In my right hand is a VHS copy of An American Tail 2: Fievel Goes West. In my left hand is a bible. Let’s do a show about… THE BIBLE.
Hello, and welcome to BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way. You might know me from right now when I’m talking. We’ve just completed our look at the Torah, the foundational document of the ancient nation of Israel, and the first five books of a modern Bible. Today we move on to the next two books in the Hebrew canon, Joshua and Judges. Joshua is a much needed epilogue to the story of the Torah, which left us hanging as to whether or not the Israelites would ever actually settle in the land of Canaan. We’ve talked about Judges before, but we’ll give it another look and pay close attention to its place in the ongoing story.
On the surface, Joshua is a simple narrative: the Israelites come at last to Canaan, and must fight with its current inhabitants before they can settle. However, the literary presentation of this conflict is not exactly what we might expect. We’ll unpack it as we go.
The first 11 verses establish the purpose of the book and its connection to the Torah:
[1:1] After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ attendant,  “Moses my servant is dead. Prepare to cross this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel.  Every spot on which your foot treads I give to you, just as I promised Moses.  From the wilderness and Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites to the Mediterranean Sea on the west shall be your territory.  No one shall be able to resist you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you.  Be strong and resolute, for you shall apportion to this people the land that I swore to their fathers to give them.  But you must be very strong and resolute to observe faithfully all the law that Moses my servant enjoined upon you. Do not deviate from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have success wherever you go.  This Book of the Law shall not depart from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it. Only then will you prosper, and then you will have success.  I charge you: Be strong and resolute. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”
All of the themes of the Torah are reinforced here in the introduction: the OFFSPRING, the LAND, and the COVENANT that glues them together. And the time has finally come for Israel to cross the Jordan River and enter the land. Before crossing over, however, Israel sends spies into the nearest Canaanite city, called Jericho. The spies are aided and protected by a resident, a prostitute named Rahab. She hides them from the local authorities, and they promise to allow her and her family to escape before the imminent battle. This is not the last time a pagan woman with undesirable life circumstances will figure prominently in Israel’s national story. In fact, we’re gonna read a whole book about another such woman named Ruth in the next podcast. Such is the impact of these women that BOTH appear in Matthew’s subversive genealogy of Jesus in his New Testament gospel. [<–save for Ruth pocast]
The crossing of the Jordan River in chapter 3 plays out like a low-budget version of the Red Sea escape in Exodus. The waters of the river recede and the Israelites cross over “on dry ground.” The point of this is obvious given the material we’ve just read in Numbers and Deuteronomy. Remember, this group of people is not the same one which made that dramatic escape from Egypt. A generation has passed, and these new Israelites must have their own “Exodus event” on the eve of settlement. The river crossing is less sensational, but it is symbolically necessary in the story that is being told.
When Israel finally marches on Jericho in chapter 6, we encounter one of the strangest texts in the Bible. Here’s a few verses starting with verse 8:
 When Joshua had instructed the people, the seven priests carrying seven rams’ horns advanced before the LORD, blowing their horns, and the ark of the LORD’s covenant followed them.  The armed men marched before the priests who were blowing the horns, and the rear guard marched behind the ark, while the horns blew continually.  But Joshua commanded the rest of the people, “Do not shout or make your voice heard, and don’t let any sound go out of your mouth until the moment I tell you to shout. Then you shall shout.”  So he had the ark of the LORD go around the city, circling it once. Then they returned to the camp and spent the night in camp.
Instead of marching directly into battle, Israel circles the city walls carrying the “ark of the covenant” (an ornamented box containing the covenant laws) and blowing trumpets. They do this once a day for seven days, until this happens (in verse 16):
 On the seventh time around, as the priests blew the horns, Joshua said to the people, “Shout, for the LORD has given you the city.  And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live, because she hid the messengers whom we sent.  But you, keep yourselves from the things devoted to destruction, lest when you have devoted them you take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel a thing for destruction and bring trouble upon it.  All the silver and gold and objects of bronze and iron are consecrated to the LORD; they must go into the treasury of the LORD.”  So the people shouted when the horns were sounded. When the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people shouted a great shout, and the wall collapsed. The people rushed into the city, every man straight before him, and they captured the city.  Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.
