Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Joshua and Judges:
Who Is Israel's God?
In popular understanding, the story of the taking
of Jericho by Joshua and the Israelites is a wonderfully idyllic
story of how God brought the chosen people into the promised land.
As the old spiritual puts it, Joshua fit the battle of Jericho,
and walls came tumblin— down.—
When one actually encounters the story in the Book
of Joshua, however, modern readers may experience revulsion—even
a minor crisis of faith—at the passage when the Lord commands
Joshua and the Israelites to kill every last man, woman and child
that lives in Jericho, as well as their animals. Compounding the
problem, Joshua 7—12 says that the Israelites did likewise in
every town they captured—again at the command of God!
It seems difficult to reconcile such wanton and
merciless slaughter with the teaching of Jesus to love one—s enemies.
Properly understood, however, the Books of Joshua and Judges present
God as gracious and merciful.
The books of Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel and 1-2
Kings are referred to by biblical scholars as —the Deuteronomistic
History,— because they build upon religious principles set out
in the preceding Book of Deuteronomy. These books seem to have
been composed in their final form sometime after 587 B.C., since
the work ends with the beginning of the Babylonian exile.
This —Deuteronomist— wrote 400 to 600 years after
the events he narrates in the Books of Joshua and Judges (which
most scholars place between 1200 and 1050 B.C.). For the later
period of the monarchy, the author could draw upon official chronicles
from the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. For the pre-monarchical
period of Joshua and Judges, however, he had to rely for the most
part on legendary accounts and folktales.
Historical exactitude was of little concern to
the Deuteronomist. He was less interested in writing history than
in conveying a religious message. His exilic audience, disillusioned
at the superior power of their Babylonian captors, and perhaps
even doubting the power of God to save, needed reassurance that
the covenant between God and his —chosen people— was still intact.
The Deuteronomist sought to bolster the sagging faith of the exiles
by showing that the problem lay not with God but with God—s people,
who had themselves been unfaithful to the covenant.
In Joshua, the author shows how God is gracious
when the people are faithful; in Judges he shows that, although
greatly displeased when the Israelites stray, God does not withdraw
his love, but continues to offer them grace.
Joshua 23—24 and the Book of Judges speak of the
many Canaanites who still —remained— in the land at the death
of Joshua, contrary to the impression given in Joshua 1—12.
Apparently the Deuteronomist believed that it would
have been a good thing if the Canaanites had been completely eradicated
from the land. In his view, attraction to Canaanite —values— was
the principal reason for the downfall of the kingdoms of Israel
and Judah. He puts a warning on the lips of the dying Joshua about
not —mingling— or —intermarrying— with the Canaanites (Joshua
23:7-12), lest —you...serve other gods and worship them— (23:16).
Religion in that ancient period functioned primarily
to ensure prosperity in a mostly agricultural and pastoral economy.
The principal Canaanite gods were either storm gods, believed
to provide rain and thus abundant grain and pasturage, or fertility
gods, believed responsible for increasing one—s flocks.
Many Israelites—especially after intermarriage
with the Canaanites—understood Yahweh as little more than Israel—s
national or patron deity whose principal function was to look
after their interests. As such, there was little to distinguish
Yahweh from the gods of other nations. As Israel—s national god,
Yahweh could be expected to fight for the Israelites against their
enemies in much the same way that the gods of Assyria were believed
to aid Assyria in battle.
In Joshua 10:11 Yahweh is described as fighting
with the Israelites by hurling gigantic hailstones from heaven
to kill the enemy in great numbers. This scene is reminiscent
of a fragmentary painting found from Assyria which depicts a deity
hovering above the Assyrian army amid storm clouds filled with
many hailstones and shooting lightning bolts at the enemy.
The Book of Judges portrays the Israelites themselves
as more prone to worship —the Baals— than Yahweh.
The Covenant God
To the Deuteronomist, by contrast, authentic religion
is living wholeheartedly the covenant which God established with
Israel through Moses. That means committing oneself to God and
his word without reservation of any kind: —Be firm and steadfast,
taking care to observe the entire law which my servant Moses enjoined
on you. Do not swerve from it either to the right or to the left—
(Joshua 1:7). If the Israelites obey, they will be blessed. But
blessing ought not to be the motive for doing good.
In contrast to those who think of Yahweh as their
national deity, to be at their beck and call, the author holds
up Rahab as a model believer. Far from being a common Canaanite
prostitute, Rahab recognizes that Yahweh is the universal divine
sovereign: —God in heaven above and on earth below— (Joshua 2:11).
Having come to this insight, Rahab immediately abandons her past
and commits to Yahweh.
