At the End of the Valley of the Giants Northward
Reading the Book of Joshua
In this newsletter, I am reading the approx. 850 authors and works of Harold Bloom's Western canon, from cover to cover, from the Epic of Gilgamesh of ca. 1200 B.C. to Tony Kushner's 1991 play Angels in America. For today I’ve continued the third item on Bloom’s list, the Holy Bible.
With the death of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy, we closed on the Pentateuch, the Torah, the books of scripture that purport to lay the groundwork of Israelite religious practices as well as modern Jewish and Christian teachings, and with the Book of Joshua have begun the section of the Christian Bible called the “historical” books.1 It’s not that the historical books, which trace the Israelite conquest of Canaan, the development of Israel’s political constitution, and the eventual fracturing, subjugation, and exile of the Israelites from their promised land, don’t contain religious teachings that readers are supposed to apply to their own lives, or that the historical books can be read as straight history without worrying about embellishment or contradictions, but it’s true that the subject matter of the Bible’s historical books, with its interest in the political and military exploits of the Israelites, more closely resembles what we would find in modern history books than the fables and black-letter law of the Pentateuch.
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The Book of Joshua, whose principal character of Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses who was anointed that man of god’s successor at the end of Deuteronomy, describes how the Israelites finally enter Canaan after a forty-year slow-motion execution of the generation that crossed the Red Sea before the pursuit of Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, and proceed to conquer the promised land, killing (most of) the current inhabitants.
An common problem with any form of literature that takes as its subject matter a skill, craft, profession, or way of life that is orthogonal to, if not mutually exclusive with, the writing profession is unlikely to offer any unique or interesting insights into that life. An author who understood music well enough to write a novel about a fictional great composer that included lots of detailed discussion of that composer’s original musical ideas and his composition process would probably be better off writing his own music and becoming a great musician himself. Even if, as sometimes happens, the author is able do enough research and interview enough knowledgeable persons to write like a bona fide expert in that area of human endeavor, all this expertise will be lost on a general audience unless the author undertakes to write a textbook, and then who will actually read the author’s work?2
What the author usually has to do instead is to adapt the alien area of knowledge to literature by taking the typical rhetorical tropes of literature and clothing them in the terminology of the alien area of knowledge, and this is what we see happen when the Book of Joshua describes the way in which the Israelites manage to conquer and exterminate the Canaanites. One thing written literature excels at is juxtaposing disparate ideas and connecting them in non-obvious ways, for example in terms of cause and effect, and this is how the Book of Joshua conveys to the reader the triumph of the Israelites’ conquering Jericho. For God commands Joshua to destroy this fortified city lying right on the bank of the Jordan, across from Moab whence the Israelites entered Canaan, by enacting a strange ad hoc ritual:
And the LORD said unto Joshua, See I have given into thine hand Jericho, and the king thereof, and the mighty men of valour. And ye shall compass the city, all ye men of war, and go around about the city once. Thus shalt thou do six days. And seven priests shall bear before the ark seven trumpets of rams’ horns: and the seventh day ye shall compass the city seven times, and the priests shall blow with the trumpets. And it shall come to pass, that when they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, and when ye hear the sound of the trumpet, all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city shall fall down flat, and the people shall ascend up every man straight before him.
Literature is also committed to the reality of words and speech: in a written text, a quotation from someone describing a state of affairs, whether that state of affairs be actual or hypothetical, has the same degree of reality as the author’s description of an actual state of affairs, because both are made up of words. The larger world has a clear hierarchy of reality where a person’s words may or may not correspond to an actual state of affairs that is observable with our senses, that is, a person’s words may be true or false, but in literature the distinction between truth and falsehood, hypothetical and actual, can only be preserved using framing techniques like quotation marks, putting the same or similar utterances in the mouths of different speakers, or juxtaposing a less eloquent, ostensibly false statement with a more eloquent, ostensibly true one; these framing mechanisms still rely on written words and are still no more real than the false or hypothetical statements they try to frame as false or hypothetical. The result is that in literature to say something is practically to make that thing reality, and a lot gets accomplished just by having characters say eloquent things. Thus, when the Israelites and the LORD fight the five kings of the Amorites, Joshua commands God to make the sun and the moon to stand still, to give the Israelites more time to slaughter the demoralized Amorite armies:
Then spake Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher?3 So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day. And there was no day like that before it or after it, that the LORD hearkened unto the voice of a man: for the LORD fought for Israel.
The written word is also uniquely adept at clearly and distinctly portraying the mental states of different agents, allowing cases of deception to be depicted in colors even more vivid than in reality, where it is less obvious who believes what and who is really being deceived. Thus Joshua lures the men of Ai away from their city so that Israelites waiting in ambush in Ai’s rear can enter and burn it:
Joshua therefore sent them forth: and they went to lie in ambush, and abode between Beth-el and Ai, on the west side of Ai: but Joshua lodged that night among the people. And Joshua rose up early in the morning, and numbered the people, and went up, he and the elders of Israel, before the people to Ai. And all the people, even the people of war that were with him, went up, and drew nigh, and came before the city, and pitched on the north side of Ai: now there was a valley between them and Ai. And he took about five thousand men, and set them to lie in ambush between Beth-el and Ai, on the west side of the city. And when they had set the people, even all the host that was on the north of the city, and they liers in wait on the west of the city, Joshua went that night into the midst of the valley.
