Saturday, August 31, 2013

Bible Commentary - Judges 4

In this chapter, Deborah guides Barak to rescue Israel.

I think this is a great chapter because for whatever reason, there is a pretty strong anti-feminist tradition in the church, and indeed in Judaism as well, that more or less teaches that women cannot be leaders or teachers over men.  This chapter contradicts that tradition.  Miriam was the first prophetess (Ex 15:20) but we never really saw Miriam do anything significant (in my opinion).  Deborah, on the other hand, would judge the Israelites (v. 4-5), arbitrate their disputes, and as here, leads Barak in attacking the occupying Canaanites.

To make this chapter even better, "the honor" of slaying Sisera is given to a second woman, Jael.

As we know, the Kenites are friendly to Israel because Moses married a Kenite.  However, it appears that Heber the Kenite "separated himself" from the other Kenites, and also appears to be friendly with Israel's oppressors.  It's interesting, then, that his wife would betray Sisera.  Perhaps, perceiving the defeat that Sisera was fleeing from, Jael hoped to make amends with the Israelites that would not have otherwise treated her and Haber kindly for befriending Jabin.

It's interesting that Barak's army is drawn from Naphtali and Zebulun, two northern tribes.  Deborah was also living near Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, which is also in the north.  So this story is mostly about the north although one would presume that Judah is also under the oppression of Jabin.

Those are all of the small things I care to talk about for this chapter.  I want to go back to the topic of gender relations, because I really think that's the most important part of this chapter.  First of all, let's remember the culture in which this is happening.  In nearly every instance we have read, the father is head of the household.  Whenever that father is a righteous Noah, then his wife and children are spared.  When the father is a sinful Korah, then his wife and children die with him.  To us, it seems like an injustice, but to them, patriarchy was a way of life.

In light of this, I find the implicit egalitarianism of Deborah's authority to be really fascinating.  Not just that a woman would be a prophet (which is something that God determines) but that the Israelites would go to her to resolve their disputes, meaning that they respected her authority and wisdom.  There is also an interesting interplay between Deborah and Barak.  Barak refuses to fight Sisera without Deborah going with him.  Many people see this as a demonstration of weakness on the part of Barak, perhaps necessitating Deborah's greater involvement, and that's why Barak did not have "the honor".

There are some people who say that women should not be allowed to lead or teach in a church.  I have heard some of these people say that it was the "proper role" of Barak to lead Israel to victory, and because he refused that role the Lord gave it to Deborah instead.  Like, women are permitted to lead if men fail to do so.  Although my purpose here is not to criticize or deconstruct this argument, I will point out that Deborah was "judging" Israel in verses 4-6 long before she ever commanded Barak to do anything.  Deborah, indeed, is a judge of Israel in the same line as Ehud, Shamgar and Othniel, the three heroes of the previous chapter.  I think it is a misunderstanding of this chapter to suggest that the LORD somehow chose Barak to lead and that Deborah was a backup option.

What this means for the larger topic of gender relations I cannot fully say, because we do not yet have the fuller context of the NT.  But I do think this chapter shows one thing as clear as day, that the LORD does and will choose women as leaders of Israel (and by extension, the modern church) and if the ancient Israelites respected Deborah's authority, it is incumbent upon us to follow the leaders whom God chooses, regardless of gender.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Bible Commentary - Judges 3

In this chapter, we learn about the first three judges who save Israel from their troubles.

The beginning of this chapter, verses 1-6, are a continuation of the last chapter.  It continues with the theme of "the LORD left nations in Canaan to test Israel".  What's a bit different is that in this chapter, not only are the Canaanite tribes left alive to test the hearts of Israel, whether they would stay true to the LORD, but also to test them militarily, for those generations which "had not experienced any of the wars of Canaan".  I don't have any particular opinion about this, I think it mostly explains itself.

In verses 5-6 we have the intermarriage that was strictly prohibited by the law of Moses, and in verses 7-8 we have the direct outcome of that, which is Israel doing evil things and then getting punished for it.  This is all straightforward and implied by the Judges Cycle.

The interesting part begins in verse 9 when we start to read about the judges.  The first judge is Othniel, who was the guy that married Achsah after leading the assault on Debir (Joshua 15).  Beginning with this story, we start seeing what nations rise up against Israel.  Interestingly, it isn't really the Canaanites; Israel has the various Amorite and Canaanite tribes mostly under their control, and by intermarriage they become political allies to these tribes.  This is interesting because v. 2 tells us that they remained in the last so that Israel could experience wars against them, but it seems like the larger conflicts are against their neighbors from outside the promised land, but it's all because "the anger of the LORD" being kindled.

Their first oppressor is an Aramean king, who Othniel overthrows, and then after that it is an alliance of Moabites, Ammonites and Amalekites.  The Moabites and Ammonites are two nations that descend from Lot's two sons, Moab and Ben-Ammi (Gen 19), and the LORD prohibited Israel from fighting them because they were related.  However, the Moabites and Ammonites responded with hostility, prohibiting the Israelites from traveling through their land to the promised land.  Now, these two nations have allied together with the Amalekites (who attacked Israel pre-emptively in Ex 17) and they subjugate Israel.

The Amalekites have always been hostile to Israel, but the Moabites and Ammonites share a family tie to Abraham so by tradition and honor they should not be fighting against Israel, yet here we are.  This probably reflects badly on them, but of course it reflects worse on the Israelites who sinned to bring this upon themselves in the first place.

The story after this one tells us in a single verse that the Philistines are also fighting against Israel and possibly oppressing them, such that Shamgar needed to "save Israel" in the most outlandish way possible, killing 600 people with a tool that hardly even constitutes a weapon at all.

The longest story is about Ehud, who kills the king of Moab.  This is a pretty funny story (seen from a certain perspective) that this king was so fat that the sword could be plunged, blade hilt and all, straight into his body and left there.  After Ehud locks the door and leaves, Eglon's servants think he's using the bathroom and wait outside "to the point of embarrassment".  It certainly presents some comical images, although the reality of the situation is pretty grim.  After Eglon is killed, the Israelites seize the fords of the Jordan which would have allowed the Moabites to flee back to their own country, and they killed every Moabite who tried to cross.  Remember that Moab and Ammon are both nations to the south and east of Israel, and although some of them probably would have crossed south through the Negev, the fords of the Jordan are closer and easier, so that's probably why they tried to flee that way, and also why Israel tried to capture the fords to prevent Moab's escape.

Anyway, I think this story is mostly self-descriptive; I don't see much that I need to comment on for my readers to understand what is happening.  I think the main thing here that isn't explained is the international politics between Moab, Ammon and Israel.  I referenced some of this above.  In spite of how they should be allies, Moab and Ammon are joining together to oppress Israel, and Israel retaliates by striking down 10,000 Moabite men.  This is the beginning of a long, fractious relationship between these two countries, and things will be no better between Israel and Ammon.  In Ex 17 the LORD commanded Israel to destroy the Amalekites, so their emnity should not surprise us either now or in the future.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Bible Commentary - Judges 2

In this chapter, the LORD punishes Israel for following other gods.

This chapter actually summarizes a lot of the things I said about Israel's failings in the last chapter and the themes of Judges in the introduction.  Verses 11-19 are basically a rephrasal of what I call the Judges Cycle.

The best way to understand this chapter is to think of it as a continuation of the introduction that we read in the last chapter.  In fact, I would surmise that this chapter and the previous were meant to be read at the same time, as part of the same message.  The last chapter ended by listing all of the cities and towns that Israel did not capture, and this chapter begins by rebuking Israel for making covenants with the native Canaanites.  So thematically, this chapter directly relates to what the previous chapter was talking about.

Secondly, just as in Judges 1, this chapter does not have a strict chronology.  The beginning of the chapter (v. 1-10) is talking about events that happened before Joshua died, while verses 11-23 are actually describing the rise and fall of the Judges in general.  The stories of these same Judges form the content of this book, so in essence this chapter is summarizing the stories we are about to read.

Briefly, this chapter is the author himself providing a theological commentary on the book we are about to read.  He is summarizing the lives of the Judges and explaining why the events happened as they did, and he finds that the root cause is Israel forgetting the things the LORD has done (v. 10) and then doing evil and serving other gods (v. 11-12).  Since I already wrote about the Judges Cycle at length I don't really want to repeat myself, but at this point I think it's fair to say that the author of Judges agrees with me (or more truthfully, I agree with him).  :)

Now that I have stated the best way to read this chapter (as itself a commentary, not really part of the story), there are a few other things worth talking about in this chapter.  I'll start at the beginning with verses 1-5.  I have always found this story peculiar, for the following reason.  When the angel of the LORD rebukes the people, v. 4 says that the people wept and v. 5 says that they offered sacrifices.  What confuses me is, why didn't they just turn around and attack those nations that they did not destroy in chapter 1?  With Gibeon I understand, because they made a covenant and cannot break their oath.  Verses 21-23 says that the LORD left some of the nations as a test for Israel, to see if Israel would be faithful.  But v. 2 seems to imply that Israel made peace with the Canaanites in the promised land, so unless that is only referring to Gibeon, it seems like there is more Israel can do than just cry, they should be attacking the Canaanites as they were commanded to do.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that Israel seems to be acting hypocritically, crying when they are rebuked but not correcting their behavior.  Why should they cry if they don't repent (i.e. fix their behavior)?  I've never really understood this story.

