Chapter 20

                                Did the post-Moses-era Israelites know about the Torah?

We have seen what appears to be evidence in the prior chapters that the book of Joshua was composed centuries after the events about which it reports, in the kingdom of Judea, after the days of King David, that it shows a strong bias to the tribe of Judah, and that it frequently belittles Joshua who was a descendant of Joseph, tribes that formed the northern kingdom of Israel after the ten tribes broke off from the kingdom of Judah at the outset of the reign of King David’s grandson in the ninth century BCE. We saw that the book is an edited version of at least two, some say four, conflicting descriptions of events.

We also read some apparent indications that the ancient Israelites knew nothing about the Torah until probably the time of King Josiah (649-609 BCE).[1] Among much else, it is significant that none of the biblical books mention Moses’ Torah;[2]none of the Israelite leaders and prophets, who frequently criticize their nation for its faults, ever  criticize them for violating Torah laws; some post-Moses practices are significantly different than those mentioned in Moses’ Torah such as the levirate marriage of Ruth; and there is no indication in the Bible that the Israelites observed important holy days mentioned in the Torah such as the Sabbath and the Festival of Matzot that commemorated the exodus from Egyptian slavery. We also saw that Joshua and the Israelites totally ignored the clear mandate in Numbers 33:50-56 that the Israelites must expel all Canaanites from Canaan lest they be a thorn upon them and entice them to worship idols. The Israelites not only failed to obey this Torah divine command, there is no indication they considered it; it is as if they knew nothing about this Torah command. Instead, they allowed the Canaanites to remain in the country and took tribute from them, until the Canaanites grew strong, became a thorn upon them, and enticed many to worship idols. 

In this chapter we will see that despite Moses’ Torah stating cities of refuge must be established, there is no evidence that such cities were ever created, either in biblical books or other literature. True, they are mentioned in this chapter, but since there is no indication they were ever made and in view of other evidence, scholars[3] feel that this chapter was composed centuries after the time of Joshua[4] and it reflects an ideal situation that was never realized. Its reference to Moses does not suggest that his Torah was known during the early period of Joshua since these scholars argue that the Torah was not composed until centuries after his death.[5]


The six cities of refuge

 Cities of refuge are mentioned in Exodus 21:12-14, Numbers 35:9-34, and Deuteronomy 4:41-43; 19:1-13. Numbers and Deuteronomy give details about the cities. There are differences between these two sources, such as Deuteronomy stating that Moses said that the Israelites should choose the cities of refuge while Numbers has Moses name them, and Numbers states there should be three such cities in Canaan while Deuteronomy 19 states six. There are more differences between these two sources and both differ in small ways with the book Joshua.[6]

 In early times, Israelite and non-Israelite communities allowed people who killed other people sanctuary if they took hold of the temple altar. Exodus 21:14 later restricted this practice to only unintentional killings.[7] The Torah established the concept of refuge cities to save the lives of people who negligently but unintentionally killed a person, an individual who did not deserve to be killed for his deed, from the revenge of a relative, called a “blood avenger.”[8] As long as the manslayer resided in the city, he was safe, but if he left the city, the “blood avenger” could kill him.[9] There were three Levite families and each was assigned two of the six refuge cities.[10]


Urim and Thummim

The Urim and Thummim is another example suggesting the post-Moses Israelites knew nothing about the Torah until the age of King Josiah. Exodus 28:30, Leviticus 8:8, Numbers 27:21, and Deuteronomy 33:8 speak about an Urim and Thummim that the high priest wore to communicate with God to secure divine guidance. While Moses was able to speak to God directly, God advises Moses to have Eleazar the priest use the Urim to communicate with God whenever Joshua and the Israelites “go out.” Yet, there is no indication that either Joshua or Eleazar or any other post-Moses person used the Urim in the book of Joshua or any other biblical book.[11] It is possible that they did not take advantage of its power because it did not exist. The Urim is mentioned in Ezra 2:63 and Nehemiah 7:65 as a hope for the future, but it was not used at the time and these books were composed after the first temple period[12] when everyone agrees the Torah existed. The sole time it is mentioned earlier is in I Samuel 28:6 where it states that God did not answer King Saul by any means, not by dreams, the Urim, or prophets. This may be a late interpolation.


Allowing or commanding the institution of a monarchy

Another seeming proof is Deuteronomy 17:14–20. It states that when Israelites settle in Canaan and desire to appoint a king, they may[13] do so, but the king is restricted in certain ways. Yet I Samuel 8 and 12 describe Israelites requesting the prophet Samuel to appoint a king for them, and he scolds them and says he is opposed to a monarchy. Why didn’t the people respond by reminding him of Deuteronomy 17 or at least discussing whether the people are correct in petitioning for a king? Is it possible that neither they nor he knew anything about Deuteronomy 17?


