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The MOST Theological Collection: Basic Scripture

"Chapter 12: The Books of Joshua, Judges and Ruth"


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It is common today to say that the book of Joshua had a complex history. This means not only the use of the sources JEP, but also of other old traditions. A major reason for this claim is the fact that there are so many parallels between Moses and Joshua: both sent out spies to investigate; both crossed waters miraculously; both held a special Passover celebration; both had a vision tell him to remove shoes, because he was standing on holy ground; both supported the victory of the army by holding up hands or a rod; both gave farewell discourses to the people.

But really, here we see another case of the weakness of mere internal evidence for a favored position. Of course, those parallels exist. But is it so unlikely that the events were real in both cases? There is nothing very remarkable about any or all of the cases, given the fact that both men are special delegates of God. In the opening part of the book, at 1:5 God tells Joshua: "As I was with Moses, so will I be with you." The very last lines of Deuteronomy record that Moses laid his hands on Joshua and so Joshua was filled with the spirit of wisdom.

Then there are the archaeological problems of cities said to have been conquered by Joshua. We saw above, in chapter 10, that new research now seems to solve the chief problem, that about Jericho.

Another problem city is that of Ai, which Joshua is said to have destroyed (8:1-29). It has been usual to identify Ai with Et-Tell, where no ruins have been located at a time suitable for the Exodus (let us recall from chapter 10 that the date of the Exodus is far from settled). John J. Bimson (Redating the Exodus and Conquest, Sheffield, 1978, pp. 215-25 gives impressive, even if not conclusive evidence, to show that the real location is at Beitin, still to be excavated. (cf. also the article by J. Bimson and D. Livingston, in BAR, Sept-Oct, 1987, pp. 40ff, and attacks in BAR Nov- Dec. 1987, and BAR Mar-April, 1988, and reply by D. Livingston in BAR Jan- Feb. 1989. The language of the two attacking articles is so intemperate as to damage the reader's confidence in the attackers. Thus the article of Mar-April, 1988 says that even the slashing attack in Nov-Dec. 1987 "does too much honor to the 'lunatic fringe' growing around the archaeology of Palestine").

Actually a 15th century date - Bimson has proposed 1460 - fits better with the archaeological evidence than a 13th century date, which is the more favored one. The archaeological evidence fits well with the following cities with a 15th century date: Jericho, Bethel, Hazor, Debir, Lachish, Hebron, Hormah, Dan. We have already commented on Ai, and we noted above that the base for the 13th century theory is not as solid as some think.

We do not mean to say we have refuted the claims of several sources in Joshua. We merely wish to point out that the evidence for them is weak. The actual genre as we said before, is probably something similar to epic, in contrast to Judges, which seems more sober. Really, the book of Joshua itself admits that not all the land was conquered - 13:1 says the Lord told Joshua that Joshua was by then very old, and much of the land still remained to be conquered.

A fascinating problem comes at 10:12: Joshua, to be able to complete the victory over the enemy, prayed that the sun might stand still, and it did. But this is hard to interpret, for the text itself adds: "Is not this recorded in the Book of Jashar"? So inspiration would guarantee only that such a thing was recorded in a nonbiblical account. It would not guarantee that the nonbiblical account was true, especially since the words are in poetic form. Without comment in either direction, we might add that a heavily controversial Russian scientist, I. Velikovsky, in a 1950 book, Worlds in Collision, proposed the theory that what is now the planet Venus was some other celestial body that strayed into the solar system, made a close pass at the earth, causing the rotation to reverse, and then settled down as a planet. A good physicist would admit that such a reversal was possible - most scientists today (though not all) deny it really happened. If it happened, there would be a double length day on one side of the globe, a double night on the other. Strangely, the 5th century B.C. Greek historian, Herodotus, asserts (in 2:142) that the Egyptian priests had told him that within a period of 11,340 years, the place of the rising and setting of the sun had shifted four times.

Near the end of the book, at 24:16-28, Joshua made a renewal of the covenant at Shechem. An interesting question arises here. There is no mention in the book of a conquest of Shechem by Joshua. If the city was at the time inhabited - which is debated - would there have been some special arrangement needed to let Joshua conduct this large ceremony there? Some think Shechem was already Israelite centuries before. They appeal to Genesis 48:22 where the dying Jacob gives Shechem to Joseph.


