The Violent Hopes of Those who Suffer
Reading Joshua in light of Israel's horrifying interactions with the Assyrian empire.
If you’re new here: this is part 3 of my series on reading Joshua, and is a discussion of the first of three ways to read the terrifying biblical book of Joshua that I’ve found spiritually enriching. See here for part one, sketching out what I think makes Joshua difficult to read, and here for part two, sketching out some early Christian views on the Old Testament. I hope this can be as helpful for you as it has been for me!
If a time traveler from the year 3031 appeared on your front doorstep and asked what context she needed to understand the musical Hamilton, you might be tempted to recommend she travel to the late eighteenth century to understand what life was like in the early years of the American Revolution.
But if you stopped to think for a second before opening your mouth, you’d quickly realize that what she actually needed to really understand was life in twenty-first century America.
It’s true that to follow the plot you need a basic understanding of the events of the Revolutionary War and the names of some of the most famous participants. But to really engage with the musical you need to know a whole lot more about how modern people think — the emotional cues only work because we’re familiar with the musical languages of hip hop and showtunes, and the choices Miranda makes in telling the story would only resonate with a person with some familiarity with 21st-Century plays and movies (compare Hamilton to Oklahoma and you’ll see what I mean!)
Even down to the level of individual words, the scene (for example) where Hamilton calls John Adams a “fat motherf***er” only works because the audience both understands the meaning and the ridiculously petty tone of the insult, each of which would be difficult to glean from the dictionary definitions of either words.
So if we’re going to understand the book of Joshua, we should look not just to when the story takes place, but also to the world in which the book was written. In this post I want to sketch out Joshua’s context and some themes I think this has helped me appreciate in the book, in the hopes that it might be helpful to somebody else!
Joshua is part of a series of related books often called the Deuteronomistic History (hereafter DH), which includes large chunks of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings. We don’t need to takes side in the full scholarly debate of how many editors and authors and sources each had — for our purposes, we just need to know that most scholars date the conquest narratives in book of Joshua to either during or in the centuries after the reign of Josiah, between 640 and 609 BCE, more than five hundred years after the events are portrayed as having taken place.
(I’ll speak as if it’s “during” for the rest of this article for concreteness, but essentially the same reading works if we assume it was written during Judah’s exile or even a bit later.)
This was, to an extent that’s really difficult to overstate, a deeply traumatic time in Judah’s history. The nation of Israel had previously split into a northern kingdom of Israel and a southern kingdom of Judah, and about a hundred years before the writing of DH the northern kingdom had been crushed by the growing Assyrian empire and its people had been exiled to faraway lands.
At around the same time, the kingdom of Judah had become a vassal state to Assyria, forced to pay tribute and pledge loyalty to the Assyrian king. When the king died, Josiah’s great-grandfather King Hezekiah took the opportunity to lead the people of Judah in a revolt against the empire, hoping to expel the powers that had mistreated them and pledging their loyalty to God alone.
The revolt did not go well. While Hezekiah successfully defended Jerusalem from an Assyrian siege, the surrounding cities and towns were crushed and their people murdered, exiled, or sold into slavery. For many citizens of the (now much smaller) Judahite state, Hezekiah’s unwillingness to renounce his service to Israel’s God had led to the enslavement or death of countless family members and friends by an empire that was quickly proving itself to be more powerful even than the Egyptians.
Hezekiah’s son Manasseh, as a result, renounced everything his father had stood for. He turned his back Israel’s God in favor of then-popular idols, and re-pledged Judah’s loyalty to the Assyrian king. This brought Judah peace and a much-needed economic boost, but it also meant a humiliating acknowledgment of a powerful and violent nation’s hegemony (and, still harder to stomach, a tacit admission that Assyria’s gods were even greater and more powerful than Israel’s God.)
By the time Josiah took the throne, Judah was at a difficult crossroads. For decades the nation’s leaders had chosen a peaceful life of humiliating submission to an Assyrian tyrant’s whims over a pro-Yahweh rebellion that could have destroyed the nation forever. But while Josiah’s kingdom remained a tiny country trapped between two superpowers (Assyria and Egypt), the Assyrian empire was starting to crumble and the Egyptian empire had other priorities.
What do you say to a traumatized and humiliated people finally starting to see hope?
Or to answer a perhaps simpler question, what did the writer of the book of Joshua have to offer?
Because my mind has been permanently shaped by Evangelical sermon structures, let’s reduce this to three bullet points that I have found helpful in grasping the book’s message: A hope for redemption, a call to change, and an identity in Yahweh.
A hope for redemption
The darkest parts of the book of Joshua are of course the depictions of mass killings, enslavement, and unspeakable war crimes we see committed by the people of God.
There is a reasonable argument to be made that parts of these are a then-common hyperbolic use of language, but I think we also miss something if we forget that these are atrocities the Assyrian empire would have committed regularly against the people Judah and nearby areas.
In other words, we do not have to imagine (as we sometimes do in explaining the violence) that the audience of the book of Joshua was somehow unaware of the human cost and darkness of this kind of action. A typical reader might know somebody who had personally experienced this horror, and a typical family would almost certainly have passed down story after story of relatives who had suffered.
