Strange details in Joshua chapter 5


The previous two parts to this chapter addressed general problems; this part 3 examines some specific points.



We should pay attention to the use of numbers in Scripture and in traditions associated with it as well as the number of times that the Bible poetically repeats words in a verse or section. The numbers seven and three appear frequently in Judaism,[1] so it is no surprise that there is an undocumented tradition that it took Joshua seven years to conquer Canaan[2] and seven years to divide the land among the tribes.[3] This chapter speaks of the circumcision of the Israelites; circumcision is supposed to occur normally on the eighth day of a boy’s life, and the chapter mentions the word circumcision eight times. The precise rounded numbers forty and seventy are used frequently in the Bible even though they are not exact counts. Exodus 1:5 states that seventy members of Jacob’s family came with him to Egypt, but those named are less than seventy. Verse 6 of this chapter states the Israelites dwelt in the desert for forty years, but the stay was forty-two years; therefore the Greek translation called Septuagint[4] altered the text to read forty-two.[5]



Exodus 12 states that only circumcised males[6] can eat the Pascal sacrifice on the fourteenth of the first month.[7] The Israelites crossed the Jordan and entered Canaan on the tenth of the month and the men needed to circumcise themselves to enable them to eat the Pascal sacrifice, which they did. This episode raises some problems in addition to those mentioned in the prior chapters.

  1. Why would the Israelites      circumcise and weaken themselves just before starting a battle with the      Canaanites? Genesis 34 relates that Jacob’s sons persuaded the inhabitants      of the city Shechem to circumcise themselves as a subterfuge to weaken      them so that just two of them could conquer an entire city. Here, the      Israelites weakened themselves. Some commentators suggest that this shows the      Israelites had confidence that God will protect them. But doesn’t the      story of the conquest repeatedly report that they lacked this confidence?
  2. The Bible states there were over      600,000 male Israelites between age 20 and 60 who entered Canaan. There      were probably additional 300,000 or more males under age 20 and over 60.      How could about a million males be circumcised in one day?
  3. The Israelites wanted to observe      the Pascal sacrifice on the fourteenth of the month, but there is no      mention they observed the seven-day holiday of The Feast of Matzot.[8]      Why? Is it possible that the holiday didn’t exist during the Joshua era      and its mention in Exodus and elsewhere was added by scribes to the Torah      during a much later period?[9]
  4. We discussed verse 9 “The Lord      said to Joshua: ‘This day I rolled away the reproach of Egypt from off      you’” in the prior chapters. Some scholars remind us that we have drawings      showing Egyptians circumcising themselves prior to the day when the Bible      states God gave Abraham this command. The Egyptian “reproach” could have      been “why aren’t you civilized and circumcised like us.” Jacob’s children      also considered uncircumcised people a “reproach” in Genesis 34:14. If a pagan      nation circumcised its males before the biblical command, why do Jews      consider circumcision a Jewish sign of attachment to God? Is it possible      that Jews copied many non-Israelite practices, such as sacrifices and      slavery, and changed them and gave them new “Jewish” meaning?
  5. We noted in past chapters that      God didn’t produce a miracle assuring that no textual mistakes entered      Scripture over the many generations when Scripture was copied by hand.[10]      We also discussed the problematical statement in verse 2 that Joshua      circumcised the Israelites “a second time.” The problem, as I wrote, is:      when was the first time the Israelites were circumcised. The Greek      Septuagint resolves the dilemma by deleting the words from its      translation. Is this proper? How do textual errors and changes in passages      alter our concept about the Bible?


Joshua’s encounter with an angel

In 5:13-15, Joshua looks up and spots a phantasmagoric image, the appearance of the “captain of the host of the Lord”[11] who, as God told Moses in Exodus 3:5, instructed Joshua to remove his shoes because he is standing on holy ground.

Maimonides did not believe angels exist, for God doesn’t need a counsel, staff, army, or assistants. “Angel,” he wrote, is a metaphor for whatever performs the divine plan, including the forces of nature, such as rain and winds.[12] He also felt the word describes a vision in which people think they are receiving a divine message. In his Guide of the Perplexed 2:42, he explains that chapter 5 is a vision. Joshua was concerned about his and the Israelite future. In his internal struggle, he compares himself to Moses in Exodus 3:5 and feels assured of success.