The rest of this chapter is just a summary of the Judges Cycle, so if you want to read what I think about that, go look at my Introduction to Judges.  I guess the most significant thing stated here that I didn't mention is how the Judges Cycle reflects changes in the living generation.  The generations that see the deliverance of the LORD are usually faithful, but when they die and a new generation emerges, that generation is usually faithless and seeks other gods.  What I personally read from this is the importance of having a personal experience with God.  If you are part of a people or generation that has seen the deliverance of the LORD, you will be faithful (excepting a few golden calfs - Ex 32).  The future generations can see all of your memorials, observe your Passovers, see the stones that were taken out of the Jordan riverbed, or even sing the song of Moses (Ex 15), but when Joshua and the elders die, many people will find out that they never really had faith in the LORD, they were living in the shadow of somebody else's faith.

I do not say this to criticize the Israelites, but rather to allow their lives and stories to instruct us in how we should pursue the LORD.  Living in the faith of another person can guide us well for a time, and it can serve as a model for us to follow, but there is an inevitable day when everyone must either stand in their own faith or they will fall.  That is the testing that the LORD speaks of in v. 22.

Memorials of past victories are good, but they are not enough.  Traditions and festivals of remembrance are good, and they can teach us, but they are not enough.  The ceremonies of the law were not sufficient to keep the hearts of Israel pure and true when they were put to the test.  That is, I think, one of the big themes in the OT and it shows very clearly in Judges and indeed, in this very chapter.  Israel has had many righteous men and women, and many righteous leaders.  But as verse 19 so grimly puts it, when the righteous leader dies, the sins that long laid dormant in the hearts of men come back to the surface stronger than ever.

In this way, the OT reflects an awful lot of hopelessness.  There are times when the people turn back to god, but those times of revival are so often followed by an even greater darkness.  What I believe, and what most Christians believe, is that these stories in the OT like the book of Judges is meant to show us the hopelessness of men who pursue righteousness by the law of Moses and by the covenant of Israel with God in Ex 19-24 laid out in that law.  I have yet to reach the content of the NT, but it's important to know that the Christian bible is built around this duality: the failure of the old covenant to bring men into righteousness and the hope and resurrection (both literally and metaphorically) that is presented in the NT.  I promise I'll talk about this a LOT later, but I think it would be instructive for my readers to begin viewing the OT in this perspective.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Bible Commentary - Judges 1

In this chapter, the Israelites continue sweeping up Canaanite towns after the death of Joshua.

This chapter appears to be an introduction to the immediate history before the Judges period.  The first thing I noticed about this chapter is that the chronology is a bit weird.  Verse 1 places us firmly after the death of Joshua, so at first glance you'd think that everything described here happened after Joshua died.  That does not appear to be the case, because among other things, the conquest of Debir is also listed in Joshua 10 and the story about Caleb giving his daughter Achsah to Othniel is also repeated from Joshua 15 (although that story from Joshua 15 has an uncertain chronology of its own).   Some other cities in this chapter are mentioned in Joshua 12, which again seems to imply that they were conquered during the lifetime of Joshua (examples: Hormah, Bethel, Hebron, Jerusalem).

However, other cities are almost definitely new and post-date Joshua.  For instance, Ashkelon, Gaza and Ekron are specified called out by the LORD in Joshua 13:3 as cities that have yet to be conquered by the Israelites, but in this chapter they are taken by Judah.

So I think this chapter has two purposes.  First, it is reminding us what happened during the invasion with Joshua, but it is not precisely aligned with the book of Joshua.  It includes some conquests that were in Joshua and some that weren't.  I wouldn't go so far as to call it an inconsistency, but it seems to indicate that Joshua and Judges are to some extent separate works.  That said, there is still a lot of deliberate continuity between the first book and the second, because this chapter directly references the death of Joshua, which happened in the last chapter of Joshua, and this chapter also includes the story about Caleb taking Debir which was also in Joshua.

The second purpose of this chapter is to establish the numerous Canaanite cities that were not captured by Israel, as this forms a significant part of the Judges sin narrative.  If you read my introduction to Judges, I talked about the Israelites' persistence in sin as being a major cause of the Judges cycle.  The Israelites were frequently warned against allowing the Canaanites to survive in the land because they would ensnare the Israelites into sin, like what happened in Peor (Num 25).  They were again warned against this in Deut 20, and first started allowing Canaanites to survive in the land with their careless oath in Joshua 9.  However, Joshua 13 lists many places that Israel did not conquer, and while they take some of the cities in this chapter, verses 27-36 list the many places that Israel did not conquer within their borders.  Unfortunately, Israel is shortly going to pay a heavy price for not driving out the Canaanites.

There are a few other short stories in this chapter.  The first one is that Judah and Simeon assist each other in taking their respective inheritances.  If my readers remember, the inheritance of Simeon was placed within the borders of Judah because Judah was given too much land for their people to occupy (Joshua 19:9).  These two tribes will be closely related such as here when they fight on each other's behalf.

But already we can see there is a difference in how Israel is fighting now.  Joshua dismissed the national army, and each tribe is fighting for their own inheritance alone, rather than collectively.  Ostensibly, this is because Israel conquered most of their objectives and everyone has been given an inheritance.  More practically, this is probably because Israel simply doesn't have a national leader who can organize all the tribes together.  It reminds me of the many times in the Pentateuch where I pointed out how various passages are designed to reinforce a sense of national unity amongst the tribes, repetition of the number 12 and so forth.  All of those times I said, Moses is trying to establish a sense of national unity because the tribes otherwise do not think of themselves as a nation.  Now that Moses and Joshua are both gone, that facade of cohesiveness largely disappears.  That is what we are witnessing here, the disintegration of Israel's national identity.

Another short story from this chapter is that the Kenites live in the land with Judah.  This is probably referring to the descendants of Hobab, the son of Jethro (a.k.a. Reuel), who was implied as going with Moses in Num 10:29-32.  So apparently Hobab did go with Moses, and now there are a family or small clan of them residing with the sons of Judah.

The last short story I will mention is that in v. 34, we learn that Dan is mostly unable to take their inheritance.  Many of the tribes are struggling to drive out their foes, but in the case of Dan they are being substantially defeated.  Later in Judges we will learn what the Danites choose to do when they cannot take the inheritance they were assigned.

Bible Commentary - Judges Introduction

Ready or not, here comes Judges.

I am, of course, joking, because I am eminently prepared for Judges.  And soon you will be too, trusty and faithful readers, because much like Neo in The Matrix, you are about to receive a swift information upload.  Instead of kung-fu, I will be transferring to you biblical studies.  Anyway, lets get on topic because I have a lot I want to say about Judges.

First of all, I think Judges comes at a really important time for Israel.  After receiving the promise for inheriting this land in Genesis, the exodus from Egypt in, well, Exodus, and returning to conquer the land in Joshua, Judges is the first book that will take place entirely in the promised land, with all the Israelite tribes here, all the most revered leaders dead, and the Canaanites subdued but not destroyed.

Joshua was a critical period for Israel because it marked their transition from wandering in the desert to taking their inheritance.  Judges is critical because it will show us how Israel will live now that they are in their inheritance, and their actions now foretell how they will generally behave between here and the end of the histories in 2nd Chronicles.  In short, Judges forms the pattern of behavior that will mark Israel's occupation of the promised land, and it's a pattern that they hardly ever diverge from until the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BCE.

This pattern is very well defined, so much so that I personally refer to it as "the Judges cycle".  The basic pattern is as follows: 1) Israel sins, 2) a foreign nation invades them or some other disaster occurs, 3) Israel repents, 4) the LORD brings deliverance and blesses Israel, leading us back to 1).  This is like the bible's equivalent to The Song That Never Ends.

The truth is that Israel is in a downslope, and while there are a few brief and shining revivals, from this point onward things are just going to get worse and worse.  This is something I have warned about several times, most recently in the book of Joshua when Israel was not able to drive out all of the Canaanites from the promised land.  The reference I have made time after time is Deut 20 where Moses warned that allowing the Canaanites to survive in the land would become a trap to ensnare the Israelites into sin.  In essence, that is exactly what happens.  Even within Judges, the earlier leaders are generally more faithful than the later ones.

A second significant theme in Judges is the phrase "In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes." (Judges 17:6, 21:25).  Conceptually, Judges is a period of lawlessness in Israel, because it follows the death of Joshua and precedes the kingdom of Israel.  Of course, Israel sinned even in the days of Moses, and they continued to sin after there was a king.  But I think we will see throughout Judges that it was a period of anarchy and strife, even between the tribes of Israel.

Another significant implication of this phrase is that Judges was almost certainly written after the kingdom of Israel was established.  I haven't really discussed the kingdom because we still haven't gotten to that part of the bible so I haven't said much about it.  It should be self-evident that Judges must have been written (or at least compiled) after the events it describes, but since the kingdom immediately follows the events of Judges, knowing that it was written (or compiled) after the kingdom doesn't really narrow it down.  There is textual support for at least some parts of Judges being written close to the events it describes.