When Joshua and the Israelites entered the promised
land (Joshua 3—4), it is said that the river Jordan stopped flowing
when the priests carrying the ark of Yahweh stepped into the water,
allowing the Israelites to cross dryshod. The Deuteronomist makes
the symbolic point with this story that the land is a gift from
God, as God opened up the land for their taking.
Much the same point is made by the stories in Joshua
6—12 about the —conquest— of the land. Despite the fact that the
Deuteronomist knows of a tradition that the Israelites actually
engaged in battle against the inhabitants of Jericho (Joshua 24:11),
in Joshua 6 he suppresses that version in favor of a story which
tells how God gave Jericho to the Israelites without them having
to unsheath their swords or fire a single arrow. After marching
in liturgical procession around Jericho for six days, on the seventh
day they blow their ram—s horns, and the —walls came tumblin—
down,— as the song puts it. This story is placed as the first
—conquest— story to symbolize that the former —land of Canaan—
did not become —the land of Israel— because of the Israelites'
own military might or moral superiority but because God gave it
to them (Joshua 1:13-15). Other stories, including how God fought
against the Canaanites using huge hailstones (Joshua 10:11), make
the same point. Everything that Israel is or has is a gift of
This theme of God—s —graciousness— is further elaborated
in the Book of Judges. If under Joshua the Israelites were mostly
loyal and obedient, after Joshua—s death they quickly fell into
apostasy and turned to worshiping other gods, not once, but time
and again! Each time the Israelites lapsed, God would punish them
by allowing them to fall into the hands of their enemies, a kind
of —early warning system— that they were on the wrong path. To
some extent these warnings worked. In dire straits, the Israelites
would —cry out— to God, that is, they would suddenly —get religion—
and ask God—s forgiveness. Inevitably, God would relent and —save—
them from their enemies by the hands of a —judge——the ancient
Israelite equivalent of a —Lone Ranger.— And just as inevitably,
when the judge died, the Israelites would lapse once more into
Some have taken God—s threat in Joshua 2:20-21,
namely, that God will not continue to rescue the Israelites from
their enemies because of their repeated infidelity, as a statement
that there are limits to God—s mercy. In fact, the Deuteronomist—s
message is just the opposite. In the scenes which follow, each
time the people lapse into sin and God punishes them, they again
—cry out— to God. And God continues to rescue them by sending
yet another judge. This apostasy-punishment-repentance-rescue
cycle happens so many times in the Book of Judges that it is obvious
the author wishes to make the point that, although God may —talk
tough,— at heart God is a —real softie.— Even though God threatens
that his forgiveness has limits, yet anytime God—s people truly
repent, God invariably —saves— them yet another time.
Even so, by the end of the book it is obvious that
the institution of judges is completely bankrupt and unworkable.
The last judge, Samson, does everything an Israelite should not:
He breaks his vows of dedication to God, marries a Philistine
woman, cavorts with Philistine prostitutes, and more. But even
then, God searches for yet another means to save his people, this
time through the institution of —kings— (which is detailed in
the following Books of Samuel and Kings). Like many preachers,
the Deuteronomist is perhaps a bit heavy-handed with his message.
But his point is clear: God never gives up on his people, no matter
how deeply into sin they may slide.
An Incomplete Theology
No one theology is able to capture adequately the
mystery that is God. Each work in the Bible has a unique insight
about God. But taken together, these various —portraits— of God
help us to arrive at a more adequate theology.
Despite the fact that the Deuteronomist believed
Yahweh to be —God in heaven above and on earth below,— he seems
not to have comprehended that God—s sovereignty means that God—s
love also extends beyond Israel to include also people outside
the Mosaic covenant. At the same time the Deuteronomist was opining
how it would have been better for Israel had the Canaanites actually
been eradicated back in the days of Joshua, one of Israel—s greatest
prophets was envisioning a time when God will transform the covenant
so that Israel itself becomes —a light to the nations— (Isaiah
Likewise, the Book of Jonah can be read as a polemic
against the narrow-mindedness of those who think that God desires
the destruction of one—s enemies. Jonah attempts to run away rather
than preach to Israel—s enemy, the Ninevites, that God is displeased
with them and that their destruction is imminent. Jonah becomes
exceedingly angry when his worst fears are realized: the Ninevites
repent and, true to character, God spares them. The author—s point
that divine mercy is universal is tellingly made in God—s concluding
reprimand to the sulking Jonah: —Should I not be concerned over
Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred
and twenty thousand persons who cannot distinguish their right
hand from their left, not to mention the many cattle?— (Jonah
In the end the Deuteronomist—s own gospel—that,
above all, God is a merciful God—turns out to be more profound
than even the Deuteronomist could fathom. The Books of Joshua
and Judges are truly —Good News.—
Next: The Lord's Prayer (by Leonard Doohan)