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The Book of Joshua as a Political Classic

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

The argument of this paper is that the Book of Joshua is a classic of political thought, that can be and should be read as a coherent whole, in fact, as a major statement of the classic political world view of the Bible. For political science, it is the first classic exposition of federal republicanism.1 While the themes it emphasizes are derived from the Torah itself, the Torah combines them with other elements. In Joshua, the federal republican character of the Israelite edah (lit: congregation or assembly — the biblical term for the Israelite polity) under God is the central theme.2

Needless to say, this writer is fully aware of the theories that see the Book of Joshua as little more than a collection of ancient documents or written versions of different oral traditions. Regardless of the degree of correctness of those theories on one level, classic works are basically integrated works. Hence it is also necessary to treat the book as we have it as a unified whole, a work that makes a coherent statement when taken as a whole. This approach to the Bible has been gaining currency among biblical scholars in the past several decades, in no small measure as a result of the work of Leo Strauss whose methodology for uncovering the coherence of classic works has begun to have an impact in biblical studies as well.3 I believe that Joshua has that classic unity and, as a teaching, must be read as a whole.

In the largest sense, the Book of Joshua is concerned with matters far more significant than merely recounting the history of the conquest of the land of Canaan by the Israelite tribes, or even the reconstitution of that conquest within the moral framework of the Prophetic school.It goes beyond both purposes to become the embodiment of a particular conception of what a good constitution and a good regime must be, in light of the moral framework of Prophetic thought. As such, it addresses the classic issues of constitutional design for Israel as a body politic. A full understanding of the book requires that it be studied utilizing the tools of political analysis.


The Bible as Political Commentary


The Bible is an eminently political book, in the classical sense. By virtue of its unique concern for the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth, it could not help but be concerned with the immediate development of the Holy Commonwealth that was to lead to the establishment of that ultimate kingdom. Consequently, a great part of the Bible — particularly parts of the Torah proper, the bulk of the so-called “historical” books and sections of the latter Prophets — is given over to discussion of political matters, with special reference to the structure and purposes of Adat Bnei Yisrael (the Congregation or Assembly of Israelites) — the formal name of the Jewish people as a body politic.

The discussion of politics in the Bible revolves primarily around questions of political relationships. It is (in the terminology of the Greeks) concerned with the problems of the best constitution, here the establishment of a proper relationship between God and man, particularly Israel, and the best regime for the maintenance of that relationship, particularly in the Land of Israel. It deals with these problems in depth and with careful attention to proper and explicit terminology. This care in terminology provides important internal evidence to the effect that the political discussion was a conscious one. And, indeed, it was a discussion, with different points of view presented, albeit within the context of a common political tradition.5

Unfortunately, the passage of time and the progressive decline of Jewish concern with political matters until our own day led to the loss of this political perspective as an aid to the biblical text among most of its interpreters, with certain important exceptions. At the time of the Protestant Reformation and in the early generations of the modern age — in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries — the Protestant founders of modern republican government, approaching the biblical text with fresh eyes and definite political concern, rediscovered its political implications and made use of its great political insights in the development of their own constitutions and regimes. However, the secularization of politics that followed them, and the isolation of “theology” that accompanied this rising secularism, once again relegated the Bible to the religionists and led to its neglect as a work concerned with the political order of this world, except in the most messianic sense. This brief commentary is presented with the hope that it will contribute to the revival of interest in the Bible as a classic work of political thought that has something to say to mankind that is of use to us in our never-ending efforts to establish the good commonwealth.


The Political Purpose of the Bible


The purpose of the Bible is to teach humans the right way to live in this world. Thus its teaching focuses on living in a polity, a commonwealth designed to enable fallible humans to achieve the right way. It does so on two levels: (1) it provides a basis for the achievement of a messianic age, and (2) it discusses the moral and practical problems of living in society until then.

With regard to the former, the Bible makes it clear that the messianic age will be achieved only with God’s intervention which, in turn, will come only when humans have done their full share to bring it about. On one hand, this has led many people to read the bible’s teachings on matters of political import as applying only in the messianic age, focusing on the biblical descriptions of messianic politics which sound better than the often harsh biblical descriptions of political realities because the former are abstracted from realities of the world as we know it. Moreover, people know in their hearts that they are not really responsible for achieving those messianic goals. Hence people often disregard those teachings which refer to the second level for which we are held responsible. It hardly need be said that the Bible discusses a whole range of subjects on that second level, from the ritual laws of sacrifice to the method of providing for the poor. Some of its most important discussions center around matters political.

Politics has two faces, combining as it does the organization of power (“who gets what, when, and how”) and the pursuit of justice (who should get what, when and how in the good commonwealth). “Good” politics always rests on dealing properly with both elements in the combination. The Bible recognizes the interlinking of both aspects of politics and addresses itself to both. Every comprehensive society is, in fact, a polity, that is to say, it is organized politically simply by virtue of its being an organized society. That is because human relationships inevitably involve power which must be allocated effectively and authoritatively. Politics involves the authoritative or just allocation or distribution of power. The Bible recognizes this fact in the very first chapter of Genesis where authority over day and night is assigned to the sun and the moon respectively while dominion over living things is assigned to Adam.

Subsequently, the covenants between God and Noah, Abraham, and the Israelites at Sinai form the basis for the distribution of power between God and human communities. By the Bible’s own terms, any teaching about the good life must include teachings about the good commonwealth.

Because Jews were removed from having to consider political questions as such for so long, they came to emphasize the legal and religious (in the Western meaning of the term) dimensions of the Bible to the virtual exclusion of others. Today, the Bible has been reduced to a “religious” book (defined as being concerned with matters of ritual and personal conduct only) for most diaspora Jews and most non-Jews, with nothing important to contribute to those fields not directly connected with organized religion. For most secular Israeli Jews, it is the repository of the national myth but not a source of teaching about current issues. For religious Jews in Israel, it is basically viewed as the grounding for Jewish law, which for them is more concerned with ritual problems than political ones. These reasons have combined to reduce recognition of the political content of the Bible in an other than historical sense.

There were people and ages, however, which did recognize the importance of the Bible — including Joshua — as a political sourcebook. In medieval times, proper attention to Scripture was a requisite of political discourse. The sixteenth and seventeenth century republicans, in Europe and North America, with their immediate successors, who revived the biblical understanding of covenant as a political instrument, relied heavily on the biblical teaching for the development of modern political concepts.6 It appears that biblical political teachings were particularly attended to in periods of political change when it was necessary to return to first questions and root causes. Today we are in the first generations of the post-modern era, in another critical time of transition when it is necessary to return to fundamentals; hence it is a particularly appropriate time for the revival of concern for the biblical political teaching.


The Former Prophets and their Underlying Political Theme


The Book of Joshua is the sixth book of the Bible and the first book of the Former Prophets. It represents a continuation of the account of the history of the Israelite nation after the death of Moses and is devoted to the description of the conquest of the land of Canaan and its division among the tribes. Any consideration of the Book of Joshua must reckon with its place in the order of the biblical narrative and must consider its relationship to the Book of Deuteronomy which precedes it, the Book of Judges which immediately follows it, and the Books of Samuel (particularly I Samuel) which follow after that. Stylistically, the relationship between the first three of the aforementioned books is clear. Joshua has been characterized as representing a transitional style from that of Deuteronomy to that of Judges.7

By common reckoning, there are eight “historical books” in the Bible. The term “historical books” is a misnomer in a very real sense. Even though the books covered under this designation do appear to relate the history of the Israelite nation from the time of Moses to the restoration after the Babylonian exile, their main purpose is not historical as such. That is to say, their recounting of the historical record is incidental to their major purpose, which is to develop the idea of the Lord’s covenant with the Israelite tribes and the tribes’ responsibility under it to create a holy commonwealth in their land.

The writers of these books utilized historical data to argue their thesis and to demonstrate its validity, but they used the historical data only insofar as it was useful to them to do so. Thus they do not attempt to present a complete historical record of the period and say so quite openly by referring those who might be interested in the full historical record to other works which existed in their time which were devoted to history per se. They simply select those incidents in the historical record which are of particular use in the development of their central idea and relate those incidents honestly and accurately as it were, but clearly from a moralistic point of view. Thus, the historical aspects of these books relate to the expression of the central idea of Prophetic Judaism over time and space (i.e., in history). The historical materials in them are mainly illustrative in character. If one wished to “translate” the biblical approach into something roughly akin to modern academic terminology, one might call it “moral science” since it represents an effort to develop fundamental moral principles from historical examples which, while specific in and of themselves, have an applicability in other places and at other times.

An understanding of this characteristic of the Bible eliminates many difficulties. For one, it transforms the historiographic problem of apparent discrepancies, repetitions, and chronological gaps. Since the Bible attempts to be no more than roughly chronological in its sequences, it is not serious to the biblical authors if incidents are slightly out of chronological order. Since the Bible attempts to use cases to teach, it is not serious to the compiler if the same case is repeated in a slightly different version provided that each version teaches something special. Indeed, what one must look for, when one finds the same case repeated, is not the fact of the repetition per se but whether there was not some larger reason for the repetition in light of the Bible’s purposes.


The Covenant Idea


The central concern that binds all the historical books together is the Prophetic concern with the maintenance of God’s covenant with Israel and the working out of the relationship between the Israelites and God through the covenant. The covenant idea is central to the whole biblical literature.8 It sets forth the terms of a particularly biblical approach to the world, one which deserves the kind of treatment and consideration which is given by philosophers to the concept of natural law, the other great fundamental political concept in Western political thought.9

Politically (and even socially) the covenant idea has within it the seeds of modern constitutionalism in that it implies the accepted limitation of power on the part of all the parties to it, a limitation not inherent in nature but involving willed concessions. This notion of limiting power is of first importance in the biblical world view since it helps explain why an omnipotent God does not exercise His omnipotence in the affairs of men. In covenanting with men, God in effect withdraws somewhat from interfering with them. He grants humans a degree of freedom under the terms of the covenant, retaining only the right to reward or punish the consequences of that freedom at some future date. By the same token, the humans who bind themselves through the covenant limit their powers as well. In the most immediately political sense this is particularly true of the leaders of the people whose governmental powers are limited to serving God by serving the people under the terms of the covenant without gaining anything like absolute power over the people. Thus the notion of constitutionalism which by definition must include the idea of limited government makes an early (if not its first) appearance in the biblical era.

Before the establishment of the monarchy, constitutional considerations are at least as important as the religious and ethnical ones in the Bible and, indeed, are not separated from them. The books of Joshua, Judges, and I Samuel deal with constitutional questions primarily because the shape of the regime that was to govern the Israeli tribes was not yet fixed. The books that follow, beginning with II Samuel, continuing through Kings, and including Chronicles are written about a period in which the regime is settled and a monarchy is firmly established. Therefore, the political questions considered are only constitutional ones at times of crisis, more often focusing on the matter in which the monarchy functions within the constitutional framework to serve the principles of the covenant.


Major Problems in Reading the Book


The very first problem of concern is the time of the conquest and its character, i.e., the validity of the biblical account. The traditional viewpoint takes the biblical account at face value. The critical viewpoints are varied but generally hold that the conquest was not a single movement but a long serious of sporadic efforts (see, for example, the apparent contradictions between Joshua and the first chapter of Judges). Many also argue that not all tribes came in at once. Some suggest that certain tribes were already in the land before the conquest and even before the main body of the people left Egypt. The critics cite the biblical text to show that the Canaanites were not all destroyed but that some were incorporated into the Israelite commonwealth. All suggest that the biblical account is a later patchwork of different versions.10

Yehezkel Kaufman suggests that the biblical account is highly accurate. His principal points are that the conquest in the main took place at one time, the tribes operated as a collectivity, and a common polity was established with the conquest. The evidence Kaufman brings to support his view begins with a negative, namely that the Egyptians, who mention so many nations and peoples in Canaan, do not mention Israel or Hebrews at that time. Kaufman’s inference is that the conquest took place after Egypt had already lost Canaan. According to the available historical record, Egypt lost Canaan c. 1200 BCE, at approximately the time of the Israelite conquest. Furthermore, Israel could not have conquered the land while powerful Egypt was in control. It had to exploit the power vacuum which developed in the Middle East at that time. The invasion of the Philistines from the west made matters easier for Israel. Further evidence is that the only Egyptian reference to Israelites during the reign of Pharaoh is without any geographic locations, except in relation to a vague area near Egypt. It is a reference probably related to the Exodus. Regarding the problem of the totality of the conquest and the possibility of ethnic mixtures, Kaufman argues that a large contiguous area was conquered in one fell swoop, but pockets of unconquered territory were left for later, as described in Judges. This also explains how the borders were extended by the individual tribes.

Moreover, Kaufman argues, the Canaanites were driven from Israelite areas so that the two peoples did not live together as such. The Israelites invented their own form of government (the edah) unlike anything in Canaan. They did not even understand the Canaanite forms which rested on kingships and local deities. Finally, the division of the land was so complete that the Bible does not record any intertribal conflicts over boundaries, although it does mention intertribal problems in other spheres. Kaufman also contrasts the “Fathers” (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) and the tribes. The Fathers own no land except for the burial cave at Mahpelah; they “rent,” as it were. They are wanderers. The tribes have fixed boundaries once the land is conquered. The Fathers have no priests or permanent altars, both of which exist under the tribal confederacy.

