Thoughts on Joshua and Judges

As I noted elsewhere, these are the two post-Moses/pre-monarchical history books, and so it makes some sense to consider them together.  What’s more, I think that together they address an important question, namely how Israel would and should deal with the non-Israelites in the Promised Land, and considering them together helps illuminate that matter.


Joshua is a book of conquest.  This makes it inspiring:  Joshua is an exceptional leader and apparently a military genius.  But, as I’ll also discuss in a moment, there is an undeniably disturbing side to the book.

Moses did an excellent job in following God’s instructions and picking Joshua as his successor, since he proved to be an outstanding leader, both militarily (I liked the reference in 10:9 to an all-night forced march, and his strategy as well as his tactics were impressive) and spiritually.  He and Caleb were the only two Israelites from the original group that escaped from Egypt who made it to the Promised Land; Caleb was also impressive (he has a good speech at 14:6-14; see also the fairy-tale-like marriage of his daughter in 15:16-19 and Judges 1:11-15).  “Be strong and courageous,” urged Joshua repeatedly, and he was no hypocrite, always following his own advice.  Another good exhortation from him (22:5): “But be very careful to keep the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the LORD gave you: to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, to keep his commands, to hold fast to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.”  And of course there is this (24:15):  “… [C]hoose for yourselves this day whom you will serve …. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  Another more subtle but very durable way he demonstrated spiritual leadership was through his use of memorials.  See 4:1-9, 20-24; 22:26-28.

An Important Moral Quandary

But to me Joshua is, morally, the most difficult book in the Bible.  A group of people come to a land from which they had been absent for hundreds of years — indeed, some of the land in question had, I would think, never been controlled by the Israelites — and not only conquer it, but systematically exterminate whole cities and peoples.

And while sometimes in the Bible we can distinguish a description of what the Israelites did from what God actually required them to do, I don’t think this works very well in Joshua.  In 10:30-40, we are told over and over again that Joshua left “no survivors” whenever he conquered the cities there and, in the summary, that this was as God “had commanded.”  And while there was no explicit requirement from God to kill everyone and everything in Jericho (6:21), my NIV study Bible has a note there saying that the killing followed the commands in Deuteronomy 12:2-3 and 13:12-18.  The executions in 11:14-15 are also apparently God-required.  And we’re told in another summary (11:20), “For it was the Lord himself who hardened their [the opposing kings’] hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the Lord had commanded Moses.”  See also Deuteronomy 7:2, 9:4-5.

So the question:  Is it immoral to wipe out a whole city with all its men, women, and children?   And the answer: Of course it is for people, and of course it is not for God.  God takes people every day, every second actually. How could He not?  He doesn’t play god:  He is God.  He can see all, and He knows all; we cannot intelligently second-guess Him, as He told Job.  Abraham would not have been acting immorally if he had sacrificed Isaac; God was not acting immorally in sacrificing His own Son.  Joshua becomes less disturbing if we realize that it is not telling us that we should kill heathens on our own judgment; it tells us only that once upon a time God told the Israelites to do so, and they rightly obeyed.  We can only hope He doesn’t give us such orders.

In other words:  Don’t try this at home!  God takes people all the time, and he takes all people in time.  So the morality of Him deciding to take someone at 2 rather than at 102 is different than were we to make this decision.

What’s more, God’s command here was limited to the Promised Land.  See, again, Deuteronomy 12:2, 3; 13:12-18; and compare especially Deuteronomy 20:10-15 with 20:16-18.  And what happens in Judges shows that God was right about what would happen if the Israelites lived among the Canaanites and, similarly, the Philistines. God could see that the Canaanites and Philistines were not only evil but hopelessly so, and that it was simply not possible for them to coexist with the Israelites:  The Israelites would suffer either physical or spiritual death.  See also Genesis 15:13-16, Deuteronomy 7:4-5, 10; 9:4-5.

Nor do I think we can explain this as simple tribal bigotry.  No, I think it’s a matter of principle.  After all, Joshua is equally unremitting with the Israelite Achan in chapter 7, stoning his whole family, all his livestock, and apparently even his tent (!) — see 7:24-25.  Conversely, when tricked into entering a treaty with the Gibeonites, the Israelites nonetheless honor it (see chapter 9 and 10:6-7).

Concluding caveat:  You can make the analogy that, just as it was deadly for the Israelites to allow just a few Canaanites to live, so it is deadly for us to allow ourselves just a little sin; but it would not make sense to argue that, because it is deadly to allow ourselves a little sin, we should therefore wipe out all sinners in our midst.

