By Israel Drazin


                                                       Unusual Bible Interpretations – Joshua


                                                                                  Chapter 4


Chapter 4 continues the story of the first miracle of the conquest, the splitting of the Jordan River as the Red Sea was split for Moses, the way Israelites crossed it, and how they memorialized the event. It raises the question: Did many errors creep into the biblical text? This is a question that has bothered many traditional religious people.


Two stone memorial?

The text as passed on to us today, raises questions.  In 3:12, Joshua orders the selection of twelve men, one from each of the twelve tribes, but does not reveal why he did so. This is clarified somewhat in chapter 4, for exactly what the twelve men did and when they did it is unclear. There seems to be a minor textual error of a single letter that caused what some, including Ehrlich, consider a strange interpretation.


Verses 1-3 states that Joshua told the twelve men to take twelve stones to Gilgal.[1]  Verses 9 states “Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests that bore the Ark of the Covenant stood.” Where these two sets of twelve stones?[2]


If the book had the Hebrew letter hay, “the,” before “twelve stone” it would be clear that the verse refers to “the” twelve stones mentioned in 1-3. Verse 9 would be saying that before the twelve men took the stones to Gilgal, they should set them in the middle of the miraculously dried Jordan River as a platform on which the priests who were holding the ark could stand. The Israelites crossed the Jordan and felt God was assisting them when they saw the ark. However since “the” is missing, many think that there were two events: twelve stones were taken to Gilgal and twelve were set in the Jordan.[3]    


No: only one set of twelve stones

Ehrlich was convinced that there was only a single group of stone carriers.[4] He noted that the word before avanim, “stones,” in verse 9 ends with the Hebrew letter hay. He thought that a scribe copying the original text which had a hay attached to avanim, meaning “the stones,” became confused and omitted the hay that originally was attached to “stones.” The original text said “Joshua set up the twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan.” In other words, Joshua selected twelve men to carry stones to Gilgal where they would become a memorial for the miraculous crossing of the Jordan. However, before starting to carry them to Gilgal, they should place the stones in the middle of the now dry Jordan as a platform that the priests could stand on.[5] After the priests left the Jordan, the twelve were to return to the Jordan, pick up the stones, and carry them to Gilgal.


Ehrlich’s interpretation seems reasonable. The book Joshua states what should be done to the first twelve stone: take them to Gilgal to serve as a memorial. However it gives no reason why the second set of twelve stones[6] should remain in the Jordan. Furthermore, isn’t it likely that when the Jordan resumed flowing, the stones would be covered and perhaps even knocked about.


Errors in the text

Ehrlich mocks rabbis who refuse to recognize that mistakes occurred in the biblical text. They turn a blind eye, for example to the many times that the Masorites needed to determine the correct Bible text in the second half of the first millennium CE, and later Maimonides had to decide which of the Masoretic wordings was correct. Also, the Masorites indicated mistakes on the side of pages of biblical books. There is one such notation in this chapter: the letter bet in verse 18, ba’a lot, should be a kaf. The two letters are very similar, and it is easy for a scribe to mistake them.


Ehrlich also considers the statement in verse 10 that the priests stood in the middle of the Jordan until all Israelites had crossed to the western shore as “Moses commanded Joshua” as an error: There is no biblical indication that Moses gave Joshua this direction. The original text was “all that Joshua commanded.”


Why didn’t the Israelites enter Canaan from the West?

The Israelites came up toward Canaan from Egypt, which is west of Canaan. Why didn’t they travel to and enter Canaan from the west? Exodus 13:17 states “God led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, although it was near; for God said: ‘Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and return to Egypt.’” So God took them on a roundabout way through the desert.


Colin J. Humphreys suggests in his The Miracles of Exodus[7] that when Moses ran from Egypt after killing an Egyptian who was hitting an Israelite, he ran to Midian that was in Saudi Arabia. This, he says, explains the burning bush whose fire was not extinguished: it was drawing oil from the ground. Sinai, he wrote, was in Saudi Arabia, and the fire and smoke emanating from it was also caused by oil.