The contrast between the native Canaanite civilization and that of the Israelites is also instructive. For the Canaanites, paganism is a way of life, while even idolatrous Israelites are merely fetishists. Canaanite society was basically quite sophisticated, unlike the simple Israelites. Moreover, the force of the conquest as revealed archaeologically shows that it was a unified effort and explains the orderly division of the land among the tribes. Finally, this was a time when Egypt was no longer involved in Canaan, leaving a power vacuum soon filled by the Israelites. In general, Israel’s success as a power in its region has depended upon the existence of a great power vacuum in the region, whether in the days of Egypt and Assyria, Rome and the Seleucid Empire, or the United States and Russia. While this work basically follows the Kaufman position, it is not necessary to accept either view to appreciate the character of Joshua or to accept its place in the scheme of Israel’s constitutional development as posited here.


Some Hypotheses Regarding Authorship of the Book


It is generally agree that the oldest portions of Joshua are original documents of the time. It is also held that these documents were compiled by the same Prophetic school reflected in Deuteronomy and who really set the tone of the book. It is their political commentary. Biblical scholars estimate that this occurred no later than the seventh century BCE. This writer would suggest it occurred in the eleventh century BCE in the course of the struggle over the monarchy (see below).

This brief summary does not dispose of the many questions that must be raised with regard to the text before us, viz:

The Israelite migration, including the exodus from Egypt and conquest of Canaan, must be viewed as one of the great migrations of that era, which was an era of migrations and conquests in the eastern Mediterranean region. The four principal migrations and conquests involved:


  1. the Israelites overwhelming Canaanite civilization;
  2. the Dorians overwhelming Mycenaean civilization in Greece;
  3. the Achaeans, Sardinians, and Lycoans overwhelming the Mediterranean islands;
  4. the Philistines overwhelming the coastal peoples of Canaan.


Thus whatever occurred in Canaan at that time was not only unique in its result — the Jewish people — but part of a larger human phenomenon that initiated a great leap forward in Western and ultimately world civilization.11 The classic character of the Book of Joshua fits well into that classic epoch. Recovery of its teaching is part of the recovery of the foundations of the classic Western civilization of Israel and Hellas.


The Political Interests and Teaching of the Book of Joshua



The Immediate Problems of the Israelite Tribal Confederacy


The working hypothesis of this study is that the Book of Joshua was first edited and compiled some time in the eleventh century BCE at the height of the struggle between the Israelites and the Philistines. At the time of its appearance, the issue was probably still in doubt and, even more than that, it is likely that the Israelites had not yet found the leadership and organization necessary to win major victories against the well-organized and better armed Philistines. This was the period in which it had become apparent that the weak confederacy binding the tribes together was no longer adequate to the tasks of government at hand. Reliance on an impermanent national government with only periodic national leadership had led to national disaster.12

The problem facing the Israelites, then, was how best to reform the confederacy’s constitution. The Book of Joshua presents one solution to this problem. It is a progressive but essentially conservative solution, seeking not to change the Israelite constitution in new and untried ways but to restore what its authors believed to be its original form. It is an essentially republican solution designed to guarantee the continuation of limited, popular government along with renewed national energy, based upon the continued distribution of powers between the tribe, on one hand, and the national authorities, on the other. Its republicanism is particularly marked since it was developed as an answer to the monarchists who argued that the only solution to the problem of effective government was a centralized monarchy. It is possible to theorize that the Prophet Samuel is speaking through this book since the ideal system proposed in it is much like the system which Samuel tried and failed to institute during his Judgeship (I Samuel, Chapters 7 and 8).

Joshua makes its argument in a most indirect way, not by directly facing the issue at head but by describing a golden age of Israeli political and military successes. It must do so because of the already sacred character of the texts in hand, the preserved record of the founding era. All the editors can do is arrange and slightly change (add to, modify) those texts so that they fit together. They must treat the texts with sufficient piety, in their own minds, as well as to preserve the credibility of their argument. By doing so in this manner, its editors implicitly evoke the great deeds of great ancestors in support of their present claims yet in a manner that allows those deeds to speak for themselves.

The author of the book makes Joshua the hero because he was the last leader of a totally united confederacy for two centuries and, as such, a model for those who sought tribal unity later. Let me restate the hypothesis: The author of this book is one of the Prophetic school concerned with developing the Israelite commonwealth along the lines of the tribal confederacy. He is writing either in the early monarchic period or, more likely, during the great debate prior to the establishment of the monarchy, with two goals in mind. He wants to show that a successful tribal confederacy did exist once, i.e., that the system of government constituted by Moses is a feasible one even under the conditions that gave rise to demands for a monarchy.

According to the author, not only was the tribal confederacy successful in maintaining national unity, but it was successful in the face of the greatest national challenge — the conquest of the Land. By implication, then, it could be successful in coping with the current challenge (probably the challenge of the Philistines). It is precisely in the military field that the success of the confederacy must be demonstrated because of the military challenge confronting Israel in the author’s day.

By demonstrating that the confederal system was once viable, the author is also trying to project an image of the best government for the future. This best government is a united Israelite federation, in which the tribes are strong, rooted in the land with an agrarian economic base; yet which possesses a federal authority built around a charismatic leader, chosen by the people before God (and/or vice versa), who has officers responsible to him (as the national authority) and thus direct channels to the people, at least for military or national purposes; and all operating under God’s covenant.

It is to this end that Joshua is raised up as Moses’ equal in this book. He is, first and foremost, a statesman-prophet who, unlike Moses (the lawgiver-prophet) has spent his life in political and military roles and whose forte is in the political realm. The crossing and river splitting sequences, the historical site project, the mention of the two and a half tribes, and the direct comparisons with Moses are all directed toward that end.

This is the essence of Joshua, Chapters 3 and 4:1-14. There are two separate but interlocking “lessons,” as it were, that had to be brought out to set the stage for the author’s ideas. The apparent chronological confusion in these chapters can be accounted for once it is recognized that what is of interest to the author is not the history per se but its political implications.


The Larger Problem of the Good Commonwealth


The authors of the Book of Joshua were not just concerned with an immediate political crisis. As members of the Prophetic school, they were constantly preoccupied with larger questions of building the Holy Commonwealth on earth. (This would be particularly so if Samuel were involved in the authorship of the book.) Consequently, any solution they might try to design would have to conform to their notions of what a proper constitution should be. This may not mean that the explicit details of the governmental structure they proposed were necessarily considered by them to be ideal for all nations at all times. The biblical view, like that of the Greeks, is that different peoples need different constitutions (or forms of government) to meet their unique circumstances. Moreover the Bible in general is more concerned with the relationship between governors and governed than with the form of regime. But it probably means two things:


  1. that this is the form of government best suited for Israel;
  2. that the essential principles of the constitution (i.e., sovereignty of God, federalism, republicanism, distribution of powers, and limited government) are necessary for any truly good commonwealth.


Because of their prophetic commitment, any discussion of the right constitution for Israel which the Prophetic school might present would, willy-nilly, be a discussion of the larger question of the right constitution for the good commonwealth as well. The very inclusion of the Book of Joshua in the Bible is one more bit of evidence to support this contention. If it had only been a political tract for the eleventh century, it would have gone the way of the majority of the other books current in Israel at its time. It is because of its larger political significance that it was raised to the stature of a special book deserving inclusion in the canon.

General Principles: According to the Bible, forms of government are not divinely ordained but human inventions, hence, the people of Israel are free to institute arrangements suitable to their situation at any particular time, provided that God’s sovereignty and covenant with them is recognized as the source of their fundamental law and the Torah is maintained as their constitution. Thus it is not the form of the regime that is crucial but the relationship between governors and governed. While the teaching in Joshua also rests upon this principle, it does propose one form of regime as the best, linking the two elements through the principle that it must be instituted through a covenant between the people, their rulers, and God (or in God’s presence).

The Essential Problems of Government: A More Perfect Union, Domestic Tranquility and a Common Defense: Joshua suggests that the problems of national unity, internal order, and national defense will be solved through a proper federal republic embracing the entire nation. What is needed is a united tribal federation governed under a republican form of government with national leaders chosen on the basis of their relationship to God but responsible to the people and, most important, to the law, and with tribal leaders retaining their essential roles under the new rule of law. Such a system is the basis for the ideal commonwealth in which power is shared by the national government and the tribes. Under such a system, God retains His sovereignty undiminished but governs through appropriate human leadership. God, the governors, and the people are united through a covenant subsidiary to and derived from the Sinai covenant. (Chapter 1 outlines the precise form of national political organization, and Chapters 23 and 24 discuss its purposes.)

The Transcendent Question of “What Constitutes Political Morality?”: It is hard to say whether the discussion of this question within the confines of the Book of Joshua was purposive or not. In some cases (e.g., the discussion of what constitutes republican virtue) it gives every indication of being purposive. In others (e.g., the moral lesson of the spies), the issue is by no means clear. Still, a careful reading of the text reveals what can be understood to be a number of serious discussions of the great questions of political morality — perhaps placed purposely, perhaps simply unavoidable in any discussion of the great political questions confronting man.

Some examples of the book’s concerns in this realm include:

  1. The book emphasizes the idea of societies collapsing from within, out of moral weakness. See: The fall of Jericho, especially 2:9-10.
  2. Honesty in maintaining the historic record is presented as a virtue. See: Crossing the Jordan, 4:6-8; the battle of Ai, 7:26; 8:29.
  3. There are limitations on waging war, even the most justifiable wars, namely wars of national liberation.
  4. Collective national responsibility is the key to political survival. See: Joshua, 7:1.
  5. Government by covenant (7) under the Law (8:32ff) is a sine qua non.


The Contents of the Book



Joshua’s Authority is Established


The first chapter of the Book of Joshua is used to set the stage for the entire work. On the surface, it is devoted to telling the story of Joshua’s accession to leadership of the tribal confederacy; his acquisition of a mandate from God who renews His promise and restates the conditions that must be met by the Israelites for its fulfillment; his order to the tribes to begin preparations for crossing the Jordan; and the renewal of the promise of the two and a half transjordanian tribes to participate in the conquest. The manner of telling the story, however, indicates a meaning beyond the simple recounting of history.

Verses 1 through 9 serve as a general introduction to the entire work, covering God’s charge to Joshua, effectively restating the terms of His covenant with Israel including His repetition of the promise and its conditions, His statement and explication of the national motto, hazak v’ematz, (be strong and courageous), and His restatement of the centrality of the Torah in the life of Israel. Verses 10 and 11 show Joshua giving his first commands to the nation through his officials. Verses 12 through 18 cover Joshua’s reminder to the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh of their obligation to participate in the conquest, his instructions as to what they must do to prepare for their role, and their willing acquiescence based on their recognition of Joshua as Moses’ legitimate successor.

The importance of Joshua in Jewish Rabbinic tradition is indicated in the fact that this chapter is the haftarah (Prophetic portion, ready every Sabbath morning at the conclusion of the Torah portion of the week) for Simchat Torah, the festival commemorating the completion of the annual Torah reading cycle and its beginning anew. This can be understood as symbolizing the continuity of Jewish history and Torah study, which, in political terms, is the study of Israel’s constitution and its application. Even as the Torah proper comes to an end, Jewish history goes on.

The chapter introduces certain key political terms used in the Torah. First among them is Eved Adonai (Servant of the Lord), (see also: Exodus 14:31; Numbers 12:7), used in the book’s very first verse. This is the highest political title in the Israelite tribal federation. From its context wherever it is used in the Bible, it is clear that it does not simply mean “Servant of the Lord” but is the title of the highest political and moral leader of the Israelite nation who serves God the King. God’s “servant” is used here in the same sense as Minister is used today in parliamentary systems of government. Hence, it is best understood as “God’s Prime Minister.”

The term is connected with the whole Prophetic system of government. The Prophetic school advocated an authentic theocracy, not rule by priests but rule by properly chosen leaders who served as the spokesmen for God, the ultimate sovereign but a constitutional minority. The author of Joshua uses it is a technical term, title for the highest political office of the Israelite tribal federation. The construction of the title implicitly recognizes the sovereignty of God and denies the legitimacy of vesting sovereignty in a human monarch. TheEved Adonai can be the head of the government of the Israelites but only God can be the head of state.

In the Book of Joshua, the term is used 15 times,13 times in connection with Moses and twice in connection with Joshua. In the rest of the Bible, it is used only five times and in only four books (Deuteronomy, Judges, II Kings, II Chronicles). In all cases it is used as a modifier for either Moses or Joshua. In the other four books, it is used four times in connection with Moses and once in connection with Joshua. In Deuteronomy and Judges the term appears in immediate juxtaposition to the beginning and end of Joshua.

In Joshua, where the emphasis is on identifying Joshua as Moses’ legitimate and full successor, the term is used in connection with Moses (4, 12:6) until the very end of the book where, in the last chapters, it is explicitly applied to Joshua as it had been inferrentially, earlier.

The term dates back to the Exodus and the Conquest, and is of key importance within the context of the Prophetic idea of theocracy, establishing a key constitutional principle of rule in the edah. The responsibility of the Eved Adonai is tied to his obligation to maintain God’s constitution or Torah, and to govern according to its precepts. Accordingly, the Eved Adonai is the official with prime responsibility for governing in a manner consonant with the Torah.

During the subsequent history of the tribal federation, the only term used for national political leaders was Shofet (Judge or Administrator of Justice). Since the term Eved Adonaiapparently did not enter common usage, one might ask whether it was accepted as an actual public title in the edah. Perhaps it never even had such connotations outside of the circle responsible for writing the Torah and the Book of Joshua. At the same time, the internal evidence provided by the Bible indicates that in the years between Joshua and the inauguration of the monarchy, the only person who could possible have been considered for the title was Samuel, the only Shofet who was able to assert his leadership over the entire nation. Since he or his disciples are assumed here to be responsible for this book and for crystallizing the political philosophy it represents, it would have been difficult for them to award Samuel this title at the height of the debate over the revision of the Israelite constitution.

