Joshua, Judges and Problem Bible Texts

attle-isaelites-wpIn case you haven’t noticed, so far this year I’ve been posting regularly to this blog—just about every Sunday or Monday, I’ve put up something new here. But lately, I’ve fallen off. I have a good excuse: I’ve enrolled in a program at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership to obtain a Master of Arts degree in Jewish Studies. I am currently buried in a class on the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, taught by Professor Leonard Greenspoon of Creighton. This is a serious class taught by one of the top people in this field, and it’s taking up a lot of my time. Something has to give, and lately, it’s been this blog.

With my focus on my Spertus study, it will be logical for me to post here from time to time about what I’m studying there. This means interrupting whatever series I might be working on at the time, whether it’s my unfinished series on posture in interfaith dialogue, or my unfinished series on Jesus’ arrest and trial, both of which series were themselves interruptions of something I’d started and didn’t finish. Ah well. It’s not like I’d be able to write the last word on any of these subjects. And it’s not like you haven’t seen my mind wander before.

In this piece, I want to return to one of my favorite topics: violence and nonviolence in the Bible. You might recall, a while back I had a blogger back-and-forth with friend of this site Anthony Le Donne about problem Bible texts. In our discussion, we hit on some doozies. There’s the war rule in Deuteronomy (21:10-14), where male soldiers are given permission to kidnap female captives and force them into marriage. We also discussed G-d’s command to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 20:16-17 to conquer certain cities in a way that does not “leave alive anything that breathes.” Somehow, these awful Bible passages become less awful when we isolate them. We can dismiss Deuteronomy 20, since it’s historically unlikely that the Israelites conducted a military campaign like that envisioned in the Torah’s war rules. We can try to live with Deuteronomy 21 by remembering that warfare in the ancient world was normally conducted outside of anything like a Geneva Convention, and that the treatment of women captives described in the Torah was probably an improvement over the prevailing norm.

But thanks to Professor Greenspoon, I’ve had the privilege of reading the Bible books of Joshua and Judges, not one isolated passage at a time, but all together in one sitting. It’s not an exercise for the weak of heart. In Joshua, Jericho is the first city to fall to the Israelites, and Joshua reports that the Israelites “exterminated everything in the city with the sword; man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and ass.” (NOTE: I’m using the 1999 JPS translation for my Bible quotes in this post.)  The Israelites next ran into trouble trying to capture the city of Ai, but once they got matters straightened out with G-d, the Israelites enticed all of the city’s men out into the field to do battle, and with the city unprotected, the Israelites put the city to the torch, then “slaughtered” the city’s men, “so that no one escaped or got away.” With this work done, the Israelites returned to Ai “and put it to the sword,” a nice way of saying that the soldiers killed “the entire population,” which at this point consisted solely of defenseless women and children.

Look. I’m a committed Jew and I believe in G-d, but if you’re looking for a book that best argues for atheism, forget your Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Just read Joshua. Once Ai was reduced to an ash heap and its population of 12,000 all killed in an act of genocide (or at least, an act that comes perilously close to genocide), Joshua proceeded (according to the book) to annihilate the cities of Makkedah, Libnah, Lachish, Eglon, Hebron, Debir and Hazor. In each case, the story was the same. Joshua let none escape. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed each city and everyone in each city. Not a soul survived.

I mean, even if these accounts are purely fictional, even if historians believe that the Israelites never conquered Canaan—what is all this carnage doing in my Holy Book? We cannot gloss over this carnage. For certain, the Bible does not gloss over this carnage. The Bible reiterates, over and over, what Joshua was supposed to do, and what he did:

So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the L-RD, the G-d of Israel, had commanded.

The above quote reveals what might be the most troubling aspect of the book of Joshua. It would be one thing if Joshua was just a bloodthirsty warrior. But the Bible makes Joshua’s character clear: he was a dedicated servant of G-d, who faithfully observed G-d’s commands. It is G-d who gives Ai into the hands of Joshua’s army, and G-d who in succession does the same to the cities of Libnah, Lachish, and presumably, all of the other cities destroyed by Joshua. No city except Gibeon tried to make peace with Joshua, because “it was the L-RD’s doing to stiffen their hearts to give battle to Israel, in order that they might be proscribed without quarter and wiped out.” G-d makes it clear in Joshua: the conquest of the land was “not by your sword or by your bow.” This was G-d’s doing, G-d’s plan, history unfolding as G-d wanted it to unfold.

