Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Bible Commentary - Joshua 5

In this chapter, the nation of Israel is circumcised and Joshua meets the captain of the LORD's armies.

This chapter contains a number of interesting little anecdotes.  First it tells us the kings of the Amorites and Canaanites are afraid because they've heard of the Israelites' crossing the Jordan.  This was another one of the intended goals of splitting the Jordan.  On a linguistic note, I have previously referred to the inhabitants of the promised land as "Canaanites", but more properly the Canaanites are only the collection of tribes or federated kingdoms that reside along the coastland (i.e. Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gath and Ekron).  Modern terminology (for instance, reading wikipedia) calls Canaan the entire land of ancient Israel plus Lebanon.  For the sake of convenience, I am generally using the modern terminology, but the bible discusses the nations in Israel using more specific identities, such as verse 1 of this chapter.

Second, we learn that the Israelites had ceased performing circumcisions while they were traveling through the wilderness.  In this same passage, we are told that the whole nation was circumcised while they were in Egypt.  This is not actually described in the book of Exodus, but we can infer it happened probably before the Passover in Ex 12, because the ordinances of the Passover require that every male be circumcised (Ex 12:43-49).  If not then, the second most likely place they were circumcised is at Sinai, during the time when Moses was given the Law.

Either way, the circumcision at Gilgal is another parallel between Joshua and the Pentateuch because in v. 2, the LORD says this is "the second time" they have performed a circumcision.  This is strongly suggestive that it is a mass circumcision as an act of national dedication to the LORD, and saying it is the "second time" means that there was almost certainly a "first time" when they were in Egypt.  Since the people were not circumcised in the wilderness, they probably also didn't observe the Passover in the wilderness.  Their "reproach of Egypt" is because they haven't adhered to the commandments of the covenant in the most basic and significant ways, through circumcision and observance of the Passover.  The LORD is bringing them back into alignment with the covenant before they enter the promised land.

Third, we are told that the people eat some of the food of the land and the same day, the manna stopped, coincidentally on the day of the Passover.  This is very interesting and I think it reveals some important principles about how God operates.  To wit, God gave the Israelites manna while they were in the wilderness.  This taught the Israelites to depend upon him.  Now the Israelites are moving from a land of barrenness to a land of plenty (cf. Num 13), so they no longer require manna.  The provisions they possess change, but the challenges they face also change.  In the wilderness, they fought few battles but they depended on the LORD to provide their daily bread.  Now they have a natural source of food, but they will have to conquer towns and nations.  Therefore the appearance of the LORD changes to suit their new needs.  He is no longer the cloud by day and fire by night, now he appears as the great commander of the LORD's armies, as in vv. 13-15.  And this is the fourth interesting story.

I've said on many occasions that the form of the appearance of the LORD is significant because the way that he appears is indicative of the message he is trying to convey.  I have also said that Joshua is a book about the invasion of the promised land.  The LORD's appearance in this chapter is a natural consequence of these two factors.  The nation of Israel needs a military leader to guide them in battle, and that is how he now appears to Joshua.

But it's more significant than just that.  He comes in the form of Israel's need and to fit their situation, but he does not come to serve Israel.  As he replies in v. 14, he is not coming for Israel or their adversaries, he comes as captain of the LORD's armies.  What that means is that he is fighting the LORD's battles and in service to the LORD.  It is in fact forcing Joshua to choose if he will serve the LORD as well or serve his own purposes.  As Joshua replies in v. 14, he will serve the LORD (by asking what his lord wishes of his servant, Joshua).  This is another way of saying that Joshua wants to make himself and Israel part of the LORD's armies and to fight the LORD's battles.

Lastly, the LORD's command to Joshua in v. 15 is to remove his sandals, which is the exact same thing the LORD said to Moses in Ex 3:5, which is yet another parallel between the book of Joshua and the Pentateuch.  I think it also exemplifies some other important differences between the experiences of Moses and Joshua, because Ex 3 was when the LORD first appeared to Moses.  In that case, he appeared as a burning bush, granted Moses the power to do several miracles, and commanded him to lead the Israelites as they were brought out of Egypt to the promised land.  Now that they are actually in the promised land and under the leadership of Joshua, the LORD appears now to Joshua as a military figure, placing upon him the demand of obedience.

