Chapter 15

Chapter 15 contains three parts: verses 1-12 describes the land apportioned to the tribe of Judah, 13-19 has the tale of Caleb’s brother Othniel occupying the city of Debir and obtaining Caleb’s daughter as a reward, and 20-63 records the principal cities in Judah’s territory. Each of the three sections contains problems.

Judah’s land allotment was huge. The authors of Joshua apparently wanted to emphasize the tribe’s importance. Its territory was larger than the land granted to the two and a half tribes in Trans-Jordan.[1] It also seems that the authors inserted the tale of Caleb and Othniel acquiring land in the midst of their discussion of Judean territory to enhance the role of both men in securing security in parts of Canaan, for Caleb is traditionally understood to have been the tribal leader of Judah and his brother Othniel became the first Judge mentioned in the book of Judges.

Commentators differ whether Judah and the Joseph tribes received land by divinely inspired lots or by conquest. Olam Hatanakh and Kaufman, for example, suggest that unlike other Israelites, the Judah and the Joseph tribes secured land without lots.[2] However, Abarbanel insists that their land was also determined by divine will expressed through a lottery.


Joshua authors extol Judah

            The Joshua authors reveal their preference for Judah not only by describing their land grant first and stating that it was huge. There are other indicators of their partiality to Judah over the two Joseph tribes. As stated in earlier chapters, they seem to highlight Joshua’s failures, his inability to fulfill his mission completely and his physical weakness compared with that of Caleb the Judean, for Joshua was a descendant of the Joseph tribes.

            The listing of cities in Judah’s territory ends with the statement that Judah was unable to conquer Jerusalem.[3] This is a strange comment. There is no reason for mentioning Jerusalem here; the city had no significance during Joshua’s life time and it was not the only unconquered town. Jerusalem gained importance only when King David conquered it for political reasons several centuries later. He set his capital in Jerusalem between the northern and southern tribes, to give preference to neither of them, to unite the tribes into a single nation. The fact that it is mentioned, along with many other indicators, led scholars to think that Joshua was composed by Judean authors as late as the reign of King Josiah (641-609 BCE).[4]

The tale of Achsah

            Caleb captures the city Hebron[5] and promises to wed his daughter Achsah to whoever annexes the near-by town Debir.[6] Caleb’s brother Othniel does so and married Achsah. The cryptic tale continues.[7]

And it came to pass, when she came unto him, that she persuaded him to ask of her father a field; and she alighted from off her ass; and Caleb said unto her: “What wouldest thou?” And she said: Give me a blessing; for that thou hast set me in the Southland, give me therefore springs of water.” And he gave her the Upper Springs and the Nether Springs.

            The story raises many questions, including the following:

  1. Why is the story told here and repeated almost verbatim in Judges 1?
  2. Who “persuaded” whom, Achsah persuaded Othniel or the reverse?[8]
  3. Is the word JPS rendered “persuaded” better translated “encouraged.”
  4. What did Achsah want?
  5. Did Caleb give his daughter a field when she wed and now she wanted water for it?
  6. Should berakhah, which JPS interprets as “blessing” be “a gift,” as some commentators[9] claim?
  7. Should negev, for which JPS has “Southland,” be “dry land”?

Some offered answers may not satisfy many people.

Abarbanel suggests that Achsah had to request her husband to beseech her father Caleb because (in this pre-women’s lib age) it was improper for any woman to request something from a man, even her own father. When Othniel refused to do so, he gave her permission to speak to her dad.

Rashi, who inserted many midrashic tales into his commentaries, understood that Achsah rushed to her father to complain that the husband he gave her was unsatisfactory. Othniel was incapable of pursuing any lucrative occupation; he spent his entire day studying Torah. True, he could remember over 3,000 laws that other Israelites forgot when they mourned Moses’ death, but this is not the kind of man she preferred. Caleb comforted her: I gave you a man who is steeped in both the Upper Springs (Torah) and the Lower Springs (securing sustenance). Caleb was right. Othniel became the first post-Joshua Judge and saved the Judeans, mentioned in the biblical book Judges 3:7-11.

Other attempts to explain the obscure tale may be more plausible to many people.

Ehrlich suggests that the story is told twice to emphasize the excellent character of the ancient Israelites. They were like lions in war, but modest in dealing with others. Although Achsah wanted her husband to request land from her father, he modestly refused, and Achsah had to do it herself. It also highlights the worth of Othniel who became the first Judge.

Kimchi and Metzudot Zion understand that she complained that Caleb gave her arid land (negev) and she needed water. The problem with this interpretation, as with most attempts to decipher the tale by imagining unstated events, is that there is no indication in the text that Caleb gave her land.

Still other suggested interpretations are very thought-provoking.

Olam Hatanakh states the Achsah tale is one of the several “biblical wise women stories” about women who show great wisdom.[10] Achsah received no gift of land from her father when she married. She wanted a particular plot of water-rich land located between Hebron and Debir.[11] After her husband Othniel conquered Debir, which was arid land (negev), she nagged him to request her father, the head of the tribe of Judah, to give them a wedding gift of water-rich property.[12] When Achsah saw that her husband refused to request the land from Caleb, she went on her own to him and made her request obliquely, with hints, allowing him to come to the conclusion to which she was wisely leading him. Caleb understood and gave her water-rich property.