Judges has a vignette stylism that centers briefly around a series of individual heroes, the eponymous "judges", who lead Israel out of their difficult circumstances and back into glory.  This is contrary to the Pentateuch which is much more tightly interconnected through related generations.

The episodal nature of Judges supports the possibility that it is a compilation of separate stories rather than a single composition.  That said, I have already pointed out several clear themes in Judges (the "Judges cycle" and "everyone did what was right in his own eyes"), so it's obvious that the author or compiler of Judges was trying to bring these various stories together into a much more unified message.  Even the similarity between the different stories suggests a common understanding or purpose behind the otherwise discrete series of messages.

The authorship is also disputed and the book does not itself claim a specific author.  The traditional view is that Samuel authored Judges, but there is no direct or textual evidence to support this view.  I think my preceding paragraph gives the closest to my understanding of the authorship: Judges is composed of many stories, but a common framework.

I'll add more stuff here later if I think of it, but for now I'll move on to Judges 1.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Bible Commentary - Joshua 24

In this chapter, Joshua reminds the people of what the LORD has done, they renew their vow to serve him, and Joshua dies.

This is a bit of a longer chapter, but just like Joshua 23 this chapter seems to echo the structure of Deuteronomy.  If my readers recall, Moses spent the first three chapters of Deuteronomy recounting the history of Israel because it was part of the Hittite Suzerainty formula, which I write about frequently in my commentary on Deuteronomy.

For what it's worth, Joshua seems to be trying to do a very similar thing.  His purpose in this chapter is, like Moses in Deuteronomy, to renew the covenant between the people and the LORD.  Like Moses, he begins by recounting their history, and then challenges them to serve the LORD.  Joshua 23 had the life/death dichotomy which was found in Deuteronomy.  This chapter is interesting because it's almost as if Joshua is trying to dissuade them from following the LORD by warning them of the strictness of this path.  Regardless, once the people affirm they will follow the LORD, Joshua constructs another memorial to act as a witness to the people of what they have agreed to do.

And lastly, the people remember to bury the bones of Joseph which they had remarkably been carrying for over 400 years.  He initially commanded his brothers to do this in Gen 50:25, Moses took the bones with him when he left Egypt in Ex 13:19, and in this chapter the bones are finally taken to the promised land and buried there.

Anyway, I will comment on a few things.  First, verse 12 again contains the peculiar phrase, "I sent the hornet before you" which was previously stated in Ex 23:28 and Deut 7:20.  As I said then, it's hard to explain exactly what the hornet is besides some sort of malevolent force to cause harm to Israel's enemies.

Verse 13 is almost a direct quote from Deut 6:10-11, and I'm almost certain that this is an intended reference since in the previous chapter Joshua referenced the "book of the law of Moses", which would include Deuteronomy.  What's more, for the rest of this chapter Joshua is adjuring the people to carefully follow the LORD, which is similar to Moses's command in Deut 6:12 and following.  What Moses said in Deut 6 is, "when the LORD blesses you, do not forget him."  In this chapter, Joshua is stating, "the LORD has already blessed you, now do not forget him."

Verse 25 concludes that Joshua made a covenant with the people, which was then written down and then he created a memorial to remind the people of their vow.  All of these things remind us of Deuteronomy, both because Joshua quotes from Deuteronomy but also because Deuteronomy was the book of the second covenant (the first being from Ex 24).  We can think of this as a third covenant, although in truth it's merely a reaffirmation of the second (which was also an affirmation of the first).

For what it's worth, the people agree to this renewal of the covenant, just like they agreed to the covenant in Deuteronomy and in Ex 24.  Shortly we will see how much their promise is worth, but keep in mind they have sinned against the LORD many times in their history, even after the covenant of Ex 24 (the sin of the golden calf, Ex 32) and after the covenant of Deuteronomy (Joshua 7).  I can't help but wonder if they will renew their sins once Joshua dies and can no longer restrain them from the inclinations of their hearts?  (I'm being rhetorical; they will start sinning almost immediately.)

With that, everyone goes back to his inheritance and Joshua dies.  The death of Joshua brings us to the formal conclusion of the book of Joshua, and next will be the book of Judges.  I have a lot of things to say about Judges, which I will do so next in my introduction to Judges.

Bible Commentary - Joshua 23

In this chapter, Joshua gives his final address to the leaders of Israel.

This is something of a tradition in the OT.  Jacob for instance gave a grand old speech to his sons at the end of Genesis (Gen 49), and Moses also had a song and a long blessing for the sons of Israel before he died (Deut 32-33).  Now that Joshua is dying, he also has to give his parting words to the people of Israel.

Jacob and Moses were a lot more mystical in their advice, giving long prophecies about the various tribes of Israel.  Joshua, for his part, is a lot more practical, just reminding people to not sin.  I'd say that Joshua's speech is actually very deuteronomic.  In Deuteronomy, Moses frequently reminded the Israelites of the sort o dichotomy available to them, to either serve the LORD and live or serve idols and die (Deut 30:15-19 is the clearest example).  Deuteronomy is centered around a "blessings and curses" mentality, that serving the LORD brings about some set of blessings, while serving other gods and forsaking the LORD brings about an opposite set of curses.

In this chapter, Joshua is essentially paraphrasing that language by saying that the LORD will help drive out the Canaanites if the Israelites follow him, but if they intermarry with the Canaanites and associate with them, then by implication the Israelites will also serve their gods (Deut 20:17-18), then just as the LORD has brought about the "good words" that he promised, he will also bring about the "bad words" that he promised if they were to stray from the covenant.

I guess that's it.  This is a relatively short chapter, and it's made even shorter because Joshua is only repeating Moses here.  I guess one thing that's a little interesting about this chapter is that it is the second time in the bible that the phrase "book of the law of Moses" is used, the first being in Joshua 8:31.  We are literally in the first book after the Pentateuch, and people are already talking about the law of Moses.  Deuteronomy calls it the "book of the law", but now that Moses is gone people have already named it after him.  Anyway, it's not a big deal, so I'm going to move on to the next chapter.

Bible Commentary - Joshua 22

In this chapter, the Transjordan tribes return to their homes and build an altar which almost results in a civil war.

I think this is a really interesting chapter, because it brings together several different ideas that I have discussed before.  To begin with, the Transjordan tribes are released from their service by Joshua, because the nation has largely captured their objectives.

The first time I read this, I was confused that they were allowed to go back because in truth, Israel has not captured the entirety of the promised land.  It appears that Joshua was happy to just capture the eastern and central portions, and for whatever reason decided against invading the Philistine city-states and the northwest area around Tyre and Sidon.  In fact, we previously read that Joshua told "the sons of Joseph" to conquer some of the valley lands themselves if they needed more space.  So what seems to be going on is that the unified military effort is now over, and Joshua expects the remaining battles to be fought on a tribal basis.  E.g. if Ephraim wants more land, they have to take it for themselves.

Under this framework, the Transjordan tribes can return to their homes because they were only obligated to remain with the national invasion to pay back the assistance they received from the other tribes that helped win the Transjordan regions.

This is all fairly straightforward.  The second part of the chapter is what I find more interesting, when the Transjordan tribes build an altar on the border of the Jordan.  When the other tribes hear about this, their first instinct is to think, "idolatry".  They send representatives to the Transjordan tribes who say as much, referencing the "iniquity of Peor" (Num 25) and the sin of Achan (Joshua 7).  In the second case, the Israelites suffered a defeat at Ai because of the sin of Achan, and that's why the nation is rising against the Transjordan tribes.  If they are building an idolatrous altar, then the LORD would punish the whole nation for the sins of 2.5 tribes.  The only way to avert that punishment is, like how they slew Achan, to destroy the entirety of the Transjordan tribes.

However, I think the response of the Transjordan tribes is even more interesting.  What they say is that, in essence, because they live on the other side of the Jordan, the tribes inside the promised land will try to cut them off from following the LORD.  This is interesting because it shows some of the subtle pitfalls for living outside of the promised land.  In fact, the representatives of the nation with Phinehas even propose that the Transjordan tribes "cross into the land of the possession of the LORD", which is another way of saying, "if you find it hard to follow the LORD out here, then move in with the rest of us and let us all seek the LORD together".

This is not the first problem the 2.5 tribes have had for trying to settle outside of the promised land.  When they first proposed settling there, Moses accused them of trying to discourage their brothers from invading the promised land because they were claiming their inheritance before the task was complete.  So they agreed to go along the invasion even though they already claimed a land for themselves.  Now they are facing another challenge, which is that the other tribes that did go into the "possession of the LORD" are likely to drift away from them socially and politically because of this natural border separating the two.

Anyway, the Transjordan tribes instead say they are building this altar as a witness between them that they will always serve the LORD.  This is another OT principle which I have mentioned before, such as the "witness heap" of Jacob and Laban (Gen 31), or the various other memorials that the Israelites have constructed (Joshua 4).  Like the other memorials, the Transjordan tribes built this altar to serve as a reminder that they are part of the same nation and will serve the same God.

