Unusual Bible Interpretations – Joshua 1

 

                                                               Joshua  Chapter 1

                                                                By Israel Drazin

 

Having completed 54 Unusual Bible Interpretations on the Pentateuch, I have begun this series on the next biblical book Joshua. I will focus on one chapter every week.

 

                                                      

The Book Joshua

The first chapter of Joshua presents its history using the number three.[1] It focuses on God giving him his mission after Moses’ death: (1) to cross the Jordan and conquer Canaan – which is described as including what is today called Lebanon and parts of Syria;[2] (2) Joshua’s command to his officers to tell the people that they will begin the crossing in three days;[3] and (3) his reminder to the two and a half tribes, who would be allowed to retain land in trans-Jordan, that they must first lead the Israelite army in conquering Canaan.[4] The chapter includes God’s three-time repetition that Joshua remain strong for he is assured success in the conquest;[5]

 

Some characteristics of this biblical book

We will see many strange and interesting matters in our study of the book Joshua. Moses had sons, but like many other biblical heroes who had sons, Moses sons were apparently unfit to assume the leadership of the Israelites. Joshua succeeded him, but he had a curious unsuccessful history and was a generally unsuccessful leader after Moses’ death.

The book reports incidences out of chronological order. This is not unusual. The biblical book Judges does so as well, and the second century CE Rabbi Ishmael said that the five books of Moses also sometimes does so.[6]

The book Joshua is filled with miraculous events. Some Bible commentators understood some or all biblical events as allegories or parables or dreams, such as Maimonides interpretation of Jacob wrestling with an angel being a dream he had because of his fears. Other sages, such as Nachmanides, accepted biblical statements as literal truths; he believed Isaiah’s prophecy about a wolf and lamb lying together (11:6-9), that animals would become non-carnivorous in the messianic age. Maimonides preferred seeing the world functioning according to natural law, the laws of nature. Nachmanides believed that God performs miracles daily: no leaf falls unless God dictates “fall, keep falling.”

Similarly, while many people understood biblical prophecies as predictions of what will occur, others, such as Tosaphot Yevamot 50a, s.v. teda, and Malbim on Isaiah 11, saw prophecies as predictions of what should happen. In fact, they note that most if not all famous biblical prophecies never occurred.[7]

We will have opportunities to see how these ideas play out as we look at future chapters.

 

Who was Joshua?

In his book Vision from the Prophet and Counsel from the Elders, Rabbi Hayyim Angel states that we are not told who Joshua is or why Moses chose him as military commander in the Israelite battle against Amalek or why he was a perfect candidate to succeed Moses. “The omission of Joshua’s pedigree in the Torah and in the book of Joshua implies that his noble background was not a significant factor in his being chosen.”

Numbers 13:16 states that his original name was Hosea, but Moses changed it to Joshua, by adding the Hebrew letter yud in front of Hosea.[8] Yet, Deuteronomy 32:44 still uses the name Hosea. Why? We don’t know.[9] The Torah gives no reason for the change, although the Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 34b, imagines that Moses added the yud, which is part of God’s name, so that God might save him from the wicked counsel of the other spies who were sent to Canaan to see if the land could be conquered. This interpretation is problematical. If Moses foresaw that ten of the twelve spies would return with bad advice, why did he send them?[10] Also, did Moses think that Joshua was so weak he needed God’s help to give proper advice? Was Moses, according to the Talmud, performing a magical act?  

The Torah states that Joshua was Moses’s attendant. But, as Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabba 9:11 notes, Moses wasn’t always satisfied with him: there “are two statements of Joshua which Moses disliked. One concerned the appointment of elders (Numbers 11:27-29) and the other was at the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:17-18).” Joshua was one of the two faithful spies who gave favorable reports about Canaan, along with Caleb. But as Angel notes, “Caleb spoke out in the first round of the debate (about the possibility of conquering Canaan, Numbers 13:30), whereas Joshua joined him only after the people were irreversibly demoralized (Numbers 14:6-10). Why was Joshua initially silent?” We don’t know. It is true that Moses selected him to lead the army against Amalek, but it seems that he wasn’t very successful in this also; the Torah states that the Israelites only prevailed when Moses was able to raise his hands.[11] The Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 75a, describes Moses’s face as like the sun while Joshua’s face is like the moon. Is it saying that Joshua has glory only to the extent that he reflects Moses’s teachings? In short, Joshua was a questionable leader from the start and, as we will see, despite the book Joshua seemingly insisting that he became a successful leader, the facts in the book itself will show that he was not very successful.

 

Three days?

