Thibble Thursday: Passing the Sceptre (Joshua 20–24)

Yup, I’ve flaked. Fortunately, we’re headed out of the boring bits and next week we’ll be in a more fun book (namely, Judges). But first, we need to clean up some loose ends from the conquest of Canaan.


Chapter 20 begins by recapping rules set forth in Numbers 35 and Deuteronomy 19 regarding inadvertant manslaughter: namely, that, even though the victim’s relatives can and presumably will avenge his death, the killer is protected by going to any of the cities designated as refuges, requesting sanctuary, and remaining there until the death of the high priest. Previously we were told that six cities were to be so designated back when Israel was conquered: well, now that they’ve conquered the land, we have a chapter dedicated to the designation of these cities. They’re distributed about how you’d expect: one in Galilee, in the far north, one in the eastern Ephraimite holdings, and one in the south. Then in trans-Jordan there are three others, likewise scattered north-to-south, so there’s a pretty good geographic spread. Interestingly, several of them are quite large settlements; I’d had a notion that these would be small towns, their identity defined by their role as cities of refuge, but two of them (Shechem and Hebron) were huge communities. The other four authentically seem to have been (based on the extent of their mentions elsewhere, and conjectural archaeology) actually pretty small towns, where being a city of refuge might’ve been their most notable feature.

Chapter 21 deals with apportioning settlements to the Levites. As mentioned previously (both in Joshua and Deuteronomy) the Levites have no district of their own, but are scattered throughout Israel to minister to priestly duties everywhere. Attempting to derive a plausible history from the rather suspect Biblical origin for the tribes, the Levites are clearly different: it’s entirely plausible that a number of long-allied and culturally similar groups would band together into a federation, while retaining geographically distinct. That explains most of the tribes but not the Levites, which suggests that the Levites were in fact originally not a different ethnic/cultural/tribal group, but was rather a social class within the cultural framework shared by the members of the federation. It seems likely that Levites would also have identified with their mative tribes, and that the idea that they belonged to the “Tribe of Levi” might have been a later innovation. But, never minding that most plausible explanation, we have here a story of the setting aside of towns for the children of Levi. Interestingly, the Levites are geographically dispersed by clans: Kohath gets the south, Gershon gets the north (including the Transjordanian north), and Merari gets the middle and southern Transjordan. I’m not sure what, if anything to read into this, but I know that Kohath is the house of Moses (as well as of the rebellious Korach, who got nuked back in Numbers 16), so I think they’re supposed to be particularly special, which is probably why they get the rich country of Hebron, not to mention the prize of Jerusalem. Anyways, the rest of this chapter is a list of city names, which are mostly dull enumeration, but with an interesting side-note that calls my attention to a continuity error I didn’t even realize myself. Namely, back in Joshua 14:13 (and again in 15:13) the district of Hebron is specifically given as a special gift to Caleb. But in Chapter 20 it’s designated as a city of refuge, and here in Chapter 21, as a Levite town! Verses 12 and 13 try to clarify this: apparently Caleb has the outlying villages, while the Levites get the town itself.

Chapter 22 deals with clarifications of the status of the Transjordanian tribes. We just keep having to figure out where they stand, don’t we? Joshua summons their leaders for a special conference which basically boils down to “Just because you’re on the other side of the river, don’t think that you can just do whatever the hell yo want. You’re still subject to our laws.” But no sooner does he dismiss them than rumors start flying that they’re worshipping on their own altars,in strange ways, so he sends a priestly delegation out to set them straight.

The high priest Phineas, who is a man you don’t want to piss off because the last guy who pissed him off ended up with a spear in his belly, delivers a stern lecture about how quickly God punishes transgressors, citing that unpleasant idolworship episode back in Numbers 25, and that military defeat in Joshua 7. He even suggests that if they can’t control themselves over in Transjordan, than maybe they should come into Israel proper to pick up the remaining meager scraps of land. The Transjordanians’ response is a bit peculiar: they deny the allegations, but apparently they did undertake an unauthorized construction: not of a sacrificial altar, but of a replica of the altar in Canaan to remind themselves that they have a share in that worship too. This mollifies the priests and they go away. I assume there’s a specific Transjordanian site this incident is supposed to refer to, but I’m not sure what it is.

We’re now into the last two chapters of the book, which are mostly a recap and the death of Joshua. Joshua, aged and frail, calls together tribal leaders and elders and other people of consequence and recaps the history to that point and God’s expectations to them. It’s sort of a second Deuteronomy, only it’s a lot shorter. So what’s Joshua’s first bit of advice for the leaders of the community? “Continue to follow the laws faithfully, and don’t worship other gods,” of course! I wasn’t joking about the second Deuteronomy jab: next we move into an admonition not to intermarry with the indigineous people, and a reminder that just as everything good that God promised he delivered on, he can just as easily deliver punishment.

The very last chapter is a kind of eccentrically grab-bag recounting of the events of the Torah. We get the names of the patriarchs, and a mention of going down to Egypt (and Esau getting Seir as his dominion, for some reason), and that’s all we’re told of Genesis. Then Joshua mentions the plague,and the miracle at the Sea of Reeds, the wanderings, and the conquest of Transjordan. Then Joshua mentions Balak summoning Balaam to curse Israel—and, Like the mention of Esau, that particular detail seems unnecessary and random, as it wasn’t really relevant. Finally, Joshua recounts, we conquered Canaan, and now it’s ours, so continue to worship God and serve him well. Thereupon the monologue turns into a dialogue, which basically boils down to the people saying, “We’ll never turn away from God!” and Joshua saying, “Oh, yes you will!” and the people saying, “Nuh-uh!”, and Joshua saying, “Uh-huh!” It’s pretty silly, really. Joshua writes a covenant for the people, even though he knows they’ll break it, and sets up a great stone in the temple as a sign of the covenant. As we shall see, neither of these actions actually help much, but maybe the latter’s an explanation for some boulder in the Temple or something.

The last four verses of the book of Joshua describe three burials:. first, Joshua, who finally dies after all this dialogue and if buried in the land of Ephraim (since he’s an Ephraimite himself). Second, Joseph, whose bones were brought out of Egypt by Moses and presumably have been bouncing around among the baggage all this time. He’s also buried in Ephraim, specifically in Shechem. The justification for this is a bit interesting, since a plot of land in Shechem is supposedly the only part of Israel which was the property of Jacob back when Joseph was alive; Jacob bought it in Genesis 33:19 from the royal family of Shechem, right before his sons killed all of them. Finally, Eleazar the son of Aaron dies, but he was basically dead to this story anyways: his son Phineas had already assumed the mantle of the high priest, so Eleazar doesn’t really appear in this story. he’s also buried in Ephraim, because that’s where his son lives.

So, we are finally done with this book, which manages to make genocide dull at times. Next up we have a fun one, because Judges is basically a bunch of folkloric stories rather than an overarching narrative.

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

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