Over the last few weeks, I have been thinking about biblical interpretation. Reading a book on St. Jerome as a biblical scholar and another dealing, in part, with St. Justin Martyr's approach to the Old Testament has put those issues to the forefront. Scriptural interpretation is, of course, central to both St. Jerome' and St. Justin Martyr's theological projects. Yet, this is scriptural interpretation of a very different sort from the interpretations that we are used to these days. It is richer in many ways, but quirkier. I've blogged about this subject before, but it has always struck me that my discussions of theory, while useful to a degree, need application. So, that is what I propose to do in this post.
This week, I've started reading through the Book of Joshua- not the most studied book of the Bible, of course, but that makes it more of a challenge. What I'm going to try is to frame a discussion about Joshua 1-7- the beginnings of the conquest of the Promised Land by Joshua, son of Nun. As the basis of my exegesis, I will be using the classic fourfold senses of Scripture originally formulated in the patristic era, but applied more consistently in the mediaeval period.
Let me emphasize a few things before I proceed. First, I don't claim any authority in making this exegesis. This is only a trial by an admitted amateur. Second, while I'm only making a trial of this exegesis, I sincerely doubt that I am the first to come up with it. Third, I welcome input, especially if you think I'm reading the passage wrongly. I haven't done extensive research or commentary searches, so the chances that I'll screw something up, especially in the historical area, are great.
So, let's start with the literal level. The Book of Joshua opens up right where the book of Deuteronomy ends- with the death of Moses . Immediately after Moses' death, God, as promised to Moses, calls Joshua to lead the Israeiltes across the Jordon to take possession of the Promised Land. God tells Joshua to be strong and courageous (three times- Joshua 1, 6; 1, 7; 1,9) and that the inhabitants of the land will not be able to stand against them (Joshua, 1,2-9). Joshua sent spies to spy out the land and they found themselves welcomed in Jericho, one of the major cities in the Promised Land, by Rahab the prostitute. The King of Jericho discovered that Israeilites had entered the city and were staying with Rahab. He demanded that Rahab hand over her guests, but she lied that they had already left. She, then, makes a deal with the spies that, when Jericho would be captured (she has no doubts about this), she and her household would be saved. The spies agreed and gave her a sign (a scarlet cord tied around the window through which they would escape) so that her house would be bypassed in the general destruction (Joshua 2). The spies escaped and returned to Joshua. Joshua, then, led the Israelites across the Jordon dry shod- the Ark of the Covenant holding back the onrushing waters until the Israelite army passed through the river bed (Joshua 3-4). As ordered by God, the Israelites all were circumcised at Gilgal and God announced that he had rolled away the reproach of Egypt (Joshua 5). The Israelites, then, attacked Jericho. For six successive days, the Ark of the Covenant and the Israelite army circled the city. On the seventh day, they circled it seven times, the priests made a trumpet blast and the walls of Jericho collapsed. The Israelites captured the city immediately. They killed all its inhabitants except for those with Rahab as agreed. Rahab was allowed to accompany the Israelites with her household (Joshua 5, 13- 6, 27).
There is much here to comment on in the literal level, including, as it does, historical explanation (grammatical parsing of Hebrew is beyond me). We could talk about the political structure of the region before the Israelite invasion which, looks to me, to be based on a series of city-states with no really clear central authority. Jericho appears to be one of the more important of these city-states. We could talk about the size of the Israelite army and its nature as a group of Aramaic desert nomads seeking a permanent home. We could talk about the episode with Rahab as reflecting the hospitality codes, since the demand of the King of Jericho to hand over her guests was in clear violation of that code. There are parallels to this kind of breach of hospitality and its importance, especially in the story of Abraham. Most of these would demand more research and knowledge than I currently have, but, I think, it suffices to point out the directions that a literal-historical analysis could pursue and leave those more learned than I to flesh it out.