The Book of Judges goes on to make the same point, in a different way. Judges reports that time after time, “the Israelites did what was offensive to the L-RD.” It seems that the initial offense was the failure of the Israelites to continue fighting Canaanites, and worse, making peace treaties with them. And yes, there was a recurring problem of idolatry. Each time the Israelites offended G-d, G-d “surrendered them to their enemies”: Moab, Canaan and Midian, the Philistines and the Ammonites.  Each time Israel fell, the Israelites cried out to G-d for a redeemer chieftain. G-d would then deliver Israel’s oppressor into the hands of the chieftain, the chieftain would eventually die, and Israel would return to their offensive ways, lose G-d’s favor and be conquered by someone else. The pattern repeats so often, even G-d seems to grow tired of it!

My point here is not to question the character of the Israelites in Judges (though that character is highly questionable!). My point here is to point out the character of G-d in Judges. That G-d, like the G-d portrayed in Joshua, is a warrior. The character of G-d in Judges is perhaps most clear in Judges’ description of the battle fought by Gideon against the Midianites. Gideon had amassed an army of 32,000 men to face a Midianite force of 135,000. One might be concerned that Gideon’s force was too small, but G-d’s concern was that Gideon’s army was too large. G-d wanted credit for the defeat of the Midianites, and G-d was concerned that “Israel might claim for themselves the glory due to Me, thinking, ‘Our own hand has brought us victory.’” So G-d ordered Gideon to shrink the size of his army, down to a mere 300. With only 300 soldiers at Gideon’s disposal, it couldn’t have been Gideon and the Israelites who defeated the Midianites—it must have been G-d. Judges makes this crystal-clear: “the entire [Midianite] camp ran around yelling, and took to flight … [for] the L-RD turned every man’s sword against his fellow, throughout the camp, and the entire host fled.” Indeed, with the warrior G-d on his side, it’s a wonder that Gideon needed even 300 troops to accomplish the extermination of the 135,000.

In my above anaylsis, I may have omitted a battle or two. I’m no military historian. I’m just a Jew trying to get his hands around all this violence. I’m not trying to make it nice and pretty, or justify why it’s there in the text. Recall our discussion from last year about problem Bible texts, where I quoted Eric Seibert to say that “the Bible should never be used to harm others” and “if we are going to keep the Bible from harming others, we need to learn to have problems with it.”  And if you like, please read my post on ways that don’t work in dealing with problem Bible texts. However we’re going to come to terms with Joshua and Judges this year, we want to stay away from approaches that we rejected last year! So, don’t expect me to argue that the Canaanites had it coming, with their Baal-worship. Don’t expect apologetics from me, or for me to reach elsewhere in the Bible for a “canon within the canon” showing that the real Bible is the one where G-d is love. I’ve written before that the Bible is like a family history, my family history. The fact that there are pages of that history recounting events that may never have happened, pages that don’t tell my family history the way I wish they did, gives me no right to rip those pages from my history, or to direct your gaze to other pages I’m more proud of.

Nope. On this blog, in this version of religious dialogue, we deal with problem Bible text head on. And, indeed, we have a problem here. How do we come to grips with a G-d who insists that G-d’s people must engage in total war, who leads G-d’s people onto the battleground, and who appears to participate in the resulting carnage? I’ll give you some of my thoughts on this question next time; in the meantime, please post thoughts of your own.

  • Stephanie Barbé Hammer

    Thanks. There are several ways to read these sections, and none of them are particularly attractive interpretations: the historians for a conquered people fantasize in narrative of a pre-emptive strike against surrounding peoples or the authors are critiquing the “current” populace and suggesting “look — you guys are awful, you need to get it together because it’s behavior like this that got you exiled in the first place” or I suppose the most horrible of all which is that that these stories are indeed recommending genocide as right and proper under certain circumstances. But none of these feel intelligent to me — which brings me right back to the mystery of which you speak. Another thought — which Alter probably suggested — is that parts of these narratives are derived from other older stories. I seem to remember that the woman who helps Joshua may be riffing on the woman in the Gilgamesh who “educates” Enkidu. That would make them a kind if trippy compendium of narratives — which somehow feels a bit more possible. I dunno — I hope your other readers will say something smarter.