This chapter is great because it really brings a lot of reconciliation between Israel and the LORD, Israel who had walked so far astray in her brief time outside of Egypt, failing to observe the rituals of the covenant, rebelling against the LORD so many times, sinning with the golden calf.  Many of the differences have been smoothed over in this chapter... for now.

Bible Commentary - Joshua 4

In this chapter, the Israelites set up memorial stones to commemorate crossing the Jordan river.

There are a couple things worth mentioning about this chapter.  First, we have seen the Israelites set up memorial stones on a few other occasions, so this seems to be a reasonably common cultural practice.  A few examples I can think of are the "bethel" that Jacob set up in Gen 28:18, the "witness heap" of Gen 31:45-46, and to some extent the various altars that Abraham constructed through his life.  There are also the memorial stones that were attached to the ephod worn by the high priest (Ex 28:12).  This is interesting because most memorials (such as the stones in this chapter) are memorials to remind the Israelites of God.  The stones in Ex 28:12 are memorials to remind God of Israel.  The Israelites also have memorial rituals like the Passover, which commemorates their exodus from Egypt.

Second, it might be a little hard to tell, but the Israelites are actually setting up two sets of memorial stones.  Joshua first orders them to take twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, with an accompanying prescription that they should recite when their "children ask later, what do these stones mean" (v. 3-7).  He later commands them to place these twelve stones near Gilgal (v. 20).  However, there is a second set of twelve stones with Joshua places in the Jordan, as stated in v. 9.

This part is a bit confusing because first the LORD tells Joshua to take twelve stones (v. 1-3), then Joshua recites that order to the men under him (v. 4-7), then the men do what Joshua commands them (v. 8) and then suddenly in v. 9 Joshua is placing twelve stones in the Jordan, as opposed to the twelve stones which were just taken out of it.

Third, the author of Joshua uses the phrase "and they are there to this day", which occurs in several places through the OT.  This signifies to us that the author must have been writing some time after the events described, and it also signifies that (in all likelihood) the memorial rocks actually were present in his day, since "they are there to this day" is a falsifiable claim.  To the best of my knowledge, these stones have not actually been found in modern times.  I couldn't find much documentation on them, but given the several millennia of invaders and vandals passing through the region, it is unlikely that anything will ever be found.  Even in the best of times it can be hard to distinguish between twelve unadorned "memorial stones" and twelve "ordinary stones", so it's quite possible one could pass by it and never know.

Still, I think this phrase ("there to this day") is interesting because it establishes to the ancient reader a connection between the historical events and their present time.  This was, of course, the purpose of all the Israelite memorials.  It's not just about creating an occasion to remember the past, it's about associating the future generations with past miracles through their active participation.  It is by participating in the Passover that Jews of all generations take part in the exodus from Egypt, and it is by seeing and talking about the memorial stones that the later generations of Israelites participated in crossing the Jordan.

Fourth, v. 13 counts 40,000 armed men from the Transjordan tribes crossing over with the rest of the tribes.  This is peculiar because we observed in Num 26 that Reuben, Gad and (for the sake of these calculations, let's say exactly 50% of) Manasseh add up to roughly 110,000 men.  This means that less than half of the armed men above 20 present for the second census were available for the battles in the promised land.  While the second census occurred many chapters ago, the chronological distance is relatively small, so it is unlikely that half of these tribes would have died while listening to Moses talk.  It's certainly possible I would lose half my readership through the ordeals of the Deuteronomic tirade, but I'd hope that would be from boredom and not death.

Anyhow, I think what's probably happening here is that a large number of men from these tribes had to stay behind to build the cities and walls, etc. for their families which was discussed in the original deal with Moses (Num 32:16-17).  My guess is that these men would stay in the Transjordan region until their work was complete and then cross over later to join the fighting men.  That's just my personal hypothesis though, as this discrepancy is not explained by the text here or anywhere else.  I think it is a plausible explanation though.

Lastly, we can see the consequence of crossing the Jordan is that now the nation of Israel "revere" Joshua (v. 14).  Unlike the nation's tumultuous relationship with Moses, there will be no major rebellions against Joshua for the rest of his life.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Bible Commentary - Joshua 3

In this chapter, the LORD splits the Jordan river and Israel crosses over on dry ground.