Constitutionally, the term remains confined to the government of the classic edah. When kingship is introduced, it is not used for the king, apparently quite deliberately. Saul, clearly designated by Samuel to play a more limited role than the Eved Adonai, was given the title Nagid, best translated as High Commissioner. Even after David’s ascension to the throne and consolidation of the kingship, the Prophets continue to refer to him and his heirs by the same term, nagid. David’s own court poets tried to introduce the title Eved Elohim which has the same meaning as Eved Adonai, but uses a different term for God, and apply it to the new king in the Book of Psalms, but were unsuccessful, probably because of the historic associations of the formal prophetic opposition. According to the Bible, only the people used the term melekh (king) as a colloquial title. Five centuries later, the prophet Ezekiel, in his description of the messianic days of restoration to come, endorses the Davidides’ governmental role but carefully refers to the “king” as nasi (lit: someone raised up or elected, perhaps best translated magistrate or chief magistrate). Thus, after the failure of Samuel’s reform effort and God ceased to directly rule the edah, there was no further need for Eved Adonai as a technical term and it was abandoned.

A second major constitutional principle is that there is to be no hereditary leadership outside of the priesthood. Each new leader must be chosen by God and be endowed with charisma by Him. Not even Moses can designate his heir alone. Though Joshua is the heir apparent, he is not the legitimate leader of the nation until God speaks to him directly and passes the responsibility to him (see verses 1 and 2ff). This strong reliance on the role of the Lord and the rejection of inherited leadership per se is part of the pattern often referred to by Puritan divines in the seventeenth century as the “republican virtue” of the Hebrew Bible. (See also: Exodus 24:13; Numbers 11:28).

Joshua achieved leadership through his prior service to the nation. This is clear from the record in the Torah proper (see Exodus 17:9; Numbers 27:19; and Deuteronomy 1:28). The later sages apparently believed that this was to be a lesson for the people. In BaMidbar Rabbah 12:9, the Talmudic commentary on Numbers, it is related that Moses wanted his sons to succeed him, i.e., to make the leadership hereditary but God chose Joshua on the grounds of his lifelong faithful service and demonstrated ability. This principle has been the basis of rule for the Jewish polity for most of its history, for all but 300 of its 3300 years as a polity. Even when the Davidides sat on the throne in Jerusalem, the larger northern kingdom of Israel effectively rejected hereditary rule. Moreover, constitutionally, the people had a role. Even in the Davidic and Hasmonean dynasties, new kings went through at least a pro forma process of public acclamation and prophetic or priestly anointment to signify the laying on of God’s charisma.

In the Prophetic commonwealth all authority is from two sources, God and the people. Hence, Joshua has to have his authority affirmed by the people as well as by God. For theedah as a whole, that happens in the desert and is recounted in the Torah itself. However, because of the conquest of much of transjordan and the settlement of two and a half tribes in those lands under special conditions that required them to participate in the conquest of Canaan even after they are settled, he must establish his authority as Moses’ successor over these tribes and get them to reaffirm their commitment (V. 12ff).

The two and a half tribes are described as accepting Joshua’s authority in a confrontation reminiscent of a formal covenanting. Joshua gets his mandate from the Lord and then places it before the people (or a segment thereof), who allege loyalty to him as long as the Lord is with him (i.e., he retains the divine charisma). This is clearly a political covenant in the sense that it affirms or establishes (legitimizes) a power relationship by making it authoritative. As such, it is the first strictly political covenant of an internal character in the Bible, a renewal of the authority relationships established at Sinai. Once he is entrusted with leadership — in the case of Joshua, by Moses before the latter’s death — God is able to give His chief minister a direct mandate. God is explicit regarding the content of that mandate, including the task of conquering the land. Thus, a third constitutional principle having to do with the Israelites’ right to Canaan is introduced. Already in verse we have another review of the classic boundaries of the promise. Compare it to the promises in Genesis 15:18; Exodus 23:3-12; Numbers 24:3-12 and Deuteronomy 11:24.

God’s mandate continues with regard to Joshua’s relationship to Him (V. 5) which also may be a subtle reference to the “natural” relationship between a republican “Servant of the Lord” and the Lord in any situation. God concludes by reaffirming the motto He has bestowed on the edah and its leadership (V. 6): “Be strong and of good courage,” better rendered: “Strengthen your character and make yourself courageous,” which is repeated three times in the course of this conversation. It is a statement of classic strength which all of the ancients believed to be essential to the citizens of republics. Yet God never lets His people forget that they are bound by their Torah constitution and are under judgment. He concludes His mandate to Joshua with a combined blessing-warning (verses 7 and 8) with regard to learning the Torah as a constitutional teaching and living up to its requirements or else. Here is the opening of the Prophetic vision of why the full promise never came to pass — Israel’s sin, the abandonment of Torah.

The term for a second office of the edah, Shotrei Ha’am (Officers of the People), is introduced in V. 10. The shotrim were the lesser officials of the national government, those entrusted with executing the policies of the Eved Adonai and the Shofetim. Note, however, that they are referred to as officers of the people (in modern terminology, public servants), not officials of the national government or its leadership.

The word shoter is from the terminological complex meaning “order,” and is related to such terms as mishtar (political order or system) and shtar (lit: contract). In modern Hebrew, the term means policeman, a recognition of its kinship with the English terminological complex meaning “order” in the same sense, e.g., policy, political, and police in its original meaning of order. The term is one of the oldest in the Hebrew political lexicon. The Torah refers to shotrim as officers of the people during Egyptian bondage. Thus the chapter concludes after having outlined the basis of the classic biblical polity, with its key terms and relationships in place.

The frequent mention of the two and a half tribes’ role is designed to show the unity of the tribal confederacy in those days, as if to say, “See, even the two and a half tribes that settled east of the Jordan fulfilled their part of the agreement with Moses and sent men to help in the conquest of the Land.” This can be read as another indication that the book was written in a period when tribal unity was a problem.

Chapter Two, which deals with Rahab and the spies in Jericho, offers a stark and deliberate contrast to Chapter One. The whole chapter is presented in a simplified story-form characteristic of such biblical narratives. Behind that story, however, is a contrast between the edah as a polity and the political systems of Canaan. This contrast is particularly important in light of the people’s revolutionary demand in the eleventh century for a king “like all the nations.”

Canaan was divided into city-states, each with its own ruler, referred to in the text as a melekh or king. Scholars argue as to the meaning of kingship in Canaan but, even if not a “king” in the sense of a powerful monarch, it is generally agreed that they were constitutional monarchs in the sense that they were responsible to or at least limited by local assemblies — either popular or notables or both. The biblical reference to all Canaanite rulers as “kings” may be considered a shorthand generalization, not a reflection of Israelite ignorance of the subtleties of the Canaanite political framework. Joshua actually identifies four forms of formal leadership among the nations with which Israel came in contact. The first is the I, or king, common for Canaanite cities; the second, the zekenim of the Gibeonites (9:11), the third, the seranim of the Philistines (13:3), and the fourth the nesiim of the Midianites (13:21). Each term is used in a specific technical sense, reflecting as each does a different form of government.


Elements Fostering Civic Virtue: Historical Memory


In Chapter Three, the description of the edah resumes, presented through the medium of the tale of crossing the Jordan River. If Chapter One focused on the civil leadership of the federation, this chapter focuses on the priesthood, the tribal role in the federal government, and the portable seat of that government. It begins with the latter, the Ark of the Covenant (Aron HaBrit in Hebrew; usually rendered as the Ten Commandments). The Ark contained the tables of the covenant, the most holy material possession of the Israelite tribes. It was the focal point of the edah, testifying to the central role of the covenant in Jewish affairs. Elsewhere in the Bible and in Joshua the Ark is referred to as Aron HaEdut, the Ark of the Testimony or Witnessing (cf. 4:15). The term edut is a synonym for covenant and reflects the process of promulgation of the covenant, which is done in front of the people who are witnesses, as well as indicative of the fact that this is God’s testimony to His people.

The Ark is the focal point of the final assembly before crossing the Jordan, where God commands the Israelites to sanctify themselves. The conquest was not to be a pleasant task but a holy one. War, which necessitates killing is at least partly neutralized in its effect on those doing the killing by hedging it with the procedures of sanctification. God is addressed here as “Lord of all the Earth.” He is already universalized in the manner of the prophetic literature. Each tribe sends its elected representative to participate in crossing the Ark (V. 12). The role of the tribes is an indication of the federal character of this national endeavor.

The commemoration of the crossing (4:3-10) by erecting a stone cairn reflects the sense of history that has been part and parcel of the Jewish approach to life since the very origins of the Jewish people. Here is the first “national historic site” of the Jewish people and perhaps in the history of the world. This is not a monument to a victory erected in a capital as kings in the ancient world were accustomed to erecting, and on which was recorded the historical record as the king wanted it remembered, not always with even approximate accuracy. This is an actual site-marking, designed to make the event vivid to future generations, not through monuments erected elsewhere but through on-the-spot portrayal not subject to artificial distortion, though, of course, a traditional history of the crossing, not necessarily accurate to the last detail, clearly did develop. This account is based on it. This attitude is absolutely fundamental to the Jewish world view which is primarily based on interpretation of historical experience rather than abstract speculation. Hence historical events have to be properly marked and understood.

This historical sense includes within it the educational principle that history is only meaningful insofar as it is the common property of its heirs. Hence, verses 6-8 emphasize the retelling of the event: “ye shall say unto them….” The tradition is then presented in a form understandable to all — this is traditional history as distinct from “scientific” history.

The biblical concern for preservation of historic sites for their popular educational value was to resurface as a dimension of modern democracy which must foster the same popular concern for recollection of the common national past for civic purposes. That is why the preservation of such national historic sites has become such an important American trait. The apparent repetition of the account here is repetition to convey the idea of perpetuating the historical tradition. Here in this “simple” section are revealed a wide variety of details which may be studied and interpreted and which give clues as to the Jewish/biblical world view.

The successful crossing provides the Israelites with experiential evidence reenforcing Joshua’s charisma and right to succeed Moses as the God-appointed leader. The splitting-of-the-Jordan story is part of this reenforcement of Joshua’s position. Joshua, like Moses, splits water in the name of the Lord.

The tale of the ending of the crossing is repeated in VV. 15-24 in what is the third section of the two chapters. It adds a more “religious,” as distinct from political, tone. It appears that the author included it to give his presentation not only the aura of a political proposal for governing Israel but also the tone of a God-centered document. Here we see a typical biblical device — the multiple explanation. On one hand, there is a sociological reason for the stone cairn and, on the other, a “higher” reason. Both are given since both are important. This is not a confusion of accounts, as many of the “higher-critics” would have it. It is a purposive educational device, no doubt used in full consciousness by the authors of the Bible. The section forms a transition to the book’s next concern, namely the observance of the mitzvot — God’s commandments — in the land, which is the subject of Chapter Five.

Let us review the structure of the first four chapters. They are not so much a continuous chronological narrative but a connection of relevant episodes in chronological order that form an epic record of sorts.


  • 1:1-9 The passing of the mantle and the promise;
  • 1:10-17 The assembly and the covenant;
  • 2:1-24 The episode of the spies;
  • 3:1-17 The crossing as a religious-covenantal event;
  • 4:1-24 The crossing as a socio-political event.



Elements Fostering Civic Virtue: Maintaining the Commandments


The fifth chapter is much the same only in smaller bits, with one big difference. It focuses on actions in the land preparatory to the opening of the actual war of conquest.


  • 5:1-9 The circumcision: fulfilling the personal covenant ritual and removing the last stain of the Egyptian bondage:
  • 5:10-12 Passover observed: fulfilling the communal covenant ritual in the land for the first time by observing the harvest-freedom festival and beginning to live off the land itself.
  • 5:13-15 The Minister of the Lord’s Host: renewal of God’s grant of charisma to Joshua by a great experience which, at the same time, raises God above the level of a mere God of battles.


Notice the historical explanation, the sense of inter-generational communal responsibility, and the sense of historical continuity that permeates the account. The order of the fulfillment of the first mitzvot in the land of Israel is important: mass circumcision as reaffirmation of the original covenant between God and Abraham (VV. 2-9); observance of Pesach to commemorate the Exodus, eating the produce of the land as the first land-of-Israel-related mitzvah, and then another reaffirmation of Joshua’s status as Eved Adonai. Taken together these events constitute a relegitimation of Israel as God’s people.

Apparently, circumcision was still a community activity at this time, undertaken at significant moments in the people’s history. It had yet to become “humane-ized” by making it individual and early.

The discussion in Chapter Five offers an opportunity for reflection on the generational rhythm of human affairs. This theme is one of the abiding ones in the Bible; it is hardly new to Joshua. The entire structure of biblical history is built on this generational rhythm, with each generation having its identity and location and epochal changes occurring in every tenth generation.13 The reference to the fact that all the men of military age had died in the desert (V. 4) and a new generation has come of age suggests the passing of the generation of the desert and the coming of a new one. It also reflects the constitution of the edah whereby the adult males capable of bearing arms constitute its heart. The matter is made explicit in V. 6 using the standard biblical phrase for a generation, i.e., “forty years.” The language of these verses is particularly important for establishing the technical terminology of the generational rhythm.

Pesach — the festival of freedom is the first to be observed on the soil of Israel (VV. 10-11). It is appropriately paired with the covenant renewal via circumcision described in the previous verses, linking the exodus and the covenant, national liberation and the national calling.

