Does Joshua 24 deny the revelation of the Decalogue at Sinai?


                                                                       Chapter 24

                        Does Joshua 24 deny the revelation of the Decalogue at Sinai?


The chapter contains an account of a covenant that Joshua made with the Israelites in the city of Shechem[1] toward the end of his life. He persuaded them to agree to never abandon God by worshipping idols. He does so by reminding his people of some parts of their history.

Moshe Anbar[2] sees this chapter as a story written by a different author with a different agenda than the other chapters of Joshua. This author, he claims, wanted to demonstrate that (1) Joshua was an important Israelite historical figure who conquered all of Canaan, in contrast with other chapters in the book that state that Joshua was unable to do so; (2) Joshua was more important than Moses, who Anbar says the author felt was not involved in the Exodus from Egypt; and (3) Moses did not give the Israelites the Decalogue.

In this chapter, we will take a look at early Bible translations and the views of commentators on this subject in an effort to establish whether Anbar’s opinion is a reasonable understanding of the text.


The Narrative of Joshua 24

There are many intriguing subjects to discuss in this chapter. We will focus on four items: Joshua 24 reports that Joshua summons the Israelites to Shechem. He inspires the Israelites by retelling their history. He speaks about “Terach, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nahor.” He describes the birth of Isaac and Jacob, and continues, “and Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. And I [God][3] sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt, according to that which I did in the midst thereof; and afterwards I brought you out. And I brought your fathers out of Egypt.” God says that God saved the Israelites at the Red Sea, that the Israelites “dwelt in the wilderness many days,” and that God brought them into Canaan. Neither God nor Joshua mention the divine revelation of the Decalogue, known as the Ten Commandments.[4]

Before analyzing these items, we must look at what is stated in Deuteronomy and discuss different approaches to understanding the Septuagint.


Deuteronomy 26

Just as Joshua 24 harks back to Joshua’s speech at the end of his life, so Deuteronomy 26 reports Moses’s speech at the conclusion of his life. Moses also recalls the Israelite ancestor: “A wandering Aramean was my father.” He immediately continues, “he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians dealt ill with us…. And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand.” Remarkably, Moses does not mention the Red Sea or the Decalogue.


The Septuagint

Around 250 BCE, the Jews of Alexandria, Egypt, translated the Pentateuch into Greek because many Alexandrian Jews did not understand Hebrew. The translation was called Septuagint, meaning seventy, because of a tradition that the translation was composed by seventy-two scholars.

There are essentially two approaches to understanding the Septuagint. The first, the general consensus among academics today, is that there was an original Torah that no longer exists. Academics call this lost Torah the “Ur-Torah,” or original Torah. According to these academics, three different strands of Judaism copied the Ur-Torah before it was lost, making changes to its wording for various reasons, such as to use the changes to prove their conception of Judaism, or to add clarity, or because of simple errors or misunderstandings. According to this approach, the Septuagint is one version of the original lost Torah, the Samaritan Bible, composed by Samaritans, is a second, and the Hebrew text used by Jews today, called the Masoretic Text, is the third.[5]

The second view, the view of many traditional believers, is that the Masoretic Text is the original Torah, although it contains some errors; the Septuagint and Samaritan Bible inserted changes into this original text intentionally to meet the needs of the groups who were using the two altered versions. They are thus changes to the Masoretic Text, not changes to an Ur-Torah.

Some support for this view exists. A comparison between the alterations made in the biblical passages by the authors of the Greek Septuagint and the later Aramaic translation that was recognized and praised by the talmudic rabbi as a proper rendering of the Masoretic Bible,[6] called Targum Onkelos, shows that the two translators – the Aramaic and the Greek – were motivated by similar and sometimes the same concerns. The translator of the Aramaic version of the Torah purposely made changes in his translation for about a dozen reasons, including to clarify the passages, to conform grammar, to present a more elevated depiction of God, and to enhance the portrayal of the Israelites.[7] The author of the Septuagint was similarly motivated. He also added and deleted items in the Masoretic text for these and other reasons, and did not use a different version than the Masoretic text for his translation.

The Septuagint renders the story of Joshua 24 with some significant changes.


How Does the Septuagint Differ from the Masoretic Text?

There are over three-dozen differences between the Masoretic text and the Septuagint in Joshua 24. The following are some of the most significant divergences:

1.  While the Hebrew reads “Shechem” in verse 1, the Greek has the covenant being made in “Shiloh.” This alteration, as noted by Anbar, was in all likelihood inserted to combat the Samaritans, who considered Shechem a holy site. Thus, because of the change inserted in the Greek, the Samaritans could not claim that Joshua chose Shechem for his covenant because it was a sacred area. The final meeting with Joshua was in Shiloh, not Shechem.