It’s the Land, Stupid

In Joshua, the importance of the land is manifest, and big chunks of the book are detailed, survey-like description of boundaries.

This reflects an important point about the Old Testament:  the centrality of place.  When you think about it, the whole narrative arc concerns the Jewish homeland.  That’s where God tells the first Jew, Abraham, to go.  That’s where the other two patriarchs, Isaac and Jacob, live and die.  When their children leave to live in Egypt, their descendants eventually become slaves, and so they struggle to return to the homeland, and finally do so.  The boundaries are set by divine will (see, e.g., 13:1-6).   And there they live for about a thousand years until they are exiled to Babylon, and there they return thereafter.  When, in the New Testament five hundred years later, the faith becomes available to those with no ancestral roots in the homeland and converts without those roots are aggressively sought, this is a very big deal.  That universalism would come to characterize Christianity, but the focus on the Jewish homeland has never lost its importance for most Jews, down to this very day.

Toward the end of the book, we’re told:

21:43 So the LORD gave Israel all the land he had sworn to give their ancestors, and they took possession of it and settled there.  44 The LORD gave them rest on every side, just as he had sworn to their ancestors. Not one of their enemies withstood them; the LORD gave all their enemies into their hands.  45 Not one of all the LORD’s good promises to Israel failed; every one was fulfilled.

Some of the land was allocated when it had not yet even been won.  Cf. 6:2 and 8:1, also indicating that, when God is on your side, the battle is won beforehand.

Some Additional Notes on Joshua

For what it’s worth, here’s a brief, chapter-by-chapter synopsis of the book:  Chapter 1, Joshua takes charge; chapter 2, Joshua’s spies make a deal with the Jericho prostitute Rahab; chapter 3, crossing the Jordan River (Red Sea crossing redux); chapter 4, memorial set up, built with stones from the middle of the Jordan River; chapter 5, mass circumcision; chapter 6, the battle of Jericho; chapter 7, the sad story of Achan; chapter 8, Ai destroyed and the Mt. Ebal covenant; chapter 9, tricked by the Gibeonites; chapter 10, defeating the Amorite kings and conquering the southern cities;  chapter 11, battle for Hagar; chapter 12, list of kings defeated by the Israelites; chapters 13-19, division of the land among the tribes (there’s a good summary of that division in my NIV study Bible, which you can read in the first couple of paragraphs at this link — — and if you scroll down from that to the note for 13:15-23, you can also read the how the division reflects the character of each tribe’s founder); chapter 20, cities of refuge set aside (per Numbers 35:5, 11-28); chapter 21, towns for the Levites established (from my NIV study Bible:  “The Levites were to minister before God on behalf of all the people, so they were given cities scattered throughout the land.  Although Jerusalem was far away from the homes of many Israelites, almost no on lived more than a day’s journey from a Levitical city”); chapter 22, the eastern tribes return home; chapters 23-24, Joshua’s farewell to the leaders (a dramatic review and plenty of good advice not followed) — a speech plus a covenant renewal at Shechem, and Joshua’s burial.  My NIV study Bible has this useful summary and note:  “Joshua knew the nation’s weak spots. Before dying; he called the people together and gave commands to help hem where they were most likely to slip:  (1) follow all that is written in the Book of Instruction without turning aside; (2) don’t associate with the pagan nations or worship their gods; and (3) don’t intermarry with the pagan nations.”

More notes:

  • Regarding Rahab:  Why make up this Belle Watling character, why admit that you needed the help of a whore to succeed?  (Note that Joshua 2:15 calls to mind Paul being lowered to safety over the city wall in Acts 9:23-25; and speaking of the New Testament, why would Christians build on the Rahab embarrassment by claiming a prostitute as an ancestor of Jesus — see Matthew 1:5; see also Hebrews 11:31?)
  • I wonder why Joshua is so frequently identified as “Joshua son of Nun” (cf. the repeated references later in the Old Testament to “Abner son of Ner”) — were there a lot of other Joshuas?
  • 5:15 — Joshua is told to remove his sandals because he is standing on holy ground, as was Moses in Exodus 3:5.
  • 6:26 — The prophetic warning against rebuilding on the site of Jericho is fulfilled at I Kings 16-34.
  • 10:13 — This passage, about the sun standing still, is the one notoriously cited against Galileo’s heliocentric proposal.
  • 10:12-13 — Quote from another ancient book.
  • 17:3 — A girl named Noah, ancient precursor to a boy named Sue.
  • 24:28-33 — Poignant burial scenes for the remains of Joseph, Joshua, and Eleazar.