Does the “angel” do more than talk about Joshua’s shoes? Chapter 6 begins with a message from God. This is the same “angel” speaking. Scripture frequently does this:[13] it speaks of the appearance of an angel and then has God speak.[14]


Charming midrashim can conflict with the text’s clear meaning

Midrashim are imaginary amplifications of biblical passages designed to teach lessons. As Maimonides taught[15] only fools[16] take these tales as true occurrences; they are parables.

There is such a parable in Midrash Mekhilta:[17] God performed miracles for the Israelites during the desert wanderings because of the merits of Moses and his siblings Aaron and Miriam. The miracle for Moses’s sake was the appearance of manna as food for the Israelites. The Midrash states that the manna stopped falling when Moses died. This Midrash conflicts with 5:12 that states the manna ceased on the fifteenth of the first month, which was long after Moses death.[18] David Altschuler[19] and Gersonides[20] explain the conflict by claiming the manna ceased falling when Moses died, but miraculously remained fresh in Israelites dishes for some 38 days until they could eat local Canaanite products, at which time this left-over manna was finished.

The commentator Radak notes another conflict: some rabbis say that Israelites ate manna until the sixteenth of the month. He interprets 5:12 to say Israelites began to eat the land’s produce on the fifteenth, but there were insufficient local foods, so they mixed what they could find with manna; but on the next day, the sixteenth, there were sufficient Canaanite foods and the Israelites could stop eating manna.

[1] See more than 100 examples in my Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets, pages 277-304.

[2] However, despite the tradition and despite praise for him in the book Joshua, he was not successful and the Canaanites remained in the land long after his death.

[3] This is strange tradition; it should take no more than a day to assign territory. Also, since Joshua was unable to conquer the entire country, some tribes dwelt among the Canaanites and others were seeking land after his death.

[4] Composed in Alexandria, Egypt, around 250 BCE.

[5] Numbers 14:34 states that the Israelites were punished for accepting the fearful report of the spies that Moses sent to Canaan who claimed the land could not be conquered. It states that the spies were gone forty days and the people were punished with one year stay in the desert for each day. Since the spies were sent during the second year after the exodus, the entire desert period would be forty-two years.

An obvious answer is that the biblical use of forty is not precisely that number, but about forty. However, Rashi who took the Torah literally and who filled his commentary with miracles states that no one died in the desert before age sixty and they died on their sixtieth birthday. They knew the exact day of their death. God, he writes in his commentary on Numbers 14:33, wanted to punish each person (only males according to one tradition) over age twenty by not allowing him to enter Canaan. So the Israelites had to remain in the desert for forty more years until the youngest person aged twenty died.

[6] Women could eat the sacrifice without any special requirement.

[7] Scholars state that the months were given names during the Judean exile in Babylonia; therefore some names refer to Babylonian idols. The exile began in 586 BCE.

[8] When the second temple was destroyed in 70 CE and sacrifices could no longer be offered to God, the Pascal sacrifice and this biblical holiday of the 14th of the first month ceased since the holiday’s only observance was the sacrifice. To commemorate the holiday, Jews began to call The Feast of Matzot, which began on the fifteenth, Passover. However, the prayer book continues to name the holiday chag hamatzot, The Feast of Matzot.

[9] There are three other incidences where the Judeans observed the holiday of the Pascal Sacrifice after the Joshua era, each time, as here, during a religious revival: II Chronicles 30:15-22; II Kings 23:21-23, a story repeated in II Chronicles 35:1-19; and Ezra 6:19-22.

[10] This chapter, for example, has an error in verse 1; it states avarnu and the Masorites inserted a note indicating the word should be avram.

[11][11] The “host” of the Lord may refer to the Israelites. This angel protected them.

[12] Including humans who do what should be done. Colloquially, we sometimes say to a person, “You are an angel.”

[13] In Genesis 22, an angel appears to Abraham and God speaks to him.

[14] These occurrences could be understood as: a natural event occurred (angel) followed by an insight (God) drawn from or inspired by it.

[15] In his Chelek.

[16] His word.

[17] On Exodus 16:35.

[18] The simple answer is that the Midrash was not intended to be taken literally.

[19] In his commentary Metzudot David on 5:12.

[20] In his commentary on 5:12.