2.   Of far greater significance is the fact that the Septuagint does not contain the phrase “And I sent Moses and Aaron,” although it appears in the Hebrew in verse 5. The Hebrew reads, “and Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. And I (God) sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt, according to that which I did in the midst thereof, and afterwards I brought you out.” Instead, the Septuagint inserts, “and you became there a nation, great, and populous. And the Egyptians afflicted you.” The chapter does not mention the revelation of the Decalogue.

There are several possible explanations for the omission of Moses and Aaron in the Septuagint.

a.   Moshe Anbar argues that the author of Joshua 24 “set Joshua in place of Moses,” giving Joshua leadership in all of the significant events that the Five Books of Moses assign to Moses, including the liberation of the Israelites and the establishment of a covenant between the nation and God. The author of chapter 24 therefore omits Moses and the giving of the Decalogue. Anbar’s conclusion is based in large part upon the premise, mentioned above, that the Septuagint is an independent strand of an original Ur-Torah. He is arguing, in essence, that the Masoretic version copied the Ur-Torah incorrectly when it mentioned Moses and Aaron, and the Septuagint, which omits the names, is translating the Ur-Torah correctly.

b.   It is possible that the Greek translator wrote his version based on the Masoretic text that referred to Moses, but he deleted it because he noticed that while Moses and Aaron are mentioned in verse 5, they do not appear in the rest of the chapter. The Greek translator may have felt that the author of chapter 24 wanted to focus on Joshua alone. He may have also felt that the phrase about Moses and Aaron does not seem fitting within the verse, and decided to omit the names so that the chapter reads better.

c.   The Septuagint’s removal of Moses’ name from the chapter is consistent with the general tendency in Judaism to downplay Moses’ role and to highlight divine acts. Joshua 24 is not unique in deleting Moses from the exodus story. When the history of the Israelite deliverance from Egypt is retold, for example, in the Passover Haggadah, Numbers 20, Deuteronomy 26, Judges 11, and Nehemiah 9, Moses is also not mentioned. Thus the removal of Moses’ name from the exodus account in Joshua 24, even if this was the original version, does not prove that the author of the Septuagint felt that Moses was not involved.


Two arguments Anbar mentions to support his view that the author of chapter 24 was extolling Joshua over Moses

1.  Anbar suggests that the author of Joshua omitted mentioning the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) it because he either knew nothing about it or felt it was insignificant. Actually, as I mentioned previously, it is also absent in Moses’ retelling of the Israelite history in Deuteronomy 26 and most of the other recountings of the exodus mentioned above. While the giving of the Decalogue is an important event in the overall history of Judaism, it did not fit into the purpose of the exodus retellings in the mentioned sources. To illustrate, a husband tells his friend about the wonderful ways his wife treats him; the fact that he fails to mention his son and daughter does not prove that they do not exist – they are simply not relevant to the particular discussion.

2.   The book of Joshua reports that Joshua led the Israelites in a series of three separate battles against the Canaanite inhabitants (chapters 6–8, 9–10, and 11). Some chapters indicate that he was not successful in capturing the entire land, just the areas of the three battles. Other chapters, such as chapter 24, state that he conquered all of Canaan. Anbar, again contending that the author of chapter 24 is different than the author of the other Joshua chapters, writes that by indicating the large success, Joshua 24 is attempting to extol Joshua as a military hero greater than Moses. At least four responses may be given to this. First, chapter 24 is not unique; other chapters also state that Joshua conquered the entire land, such as chapters 11 and 18. Second, it is clear that Joshua did not succeed in all of his conquests and, as I highlighted frequently, it is common biblical style to make exaggerated statements to emphasize a point. Thus, the statement of a full conquest means no more than that Joshua was very successful. Third, David Kimchi writes in his commentary to Joshua 11:23 that the verses indicating the capture of the entire land of Canaan mean that the Israelites captured the borders of the entire land, thereby making the full conquest more likely over a period of time. Fourth, alternatively, the rational philosopher and biblical commentator Gersonides suggests that the verses are only referring to the cessation of hostilities, which, in effect, is as if the entire conquest had ended.