On the tropological level, we look for the moral lessons that this passage offers. There are, I think, several lessons that we are meant to draw from this passage, but I want to focus on what I think is the main one. I think we are supposed to contrast the reliance on God of Joshua and this new generation of Israelites to the faithlessness of the previous generation. Time and again, the previous generation failed to have faith in God's saving power which led to a series of incidents of mistrust and apostasy. Even Moses was implicated. This explained the fact that all from that generation including Moses were not considered worthy to enter the Promised Land. However, Joshua's and the Israelite's reaction to God's call to lead his people across the Jordan (Joshua 1, 2-9) is simple acceptance and obedience (Joshua 10-18). Furthermore, they do exactly what God tells them to do, even if it might have seemed unusual like taking the Ark of the Covenant into the Jordon River and going in circles around Jericho for a week. The result is that they are unstoppable and Jericho (and, ultimately, all the Promised Land) fell.
The allegorical level, I think, offers rich possibilities. What struck me most about this section of Joshua is how similar they are to the Exodus story, but with an important difference. The call of Joshua (Joshua 1, 2-9) bears a marked resemblance to the call of Moses to save his people at the burning bush (Exodus 3) with the notable exception that Joshua didn't argue. The sending of the spies (Joshua 2) echoes Moses' sending of the spies with the exception that the news from the spies was encouraging and the people didn't panic and disregard God's promises of assistance (Numbers 13-14). The crossing of the Jordon (Joshua 3-4) recalls the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 13, 17- 14, 31) with the exception that it is the Ark of the Covenant which causes the waters to hold back. The circumcision at Gilgal(Joshua 5, 1-12) recalls the consecration of the firstborn males of Israel in the aftermath of the last plague in Egypt (Exodus 13, 1-16). The rescue of Rahab (Joshua, 2; 6, 22-25)) recalls the Passover (Exodus 12, 1-30), although it is not the angel of the Lord who destroys just the firstborn, but the Israelites themselves as agents of God who destroy the whole city. I know that these parallels aren't in chronological order, but I don't think that matters for what I think is going on here.
The general picture in this rather jumbled picture is a re-casting of the Exodus story in which the rebellion and lack of faith of the earlier generation of Israelites is replaced by the obedience and faithfulness of the new. In each of these cases, key moments in the Exodus narrative are played out and the new Israelites react in concert with God. As a result, there is no surprise they are successful where the previous generation failed. This new Israel is now deserving of the Promised Land through their obedience to the God of Israel. I think this is made clear when God announces, in the circumcision at Gilgal, that the stain of Egypt was now removed (Joshua, 5,9). This is a very different generation to that of its fathers.
If we extend this allegory further, we can see this contrast as an allegory of how humanity deals with God. Many of us call on God in an emergency as the first-generation Israelites did throughout their sojourn in the desert, but baulk at the truly risky work of faith or relax and disregard God when things are better. This makes us double-minded and faithless because we simply don't have the sticking power. God is faithful- as we see in the Exodus narrative. He continually saves His people as he covenanted, despite the disobedience of that people much of the time. Yet, this people only inconsistently do His will and, thus, don't reach the Promised Land (which I think we can take as standing for entering God's Kingdom or resurrected).
The second-generation Israelites are a different breed. Here we find obedience and faith in God's promises. The result: they enter and take possession of the Promised Land. Now, I want to be careful here and emphasize that this is no prosperity gospel. It isn't a question of being holy enough and enjoying the benefits in the here and now. If we accept the Promised Land as an allegory of entering God's Kingdom or the resurrected life, we rightly remove this from material prosperity to spiritual health. Yet, the point I'm making is that, unlike the previous generation, this second generation believes God's promises, acts to fulfill them and, as a result, experiences them.
This last point, of course, links us to the anagogical meaning of this passage. If we accept that the Promised Land is the resurrected life, we, also, find ourselves discussing how does one achieve spiritual salvation. The Book of Joshua here emphasized the importance of faith in God's promises and obedience to His commands as the way that the second-generation Israelites succeed in occupying the Promised Land. If, we follow the allegory I set out above, we also find that the way to God's Kingdom is also through faith in God's promises and obedience to His commands. Central to this is the person of Jesus and his teachings. It is, I think, striking that the Exodus story has, since the early days of the Church, has been taken as an allegory of salvation through Christ. If that is so, this re-cast Exodus in Joshua is also pointing to this same salvation and with the virtues we need to arrive at it.
I hope this exegesis makes sense. I was hoping to link Rahab in more closely because she is, after all, a distant ancestor of Jesus (Matthew 1,5), but I just couldn't see how to do it. Constructive feedback is, of course, welcome.