This is one of the more significant chapters in Joshua.  Like I said in the introduction to this book, the crossing of the Jordan river is meant to mimic the crossing of the Red Sea, and there are a couple reasons why.

  1. We know from the prior chapter that there are passable fords in the Jordan (Josh 2:7), although since it is flooding season (v. 15), it is possible that the fords are not safe or easy for a large group of people to cross, while two spies might be able to cross more easily.
  2. It is an active demonstration of the LORD's support for Joshua (v. 7).  By performing a miracle while Joshua is leader of the nation, it shows the nation that the LORD is affirming Joshua and will consolidate his leadership.
  3. The prior generation that saw the crossing of the Red Sea was entirely wiped out in the desert.  Crossing the Jordan river will demonstrate to the current generation the miraculous powers of the LORD, giving them faith that they can be victorious over the Canaanite nations.
The last reason is probably the most significant, and in part it explains why the book of Joshua contains so many parallels to the Pentateuch.  Because the prior generation was wiped out, the LORD is now redoing many of the things that he did with the last generation, because in both cases their objective was to invade the promised land.  They scout the land for information and need miracles to demonstrate the LORD's support for them.  The knowledge of the prior generation can be passed down to the present, but the experiences die with the people who had them, and that is a very significant fact.  Following the LORD is not a knowledge-based endeavor; it also demands a present experience with the LORD, because it is by seeing the miracles and power of the LORD for yourself that you build confidence in his leadership and abilities.  Simply being told of the Red Sea crossing is enough to melt the hearts of the Canaanites, but it's not enough to supply the Israelites with confidence in the LORD.  The same is true for people who follow the LORD today.

Other than that, crossing the Jordan is symbolic of baptism, just like crossing the Red Sea.  This consecrates the Israelites for their invasion of the promised land.  This is also possibly why the water was stopped up at Adam, because it implicitly refers to the curse of Adam which has been wiped off the Israelites.  I think that's everything I want to say about this chapter.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Bible Commentary - Joshua 2

In this chapter, Joshua sends two spies into Jericho who are secretly aided by Rahab, a resident of Jericho.

This is the second time the Israelites have sent spies into the promised land.  The first time was in Num 13 and ended very poorly.  The spies gave a bad report, the people rebelled, and they were condemned to wander in this wilderness for 40 years until the whole generation had died.  This chapter parallels that earlier chapter to an extent, but there is a notable difference.  Instead of sending 12 spies (one from each tribe), in this chapter the Israelites only send two spies without stating their tribal affiliation.  What this tells me is that this story is less symbolic and more practical.  In Num 13, sending a spy from each tribe is a symbolic gesture of equality between the tribes and also symbolizes their invasion (which was subsequently delayed).  Here in Joshua 2, Joshua is a far more practical leader, since he sends fewer spies (who are thereby less likely to be caught) and Joshua also emphasizes gathering military intelligence related to the invasion ("especially Jericho", v. 1).  To be fair, Num 13 was also gathering military intelligence about the size of fortifications and available resources in the land (needed to sustain an invading army).

Anyway, it seems like the main character in this story is Rahab, who first hides the spies, then lies to her own people, and then advises the spies on how to evade their hunters.  Rahab is also the only named individual in this chapter: the spies, the king of Jericho and the various other figures are all anonymous, except for Rahab.  In short, Rahab made a deal with the spies to save their lives if they agree to spare Rahab and her family when the Israelites destroy the city.  This chapter also explains her reasoning, when she says that she, and all the people of the land, are terrified of the Israelites because of the stories they heard about the plagues in Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea.

I don't think Rahab is very significant in terms of the story here, because this part is just one chapter and it is relatively insignificant compared to the rest of the events in Joshua and the following books.  However, I do think Rahab is somewhat significant because of how she is referenced in later places in the bible.  Perhaps most significantly, Matthew 1:5 specifically names Rahab as the mother of Boaz, who is the great grandfather of King David.  There isn't any textual references to this here in Joshua or later in the book of Ruth when it discusses the genealogy of King David there (cf. Ruth 4:18-22).  James and Hebrews also refer to Rahab as an example of faith, claiming that it was not fear but rather faith in the LORD that drove her to assist the spies (James 2:25 and Heb 11:31).  So it is clear that the NT draws upon Rahab as an example of faith and possibly someone who helped bring Jesus into the world.  In the OT references to her are sparse; she is only mentioned here and later in Joshua 6 when Joshua fulfills the promise to spare her.