It’s really easy for me as a privileged American man to say things like “I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.” But if I had actually gone through something like this — seen family member after family member slain just to fulfill some despot’s desire for land and power — I know I would be wishing the same thing back on him.
The Canaanite tribes are described in ways that parallel the Assyrian empire. They are idolaters who plot against the people of God. They are nebulous enemies who use violence in unfair and confusing ways. They are, simply put, the “Other” against whom the tribes of Israel and Judah define their existence, and Joshua’s violent and even disturbing imagery has to be understood at least in part as an expression of the righteous anger an ordinary Judahite would have felt against a sustained, unthinkable injustice. In this light, the story of Joshua’s rout of the Canaanites carries at least two points of hope for a weary and weeping Judah.
First, victory and failure in battle are consistently portrayed throughout DH as something decreed by God, not by any worldly standards of power. The Israelites defeat Jericho after God himself lowers its walls, while the people of Ai (briefly) hold off the invaders after God catches Israel in sin.
To a nation fearing for its very existence, Joshua gives words of comfort: if you devote yourself to following God, he will keep your people safe. Just as he once rained terror on the Canaanites, he can do the same to the Assyrians and they for once will have to deal with the disgrace and the pain you’ve carried for so many years. This comes not just with a promise of future salvation (rooted in Joshua’s depiction of God’s past actions), but also a clear picture of what to do in the meantime: seek first the kingdom of God, and you will find you have nothing left to worry about.
Second, the book of Joshua depicts a particular piece of land as divinely-ordained for the people of Judah. To a people who’d recently seen their neighbors removed from their ancestral lands and scattered who-knows-where, the book1 intentionally places metaphysical and even sacramental importance on God’s provision of land, to the point that something like 8 of the 22 chapters are devoted to listing (in detail) which people got exactly which pieces of land.
Once again, there are words of solace wrapped up in a covenant: God has given you this land, and if you do what is right in his eyes the devil himself could not drive you from it.
(We see later in the bible that Judah did not follow God and the Babylonians ultimately tore them from their homes, so the conditional nature of the promise here is important. These words that brought hope to a beaten-down people would only breed regret in those who came later.)
A call to change
Modern scholars generally agree that a typical household in ancient Israel or Judah would have been, for most of the region’s history, polytheistic.
The really annoying kind of atheist (regardless of whether you believe in God, you know the kind I mean) likes to present this as some kind of “gotcha” — your whole faith depends on there being one God and even the people who wrote the bible didn’t believe that!
But of course if you’ve ever seriously read the Hebrew Bible this is exactly what you would expect. The Old Testament writers, especially the authors of DH, are constantly railing against idolatry and what they see as either a dangerous invitation to the demonic or the silly-but-sacrilegious worship of inanimate objects.
These read a little oddly to modern Christian and (I assume) Jewish audiences, because very few of us have ever considered bowing down to a carved rock or glorifying the works of Ba’al, so we (I think rightly) read these metaphorically into our own lives, asking whether we’ve made an “idol” of work or intelligence or romantic companionship.
But to the DH writers idolatry was a problem in a very real, very literal sense. If you believe the rest of the Old Testament writings, the horrors faced by the Israelite and Judahite people throughout the first millenium BCE were inextricably linked to the people of Israel’s and Judah’s unwillingness to repent from the worship of other Gods.
And indeed one of the major themes of Joshua and the surrounding books is that idolatry is a really, really, really big deal. Josiah’s desire to return Judah to God’s favor came with an explicit attempt to root out every trace of idolatry from the kingdom and replace it with sincere worship of the one true God.
Within DH, the primary reason given for Joshua’s campaign against the Canaanites (and most parts of Israelite exclusivism) is the narrator’s identification of the Canaanites with idolatry itself, and in particular a fear that Canaanite presence might tempt the Israelites into worshipping the Canaanite gods.
And so Joshua’s God’s repeated insistence that Israel should not let a single Canaanite live would, to its readers, have been a very stark and indeed very upsetting way of commanding Judah to root out every single bit of idolatry from their lives and from their midst.
In chapter seven of Joshua, a single man’s holding onto a bit of treasure from Jericho leads the next step in their Canaanite campaign to fail and kills thirty-six innocent Israelite men. God’s wrath does not recede until “all Israel stoned him to death; they burned them with fire, cast stones on them, and raised over him a great heap of stones that remains to this day.”
The message here is undeniable: God will not accept anything less than your full allegiance. The idolatry of the Canaanites has stained everything down to their cloaks and their gold, and God will severely punish even the slightest infraction. Idolatry had been, and soon would become even more so, a life-vs-death struggle for the people of Judah, and the book of Joshua portrays this in a way that is all the more memorable for how utterly horrifying it is.
