Joshua and his ongoing battles

After Everett Fox’s detailed footnotes and explanatory asides in the Five Books of Moses, I sensed that shifting from his vigorous Hebrew-echoing style of translation to any other rendering was bound to be startling. With that as a given, I chose to leap to the Contemporary English Version, which runs like a simplified paraphrase — or, as I joked, the captions to a black-and-white comic-book. Considering the action-adventure theme that kicks in with the Joshua, this may be appropriate.

We’re definitely set up in a good-guys-versus-bad-guys scenario. Our sympathies should be well established, along with our list of heroes — or champions, as they’re soon proclaimed.

As this sequel in the story opens, spies are sent out and return with vital information. Proud Jericho is the first in a string of towns to fall to the advancing Hebrew troops who are arrogant enough to carry their priceless ark, or chest of the Covenant, into battle with them. Later, the sun and moon stand still so they can continue to slaughter. And, at last, Joshua distributes the captured land among the Twelve Tribes.

Joshua’s Promised Land is anything but peaceful.

What I’m sensing, in retrospect, is the introduction of a counter-theme from this point on in the Hebrew Bible. Something has gone seriously awry in the expected trajectory. Instead of coming peacefully into their Promised Land, with its implicit sense of “living happily ever after,” the Twelve Tribes fight tooth and nail to possess the territory, which in turn stirs up a multitude of new problems.

In short, Joshua plunges us into some major themes of the Hebrew Bible:

  • The Holy One becomes identified primarily as a war-god.
  • Warring is introduced as a definitive and ongoing element of Hebrew history and experience.
  • The desired union of 12 tribes into one nation or one people requires political and economic structures. Is this goal ultimately insurmountable?
  • The free practice of their religion is seen as requiring an independent nation. Would other alternatives have been more viable?
  • Little unity exists on the optimal form of government. Are they to be governed by judges and prophets, or monarchs and prophets, or some other polity?
  • Charged with being a separated people, they instead constantly yearn to be more like the “nations” on their borders. How much can they interact with other cultures and still maintain their own?
  • The inability to effectively eradicate idol worship from the Promised Land casts both the leadership and the general public in question. Is there an implicit flaw in the emerging Hebrew religion itself, especially in its casting of women and their influence? I would welcome some valid alternative perspectives on what is not being fully told here.

We have every reason and every right to be appalled and disturbed. Just consider the sheer number of casualties, even if we recast the figures from thousands to units, such as families.

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Bridging into the rest of the story

Before undertaking this examination of the Bible straight-through, I’d been puzzled by the Jewish practice of reading the first five books aloud in sequence in the synagogue within the span of each year and then starting all over again.

For me, encountering them sequentially in this round in a unique translation, coincidental as that may have been, has given me an awareness that they do indeed somehow stand apart from the rest of the Bible. Also known as the Torah, the Pentateuch, the Written Law or Teaching or Guidance, these texts define the emerging people and their mission as distinct from the surrounding cultures before settling in to a Promised Land. In themselves, they have engendered millennia of continuing close examination, discovery, commentary, and argument in the rabbinic tradition, in addition to eventual Christian and Islamic interpretations. There’s plenty to revisit and ponder.

Moses appoints Joshua, who will succeed him. The scene couldn’t have appeared anything like this, I’m sure.

What follows in the remainder of the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, is an attempt to put into effect those principles. As an ancient history, this one differs from most in that much of its compass is on the people, rather than royalty or heroes solely. Moreover, its leaders — political and religious — are repeatedly cast in a negative light, rather than being unquestionably worshiped.

As I moved beyond the Five Books of Moses, I missed Everett Fox’s gritty translation and his awareness of rabbinic argument, something quite livelier than what we’d hear from Protestant sermons or Catholic homilies.

In revisiting what would follow, I realize a broader timeline (with parallel cultures and empires) and more maps and insights from current archaeological findings would help here. Lunging ahead through the histories of the emerging Jewish people, Joshua and Judges through Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, the Babylonian captivity and on through Maccabbees, there’s a lot of boilerplate to skip over lightly: genealogies, the continuing battles, even repetitions of Scripture, in a numbing redundancy and tedium. It’s a melange of fact and imagination, passion and ethics, prophecy and (surprisingly) a stand of atheism, victory and defeat, exile and return, all capable of raising deep questions about the human experience itself. In my straight-through reading, I’d say the Hebrew Bible is more about about right practice, rather than belief — orthopraxis, or the failure thereof, especially the failure! There’s very little about God, actually, except through the individual prophets and psalmists’ experiences or definitions. For Ezekiel, for instance, this is a furious and vengeful deity set on destruction all around. There’s the logical problem of this God’s shifting favor to the heathens as a major quandary. And why does prophecy whither soon after the return from Babylonia exile?

Through it all, let me once again suggest reading these passages like dreams, with one foot in this past, the other in our present. And dreams, as I was once told, are full of psychological truth.

Moses emerges in a new light in Deuteronomy

In Deuteronomy, the once stuttering Moses becomes suddenly eloquent, with long passages where he’s speaking confidently as God. Even with all of its additional regulations on conduct and practice, the book is infused with what Everett Fox sees as “a polarity of blessing and curse.” Or, as he observes, “Everything in Deuteronomy radiates out from the laws.”

