According to Murphy’s
Law, “If anything can go wrong, it
will.” It would not be surprising if Jacob surmised as much, given the problems
he encountered. When Laban heard that his sister’s son had arrived, he rushed to
great him. Whereupon, he assured his nephew: “You are my own flesh and blood”
(Gen. 29:14). It was an auspicious beginning that failed to anticipate the
tensions that would develop.
After a month had passed, his uncle
reflected: “Just because you are relative of mine, should you work for nothing?
Tell me what your wages should be.”
Now Laban had two daughters. Leah, the
older of the siblings, was less desirable. Conversely, Rachel was quite
attractive, and Jacob was understandably enamored of her. Consequently, he
offered to work for seven years in return for her hand in marriage. “It’s better
that I give her to you than to some other man,” Laban agreed. “Stay here with
me.” So Jacob labored for seven years, which “seemed like only a few days to him
because of his love for her.”
When the interim had passed, Jacob asked
for his wife. Since he failed to mention her by name, this fitted into Laban’s
deceitful purpose. He made provision for a feast, and on that occasion presented
Leah to his nephew. “The bride would be veiled during these public festivities,
and it may be assumed that the high spirits would have led to drunkenness, both
factors in Jacob’s inability to recognize the substitution of Leah for Rachel at
When the morning came, “There (with a
touch of Hebrew humor) was Leah.” Jacob was understandably taken back. “What is
this that you have done to me?” he protested. “I served you for Rachel, didn’t
I? Why have you deceived me?”
Laban dutifully replied, “It is not our
custom here to give the younger daughter to marriage before the older one.
Finish this daughter’s bridal week; then we will give you the younger one also,
in return for another seven years of work.” The custom was calculated to save
face for the elder sibling, and assured the family that they would not be
required to continue her support. Of course, this should have been pointed out
It was no doubt with misgivings that Jacob
agreed. Nonetheless, Leah gave birth to four sons, while Rachel remained barren.
The latter was jealous of her sister, and demanded of her husband: “Give me
children, or I’ll die!”
This angered Jacob, who caustically
responded: “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?”
At this, Rachel urged him to bear her a
child by way of her maidservant. It was not an uncommon practice under these
circumstances. The maidservant subsequently gave birth, inciting her mistress to
gloat: “God has vindicated me; he has listened to my plea and given me a son.”
Then, when her surrogate had again given birth, she gleefully announced: “I have
had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won.” However, as a matter of
record, the struggle continued.
Now Jacob petitioned his uncle to let him
returned to his parental home. Laban protested, saying: “If I have found favor
in your eyes, please stay. I have learned by divination that the Lord has
blessed me because of you.” Jacob agreed on the condition that he be allowed to
cultivate his own flock. Even under adverse circumstances, he prospered.
This caused Laban’s sons to complain,
“Jacob has taken everything our father owned and has gained all this wealth from
what belonged to our father.” Jacob also “noticed that Laban’s attitude toward
him was not what it had been.” Whereupon, the Lord prompted him, “Go back to the
land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.”
So Jacob gathered his family and
livestock, and secretively stole away. On the third day after his departure,
Laban was informed and set out in pursuit. However, God appeared to him in a
dream—cautioning him not to take hostile action.
Upon his arrival, they covenanted
together, and heaped up a pile of stones as a witness. “Laban confirmed the
purpose of these stones with an oath in the name of the God of Terah’s two sons,
the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor. His recognition of more than one god
gives evidence of his polytheistic orientation; Jacob took his own oath in the
name of the Fear of his father Isaac.”24
In proverbial terms, “Man’s adversity proved to be God’s opportunity.”
* * *
The Favored One
Now while parents may be equally devoted to
their children, one may be favored. Joseph qualified “because he was born to him
(Jacob) in his old age, and he made a richly ornamented robe for him. When his
brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him
and could not speak a kind word to him” (Gen. 37:3-4). Then, too, he was
“God likewise favored Joseph, giving him
two dreams. Joseph recounted these dreams to his family, (likely impervious to)
the negative effect this had on his brothers.”25
Initially, he saw the members of his family binding sheaves of grain in the
field. His sheaf rose and stood upright, while the other sheaves gathered around
and bowed before it. Angered by his apparent arrogance, his brothers asked if he
was going to rule over them.
In spite of his brothers’ growing
animosity toward him, Joseph shared a second dream. This time the sun and moon
and eleven stars were bowing down before him. Whereupon, his father rebuked
him—although he kept the dreams in mind, pondering what significance they might
Sometime later his brothers had gone to
graze their father’s flocks near Shechem. So his father spoke with Joseph, “Go
and see if all is well with your brothers and the flocks, and bring word back to
Arriving at his destination, Joseph found
that his siblings had move on to Dothan. Accordingly, he set out to follow them.