Where the Israelites enslaved in Egypt?

Arnold Ehrlich was convinced that the early post-Moses Israelites knew nothing about Moses’ Torah. He even questioned the history of the Israelite enslavement in Egypt.[14] He felt that he could support his view with: (1) None of the prophets, except Micah 6:5, mention the enslavement. (2) Micah 6:5 has a different version than the Five Books of Moses. It states that God sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to redeem the Israelites. The Five Books state that only Moses was sent, Aaron was only an assistant to Moses, and Miriam had no role in the redemption other than gathering the women to sing praises that the Israelites were saved at the Red Sea. (3) Scholars say that the song in Deuteronomy 32 is a very old composition. In this version, in 32:40, God found the Israelites in the desert. Thus, Ehrlich feels that the original Israelites were desert nomads who conquered parts of Canaan, settled it, forgot their origin after some generations, and invented a legend that they were saved by God from slavery and brought to Canaan.



[1] See II Kings 22-23 and II Chronicles 34-35 for the history of the finding of the Law.

[2] Torah could refer to the Five Books of Moses, the entire Jewish Tanakh, or just a teaching. The Bible does not use it in the prior two forms in the post-Moses period until the time of King Josiah.

[3] Discussed in Olam Hatanakh’s treatment of this chapter.

[4] Some of the cities assigned as cities of refuge and as Levite towns were not conquered by Israel until the time of King David suggesting a late composition of the book Joshua (Olam Hatanakh).

[5] We will see additional evidence suggesting the early Israelites did not know
about the Torah in future chapters.

[6] There is a detailed discussion of the many differences in Olam Hatanakh. For instance: (1) The Torah does not require the manslayer to defend himself before the elders of the city of refuge before he is allowed entry, but Joshua 20:4 does so. (2) 20:6 seems to have conflicting times when the manslayer can leave the city: “until he stands before the community” and “the death of the high priest.” No reason is offered why the homicide needs to remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest, and there are many rather difficult to understand speculations, such as: the high priest is guilty for not establishing a society or praying for a society where even accidental murders would not occur, therefore he deserves to die; there are connections of sorts between manslayers and the high priest, the former shortens life while the latter helps lengthen it, and the former pollutes the land while the latter cleanses it; and an idea derived from Christian theology: the death of a high priest atones for the sins of the people. (3) Why did the two and a half tribes in Transjordan, whose territory was smaller than that assigned to the nine and a half tribes in Canaan, have the same number of cities of refuge (three)? Rashi on the Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 10a, states that the Israelite citizens of Trans-Jordan needed a large number of cities of refuge because they had more murders than the Israelites in Canaan. Abarbanel recognizes that this cannot be true. The cities of refuge did not accept intentional killers, only unintentional killings. Also, the cities were identified before the two and a half tribes settled the land, before count of murders could be made.

[7] This is discussed in the Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 12a and Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Rotzeach  5:12. See I Kings 1:50 and 2:28-30 for instances where manslayers sought refuge at an altar. The Roman Catholic Church retains the concept of sanctuary at a church, but not a field altar. The concept that an altar is not so holy that it saves murderers fits in with Maimonides’ concept that nothing has a holy essence; holiness depends on human behavior (M. Kellner, Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism, 2011).

[8] Discussed in the Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 10a, Tosefta Makkot 3. The rabbis added many details to this concept, see Makkot 13a and Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Rotzeach 8, including making the 42 cities assigned to the Levites (Joshua 21 and I Chronicles 6) as additional cities of refuge, making a total of 48.

[9] Numbers 35:27.

[10] Although, as previously stated, Deuteronomy 19 seems to indicate that there are nine cities of refuge.

[11] The Urim and Thummim were placed in the folds of the choshen, a garment worn by the high priest. It contained the name of God and was used by the high priest to consult with God on matters requiring divine guidance (Numbers 27:21). Scripture does not reveal exactly what it looked like, or of what materials it was made of, or exactly how it is used. There is a tradition that the letters on it (in Jacob’s sons’ names) would light up and the high priest, by means of divine inspiration, would interpret their message. The Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 73a–b, states that they are called Urim and Thummim because they bring light (Hebrew: or) and are perfect (Hebrew: tam). Although the Urim is mentioned six times in the Torah (Exodus 28:30, Leviticus 8:8, Numbers 27:21, I Samuel 28:6, Ezra 2:63, and Nehemiah 7:65), we have no evidence that it was ever used. Arguably, this does not prove that the authors of post-Pentateuch books knew nothing about the Urim or that the Israelites never used it because this is “an argument from silence.”

[12] The first temple was destroyed in 586 BCE. Ezra and Nehemiah’s date is unknown, but probably around the fifth century BCE.

[13] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 1:1, understood that the Torah obligated the Israelites to appoint a king when they entered Canaan.

[14] In his commentary on Numbers 13-15.