Mibble Monday: How Israel Got Its Groove Back (Joshua 7–8)

We continue with two more chapters of Joshua, seeing as how I’m already late. In partial explanation, it was the first week of classes and even the weekend had a lot going on. Besides, these two chapters make a reasonably cohesive unit.

The quick snarky summary: God means it when he, through his designated agents, marks booty as off-limits, and one guy can fuck it up for everyone. The good news is that, if you’re willing to go through an unnecessarily drawn out bit of detective work, he’ll forgive you.


We’re told the story straight off, in verse 7:1: After Joshua forbade the Israelites to take any spoils from Jericho, Achan (of the tribe of Judah) took something, and annoyed God. Anyways, Joshua, having sacked Jericho, sets his sites next on the city of Ai. We’re told in some detail where Ai is: it’s east of Bethel, near Bethaven, and presumably not all that far from Jericho. Jericho we know for sure. Bethel we’re pretty certain is modern Beitin. Popular theories based on archaeology between Beitin and Jericho suggests that Ai might be the site of et-Tell. It could be something else, but we don’t know for sure. There’s a real problem with attempting to fit any city in that region — et-Tell or anywhere else — into the popular late Bronze-Age chronology of conquest, because there’s simply no notable habitation in the area at all of the right age (et-Tell is much older, and would have been long-abandoned by then).

Another thing which is kind of troubling in any attempt to tie this story to a geographic reality is the name of the site. The name of the city, “העי”, is not just a meaningless string of letters. It in fact is the Hebrew word for “ruin”, and is a cognate for words used elsewhere which suggest it was not derived from the name of the famous ruined city. So here we have the Israelites marching on “the Ruins”, which seems a really damn weird name for a not-yet-ruined city to have. This lends some credence to the theory that the whole thing is a later etiological myth describing the city. Joshua has a fair bit of explicit etiology, in describing why Rahab’s descendants still live among the Israelites, and why there’s a cairn of twelve stones on the banks of the Jordan. Neither of these two etiologies answer burning questions today, but perhaps at the time of the Deuteronomists there was a noteworthy cairn, and a tribal unit calling themselves the Rahabites, and these things needed explanation. And perhaps the ruins near Bethel — of such extended ruination that they were simply called “the Ruins” needed a similar explanation.

Be that as it may, this etiology actually carries a familiar message about how God will fuck you up if you dare to disobey his stern command (when will I stop linking to that song? When it stops being topical!). See, as we saw above, Achan took some Jericho-tainted stuff. And God’s angry. Not just angry at Achan, but angry at everyone. But instead of telling Joshua, “Hey, you might want to keep the troops in line,” God sulks and waits for a chance to make his displeasure fully known. His chance comes when Joshua sends out a modest strike force (a mere 3000 men, which is actually a pretty formidable troop by ancient-world standards) against Ai, figuring that between their numbers and God’s favor, these punks should be easy. Surprise! The Aiites rout them and kill thirty-six.

The casualties are a minor problem compared to the morale issue. The easy sack of Jericho (we’re not told of any casualties, so if there were any, they weren’t worth mentioning) lead Israel to believe they were unbeatable, and now they’re clearly not. So, Joshua, faced with a morale crisis, does just what Moses would do: kicks it up the ladder to God. He’s a bit less politic: the text of Joshua 7:7 reads more like the kinds of things the complainers said about how they were so much better off in Egypt. However, God shows favor, for a rather complicated definition of favor. See, God wants the Israelites to make amends by casting out the proscribed goods in their midst. This would be really easy if God just came out and said, “Hey, Achan ben-Carmi” has some gold from Jericho. Go toss his tent.” God can do that. He’s omniscient and all. Or, hell, God could make the earth swallow up Achan, or he could’ve done that before the battle of Ai. Now that would’ve put, as it were, the fear of God into the army.

