Chapter 11

                                                                  Part 2


There are, not surprisingly, other issues in chapter 11 that are worth paying attention to. The chapter speaks about (1) the northern tribes organizing in a confederation to defeat Joshua, (2) their defeat by a surprise attack by Joshua who totally destroyed them, and (3) the Israelites then turned and successfully assaulted many other northern Canaanite settlements.


Biblical writing style

As in 3:10 and 9:1, although the Pentateuch speaks of seven nations,[1] only six are mentioned in verse 3, and commentators offer a wide variety of reasons for the lapses.[2]

Still more hyperbole

As we have seen, the Torah uses exaggerated statements frequently. In verse 4 it states that Israel’s enemy forces were as many as the sand on the sea shore, a description also used to depict the number of Israelites in the Pentateuch. Both the exaggerated number of defeated enemy forces and the count of future Israelite descendants God promised the patriarchs exalt the Israelites.

Why did Joshua order the cutting of the enemy horses’ muscles and the burning of their chariots?

The Israelites were unable to learn how to use chariots until the days of King David. They did these acts to assure that the Canaanites would not be able to use these war instruments against them in the future. It is unclear why the Israelites could not learn how to use chariots.[3]

How long did the battle against the northern Canaanite tribes take?

Unlike the war in the south which was over quickly, verse 18 states that the northern battles took “many days.” There is a tradition[4] that the wars, some of which are not detailed in the book Joshua, lasted seven years. The count is based on Caleb’s statement in 14:10, where he says the final victory occurred forty-five years after he acted as a spy to reconnoiter Canaan. Since this occurred in the second year of the Israelite stay in the dessert, thirty-eight minus forty-five is seven.[5]

Offering peace to the Canaanites

Verse 19 contains the astonishing detail found nowhere else in Scripture that no Canaanite nation “made peace with the Israelites except the Hivites the inhabitants of Gibeon,” implying that the Canaanite tribes were offered but did not accept a peace treaty.[6] This statement seems to contradict the plain sense of the many tales in Joshua in which he never once gives the Canaanites an opportunity to accept a peace treaty.[7]

Ehrlich notes that verse 19 clearly conflicts with Deuteronomy 20:10-18 which states in 10-14 that one should offer peace with nations encountered after entering Canaan, but 15-17 qualifies this statement. It commands: “So you should do to all the cities that are very far off from you (emphasis added), which are not of the cities of these nations. But the cities of these people that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance (meaning the seven nations), you must save nothing that breaths. You must utterly destroy them….so they do not teach you to do their abominations” (emphasis added).

With the exception of Rashi[8] and Raavad,[9] who maintained that it was forbidden to offer peace to the seven nations, the rabbis noted this difficulty as well as the ethical dilemma of harshly slaying innocent people and proposed a reading of Deuteronomy that required the Israelites to submit peace offers to the seven nations. The Talmud,[10] for example, contends that Joshua was not only allowed but told by Moses to propose peace, and Joshua sent three letters to the Canaanites before entering their country offering peace.[11]

Reflecting this view, Maimonides explains:[12] “Before an attack is launched, whether in an optional or an obligatory war (against the seven Canaanite nations), the enemy must be offered a peaceful settlement…. If the enemy accepts the peace terms and agrees to fulfill the seven universal commands that are binding on Noah’s descendants (everyone), none should be killed. Instead, they must pay taxes and be subservient…. They must accept both terms…. However, if any of the seven nations…refuse to accept a peaceful settlement, not a single one may be left alive…. How do we know that (peace offerings must be made and) these commands refer only to those who did not accept a peaceful settlement? Because (Joshua 11:19) says ‘Not a single city accepted a peaceful settlement’…. From this we can infer that a peaceful settlement was offered, but they did not accept it.” In short, Maimonides sees no conflict between Deuteronomy and Joshua and understands verse 11:19 showing how Deuteronomy should be understood. He probably felt that although the book Joshua never indicates that a peace proposal was made other than this sentence, we can infer from this sentence that peace was offered.[13]  He was relying on a constantly used rabbinical biblical interpretive method whenever two events or statements conflict, the rabbis say there is no conflict; the latter statement shows us how the prior one should be interpreted.[14]

Did God overpower the Canaanites and not allow them to accept peace as stated in 11:20?[15]

Maimonides explains in his Guide of the Perplexed[16] that when the Torah states that God did something the act was natural, but is ascribed to God because God created the laws of nature and is therefore, in a sense, the ultimate cause. Thus this statement should be understood that the Canaanites hardened their own hearts.