Territorial wars in ancient history don’t surprise us. And by the bible’s own logic, Israel has had a claim on this land since the days of Abraham. They might have just marched in, drawn their swords, and asserted their claim. Instead, we’ve got this strange, seven-day religious festival which culminates in the destruction of Jericho – and everything and everyone in it. To us, this sounds very much like “holy war,” like a bloody siege carried out in the name of God. Many sensitive modern readers are reasonably horrified by this, while some Christians have gleefully embraced the simplistic view of a glorious battle between the “good guys” and “God’s enemies.”
Here on BOOK, our job isn’t to justify or condemn the behavior and themes we find in the bible. We’re interested in how and why the text was composed, and how it would have “worked” for the original authors and recipients in their historical moment. To that end, it is possible to step back and understand the battle of Jericho in the sweep of the literary presentation of the whole Hebrew Bible. Let’s take a trip back to Genesis.
One of the defining characteristics of the patriarch stories – the tales of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – was the ongoing tension of their relationships with their neighbors. When God “called” Abram out of his nomadic lifestyle to settle himself and his family in Canaan, the plan was always peaceful coexistence. “I will make you a great nation, and you will be a BLESSING to all other nations.” Abram went out of his way to live at peace, even when conflict seemed to seek him out, and went so far as to intercede on behalf of his neighbors when they were in trouble. So far so good. But by the time we get to Jacob and his sons, things are much more messy and problematic for the whole “peaceful coexistence” initiative.
Remember the story in Genesis 34 about Jacob’s daughter Dinah and the prince of Shechem? When things went sour between the Israel family and the locals, Jacob wanted to avoid conflict and resolve the issue, but his sons had other ideas. They murdered the men of that city, and the text says that their actions made them “a stench” to the people of the land. Israel’s neighbors became their enemies, but this was never how it was supposed to be. Top this off with a 400 year sojourn in Egypt – also not part of the plan – and Israel comes crawling back to the land with a formidable problem on its hands. The land that was supposed to have been theirs by peaceful habitation is occupied by others, and these others happen to be their enemies. Not enemies in a simplistic, “good guys/bad guys” scenario, but enemies because of Israel’s own failure to carry out the covenant instructions to live at peace. This whole mess is the direct result of Israel’s sin. They have become the oppressors, when they ought to have been the blessers.
And this explains the religious language – creepy as it may sound to us – in which the Jericho episode is composed. It’s not generic religious language, as if to say, “God told us to destroy you, nothing personal.” It’s actually very specific religious language, it’s the language of SACRIFICE. The seven marches around the city, the blowing of the trumpets, the raising of voices, this is the activity of an Israelite worship festival. And the key to how this story works is the instruction to “devote” Jericho “totally” to “destruction.” This phrase comes from Israel’s animal sacrifice rituals. While some sacrifices were to be eaten and enjoyed as an act of thanksgiving, others were to be burned up completely, “devoted totally to destruction.” There was to be nothing left over or enjoyed, because these sacrifices were for the atoning of sin guilt.
The authors of Joshua, most likely from the same priestly class which compiled the Torah, look back on this ugly moment in Israel’s history, and the only way they can make sense of it is to re-imagine it in terms of an atoning sacrifice for the corporate sins of the Israelites – with innocent Canaanites substituting for an innocent bull or goat. That may not make the text any easier for us to stomach, but it explains the odd tone of the account and the internal logic. The point is made even more sharply after the battle is won, and the Israelites are strictly forbidden from taking anything from the spoils of victory for themselves. One man disobeys the order, Israel is defeated in their next battle, and the man is put to death.
It’s interesting to note, also, that the Israelites are depicted in Joshua and elsewhere in the bible as being wholly unmotivated to carry through on their task of driving out the inhabitants of Canaan. In fact, they never finish the job. The borders of the territory will never extend as far as the orders given here in the book of Joshua. And the rest of Israel’s national life will be spent in conflict with the pockets of neighbor/enemies that are left throughout the land.
In chapter 8 Joshua and the Israelites renew the covenant and begin to plant their roots in Canaanite soil. The rest of the book catalogs battles, describes the tribal allotments of land, the designation of “cities of refuge” – Israel’s answer to criminal justice – and the setting up of the tabernacle (the mobile tent-temple) in a place called Shiloh, the first religious “capital” of new Israel.
In terms of narrative, Joshua is a functional and necessary piece of the biblical puzzle. It is the transition between wandering Israel and landed Israel. It is the bridge between the foundational events and values of the Torah, which will then be stretched and tested throughout the rest of Israel’s historical experience. It is also the foundation for problems and tensions which will bubble up in the next book in the canon…
We talked about Shofetim (or “Judges”) in the first episode of BOOK. Its problematic, violent content made it a perfect entry point for our discussion of the bible. We observed the sharp political dimension of the often disturbing narrative, and the argument at the core of Judges, that Israel needs a king. But now we can appreciate even more how the argument of Judges builds on and subverts the themes and expectations of the Torah, and what a surprise it is given how we typically read the bible. This is perhaps the first time we hear a voice of dissent, of contradiction.