In conclusion, I still think there is a big risk for the Transjordan tribes to separate from the tribes within the promised land, but it doesn't appear to be happening in this chapter.  For now, they will remain with the nation in service to the LORD.  For the future, who knows?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Bible Commentary - Joshua 21

In this chapter, Joshua assigns the 48 Levitical cities.

Much like Deuteronomy was filled with random administrative trivia, Joshua is also filled with administrative trivia.  This time, it is the allocation of the cities promised to the Levites back in Num 35 (which also allocated the six cities of refuge).  Numbers didn't specify which cities, because the people still hadn't been to the promised land.  They might not have even known the names of the cities there.

Most of this chapter is fairly uneventful, but I think there are a few things that stood out to me.

First, I was very surprised that the sons of Aaron are given 13 cities.  Remember the time scale: Levi died about 440 years ago, but Aaron was alive during the exodus in the desert and died only a few years before the events of this chapter.  How then are the sons of Aaron given more cities than an entire clan of Levi like the Merarites or Gershonites?  During the second census (Num 26) the Levites numbered 23,000 in total, so we can reason that each clan of Levites had around 6,000-8,000 men (not including women).  It seems unlikely that in his 80 year lifespan, Aaron was able to father 6,000 descendants.  It seems probable that the cities of Aaron must have been drastically underpopulated when they were first given, at least compared to the other clans of Levi.

Either way, there is a clear imbalance between the cities given to Aaron versus the other clans when compared to their respective populations.

Second, it's likely that not every city given to the Levites has been captured yet.  Since Aaron is given cities from Judah, Simeon and Benjamin, which are all located in the south east, nearly all of these cities have probably been captured.  However, the cities given to Gershon from Naphtali and Asher are possibly unconquered.  Similarly, Kohath is given cities from Dan which are almost certainly under Canaanite control.  This parallels the fact that not every tribe of Israel has captured their own inheritance yet, so the Levites are sharing in their homelessness.  For now, these inheritances are at least partially theoretical, and will have to be earned before they can be enjoyed.

Third, I noticed that the division of cities from the tribes is nearly but not exactly equal.  Since there are twelve tribes and 48 cities, it is evenly divisible with each tribe giving 4 cities.  However, for whatever reason Judah and Simeon give 9 cities, while Naphtali only gives 3 cities.  Every other tribe gives 4 cities.  This means there is close to equality between the tribes in how much they have to give to the Levites, but it also means that each tribe has roughly equal access to Levite ministry.  It's like they are paying a price, but also receiving a benefit, for having the Levites within their territory.  I don't think we know yet exactly what the Levites will do once the tent of meeting and the ark of the covenant find a permanent resting place, but presumably the even distribution of the Levitical cities is designed to increase their availability across the nation.

On the other hand, the priests are clearly concentrated in Judah and Benjamin (Benjamin is directly adjacent to Judah), which seems to be concentrating the religious power in Judah.  While we don't have a clear idea what the Levites will do, the priests have numerous religious and legal functions, so putting them all near Judah means that the people of the other tribes will have to travel there whenever they need to be e.g. pronounced clean from a skin infection, among many other things.

Other than that, there's also the peculiar distribution of Hebron, where the city and fields around it are given to the priests, but the larger area around that, towns and so forth, are given to Caleb.  Clearly Hebron must have been a major city since it is named after Arba, "the father of the Anakites" (i.e. giants).

Lastly, as with the cities of refuge, the Levitical cities play a very small role in the stories of the OT.  They were probably important to the Israelites of the time, who lived and worked in the land that we only read about, but with more than 2,000 years of time between us and them, these details have little meaning to us now.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Bible Commentary - Joshua 20

In this chapter, the LORD has Joshua designate the six cities of refuge.

The cities of refuge were first mentioned in Num 35, and pretty much everything in this chapter corresponds with what was said there.  The only thing that's new about this chapter is that now we are given the names of the six cities (as per Num 35, all of these cities will also be Levitical cities).

I discussed the city of refuge concept extensively in my commentary on Num 35, so I encourage anyone who is interested in learning more to read that.

All I will say about this chapter is that the names of the six cities, like so many other names and places in Joshua, are hard to remember and largely inconsequential.  In fact, to my recollection I don't believe there are any stories in the OT where anyone goes to a city of refuge to be protected from an avenger of blood.  I don't doubt that this was a significant part of Israel's legal system, but it plays a very small role in the stories of the OT.

As stated in Num 35, there are three cities on each side of the Jordan river.  What we learn from this chapter is that the cities are very widely spread out on each side.  East of the Jordan, there is one city of refuge in each tribe.  West of the Jordan, there is one in the far north (in Naphtali), one in the middle (in Ephraim) and one in the south (Judah).  Hebron is still north of the Negev, so the Negev is probably the largest region that doesn't have a city of refuge.  This is probably because Judah already has a city of refuge, and the Negev is one of the least populous regions in the country.

Otherwise, this is a really short chapter so there isn't anything more I really need to say here.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Bible Commentary - Joshua 19

In this chapter, Joshua assigns the inheritances to the six remaining tribes.

In the last chapter, Benjamin was given his inheritance, and this chapter contains whats left of the seven tribes that had their inheritances assigned by lot.

There isn't a whole lot to say about this chapter, which contains yet another endless stream of cities and brooks and stones and trees, demarcating the various borders between the tribes.  But there are a few points that I think are interesting or worthwhile to know.

First of all, as v. 1 points out, Simeon is given an inheritance drawn from the land of Judah.  The most significant result of this is that in future generations, Simeon is largely absorbed into Judah.  Judah eventually becomes the kingdom of Judah, and Simeon is barely ever mentioned again; in essence, it becomes part of Judah.

Second, most of these tribes are located north of Ephraim.  Dan (along with Benjamin from chapter 18) form a border between Judah and Ephraim, but all of Zebulun, Issachar, Naphtali and Asher are in the north, forming a corridor of land between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean.  While these tribes form an eventual kingdom with Ephraim, they maintain a separate cultural identity that persists for about as long as the tribes exist in the promised land.

Third, we are told that the inheritance assigned to Dan was "beyond them", so they went to find an easier place to capture.  The land they were supposed to take was west of Benjamin, near the land of the Philistines, but the land they actually captured was up north, in the northern parts of Naphtali (at the far northern tip of the promised land).  This is just another example of how the Israelites are struggling to take the promised land, and I think implicitly it reflects badly on them.  I think the author of Joshua is drawing a contrast between the faith of Caleb, who requested an inheritance among the strongest parts of the land ruled by Anakim (i.e. giants), while the "sons of Joseph" complain about the valley lands being too hard to take, and Dan simply ignores his inheritance entirely, relocating to the far north where the land is less defended.  Many of the other tribes also struggle to drive out the Canaanites from their assigned lands.

In an immediate sense, this probably implies a lack of faith on their part, because they had just won several victories due to the LORD's miraculous intervention, such as at Jericho and the great slaughter in Joshua 10.  Unlike Caleb, they were not able (or willing?) to attack and destroy the tribes in their inheritances.  We aren't told anything more about it, so I might be stretching my interpretation, but I do think this is the author's intention.  In the longer term, all of the Canaanites who are surviving within the promised land portend future idolatries for the Israelites, as per Deut 20.  I mean, if Israel was committing idolatry in the wilderness, how much more will they seek idolatry when they are surrounded by, and living with, idolatrous nations?  All of these things are foul omens for Israel's future.  Nevertheless, the land is divided and the purity of Joshua's leadership will keep the nation in check for so long as he lives.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Bible Commentary - Joshua 18

In this chapter, Joshua orders the people to scout out the land and then assign the last seven tribal inheritances by lot.

Before I mention anything significant, I wanted to mention a minor but interesting note about two cities: Megiddo and Ben-Hinnom.  Megiddo is a city that has been mentioned once already in Joshua, and it also has a very interesting history.  For instance, Megiddo was the site of a battle fought in the 15th century BCE that is regarded as one of the earliest recorded battles in history.  Ironic, then, that Megiddo is also the source of the word Armageddon, which, according to some, will be the site of the last battle in history.  Either way, Armageddon is a word that appears in the book of Revelation to some purpose or other.

Ben-Hinnom, a city that is mentioned in this chapter as lying within the territory of Benjamin, is the source of another word that appears in the NT, Gehenna.  Gehenna, in the NT, is used by Jesus in a variety of places as a reference to some sort of hell.  Here, Ben-Hinnom is a purely neutral location.  However, in later times it is a place for child sacrifice dedicated to the pagan god Molech and in the Mishnah it becomes a semi-mythical place of torment for the wicked.

Neither of these references are particularly relevant to Joshua (which is why I didn't make them until now), but I think they make for a good color commentary.

Next, this chapter says that the scouts wrote down their description of the land in a book.  While it's probable that the Pentateuch is derived from oral traditions, it's also clear that the Israelites did have writing and books in the time of the Pentateuch and Joshua.