Conflicting tales

We saw examples of conflicting tales in chapters 8, 9, and 10.  Verse 21 states that Joshua conquered Hebron while chapter 14:6-15, 15:13-19, and Judges 1:20 state it was done by Caleb and his brother of the tribe of Judah. Some commentators[17] explain that the victory against Hebron is mentioned here to include them among the victories of Joshua since Caleb attacked Hebron (years later) under the direction of Joshua.

However, the issue is more complex. Besides who conquered Hebron, 10:36 and 37 state that Joshua led the Israelite forces and conquered Hebron, which is located in the south, after defeating Eglon during his battles against the southern settlements. That source states Joshua destroyed the town completely. This would leave nothing for Caleb to conquer later. Yechezkeil Kaufman calls this[18] another instance of conflicting versions of historical events in Joshua. He suggests that there were two traditions about the conquest of Hebron and, as with other such problems, both were inserted in this book.

In addition to this conflict and the possible one concerning offering peace, another instance of a conflict is verse 6 where God promises Joshua “tomorrow at this time I will deliver all of them slain before Israel.” Yet, verse 18, as I discussed above, states that it took Joshua “many days” before he was successful. This is not as troubling as the former two conflicts. A possible explanation is: tomorrow I will “begin” to assure your victories. Another is that the tribal confederation was destroyed in one day; then Joshua led his army against other settlements. Still another is that “tomorrow” is hyperbolic for “soon.”

[1] In Deuteronomy 7:1.

[2] Deuteronomy 20:17 also lists only six.

[3] Contrary to what some people want to think, there are many things about Scripture that we do not understand. There are even many obscure words that we can only guess their meaning.

[4] In Babylonian Talmud 118b and elsewhere. There is another tradition in Midrash Tanchuma, mentioned by Rashi, Radak, and Gersonides, that Joshua knew he would not die until the Israelites conquered Canaan, for it states “You will cause them to inherit it (Canaan).” So he drew out his conquest to prolong his life. The legend concludes that God punished him by cutting ten years from his life. Moses died at age 120 and Joshua at 110.

[5] Josephus used 14:10 but miscalculated the time in his Antiquities 5. Instead of using thirty-eight, he used forty, and stated the wars lasted five years.

[6] The story is in chapter 9.

[7] It is true that Moses offered a peace treaty with Sihon king of Heshbon in Deuteronomy 2:24-30, but Heshbon was not one of the seven Canaanite nations that God ordered totally destroyed in Deuteronomy 20, as I will discuss.

[8] Rashi’s view is in his commentary to Deuteronomy 20. He does not comment on 11:19.

[9] He has a cryptic comment in his hasagot, his comments upon Maimonides’ Mishne Torah. Commentators in Mishne Torah note that Raavad’s comment is not clear, except that he differs with Maimonides whose view is discussed below.

[10] Jerusalem Talmud Sheviit 10:5, 16:2. The three offers were: if you are willing to make peace, we are also willing; if you want to leave Canaan, we will let you leave (the Gigashites left); if you want war, make war.

[11] Moses offered peace to Sihon king of Heshbon in Deuteronomy 2:26.

[12] In Mishne Torah, The Laws of kings and their wars, chapter 6.

[13] One who wants to explore this issue further may want to look at Sifrei, Deuteronomy Rabba, Radak, and Nachmanides.

[14] Rabbi Ishmael taught thirteen interpretive principles. The twelfth is a matter is elucidated from a following passage. The thirteenth is if two passages conflict, a third passage reconciles them. These principles are recited in the early part of the daily morning service.

[15] The same idea of divine control is mentioned in Exodus 4:21, 14:4 and Deuteronomy 2:30, as well as many times in the description of the ten plagues brought against Egypt during the days of Moses.

[16] 2:48.

[17] Sefer Yehoshua, Mossad HaRav Kook.

[18] Sefer Yehoshua by Kaufman.