UNUSUAL BIBLE INTERPRETATIONS: JOSHUA
By Israel Drazin
Gefen Publishing, 2015
Review by Kenneth Lasson
Israel Drazin is a man of many parts.
He is highly educated (two master’s degrees, one in psychology, another in theology, a Ph.D. in Aramaic Literature, a law degree), an ordained rabbi, he practiced law for 23 years. He entered military service at 21 as the youngest U.S. Chaplain ever to serve on active duty – and in 1984, by now a Brigadier General, he became the first Jewish Chaplain General.
He is also author of twenty-six published books and thousands of popular and scholarly articles and reviews – including two children’s books (Can’t start Passover without the Bread and Sailing on Moti’s ark on Sukkot); a novel (She Wanted to be Jewish); and more than one notable volumes on Jewish theology and personalities (amng them A Rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary; Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind, Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets, and Maimonides: Reason Above All. Most recently, he has begun a series entitled Unusual Bible Interpretations.
But Israel Drazin’s most outstanding quality may be that of a truly independent Jewish thinker – no better evidence for which is his current analysis of the paradoxical Book of Joshua.
As many know the book bearing Joshua’s name reveals little about him personally except that he was unable to accomplish the mission God had set for him. Dr. Drazin’s study, thorough and open-minded, reveals not only a fascinating history of the initial entry of the Jewish people into Canaan, but a story that is radically different from traditional interpretations of the event. He confronts challenging questions, analyzes them closely – and provides rational answers.
How much of the land of Canaan was actually conquered in Joshua’s time? When was the Book of Joshua actually composed? Does it contain scribal errors? Is Shiloh – rather than Jerusalem – the place God chose as the central site of Jewish worship?
What about miracles? Did the Jordan River truly part for Joshua? Did the sun stand still at Gibeon? Did the walls of Jericho really come tumbling down?
Drazin’s take on the last question is illustrative of his approach to the others. The central problem with the story of the walls is that Joshua wanted to save Rahab, the beautiful woman who had helped the spies he’d sent to Jericho and who lived in an apartment in the wall (Joshua 2:15). How could the walls be destroyed without touching her? Drazin supplies various explanations from Maimonides, other rabbis, and a number of modern theoloians before offering his own view: “It is reasonable to assume that the wall did not fall, but that this was a biblical poetic way of describing that the Israelitres were able to defeat their enemy.” Rahab was saved according to plan.
Drazin’s responses are shaped by rationalism. He points out errors. He provides historical context, seeking as always to provoke a deeper understanding. His analysis divides the Book into three parts. The first (Joshua 1-12) tells of the conquest of Canaan by a unified Hebrew nation, beginning some forty years after the Exodus from Egypt; the second (Joshua 13-21) describes the distribution of the conquered lands to the tribes of Israel; and the third (Joshua 22-24) recounts the history of the Israelites some fourteen years into the conquest.
Biblical scholars are in general agreement that the Book of Joshua is less a factual history of the Jewish people than a reflection of the nation’s collective memory over time. Though Joshua is considered by tradition as the author, scholars attribute its creation to between the eighth and sixth centuries BCE – some five to seven hundred years after the events took place. Unusual Bible Interpretations follows that line of reasoning, disdaining fables and myths – which is precisely why it will likely be criticized by those who take a more orthodox approach.
In re-examining old questions about the history, morals, and ethics portrayed in the Book of Joshua, Drazin notes its many inconsistencies not only within its own text but as well with other books of the Bible. He gives short shrift to both textual hyperbole and the mystical opinions of midrashic rabbis, in the process choosing to explain history as the result of natural events rather than of miracles. He asks the tough questions, and gives reasoned answers to them.
Joshua still emerges as a fearless but flawed hero, but without rabbinical spin. Yes, he won the battle of Jericho, but more by military prowess than by virtue of a miracle. He takes the same rationalist approach with the other questions posed. In one of his earlier books, Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets, Drazin recounts how the principal of a Jewish day school had told him that Joshua and some other Biblical books were not taught because “they raise too many questions and we don’t want to address these issues.” According to Drazin, the Book of Joshua is also not a large part of the education of students in Jewish rabbinical seminaries.
But it should be. Drazin’s take on Joshua is consistently interesting, informative, and provocative. All in all, Unusual Bible Interpretations: Joshua is well worth reading.
Kenneth Lasson is a law professor at the University of Baltimore and author of the forthcoming book, Sacred Cows, Holy Wars.