Chapter 23

                                              Joshua’s penultimate message

                                    How many biblical commands are there?


Feeling old and near death, Joshua gathers the people[1] for two final messages.[2] He warns the people that they must obey God’s will.[3] If they fail to do so, they will be driven from the land of Canaan.[4] Chapter 23 contains one speech and 24 the second.[5]


Proof that the pre-King Josiah Israelites knew nothing about Moses’ Torah

I gave more than a dozen examples in the earlier chapters that may indicate that the Israelites did not know about and did not observe Moses’s Torah until the reign of King Josiah. There are four passages in Joshua that seem to contradict this view: 1:8, 8:31, 8:34, and 23:6. The four mention the book of Moses’s Torah, and by mentioning this book seem to show that the people knew about the Torah during the life of Joshua.

An additional possible refutation of the critical view is that there are many phrases in Joshua that are very close to and possibly copies of what is in Deuteronomy, indicating that the authors or editor of Joshua knew about and copied from Deuteronomy.

Critical scholars answer that they are convinced that the book of Joshua was composed long after Joshua’s death, perhaps as late as 550 BCE,[6] and these passages were inserted after the reign of King Josiah, when the book of Deuteronomy was found.[7]

If one accepts the claim of scholars that Joshua was composed during or after King Josiah’s reign, after finding Deuteronomy, then one could say that this phrase “book of Moses’s Torah,” and language which is similar to what is in Deuteronomy, which seems to be inconsistent with the other possible evidence that the Israelites did not know about Moses’s Torah, was inserted into the book at that time and does not prove that the Israelites knew about the Torah earlier.

Arguments can be made on both sides with each producing what they consider to be persuasive evidence and it is up to readers to decide which view they prefer.

Errors in Joshua

            We noted in several prior chapters that errors crept into the Joshua text. The end of verse 16 repeats what is stated in the end of verse 15. It is a quote from Deuteronomy 11:17. It is possible that an editor added it to create a connection between Joshua and Deuteronomy and it supports the possibility that similar additions from Deuteronomy were appended for the same reason. The Greek Septuagint translation lacks this addition, either because it is unnecessary or because the words were not in the version of the book of Joshua the Greek Jews were translating.


[1] Verse 2 states: “Joshua called all of Israel, their elders, heads, judges, and offices.” I pointed out in the past that Scripture uses hyperbole frequently and “all” usually means “many.” I also mentioned that another biblical style is to make a general statement and then follow it with details. Thus this passage could mean that Joshua convened only the tribal leaders, and this is how Gersonides and Y. Kil understood it. However, Abarbanel chose to read it literally: Joshua summoned every single Israelite to hear his final words.

Another instance of reading biblical passages literally is verse 10: If you Israelites obey God’s will, God will help you, “one man of you will pursue (and defeat) a thousand (enemy soldiers).” This can be read as a hyperbolic statement suggesting that despite encountering overwhelming forces, God will help you win. However the Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan 16b, takes the phrase literally and explained that David was only able to slay eight hundred enemy soldiers (II Samuel 23:8) and missed two hundred because of his imperfection.

Seder Olam 12 supposes without biblical support that Joshua led the Israelites for twenty-eight years, four times seven: seven years of conquest, seven of territorial distribution, and fourteen of peace.

[2] Joshua was not the sole biblical person to deliver a final message, Jacob gave a final message to his sons in Genesis 49, Moses did so with the entire book of Deuteronomy, Samuel in I Samuel 12:1-24 “unto all Israel,” and David to his son Solomon in I Kings 2:1-9, and II Samuel 23:1-7 contains “the last words of David.”

[3] Joshua does not detail any biblical commands, such as the Sabbath, nor did he mention that they should keep all the 613 commandments in the Torah. He simply said do all that is written in the book of Moses’s Torah. This is not surprising. Moses also didn’t detail commands or say that there are 613 biblical commandments. The first report that the Torah contains 613 commandments occurred in the third century C.E., when Rabbi Simlai mentioned it in a sermon that is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b. We do not know if he invented the number 613 because it made his point: a person should observe the Torah with all his body parts (248) every day (365), the two numbers happen to equal 613. “Rabbi Simlai gave as a sermon (darash Rabi Simlai): 613 commandments were communicated to Moses, 365 negative commands, corresponding to the number of solar days [in a year], and 248 positive commands, corresponding to the number of the members [bones covered with flesh] of a man’s body.”

Ibn Ezra recognized that if people count all of the divine commandments recorded in the Bible, the number would be well over a thousand; and that if only the commandments relevant to his day were numbered, the total would be less than three hundred. He wrote in his Yesod Moreh 2, “Some sages enumerate 613 mitzvot [divine commandments] in diverse ways…but the truth is that there is no end of the number of mitzvot…and if we were to count only the root principles…the number of mitzvot would not reach 613.”

Nachmanides writes in his commentary to Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot that the 613 count is a matter of dispute and there is no certainty that it is true, but since “this total has proliferated throughout the aggadic (semonic) literature…we ought to say that it is a tradition from Moses at Sinai.” The latter phrase means: it is as if it was mandated at Sinai.

Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran (1361–1444) summed up these views in his Zohar Harakia: “Perhaps the agreement is that the number 613…is just Rabbi Simlai’s opinion, following his own explication [account] of the mitzvot. And we need not rely on his explication when we come to determine the law, but rather on the talmudic discussion.”

[4] Since the author of this chapter speaks about the Israelites being driven from their land, The Cambridge Bible Commentary and other critical commentaries contend: “The writer reveals the situation in which he is writing, the Babylonian exile” of 586 BCE, when the Judeans were exiled from their land because the prophets at that time said they did not act as God demanded.

Kaufman observes that while the Pentateuch (Numbers 33 and Deuteronomy 7) commands the Israelites to expel the Canaanites from Canaan, Joshua 23 contrarily states that God will do it in the future, as does Judges 2. Kaufman suggests that by the time of the Judges the Israelites lost faith in their ability to overwhelm the Canaanites.

Kaufman highlights that contrary to the Israelites repeated grievances against Moses’ leadership and Moses’s complaints to God, there is no indication in Joshua that either Joshua or his people were ever pessimistic and protested their situation. Y. Kil writes similarly, the Israelites during the time of Joshua “worshipped God” with all their heart. No violation is recorded in the book other than the act of Achan in chapter 7.

[5] Some scholars see chapters 23 and 24 as two final messages delivered at two distinct times, as the text seems to indicate, while others, such as Abarbanel, read them as a single last speech.

[6] Obviously not everyone agrees. Y. Kaufman, for example, sees internal evidence that the book was composed shortly after the events they narrate.

[7] Josiah lived between 641 and 609 BCE. This story is found in II Kings 22 and 23 and II Chronicles 34 and 35.