Debates about “inconsistencies” in the bible are usually focused around facts and claims. Secular atheists on one side, insisting the text is filled with “errors” and “contradictions”; Devout believers on the other side, insisting the text is “inerrant” and perfectly cohesive. Neither of those positions is particularly helpful, because neither is open to the real human voices behind the various texts. When we allow the bible to be what it is, a collection of human witnesses to the history of Israel, we discover that there are indeed disagreements and contradictions of perspective throughout the bible. Learning to listen to them – and giving them a hearing – is what brings the bible to life, and puts us in touch with something real and powerful.
Here in Judges, we encounter a distinct new voice. We don’t know who exactly wrote or compiled the Torah, but it is a solid historical bet that it was a priest or group of priests from Israel sometime after the settlement in the land. It’s a good guess that Joshua was a product of the same group or a similar group with the same interests. Judges, as we observed in the first podcast, was likely written by a group of radicals within Israel who opposed the priests, at least on the important topic of national leadership. After an introduction about the tribe of Judah and its many victories on the battlefield, the rest of the book is a catalog of failures and compromises as Israel sinks deeper and deeper into apostasy, all but forsaking the Mount Sinai covenant. The fact that Judah gets a big plug at the beginning of the text is perhaps a major clue that the authors of this book are members of that tribe.
After a list of battles lost and other epic fails, and after a quick account of the death of Joshua, we come to the “judges” themselves late in chapter two. Starting in verse 16:
 Then the LORD raised up judges who saved them from those who plundered them.  But they did not listen to their judges either, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They were quick to turn aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the LORD; they did not do right.  Whenever the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them.  But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways.
The Hebrew word shofetim is translated “judges,” but a better rendering might be “chieftans” or “warlords.” These are ad hoc, one-shot saviors who rise up out of obscurity, deliver Israel from an urgent threat, and then die or otherwise disappear. On the one hand, apart from their context in the Hebrew Bible, these are gritty adventure stories, like an ancient version of the wild American west. The stories are exciting and bloody, and the “good guys” always manage to win despite the odds. But in proper context, Judges is a story of abject failure and chaos, of Israel once again failing to be Israel, forsaking the covenant. They’re still fighting with their neighbors, chasing after the gods of the Canaanite pantheon (the “Baals”), and the only leadership they have is disorganized and unstable.
The judges themselves are a ragtag group, representing some of the more undesirable elements of the Israelite citizenry – and notably, none of them are priests. Here’s the full roster:
- The first judge is Othniel, a nephew of Joshua’s right-hand-man Caleb. The details in the text are sparse, we just know that he defeated the “king of Mesopotamia,” which sounds like a pretty big win.
- We talked about Ehud in the first podcast. He’s the left-handed dude who killed the obese king of Moab.
- Next up is Shamgar, who “killed 600 Philistines with an oxgoad.” Good for him.
- Deborah is the first recorded female judge, and the text speaks of her actually sitting as a judge for the people of Israel, settling disputes and looking more like an actual leader than the previous judges. The story in this chapter (chapter 4) is one of the more feminist-friendly passages in the Hebrew Bible. A Canaanite general named Sisera marches against Israel. Deborah orders her top general Barak to organize a counterattack, believing that “YHWH will deliver Sisera into the hand of a woman.” They go to war, and Israel routes the enemy, but Sisera escapes on foot. He runs to an Israelite village where he believes he has allies, and is welcomed into the tent of a woman named Jael, who promptly pounds a spike through his temple. Deborah’s premonition was correct, it was a woman who won the day.
- In chapter 6, another enemy rises up against Israel, their old cousins the Midianites (descendants of Esau). An angel of YHWH appears to a strong young man named Gideon and asks him to fight on behalf of Israel, but Gideon actually questions God asking, “Is he really with us, or has he forsaken us? Why did he let all of this happen to us?” It takes some convincing, but Gideon finally agrees and amasses an army of 30,000 men to march against Midian. YHWH tells Gideon to send most of the men home and keep only 300 with him. The 300 soldiers surround the Midianite camp, shouting and blowing shofars, which functions as a call to arms for the surrounding Israelite territories. Men from all around join the fight and the Midianites are defeated. Gideon wins a few more battles before he goes a bit mental and forges himself an ephod, a golden breastplate like the ones worn by priests. It becomes “a snare” for him, then he dies.