We can also see that Joshua is again sending out spies from every tribe (this time sending three from each tribe instead of one like in Num 13).  In Joshua 2, Joshua sent out two spies to explore the land around Jericho in preparation for an invasion.  In this chapter, the invasion is already over (for the most part) and they are scouting in order to divide the land.  Therefore his interest shifts back from military necessity to fairness and balance between the tribes.  The lots will randomize which inheritance each tribe gets, but it helps prevent the appearance of impropriety to send representatives from every tribe.

I don't have much to say about Benjamin's tribal inheritance.  It's a thin strip of land between Judah and Ephraim, bordering the Jordan river on the east side and going west until it reaches the "wilderness of Beth-Aven", wherever that is.  The precise borders, even the imprecise borders, hardly make any difference to the stories in the OT.  By the time of the NT, Benjamin and all of the northern tribes will have either merged into Judah or been wiped out entirely.  But I will talk more about that later.  I guess what I'm trying to say is that these borders would have been very important to the tribes at the time, because it's where they lived.  But to us, any one place in Israel is about the same as any other place, with only a few exceptions, which I will point out as I see them.

Lastly, we see the Israelites set up the tent of meeting in Shiloh (v. 1), which is located in Ephraim.  This becomes an important religious center in Israel until at least the time of Samuel.

Bible Commentary - Joshua 17

In this chapter, Joshua assigns the territorial inheritance to Manasseh.

This is a much longer chapter than the previous one, but of course my readers should remember that the chapter segmentation was done many centuries after the bible was initially written, so the content of chapters 16 and 17 should be thought of as a continuous thought.  This is especially so because the header statement in Joshua 16 references the inheritance given to the sons of Joseph (Josh 16:1).

This chapter describes the territory of Manasseh, and the first thing to remember is that Manasseh was the only tribe which is given land both east and west of the Jordan.  Manasseh is also the tribe where some of the women (only daughters with no brothers) are given an inheritance amongst their tribe (cf. Num 27, 36).

In the Transjordan region, Manasseh held the furthest northern territory, above Gad and Reuben, into the Golan Heights.  West of the Jordan, Manasseh's territory is contiguous with Ephraim and with the eastern territory.  Manasseh is not the furthest northern tribe west of the Jordan, as this chapter tells us that Asher lies on the northern border of Manasseh (v. 10).  However, Manasseh is the largest tribe by geographic area.

As with every other tribe so far, we are told that Manasseh was not able to displace all of the nations in their territory (v. 13).

This chapter also contains an interesting short story about the "sons of Joseph" asking for more land, where Joshua essentially replies, "if you are large tribes then you can go earn your land by fighting for it."  This story establishes, yet again, the significance of chariots in battle, a point that I belabored when discussing Joshua 11.  So that's the first thing I noticed.  The second think I noticed is the interesting dynamic between the hill country and the valley land.  Most of the land Israel has conquered so far has been hill country, such as the "hill country of Ephraim".  The phrase "hill country" appears many times in Joshua 11 and 12 when describing the territory that Israel was fighting in.

The hill country vs. the valley lands is a dichotomy that shares many of the same properties as "pastoral" vs. "agrarian".  Hill country is usually fit for low density, nomadic farming.  Hillsides are harder to farm on, it can be harder to farm at higher altitude, and water is less reliable at higher altitudes.  Rivers and streams almost always flow down from hilltops, gathering more water as they get lower.  For all of these reasons, it is possible to raise animals in this environment because they can just graze, and if conditions ever get bad they can leave.  Farming requires consistency and stability, which is exactly what rivers provide.

We can imagine, then, the valley lands having many more people, larger cities, and the "iron chariots" that the sons of Joseph are now complaining about.  Valley land is better land, and that's precisely why it is going to be harder to capture; the Canaanites will be more thickly packed there.  Being given the valley land is highly preferable - if they can obtain it.  So far Israel has had a lot of success in their invasion; we will see if this success continues in the generations after Joshua.

Note that the "sons of Joseph" are given their inheritance second after Judah.  In future times, these two groups will dominate Israelite politics.  Judah will form a kingdom in the south, and Ephraim (the stronger of the two Josephite tribes) will form a kingdom in the north.  Assigning these two groups their inheritances first foreshadows that future development.

Bible Commentary - Joshua 16

In this chapter, the author of Joshua lists the borders of Ephraim.

This is a really short chapter with little significance to the larger story of the bible, so my commentary will also be brief.

This chapter begins by listing the territory given to "Joseph", i.e. to both Ephraim and Manasseh (v. 1-3), but then continues to demarcate the territory of Ephraim within this larger region.  As with Judah, I don't know where nearly any of these cities or brooks are, and in large part it doesn't really matter.  Ephraim controls a small block of territory north of Judah and west of the Jordan, apparently also getting some cities from inside the territory of Manasseh.  This city trading (where Manasseh controls the territory but Ephraim gets the cities) is another peculiarity that is never explained and first referenced here.  It parallels the Levitical cities that are scattered across the nation, but I think the reasoning is different.  We already know that Manasseh is a tribe with a lot of livestock, so it is very plausible that they are given the countryside because they have so many more animals grazing, while the cities are given to the people of Ephraim.  Cities are of little use to Manasseh's wandering shepherds, so it has a certain logic that they should be given to Ephraim instead.

Just as with Judah, Ephraim did not drive out all the Canaanites from their territory, and the inhabitants of Jezer lived in their land at least until Joshua was authored.  This is becoming a pattern.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Bible Commentary - Joshua 15

In this chapter, the author of Joshua tells us the borders and cities assigned to Judah.

I like to think of chapters like these as an archaeologist's dream and a layman's nightmare.  This chapter contains a gigantic list of cities, many of which are only ever mentioned here.  It is a rich source of information for anyone trying to launch an expedition into the Negev desert, but significantly less exciting to people reading this for religious or theological purposes.

Before mentioning anything else, I should say that this is another "Judah first" chapter, which shows the pre-eminence of Judah over the other tribes.  Sometimes lists of the tribes start with Reuben (listing them by chronological age), but many other lists (like this one) start with Judah.

This chapter begins by describing the borders of Judah as it relates to landmarks in the region, and many of these cities have been forgotten or lost.  A precise demarcation of the border as it once existed is no longer possible, but researchers have been able to get reasonably good estimates.  You can probably find a good map online of the borders of the twelve tribes as they are described here in Joshua.  As I think I already mentioned, these borders were never really "real" because Israel never controlled all the land that was promised, and that Joshua assigned as inheritances in this book.  The maps you want to look for are "the territories of Israel that Joshua assigned, but they didn't actually control".  There are other maps that mark out the land that Israel controlled in various epochs, but don't confuse those ones for this one.

That said, this chapter is a good example of how Israel didn't control all the land they claimed, because v. 12 says the western border was "the great sea", i.e. the Mediterranean, but Joshua 13 points out that the coastline was still controlled by the five Philistine kingdoms.

While I think looking at territorial maps are easier to understand and get a reference for, I will still try to explain roughly where Judah is.  Their southern border goes from the southern end of the Dead Sea, through the Negev, and ends near Gaza on the Mediterranean Sea.  The border on the eastern side is the Dead Sea up to the mouth of the Jordan river, and then it cuts west (as the northern border) through various meandering turns until it ends at the Mediterranean.  The southern end borders on Edom, which is a nation descending from Esau (the brother of Jacob), and if my readers recall the wanderings of Israel, in the book of Numbers the nation passed around Edom because Edom refused them passage through to the promised land.  So now Judah is bordering on Edom, having walked around Edom and crossed into the promised land from the East (the former territory of the Amorites).

Verses 15-19 contain a peculiar story about Caleb giving his daughter in marriage to some man who conquered a city for him that was within his inheritance, near Hebron.  I'm sure other teachers have extracted all sorts of wonderful metaphors and proverbial lessons from this story, but I don't have much to say about it.  Achsah's husband convinces her to ask Caleb for springs of water since her husband's land was in the Negev (i.e. desert).  Water is obviously valuable in this arid region.  I don't know what else there is to say.  Achsah is never mentioned again (except in various repetitions of this story), but interestingly Othniel is actually Caleb's "younger brother" (Judges 1:13, also v. 17 of this chapter), so in this instance Othniel ends up marrying his niece.  Awkward, but not entirely uncommon for the OT (cf. Abraham and Sarah).  Othniel does appear later, in the book of Judges.

The rest of this chapter is a long list of cities.  Many of these cities are referenced in other parts of the bible, but many of them are not.  There's all kinds of things I could say about them, but not much of it is immediately relevant to this chapter.  This chapter is just trying to lay out the various territories of Judah.

Some of the cities mentioned have not yet been conquered, such as Libnah (v. 42), Ekron (v. 45) or Ashdod (v. 47), so these are aspirational possessions of Judah, if you will.

