what texts survive.

How does this book play into later history?  It certainly plays a part in Just War theory.  That is the belief that some Wars are specifically morally valid even if in general violence is not.  God specifically justifies not just War, but whole-scale slaughter in this book, and indeed helps to institute it.  The tale of the Gibeonites justifies not only slavery, but seems to be a parable in regards both deceit and submission.  Some sort of parallel in terms of Justice and Mercy, but also in honour.  Once the Isrealites had given their word on something, they could not go back on it, even if the roots of that word lay in a deceit.  Here we also see the famous Jericho and its sack, a point for Biblical archaeology that has actually resulted in interesting work.  There is of course a city of Jericho, and like many cities it demonstrates a ‘layering’ effect, cities being built on top of one another.  Evidence of destruction, etc.  Though farther back that this book would lead us to believe.

There is else I could talk about; more about Jericho and the fall of it’s walls, or the specific words imparted near the end, but I think I’ve sort of touched on the important bits.  A few events in my personal life got me a little behind here, so there should be another post really soon, as I mentioned, the books get a bit shorter for a while.

Next Time:  I am the Law!  The Book of Judges.

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