How is Rahab an example of faith?  I think this is mostly because of her claim in v. 11 when she says that the LORD is the one true God.  More significant in my opinion is the fact that she's a woman from a foreign nation, even one of the nations that the Israelites are supposed to wipe out.  If you recall from reading the Pentateuch, Israel is supposed to be a nation that is open for everyone to join.  The covenant of circumcision is available for every man who wishes to eat the Passover, and for women the process is roughly comparable.  In the OT however, this rarely happened.  There are only a handful of converts mentioned in the OT, and they are generally regarded very favorably.  One example we have seen is Caleb (Num 32:12 calls him a Kenizzite) and Rahab is another.  There is also (in the book of Ruth) Ruth, who is a Moabite.  These are all significant figures in the OT, but it's still clear from the rest of the text that a major prejudice against the Canaanite tribes existed in Israel.  And why not, considering the Israelites were commanded to kill them all?  But Rahab and Ruth both join Israel regardless and they are honored in the bible for it.

In the end, the two spies return to Joshua and tell him that the inhabitants are in fear of them.  So it's like a reversal of what happened last time when the Israelites melted in fear of the Canaanites.  Now the Canaanites are melting in fear of the Israelites.

One last minor note.  Since we know it took the spies at least 3 days to return to Israel and Joshua said the people would depart in 3 days, that must mean that the spies were sent out immediately and the Israelites left to cross the Jordan very shortly after the spies returned.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Bible Commentary - Joshua 1

In this chapter, the LORD instructs Joshua to lead the people into the promised land.

This book leaves right where Deuteronomy left off.  Moses is dead, Joshua has been anointed leader of the people, and the nation of Israel is encamped near the eastern bank of the Jordan.  Joshua is instructed to lead the people into Canaan, and he takes this as an opportunity to remind the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh (henceforth the Transjordan tribes) that they promised to go to war along with their brothers (this promise occurs in Num 32).

I think there are two notable characteristics to this chapter.  The first is the recurrence of the phrase "be strong and courageous", which is first stated three times by the LORD, and is later repeated by the Transjordan tribes when they are assuring Joshua that they will go into the promised land.  When I previously discussed the overthrow of Sihon and Og, who were two Amorite kings slain by the Israelites, I said that these were important examples that would be used to encourage the Israelites, and I also said that morale is a huge component of ancient warfare.  In this chapter, we see a similar theme in the phrase "strong and courageous", because the LORD is trying to encourage Joshua to stand strong in battle and Joshua basically passes that encouragement down to his men.

The second notable characteristic is how obedient and responsive the men from the Transjordan tribes are when Joshua commands them to fight.  In light of the prior rebellions of the Israelites during their wandering years, we now see that the Israelites are being largely obedient again.  This pattern of obedience will last through most of Joshua with only a few exceptions.  It's only towards the end of the book and into the book of Judges that the Israelite rebellions start becoming more widespread and more severe.  During Joshua's lifetime, the nation will be predominantly aligned with the Lord and the covenant.

Other than that, I don't think there's much else happening in this chapter.  Joshua reaffirms the deal that Moses made with the Transjordan tribes and Joshua tells us that the people will depart within three days (possibly recalling the three days of preparation before the LORD descended on Sinai, Ex 19:11).

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Bible Commentary - Joshua Introduction

This has been a long time coming.  I had to take a 4 month hiatus to deal with various personal situations, and it's possible I'm going to take another break from posting soon as well.  But while I have some time off, I'm going to see how much of Joshua I can get done.  That's enough about me.

As a whole, Joshua is a very close continuation of the Pentateuch.  I can say this for a few reasons.