Cessation of the manna (V. 12) signifies that the Israelites had reached their home. Henceforth, they will live off the “milk and honey” of the land, not depend upon God’s miraculous benificence. The next step in the process of national relegitimation is the direct confirmation of Joshua’s authority in the promised land by Heaven through the episode of the officer or minister of the Lord’s host, (VV. 13-15), whose symbolic meaning is self-evident.14

All three of the elements in this chapter are highly relevant as a prelude to the war of the conquest in which:

  1. a) the personal responsibility required under the covenant could easily be forgotten in the heat of the conquest;
  2. b) communal obligations under the covenant had to be transformed into land-based observances but, more than that, on the eve of such an enterprise, it was necessary to start by living the proper way in the Land — earning one’s food, remembering one’s past, and observing the covenant;
  3. c) it would be easy to identify the Lord with Israel’s cause rather than vice-versa, hence the reminder.


How a Covenanted People Wage War: Jericho and Ai


The first requirement for a successful campaign against great odds is an initial stunning victory that demoralizes the enemy and gives the attackers a psychological boost. The conquest of Jericho was such a victory in every respect. The target was well-chosen; a major Canaanite city of ancient vintage, a gateway to the land, yet one which, tactically, could have been bypassed but which is hit head on. Jericho’s relative isolation added to its vulnerability. Finally, the manner of the victory was most dramatic. Altogether the story as we have it attests to a major psychological blow against the Canaanites who already had word of what had happened to the east bank kingdoms and a major morale-builder for the Israelites.

For our purposes, the structured contents of the story emphasize the working of God and the edah. The technique of the conquest of Jericho is designed to emphasize that it is God’s might that makes the conquest possible. This is clear in the instructions for the special way to conquer the city of Jericho (6:2-5). The elements of the force: Joshua as commander following and transmitting God’s commands, the Ark of the Covenant and the priests as manifestations of God’s presence, and the people (more accurately, the armed forces) armed with the weapons of the Lord. The whole is set into motion and leads to the downfall of the city (6:6-25).

The conquest is bad enough without making it materially profitable, hence the idea of devoting all the stuff of the city to the Lord — i.e., eliminating personal profit. This is a very difficult restraint. Nomadic warfare was centered on loot. Thus the abandonment of looting meant (a) the abandonment of an essential nomadic tradition and b) the abandonment of nomadism for the settled life. The result either leads to maintenance of a sound idealism that curbs the excesses of conquest or a perverted one that justifies bloodshed because there is not immediate profit but a “long range good.” The vital importance of the restriction is the subject of the very next case study (Chapter 7) which relates the story of how Achan violates the ban on looting, which amounts to no less than breaking the covenant, (V. 15).

This direct assault on the holiness that must be maintained by the Israelites in the process of the bloody conquest leads to the Israelites’ unexpected setback that followed right on the heels of the extraordinary victory at Jericho. In the Bible’s religio-moral terms of reference, the fact that Ai means ruins only adds to the impact of the repulse — mighty Jericho falls with ease and the pile of ruins east of Beth El is the site of an Israelite defeat. The difference is clear: God’s active direction in the first case and His disapproval in the second.

Collective responsibility is a traditional canon of Jewish thought. Jews have always been jointly responsible for the actions of any of their people. Some think this is a trait which developed as a consequence of persecution in the exile because then accusations against one Jew were considered to be against all. However, we see in Chapters 6 and 7 that the idea of collective responsibility is much older than that. It is part of the peculiar self-perception of the Jews as an extended family group which is also bound by covenant.

The story is another exemplary account designed to illustrate the Prophetic viewpoint of the book. It is basically designed to show what happens when the covenant is broken (in this case through disobeying the charismatic leader who speaks in the name of God). Secondarily, it shows Joshua in communication with God as King. After raising him to sufficient stature as the Eved Adonai, the author, in true biblical spirit, shows him displaying weakness in a very human scene. He will be human from here on, with few exceptions.

Thus there is no argument that the federal system worked well under Joshua because Joshua was more than human. Like Moses, Joshua is human but still makes the system work, with the Lord’s help, even to the point of carrying out the bloody but necessary execution of Achan for looting. Despite God’s wrath, there is also a process of give and take, for in Chapter 8, God slightly modifies his “no booty” commandment in light of the Achan episode. This is certainly a common phenomenon; the punishment of a lawbreaker for a violation that strikes at the fabric of the body politic and the subsequent modification of the law after a reassessment brought about by the affair. It is another reflection of the realistic character of the Bible and why it must be read so carefully.

The discussion of how to wage war reappears throughout the book as one of its main themes. Stated in shorthand, Israel wins victories through a combination of God’s direct involvement, good generalship by the human commander, and precise responsive follow-through by the Israelite forces. All three are given equal emphasis here. In every military victory recorded in the Bible, all are present; conversely, in every military failure one or more are absent.


Renewing the Covenant


Joshua has several climaxes, each associated with a covenant renewal, viz:


  1. Renewal of the covenant with the two and a half tribes – Crossing the Jordan (1:16H).
  2. Covenant renewal at Shechem – Division of the land (8:30-35). 3) Covenant renewal at Joshua’s farewell – Normalization of Israelite life in the land (Chapters 23 and 24). Each is treated as a central teaching of the book. The first of these has already been discussed. Here we contrast the second and most paradigmatic decision of the three.


The covenant renewal describes the reaffirmation of covenant and constitution near Shechem. The latter is referred to as Sefer Torat Moshe (the book of Moses’ teaching), a phrase which becomes classic in Jewish terminology. Aside from the importance of the act itself, the formation of the nation for the ceremony is a clear indication of the proper structure of Israelite government. In verses 31 through 35, the author draws our attention to the practical requirements for good government.

The first foundation of good government is divine worship in the appropriate manner. The prohibition of the use of iron in altars (and the Temple) because it is used for weapons of war is of profound significance. The Mormons have done the same in their Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, on the basis of the biblical commandment.

The second foundation is knowledge of the constitution, especially on the part of the rulers. In V. 32, there is a restatement of the Deuteronomic principle that every chief of the Israelite confederacy must himself copy the constitution set forth in Moses’ teaching as a symbol of his being bound by that constitution and as a concrete way to make certain that he is familiar with it.

For the actual act of renewal, the whole people, specifically including women and children, citizens and resident aliens, along with their governors, are assembled between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal which “face” each other across a valley (V. 33). This is a very holy place, mentioned in the Torah as the place for reaffirming the covenant. Six kinds of government offices are mentioned here, in addition to the Eved Adonai mentioned in verse 31. They are:

  • Zekenim: Elders of the tribes
  • Nesiim: Tribal magistrates
  • Shoterim: Officers of the national government
  • Shofetim: Judges of the national government
  • Cohenim: Priests
  • Leviim: Levites


Reflected here are the two arenas of political organization, national and tribal and the tri-partite separation of powers in the national arena. Centuries later, the latter was to become known as the division between the three Ketarim or crowns of Torah, Kehunah (priesthood), and Malkhut (civil rule) — the three classic domains of leadership in the edah.Bearers of the first crown are responsible for transmitting God’s word to the people; bearers of the second, for linking the people and their needs with God; and bearers of the third, for conducting the day-to-day governance of the Jewish polity. In Joshua, while each of the three domains is distinct within the structure of the edah, the Eved Adonai more or less combines the first and last in his person while the Kohen Gadol (high priest) dominates the second.

The ceremony itself is by Mosaic command — i.e., is part of the original political heritage of Israel, from the greatest prophet himself. Hence, the whole people is gathered here, askahal Yisrael, the congregation of Israel, not just the elders or the representative assembly but resident aliens, women, children — all of them, before the “Ark of the Covenant of the Lord” (33). There is an inherent democracy in this action, a democracy that implies that all are obligated to consent to the constitution and to know the Law, and have a right to know it. This classic scene is repeated, in miniature, in every synagogue every Sabbath.


The Conquest and Israel’s Conceptions of Spatial Organization



The Covenant with the Gibeonites


Chapter 9 deals with the deception perpetrated by the Gibeonites and the treaty with them. It is a case study in the matter of honoring agreements and should be read in that light. The Gibeonites obviously were aware that the Israelite conquest was a war of extermination and sought to protect themselves by deception rather than join a Canaanite alliance to fight the invaders. Understanding that they would not gain a treaty if they were recognized as locals, they presented themselves as from outside of Canaan. The deception was sufficiently elaborate to fool the Israelites long enough to negotiate and seal the treaty, referred to as a covenant (V. 6).

This story is related here for two purposes. First, it was necessary to explain the continued presence of the Gibeonites in the midst of Israel. This is good evidence of the accuracy of the biblical tradition that, where the conquest occurred, it was complete. The original inhabitants who remained in the eleventh century were still located in independent, unconquered city-states, viz. the Jebusites in Jerusalem. However, those areas conquered by the Israelites were not sites for intermixing Israelites and Canaanites but were, with this one exception, totally occupied by the Israelites. Consequently an explanation of the Gibeonites’ presence was in order. The second reason is to illustrate the binding nature of treaties (covenants between man and man) in an age when treaties were not infrequently broken. Here we find man’s commitments or actions exalted even above previous commitments to God when they involve the principle of bein adam lehavero — commitments between man and his neighbor.

Ever HaYarden (Across the Jordan) is used here for Canaan proper, i.e., the account was written by someone east of the river. Notice the reference to three of the four great topographic divisions of Canaan, the Har (mountains), the Shefelah (interior lowland), the Hof HaYam (seacoast), and the northern limit of Mount Lebanon. Only the Jordan Valley, already conquered by the Israelites, is omitted.

Six nations are mentioned as being in alliance against the Israelites. They were the:


  • Hittites – a segment of a great people from the north;
  • Amorites – “the westerners”;
  • Canaanites – morally the worst in the land
  • Shephelah people; located in the interior lowland to the west of the central mountain range;
  • Perizzites;
  • Hivites – apparently the Gibeonites were Hivites (cf. verse 7); Jebusites – the inhabitants of Jerusalem.


The terms used to describe the alliance are of interest (V. 2): VaYitkabtzu – they gathered together (and agreed) Peh Ehad – with one voice.

The Gibeonites present themselves as having a form of government similar to that of the Israelites (V. 11), i.e., elders (zekenim) and a popular assembly (kol yoshvei artzenu). It is quite likely that the Gibeonite system was the same; certainly it would have helped strengthen their case. The text provides us with some information on the treaty-making process (and maybe the legislative process as well) on both sides. For a matter so important, the Gibeonite elders can only recommend a course of action which must be ratified by the assembly. Then representatives are sent to do the actual negotiating and swearing.

For the Israelites, the treaty is negotiated by Joshua and ratified by the Nesi’ai HaEdah, the representatives of the assembled people, (V. 15). All three covenantal terms — shalom(peace), brit, and shevua (oath) — are used in this one verse. The entire book is permeated with covenant vocabulary. For example, in 10:1 there is the use of the term Hishlimu – (made their peace with, from shalom and shalem) a term with covenantal and consenting overtones, a reflection of the way in which Hebrew rests upon a covenantal vocabulary in matters having to do with relationships.

The truth comes out. The Nesi’im feel honor-bound to maintain the covenant even though it was obtained by deception but the popular assembly (edah) responds negatively (VV. 18-22). The Nesi’im must present their position before the edah and secure its consent. A compromise emerges whereby the Gibeonites are allowed to live but in a subservient manner as “hewers of wood and drawers of water” for the entire edah. Joshua is entrusted with the task of informing the Gibeonites of their fate (V. 22). He modifies the decision of the edah to emphasize the Gibeonites’ role as servants of the Lord as well as or more than the edah, a point given elaboration in verse 27.

The Gibeonite response indicates that they are not unhappy with their fate, given the alternative. They are survivors, prepared to pay the price in order to survive. In Chapter 10, they use their treaty status effectively by calling in the Israelites to protect them against a Jebusite-led coalition.

The Jebusite king organizes a league of Amorite cities to attack Gibeon, to punish that polity for breaking ranks and becoming a protectorate of the Israelites, no doubt to discourage others from trying to do the same (10:3-5). All five cities were located in the Judean hills or the adjacent Shephelah (interior lowlands) and were probably loosely allied for other purposes at other times. The reference to them as Amorite cities is significant since Ekron later became one of the five cities in the Philistine confederacy; it can be seen as evidence that the text is an old one.

The Gibeonite relationship can be contrasted with that of Caleb ben Yefuneh, Joshua’s companion in serving Moses in the wilderness and in spying out the land and like him, last survivor of that generation, who claims Hebron, his promised inheritance. Caleb is not an Israelite in origin but a Kenizite who has joined with Israel and accepted the Lord as God (14:6-15). Caleb is to receive Hebron as a special inheritance by Mosaic instruction. When the division of the land begins, he is the first to receive his parcel. Caleb’s speech is worth reading. It is touching in its simplicity and directness, giving us a picture of a bluff, straightforward warrior of simple faith. Caleb’s claim is honored before the casting of the lots since it is based on a prior Divine Promise.


Joshua Destroys the Amorite Coalition


Chapter 10 is famous for the miracle of the sun standing still. Its true import is in its discussion of the Israelite-Amorite war and the war in which Joshua broke the back of the Amorite coalition between Gibeon and the Aijalon Valley. The heart of the account appears to be an old text even in the eleventh century BCE since areas later under Philistine control are discussed as under Amorite rule. It describes the clearing of the southern half of the Cisjordan. The cities in alliance against Israel are referred to as arei mamlacha — “cities of dominion (V. 2), i.e., centers of political power and control.

It is of interest that the Israelites did not simply continue the conquest after the Gibeonite treaty but returned to Gilgal. Only the necessity to respond to the Amorite counteroffensive brings them into the field, at which point God indicates to Joshua that this is an opportunity for the Israelites to advance the conquest (V. 8).

Joshua whips the Amorite coalition with the assistance of two major physical catastrophes which Immanuel Velikovsky treated as major evidence for this theory of catastrophism (VV. 9-14). They were the “hail of rocks” and the miracle of the sun standing still. The latter, in particular, must have seemed incredible even to the original readers of this section since the chronicler mentions a supporting text, “The Book of Yashar,” one of the lost books frequently referred to in the Bible.

