I finished Richard Nelson’s commentary on the Book of Joshua.
1. Nelson talks about the distribution of the Promised Land among the tribes in the Book of Joshua, and he dates parts of that story to different times. One historical context that he posits is the “expansionistic reign of Josiah” (page 186). For Nelson, that the Book of Joshua had a southern provenance at some point in its history is evident in its starting with Judah when discussing the division of the Cisjordan (after it talks about Caleb’s inheritance). Moreover, in Joshua 18:21-25, Northern Israelite cities (i.e., Bethel) are assigned to Benjamin, which was part of the Southern Kingdom. Nelson states that this reflects a time when “Judah controlled northeast Benjamin and southern Ephraim (Bethel, Ophrah), and such a time is probably the reign of Josiah, “whose reform touched not only Bethel, but included Geba” (page 214).
But Nelson argues that the Levitical cities in Joshua 21:1-42 must reflect a late date, for that section reflects the post-exilic practice of elevating the sons of Aaron above the other Levites (whereas the Deuteronomistic History did not distinguish among the Levites). Moreover, Nelson states that “there is no period after Solomon in which a single political structure would have actually controlled all the territory described here”, but, because archaeology tells us “that many of these towns were not settled at the time of the United Monarchy”, we cannot date the list to that time (pages 237-238). Nelson considers the list to be late and utopian, like Ezekiel 48’s distribution of the land.
2. In Joshua 22, there is the story of the Israelite tribes in Gilead building a replica of the altar, which drew the anger of the Israelites in the CisJordan. But an understanding was reached between them, and Gilead was affirmed to be part of Israel. According to Nelson, xenophobia against the Transjordan probably emerged as a result of the Assyrians “adding further alien elements to the Ammonites and Moabites already present”, as part of their “ethnic exchange policy” (page 250). Nelson states that Ezekiel 47:13-48:29 reflects the view that the Transjordan is not a part of Israel, for Ezekiel 47:18 distinguishes Gilead from Israel. Consequently, Nelson contends that Joshua 22 concerns questions that confronted Israel after its restoration: “Could Yahwists who lived outside the holy land participate in temple sacrifice or were they unclean (v. 17)? Were the offerings they brought products of an unclean land (v. 19)?” Joshua 22, like Psalm 60:7 and 108:8, affirms an inclusive view regarding Gilead.
3. There are passages in Joshua in which Israel is said to have conquered all of the land, whereas other parts suggest that there is more land for Israel to take. Deuteronomistic language actually appears in both kinds of passages, and so Nelson proposes that the Deuteronomist had a complex ideology on Conquest, which he inherited from Deuteronomy:
“According to Deut. 7:1-5, for example, the nations are to be wiped out, yet at the same time are to be carefully avoided. Deut. 11:22-25 asserts that the complete achievement of the conquest would depend on obedience as well as on divine promise.” (page 259)
When obedience is placed into the equation, success becomes tentative!
For Nelson, the Deuteronomist presented the Conquest as total in order to glorify YHWH and to argue that the land indeed belongs to Israel, but he shifts gears to prepare the way for the Book of Judges, where the Israelites are religiously influenced by the Canaanites—resulting in Israel’s ups and downs in the course of the book. We see this sort of thing elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible: “In the book of Kings as well, the historian admits the continued presence of alien elements (1 Kings 9:20-21), yet faithfully asserts that Yahweh dispossessed them (1 Kings 14:24; 2 Kings 15:3)” (page 260).
4. On page 269, Nelson is discussing the pledge of allegiance that the Israelites make to YHWH in Joshua 24. (Nelson says later, on page 277, that there is nothing in Joshua 24 about God’s obligations to Israel, for God has already fulfilled his side of the bargain through his past actions on her behalf.) This occurs at Shechem, and Nelson notes that Shechem is often associated with loyalty to YHWH. In Genesis 35:2-4, for example, Shechem is where Jacob buries the idols that his family has forsaken. I wonder if Genesis 34 (the story of Dinah) could be relevant to this, since that is about the possibility of Israelite intermarriage with the Shechemites—which did not occur. Intermarriage can lead to idolatry, but Simeon and Levi kept that from happening when they slaughtered the Shechemites and took possession of the area themselves.
I thought that this book was all right, but I particularly enjoyed the introduction, for that was where Nelson argued that the Conquest was not historically accurate, and yet the Book of Joshua played a significant role in the theology and identity of Israel. Usually, when people make those sorts of claims, they sound rather hairy, for I wonder how stories that did not happen could provide inspiration for anyone. But the Israelites believed that they did happen, according to Nelson. And the stories inspired Israel to praise YHWH and to reassure themselves when they were unsure that the land was in their grasp—and even after they had lost the land.