While still at a distance, his brothers recognized him. “Here comes the
dreamer!” they mocked him. “Come, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these
cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes
of his dreams.”
“Let’s not take his life,” Rueben
protested. “Throw him into this cistern here in the desert, but don’t lay a hand
on him” He meant to rescue Joseph and return him to their father when the
opportunity presented itself.
So when Joseph drew near, they stripped
him of his richly ornamented robe, and cast him into a dry cistern. Then, as
they sat down to eat their meal, they observed a caravan of Ishmaelites coming
from Gilead— bound for Egypt with their goods for sale. “What will we gain if we
kill our brother and cover up his blood?” Judah rhetorically inquired. “Come,
let’s sell him to the Ischmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he
is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His siblings concurred.
When Reuben found the cistern empty, he
was at a loss to explain this to his father. They took Joseph’s robe and dipped
it in goat’s blood, as evidence that he had been killed by some ferocious beats.
Thus convinced, he would not be comforted but declared that “in mourning will I
go down to the grave.”
Meanwhile, Joseph was sold to Potiphar—the
captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Even so, the “Lord was with Joseph and he prospered,
and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master” (39:1). Thus are we informed
of “God’s quiet control and the man of faith’s quiet victory. The good seed is
buried deeper, still to push upward; the servant, faithful in a little trans for
authority in much.”26
“When his master saw that the Lord was
with him and the Lord gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor
in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphor put him in charge of his
household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned.”
In analogical terms, Joseph was not yet
out of the woods. Potiphar’s wife was attracted to him, and suggested that they
have sexual relations. Joseph refused, citing the trust her husband had placed
in him. “How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” he
One day when they were alone, she caught
him by his cloak, insisting: “Come to bed with me!” Leaving the cloak in her
grasp, he fled from the house. At this, she called her household servants. “He
came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed,” she informed them. “When he
heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”
When her husband returned, she recited the
fabricated story for him. He, in turn, had Joseph cast into prison. While
Joseph’s success seemed short-lived, appearances can be misleading. Whether
sooner or late, Joseph’s dreams would be realized.
* * *
“But while Joseph was there in prison, the Lord
was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the
prison warden. So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the
prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there” (Gen.
39:21-22). This would seem in keeping with the proverbial saying, “The cream
rises to the top.”
Some time later, Pharaoh’s cupbearer and
baker were incarcerated for offending their master. Both were entrusted to
Joseph’s care, and both alike had dreams. “Do not interpretations belong to God?
Joseph inquired of them. “Tell me your dreams.”
Upon hearing from the cupbearer, Joseph
concluded: “Within three days Pharaoh will life up your head and restore you to
your position. But when all goes will with you, mention me to Pharaoh, and get
me out of this prison.” As for the baker, “Within three days Pharaoh will lift
off your head and hang you on a tree.”
Now Pharaoh also had successive dreams.
When he shared them with the magicians and wise men, they were unable to
interpret them. Whereupon, the cupbearer was reminded of Joseph languishing in
prison, and he was summoned. When called upon to interpret the dreams, he
observed: “The dreams of Pharaoh are one and the same. Seven years of great
abundance are coming throughout the land of Egypt, but seven years of famine
will follow them. And now let Pharaoh look for a discerning and wise man and put
him in charge of the land of Egypt.”
The ruler did not think it necessary to
look any further than Joseph to fill this critical post. While this appointment
is usually thought to be that of a chief administrative officer, it was perhaps
something less. In particular, along the line of Overseer of the Granaries
and Supervisor of the Royal Lands. In any case, it was a promotion from
prison to prestige.
Now Joseph made good use of the years of
plenty to lay aside ample provisions to see them through the lean years. In this
connection, Jacob observed: “I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down
there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not dies.” Upon doing so,
Joseph revealed himself to them.
Moreover, Pharaoh assured him: “Your
father and your brothers have come to you, and the land of Egypt is before you;
settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land. Let them live
in Goshen. And if you know of any among them with special ability, put them in
charge of my own livestock.” In this regard, “The northeastern section of the
Delta region was known to be inhabited by Semites and it is the center of Hyksos
activity during the eighteenth to sixteenth centuries B.C. It will also be
equated tithe the Tanis district, where the storehouses of Pithom and Rameses
were said to be constructed (cf. Exod. 1:11).”17
“I am about to be gathered to my people,”
Jacob subsequently observed. “Bury me with my fathers in the cave (purchased by
Abraham) as a burial place.” He would thus be interned along with the remains of
Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah. His request was subsequently
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their
father was dead, they pondered: “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and
pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” So they sent him word, saying
that their father had asked that they be forgiven.