The conquest is resumed and the hill country, the shephelah and the Negev subdued step by step, with reasonable ease after the defeat of the coalition (VV. 28-39). The story of the conquest of city after city is told in a kind of blank verse formula, emphasizing the total destruction of each city. “And Joshua passed from…and all Israel with him, until…and fought against….” “And the Lord delivered…into the hands of Israel…and smote it with the edge of the sword, and all the souls that were therein, etc. as he had done unto….”

It is likely that the summary section (VV. 40-43) was added later by the final editor since it exaggerates the Israelites’ gains. Joshua is credited with a clean sweep of the southern half of the land, all the way to Kadesh Barnea in Sinai, Gaza, and Goshen (obviously not the same as Egypt’s Goshen).


The Completion of Joshua’s Conquests


The war continues in the northern half of the country after the southern half is conquered (Chapter 11) and then the full extent of the conquest is summarized.

As in connection with the previous conquest of the southern half of the land, the war with the kingdoms of north Canaan (from the Kennereth north to the Hermon) is presented as forced on Joshua, not sought by him. The pattern is similar to that suggested in the previous chapter where the attack on the Gibeonites triggers the Israelite offensive. This is the most powerful alliance Joshua has faced. The country is now thoroughly aroused against the Israelite menace and this alliance is no longer from the hill country but from the more sophisticated parts of Canaan. Their army has horses and chariots and the Israelites, who are on foot, are justifiably concerned.

After reassurance by the Lord (verse 6), Joshua employs a characteristic strategy. He moves swiftly north into enemy country and attacks the allied army when they least expect it, neutralizing their superior numbers and equipment with the advantage gained by surprise. Rather than absorb the horses and chariots into his formations, Joshua disables and destroys them, respectively, as commanded by God (V. 6). The Israelite militias are not ready for such a technological advance which could have political consequences by creating a powerful elite corps.

Joshua then reduces the city-states and settlements in the north. The north was not conquered as fully, in any case, though it was conquered as we see from subsequent history. Joshua’s actions were more concerned with destroying the aggressive potential of the cities of the alliance than with anything else.

The Israelites implement the post-Achan policy which is here attributed to Moses regarding booty, keeping the cattle and destroying the people. Verses 17-28 describe a long war in which every city resisted the Israelites: “There was not a city that made peace with the Israelites…for the Lord hardened their hearts…” (VV. 19-20). This is the only justification of the Israelite policy of destroying the existing cities and their inhabitants, other than simply referring to the Lord’s commands on the subject. It is, of course, reminiscent of the account of the exodus from Egypt. Chapter 14, verse 10 gives us a clue to the length of the conquest — seven years, unless “45” just means a generation plus.

In a larger perspective, this is another example of the way the Bible explains how bad and even evil nations or individuals serve God’s purposes without in any way mitigating their corruption. There exists in the biblical view of the world a dialectic of history. Good and bad (or the favored of the Lord versus their enemies) come into conflict to fulfill the Lord’s plan on earth. The bad are placed in the way of the good to generate conflict and keep the good on the right path. It is through this dialectic of history that there will be achieved the preconditions necessary for the messianic age, when the Lord will consider it proper to intervene to bring shalom — peace and completeness in the world — when conflict will be ended. This will only come when the course of the conflict has reached a point when the people of the world are ready for it. When that will be and under what conditions is unclear and is subject to differing interpretations.

Joshua’s last campaign is described in VV. 21-23. This seems to be another coda, somewhat contradictory of the first and probably from the days of the monarchy. The cities mentioned as left in the hands of the Anakim were three of the principal Philistine cities. There is a theory that “Anak” is a Hebrew corruption of a Philistine name; if so, this is a reference to the first meeting of the two peoples who invaded the land from opposite directions at roughly the same time.

As the Israelites were coming in from the east, the Philistines were coming in from the west, apparently from the island of Crete. The Philistines were Minoans or proto-Greeks, with a high civilization that was probably reasonably humane for the age and their background. The first explicit reference to them is in 13:20. These were two well-matched peoples who were to clash over control of the land in what was to become the major conflict of the ensuing 200 years and was to decide the fate of the land and people of Israel for 3,000 years. Both needed the land since both had no other place to go, coming as emigrant peoples with their lines to their past residences cut. Both were tough and, for their age, decent peoples. The Philistine cities were Greek-style politea; aristocratic republics linked with each other in a confederacy, recognized here in 13:3. (They had religio-sexual orgies but did not practice human sacrifice, for example.)


If roughly accurate, we can envisage what occurred. After Joshua’s first campaign in the south-central regions of Canaan, the Israelites moved north without implanting settlements or garrisons as we know from the next. In the interim, the Philistines entered the area, coming in from the sea, consolidated their hold on the coast and invaded the hill country. Joshua returns from the north and is able to expel them from the latter areas but not from their foothold on the coast, thus setting the stage for the later contest between the two peoples. Even if not precisely accurate, this account makes sense historically and politically and should be taken seriously as a generalized description of what must have occurred.

The Philistines left the land their name, Palestine, but were ultimately eliminated from history by the Jews. In the process, however, they also forced the Jews to establish a monarchy, with a court and bureaucracy and a stronger class system, to mobilize their national resources for victory. This, in turn, led to the demise of the tribal federation — the old republic with all that meant in terms of restricting liberty and equality. This was a contributory factor to the tragic dimension in Jewish history, which was only partly reversed by the later triumph of the Prophetic anti-monarchical movement represented in this book and throughout the Bible. The notion that David’s and Solomon’s was a golden age which permeates the Jewish religio-national myth reflects the tragic fact that Israel had to abandon its internal liberties to gain military security and even came to like it. There is an important historical lesson in the whole struggle between the Israelites and Philistines — how outside pressures on a nation can force that nation to abandon aspects of its own ideals for the sake of survival and how the strength of the ideals is measured by the possibility for their reassertion later, a reassertion which can only be partial under the best of circumstances.


The Book of Joshua: Its Character and Teaching



The Focus and Form of the Discussion


Joshua continues the account of the formation of the Israelite nation begun in Genesis by describing the Israelite conquest of Canaan and the nation’s permanent settlement there. As such it is the linchpin connecting the Torah with the rest of the Bible which, with a few exceptions, is overwhelmingly concerned with the results and consequences of these founding acts.

The Book of Joshua is an edited collection of documents organized around a specific point of view, historically accurate in their essentials but not devoted to recounting history. The book consists, in its substance, of a series of “cases” presented in roughly chronological sequence but not designed to form an historical narrative as such. (See, for example, the two accounts of the crossing of the Jordan in Chapters 3 and 4.) It includes a detailed presentation of the actual form of government to be used in the Israelite commonwealth (for examples, Chapters 1 and 8).

The entire discussion is couched in rather precise technical political and geographic terminology. The narrative is centered around Joshua, a classic statesman-general-prophet endowed with the Lord’s charisma. (See, for example, Chapters 1, 4, 5 and 6.) Joshua is divided into three major sections, as follows:


  1. The account of the conquest (Chapters 1-12).
  2. The division of the Land (Chapters 12-21).
  3. Joshua’s farewell addresses and concluding covenant (Chapters 22-24).


Each of these sections deals with a major constitutional question and its resolution in the context of the Israelite polity. The story itself has the quality and tone of a “western” including “They went that-a-way” (V. 5). The Bible has a certain similarity to the American “western,” or more correctly, vice-versa. Both are cast in the form of popular morality plays. The “western” as the archetypical American morality play follows the biblical pattern in its style and, to some extent, its purposes.

Spelling out the chain of authority seems to be important here, viz: God to Moses to Joshua. This is a regular feature of the Jewish political tradition, cf. the opening verses of Pirke Avot for a classic example which continues this chain to the Second Commonwealth.


Conceptualizing Space

There are two summaries of the entire conquest in Joshua’s time. One appears in 11:16-17 and the other in Chapter 12. The first seems to have been added much later than the original account. The editor was apparently a Judaean, hence his reference to the “hill-country and lowland of Israel.” The presentation of the list or map of conquered areas has to be understood in the way the Israelites conceptualized spacial organization. Space, for them, was not framed by fixed boundaries which are then given content within their boundaries, in the Anglo-American manner. The Israelite perspective is just the reverse; conceiving space as radiating outward from a core or node to some not always fully determined limits. This mode of thought is apparent in the discussion of the division of the land among the tribes. Thus, each of the nine areas mentioned is described by its central feature but its boundaries are not defined.

This perspective also contributes to the confusion of accounts regarding the extent and process of settlement and conquest described in Joshua and Judges. No specific claim is made in Joshua to overt Israelite possession of the whole territory within each region; only general control over the country. This list represents the most accurate description of the components of the actually Jewish Cisjordan provided in the Bible. Here the Bible is not talking about a promise, with its extended boundaries that were never realized, but the reality of Israelite settlement.

The second summary includes transjordan. It offers a very specific accounting by kings, and a geography lesson as to what constitutes historic Eretz Israel. The transjordanian conquests are presented with relatively clear boundaries from the Arnon River to Mt. Hermon, including the eastern Aravah, perhaps because they were already quite settled by this time. Still, the nodal perspective is evident by the use of the term gevulot in connection with the earliest conquests. The term gevul, usually translated as border or boundary, really means borderlands, not a fixed line but a boundary region.

The cisjordanian conquests are repeated in 12:7-24. Not all of these city-states were conquered at the time. We know that cities like Jerusalem were not, though it is possible that its lands were in great part conquered so the mention may not be entirely unreasonable.

If there is any doubt regarding the level of consciousness of differences in geo-political organization on the part of the author of Joshua, V. 23 should resolve it. While the other kings are listed as ruling over cities, the king of Dor is mentioned in verse 23 as ruling over naphat dor — the Dor region.

Geographers work with two major theories of regional spatial organization: linear and nodal. Joshua makes reference to both. A nafah is a linear region and a galil, a circle, referred to in the verse (13:1) in connection with the Philistines, is a nodal region. The Philistines controlled the lands surrounding their five cities, classic nodal regions as distinct from thenafah mentioned in 12:23. The term nafah is used in Joshua to describe predominantly rural regions or regions without a specific central point located in a core city. This geographic sophistication becomes prominent in the subsequent discussion of the division of the land.

This pattern is given further elaboration in the description of the permanent settlements and their hazerim (13:23). As we see in Numbers, dwelling in such permanent settlements was allowed, provided it was connected with the basic agricultural pursuits which were good in biblical eyes.

This description of the common pattern of settlement has to be understood in the context of the time and place. An ir was any permanent settlement with its own government. One which embraced 20 acres containing some 3,000 people was considered large. A hazar was an unfortified cluster of dwellings within the orbit of an ir. Together they comprised an organic unit, comparable to the Swiss commune, the New England town, or the Latin American municipio. A Canaanite ir was generally a politically independent entity. An Israeliteir, on the other hand, was subordinate to the tribal government. It maintained its own local government based on the assembly of resident adult males. Day to day business was conducted by elders constituted at the “city gate,” i.e., the council located at the city’s gate where it was more or less equally accessible to all the inhabitants of the ir and its hazerot.In addition, there are havot (protected tent-camps) near permanent settlements put together for protection against marauders, like fortified “forts” in the American near west or the fortified farms of contemporary Afghanistan.


The Division of the Land


Chapter 11 ends the history of the great conquest by mentioning the forthcoming division of the land, a constitutional act of the greatest import which is treated at length and in detail in subsequent chapters, as warranted by its importance. The discussion is introduced by using the standard technical terminology (e.g., nahalah, inheritance; shivtehem, their tribes) with one exception, the use of the term mahlekotam (their divisions). The term mahlakah is used 41 times in the Bible, three times in Joshua, once each in Ezekiel and Nehemiah, and the 36 remaining times in I or II Chronicles, a royalist account of the history of the Jewish kingdoms of the First Commonwealth. Its use reflects the development of a strong national government with a bureaucracy that has divided the people into administrative units to manage the national government (if not in an effort to replace the tribes as the building blocks of the Israelite polity). The system was introduced by David (I Chronicles, Chapters 13-18) and reaffirmed by Solomon (II Chronicles, Chapters 5 and 18). It is referred to subsequently as a Davidic ordinance and is treated as an important component of the constitution of Judah, mentioned in connection with Jehoyadah’s restoration of the constitution by overthrowing Athaliah (II Chronicles, Chapter 31) and Hezekiah’s religious reform (II Chronicles, Chapter 35). Ezekiel makes reference to it (48:29) in a manner similar to its usage here, as part of the restoration of the tribal system in the end of days. Thus this coda is a gloss that either intentionally or unintentionally seeks to legitimize a later form of internal political organization which would have been thoroughly rejected by the people in the time of Joshua, and initially was designed to replace the federal polity with a more centralized structure but which, over time, came to be viewed as an attempt to preserve the spirit of the old order within the new framework.

Chapter 12 is the last chapter in the first section of the book of 24 chapters. It has 24 verses. Chapter 13 begins the second half of the Book of Joshua which continues through Chapter 24. The use of 12 or multiples of 12 is not infrequent in Joshua. Chapters 13-22 deal with the division of the land among the tribes, a constitutional act of the highest order within the Israelite scheme of things. The tribal allocations represent the basis for the economic, political and religious organization of Israel. Hence they are permanent and inalienable, even in the end of days. The devotion of nearly half of the Book of Joshua to this issue is both a reflection of the importance of the topic and a sign of the constitutional character of the book. In this chapter, the material of the previous chapter is elaborated with regard to Moses’ division of transjordan.