  1. Joshua appears several times in the Pentateuch, beginning in Exodus 17, and later in Numbers and Deuteronomy.  He isn't a major character at first, but he grows in significance as Moses approaches the end of his life and anoints Joshua to be his successor.  Now that Moses is dead, it is time for Joshua to really take over and lead the Israelites into the promised land.
  2. The story in Joshua is tightly coupled with the story of the Pentateuch.  In the introduction to Deuteronomy, I said that Deuteronomy ends on the eve of the invasion of the promised land, and in this way Deuteronomy leaves the story unresolved.  Joshua is in large part a resolution to Deuteronomy, because without taking the promised land, the promise itself is unfulfilled.  Everything that the Israelites were commanded to do culminates in Joshua, although as we will see the invasion is not completed in this book.
  3. Similar to my prior point, a lot of Deuteronomy is warnings and exhortations preparing the Israelites to invade the promised land.  Without actually invading, these warnings are meaningless.
  4. There are literary parallels, such as the appearance of the LORD to Moses in Exodus 3, cf. the appearance of the LORD to Joshua in Joshua 5.  Another parallel is the crossing of the Jordan river (Josh 3), cf. the crossing of the Red Sea (Ex 14).
In conclusion, it is evident that the writer of Joshua must have been aware of the Pentateuch, while the author of the Pentateuch clearly anticipated the book of Joshua.

As a result of this, much of the authorship and dating information about the Pentateuch also applies to Joshua.  It is exceedingly likely that Joshua is dated in the same period as when Deuteronomy was written, and it is also likely that the author or authors of Deuteronomy were involved in the creation of Joshua.  It's not just that Joshua "fits well" on Deuteronomy, it's that Deuteronomy has narrative gaps that demand resolution, which Joshua provides.

Joshua also returns to the story narrative form of Exodus or Numbers and it does not possess the same legal structure as Leviticus or Deuteronomy.  For my readers, this is probably a good thing because it means Joshua is much easier to read and (for most people) more interesting than Deuteronomy.  There's about six chapters towards the end that contain some administrative information about the proper division of the land (i.e. assigning allotments to the tribes), but the rest of the book should be reasonably entertaining.

Joshua really only has one theme, and that is the invasion of the promised land.  They cross over into the land, engage in war with the inhabitant nations, wipe some of them out, spare some others, and then assign divisions of the land to the tribes.  It's interesting to note that the divisions assigned to the tribes include land that hasn't yet been conquered, so the division was done in anticipation of future conquest (and in accordance with the land promised to them by the LORD).  The story concludes with Joshua giving a speech to the Israelites and dying, just like Moses did.

A topic that always seems to come up when discussing Joshua is the genocide waged against the Canaanites.  This isn't the first time the topic has come up though; we saw a similar command against the Amalekites (Ex 17) and most of the actual commands to wipe out the Canaanites were in earlier books like Deuteronomy.  Nevertheless, I feel it is worth addressing because unlike Deuteronomy, Joshua really is a book about war and not much else.  A common criticism of this book (and really the OT in general) is that the genocide directed against the Canaanites is 1) unjustified and 2) a terrible precedent of God-ordained murder, essentially legitimatizing every murder by equivocation (i.e. "if God ordered the murder of all the Canaanites, why wouldn't he order the murder of all Americans/Jews/dolphins/etc").  I think the first of these two points (that it is unjustified) can be addressed relatively easily, so I will do this first.  The second point is more insidious, and therefore I will address it last.

Is the murder of the Canaanites unjustified?  The basic answer here is that the bible is Israel-centric.  It is written for Israelites, by Israelites, and about Israelites.  The inclusion of other nations is in large part incidental, and their references only exist to the extent that they affect Israel in some way.  In the Amalekites (Ex 17) we find stern hostility and resistance to the migration of the Israelites out of Egypt.  In Joshua, we find the exact same thing from the various Canaanite nations.  In Joshua the Canaanites are strawmen; figures constructed or included for the sole purpose of resisting Israel and most of the time getting beaten by Israel.  Like Pharaoh, they are fodder whose purpose in this account is to provide insurmountable obstacles to demonstrate the surpassing power of the LORD in bringing about his promises.