Lastly, we are told in v. 63 that the Jebusites who lived near Jerusalem could not be driven out, so they lived in the midst of Israel even after Jerusalem itself was captured.  This is a striking admission, because it means that even when Israel didn't make a covenant of peace (such as with the Gibeonites) they were not always able to defeat and drive out their enemies.  This is in addition to the Philistines whom Judah never conquered at all.  Since Israel did conquer Jerusalem itself, I wonder where and how the Jebusites survived.  It seems probable that the Jebusites will become a "snare" that the LORD warned Israel about when commanding them to destroy all the inhabitants of the land (Deut 20:17-18).  This verse is the first of many similar remarks, because while Israel destroyed the bulk of the native Canaanites, apparently fragments of these nations persisted in the midst of even the stronger tribes of Israel.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Bible Commentary - Joshua 14

In this chapter, Caleb asks Joshua to give him Hebron as his inheritance in the land.

After reading this chapter, I'm pretty sure this chapter is happening out of order with the story that was in Joshua 1-11.  First, v. 6 says that Caleb approached Joshua when they were in Gilgal, which is where Israel camped before attacking Jericho in Joshua 6.  It is unlikely the army returned to Gilgal after that because they had to conquer all those cities in the north and south.  Second, Hebron was one of the cities that was captured in Joshua 10, so when Caleb is saying that he will "drive them out" in v. 12, it wouldn't really make sense to say that after the city had already been captured.

It's possible there were towns in the countryside around Hebron that hadn't been captured, but I think that's unlikely because of the importance of city walls that I have brought up before.  Hebron would have been the best defended city, so with it being captured the surrounding area would be exceedingly vulnerable and every time the Israelites have conquered a city before they killed all of the inhabitants, and I see no reason they would be less thorough here.

Other than the timing, this chapter contains a brief recapitulation of Caleb's history, reminding us how he was a spy who entered Canaan in Num 13, and interestingly, Caleb specifically requests for his inheritance the land that they spied out.  In Num 13, it says the spies passed up through the Negev (the southern desert of Israel) into the hill country and they came near Hebron.  So Caleb is indeed requesting the land they spied out before the first generation rebelled and were condemned to die in the desert.  He does so in an ironic way, recalling the Anakim and "great walled cities" that caused the other spies to give a bad report.  So Caleb highlights the fierce resistance they can expect in this region, and his own determination that if "the LORD will be with me", they will be able to conquer everyone who resists them.  As we were told in Joshua 10, the Israelites were successful in this goal.

This chapter also reminds us that the Levites don't get a share of the land, but the two sons of Joseph get equal shares of the land, so it's basically just some math that there are still 12 shares of the land, with two for Joseph and none for Levi.  I think I've talked about this before so I won't go into depth, but the OT loves talking about the "twelve tribes", but it's not always the same twelve.  Sometimes the twelve includes "Joseph and Levi" and sometimes it includes "Ephraim and Manasseh".  Its not an important point, but it can be confusing sometimes.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Bible Commentary - Joshua 13

In this chapter, Joshua allots the inheritances for the three tribes that live east of the Jordan.

This chapter begins with the LORD listing the territories that Israel was promised, but "remains to be possessed".  The lands he lists are the territory of the Philistines (along the coast, extending through Gaza up to Ekron) and several territories near Sidon and Lebanon, which is the northwest and northern territories largely corresponding to modern-day Lebanon.  This is pretty much exactly what I wrote two chapters ago when I said that the territories conquered did not correspond with the whole land that was promised.

What the LORD says in v. 6 and 7 is basically that Israel won't conquer this land during your lifetime, Joshua, but I want you to apportion the land as if it were already won and then Israel can go conquer it later.  There is an obvious triumphalism about this, dividing up land amongst the tribes even before it's been captured, but I'd like to focus on a more practical implication, which is that this creates an inequality between the tribes that are assigned land which has been captured versus the tribes that are assigned land that has not been captured.  The tribes given land from the Philistines or Sidon will have to either fight for their inheritances or find an alternative place to live, outside of their allotted land.  This is an issue that will show up again in the book of Judges.

In vv. 8-14 we are given an account of the territory east of the Jordan given to the two and a half tribes (what I sometimes call the Transjordan tribes).  There are various borders listed which, again, I do not know much about, since it doesn't really affect the flow of the story or the general narrative.  One thing that is worth mentioning is that v. 13 talks about two tribes that were not fully dispossessed.  Normally this is a bad thing for Israel because Israel was commanded to destroy all the nations in the promised land.  In this case, it isn't so bad because they are trans-Jordan nations and therefore outside of the promised land.  It was only by accident that Israel conquered the two nations east of the Jordan, so there is no prohibition against Israel making peace with the Geshurites or Maacathites as per Deut 20.

V. 22 contains a note that the Israelites killed Balaam, the prophet from Num 22-24, who was called to curse Israel but blessed them instead.  He was held responsible for the idolatry in Peor that occurred in Num 25, and this is the second time we have been informed of his death (the first was Num 31:8, 16).

The rest of this chapter is basically just a detailed account of the territory of the Transjordan tribes.  All of the naems of cities and rivers and valleys is pretty confusing, but the general idea is that Reuben is the furthest south, along the eastern border of the Dead Sea, and including Beth Peor which is one of the places that Israel camped when they were coming up from the wilderness.  Gad is also east of the Jordan, north of Reuben, extending up to the Sea of Galilee along the Jordan.  Manasseh has the territory of Bashan and half of Gilead, which is east and northeast of the Sea of Galilee, corresponding to the modern-day Golan Heights.  There's a bunch of cities listed, some of which have been located and some that haven't.

But I think this should give my readers some idea of the size of the eastern territories.  The three Transjordan tribes have essentially as much territory as all the other nine tribes put together, and that's because the Transjordan tribes have a lot of livestock which requires a lot of grazing land.  This was part of the calculus that went into their request in the first place (Num 32).

Bible Commentary - Joshua 12

In this chapter, we are given an account of the territory captured by Israel and the kings who lived therein.

This chapter marks the end of the story of Joshua and the beginning of the bureaucratic section.  Having conquered the land, the Israelites must now make an account and an allocation of the land, dividing it amongst their tribes.  That is what the rest of Joshua purports to do.  As such, this chapter (and the rest of Joshua) contains numerous names and places, lots of borders and rivers and mountains and territories that the Israelites used to designate the various regions being taken from Canaanites and given to Israelites.

For its part, this chapter contains an account of the territories both east and west of the Jordan and a list of the kings defeated by Joshua.  I'll start by saying that, in my opinion, knowing most of these locations is not really necessary to have a good understanding of the OT.  I believe it is sufficient to have a general understanding of what places Israel conquered.  If you are interested in biblical archaeology, this commentary will not be a very good resource because I am not a professional scholar and even though I have read the OT several times, I still don't know where many of these places are.  Many locations in the OT have not been positively identified, although usually the larger cities and mountains are well-known.  For learning more about OT geography, I think there are some really good maps out there (frequently found in bible appendices) that lay out Israel's borders in different time periods.  You can also try looking up locations in Wikipedia (this is what I do when doing research for this commentary), but sometimes Wikipedia only has stub articles, especially for smaller locations.

I think for this chapter, it suffices to know that Hermon is in the north, Halak and Seir are in the south, and everything else is somewhere inbetween.  Og and Sihon were kings east of the Jordan, killed by Moses in the book of Numbers, and the rest of the kings were west of the Jordan, killed by Joshua in this book.  I would do more research on it, but I just don't think it's all that necessary to know more.

Most of the kings in this chapter were named before, like the king of Jericho and Ai and Hazor.  Some of them were not mentioned previously, which implies they were smaller cities that were captured along with their larger, more notable neighbors (for instance, Megiddo is first mentioned here).

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Bible Commentary - Joshua 11

In this chapter, Israel engages in another major battle with the inhabitants of the land.

I think this chapter is relatively straightforward.  After destroying several kingdoms in the last chapter, Israel is again faced with an alliance of numerous kingdoms from the promised land who are coordinating together to resist the invaders.  Unlike the last chapter, we are not given an account of the LORD's miraculous assistance to Israel.  Instead, we are only told that "the LORD delivered them" over to Israel.  In this case, it seems like Israel was victorious because they launched a pre-emptive strike, attacking this alliance of nations while they were still gathering together and likely unprepared.

After defeating their armies, the cities are again defenseless and Joshua spends the rest of the chapter stomping around massacring towns.  Also, we can see that again, the Israelites plunder all of the towns they conquer, and even most of the city structures were captured, except for Hazor.  This basically concludes the story section of Joshua with a final "the land had rest from war", announcing the end of this part of the invasion.

There are a few things worth mentioning.

First, there is the curious incident of Joshua being ordered to destroy all of Jabin's horses and chariots.  Horses and chariots were at the core of ancient military power.  It is widely believed that the Hyksos, who came to dominate Egypt in the 1700s and 1600s BCE, did so in large part due to their innovations with horse and chariot warfare.  Although the Hyksos were largely driven out of power, the significance of horses and chariots remained.  A very similar command to this is Deut 17:16, which ordered the future king of Israel to not "multiply horses", which is almost like a command to not build up military power.  In my commentary on that chapter I suggested that it was to force Israel to depend on the LORD giving them victory in battle, rather than earning victory through their own strength or power.  I think the order in this chapter is similar, to burn the chariots and cut the hamstrings of all the horses, so that Israel might not use them in their own battles.

