Thursday, February 14, 2008

Joshua 1-8: War Stories

There's a big shift in tone as we enter the post-Pentatuech book of Joshua. Suddenly, we're in an adventure story. God is still all over the page, but everything seems oddly less religious, and more about the affairs of men. There's lots of physical action, courage, and trickery; indeed, as I read through these first eight chapters, I kept imagining how it would be a great big-budget Hollywood screenplay. I'll give you the outline, the "storyboard" if you will, of the action.

Joshua 1: Moses has died. God tells Joshua to prepare the people to cross the Jordan and claim the Promised Land. Joshua prepares his officers, and reminds the three tribes that have decided to stay east of the river that they still need to send their soldiers to help in the conquest.

Joshua 2: Joshua sends two spies into the city of Jericho, where they take refuge with a prostitute named Rahab. Or maybe she's an innkeeper, says the footnote. Seems like a significant distinction, but whatever. The king of Jericho comes looking for them, but Rahab hides them and sends the king on a wild goose chase. "Listen," she tells the spies. "We've all heard about you Israelites, and we know you've got a powerful God on your side, and we're all scared to death. I saved you from the king, so please save me and my family when the invasion comes."

"OK," they say, and give her a marker to put in her window, telling her to gather her family there. They sneak out of town, take the long way around, and tell Joshua that it should be an easy fight, as morale is so low in Jericho.

Joshua 3-4: Now, everybody knows about the parting of the Red Sea, but I didn't know about the parting of the Jordan River! The Israelites prepare to march, despite the fact that the Jordan is at flood stage and shouldn't be crossable on foot. But, Joshua sends the Levites with the ark of the covenant into the river, and it stops flowing. They take the ark out to midstream, and remain there was the entire Israelite nation crosses over into the Promised Land without so much as getting their feet wet. Once everybody is across, they take some rocks out of the river channel to set up a monument, and then the bearers of the ark cross over and the river resumes its business as usual. The invasion has begun!

Joshua 5: Joshua chooses this moment to deal with a little religious problem. It seems that the Israelites haven't been circumcizing babies since they left Egypt, and since a generation has passed, that means that needs to be taken care of for all of the men. So, they take care of it, then rest up a few days. The site is named "Gibeath Haaraloth," or Hill of Foreskins. I am not making this up. Look it up yourself.

(I would probably leave that part out of the screenplay, by the way.)

Joshua 5:13 - 6: Joshua is visited by either God or the Commander of God's army -- it's ambiguous -- and given instructions on how to capture Jericho. It is essentially a magical spell. The fighting men are supposed to march in a lap around the city every day for six days, carrying the ark led by priests blowing seven ram's horn trumpets. On the seventh day, they are are to march seven laps, after which they are to let up a great war cry, and the walls of the city will collapse.

As military strategy goes, it's not exactly Rommel in North Africa, but it gets the job done. The walls collapse, the Israelites charge the defenseless and demoralized city, and they set up a humane interim government over the people of Jericho. Ooops! Sorry, wrong notes. I meant to say, they
devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it -- men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep, and donkeys. (21)
They burn the city and everything in it, after appropriating the precious and industrial metals for the tabernacle. Joshua even puts a curse on the ruins against anyone who would rebuild the city. The sole survivors are the family of the prostitute (or perhaps innkeeper) Rahab, who we are told, surprisingly, lives among the Israelites to this day. (25) She must be getting on in years.

Joshua 7: The next city on the hit list is Ai. Joshua's spies tell him to send only a light force, but the people of Ai are well prepared, resist the attack, and end up chasing the Israelites of in ignominious defeat, killing 36 of them. Joshua is horrified, and asks God if he has abandoned his people. God tells him that he is enraged at the Israelites, because one of them stole some of the loot from Jericho that was supposed to go to the temple. The next morning, there is an elaborate process by which a guy named Achan is identified as the thief. He confesses immediately, admiting that he kept 200 shekels, a piece of gold, and an attractive robe that should have been turned over to the priests.

In light of his quick confession and repentent attitude, Joshua shows mercy and... oops, wrong notes again. Actually, Joshua has him stoned to death, and also his children and animals. Then they burn all of the bodies, along with Achan's possessions.

Joshua 8: Joshua has another go at Ai, and this time uses more conventional strategy than he employed at Jericho. Knowing that the Ai military is quick to press an advantage, he sends a small, mobile force for a feigned attack. They break off quickly, and the men of Ai leave the city to chase them again. This leaves the city ripe for picking by the larger reserve force that now decends from the other direction, occupies the city, and sets it on fire. Their enemy is now completely exposed, cut off, and hemmed in on both sides, and the customary slaughter begins.

Israel cut them down, leaving neither survivors nor fugitives. 23 But they took the king of Ai alive and brought him to Joshua.

24 When Israel had finished killing all the men of Ai in the fields and in the desert where they had chased them, and when every one of them had been put to the sword, all the Israelites returned to Ai and killed those who were in it. 25 Twelve thousand men and women fell that day -- all the people of Ai.

That leaves just the king alive. They hang him, leave him dangling for a while, then toss his body on the ruins of his city's gates. Then they build the alter of stone that Moses called for in his farewell speech, and renew the Covenant by reading out the whole of the laws of Moses.

Next: They are a hearty bunch, these Israelites! I wonder if they will mellow out and start being nicer to the neighbors as events progress? Somehow I doubt it!


gl. said...

hey, you're using pictures again! thanks for not including one for Gibeath Haaraloth. :)

Anonymous said...

What a Valentine's present! The book of the Big J. In contemporary American film, I imagine him played by Bruce Willis, laying down ultimatums in a quick-snarky commentary that commits the Israelites to battle, and in the process helps them to, as Reagan put it, "stand tall in the saddle again" after all that wandering aimlessly in the desert with laws. Isn't the best cure to the dry academic realm of law to answer with action? And what of all that wandering in the desert and trying to keep yourself right with the Wrathful One? Wouldn't it be exciting to go fight some real battles with real people that could become, say, emblematic of all that religious stuff? I can't wait. In fact, I can hear the Anglo-jazzy chorus of "Joshua fought the battle of Jericho ... Jericho ... Jericho... oh lordy Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, and the Walls Came Tum-bling-Down-down-down-down." After all, isn't bringing a civilzation's walls (or cultural icons or buildings) tumbling down the currency of faith these days?

Okay, all sarcasm aside, I really am excited. Your summaries of the Pentateuch were outstanding. Thanks for all the detailed work. This is a great project.

mhwitt said...

I too give kudos for the fine writing, the storyboard approach, and the return of artwork to this blog.

All this talk of the Arc of the Covenant of brings to mind Raiders of the Lost Arc. Does the Arc later melt the faces of the Phoenicians?

You mentioned before that finding and selecting the images slowed things down a lot, so none of us will hold it against you if you don't continue the practice.