Thibble Thursday: Recon mission, part 2 (Joshua 1–3)

Onwards to the Book of Joshua! This book is basically national history, explaining why the tribes live where they do. Also, it’s really bloody, because team Joshua is going to kill everyone in their path.

Unlike the Torah, the Nevi’im aren’t divided up into convenient week-sized units, so I’ll do whatever comes naturally in each week’s reading.

The quick snarky summary: Joshua secures his leadership and reminds the Transjordanians that they have to fight too. He decides to send spies, since that worked so well for Moses, and they go find a whore to dally with. He continues to emulate Moses by repeating his most famous miracle.


It’s not obvious that the division of the Torah from the Nevi’im was a distinctio made by the Deuteronomists. Certainly both Deuteronomy and Joshua are ascribed to the same authorial/editorial team, so it’s entirely possible they saw them as part of a cohesive whole. Certainly Joshua does not really spend much time on stage-setting, but dives right into the events immediately following the death of Moses.

First off, we have shades of Deuteronomy continued, with a great deal of God-provided folderol about how the Israelites should never forsake the Law, &c. This time we’re spared the litany of blessings and curses, though, which were kind of more Moses’s thing anyways.

But in Joshua 1:4 we get the first of many geographical specifications which appear in this text. God promises Joshua possession of everything all the way out to the Euphrates river and the Mediterranean. This promise is not borne out by much of anything else appearing in the text, nor by any historical boundaries of the nation, as the Euphrates river is way, way too far to the east. Despite God promising what he can’t actually deliver, here, the general tenor of the conversation is encouraging and promising success in war.

The rest of Chapter 1 is basically given over to a rehash of the agreement reached in Numbers 32: namely, that even though Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh have Transjordanian holdings, they’re required to perform military service (and dangerous military service too, marching in the forefront) until the other tribes’ territories are also conquered. This is basically anticlimax: if these tribes had bristled at Joshua’s rule and gone back on their agreement, then there’d be dramatic tension, but as things stand they meekly accept his leadership, vowing to follow him as they did Moses. All in all, Chapter 1 is basically a confirmation of the status quo: Joshua intends to do exactly what Moses did, and the tribes and God treat him with the same respect they did Moses.

Chapter 2 is also somewhat reminiscent of an event that has gone before. Here Joshua sends out some scouts into Israel. Back when Moses did that, the results were disasterous and demoralizing, but except in the general plot element of “spies are sent to Israel”, this episode is quite different. For one, they’re specifically sent to scout Jericho, the nearest city to the Jordan. It’s worth noting that Jericho is one of the few Biblical sites we know a lot about; this will become more relevant as we come to the conquest. Anyways, the two spies go to lodge with a prostitute, Rahab. Already this story has interest, because Rahab is one of a tiny number of female characters we’ve seen since the end of Genesis who have any significant role in the narrative. Miriam, the daughters of Zelephohad, and… that’s it, I think? There’s also the issue of prostitution, which is a complicated one in ancient societies. The Deuteronomists, AFAICT, didn’t much approve of either mercantile or cultic prostitution, but both were certainly a facet of the world they lived in. This is the second time we’ve encountered prostitution in the Bible, by the way: the first was back in Genesis 38, where Tamar used it as a ruse to seduce her father-in-law. Lest you think I’m conflating two very different practices, the same word (זונה) is used in both scenarios. Interestingly, in both cases the practitioners are presented favorably, so there may be more complicated nuances to the perspective on prostitution than I’m aware of.

However, Rahab’s profession (unlike Tamar’s assumed profession) has no particular consequence here, unless it’s to explain why two men might lodge with her for a night. Why they did so is not abundantly clear, but they seem to have chosen the right inhabitant of Jericho to trust, since when Rahab’s called upon to produce her houseguests for the king, sh lies to protect them and sends the soldiers off on a wild goose-chase so that the men can slip away undetected.

Now, it becomes clear after she’s saved them that she’s not doing this out of the goodness of her heart, but has a bargain to make. Apparently she knows the Israelites are coming, and wants not to be killed. THat’s a pretty fair request, and it’s one the spies accede to, but it’s worth noting that, according to the letter of the law, they’re not authorized to do that. God was pretty clear on the whole killing-every-indigene-of-Israel bit, and there wasn’t really an exemption for the nice ones who save your ass. But the spies promise not to kill her and her family, and they actually (as we’ll see in a few chapters) are willing to deliver on this promise.

Incidentally, the spies barely have a report, and it’s essentially pure optimism. It’s not even clear what they were looking at or for, since as regards optimism, they’ve already got God’s word on their victory, and God probably trumps a pair of whoremongers. They’ve got some good intel from Rahab herself, who claims that the people of Jericho are terrified on account of the miracles the Israelites have been granted.

Of course, there’s another obvious reason why the Jerichoites should be terrified, having nothing to do with God, which is that if we take the ludicrous numbers in the Torah at face value, they’re hopelessly outnumbered. As I’ve mentioned before, the 600,000-man military strength of Israel is, by any late Bronze Age standards, absurdly overpowered for any foe in Israel. The fortifications and/or technological superiority of Jericho are unlikely to help it much.

But, OK, taking the spies at face value, Chapter 2 basically becomes a stand-alone narrative. Except for a mention later on of Rahab’s family being spared, neither the intelligence from this mission, or anything else about this narrative really ends up coming up again, so this feels in some ways like a standalone myth (although Rahab’s family lineage may end up being relevant later, so her role here may have been tipped in as an origin story).

In chapter 3, we finally cross the Jordan, which we’ve been waiting for three books and forty years to do. Here, as in the matter of sending spies and reminding the Transjordanians of their duty, Joshua emulates Moses: namely, he decides the only stylish way to cross a body of water is to not get your feet wet. So the Levites march the Ark out into the river, and the river stops. I know that we’re supposed to smile and nod and chalk this up to miracle, but this is actually hydrodynamically far, far less plausible than the splitting of the sea. It’s miraculous and weird but vaguely plausible to pull back the waters on either side of a path through a still body of water, like the Sea of Reeds (which is, uh, kind of marshy anyways). Completely cutting off the flow of a river is a lot more problematic. We’re told the water piled up on one side, and went dry on the other, and presumably it did so for a long time, because you don’t move millions of people in a few minutes. But that produces all kinds of flow issues, as to where all the water flowing down from upstream goes. Yes, I know, I’m overanalyzing, but even Bronze Age peoples knew how this worked. You dam a river, and it doesn’t just stop; it flows over and around your barricade.

But moving on from that implausibility, we now have an enormous army which has made landfall on the western bank of the Jordan. Next stop, Jericho!

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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