The discussion here is connected with the forthcoming allocation of land among the tribes and is designed to emphasize God’s commandment to Joshua to allocate the unconquered lands on the periphery along with the others. All told, this is a modest listing of what remains to be conquered — no grand dreams of settling from the river of Egypt (although that is probably the south-western border here) to the Euphrates but a realistic description of the integral Eretz Israel.

The command to divide the land between the 9 1/2 tribes is given in 13:7. Nahalah is the term used in every case to describe the tribal territories. This indicates the economic purpose of the conquest as much as anything else, as witnessed in verses 15 and 33 where the same term is used to describe the means of economic sustenance provided the Tribe of Levi through offerings to the Lord. The Bible never ignores the economic basis of human activity in favor of some ethereal “religious” outlook. What the biblical view does is to endow the right kind of economic life with holiness, making it part of the Jewish religion, rather than separating religion and economics. Herein is found the root of the Jewish concern with social justice. The land is a religio-economic inheritance given to the people by the Lord, to be governed under a God-given constitution. It is sanctified in all these aspects, hence economic misuse is as much a sin as is ritualistic religious violation. The economic basis and its importance is also explained in Numbers, Chapter 32.

To be constitutionally complete, the account begins with reference to the transjordanian conquest and inheritances (VV. 9-24). They are given in detail because their boundaries are part of the ancient constitution of Israel as much as the other laws are. According to the Bible, they are to be restored at the End of Days. Hence they must be kept through accurate records (cf. Numbers, Chapter 32).

The constitutional division of the land west of the Jordan begins with Chapter 14. The lands are divided by Joshua as chief executive, Elazar the high priest, and the heads of the tribes, Rashei Avot, (literally the heads of the fathers of the tribes). A major constitutional act requires the action of all the holders of political authority in the tribal federation acting together. Here the High Priest functions as the equivalent of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, as head of a separate branch of government, one not charged with direct responsibilities for day to day government operations who stands as arbiter in constitutional matters between the representatives of the tribes involved. The procedure for this action is outlined in the Torah itself, the Constitution proper, in Numbers, Chapter 34, a chapter which gives the prospective boundaries and lists the participants and their positions by name. The same section of the Torah includes the clause making the tribal boundaries permanent and unalterable.

The initial division is by lot (goral), as prescribed in the Torah (Numbers 34), to ensure a fair allocation, considering that the quality of the land in different regions is different and usable for different purposes. In the perception of the times, casting of lots is the way to let God decide since He will determine the outcome of what to humans seems to be casting matters to chance. The word goral indeed is used for fate in Hebrew, the very opposite of chance.

The Levites received 48 cities scattered around the country, each with pasture lands to 2,000 cubits each (Numbers 35). The inclusion of pasturage lands in the grant is indicative of the basically sub-urban character of the “cities” of Israel.


Judah’s Inheritance


Judah gets Judaea and the bulk of the Negev (Chapter 15). The formula for recording the allotment for constitutional purposes is to begin with reference to the lot cast (V. 1). The formulary summary of the division refers to the tribes and their families, (mishpahot), not mahlakot (divisions) (V. 20). This is repeated in the case of every allocation. Gevul is used here in the sense of borderland as indicated earlier. The reality of this is reaffirmed in the last section of the chapter (VV. 21-62) which lists the cities and their outlying settlements to fill out the account. Judah never did settle the Philistine coast, though it later subjugated the Philistines there as part of the united nation. The area around Jerusalem is included in Judah but virtually at its northern extremity; the boundary circles the city which remains in Jebusite hands (V. 62). In area, population, and prestige it was the biggest tribe. The statement that the Jebusites still hold Jerusalem (V. 62) is another aid in dating the book as basically pre-monarchic with later insertions.

Judah is described as being divided into four sections: Negev, Shephelah, Har, Midbar (VV. 21-32). The pattern of Judah’s inheritance shows the natural linkage between the har-midbar-shephelah area, the heartland of Judah, and the Negev, its rimland. Each tribal area is described by listing its cities-and-hinterlands, which include satellite villages. This section may be a parallel account from a different geographic perspective, that is to say, focusing on regions and settlements rather than boundaries.

Because the book relies upon older texts, there are discrepancies in the accounts of the allocation. For example, in Chapter 19, Simon takes the cities listed as being in southern Judah in verse 24. So, too, in verse 32, 38 cities are listed but the text refers to 29. Why? Rashi says because nine were allotted to Simon which occupied southern Judah according to Jacob’s final blessing-curse. The Bible itself gives no answer. Perhaps here was a garbling of the text here (in several possible ways) as the commentary hints in the case of Ain Rimmon (which would make sense together). Verse 33 contradicts the inheritance of Dan. Another discrepancy appears in verse 36. The discrepancies in counting may have something to do with the contradiction in the inheritances. Notice the frequent mention of wells either as parts of city names or in connection with specific cities. This is drylands country and water is always the essential question.


The North-South Division and Ephraim’s Inheritance


Chapter 16 is the account of the allocation of the second most important tribal complex, the Joseph tribes. Judah (with Simon) is the most important; the Joseph tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh (Joseph’s two sons) are the next. Their relationship and rivalry is the biblical equivalent of the relationship between the American North and South. The Joseph tribes were to become the nucleus of the northern kingdom of Israel while the tribe of Judah became the nucleus of the southern kingdom of that name.

First the southern boundary of the Joseph tribes is delineated, the line of division between Judah and the north (VV. 2-3). The remainder of the chapter (VV. 5-10) specifies the Ephraimite allotment, in much less detail than was given for Judah since we have only the boundary-oriented description and not the list of settlements. Nevertheless, the same principle of geographic cognition prevails (V. 9).

The reference to the Canaanite enclaves (VV. 9-10) is bare of further detail and they remain unexplained. It is known historically that more Canaanites remained among the northern tribes than among the southern. This contributed to the greater backsliding in the north. Again we are left with the sense that territorial boundaries and contiguity are not of the essence, even for political organization. Perhaps this has to do with the conception of rule in the Jewish political tradition. Since God is sovereign and also owner of all lands and seas, His allocations can be as He pleases. Moreover, other principles, i.e., God’s favor and right laws, not territorial contiguity and human political sovereignty, are crucial to the founding, maintenance and development of peoples.


Manasseh’s Inheritance


Manasseh was another firstborn who was demoted. This is a common biblical phenomenon: Isaac in place of Ishmael, Jacob in place of Esau, Joseph over his brothers, Moses ahead of Aaron, etc. The biblical teaching is that Divine merit precedes primogeniture.

The account of the allocation indicates that the casting of lots was by family. The families which constituted the tribe are listed in 12:2. Historically, the Manassalite family of Machir settled east of the Jordan and became a separate tribe for all intents and purposes. Its links with the parent tribe and the reason for its separation are mentioned in 17:1.

Manasseh had five families with no male heirs. They appealed to the allocation committee on the basis of the ruling for the daughters of Tzelafhad in the Torah (cf. Numbers 26:33-27:1ff) permitting them to inherit. Hence, the tribe received allotments for the five male heirs and the five female heirs equally (VV. 5-6). The decision followed the precedent in the Torah and not only fulfilled Moses’ commitment to the original parties but applied it to the other four cases as well, indicating that the original decision is generally binding and not an exceptional case. The decision was, of course, made according to the precedent of allocation by Elazar, the High Priest (mentioned first), Joshua, and the Nesiim.

The tribal allotment is presented whole (VV. 7-10) combining borders, cities and lands as demarcations, with one very specific boundary. Overall, the emphasis remains on central points and their peripheries. Manasseh’s boundaries were even less clearcut than Ephraim’s with enclaves in the latter tribe, Asher and Issachar. Does this suggest shifting boundaries in the early days? If it does, it is not the purpose of the account to acknowledge that fact.

The term used here for town satellites is b’noteha (her daughters) (VV. 11-13), an appropriate description of a relationship which was more that of a city-state with its subsidiary settlements than a township. This is also reflected in the use here of terms associated with Canaanite cities. It suggests that Manasseh conquered those cities and subordinated their inhabitants but could not eliminate them because of their resolution to stay in the land (V. 13).

The Joseph tribes complain over the size of the inheritance (VV. 14-18). This suggests that there were clear principles of allocation determining how much each tribe should get. The Joseph tribes received the allotment as one because Joseph was one of the twelve sons of Jacob. There was also an appellate process as this chapter shows in two places. Joshua’s response is brusque and straightforward; they are given one allotment and license to conquer more territory promised but not yet granted, not dissimilar to the terms given the Calebites in Judah. This is another sign that, after the allocation, the task of completing the conquest would be left to each tribe or regional grouping of tribes.

After a digression to discuss the establishment of the seat of the tribal federation at Shiloh (see below), the rest of the territorial allotments are discussed in Chapters 18 and 19. The allocation to the seven remaining tribes follows a slightly different procedure, proposed by Joshua (18:3).

Joshua demands that they act and proposes a means for them to scout out the remaining available territory and then bring a request before the allotments committee. In this case, three men are chosen from each tribe — again a federal procedure. Joshua instructs them to write down descriptions of the seven portions (18:6). The Israelites could write. After the tribal representatives of the seven tribes have agreed among themselves as to how the seven portions will be divided, the commission will cast the lots before the Lord to allocate them. Joshua’s proposal is taken as an instruction and is done. The emphasis in the text is on writing the descriptions and on the “book” of descriptions of the remainder of the land; i.e., the descriptions were set down in a scroll or document. The descriptions were given by cities (townships), i.e., according to the perceptual framework described above.

At the very end of the process, Joshua, as national leader, received his allotment from the entire people but within his own tribal area (19:49-50). While Joshua received the ir he requested, it is specified that the Israelites gave it to him per God’s instruction. Joshua built Timnah-Serah as an ir in Mt. Ephraim. This is the only reference to building a new permanent settlement in the book but should not be taken as the only case in which this was done. Joshua was sufficiently important to warrant the mention; perhaps as a model.

The Levitical allotment completes the division of the land. Two accounts seem to be merged here, first a general list of the allotments by Levitical family and tribe (21:4-7) and then a detailed list of cities (21:9-40). The heads of the fathers of the Levites have to make their constitutional claim. They refer to their occupation as cattlemen and their need for arim with fields. In other words, they had to support themselves by their own labor and could not count on maintaining themselves through their ritual services. They were not a clergy living off the labor of others. This is an old Jewish tradition, part of the approach to civic life of the edah. While the constitution promises the Levites cities, the tribal authorities had to do the allotting from their respective inheritances (V. 3).

The final verse in Chapter 19 gives a summary of the division, reemphasizing the constitutionality of the procedure.


A Seat of Government: The Tent of Assembly at Shiloh


As part of the settlement of the land, the Israelite tribes establish Shiloh as the place of national assembly and seat of the federation by locating the tent of assembly there (18:1). Shiloh appears here for the first time on the pages of Jewish history as a concrete place, but it is well to recall the cryptic reference in Jacob’s final blessing of his sons, the tribes of Israel (Genesis 49:10), Lo yasur shevet meyehudah v’mehokek miben raglav ad ki-yavoh Shiloh v’lo yikhat ‘amim, which is interpreted by some to suggest that Judah (which could mean David’s house) shall rule until the true ruler comes in the messianic age. In Jewish literature, Shiloh acquired an association with the final redemption and the restoration of the original Israelite polity.

In essence, Shiloh was designated as the place where the tribal delegates convened to deal with national affairs. Not a capital like Jerusalem became later (or like Paris or London today, but a seat of government, like Philadelphia for the United States between 1776 and 1790, or Brussels today for the European Community. Shiloh is referred to as mahaneh(camp) (V. 9), in part simply because it was that, not a permanent settlement, but one suspects also because of the tradition brought out of the desert that the Lord’s habitation cannot be fixed in a permanent settlement. This tradition had clear political implications and was to be an element in the constitutional controversy over the establishment of Jerusalem as the national capital after David’s conquest of that city.

Shiloh remained the legitimate seat of the tribal federation throughout the existence of that regime, until it was destroyed by the Philistines, one of the acts that led to the people’s willingness to entertain a constitutional change of great magnitude. When David moved the Ark of the Covenant to his new capital, it was a decisive sign of the shift in regimes.

The description of the inauguration of Shiloh as the federal seat is constructed with care to utilize the formal terms for political assembly, viz. vayakahalu (they assembled) related tokahal (congregation, assembly) — the term for formally congregating or assembling; Adath bnei yisrael — lit.: the assembly of the sons of Israel — the formal term for Israel as a body politic; vayashkinu — a formal term that implies setting something down, setting it up, and making it a fixture; Ohel Mo’ed — the tent of assembly where the business of theedah is done.


The Cities of Refuge


Another essential element in the Israelite polity was the provision of cities of refuge. they were set aside in the fulfillment of the Mosaic injunction (20:2) to give refuge from the blood feud to those who commit manslaughter by accident. Six cities, each a major one in its region, are set aside as regional centers (20:7-9). This is also evidence that the land was considered divided into six principal regions. This provision indicates how it is possible to deal with tradition by dealing with it sideways, rather than attacking it head on. Little could have been accomplished by simply trying to abolish the feud system without a substitute. Here was a substitute that replaced it without harshly violating public sentiment.

In giving a description of the function of the cities of refuge, this chapter gives us a picture of some of the processes of government of Adat Bnei Yisrael, especially local government and the judicial system. The perpetrator still must stand trial before the edah (i.e., his peers) or he can wait until the incumbent High Priest dies when there is an amnesty. This account suggests five important points about Israelite judicial procedures:

  1. Trial by the edah means under the laws of the Torah, not tribal custom. The latter is simply the custom of the blood feud. It is superseded by the new positive legislation of the Torah for the whole nation.
  2. Implicit here is some form of trial by one’s peers, a major element in securing equity as well as justice.
  3. The High Priest is the highest human judicial authority (in great part because he can cast lots indicating the Divine judgement).
  4. There was a practice of general amnesty upon the death of the High Priest. This is another reflection of the separation of powers system in operation in the edah. In other polities, general amnesties usually were granted at the death of kings. 5) Resident aliens as well as citizens have the privilege of refuge and trial before the edah, as they have the privilege of Sabbath rest and other rights.