Still, as Mordecai Richler wryly comments in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, “The poetry in Deuteronomy can be vitiated by a nagging reiteration of rules, rules, and more rules, tempered by threats from a God who clearly expects the worst of the people He has chosen to be special unto Himself. In fact, even as they are about to enter the promised land, God seems to be suffering from last-minute second thoughts. Maybe, all things considered, He fingered the wrong bunch.”

Oh, to revisit terrain I’d only recently surveyed, now in the companionship of others who, like Richler, are reverent, well versed, and candidly testy can be such a joy! Well, who but a fellow writer could admit, “They are instructed once more that they are obligated to stone all false prophets, dreamers of dreams, to death,” and then add: “Clearly a case of the poets who wrote the Pentateuch, the most sublime poets we have ever known, advocating that short work be made of potential rivals. Or, looked at another way, even the greatest authors are insecure, bad-mouthing the others.”

Well, harsh literary criticism fails by comparison, and neglect by critics, readers, and publishers alike begins to look even better. Let any fame, then, be posthumous!

Moreover, in the face of passages that become fodder for fundamentalists, a concern for social justice nevertheless begins to take shape, even if it’s two steps forward and one step back at a time.

Moses with the tablets. He really does get stuck with a stereotyped appearance, no?

The author of Deuteronomy also makes clear the trajectory for the rest of the Bible, which will be not just a history of God but, even more crucially, the struggles of a particular people, whether they want to be implicated or not. As Deuteronomy 6:6-8 presents this: “For you are a people holy to YHWH your God, (it is) you (that) YHWH your God chose for him as a treasured people from among all the peoples that are now on the face of the soil.” With a humbling note, we continue: “Not because of your being many-more than all the peoples has YHWH attached himself and chosen you, for you are the least numerous of all peoples!” And then the text explodes compassionately: “Rather, because of YHWH’s love for you and because of his keeping the sworn-oath he swore to your fathers did YHWH take you out, with a strong hand, and redeem you from a house of serfs …”

How we identify ourselves with this is essential. One could argue that as a gentile, or more harshly, goy, I have no right to throw myself into this text with any empathy, yet as a Christian I do, no matter the offense Jews may rightly claim. Nonetheless, as a reader, is there any way to continue with this story without cheering for the intended heroes? Anti-Semites can explain for themselves.

One of the practical challenges for the Israelites emerging from slavery is just how they’re to govern themselves or at least be governed. Deuteronomy strengthens their definition as twelve tribes, with all of the tribal interactions that may seem so remote to modern Western culture, and then extends that by the distribution of land and responsibilities. The role of elders and judges is expected in the projected confederation.

In looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t note Deuteronomy 17:15, “you may set, yes, set over you a king,” a system the prophet Samuel will later resist, but here we also ominously have the restrictions David, Solomon, and their descendants will override: “he is not to multiply horses for himself … he is not to multiply wives for himself … and silver or gold he is not to multiply for himself to excess,” and so on.

It’s far from the only clash ahead.

Wading through some dry but imaginative Numbers

The “otherwise haphazard subject matter” of the Book of Numbers, as Everett Fox admits, is much more than a narrative of the trials facing the slave generation as it emerges into a newly free people. Woven through the listings of laws and processes added to those previously enumerated — some sacred, many secular — is a sequence of six rebellions when the liberated slaves fail in tests to uphold the covenant. Along the way, we also have a clearer structuring of family relationships, of sexual barriers, of tribal definitions and claims, and especially of promise and conquest, albeit none of it as orderly as we might like.

Even so, as Geoffrey H. Hartman remarks in “The Realism of Numbers, the Magic of Numbers” (Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible), “Everything in the Bible is significant … the driest can also be the juiciest.”

Tabernacle in the desert.

In the book that Hebrew calls Bemidbar, “In the Wilderness,” Hartman finds “a great deal of space is devoted to legal and organizational minutiae, rules dry and severe and without narrative luster. But what is generally remarkable in the Pentateuch is this forthright cohabitation of imagination and law.”

Numbers can be seen as Second Exodus, where, “In his quest for authority, or desperate to maintain the life and hopes of the people, Moses is forced to remain a magician,” as Hartman contends, “while God is anything but a magician,” and clashes with reality are inevitable. In fact, looking at chapters 11 to 25, Fox admits, “A final, troubling issue is the character of God in this part of the book,” illustrated with “unremitting severity.”

Miriam leads the women in music.

For me, one of the more troubling incidents in this book has long been the demotion of Moses’ sister Miriam/Miryam and brother Aaron/Aharon as prophets (starting in chapter 12). Why should her punishment be more severe than Aaron’s? (The conventional answer, by the way, is that he has to retain enough credibility as high priest to establish hereditary rights for the line of priestly Levites who follow.)

What emerges, though, is another problem that will plague the religion, its neglect of feminine spirituality.

Hartman mentions a midrash tradition that has a well accompanying Israel through the desert, and “the legendary well of waters is Miriam’s,” which he then connects to Exodus 15:21 and Numbers 21:17, in essence leading a magical invocation. This, in turn, has him connecting two otherwise seemingly unconnected adjacent lines in Numbers 20:1-2 (RSV): “And Miriam died there, and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation,” or as Fox turns it, “there was no water for their community.”

When she died, the water dried up!