Joshua 24 serves as an excellent example of how a person can read more into the biblical text than the wording warrants. The Greek translation of the biblical story does not mention Moses. While it can be argued that this seems to imply that the author of this version felt that Moses was not involved in the exodus from Egypt, an examination of other biblical and post-biblical recountings of the divine deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt also do not mention Moses, and this is consistent with the rabbinical preference to diminish Moses’s role in the exodus so as to better highlight the divine actions. Thus the conclusion that Moses is not mentioned because he had no involvement in the exodus is very weak.

Both the Hebrew and the Greek translations do not mention the revelation of the Decalogue. Arguably, this could denote that the author did not know of the revelation or was minimizing it. This is Anbar’s contention. However, when it is recognized that the other recountings of the exodus also fail to speak of the Decalogue and that the revelation is really not relevant to the discussion, the absence lacks the significance that is attributed to it.

Reading the statement that Joshua conquered the entire land of Canaan, when it is known from other Joshua passages that he did not do so, does not prove that two separate authors composed the disparate parts. Readers must recall that the Torah frequently makes exaggerated statements, even as people generally do, to emphasize a point, when they know that their listeners realize or should realize that they are doing so.

[1] Why did Joshua select Shechem as the site for his final message and covenant and not Shiloh where the ark was located? Y. Kil suggests that since Joshua established his first covenant with his people in Shechem (chapter 8) he felt it was a suitable area for the final covenant. Shechem was also the site where Abraham and Jacob set up altars in Genesis 12 and 33, respectively. Shechem was the place where Jacob told his family to confiscate their idols (Genesis 35) and therefore a suitable place for Joshua to instruct the Israelites to do the same.

Shechem was one of four biblical places where Scripture states the patriarchs paid for the land: Hebron (the patriarchal burial site (Genesis 23:8-20), part of Jerusalem for the temple site (II Samuel 24:21-24), Shechem (Joshua 24:32), and Shomron I Kings 16:24). The first two were capitals of Judah (Hebron was David’s first capital until he captured Jerusalem), Shechem and Shomron served at different times as the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel (Olam Hatanakh).

[2] Joshua and the Covenant.

[3] Joshua speaks his views in the first and last parts of his speech, but describes God speaking in the middle. This phenomenon occurs often in Scripture.

[4] There are many other interesting subjects that help us understand the Bible, which I will not discuss here. For example, chapter 24 states that Joshua gave his people laws and verse 26 states he wrote it in a “book of God’s Torah,” and Ehrlich remarks this is one of several books mentioned in Scripture that have been lost. Y. Kil comments that we have no idea what is contained in this book; it is one of a multitude of obscurities in the Bible; see Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 11a, for various opinions. Another obscurity is the information that the Israelites did not abandon God during the lifetime of the zekeinim, “elders,” who lived for a long time after Joshua’s death; however, we can only speculate who these elders were, their function, and how long they existed (see Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 105b. Seder Olam 12 speculates that they lasted less than a year). Joshua erected a stone memorial to prompt his nation to remember this Shechem assembly and, as Abrabanel reminds us, this practice of building stone memorials occurs frequently in Scripture. We need to remember that many biblical statements shouldn’t be taken literally: verse 9’s statement that King Balak “fought against Israel” means “he thought about fighting them.” Names are frequently spelt differently in different verses: s-r-ch in Joshua 24:30 is backwards in Judges 2:10, ch-r-s. Joshua died at age 110, the identical age of death of his forbearer Joseph (Genesis 50), and a midrash critiques Joseph: he did not live to age 120, Moses’s lifespan, because he was punished for not contacting his father and informing him he was still alive. No other biblical figure died at age 110.

[5] The third version is named the Masoretic Text because early scholars, called Masorites (from the word masorah, meaning traditional), worked on the text to ensure that it was what they considered the correct original divine text from the past. The Masorites lived and worked during the second half of the first millennium of the Common Era. Different Masoretic versions, with very slight differences, existed as late as the twelfth century. Maimonides examined them and decided which was correct, and his decision was generally accepted. He selected what is today called The Allepo Codex. There are still very minor differences in texts today.

[6] In fact the tamudic rabbis mandated that Jews should read the weekly Torah portion three times, twice in Hebrew and once in the translation Targum Onkelos. It is clear that they did so because despite some ten thousand changes between the Hebrew original and the Aramaic translation; the rabbis felt that Targum Onkelos gave its readers a clear understanding of the plain meaning and purpose of Scripture without midrashic elaborations.

[7] I showed the similarities between Onkelos and the Septuagint and Samaritan Bible in the commentaries to my Targum Onkelos series published by Ktav Publishing House.

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