Joshua’s Farewell Addresses


The final section of the Book of Joshua consists of the last three chapters of the book: 22, 23 and 24. They resume the narrative after the long interruption to deal with technical matters involved in the distribution of the land. In terms of the larger meaning of the book, they deal with two final problems, both of which were of vital importance at the time of Samuel.

The first of these problems is that of national unity or more particularly, intertribal unity, in the political sense. It is dealt with in Chapter 22 through a tale involving the tribes that had been allotted land on the east bank of the Jordan. Again, what we have is a case study to illustrate a particular problem that confronted the tribal federation and to indicate a solution to that problem within the framework of the Israelite constitution.

The second problem is the larger question of the entire future of the Israelite tribal federation. This question is raised and discussed by Joshua, first in an address delivered to the leaders of the people and then in a covenant-making ceremony, to the people as a whole. These farewell addresses are great literary expressions as well as important political statements. They are fitting summations of a great political work and were no doubt intended to be eloquent and moving in their impact as well as important for their ideas.


National Unity Tested


Chapter 22 begins the concluding section of the book with the demobilization of the armies (VV. 1-6) and the curious story of a near-civil war (VV. 10-34). The campaign is over. Victory, though not altogether complete, has been substantial and the task so precariously initiated has been brought to a successful conclusion. For the moment, the wars are done. Now the tribal levies are disbanding, returning home to take up peaceful pursuits. As in all such cases, there is a mixture of happiness at being able to return home to family and civilian life, yet at the same time the rigors of the campaign are receding into the background and the joys of military comradeship and recollections of the excitements of battle prevail. Joshua, recognizing this, makes a short parting speech before the men leave for home, one whose purpose is, in the main, political and moral. It is the first of a long tradition of republican farewells. One familiar with American history recalls George Washington bidding farewell to his officers in Fraunces Tavern in New York and, in the process, reminding them of the ideals for which they had fought, discouraging them from their efforts to make him a monarch and forcing them to pledge themselves to maintain republican government, or, in a very different vein, Robert E. Lee’s farewell to his troops after the surrender at Appomattox, when he gently suggested that they go home to pick up the remnants of their shattered lives in order to rebuild their beloved southland within the Union. In the main, Joshua’s farewell can be seen as a model for such conclusions not only in every classical history of a military campaign but for republican armies with great commanders whose last charge to their troops is to be faithful to the republic and its constitution.

The military forces of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and that part of the tribe of Manasseh which had been allotted land on the east bank of the Jordan, assemble at Shiloh, are relieved of their duties in the conquest and are demobilized to return home, with the thanks of Joshua speaking on behalf of the nation. In a special farewell message, Joshua charges them to remain true to the covenant. Their demobilization is described in a scant six verses, yet one can feel the emotional aspects of the event clearly from the tone of Joshua’s words.

In Joshua’s talk, he reminds the troops from the east bank how well they have observed Moses’ injunction that they participate in the campaign and, in effect, commends them for doing so. He thanks them for following him (attending to my voice) and supporting their brethren. His thanks and his commendations are couched always in terms of their keeping the Lord’s commandments and Moses’ injunction. Those words are but a prelude to his exhortation that they continue to take diligent heed “to keep the commandment and the law, which Moses, servant of the Lord, commanded you, to love the Lord your God and to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments and to cleave unto Him and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul” (verse 5). The implications are clear. The commandments were not simply temporary commandments to join their brethren in the war of national conquest but also permanent commandments obligatory even when they are in their tents in the land of their possession.

The narrator finishes the account by saying, “So Joshua blessed them and sent them away and they went unto their tents” (verse 6). The style is such that the narration encapsulates a description of the behavior expected of all Israelites, no matter what tribe or what military situation. It restates the immediate obligation to serve the national cause and the larger obligation to maintain the Lord’s commandments with love in war and peace. Joshua provides an additional farewell to the half-tribe of Manasseh (VV. 7-8). It is a very different kind of farewell than the one in the first six verses of the chapter. It raises no moral questions but is rather a reference to the material gain allocated to them as part of the conquering army. Perhaps it is designed to indicate that the shares of the spoils were so divided as to include both branches of the tribe equally. The closest thing to a moral injunction in this message is Joshua’s statement that they must divide the spoil of their enemies with their brethren, that is to say, those men who had stayed behind to guard the women and children.

There follows the story of a near civil war, which tells how a misunderstanding of the purposes of the eastern tribes in building an altar almost leads to internal conflict between the tribes.

When the two and a half tribes returned to their regions (gelilot or nodal regions is the term used), they built a great altar, apparently at a central point along the Jordan. this was viewed by the Israelites on the west bank as a secessionist activity because, though couched in terms of religious observance, it really deals with a political question. The establishment of a new center of worship for that part of the nation living east of the Jordan could have involved shifting the center of their political loyalty as well (cf. I Kings 12:28-33 — Jereboam’s construction of new sanctuaries after the secession of the northern tribes).

Before engaging in precipitous action, however, the Israelites send a delegation to the eastern tribes to warn them of their sin and its consequences. This delegation is properly drawn under the terms of the Israelite constitution. It includes Pinchas ben Elazar, the son and heir of the nation’s High Priest, which office, as we have seen before, had an important function as arbiter of inter-tribal affairs and is apparently responsible for the maintenance of a more nationally-oriented viewpoint on questions that touch the most important interests of the various divisions of the nation. He is accompanied by delegates I) from each of the ten west bank tribes. The account adds that the delegates in this case were the chief officers of the tribes, that is to say, the highest civil and military leadership, obviously because of the gravity of the issue.

The procedure itself seems to be a constitutional one: that is to say, the edah as a federal body warning tribes that are straying from God’s constitution of the consequences of their actions before actually taking action against them, thus giving them the opportunity to turn from (repent) their erroneous ways. This is a common feature of polities founded by covenant or compact. It becomes part of the political process of Israel in other ways as well, e.g., the prophet’s warning to the people and their kings in later centuries. Subsequently it is incorporated into such covenantal polities as the Puritan colonies of New England as a regular device in which ministers issued warnings to governmental and religious bodies calling attention to the terms of the covenant and calling them back to those terms.

The mission from the main body of the nation delivers the warning and asks the two and a half tribes directly whether they are engaged in a rebellious act, forcefully reminding them of the precedents which would make them believe that building an altar was a rebellious action. They also indicate that the violation would lead to God’s anger at the whole edah. They suggest a remedy if there is a real problem.

The two and a half tribes reply to the delegation through their leaders and deny any interest in rebelling against national authority. They were not secessionists but were seeking to find a way to communicate to their descendents the unity of the tribes on both sides of the river under the Lord’s covenant. Through an oath-like formula, they affirm their belief in the Lord and that He knows they are not rebels, in the most emphatic possible manner. The oath uses all the names commonly used for God in one linked sentence, perhaps to indicate that they all believe in the same God, and that He is their God. Moreover, they deny that they built the altar principally for sacrifice but that it was built as an historical monument to remind their descendents of the connection between the Israelites on both banks of the river, and of their concern for that connection. Their statement is simple yet moving: “In time to come your children might speak unto our children saying, what have ye to do with the Lord, the God of Israel, the Lord hath made the Jordan a border between us and you; you children of Reuben and you children of Gad, you have no portion of the Lord, so might your children make our children cease from fearing the Lord.” Finally, the two and a half tribes reaffirm their ties to the Tabernacle at Shiloh while the local altar is formally names as a witness that the east bank tribes accept the Lord as their God.

This explanation not only satisfies the delegation but pleases them. In the name of the delegation, Pinchas says, “This day we know the Lord is in the midst of us because you have not committed treachery against the Lord.” The delegation returns, makes its report, the edah is satisfied and the threat of civil war is ended. Only the action of the western tribes in sending a delegation to warn their confederates of their sin and the innocent reaction of the eastern tribes saves the day.

To what extent the case is historical, to what extent is it based on a reworking of an historical incident, is beyond our present competence and knowledge to ascertain. What is clear is that the author is trying to demonstrate once again how the nation could remain united and could solve the disagreements that could potentially lead to civil war under the constitution he is advocating. The concern of the east bank tribes to remain united with their west bank brethren is strongly emphasized here. It is less a concern with their own descendents’ connections to the west bank than with the attitudes of the descendents of the west bank tribes to those who might be on the east side of the river. Thus, it is suggested that it is the isolated tribes who desire unity most of all. Of course, this is an exact contradiction of the situation described in Judges where every incident involving intertribal rivalries is played up to indicate the necessity for a monarchic form of government in order to create national unity.

Why is this story included? It appears to be the final nail to hammer into the coffin of the monarchists. The only argument left unanswered in the chronicler’s effort to disprove the arguments of the monarchists that the federation as a political system could not solve its governmental problems is the argument of internal conflict. It has already been shown that when properly constitutional, the tribal federation could conquer the land, handle its division, and deal with Israel’s external enemies. The question still remains whether, in time of peace, the tribes could be held together in spite of divisive tendencies among them. The monarchists argued that they could not. This story offers testimony that the federation could deal with internal conflict through the mechanisms of its political system (in this case, the assembly of the aggrieved tribes as the edah, the selection of a high level delegation, and the utilization of discussion and negotiation to clarify the issue and arrange a compromise), if they are fully in place and functioning. This final example of the tribal federation in action and of the mechanisms of its polity concludes the argument made in this most political of books. All that is left is Joshua’s farewell address to the nation as a whole.


Joshua’s Farewell Address to the Assembled Leadership


Chapter 23 is the first of two final chapters that comprise Joshua’s farewell to the people. As in the Torah (Deuteronomy), the final section is the leader’s farewell in the form of a summary teaching and a renewal of the covenant. Joshua first assembles the governing officials of the whole nation and addresses them. His message is directed to them as leaders or governors and emphasizes the problem they will confront of popular assimilation into Canaanite culture and how the success of Israelite settlement in the land depends upon faithfulness in maintaining Israel’s covenant with God. Joshua formally continues to support driving out the Canaanite remnants from the land and warns the leadership of the potential consequences if that is not done. A comparison of Chapters 23 and 24 indicates that the first is a preliminary message to the leaders of the people prior to a renewal of the covenant with the people as a whole in the second. The two chapters can be read as illustration of the difference between the mode of addressing leaders with their special responsibilities, and the mode of addressing the people as a whole in a democratic republic. From the context, it can be concluded that Joshua assembled all the holders of tribal and national offices in Israel (V. 2). The phrase Khol Yisrael (all Israel) refers not to the people but to the representatives of the people. The representatives assembled are mentioned explicitly by category, using the technical terms that are used throughout the book and in the Torah: Zekenim (elders) — the representative leaders of the individual tribes drawn from the families that composed each tribe, who together constituted the national assembly of elders; rashim (heads) of the tribes; shofetim (judges), those administrators of justice who served the national government; and the shoterim (officers) the civil servants of the national government.

Joshua reminds the assembled leaders of the polity of the political and national rewards that God has granted Israel by His direct involvement in Israel’s affairs (V. 3). he then turns to his central point, namely that even in the lands already conquered there remain remnants of the Canaanite nations (V. 4). The form of Joshua’s reference here emphasizes the permanence of the allocation and consequently of the tribal system.

Joshua reiterates God’s promise to drive out the Canaanite remnants, i.e., indicates that, by implication, God’s command to do so remains in force (VV. 5-6). Inter alia, Joshua emphasizes the necessity for them to maintain their moral character or the quality of virtue, especially in reference to the maintenance without deviation of the laws written in Torat Moshe (the Book of the Teachings of Moses), in other words, reaffirming the necessity for them to abide by the Israelite constitution. In fact, Joshua’s emphasis on the integrity of the constitution is a prelude to its reinterpretation in this case (V. 7). He redefines the commandment to entirely drive out or exterminate the Canaanites to make it a requirement that the Israelites not associate with those remaining after the initial conquest. This constitutional change through interpretation is significant not only in itself but also for the model it offers of how a change is made, i.e., by first reaffirming that there can be no changes and then proceeding with the new interpretation as if it were not new. This model becomes the norm for constitutional change in Jewish tradition, reaching its fullest flowering in the days of the Pharisees and their sages, the Tannaim and Amoraim, and is reflected in their principal product, the Talmud.

The policy of cultural isolationism which Joshua advocates also became a Jewish norm, albeit one usually honored in the breach. The principle was to avoid other than the most casual contact with the nations around them and in particular, to avoid such close dealings with them that would give cause to Israelites to have to swear in their courts, i.e., by their gods. This passage, which sounds like a simple religious prescription, carries substantial social and political overtones as well, because of this point. It is not simply the forbidding of idolatry for fear of the adoption of their neighbors’ idolatrous customs, but it is virtually an interdiction of commercial and social intercourse with them.

The interdiction is continued and made more specific by reference to the problem of intermarriage (V. 12). Here we get to the root of the great social problem. Intermarriage in the ancient world could well mean that the wife would be obliged to raise the children in the religion of the husband, because she lived in the family fold of the husband. Consequently, intermarriage could be considered as a minor problem for the Israelite household as long as the male made the determination as to the children’s way of life. At the same time, the Bible is profoundly aware that the problem is more than one of the formal linkages but one of teaching practices, values, and spirit, that this task is bound to fall more closely on the mother than on the father and that the child’s early exposure should be to a true Israelite, not to the superstitions or beliefs carried over from the pagan world which are likely to remain with the pagan wife, no matter how well she accepts her obligations to her husband.