Second, I think most readers of Joshua are unfamiliar with Israelite geography, so I will try to explain what land is encompassed by verses 16-17.  Mount Seir is in the south along the border with Edom (which itself is around the southern extent of the Dead Sea), and Mount Hermon is north of the Sea of Galilee, east of modern Lebanon.  The Negev is the southern desert so it fits in with the extent of Mount Seir.  The last we had heard of Goshen it was a land in Egypt, but apparently there is also a Goshen in the promised land.  I would hypothesize there is some common etymological root that would explain the reuse of this name.  Since Goshen was a land of prosperity in Egypt, it probably has a similar connotation here, but beyond that I don't know where it is.

Most of the other names I also don't know (like Mount Halak), but even without knowing I think we already get a sense of what land they have taken.  They conquered most of the land west of the Jordan river, from a bit south of the Dead Sea up to Mount Hermon, which lies about 50 miles north of the Sea of Galilee.  Lachish is in the center of the promised land, and was conquered in the prior chapter.  So it would seem Israel now controls all of the promised land except for the Gazan city-states along the Mediterranean coast and probably some parts of the northwest in the area of Tyre and Sidon.

This is fairly extensive, but astute readers will notice that the lands in v. 16-17 do not include the whole promised land.  The original promise included all of the coastal land as well.  What this means is that the land might have peace for now, but it is almost inevitable that Israel will engage in further conflicts to move into the western and northwestern parts of the land towards the sea (corresponding to modern Gaza and Lebanon).  We will see some of these conflicts when we get to Judges.  This is foreshadowed in v. 22 which says that some Anakim remained in the Philistine cities of Gaza, Geth and Ashdod.

Lastly, on a minor note, we are told that the Canaanites had their hearts hardened to fight against Israel (v. 20), just like the heart of Pharaoh was hardened.  I'm not really going to talk about this more.  See my introduction to Joshua for a deeper look at the morality of the Canaanite wars.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Bible Commentary - Joshua 10

In this chapter, Israel defends Gibeon against five Amorite kings with miraculous assistance, and destroys many cities in a counterattack.

The OT is filled with really strange miracles, and this chapter has a couple of them.  I think these miracles are especially peculiar because the rest of the chapter is so consistent with the stories of the Pentateuch and Joshua.

As with Gibeon, Jerusalem, Hebron, Lachish, etc. are all located in eastern and central Israel, in what verse 6 calls "the hill country" and they are understandably threatened by Gibeon's negotiated peace with Israel.  What they fear is a classic divide and conquer strategy by Israel, allying with some of the Amorites and destroying the others, fragmenting their resistance.  We have been told a bunch of times that the Canaanites are terrified of the Israelites, and they know they are fighting for survival.  They are attacking Gibeon 1) as a warning to the other Amorites not to make peace with Israel and 2) because they probably also fear that the Gibeonites will fight alongside Israel's armies.  My guess is that they're attacking Gibeon to destroy them before they join together their forces with Israel.

The Gibeonites call on Israel (as their new lord) to defend them and interestingly, Israel agrees to do so and sends their armies on a hastened overnight march.  I can't help but wonder if the Israelites saw this as an unexpected solution to their Gibeonite "problem", so to speak.  I mean, they had sworn not to harm the Gibeonites but were commanded by the LORD to wipe them out.  It seems convenient that the other Amorites would come along and prepare to destroy Gibeon; Israel had to simply do nothing and the "problem" would be "fixed".  I can only guess that assisting the Gibeonites was part of the sworn covenant between them, so Israel was probably bound to help them as well.  That would probably explain why the Gibeonites expect assistant and call themselves Israel's "servants".

Well for whatever reason, Joshua and Israel marches overnight to help Gibeon and the battle goes well; very well.  It begins with the LORD "confounding" their enemies, resulting in a "great slaughter", then as their foes are retreating it escalates to the LORD throwing "large stones from heaven" upon their enemies, slaying more men with hailstones than were killed by the sword.  As if that weren't enough, it ends with the LORD stopping the movement of the sun in the sky for about 24 hours.  This is very useful for a victorious army because it's easier to chase and hunt your enemies in daylight than at night.  What this means is that the victory Israel had won through the "confounding" and the hailstones was extended by giving them more daylight to pursue the Amorites, wiping out the survivors.

These three miracles, all occurring in the course of a single battle, seem to get more bizarre and extravagant as they go along.  I mean, "confounding" your enemies is one thing, and raining hailstones big enough that they can kill people is more unusual, but then stopping the sun in the sky for 24 hours ..... that doesn't happen very often.  Verse 14 agrees, saying nothing like it has ever happened before or since.

Remember when I said two chapters ago that the LORD is creative and loves to do new and different things?  In conquering Jericho he made the walls fall down on the seventh day; in this chapter he stops the sun while the Israelites kill retreating Amorite soldiers.

In verse 13, the author of Joshua asks "is it not written in the book of Jashar?"  This book is mentioned later in 2 Samuel 1:18, but there are no extant copies or other quotations, so we don't actually know what was written in the book of Jashar other than these two references.  It is one of the many lost books of the ancient world about which we know nothing.

After destroying the armies of these five cities, Joshua also kills the five kings with a triumphal display, encouraging his men to humiliate their enemies by stepping on their necks.  Like many other things in the book of Joshua, this is designed to increase the morale of his troops.  As with the king of Ai, Joshua takes down their bodies before nightfall.

Since the armies of these cities were mostly annihilated, the cities themselves were left defenseless.  Joshua systematically destroys all of them, slaying every man, woman and child, but keeping the livestock and property as the spoils of wars.  Destroying the other cities took divine assistance, but with the defenders already slain when they attacked Gibeon, there would have been little resistance against the Israelites.

I don't have much else to say.  The miracles are really peculiar, but the rest of this chapter fits in closely with the narrative of Joshua.  Israel is now systematically destroying the Amorites city by city and nobody is able to resist them now that the LORD is fighting on their behalf.

Bible Commentary - Joshua 9

In this chapter, the Gibeonites deceive the Israelites to swear a treaty of non-aggression.

Immediately after the destruction of Ai, we are told that the Canaanites are responding in essentially two ways.  Most of the nations are preparing themselves to fight against Israel, but one of the nearby towns called Gibeon is instead trying to deceive Israel by pretending to be from outside of the promised land and thereby seek peace.  Remember that Israel was prohibited from making peace with Canaanites, but was allowed to make peace with nations from other lands (Deut 20:15-16), so the only way the nations of Canaan would get peace is through deception.

Before continuing, I should give some background on Gibeon.  Since this chapter doesn't really explain, Gibeon is a city that is somewhat north of Jerusalem in eastern Israel.  Not only is it in the promised land, it is also very close to where the invasion is happening, which helps to explain why the Israelites come across Gibeon within three days of swearing the treaty (v. 16) and also the urgency with which the Gibeonites attempted to negotiate.  The further away nations are willing to fight, but the Gibeonites know that they will be attacked very soon by Israel after the destruction of Ai and Bethel.  The Gibeonites are not only within the promised land, they are one of the closest cities to Jericho and Ai.

So with that in mind, I think the central verse of this chapter is verse 14, which finds fault with the Israelites; they made a decision in haste and did not consult with the LORD.  It's an obviously moralizing story and because we, as people, will always make bad decisions on our own, we must always turn to the LORD for guidance when taking a major action.  As we learn from this chapter, the Israelites swore an oath to not harm the Gibeonites even though the LORD had commanded them otherwise, and interestingly the oath takes precedence over the LORD's command.  "The leaders" insist that they must not harm the Gibeonites because they swore by the LORD and are now bound by their oath.  This puts Israel into a difficult position because they are now constrained to not fully carry out what the LORD commanded them.  Deut 20:18 warns that the inhabitants of the land would "teach you to do according to all their detestable things... so that you would sin", and now there is going to be a city of Hivites always living in their midst.

Instead, Joshua consigns them to perpetual slavery which was also briefly mentioned in Deut 29:12, doing heavy manual labor on behalf of their conquerors.  The Gibeonites as a people are mentioned later just once, so it appears that they gradually intermarried with the Israelites or otherwise faded into irrelevance.  It's interesting to note that marrying a Gibeonite is prohibited by the Jewish Mishnah, although I can't imagine there's many people in the world today who identify themselves as Hivite.

Lastly, I'll mention that v. 27 contains the phrase "the place which he would choose" as a reference to the future temple.  This phrase showed up a bunch of times in Deuteronomy, and its presence here is yet another connection between the Pentateuch and Joshua.

Bible Commentary - Joshua 8

In this chapter, Joshua leads his army to destroy Ai.

After their defeat against Ai, it is a military necessity that they fight against Ai and beat them, if for no other reason than to discourage the other Amorites who would have heard about the Israelites' defeat.  A victory over Ai now would reverse most of the negative consequences I mentioned in the prior chapter.