    • Stephanie, thanks back. Sure, there are parallels between Joshua/Judges and other ancient writings. I will try to get to this in my next post. I think you are spot on in suggesting that Joshua and Judges are written from a perspective long after the events they relate, with an intent that is both etiological (trying to explain why G-d’s people are threatened by their neighbors in the present day) and with the intent to get readers to behave better and obey G-d. What you said about “fantasy” is quite chilling, and is also something I intend to get to in a later post.

  • robrecht

    “I mean, even if these accounts are purely fictional, even if historians believe that the Israelites never conquered Canaan—what is all this carnage doing in my Holy Book?”

    What is it that makes the scriptures sacred, what makes the Bible holy? That they speak of God, sure, but anyone can write a book of theology today and it may or may not be good theology; it may even be better theology than what is found in much of the bible. Part of what makes the scriptures sacred is their age and another part is the connection we share with the authors and audiences from so long ago. It amazes me that we can read texts of Jeremiah and understand, even if we are sometimes horrified. We make the scriptures sacred; we have canonized the text, because we are part of the story. This is our peoole whose stories we are still reading some 2,500 years later. For me, that gives me not only the right, but also the obligation to critique our stories. This was wrong. This view of God is wrong. I came from this story but the story continues and I must correct it to the best of my ability. Not because the scriptures are not sacred, but because they are, because I too have learned a vision of God and forged an alliance with this God of my people. Any reader today must take on this responsibility. To fail to take on this task is to deny the sacred power of the text, which puts us in touch with the same God that wrestled with Jacob.

    • Rob, this is an outstanding comment. You’ve said what I tried to say, when I was talking about the Bible as family history. You’ve also said most effectively what I tried to say last year, when I discussed problem texts and Krister Stendahl. There’s a distinction between what the text meant and what it means. Stendahl looked at the epistles of Paul, acknowledged and “owned” all of the misogynistic stuff he found there, and concluded that what Paul “means” is that women should be ordained into ministry. Agreed 100%, this is a sacred responsibility. Thanks for this comment.

    • R Vogel

      “Not because the scriptures are not sacred, but because they are, because I too have learned a vision of God and forged an alliance with this God of my people. Any reader today must take on this responsibility. To fail to take on this task is to deny the sacred power of the text, which puts us in touch with the same God that wrestled with Jacob.”

      I hope you don’t mind if I quote this (while giving proper citation of course) This is perfect.

      • robrecht

        Not at all. I’m honored.

  • These are texts, having read them, I avoid rereading. But they illustrate just how awful humanity is. Sorry to the Israelite history that you get the privilege of being the example of horror. These are texts where we are not to ‘go and do likewise’. How do I live with them? I interpret them metaphorically and after the forms of typology. They show the real fight of G-d against our horror, the way in which we treat each other. I recently translated Isaiah 53, and I find there an equal horror: it is what we do to each other today in our exploitation of our world for our own gain at the expense of anyone we chose to ‘put to one side’. Here’s my rendering of verse 3:

    He is despised and set aside by everyone, a sorrowful person, one who knows illness,like someone from whom we would hide our faces. He is despised and we did not consider him.

    The character of G-d does not get off lightly here either.

    And Yahweh delighted to crush him. He has made illness as if he had set him up as a guilt offering. He will see offspring. He will lengthen his days. So the delight of Yahweh in his hand will thrive.

    This is theodicy writ large. God forces all our sin into the examples we see in our face. We are a blot on the beauty of the world. We are not beautiful. Our history is an abomination. This is our problem. But there is a gap in that verse – and the vindication of the servant is assured. Maybe I am simply blaming the victim. You are the lawyer. You would know if I were guilty of that. My wrestling with the text is here and in surrounding posts.