Judges is a book about backsliding and its relationship — both cause and effect — to Israel’s interaction with the non-Israelites in the Promised Land.   In Judges 17:6, we are told: “In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”  Any red-blooded American would reflexively interpret this statement as praise, but of course the context makes clear it is intended as criticism (the immediately preceding verse is about idol worshiping and a man choosing his own son as a priest), suggesting that the absence of a king led to people ignoring God’s rules.  Apparently that did indeed happen in pre-monarchical Israel, though to be sure it’s not clear the Israel’s rule-following improved much once it had kings.

For all his good qualities, Joshua had a major failure, namely not choosing and training a successor.  The book of Judges spans 325 years, according to my NIV study Bible.  As my NIV study Bible also notes, “Throughout this period of history Israel went through seven cycles of (1) rebelling against God, (2) being overrun by enemy nations, (3) being delivered by a God-fearing judge, (4) remaining loyal to that judge, and (5) again forgetting God when the judge died.”  Over and over a new narrative begins, “The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord.”  Chapter 2 and chapter 3:1-6 are disjointed but explain what’s going on here.

But first, what is a judge, exactly?  Well, one thing it’s clearly not is, um, a judge.  That’s apparently a close literal translation from the Hebrew, but it has nothing to do with legal proceedings or courtrooms; rather, it’s an emergency leader who exercises, especially, military authority.

Here Come Da Judges:

Othniel (3:7-11):  The first judge, he led the Israelites, who had backslid, to victory in battle and ensured peace for 40 years.  (He is Caleb’s nephew and son-in-law — see 15:16-19.)

Ehud (3:12-30):  A southpaw, he assassinates the Moab king, leads the Israelites to a victory in which 10,000 Moabites are killed, and ensures peace for 80 years.

Shamgar (3:31):  All we’re told is that he “struck down six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad.  He too saved Israel.”

Deborah and Barak (chapters 4 and 5):  She was a prophetess “leading Israel at that time” who persuaded him to attack the Canaanites, and he wins despite their “nine hundred iron chariots.”  I’m not sure Barak qualifies as a judge, by the way, since he is reluctant to attack unless Deborah accompanies him.  And there’s more evidence in this narrative that the female of the species is deadlier than the male, in a good way:  The defeated Canaanite king seeks refuge in the tent of a woman named Jael (her husband had sided with him), who kills him while he’s sleeping by driving a tent peg through his head with a hammer; this feminine ruthlessness made quite an impression on P.G. Wodehouse (see Jael entry in Wikipedia, in the section “In popular culture”:  Deborah’s victory song (all of chapter 5) complains about four tribes’ nonparticipation (5:15-17).  She’s the only female judge.

Gideon (chapters 6-8):  He and Samson are the judges with the most written about them, and my NIV study Bible summarizes his memorable acts this way:  “He destroyed his family idols, used a fleece to determine God’s will, raised an army of 10,000, and defeated 135,000 Midianites with 300 soldiers.”  He’s an  unlikely and reluctant hero, as Biblical heroes often are of course, but makes it into the Hebrews 11 “Hall of Faith.”  In chapter 7, so that there will be no doubt in Israel’s mind why it’s winning, God requires it to fight with a very small army.  There are references to Gideon’s trumpet(s) in 6:34 and 7:17-21 (a book on the important Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright is named Gideon’s Trumpet).  He instructs his men to shout, “For the Lord and for Gideon” — rather arrogant, I’d say, but at least he put God first (7:18).  He fights the Midianites, who were also Abraham’s descendants (through his second wife Keturah).  (Chapter 9, by the way, is devoted to Gideon’s son Abimelech; his mother was a concubine, and he became king by murdering 70 of his half-brothers, which I would think makes him the most fatricidal person in history.  The chapter also has a very long sentence (9:16-19), and a reference to, Carthage-like, a city being salted (9:45).)

Tola (10:1-2):  Besides his lineage and hometown, all we’re told is that he “rose to save Israel” and “led Israel for twenty-three years; then he died, and was buried in Shamir.”

Jair (10:3-5):  Another brief write-up, noting only that he “led Israel for twenty-two years” and was buried in Kamon.  But here’s a key fact:  “He had thirty sons, who rode thirty donkeys” — and they (the sons, presumably, not the donkeys) “controlled thirty towns in Gilead.”  This will be on the exam.

