Sunday, July 12, 2009

Joshua and the Promised Land

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.

Peace,
Phil

7 comments:

Jim said...

I was pretty much with you right up to:

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.

Here I think you risk a leap from exegesis to eisegesis. Joshua seems to me written to record a series of stories the Hebrew people told themselves about their history and how they came to be in possession at one time of Palestine. Imputing a theological concepts of salvation theory on an ancient folk writer is at best risky.

Yes Hebrew history was written in part to explain the evolving relationship with God. But I think you made a bit of a leap here.

Not that the rest is bad, or that I am right. ;-) As my friend Fr. Jon says (frequently to the despair of English conservatives) I could be wrong.

FWIW
jimB

Phil Snider said...

Hi Jim;

Well, you made me smile with your response. I know how relentlessly historical you are, so I'm not surprised at your response.

Still, the point in the exercise was to look for application of the exegesis to our daily life and the worry I have about only a historical method is that it suggests that there is little to apply. This is why, I think, the historical aspect of texts is placed within the literal level and that the 'spiritual' readings (the other three sense of scripture) are privileged.

Further, what struck me about the anagogical meaning was how it really was where the reading the OT through the NT came into full force. That, I think, may be the force of the eisegesis. If so, I'm comfortable with that. Unless you're suggesting that my own theological position today is interfering with the application of this passage. Perhaps, but something I need to meditate on a bit further.

Yet, I think we have to remain sensitive to the historical context of the Hebrew writings and to the original sense of the genre, but I don't think we can stay there. If we did, we would, perhaps, be better Jews, but I still don't know how we'd are supposed to read this passage as a Christian. I think it is this dillemma which plagues us as modern Christians because we don't want to avoid the original sense of the OT, but we are compelled to, if we expect to read it as a Christian.

Anyway, you've given me a fair amount to think about.

Peace,
Phil

Jim said...

Phil,

+N. T. Wright (no progressive he!) in his work on parables and his 'Christian Origins' series proposes that Jesus was about the business of inviting the gentiles into a reformed Israel. If that is true, and I think he makes a case, then being 'better Jews' is precisely our calling.

In a sense, I suppose my view is that our spiritual journey is towards being the new Israel. If that (rather traditional for a lefty :-) view leads to being a better sort of Jewish believer OK. I am not sure I rate that designation but I am working on things.

The Hebrew Scriptures were less assembled than accepted by the compilers of the Bible canon. In fact some of the movement from OT to Apocrypha between RC, Anglican and Protestant canons arose from developing Jewish categorization.

I shall think on my 'relentless historical' perspective a bit. It is not the least bit unlikely that I have missed something thereby.

In fact, the whole idea of an anagogical reading is interesting to me. I see the roots from which you reach the idea, but I am not sure they are where I can follow. I wonder for instance if Christian scholars including the patristics would have landed there absent the anti-Christian persecutions which first and second century Jews abetted in the empire. I shall think on the idea.

FWIW
jimB

Phil Snider said...

Hi Jim;

I think we are in agreement about the importance of the Hebrew Testament here, but we're really only disagreeing on one particular way to make the connection. I don't claim that my suggestion works for everyone nor that it will satisfy me forever. I'm rather uncertain on my feet about this particular style of exegesis, even if I see its importance.

I think this particular problem is particularly acute because of the lack of clarity that we as a Church have about the relationship of the Hebrew Testament. I think you know as well as I that many modern Christians are functional Marcianites; so scandalized by the Hebrew Testaments that they mentally edit it out of the canon. I think that a very dangerous trend because it de-incarnates God's involvement in history and put the Incarnation at threat. I hope this makes sense.

Don't pay too much attention to my 'relentlessly historical' comment. I suspect I may have said it more because of its sound than the degree of truth behind it. I know that you remain open to non-literal/historical readings, so it was perhaps a little unfair to apply the term to you. Mind you, I do think that the prevailing model of biblical exegesis is probably 'relentlessly historical' which has its advantages, but is not, perhaps, as deep as we can go.

Anyways, I must sign off and finish off a few lurking packing and cleaning items around the apartment. I'll probably be off-line for a day or two as we move.

Peace,
Phil

P.S. I'm still praying for you and Sue-z.

Jim said...

One of the good things about adopting the revised common reactionary in TEC has been the reading of larger and more coherent sections of the Hebrew Scriptures. I agree with your characterization of many of our fellow Christians.

I certainly am open to not reading literally. It is more a rather nuanced question of how far we can go away from the author's intent. Joshua was not written for Christians, its intent I think, was to preserve the historical mythic stories of Israel's relationship with the one god. Even given the ability of the Spirit to take both author and reader beyond their immediate context, there is a point I think, of danger.

Enjoy the unpacking. I am off to the hospital where Sue-z is going to be in surgery briefly today. Thanks for your concern.

FWIW
jimB

Maureen said...

Given that both Jews and Christians are supposed to spend a great deal of time finding anagogical readings of their own life events, it seems a bit silly to cavil at reading the OT that way. Especially when Christians were instructed to do so, on the road to Emmaus.

Even in a strictly literary POV, it's a matter of ignoring what is not a bug, but a feature of the Bible's literary style. Later authors clearly want you to read later references into earlier ones; this clearly gives permission for still later authors to do the same.

Or you could see the Bible as a sort of literary Wikipedia, constantly discussed, constantly linking back and forth, the visible record of a much greater set of cultural comments and events and ideas in which it swims....

Jim said...

Muareen,

I see some problems here. Primary is the assumption that we are supposed to be, "... finding anagogical readings of their own life events" -- a considerable stretch.

Jesus told us three things: "A new command I give you to love one another;" "Do this to bring me to you" and "Whenever you have done these things for the least of these you have done them for me." Not a lot of "finding anagogical readings of their own life events" there.

Jesus was not Buddha. He did not tell us to contemplate he called us to do things.

So I have some real issues with your initial premise. And in that context I have to say I do not think it "silly" to question how far an "interpretative framework" can go.


FWIW
jimB