- Next is the sordid story of Gideon’s son Abimelech, who conspires with Shechem, kills his own brothers, and installs himself as Israel’s first “king.” His reign is violent and brief, and he is killed (by a woman, sort of – see chapter 9).
- Tola and Jair judge Israel for the next fifty years or so.
- Next up is Jephthah, the “son of a prostitute” and kind of a loser, but he’s also big and strong, so when Ammon marches on Israel, the elders try to recruit him to lead the fight. He agrees on the condition that he be installed as Israel’s leader if he succeeds. Jephthah’s story takes a disturbing turn when he makes a stupid vow on the eve of a battle. He swears before YHWH that he will sacrifice “whatever comes out” from his house. His daughter comes out of his house, and he carries through on his tragic vow, despite the fact that it violates many of Israel’s covenant laws.
- Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon are the next three to judge Israel, though little information is given about them.
- Finally, we come to Samson, that famous biblical strong man who tears lions apart with his bare hands. In Sunday School he was always portrayed as a hero, a square-jawed adonis who pummeled the bad guys in the name of the Lord. The actual biblical details about him are far more ugly and sad. At a time when the Philistines are ruling over the Israelites, Samson marries a Philistine woman to gain a political advantage. That doesn’t go well, so Samson burns the Philistines’ crops and murders a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey. This makes him famous and he becomes Israel’s latest judge. Samson’s taste for women lands him in trouble when a beautiful Philistine spy named Delilah tricks him into revealing his weakness: his long hair. Samson’s parents had dedicated him to the “Nazirite vow,” a devout custom which involved special dietary observances and a promise not to cut one’s hair or shave. When Samson’s hair is cut in his sleep, he loses his strength and is taken captive by the Philistines, who gouge out his eyes and throw him in prison. When he is trotted out at a gathering of Philistia’s best and brightest to be mocked and gawked at, he famously leans against the pillars and brings down the building, killing 3000 Philistines along with himself. The end.
Considered in isolation, some of these stories might work well as rough and tumble adventures. But taken together in context, this is a shocking litany of downright anti-Israelite behavior. And if the message wasn’t clear enough, the last few chapters of Judges are reserved for the ugliest stories of Israelite citizens (not just judges) doing outrageous and abominable things. A man called Micah recruits a Levite to act as his own personal priest in his home, completely bypassing the tabernacle in Shiloh. Then the tribe of Dan marches on Micah’s home, not to condemn him for his sin but to offer the priest more money to come and work for them.
The last and by far the most brutal story is about a Levite (that means a priest) who takes himself a concubine. When she is unfaithful, he chases after her and they wind up in an Israelite town called Gibeah. In a shocking and deliberate invocation of the Sodom and Gomorrah story, the population of the town surrounds the house where they are lodging and demands to have their way with the Levite man. Their host throws the man’s concubine out to the mob, and she is raped and abused all night long. The next day, the Levite man chops her corpse into twelve pieces and sends them throughout the twelve tribal territories, a desperate cry for help and a warning to all Israel. The Sodom and Gomorrah imagery throughout infuses the account with a dark and subversive message: Israel has become something as bad or perhaps worse than the legendary Sodom and Gomorrah, the bywords for oppression and depravity. By the end of the book, Israel is torn apart by civil war.
These disturbing stories at the end of Judges are punctuated by a concise and blunt articulation of the book’s central argument, a phrase repeated four times: “In those days there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” The authors of Judges – perhaps the tribe of Judah – make the case that Israel needs an organized, central government, and a king who will unite the people around the covenant. This was not a popular idea, as each tribe had its own ideas of how to do things, and the priestly tribe, the Levites, strongly opposed the idea of an earthly king in Israel. But the argument of Judges is strong, and not dissimilar to the argument of Exodus. Israel, left to her own devices, is lost. In Exodus, the problem was grumbling and in-fighting, and the answer was religion, “the Law.” Now, in Judges, the problem goes much deeper – Israel is eating itself alive – and the answer is a king. We might easily miss how controversial a statement this book made in its time. The book stops short of recommending any particular candidate for the job, but that is the primary function of the very next scroll in the canon, the book of Ruth…
This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. And I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast, I urge you to share, blog, like, and tweet it to your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.