Jephthah (10:6-12:7): He led Israel for six years, is in the Hebrews 11 “Hall of Faith,” and his principal accomplishment was to vanquish the oppressor Ammonites (it’s amusing that he tries beforehand to explain to them that Israel took land, not from them, but from the Amorites).  These additional notes:  (a) his mother was a prostitute; (b) he also killed 42,000 Ephraimites (fellow Jews, they were nonetheless identified by their inability to pronounce “shibboleth,” the origin of that phrase; also compare 12:1 with 8:1); and (c) we read about the heartbreaking story of the loss of his daughter (11:30-40).  I also found verse 10:16 interesting:  “… [The Lord] could bear Israel’s misery no longer.”   The principal emotion we associate with God is anger, but He is shown to have other feelings from time to time, too — for example, he is pleased with His Son, and finds David to be a man after His own heart.  God is love, after all.

Ibzan (12:8-10):  All we’re told is that he was from Bethlehem and led Israel seven years — and that he “gave his daughters away in marriage to those outside his clan, and for his sons he brought in thirty young women as wives from outside his clan” (I’m not sure why that’s noteworthy, since this is not marrying outside the faith).

Elon (12:11):  A Zebulunite, he led Israel for ten years.

Abdon (12:13-15):  He led Israel for eight years and, not to be outdone by that slacker Jair (see above), he “had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who road on seventy donkeys.”

Samson (chapters 13-16):  He is the Bible’s original badass, a man who lived dangerously:  killing a lion with his bare hands, and then 1000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, creating a wildfire by tying the tails of three hundred foxes together along with a burning torch and setting them lose, and then — after being imprisoned and blinded — killing three thousand more Philistines by cracking the supporting pillars of their temple with his bare hands.  Alas, he loved dangerously, too, marrying outside the faith and then hooking up with the deadly Delilah. He led Israel for twenty years and is in Hebrew 11’s “Hall of Faith.”  He was born miraculously to a heretofore barren couple — not the first or last time this will happen in the Bible — with an angel telling his mother-to-be that her son would “begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines.”  God definitely played an active role in Samson’s life:  The Holy Spirit seems to come to Samson intermittently; verse 14:4 says that Samson marrying outside the faith was part of God’s plan “to confront the Philistines”; his final prayer is explicitly about revenge, and/but God grants it; finally, how plausible is it that Samson would tell Delilah his secret weakness and then stay with her when he was on notice that she would betray him (see 16:16-17; cf. 14:17) — is God’s hand in this, too?  Some Samson trivia regarding his capture:  It inspires some rare Philistine verse (16:24), and he was imprisoned in Gaza (16:21).

Some Additional Notes on Judges

  • In 1:8 the Jews destroy Jerusalem (!).
  • Apparently the Kenites — into which group Moses married — were allowed to live with the Israelites.
  • 1:19 — For military history buffs, we see a reference to the Israelite weakness in their lack of iron chariots.
  • Chapters 17 and 18 recount a bleak story, with no heroes, and chapter 19 is downright horrifying, like something from Flannery O’Connor.  But perhaps the seeming lack of a point is the point:  This is what the world is like when God’s law is not followed.  And we continue along these lines then through chapter 21 with Israel’s first civil war, ending with something like the rape of the Sabine women.  Again, there are no heroes, and 21:25 is the book’s final, fitting verse:  “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.”  The stage is set for I Samuel (after the Ruth interlude) and a monarchy.
  • In Judges, there are lots of random and unflattering facts.  I frequently point out that such unflattering facts about the Jews in the Old Testament are evidence of its veracity — what we lawyers have recognized as a “statement against interest” (in carving out an exception to the bar on hearsay testimony).  One answer might be that, while sometimes this is unflattering to Jews generally, it often serves in some way to advance the agenda of the religious scribes themselves within the Jewish community.  Perhaps, but wouldn’t this group have an interest in painting the pre-monarchical period, when the religious establishment had more power, as being a Golden Age of some sort?  But that’s not at all what we see in Judges:  These leaders have flaws, too, and certainly the Jewish people generally are not painted as being better.
  • Note that the Bible contains both lessons and rules (the latter might also be styled commandments or injunctions).  Compare, for example, “God often works through unlikely people” with “Thou shalt not kill.”   My NIV study Bible is replete with the former in its commentary.