Beyond the problems incurred within the household, however, there is the larger problem that marriage in the ancient world was a form of inter-familial alliance, bringing with it obligations between the two extended families involved, including mutual respect for household deities under certain circumstances which would create additional unwholesome entanglements. The verse makes clear reference to this without being specific in detail because everyone would know what it meant. The national consequences of intermarriage are made clear; the remaining Canaanites will not be driven out of the land but will remain to trap the Israelites, the disturb their way of life, and ultimately to weaken their attachment to their covenant and hasten their disappearance as a nation (V. 13). Sociologically this is a sound line of argument. Intermarriage will lead to ties between Israelite and non-Israelite families and will make it more difficult for the Israelites to avoid other forms of social intercourse and extremely difficult for them to be willing to drive the relatives of their wives out of the land. Thus the latter are likely to remain, and since human beings tend to be weak and the demands of the Israelite covenant are difficult ones, it is likely that many Israelites will take the path of least resistance and succumb to the customs of the world around them, thus breaking the covenant and assimilating to the larger Canaanite society in which they are located. Since the Israelite nation exists by virtue of its maintenance of the covenant rather than by virtue of particular ethnic ties, abandonment o the covenant will mean destruction of the nation.

Joshua completes his charge by reminding the leaders that, just as all the good things the Lord has promised have been fulfilled, so will all the bad things if they let the people depart from the covenant and its terms (VV. 14-16). He reminds them that Israel’s inheritance of the land itself is contingent upon its maintenance of the covenant. Only for this reason was the land given to Israel and taken away from the sinful Canaanites. If Israel sins as well, it, too, will lose the land. The land, then, is holy and belongs to God who grants custody of it only to holy nations. Needless to say, idolatry here refers not just to image-worship but to the entire corpus of pagan custom and ritual that went with it such as infant sacrifice, ritual prostitution and the like.

Joshua’s message to the leaders, then, is one of advice and exhortation as to the problems they are likely to face in leading the people within the covenant framework in the future. He attempts to point out to them some of the specific problems which they are likely to encounter in maintaining the Israelite constitution and to warn them against neglecting those problems. In sum, it is the message of one leader to others.


The Renewal of the National Covenant


In Chapter 24, the people join with their leaders to renew the national covenant under Joshua’s direction. The covenant-making recounted in this chapter differs from that recounted in Chapter 8 in that there the people made a political covenant subsidiary to the great covenant at Sinai, to establish their polity in the land on firmly legitimate grounds. Here Joshua has them renew the national covenant that constituted the am as am and edah in the first place, itself. Here Joshua is speaking to the nation as a whole. Consequently his address differs in both style and approach from his earlier address to the leadership. In the first place, its language is much more elegant, as befits a covenant ceremony. In essence, it is a full description of the making of a covenant in ancient Israel.

The text explicitly states that all the tribes of Israel and their leaders were assembled at Shechem (V. 1). The phrasing suggests that a ceremony is involved. Indeed, the nation will be asked to reaffirm their covenant once again. The same offices are mentioned, restating the organization of the polity.

Joshua starts the ceremony by reviewing in a few eloquent sentences the history of the Hebrew people from earliest times (VV. 2-13), reaffirming that the sense of historical origins was already important in the Israelite world view. The particularly Jewish sense of history and of the people’s obligation to recall their history is well illustrated in this passage.

The events which Joshua mentions in his historical summary are worthy of note for what they tell us of the Israelites’ historical self-perception:


  1. the pre-Israelite ancestors of the Israelites and their origins in Mesopotamia, to indicate that which sets Israel apart;
  2. their previous idol worshipping ways to remind them that they have no claim to perfection by virtue of their ancestry or kinship, only by their own actions in consenting to God’s authority;
  3. the order of the patriarchs, their movement into the land of Israel and God’s promise of the land as the historical justification for their being in Canaan;
  4. the movement to Egypt which, though it contains no formal mention of slavery, implies slavery as part of the telling to explain why they had to reconquer the land;
  5. the passage of the mantle of leadership to Moses and Aaron, to indicate the beginning of the formal existence of Israel as a nation as distinct from its previous existence as a family, and the beginning of the line of legitimate national leaders;
  6. the plagues in Egypt, the Exodus, the Egyptian pursuit, and the miracle of the Red Sea — all of which serve as testimony to the Lord’s power and the favor He has granted Israel;
  7. the wilderness wandering (though there is no mention of the Sinai experience);
  8. the meeting with Baalam to indicate how the Lord even requires the nations around Israel to recognize the latter’s special providence;
  9. the invasion of the land and its deliverance into the hands of the Israelites intact with its fertility unimpaired — another illustration of the extraordinary goodness of the Lord (beyond the call of duty, as it were); and
  10. the offering of a once-and-for-all choice between the Lord and foreign gods, which is the climax of the narrative. Joshua refers to the contemporary generation as witness to all of the foregoing. This view that all generations were present at the Exodus is a traditional one.


There is no mention of the Sinai covenant here, perhaps because the purpose of the assembly was to freely enter into a covenant accepting their obligations to God, presumably without prejudicing the issue.14

Joshua’s review is a preamble to the covenant to be made. The text explicitly mentions that it is directed to the people to remind them of their origins and founding. The message is delivered in the name of God and in the first person, emphasizing God’s actions as the basis for the founding and redemption of Israel. Each critical event is mentioned in turn, leaving no doubt as to who was responsible for it.

Joshua concludes this section by offering the people the choice that day between serving the Lord or serving other gods: “either the gods your fathers served before you or the gods you will take up in the land of Canaan” (VV. 14-15). He ends, very eloquently, with the statement that whatever their choice, he and his household are committed to the service of the Lord. It is evident that this is not designed to be a neutral appeal, but one that will call the public to reaffirm their covenant with God following Joshua’s example.

The people’s reply is presented in so stylized a fashion (VV. 16-18) that it seems to be part of a formula in which the answer was foreordained. They give as their reasons (VV. 17-18) the very ones that Joshua presented to them as being worthy of their consideration in the first place, albeit in short form and beginning with the Exodus.

The impression that the whole ceremony is stylized and follows a formula is strengthened in V. 19ff. Joshua raises the question again, reiterating it but also adding a new dimension, that it is difficult to serve the Lord, that He is specially set apart, especially jealous of His prerogatives and specially unforgiving of transgressions against His law. In others words, Joshua puts the hardest possible face on the decision and its consequences. This is a formula designed to secure the fullest possible ratification of the covenant even after second thoughts. That is to say, in important actions involving the very consensus upon which political societies are built, people should not be forced into quick decisions. In modern terms, the plebiscite method often used to create the aura of “democratic” acceptance of totalitarian regimes is rejected in favor of a method that allows the people to reconsider their decision and by reaffirming it, strengthen it beyond the limits that a decision based on immediate reactions would normally be considered to have.

The people, either replying spontaneously or according to formula, reiterate their commitment (V. 21). Joshua then tells the people (V. 22) that by giving their consent a second time, they are witnesses against themselves to their decision, that is to say, it can be used against them and their descendents if their descendents backslide. This, in essence, is a third statement of the question to which the people are invited to respond, saying, “we are witnesses.” Repeated reaffirmation (three is a common number of repetitions) adds to the binding and sacred character of the whole.

After this thrice questioning and thrice answering, Joshua summarizes the key element of the covenant, that they must put away their strange gods and incline their hearts toward the Lord, the God of Israel. The people accordingly reply, “The Lord our God we will serve and unto His voice we will hearken.”

Hearkening is a particularly important biblical concept used in place of obeying in other cultures. Hearkening implies choice rather than compulsion, consent rather than blind obedience. In hearkening a person hears and chooses to respond; he is not simply forced to obey. Moreover, hearkening is a dynamic term, reflecting a continuing process of hearing and choosing. Hence, hearken is a covenantal term growing out of a culture that is permeated with covenantal principles and thought forms.

According to covenantal principles, the parties to a covenant must be free to choose and consent. The great biblical covenants emphasize the element of choice as is done in this chapter while the use of the term hearken is an indication of consent. In sum, hearken is one of the great terms of human freedom, a linguistic construct that allows humans to express the acceptance of obligation without the denial of the freedom involved in doing so.

The three oral affirmations are then ratified by a written covenant (VV. 25-26). It must be recalled that a covenant is not the same as a constitution but, rather, the first step in a constitutional process. It calls into or reaffirms the existence of the people and polity to be served by the constitution and the laws. It may be included in a larger constitutional document as it is here but need not be. This written covenant becomes the basis of the constitutional law (hok u’mishpat) of the people or, as it is called in verse 26, the Book of the Teaching of God, and the place where the covenant is formulated and agreed to is marked by a monument, a great stone.

Here we have the conclusion of the ceremony which marks the essence of constitutional government and republican constitutional government at that. The people here consent to the covenant which redefines them. In doing so, they reformulate the consensus undergirding their society. The democratic element is founded on the original power of the people to determine the consensus, ratify the constitution which embodies that consensus, and participate in political decision-making under that constitution in appropriately institutionalized ways. For ordinary matters they have leaders, as indicated in Chapter 23. What they must do is legitimize those leaders by giving them authority and, more important than that, they must set the boundaries, the framework, the consensus within which those leaders must work.

As the final step in the covenant ceremony (V. 27-28), Joshua explains the stone as witness to the covenant-making, that it will be a witness against them to the effect that they have heard all the words of the Lord which Joshua has put before them and have agreed to accept the Lord’s constitution. The scene ends appropriately, with the people dispersing — as the Bible says, “every man unto his inheritance.”


Some Subthemes



The Decay of Civilizations from Within


Inevitably, because of its subject matter, Joshua must deal with an oft-repeated subtheme of the Bible: the decline and fall of polities and civilizations. The Bible explicitly indicates that the Israelite sweep of the land is possible because God has caused the indigenous civilizations to be greatly weakened. The theme is presented clearly in the story of the fall of Jericho, beginning in Chapter 2. Rahab, the prostitute, gives it articulation from the Canaanite perspective. For her, the Israelites were a group which had swept through the neighboring states across the river, completely demolishing them and who attributed their victory to the Lord and told of His other victories for them. These stories would have spread and even been magnified. Part of the subsequent quick initial conquest undoubtedly was due to this psychological preparation of the Canaanites. Later, when they discovered the Israelites were mortals, things became more difficult.

Here, in many respects, was the typical situation where a comfortable and reasonably secure civilization which has relied on others for protection (mainly the Egyptians) is confronted by a wild, strong, almost “barbaric” people “on the make.” There is a loss of nerve and paralysis of will in Jericho, as reflected in the feeling of individuals that they must make their own “deals” for survival in the face of the advance of a disciplined group. The idea of a civilization collapsing from within before it is destroyed from without is actually very biblical. In fact, it is an essential biblical theme — a Prophetic theme. Much later, the Bible implicitly contrasts the collapse of the Canaanite cities where all inner morale was gone and the fall of the Israelite kingdoms where, despite many symptoms of decline, a kernel of toughness remained.


The Future World Order and the Right of Every Nation to the Land Assigned It by God


Chapter 24, verse 4 reaffirms the assignment of the mountain-land of Seir to Esau. The Bible is opposed to Israelite imperialisms or territorial expansion beyond the allotted boundaries and makes its point in this oblique manner. There is an implicit conception in the Bible, reaffirmed again and again in specific statements, that each nation has a right to exist unless and until God decides otherwise (e.g., in the case of the Canaanites).

The Jews have maintained this position ever since. It lies at the root of the Zionist idea; more than that, it is a basic aspect of the Jewish world view. Universal peace and the messianic age are not obtained by eliminating nations but by seeing to it that all nations are located in their proper lands. The messianic era, then, is not one of a single world state in which national differences are leveled but a product of the sum of the nations peacefully located in their own lands and cultivating their diverse integrities. These nations will be bound together (federated) by a common covenant with God and each other without losing their identities. So long as the nations will be bound in harmony and peace by covenant, this is no less a universalistic view than the other.

The biblical view is that national attachment or patriotism is not an atavistic evil to be eliminate din the end of days but, provided that it can be brought into harmony with the universal moral order as set forth by God, love of nation and country can be a positive good. The Bible goes further. If a country is allotted to a particular people by Divine decree, that people can honestly fight for it and even seek to conquer it. Of course, many others aside from the Jews claim the same kind of Divine promise. The fact that some of these claims are patently false does not eliminate the possibility that others may be justified. The problem is always to distinguish the true claims from the false, but this problem is not unique to claims of Divine favor.


The End of an Era


The last section of Chapter 24 (VV. 29-33) deals with the passing of the last leaders of the generation of the wilderness and their burial in the land of their fathers, and hints at what the future will bring. Joshua is buried in his inheritance in Ephraim. Joseph’s remains are reburied near Shechem in the lot purchased by his father Jacob, and Elazar, the High Priest, is also buried in Ephraim. In the meantime, the statement that Israel served the Lord until the last of the elders who knew Joshua (that is to say, those who experienced the generation of the conquest) had passed away suggests that there was a later lapse into idolatry, something which the narrator would undoubtedly know about, since he himself was a product of the later era. The human truth of the impact of the founders on their sons and its subsequent diminution is part of the biblical teaching about the importance of generations in history while the reference to elders as custodians of the nation’s steadfastness is part of the biblical teaching on the importance of proper leadership. This is an opening to dealing with the later lapses of Israel from the antimonarchical perspective. Those lapses were not a result of republicanism per se, but of corrupted republicanism, which is the essence of the message of the Book of Joshua.