June 8, 2012

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical readings: The Book of Joshua

John F. FinkNext week, the 10th week in Ordinary Time, the Office of Readings selects excerpts from the Book of Joshua. But first, on Sunday, it dips into Chapter 46 of the Book of Sirach for a hymn of praise for Joshua.

The Book of Joshua picks up the story of the Israelites after the death of Moses. Its purpose is to show that God was faithful to his covenant with his people when he gave the Israelites the land that he promised them.

Although it is Joshua who leads the people across the Jordan River and in battles with the people who were occupying the land of Canaan, the book tries to make it clear that it was really God who enabled the Israelites to conquer the Promised Land.

The miracles occur from the time the Israelites begin to cross the Jordan, the waters parting just as they did 40 years earlier in the Red Sea. The fall of Jericho, when its walls came tumbling down, the ambush of Ai and the defeat of five Amorite kings are all done miraculously.

By the end of the book, the Israelites possess Canaan and God’s promise has been fulfilled.

So did it really happen precisely like that? In all likelihood not. As we will see next week, the Book of Judges demonstrates that the Israelites did not possess all of Canaan. But besides that, other events are not historical.

Archeologists tell us, for example, that both Jericho and Ai were already likely in ruins when Joshua lived. People who visit Jericho today are disappointed to learn that nobody has been able to discover those walls that collapsed when the Israelites blew their horns.

So how did the Israelites come into the Promised Land? Scholars have studied that question for a long time. There’s no doubt that some cities were conquered through military activity, but archaeologists can’t definitively identify the conquerors.

Many scholars believe that settlement by Israelites in Canaan was done peacefully, the semi-nomadic tribes first infiltrating the countryside and eventually moving into the cities. Their evidence for this belief comes from the fact that many cities show no evidence of violent destruction.

There is also a theory that there was a peasants’ revolt, with the victorious lower classes identifying themselves with the Israelites. Official correspondence between Egypt and Canaanite city-states show that there was considerable turmoil in Canaan at that time.

Chapters 13 through 22 of the Book of Joshua describe the distribution of the land among the Israelite tribes, but the Office of Readings doesn’t include those chapters. It skips to Chapter 24, when Joshua gathered all the tribes together at Shechem, where he lived.

He recounted all that God had done for them from the time of Abraham up to that day, and he urged the people to renew their covenant with the Lord. He told them to “put away the strange gods that are among you and turn your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel” (Jos 24:23).

The people agreed. “So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem” (Jos 24:25). †

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