Earlier in this commentary I said that the OT provides physical demonstration of what the NT turns into spiritual principles, and that is a very important reading of this book.  While this doesn't address the rationale for why the Canaanites deserve death, it does show us something even more important: what the author was trying to convey through this book.  I believe understanding the author's intent is a critical part of biblical interpretation, because it is the author's intent that dictates what information is included and what is excluded from the bible.  Since the bible is a story about the Israelites and not about the Canaanites, the author simply never included a larger discussion of Canaanite history.  Therefore assessing the moral character or legitimacy of Canaanite culture is simply not possible from the source material available here.  In order to understand why the LORD brought judgment on these nations, we would need to read the story of the Canaanites, and that story is not found here.

I think more can be said about the first point, but I will stop here.  For the second point, I think it is a more difficult proposition, but this isn't the first time we've faced it.  There is a similar moral dilemma in Gen 22 when Abraham is ordered by God to murder his son.  I think the fundamental question here is whether God could ask someone to do something immoral.  What this implies is that either God does not obey his own moral system (and therefore sins) or more realistically, God's moral system differs from our own and therefore commands us to do something that he finds moral, but we do not.  This spawns all sorts of hypothetical questions and comparisons to serial killers.  Among other things, I must address the reliability of whether we are actually hearing from God.

In the case of serial killers who sometimes assert that "God told them to do it", the general presumption is that they did not hear from God.  But how do you know?  And how would anyone know if God ever spoke to them?  Not that I believe such atrocities are inspired by God, but there is an inherent unreliability to hearing from God because it's just so unusual in our day and time, and this unreliability troubles me.

The fact that liars or schizophrenics say that "God told them" to do horrible things doesn't erase the fact that God does speak, and sometimes does tell people to do other things.  However, it does give us pause.  Deception never undoes the truth, but it should make us wary, especially when we are asked to do things contrary to our wisdom and judgment.

Even within the confines of our own minds there are many mental and physical conditions that make people hear or see things that do not exist, or not hear or see things that do.  The modernist philosophers of the 19th century wished to construct a world with absolute space, absolute time and a definite knowledge of what is real and true.  The post-modernists of the 20th century eviscerated those dreams and in their place we now have a relativistic universe where time and space change based on perspective, and to most philosophers, morality and truth also change based on perspective.

Does this philosophy accord with the Christian faith?  In large part it does not, because the existence of an omnipotent God results in an absolute morality.  Moral relativism puts man on a level with God, implying that man can create his own morality that is neither better nor worse than that of the bible.  This is the old dream of Genesis 3, to know good and evil and to judge truth according to our own wishes, with no master or king.

However, even if one agrees that an absolute morality exists in the abstract, there is an additional challenge of aligning our own moralities and lives with that absolute, and this is a troubling challenge indeed.

In a separate line of thought, we could ask whether God could ever order someone to actually commit a sin.  I have never met anyone who thought the answer was yes, so most people regard this as a paradox that disproves the reality of the biblical God.  I.e. no true god would ever order someone to commit a sin, and the god of the bible ordered the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites, which is a sin, therefore the god of the bible is not a true god.  This logic seems unassailable, but to it I would simply reply with my analysis above about whether murdering the Canaanites is justified.  I think there are just too many unknown variables to reasonably address whether the Canaanites "deserved" it.

One could raise similar objections to anytime God kills people, such as the flood in Noah's time, the fire and brimstone that fell upon Sodom and Gomorrah, and many other such events.  What is unique about the invasion of Canaan is how the LORD is using human agents to carry out his ordained destruction, rather than supernatural events beyond mortal control.  Therefore I have focused mostly on the issue of human agency.

There are many more such troubles and problems that I could enumerate given enough space and time, but most of them will be of similar character to those listed above.  There isn't really any one thing I can say to address all these points, but I need to conclude this somehow.  Here's what I will say: the Lord's capability to lead us is greater than the devil's capability to deceive us.  There are many difficulties in this life, but I believe that if I genuinely seek the LORD and try to align my morality with his, he will help me and bring that alignment about.  And the LORD will never command anyone to do something contrary to his morality or his truth.  There are a lot more questions one could ask about the justice (or lack thereof) in wiping out the Canaanites, but greater than my doubt is my sense of trust that the LORD has always done the right thing.  I don't trust the LORD because of some theological system, but because of what I've seen him do in my own life.  All these other events, genocides and serial killers and stuff, is all so distant from the realm of my existence I simply don't know if I can say anything about it with certainty.  If you disagree... who am I to question you?