    • Bob, you are anticipating my next post, at least in some sense. When I ask what these stories are doing in my (and your) Holy Book, I’m asking whether they’re there because they were well-loved stories, stories that people enjoyed reading over and over. In my research, I ran into a piece that called Joshua at Jericho a “well-loved story,” and I suppose it is. I recall a lot of coloring book pictures with soldiers blowing horns in front of a walled city. As Stephanie suggested below, do we enjoy reading this sort of thing, as kind of a revenge fantasy?

      Thanks for your thoughts about wrestling with text. “G-d forces all our sin into the examples we see in our face.” I think I’ll wrestle with THAT for a while! As for “blaming the victim,” that’s an interesting thought, particularly in light of how you’re reading Isaiah 53. Joshua and Judges are pretty clear: any punishment of the Israelites in those books is a consequence of disobedience to G-d. The history of the ancient world might suggest that there wasn’t much middle ground between utter brutality and annihilation, suggesting that the only reason I’m here to wring my hands over the conduct described in Joshua and Judges is because someone back then was willing to engage in that conduct. But that’s something else I don’t want to read in my Holy Book.

      I’m curious why in Isaiah 53 you translated אִישִׁ֔ים-אִ֥ישׁ the way you did. Don’t you lose a bit of the poetry if you lose the plural-singular construct here (men-man)? No criticism intended, I’m just getting more interested these days in the art of translation.

      • The rationale behind my translation of ִאיש is simply my gender bias creeping into my translations. It conflicts with my desire for concordance. The word occurs 3 times in the passage but sometimes I think I have to ignore repetition. As for poetry, I think Isaiah is quite different from the Psalms. These poems have a much shorter pulse than that of the prophet. I still pay attention to parallels and syllables though. My latest display shows the syllable count for each line in a poem where I determine the line length. I haven’t had time to re-examine all the psalms with this extension to my algorithm yet. – Some day…

  • David

    I see it the following way: “God,” as depicted in a civilization’s thought and writing, represents the highest, most noble aspirations of that civilization at that time. Meaning, people take their highest vision of themselves and enshrine it as the will of God. We do the same today. God embodies the perfect love, compassion, fairness, the one who champions the cause of the oppressed and seeks the end of corruption and wickedness. We speak about this as God’s will because that’s how we’d like to be ideally.

    The Joshua narratives are no different, just that we can no longer relate to such a mindset – to put it mildly. The book of Joshua, including references to God, is simply a window into the psyche of the civilization that produced this text. The idea of completely annihilating idolatrous cultures, of “cleansing” the land and establishing God’s rule there, was evidently considered part of the highest and most noble vision. Today it sounds worse than ISIS, but back then, in a far more brutal world than anything we can imagine living in now, this God and this vision would have been something almost universally relatable.

    If you want to look at it theologically, you might say that God evolves along with us, since the “highest” we can be is something that is very much time-and-place dependent.

    It’s a different way of thinking about apologetics. We don’t necessarily “judge” the text, as awful as it is, because it’s coming from a profoundly different world. But we do not, cannot, must not take it as “God’s will” for us today. Such a God would indeed be a genocidal psychopath. The best (and arguably the only “sane”) way to draw inspiration from such texts, it seems to me, is to appreciate how far we’ve come, how much our higher sensibilities have evolved, and (again, from a theological perspective) how much higher and truer the level of God’s revelation we stand equipped with today.

  • David

    Oh, and I also want to wish you congrats and good luck on your Master’s program! I look forward to posts about topics which come up along the way in your studies.

  • David, thanks! I will try to reply to your comment with my next post.

  • R Vogel

    Richard Beck has an interesting take on the book of Joshua. His argument is that the book of Joshua, rather than supporting cherem, is actually a criticism of it. He states this on the premise that the book of Joshua was written during the time of the Babylonian exile, which was understood as G*d’s judgment against Israel. Given this, he questions how verses 24:19 would be read by those for whom it was written. Joshua flat out tells the assembly ‘You are not able to serve the L*rd.” And at the time that would have been prophetic. So taking the book as a whole, this verse seems to say cherem didn’t work. This may be particularly relevant to a people in exile, had dreams of taking revenge against their oppressors (Ps 137). I’m not sure I fully grasp or buy the argument yet, but it seems to me he has struck onto something. The historical context, in particular, seems to important. Of course these stories probably pre-dated the book and were a collection of foundation myths, but there was likely a purpose for the author putting them together other than just preservation. I look forward to your future posts on this topic – for all the discussion I see on these topics, the Jewish perspective is generally conspicuously absent.