In a way the genre of Judges seems quite different from that of Joshua. And it surely is different. Yet, as we saw, Joshua 13:1 admits Joshua did not conquer all the land.

The book seems to be a collection of stories with a deuteronomic purpose - that is, to show that sin brings punishment, repentance brings forgiveness. In such a pattern, exactness of detail might not be considered important. Many times over through one of the judges, God brought deliverance when repentance came. The theme is set in general form in the second chapter. In the first 3 verses, "an angel of the Lord" tells them in the name of God that they have not kept the covenant: therefore, God would not defeat all the enemies of the land as He had said He would. Verses 10-23 say the same: A new generation came that did not know the Lord and what He had done for them. They worshipped the Baals and God was angry: He would not clear out their enemies as He would had done otherwise.

A major judge was the woman Deborah. As punishment for false worship, God had let the Israelites fall into the hands of King Jabin of Hazor. At that time Deborah was functioning as a sort of judicial judge, sitting under a palm tree and hearing cases. She sent for Barak and told him God commanded that he fight against Jabin. Barak was unwilling to do so unless she would come with him. The king's general Sisera came out with 900 iron chariots. The Lord put Sisera to rout. He fled to the tent of Jael, wife of the Kenite Heber, and rested there. But when Sisera went to sleep: Jael drove a tent peg through his head and killed him - in violation of the sacred rule of hospitality. In the next chapter we read the Canticle of Deborah, which recounts basically the same event.

The next judge was Gideon. God had handed over the Israelites to Midian for seven years. The Midianites made it almost impossible for Israel to have food, for they came and took whatever they had. While Gideon was beating out wheat in the wine press to save it from the Midianites, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, told him he would save his people. God gave Gideon two miraculous signs to assure him He was with Him. At first Gideon had over 30, 000 troops. God insisted he must reduce them to only 300 men - to show that it was by God's power, not theirs, that victory would come. Gideon employed a clever stratagem, and did win the victory.

In this account we see for the second time a remarkable pattern of speech. At times the text says an angel of God spoke to Gideon; at other times, it is God Himself who speaks. We saw the same thing in chapter 2. This pattern has led many to say that the words "angel of the Lord" are only a literary device: that there are no separate beings called angels. We agree the pattern could suggest that. However, it become abundantly clear from later parts of the Old Testament, and throughout the New Testament, that angels are separate beings. Since it is a general rule that we must understand Scripture with the eyes of the original readers, we must admit there are angels. The fact that the angels often appeared in human form, e.g., to Tobit, led to hesitation among the Fathers of the Church. But finally it became clear that angels have no bodies.

A special case is that of Samson. His birth was announced to his mother by an angel of the Lord, who commanded that he be a Nazarite from birth, and that no razor should touch his head. Samson possessed astounding physical strength: he even tore a lion apart with his bare hands. But he lost it by infidelity to the Lord. He married a Philistine woman, Delilah, who beguiled him into telling how he could lose his strength: by having his hair cut. She arranged to have that done while Samson was asleep; the Philistines made him prisoner, put out his eyes, forced him to work grinding grain. After a while, his hair began to grow again. The Philistines put on a banquet, and wanted to have Samson amuse them. He asked a boy who was leading him to bring him to the pillars that were the support of the hall. He asked God to give back his strength, received it, shook the pillars, and died in the ruins with a great number of Philistines.

The story of Samson at first sight does not seem to fit the usual pattern of the judges. Samson did not lead forces against the enemies of Israel. Yet God made use of even Samson's sin to bring the deaths of many of the Philistines.

So the 'Judges" were not in general judicial officers, they were mostly charismatic leaders that is, leaders with a special divine mission to do the work God intended.


Sometime during the period of the Judges, Elimelech went from Bethlehem to Moab during the time of a famine, along with his wife Naomi and two sons. He died in Moab. His sons married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. When the two husbands died, Naomi wanted to go back to Bethlehem, and her devoted daughter in law Ruth went with her. Back in Bethlehem, a wealthy landowner, Boaz, found Ruth attractive, and married her. Their son was Obed, the grandfather of King David.

The story is charming. Was it historical? That is debated. We notice the Hebrews put the book in the third group called Writings. It has many Aramaic forms for so short a book. Even if it may not be historical, it does preserve a real tradition about the ancestry of David, and hence of Jesus. In Jewish liturgy it is read on the feast of Pentecost.

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