Idealism and Reality in Joshua

I was in the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem five years ago, at the time reading Israel Finkelstein cast doubt on the historical value of most of the Biblical history, when I came across a display that made me shudder. It was a gate inscription from Beth Shean and it was a notice from a Pharaoh in the 1200’s B.C.E. that he had put down unrest ay Beth Shean and consolidated Egypt’s rule of the area.

A couple of things gave me pause. Beth Shean is toward the Eastern border of Israel, far from Egypt. The 1200’s are a time later than I would have thought that Egypt would hold territories in Israel. My understanding of the Conquest stories in Joshua was of a quick and total possession of territory. I thought the Conquest happened around 1400 B.C.E.

And at the same time I was reading Finkelstein say the Exodus event never happened. The Conquest, he said, did not conform to archaeological finds, which indicated a different picture: Israel as a group of Canaanites perhaps who remained in the land and later invented a historical memory and a covenant with a deity. Even David was no more than a bandit chieftain and Solomon the king of a tiny hill and a few small towns.

How could Egypt have ruled in Beth Shean as late as the 1200’s, 150 years after the time I assumed for Joshua’s Conquest, I wondered?

Since that time, I have read the history of theories about the Conquest. I have heard different points of view about the emergence of early Israel. I blogged about it here and a sequel post here.

Does the Book of Joshua Present a False Picture?
A common claim is that Joshua depicts the Conquest as rapid and complete. Judges contradicts that account by mentioning the unclaimed territory and the Canaanite enclaves left in Israel to harass the Israelites.

It is easy on a careless reading of Joshua to thing this is true. Compare, for example this excerpt from Joshua with this one from Judges:

Joshua 11:16-18, So Joshua took all that land, the hill country and all the Negeb and all the land of Goshen and the lowland and the Arabah and the hill country of Israel and its lowland from Mount Halak, that rises toward Seir, as far as Baal-gad in the valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon. And he took all their kings, and smote them, and put them to death. Joshua made war a long time with all those kings.

Judges 3:1-6, Now these are the nations which the Lord left, to test Israel by them, that is, all in Israel who had no experience of any war in Canaan; it was only that the generations of the people of Israel might know war, that he might teach war to such at least as had not known it before. These are the nations: the five lords of the Philistines, and all the Canaanites, and the Sidonians, and the Hivites who dwelt on Mount Lebanon, from Mount Baal-hermon as far as the entrance of Hamath. They were for the testing of Israel, to know whether Israel would obey the commandments of the Lord, which he commanded their fathers by Moses. So the people of Israel dwelt among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and they took their daughters to themselves for wives, and their own daughters they gave to their sons; and they served their gods.

But, if you read Joshua closely, you notice many areas were unconquered, many conquered cities were then taken back by the Canaanites who were defeated in battle, and many Canaanites remained after Joshua’s sweep through the land. Joshua presents a military campaign, an initial assault.

If you read even more closely (see next section), you will find that this is all about idealism versus reality and is a deliberate literary strategy.

Consider the multitude of evidence in Joshua that the conquest was slow, incomplete, and prone to losing territory once gained:

Joshua 11:22
There was none of the Anakim left in the land of the people of Israel; only in Gaza, in Gath, and in Ashdod, did some remain.
Joshua 13:13
Yet the people of Israel did not drive out the Geshurites or the Ma-acathites; but Geshur and Maacath dwell in the midst of Israel to this day.
Joshua 15:13
  According to the commandment of the Lord to Joshua, he gave to Caleb the son of Jephunneh a portion among the people of Judah, Kiriath-arba, that is, Hebron (Arba was the father of Anak).
Joshua 15:63
  But the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the people of Judah could not drive out; so the Jebusites dwell with the people of Judah at Jerusalem to this day.
Joshua 16:10
However they did not drive out the Canaanites that dwelt in Gezer: so the Canaanites have dwelt in the midst of Ephraim to this day but have become slaves to do forced labor.
Joshua 18:3
So Joshua said to the people of Israel, “How long will you be slack to go in and take possession of the land, which the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you?
Joshua 23:13
know assuredly that the Lord your God will not continue to drive out these nations before you; but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a scourge on your sides, and thorns in your eyes, till you perish from off this good land which the Lord your God has given you.

K. Lawson Younger on Idealism in Joshua
In Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible (ed., Dunn and Rogers, 2003), Younger writes the chapter on Joshua. His introduction to the book is interesting.

He sees two idealistic pictures in Joshua. One is the “land that remains,” a concept made clear in Joshua 13:1-7. The other is “Euphraitic Israel,” from 1:4, the notion that Israel’s territory should go up into Lebanon and Syria all the way to where the Euphrates empties into the Mediterranean.

The difference between actuality and idealism he calls “ironic tension.” It’s purpose is to “instill the book of Joshua with the flavor of unredeemed promise.” These are “hopeful indications of greater future land blessings to Israel.”

In contrast with those who dismiss Joshua as mere fiction, Younger’s interpretation helps us see that the gap between reality and idealism is deliberate. Judges will deal more with reality. Joshua deals more with idealism. Both portraits are necessary.

Revisiting my Museum Experience
I no longer lean toward 1400 as the date of the Conquest, but sometime in the 1200’s. It does not trouble me any longer to see that Egyptian power in Canaan overlapped with Israel’s occupation of the land.

If I could go back to that moment in the Rockefeller Museum and my first encounter with Israel Finkelstein and similar scholars, I would react differently.

Modernism has conditioned many of us to take a wooden view of history and narrative literature. Just the facts, please, and only what is verifiable, if you don’t mind.

Postmodernism has positive tendencies, such as reminding us to pay attention to limits of knowledge and to be more open to stories.

Once you open yourself to a literary reading, as opposed to a positivist reading, Joshua’s idealism becomes an asset and not a liability.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Archaeology, Bible, History, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Idealism and Reality in Joshua

  1. Pingback: Saturday links « sacred journeys in L.A.

  2. Pingback: A False Teaching Abounds in Messianic Circles |

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