(I have found this reading very fruitful even with modern, more symbolic, interpretations of what idolatry looks like for a twenty-first century Christian. You are allowed to object that this seems to be an extreme way of making a point, and I would in some sense agree with you — to be expanded on in a future post, and would also point out that the writer of Joshua is writing about the events of five-hundred years before in a way that doesn’t line up at all with the actual archeological evidence. In short, you don’t have to believe that God literally killed thousands of people to teach a totally different people-group a lesson.)
An identity in Yahweh
Of course one of the most frightening things an empire can take away from people is their sense of identity. You can see this today when you read about how the American empire effectively stole a detailed sense of ancestry from our African American brothers and sisters or about the cruel ways Christian missionaries preached not just Christ but a cruel gospel that involved replacing indigenous traditions with Western cultural practices.
We see the same thing in Israel’s and Judah’s experiences under the Assyrian and later empires. The cultural identity of the Jewish people was at the time closely tied up in their self-understanding as “the people of God”, and their forced submission to Assyrian kingship and even religious practice would have been both destabilizing and deeply painful.
The books comprising the Deuteronomistic History are very clear about the identity of the Israelite and Judahite people: they are a people chosen by God placed in a land chosen for them by God, and the entire purpose of their life is devotion to God.
And not just some vague, universalist concept of God, but Yahweh, a God with a name and a history who made specific demands of his people. Devotion to this God, DH argues, is everything we are as a people. This is a clear anchor for Judah’s faith that by then had become deeply unstable and frightening.
We’ve already talked about Joshua’s contribution in terms of rooting Judah in the land God had chosen for it. But we also need to pay attention to the nuance and complexity it adds to Judah’s identity as “God’s people,” which the New Testament writers are happy to point out foreshadows some of the ultimate goals of Jesus’s ministry.
Who are the people of God? Which people get to be included as his chosen ones? There seems to have been a consistent misconception throughout Israel’s history (up to and including the New Testament) that the identity of Israel as God’s people is primarily a sort of bloodline inheritance — that the people who can trace their ancestry to Jacob are in some metaphysical way superior to those who can’t.
Other than Joshua, there are two people singled out for special attention in the conquest narrative: Rahab and Achan.
Rahab is a prostitute from Jericho who comes across two Israelite spies trying to scope out the city’s defenses. She responds with a profession of faith and signals her allegiance to helping the Israelites as long as her family will be spared from the coming slaughter:
“I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.
“Now then, please swear to me by the Lord that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them—and that you will save us from death.”
As a result, she and her family are saved and join the Israelite people, becoming an ancestor of King David and ultimately Jesus. Rahab, the author seems to be emphasizing, is a part of the people of God even though she was not born into them.
On the other hand, Achan is born as an Israelite in full standing. Not just an Israelite, but a Judahite — a member of one of the tribes that would ultimately become the kingdom of Judah.
He, however, does not follow God: he is the man from earlier who tried to take some treasure from Jericho and brings God’s wrath upon the Israelite army (before finally finding himself stoned to death.)
The stories of Achan and Rahab bookend the conquest of Jericho — Rahab before and Achan after, and draw our eyes to what would become one of the fundamental themes of Jesus’s ministry: those who believe themselves to be “insiders” are often outsiders, and vice versa.
This has some obvious applications today, but it also spoke to a specific situation in its context. Many historians argue that, as the Assyrian empire weakened, Josiah attempted to expand his kingdom to the full borders of King David’s Israel — in particular, this would have meant an attempt to conquer the northern regions that Assyria had decimated a century before.
One thing making this more complicated is that, while many Israelites had returned from their exile to what was now Samaria, a number of people the Assyrians had brought from other regions now lived there too. How would Judah, a kingdom so deeply tied to its ethnic identity, deal with foreigners in its midst?
Joshua’s answer is simple: if they devote themselves to God, they’re already part of his people. (In real life building ethnic reconciliation is of course genuinely difficult and raises challenging questions of who holds power and how it’s expressed. I think these are very important and deserve a lot of thought and effort, but it seems like the book of Joshua is primarily focused on the very first step of this process.)
So, to summarize: Joshua is a book written not to a privileged elite, but to a precarious people well-acquainted with misery, and recognizing parallels between the Canaanites and Assyrians helps to understand why its readers and writers might have relished its often-violent imagery. I have found that reading it in context helps me recognize themes of redemption, conviction, and identity that I’d missed before, and I sincerely hope that if you made it this far that at least some of it helps you to read Joshua in a way that comforts, challenges, and enriches you spiritually.
If you didn’t like this reading, maybe you’ll like one of the next two?
Some resources to look further into this: Earl’s The Joshua Delusion and Hawk’s Every Promise Fulfilled helped me a lot. I grew up with a super Evangelical view of Israelite history, and I found Kim’s Decolonizing Josiah and Finkelstein’s and Silberman’s The Bible Unearthed helpful in getting a more well-rounded view. (I will note that the latter is well-written but pretty one-sided, especially if you’re not familiar with the biblical maximalist perspectives to balance it out.)
If you want to be technical, I don’t think most scholars view these chapters as part of DH, but as something written a bit later — during or after the exile. But the same shades of meaning are there, possibly even more so.