The Bible frequently uses imprecise rounded-off number. For example, Exodus 1:5 states that seventy descendants of Jacob came with him to Egypt, but a count of those people named reveals far less than this number. The Bible frequently uses the number seventy to indicate “a lot,” as in the notion that there are seventy nations in the world. Similarly, seven is used to indicate something that is complete, such as seven days of creation; and a child being circumcised on the eighth day, indicates a new beginning. Also three is used frequently, as Abraham ibn Ezra explains, to indicate something that is long, but not that long, such as Abraham’s journey to Mount Moriah with his son Isaac in Genesis 22. So, too, here. The Israelites did not start their entry into Canaan until longer than three days. They waited for the return of the two spies, mentioned in chapter 2, who took time to travel to Canaan, remained hidden for three days, and then returned to the Israelite camp.

However, the scholar Elijah Kremer, known as the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), understood verse 1’s “after the death of Moses” anachronistically as “after the thirty-day morning period for Moses,” for there is no indication in the Torah that the ancients observed a thirty-day mourning period, and dated it as 7 Nisan, based on a tradition that Moses died on 7 Adar, and said the three-day period ended on 10 Nisan when the Israelites crossed the Jordan into Canaan.

 

Study day and night?

In verse 8, God instructs Joshua to study “this Torah day and night.” The word Torah means “teaching,” and it was used in the Pentateuch to indicate even a single law or a group of laws, but not the entire Pentateuch. What does it mean here? It is obscure. There is no way of knowing what is meant. Some scholars think it refers to the laws that the king was supposed to keep with him at all times (Deuteronomy 17:18-19 – this Torah was most likely the special rules for kings of chapter 17 and not the entire Pentateuch – and the writing of it in a book my be understood figuratively as “keep it in mind’). Most likely it refers to the commands that God gave Joshua in this chapter. For if Joshua was expected to study all the five books of Moses at all times, day and night, he would have no time to fulfill his primary mission of leading the Israelites in conquering Canaan and serving as their leader and guide.

However many people have taken this command to mean that every Jew is duty-bound to study Torah day and night. Arnold B. Ehrlich writes in his Mikra ki-Pheschuto that this conception of the law made a greater impact upon many Jews than everything else in the Torah, and the impact harmed Jews. He points out that a careful reading of the Torah reveals that the duty to know and teach the Torah was a priestly duty and not one that every Israelite was expected to do (Deuteronomy 17:9-11 and 21:5). There is nothing in the Torah commanding all Jews to study it.

He states that the idea that Jews must study Torah “day and night” originated with some rabbis, and since there isn’t enough material in the Torah to require a life-time “day and night” study, they extended the idea and said that one should also study the Talmud daily “day and night.”[12] The three-fold deleterious result, Ehrlich states, is that people who followed this notion (1) did not work as they should and poverty prevailed among these pious Jews and they ignored secular knowledge; (2) people who studied day and night who lacked sufficient intellect offered their understanding of Judaism in books and speeches which was far from the truth, which misled others; and (3) this idea created an undue burden and guilt feelings when they did not study. We can add a fourth, the purpose of learning is to produce good deeds. Learning is a means to an end, not the end in itself. As Shimon says in Pirkei Avot 1:17, “Not learning but doing is the main thing.” Also, Rabbi Hanina said in 3:12, “For one whose good deeds exceed his wisdom, wisdom endures. For one whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds, wisdom does not endure.”



[1] Orators frequently restrict their messages to three points, just enough to stimulate their audience without being overbearing. The number three occurs very frequently in fairy tales as well as the Hebrew Bible.

[2] Some scholars describe this large area as an ideal land for the Israelites, something to strive for. These lands were only acquired during the reign of King David, not by Joshua, and the Canaanites were never driven out of Canaan.

[3] Reminiscing God’s instruction to the Israelites to prepare, for in three days there would be a divine revelation on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:11).

[4] This reflected the idea of the unity of the Israelites with tribes helping one another; however, as we will see, this unity disappeared, each tribe looked out for its self-interest, and there was even civil war later between the tribes.

[5] Which did not happen.

[6] Some biblical commentators, such as Rashi, accepted this idea, while others, as Nachmanides, did not.

[7] Such as the divine prophecy that Joshua would conquer all of Canaan.

[8] Why didn’t the later prophet Hosea call himself Yehoshua? This seems to show that there is nothing wrong with the name Hosea.

[9] Also, Hosea is called Yehoshua, Joshua, before the episode of Numbers 13:16 – in Exodus 17:9, 10, 13, 14, 17; 32:17; 33:11; and Numbers 11:28. A possible answer is that the statement in Numbers 13:16 of the renaming occurred much earlier, perhaps when Joshua became Moses’ attendant, and as frequently happens in Scriptures, and as mentioned previously, it is not placed in chronological order.

[10] Joshua did not make this mistake in chapter 2. He sent only two men who he could trust.

[11] This act may not have been miraculous, but was Moses sitting on top of a mountain overlooking the battle and sending signals to his troops – Exodus 17.

[12] This is contrary to Maimonides who wrote in his introduction to his Mishneh Torah, his compendium of Jewish laws, that people who read his law books will know the law and need not read the Talmuds and their various discussions and disagreements about the law.

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