Apparent conflicts and mistakes

While we would like to think that this biblical book is error free, it has many apparent mistakes and divergent descriptions of events, as we saw in prior chapters. It appears that the book was assembled by an editor from at least two different sometimes clashing sources; and the editor assembled the divergent versions without conforming them.

                    Apparent conflicts

This chapter attributes the conquest of Hebron to Caleb while Judges 1:8f states the tribe of Judah overcame it.[13]

Verse 20 specifies that the entire described land was allotted to Judah, yet 18:10 reveals that some cities were presented to the tribe of Simeon.[14]

Verse 63 attributes the failure to conquer Jerusalem to the men of Judah, but judges 1:21 assigns blame to the Benjamin tribe.[15]

The boundaries of Judah and the listing of cities within the boundaries do not match.[16]

In verse 18, Achsah wants to acquire “a field,” without the definite Hebrew hay, “the field,” which is in the Judges 1:14 version of the tale. The latter seems to be correct since Achsah wanted specific watered land.[17]  

                      Apparent mistakes

As indicated above, verse 32 totals the number of listed cities as 29, but a count reveals 38. Similarly verse 36 indicates a sum of 14 towns, but 15 are named.[18] Also verse 41 has 16, while only 15 are mentioned.[19]

[1] Judah’s boundary seems to be only an ideal grant; the tribe never acquired all the land allotted to it. For example, Judah was given the area inhabited by the Philistines, which they never conquered. The border of its grant went as far a Nachal Miztrayim, “the Egyptian Stream,” which some scholars identify as the Nile (Sefer Yehoshua, Mossad HaRav Kook), and others as Wadi El Arish (Saadiah Gaon), which was never acquired. In contrast, the Negev desert area below the Dead Sea to Eilat, currently part of Israel, was not assigned to the tribes.

[2] Thus they understand the word “goral” in verse 1 – “the goral of Judah”- as the territory of Judah, not the lot.

[3] Abarbanel argues that this statement should not be taken literally. Surely Judah was able to conquer the city. But they decided not to do so because the patriarch Abraham had promised the Philistine king Abimelech in Genesis 20 that there would be peace between his descendants and those of Abimelech and, Abarbanel contends, Philistines were living in Jerusalem at the time. This story is also in Pirke d ‘Rabbi Eleazar and Kimchi.

Interestingly, verse 8 mentions Gei ven Hinnom, “the valley of the son of Hinnom,” a name which in other places is sometimes written Gei Hinnom, “the valley of Hinnom.” This site was located just outside of Jerusalem. II Chronicles 28:3 and 33:6 describe it as a place where apostate Israelites and pagans sacrificed their children to a god. Jeremiah 7:31 and 19:2-6 considered it a cursed area. Being synonymous with a defiled cursed site, later Judaism and Christianity folk lore considered it to be the name of Hell, where people who misbehave are punished after death. Maimonides, in his Introduction called Chelek, called the concept of the existence of Hell mere folklore; there is no such place.

[4] The Book of Joshua. The Cambridge Bible Commentary.

[5] While some commentators say Caleb did so during the seven years that Joshua led the wars of conquest, Rashi accepts the literal reading of the chapter that Caleb acted after Joshua ceased leading battles and began to distribute land.

[6] Abarbanel asks: how could Caleb make such a promise? The conqueror could have been an unfit person. He replies: his promise was with divine guidance. A similar story is told in I Samuel 17:25, King Saul offered his daughter to whoever could defeat the giant Goliath. David does so and marries Saul’s daughter.

[7] Verses 18 and 19 in the Jewish Publication Society translation. This translation, as we will see is an interpretation of the text.

[8] There are Greek Septuagint translations that have Othniel persuade Achsah, but our Masoretic text has Achsah attempt to persuade her husband.

[9] Olam Hatanakh.

[10] As in I Samuel 25:3. 23-33; II Samuel 14:1-20, 20:16-19,

[11] The Joshua text states “land,” but the repetition of the story in Judges has “the land.”

[12] The practice of a woman receiving a gift from her father when she married is found in I Kings 9:16 when Pharaoh gave his daughter a gift when she married King Solomon, and I Samuel 17:25, King Saul’s gift to his daughter when she married David.

[13] Arguably, when it states Caleb conquered Hebron, it should be understood that he did not do so alone; he led a force a Judeans.

[14] Rashi and Gersonides argue that since verse 32 states that there were 32 cities in Judah’s land, while a count of those listed yields 38, it is clear that 9 of the 38 settlements were originally assigned to Simeon.

[15] Gersonides contends that Jerusalem was not included in the land division because several centuries later it would become, when King David moved the ark to Jerusalem, the land in which all the tribes would worship. See also Maimonides’ Perush to Mishna Negaiim 12:4.

[16] According to Olam Hatanakh.

[17] There are many biblical passages where the hay is missing and others where it is attached when no specific item is intended.

[18] Rashi and Kimchi: what appear to be two cities is actually one with a double name.

[19] Neither Rashi nor Kimchi comment on verse 41. Ehrlich considers all three errors.