That said, this battle couldn't be more different from the fight against Jericho.  The fight against Jericho was wholly supernatural, where the nation simply walked and shouted and the walls of the city fell down.  In this case, the LORD is still commanding Israel, but instead directs them to use subterfuge, which is fairly common as far as ancient warfare goes (although probably less common than conventional fighting and starvation).  The LORD has them play upon Ai's overconfidence from their earlier victory to draw them out of the city and then attack from two directions.  They also bring 30,000 men this time, which is still far less than the 600,000 armed men they have, but 10 times what they brought the prior day.

If you remember from two chapters ago I was talking about how important city walls are to siege warfare because the defenders are outnumbered many times.  The walls in effect give them a force multiplier that lets them hold out against a superior force.  With all the defenders pulled away from the city walls (which are then captured by the second Israelite force) the men of Ai have a very small chance of success on the field.

As before, the Israelite slew all the women and children as well, because in wars of conquest there are no civilians.  See my introduction to Joshua for more on this topic.

Joshua also kills the king of Ai and hangs his body until sunset, when it is taken down.  This is in accordance with the command in Deut 21:23 not to leave a body hanging overnight.

Most importantly, the Israelites fought under the guidance of the LORD this time, which ensured their success.  Another key difference between Ai and Jericho is that against Ai, the people were permitted to plunder the animals and gold.  They will be permitted to plunder the other cities of Canaan as well; only Jericho was reserved wholly for the LORD.  But I think it's really interesting to contrast the fight for Ai with the fight for Jericho, because I think it really demonstrates the multivarious ways that the LORD will lead people.  I couldn't tell you why, but the LORD simply doesn't do the same thing over and over.  He changes his methods and means even when the ends are similar.  Just as the LORD destroys one city with fire (Sodom) and destroys the world with water (the great flood of Gen 7), so the LORD destroys Jericho with a great shout and Ai with clever tactics on the battlefield.  In the same way, the LORD will save different people in different ways.  For one, it might be years of debate and philosophy, convincing the mind and then moving the heart.  For another, it could be a miraculous encounter on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), or even an earthquake and a near scrape with suicide (Acts 16).  Many of these differences can be attributed to the dictates of circumstances, but I think there is an additional factor, which is the creativity of God.  God is a creator, and it is fitting that he should create not just when he makes new life, but also when he brings change to the world, doing "a new thing" and bringing renewal.  In this case, the LORD is also doing something new in how he leads Israel to destroy their enemies.

Lastly, this chapter ends with Joshua and the people recite the blessings and curses of the covenant that were listed in Deut 27 and 28.  Deut 27 also has a command to carve the words of the law on stones set up, which Joshua also does in this chapter.  Everything in this final section seems to correspond with what Moses commanded in Deut 27.  This is the last time Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim are mentioned in the bible, so it does not seem likely that Israel ever repeated this ritual.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Bible Commentary - Joshua 7

In this chapter, Israel is defeated at Ai because of the sin of Achan.

There's a couple different things going on in this chapter.  After the destruction of Jericho, we can see that the metaphorical door into this region has been opened.  Having taken out the premier city, Joshua is now looking to wipe out some of the smaller towns and villages such as Ai, and this really shows both the scale of the Israelite invasion and their earnestness in carrying out the genocide they have been ordered to perform.  So we can see right away that this war is going to definitely be expanding very quickly.

Secondly, even though only 36 Israelites died attacking Ai, we can see that Joshua's immediate concern is that "all the inhabitants of the land will hear of it" and be encouraged, such that they attack Israel and destroy it.  This is just another example of how significant morale could be in ancient warfare, as I have discussed several times before.  The defeat in Ai, against a numerically inferior foe, is more of a psychological blow than anything else.

Third, and this is perhaps the most notable feature of this chapter, is how the sin of one man results in harm to the whole community.  I mean, Achan wasn't even one of the 36 people who died attacking Ai.  In a similar way, when Achan is put to death for his sin, his children and animals are also stoned to death, which shows that just as the original sin resulted in harm to the community, so does the punishment of the responsible man result in harm to the children under his protection.  This is also a principle I have talked about before, because a very similar thing happened to the families of Korah, Dathan and Abiram in Num 16 after they sinned against the LORD.  As a principle it also shows up in the story of Noah, when Noah's whole family is saved because he was regarded as a righteous man (this was in Gen 6 and 7).  So it happens with both sins causing problems to those around us and righteousness causing good things to those around us.

In this chapter, we see the principle being applied on both a small scale, with a man's family, and on a large scale, with that same man affecting the outcome of battles fought by the nation as a whole.

Fourth, this chapter shows us the significance of consecration.  Crossing over the Jordan river was a metaphor for consecration, and the mass circumcision at Gilgal was a much more direct adherence to the covenant.  Joshua also asked the people to spend three days consecrating themselves before they entered the promised land, and now that they are here the sin of Achan essentially violated their consecration.  As it turns out, it is the Israelites' consecration to the LORD that is the source of their victories in battle.  Without it, the LORD will not assist them, and without the LORD they will not be victorious in taking the promised land.  Just as they depended on manna in the desert, they depend on the LORD for victory in the land of promise.

On a minor note, "give glory to God" or "give glory to the LORD" is a phrase that basically means, "tell the truth" or "be honest".  We see this phrase used a second time in the NT in John 9:24.  We also see divination by lot in this chapter.  I can't remember if this happened in the Pentateuch, but there are a couple times in the OT where divination by lot is used to find someone who is specified by the LORD.

Having "purged the evil from amongst you" (cf. Deut 13:5, 17:7, etc), the Israelites are now ready to begin their invasion anew.

Bible Commentary - Joshua 6

In this chapter, Israel destroys Jericho after the LORD knocks down its walls.

I think this is another very interesting chapter.  While we have seen several battles in the Pentateuch, I think this is the first one that involved sieging a walled town.  A battle in an open field is (for the most part) symmetric: each side will have roughly equivalent positions, strategies and tactics (again, this is overlooking the various details that actually go into such situations).

Compared to that, siege warfare is generally asymmetric.  The defenders of a city, in this case Jericho, are usually heavily outnumbered but have a strong positional advantage in the city walls.  Sometimes the defenders can be overwhelmed by sheer numbers and siege equipment like ladders or battering rams.  Sometimes the walls can be breached by guile; from what I've read online, bribing a traitor within the city to open the gates at night was very common.  Even in mythology, we have stories like the brilliant and crafty Odysseus breaching the walls of Troy with the Trojan horse.

In still other cases, siege warfare devolves to a contest of starvation.  The defenders within the walls have some stockpile of food, while the attackers survive by foraging and pillaging the countryside.  I remarked on this when discussing Deut 20, which contains a prohibition against cutting down fruit trees while attacking a city, but only to cut down trees that do not bear fruit.  In this we see two implications: the attackers will make siegeworks out of trees from the area, and secondly the attackers will sometimes camp outside of a city for weeks, months or even years, allowing fruit trees the time to grow food for them.

The attackers have access to a larger amount of food in the surrounding fields and groves, but also have larger numbers, so with such a heightened concentration of people, eventually the region will no longer sustain them and they will have to leave.  The defenders have less food (only what can be stockpiled) but fewer men.

Deuteronomy also foretells sieges being applied against the Israelites if they rebel against the LORD and is part of the curses in Deut 28:49-57.  This curse contains many elements of siege warfare as I have described, with an invading army coming in and eating all the produce of the field and the defenders starving so much that they eat their own children (who would naturally still be in the town suffering with everyone else).

So that's how things typically go.  As should be evident though, the siege of Jericho is anything but typical.  There is no contest of strength, no siegeworks, not even guile and no hints at starvation.  In this case, Jericho is overthrown by the LORD, and I believe that is why he asks them to behave so unconventionally.  Like with the plagues over Egypt or crossing the Red Sea, the LORD has a somewhat eccentric but certainly extravagant style, whose purpose seems to be to draw attention to the things he does first by their peculiarity and secondly by their grandiosity.  It almost reminds me of the Elephant of the Bastille, constructed by Napoleon to celebrate his victories: large, grand, and a little bizarre.  Unlike the Elephant of the Bastille though, the LORD finishes what he starts.  In a similar way the LORD is like Napoleon, shaping the destiny of the world.  Unlike Napoleon, the LORD had no Waterloo.

The specific formula, marching around the city with trumpets and shouting, is very triumphal and also very threatening.  But it's peculiar that they were commanded to be silent for the first six days, and then the number seven shows up a bunch of times.  As before, seven is the number of fullness or completeness, though I don't see how it has any specific meaning here.

Everything from Jericho is "put under the ban", meaning it had to be destroyed.  That's because the city of Jericho is intended to be a "first fruits offering" to the LORD, with everything in Jericho given to the LORD.  All of the other cities after Jericho can be looted by the Israelites for their own wealth, but this first city is given to the LORD, just as the first fruits of every season's harvest is given to the LORD as an offering.

Lastly, Joshua curses anyone who would seek to rebuild Jericho, and I couldn't tell you why.  Maybe this is a "what the LORD tears down, let no man rebuild" sort of thing.  I'm not sure.  Weirdly enough, this prophecy is fulfilled in 1 Kings 16 when someone rebuilds Jericho at the cost of two of his children (without specifying the causes of their deaths).  I always found this prophecy to be very strange, but it is otherwise inconsequential.