Sibble Sunday: The peace of death and the quiet of the grave (Joshua 11–12)

Man, I am slipping. Here’s a chunk of Bible.

Short snarky summary: Joshua kills everyone. Well, everyone who’s not an Israelite.

OK, when we last looked, Joshua had, in one fell swoop, conquered pretty much all points south of their vector of attack. Which is to say, if you head westish from Jericho, you get to the places Joshua conquered in the first few chapters, and then there was a massive battle in defense of their allies the Gibeonites, in which every single kingdom south of that line of attack lines up to be slaughtered and have their cities sacked. At the end of that particular bit of story, Joshua returned to the central encampment of Gilgal.

Now, for all the tediousness of the lists of cities, these conquests actually had narrative threads: Jericho was the point of first blood, with the dramatic destruction of the walls, Ai was the sound defeat underscoring a theological point, and the big battle in defense of the Gibeonites was intrinsically narratively connected to the Gibeonites deceiving the Israelites into granting their protection. So there we had something to work with storywise.

Chapter 11, by way of contrast, describes the northern campaign, and we’ve run out of good stories to work conquest into, so this one is a straight-up recapitulation of victories. The framing, here as in the south, is that there’s a large coalition force: headed by Jabin of Hazor, with three other kings whose city-states are named, and a list of members of the indigenous cultures without specific geographies given.

I’m not looking up all these locations, but we’re explicitly told they’re in the north, and some of them probably correspond to known sites (Tel Hazor, for instance, is an extensive and ancient site in the far north, large enough to plausibly form the head of the confederation and old enough to work well as either an authentic Israelite conquest of the time or as a site known to the Deuteronomic redactors and worked into a created narrative). The closest we get to any excitement in this narrative is the mention in 11:4 that the armies are not only big but technologically adept: they had horses and chariots, which were a seriously big deal in the ancient world, big enough to overpower even a stronger foe. Unfortunately, we only have a few verses after this revelation to actually feel worried on Joshua’s behalf, because the story, in the barest terms possible, tells us that the Israelites won, slaughtering all. It’s really colorless. There’s no nice details like the freak meteor shower or sun standing still in the sky that gave a little bit of interest to the great southern battle.

OK, now that the major northern army’s been defeated, you can imagine what’s next. Joshua burned Hazor, and killed all the noncombatants of the northern cities. There’s no way to sugarcoat this: the narrative presented here is pretty horrific, and I think it might have been horrific even by the standards of the times. As I mentioned, conquest and subjugation were pretty common, but outright genocide’s been frowned upon at most times in history.

Chapter 11 also includes a certain etiological note of interest: it’s stressed, in verse 13, that of the towns of the north, only Hazor was actually destroyed; the others were merely depopulated. Was there something about Deuteronomic-era urban ruins of the north that led the Deuteronomists to assert that they had not actually been destroyed when conquered? Oddly, Haozr did not remain a ruin, and was at several times in between had been rebuilt and repopulated, so the idea that Hazor was the only ruined town of the north seems entirely contrary to the reality of the time.

Verses 19 and 20 return to divine purpose, and, like so much divine purpose, it mostly makes God seem like an asshole. Apparently it was divine purpose that no other tribes would even try to make peace with the Israelites (except for Gibeon), so that they could slaughter them with a clear conscience. It’s things like this that make religion very difficult. The premise that the Israelites slaughtered all the inhabitants of a land because they were xenophobic late-Bronze-Age pricks? Sure, that I can get behind. The premise that the Israelites slaughtered all the inhabitants of a land because it was God’s will that those people behave in such a way as to get slaughtered? This basically does not accord with any possible moral lens through which God is actually “good” (OTOH, if we read God as a patron of the Israelites in a polytheistic universe, deploying his people to liquidate the followers of other gods makes perfect sense, but there you’re ceding the entire monotheistic conceit of the Deuteronomic works).

And then, as the final verse of Chapter 11 says, “the land had rest from war”. Indeed it did. Chapter 12 is simply an enumeration of all the territories the Israelites conquered since the book of Numbers. This list describes mostly things already mentioned. There were the two Transjordanian kings, whose territory was assigned to Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh. Then there’s a mostly chronological list of Joshua’s conquests. Linking the kings in this list to previous mentions, there’s not much to be said: there’s Jerusalem, Ai, the five kings of the southern confederation, the kings of the other southern towns of Gezer, Debir, Libnah, and Makkedah, the four named kings of the north,and their allied king in Dor. The main notable aspect of this list is that it’s full of kings of cities not mentioned by nake in the previous chapters. Now, admittedly, in describing the northern confederation, the text gets a bit fuzzy, suggesting kings more by their ethnic groups than by their cities. So the cities we know are in the north but haven’t previously seen mentioned by name (Achshaph, Taanach, Megiddo, Kedesh, Yokneam, Carmel, and Tirzah are all pretty definitively located ancient settlements in the north of Israel) are probably describing the unenumerated members of the northern confederacy.

But this leaves a few of the cities unaccounted for, such as Geder. Its location in the chronology suggests it’s part of the southern campaign, but we have no clue where this place is, and the retelling of the southern campaign was pretty detailed in describing just which cities got sacked. Arad and Adullam, which appear nearby in the list, strongly suggest that the first half of the list is the southern campaign, but for a book which lovingly describes the pillaging and slaughter on a town-by-town basis, it’s unusual that many of the kingdoms listed in Chapter 12 don’t actually merit mention of their destruction elsewhere.

Anyways, moving forwards form here, now that the whole land’s been conquered, it’s time to divvy it on up!


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

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