The truth is we do not know where Sinai is. The place now called Sinai was designated as Sinai by Christian priests, but it is by no means certain that they were correct. If Humphreys was right, the Israelites came to Canaan from the west, from Saudi Arabia.


More Hyperbole

Not satisfied with one miracle, many rabbis felt there were many more miraculous events surrounding the crossing of the Jordan.[8] Rashi (1040-1105) interprets verse 11 to say that the ark miraculously lifted and carried the priests from the middle of the Jordan until its west bank. This showed the Israelites, he writes, that the ark, although inanimate, could care for itself. Therefore, Achan who touched the ark[9] to make sure it would not topple over was punished. He should have known that the ark would not fall over; it could take care of itself; and Achan should not have touched this holy object; for only priests and Levites could do so.


The Bible commentator David Kimchi, known as Radak (1160-1235)[10] understands verse 19 as saying that the Israelites crossed the Jordan and arrived in Gilgal on the same day, the tenth of the first month, even though the distance was 60 mil.[11]


The Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 34a, “teaches that the (Jordan River) waters were heaped up like stacks to a height of more than three hundred mil, until all the kings of the east and west saw them. The Talmud also states that each of the twelve stones weighed forty se’ah, or 293 liters.[12]


Verse 13 states that about 40,000 men of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh went before the other tribal members prepared to do battle. They had promised Moses[13] that if he allowed them to settle in the area east of the Jordan, they would leave their wives and children in East Jordan, while they would “pass over, every man that is armed for war, before the Lord to battle.” The number of men between age twenty and sixty in these tribes, of military age, was over 110,000. How come only forty thousand fulfilled the promise? The rest remained in East Jordan to protect the families and land. The statement that “every man that is armed for war” would go to Canaan was an exaggeration.

[1] Gilgal, according to tradition, was the area where the Israelites remained for fourteen years and from which they left from time to time to conquer Canaanite territory. The ark remained in Gilgal for fourteen years and was then moved to Shiloh.

[2] After the revelation of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments), Moses commemorated the event in Exodus 24:4 by building “an altar under the mountain, and twelve matzeva (in the singular), according to the twelve tribes of Israel.” The verse is not clear. The mountain is Sinai, but is matzeva a memorial – just like Joshua’s – or should we translate matzeva as “stones,” in the plural, as the Jewish Publication Society translation renders it? Secondly, did Moses erect two or one thing: was there an altar and a matzeva, or the altar was the matzeva, the memorial.

Joshua set up another memorial in 24:26 and 27, but there it was only one large stone.

[3] Such as Rashi, Davis Altschuler in Metzudot David, and The Jewish Publication Society adds “also” before “twelve stones” to indicate its understanding that there were two separate events. Another question arises. Were there two sets of twelve men? Did one group put the stones in the middle of the Jordan and another group carry them to Gilgal, or did the same group of twelve men do both functions. Some commentators argue that there were two groups and say that Joshua wanted to spread the honor of carrying the stones, so instead of just twelve people being involved, he used twenty-four. This is similar to the practice at circumcisions: one person brings in the baby, he or she hands the baby to another person, and this person gives the baby to the sandek the man who holds the child while he is circumcised.

[4] Mikra ki-Pheschuto on this verse.

[5] It is possible that although the Jordan stopped flowing, the ground was muddy. Placing the stones for the priests to stand on made it much easier for them to stand.

[6] If the sole purpose for placing the stones in the river was to serve as a platform for the priests, why was there a need for precisely twelve stones?

[7] Harper Collins, 2003.

[8] This is similar to the opinions mentioned in the Passover Haggadah, that hundreds of miracles occurred when Moses and the Israelites crossed the split red Sea.

[9] The story is in chapter 7.

[10] See also Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 32b.

[11] A mil is 3,000 feet.

[12] One se’ah equals 7.33 liters. This would mean that each stone was over 600 pounds.

[13] In Numbers 32.