But I think the message here is supposed to be a convoluted one about community guilt. God holds the whole community responsible for the actions of the few, even those actions which the community did not and could not know about. I think this might tie in somehow to the prevailing narrative of exile as a punishment for idolworship. Any given Jew might well say, “Well, I sure didn’t worship any idols, and neither did my ancestors. What’s God’s beef with us?” And here the answer clearly is: “Well, a bunch of people, most of whom you didn’t even know, did worship idols, so we’ve all got to take it on the chin.” If this sounds unconvincing, unreasonable, and unfair to you, join the club. But it certainly seems to be the point of this story.

And one aspect of this story is that the community needs to actively hunt for the evil in their midst, and God isn’t going to deal with them for you (why not, you ask? Because fuck you, that’s why. I may be paraphrasing). Except that in this particular narrative, he kind of does. God won’t come right out and say, “it’s totally Achan, and here’s what he’s got and where he hid it,” but at the same time God’s happy to play 20 questions to identify the wrongdoer. Joshua brings forward the tribes, and God points at Judah; he brings forward clans, and God points ar Zerah, and so forth. It draws out the story but mostly makes God look like a game-playing asshole.

From there on, the story is anticlimax. Achan, once singled out, confesses to stealing gold, silver, and a fine mantle; the plunder is brought out, along with all of Achan’s possessions and family, and they’re burned to death and stoned. And then, as the text so succinctly puts it, “The anger of God subsided”.

So God comes out as a total dick here. I know this is an ancient culture and their belief framework’s a bit different from ours, but to summarize: God’s annoyed that someone stole. Rather than telling them of his wrath, he leaves the Israelites to suffer casualties. Rather than telling them who incurred his wrath, he leaves it to them to guess. And then they kill the guy responsible, and suddenly everything’s all better. I really don’t get it.

So in Chapter 8, having gotten their mojo back, Israel is ready to conquer Ai. Just as in Jericho, they decide to be strategic and clever. Strategy seems overrated here, seeing as how they have an enormous fighting force and apparently God’s protection, but, eh, if Joshua wants to play cagey general, I can’t blame him. It’s all very well to say “God’ll favor us,” but when you’re in charge you kind of want to do something to deserve your rank. OTOH, if I were in Joshua’s shoes, given God’s attitude, I’d be afraid that personal initiative might be seen as a lack of faith in the full divine protection. Seriously, there’s a balancing act between clingy dependence on God and blasphemous independence, and Israel’s not that good at navigating it generally. But this time Joshua apparently does right in God’s eyes, and the ambush plan goes off swimmingly.

The plan is a pretty simple one, to station a troop behind the city, while another, making a frontal assault, stages a retreat to draw out the body of Ai’s army, at which point the troop behind the city moves in, occupying the city and surrounding the army of Ai. It’s ann very clever but as I mentioned, it’s overkill. The ambush force is 30,000 and the diversionary force five thousand, which could easily squash any ancient-world army without resort to any real tactics. We are even explicitly told that the total population of Ai, including noncombatants, is 12,000. Needless to say, the ruse works, and they kill everybody, burn the city, knock down its walls, and make it a ruin, and as 8:26 says, “a desolation to this day.” So there’s your etiology. In this battle the Israelites are permitted to take spoils, possibly to prevent a repeat of the last catastrophe. As I mentioned in the last wibble, there’s no real reason given for the proscription on Jericho, and certainly in terms of havoc wreaked, the city of Ai is just as destroyed as Jericho. Maybe more so, seeing as how Rahab and her family were left unexterminated.

The end of this chapter narrates an event whose groundwork was laid back in Deuteronomy. Much was made in the latter sections of Deuteronomy about the rites to be performed on Mount Ebal and Gerizim, with blessings and curses and reading of the Torah. There’s a heavy implication (and one taken as literal by the Samaritans) that the shrine at Gerizim would become the semi-permanent dwelling of God, but this is at odds with the mainstream Jewish belief that the Temple always was and should be in Jerusalem. Nonetheless, one could argue that the Gerizim site is the beginning of communal worship in Israel, with the Tabernacle essentially given a permanent location with the establishment of the altar on Mount Ebal.

A geographic note: Gerizim and Ebal are way the hell north of Beitin, so assuming that Ai is in the vicinity of Beitin (or Jericho), this part of the narrative is kind of in the wrong place. Joshua’s got a lot of fighting to do before he gets there.

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

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