And it came to pass, when the king of Ai saw it, that they hasted and rose up early, and the men of the city went out against Israel to battle, he and all his people, at a time appointed, before the plain; but he wist not that there were liers in ambush against him behind the city. And Joshua and all Israel made as if they were beaten before them, and fled by way of the wilderness. And all the people that were in Ai were called together to pursue after them: and they pursued after Joshua, and were drawn away from the city. And there was not a man left in Ai or Beth-el, that went not out after Israel: and they left the city open, and pursued after Israel. And the LORD said unto Joshua, Stretch out the spear that is in thy hand toward Ai; for I will give it into thine hand. And Joshua stretched out the spear that he had in his hand toward the city. And the ambush arose quickly out of their place, and they ran as soon as he had stretched out his hand: and they entered into the city, and took it, and hasted and set the city on fire.
An ambush is at least a valid military tactic, but, like the command of Joshua to stop the motion of the sun and moon, or the ritual that causes through some occult means the wall of Jericho to fall, it’s a military tactic applied in such a way as to be optimally intelligible to those reading about the Israelite campaign in Canaan in the Book of Joshua. If the Book of Joshua had been a painting, it might have explained the Israelites’ victories over the Canaanites in terms of better organized formations, shinier and better maintained armor, or looks of passionate zeal pursuing panicked and terrified faces.
All told, Joshua and his Israelites kill thirty-one kings, presumably all or almost all their people with them. The Israelites are, as rule, commanded by God to spare no Canaanites regardless of age or gender, and are usually allowed to take no booty except for precious metals that are to be stored in the LORD’s treasury. Among the people spared by the Israelites are Rahab, a prostitute of Jericho who sheltered spies that Joshua sent to scope out Canaan, along with her family, and the inhabitants of Gibeon, who tricked the Israelites into thinking they were foreigners to Canaan, and induced the children of Israel into swearing a solemn oath not to attack their city. And the Israelites were not successful in exterminating everyone they intended to: some heathen Canaanites, such as the Philistines and the Geshurites, remain by the time Joshua divvies up the captured territory among the tribes of Israel. Setting side the Transjordan territory, across the river from Canaan, which Moses gave to Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh on their request, and Levi who gets no land, there are seven-and-a-half4 tribes to whom Cisjordanian land must be given. The latter half of the Book of Joshua is largely devoted to the property deeds, assigned by drawing lots, which define the territories of the tribes of Israel. Some deeds are more complete than others, Judah gets by far the most clearly defined parcel:
This then was the lot of the tribe of the children of Judah by their families; even to the border of Edom the wilderness of Zin southward was the uttermost part of the south coast. And their south border was from the shore of the salt sea, from the bay that looketh southward: And it went out to the south side to Maaleh-acrabbim, and passed along to Zin, and ascended up on the south side unto Kadesh-barnea, and passed along to Hezron, and went up to Adar, and fetched a compass to Karkaa: From thence it passed toward Azmon, and went out unto the river of Egypt; and the going out of that coast were at the sea: this shall be your south coast. And the east border was the salt sea, even unto the end of Jordan. And their border in the north quarter was from the bay of the sea at the uttermost part of Jordan: And the border went up to Bethhogla, and passed along by the north of Beth-arabah; and the border went up to the stone of Bohan the son of Reuben: And the border went up toward Debir from the valley of Achor, and so northward, looking toward Gilgal, that is before the going up to Adummim, which is on the south side of the river: and the border passed toward the waters of Enshemesh, and the goings out thereof were at En-rogel: And the border went up by the valley of the son of Hinnom unto the south side of the Jebusite; the same is Jerusalem: and the border went up to the top of the mountain that lieth before the valley of Hinnom westward, which is at the end of the valley of the giants northward: And the border was drawn from the top of the hill unto the fountain of the water of Nephtoah, and went out to the cities of mount Ephron; and the boarder was drawn to Baalah, which is Kirjath-jearim: And the border compassed from Baalah westward unto mount Seir, and passed along unto the side of mount Jearim, which is Chesalon, on the north side, and went down to Beth-shemesh, and passed on to Timnah: And the border went out unto the side of Ekron northward: and the border was drawn to Shicron, and passed along to mount Baalah, and went out unto Jabneel; and the goings out of the border were at sea. And the west border was to the great sea, and the coast thereof. This is the coast of the children of Judah round about according to their families.
After all the tribes get their share of land, and the designated Levite cities and refugee cities for involuntary manslaughterers are named, and a dispute is settled over whether the Transjordanian Israelites of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh, who not unjustly fear that their Cisjordanian brothers will come to see them as second-class citizens, are allowed to erect their own alter to the LORD, Joshua dies at the age of hundred and ten and his buried on his estate in Timnath-serah, in the Ephraim hill country. According to my Oxford Annotated Bible, there are some who think the Pentateuch would be more aptly called a Hexateuch, with the Book of Joshua rounding out this block of six books, because Joshua picks up immediately where Deuteronomy leaves, and there two books share a ideological bias toward centralizing the Israelite religion (as seen in the Transjordan altar controversy mentioned above).. For what it’s worth, Joshua does tie up the first six books of the Bible in a nice little bow with its penultimate verse, which fulfills a promise made back in Genesis:
And the bones of Joseph, which the children of Israel brought up out of Egypt, buried they in Shechem, in a parcel of ground which Jacob bought of the sons of Hamor the father of Schechem for an hundred pieces of silver: and it became the inheritance of the children of Joseph.
We’ll see what the Israelites intend to do about the Philistines and the other Canaanites they have failed to exterminate, in the Book of Judges.
Joshua happens to also open the part of the Jewish Bible called the former prophets, but the Christian historical books and the Jewish former prophets are not identical like the Pentateuch and the Torah are.
See Plato’s dialogue the Gorgias, which I’ll be reading later on in this newsletter.
A now lost book, also cited in the Second Book of Samuel.
Remember that Manasseh and Ephraim, children of Joseph, each constitute a half-tribe.