    For an who want to peruse Richard’s post (Hope links are OK):

    • R, thank you!

      I agree that part of understanding Joshua is considering it not as a contemporaneous historical account, but as a look backwards from exile. In some part, Joshua is asking the question, why are we here in Babylon? What happened to G-d? In good Biblical fashion, the text blames its audience for what has happened. If you folks had only obeyed G-d, the text says, you’d still be in Israel, under G-d’s protection, and invincible in battle. And of course, G-d knew in advance that all this would happen. So naturally, the text stresses the disobedience.

      Thanks for posting the link to Beck’s piece. I can’t agree with what he says about cherem (used here in the sense of the G-d-ordered destruction of all living things when the Israelites capture a city). In particular, the idea that cherem is connected to the Levitical tradition doesn’t work for me. The logic of the Biblical text as I see it is not to promote the killing of idolaters for its own sake, but in order to protect the Israelites from their corrupting influence. Moreover, I don’t think it makes sense to say (as Beck says) both that cherem means “killing outgroup members because they are impure and unclean” and that cherem means “offering [pagans] up as burnt offerings.” Even if we put aside the question of the suitability of human sacrifice, it is fundamental to the Levitical tradition that only the pure and clean be offered for sacrifice.

      I think the heart of my problem with the Beck piece is how he sees a critique of cherem within the text that ostensibly requires cherem. I acknowledge that the text may well contain such hidden messages! The problem may be that Beck’s imagined OT critique of cherem is too heavily based on our modern aversion to animal sacrifice as a form of worship.

      Beck points to Hosea 6.6: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of G-d rather than burnt offerings.” Putting aside the accuracy of the translation here (Beck is following the New International Version translation, one that appears to be influenced by parallel New Testament material, see, for example, Matthew 9:13), I think a better text to understand Joshua is 1 Samuel 15:22, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the LORD? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams.” In 1 Samuel, G-d does not reject sacrifices; G-d says that obedience to G-d is more important than sacrifice. And here, what G-d asks for is not hesed (חֶ֥סֶד), as in Hosea–hesed translated by Beck as “mercy,” but perhaps better translated as “kindness.” In 1 Samuel, what G-d asks for more than sacrifice is s’mo-ah (שְׁמֹ֙עַ֙), “obedience.” And what lack of obedience is being referred to in 1 Samuel? Precisely, Saul’s failure to complete cherem to the last animal in his conquest of Amalek.

      I agree, Joshua and the remainder of the OT can be read creatively, from a present-day perspective, as a critique of cherem. I just can’t see how the text MEANT to deliver that critique to its intended audience. The intended message seems to be that the most important thing is to obey G-d.

      I’m curious. What parts of Beck’s argument are you buying, and what parts are you struggling with?

      • R Vogel

        This is very helpful, thanks for responding in such a detailed way. I guess the point that was most interesting to me is the effort to look at the entire work, rather than just pieces that are disturbing, and asking the questions of the intent of the author within his context. Your points about obedience are well taken, and perhaps here the creative impulse bent too much to modern sensibilities. Is 1 Samuel considered contemporary with Joshua? The effort to make some of the more problematic portions of scripture more palatable is a strong one. I really appreciate this series and your response.

        • R, I am no expert here. Scholars frequently refer to the “Deuteronomistic history” as a single collection of books consisting of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. There seems to be a good deal of debate over whether these books had a single or multiple author/redactor(s). There seems to be wide agreement that these books (or at least, portions of these books) are based on earlier written and oral traditions. So, I can’t say that Joshua and Samuel were written at the same time, only that they are frequently treated within a single “collection” as if they were redacted at the same time(s).

          I agree with you, these problem passages are best addressed as part of a larger work. This runs counter to what I’ve tried to do before, which is to examine problem texts in isolation.

          Thanks for the nice words!