“You intended to harm me,” Joseph
acknowledged, “but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being
done, the saving of many lives. So, then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for
you and your children.”
Throughout the ordeal God had led him and
protected him, elevating him to leadership in the Egyptian government at a
crucial time, thereby enabling him to save their lives and those of numerous
peoples throughout the region. This view of divine providence accords with the
teaching of wisdom literature.18
As an example, “Many are the plans in a man’s
heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails” (Prov. 19:21).
Joseph remained in Egypt, along with his
extended family. “I am about to die,” he allowed. “But God will surely come to
your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Then he had them promise to remove his remains, and
bury them in the promised land. In this regard, his confidence remained firm to
* * *
Turn of Events
Genesis concludes with the Israelites having
found sanctuary in Egypt, while Exodus finds them suffering oppression. Such are
the uncertainties of life that plague the righteous and wicked alike. By this
time, the patriarchal narratives served as a cherished legacy, and as an
encouragement in the face of relentless opposition.
A new ruler, who was unfamiliar with
Joseph, ascended the throne. “Look,” he addressed the people, “the Israelites
have become much too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or
they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our
enemies, fight against us and leave the country” (Exod. 1:9-10).
So they appointed slave masters to oppress
them, and coerce them into building store cities. “But the more they were
oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so the Egyptians came to dread
the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly.”
Not content, Pharaoh instructed certain of
the Hebrew midwives to do away with any males they delivered. “The midwives,
however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do.”
When confronted with their duplicity, they attributed it to the fact that the
mothers gave birth before their arrival.
Now a certain Levite couple gave birth to
a son, and his mother hid him away so he would not come to the attention of the
officials. However, when she could no longer do so, she placed him in a papyrus
basket, and put it among reeds along the bank of the Nile. His sister stood at a
distance, to observe what would transpire.
When Pharaoh’s’ daughter came to bathe,
the basket was brought to her attention. Upon opening it, she saw the child. He
was crying, and she felt sorry for him. At this, his sister asked inquired:
“Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?” Upon
receiving an affirmative reply, she secured the services of its mother. “When
the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son.”
She called him Moses, since she drew him out of the water.
One day, after Moses had matured, he went
out to where his own people were engaged in hard labor. There he saw an
Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Glancing this way and
that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid his body in the sand.
When this became known, Moses fled to Midian so as to escape the wrath of
“Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro
his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of
the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God” (3:1). “The mountain of God
is here designated Horeb and elsewhere Sinai, though either one of these names
could refer to the general area, a particular range or a single peak. Moses most
likely calls it the mountain of God in recognition of the status it is going to
achieve rather than any prior occurrences.”29
Although one option does not necessarily preclude the other.
There he observed a burning bush that was
not consumed. “Was it a supernatural vision or was it an actual physical
phenomenon? If the latter, did he see a bramble bush literally blazing in the
desert, or the shrub called ‘burning bush’, in brilliant flower; or the sunset
light falling full on a thorn bush and producing the effect of flames?”30
In any case, it served to catch
As he approached the bush, to observe it
more closely, a voice called out. “Do not come any closer,” God enjoined him.
“Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
After that, the voice confided: “I am the God of your father, the God of
Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face,
for he was fearful of confronting the Almighty.
“I have seen the misery of my people in
Egypt,” the Lord confided. “I have heard them crying out because of their slave
drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.” This was calculated to
alleviate any questions Moses might have entertained along that line.
“So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh
to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” Moses’ protests were to no
avail, since God was adamant. In this context, he reveled himself as I AM WHO
I AM. While this is most likely a reference to The Living Lord, it
implied that he would meet their subsequent needs. As cogently expressed by the
psalmist, “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer” (18:2).
* * *
Let My People Go
Subsequently, Moses and Aaron went before
Pharaoh—informing him: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel says; ‘Let my
people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert’” (Exod. 5:1).
This, in turn, recalls the observation that there is no freedom from that
does not embrace freedom for some worthwhile enterprise. Otherwise, it
“Who is the Lord, that I should obey him
and let Israel go?” the ruler replied. “I do not know the Lord and I will not
let Israel go.” He was perhaps struck by the audacity of some desert deity to
his consummate rule, guaranteed by the Egyptian pantheon. Instead of granting
the mandate, he intensified oppression of the Israelites—as a rebuke to the
“O Lord, why have you brought trouble upon
this people?” Moses took recourse to satire. “Is this why you sent me?”
The Lord replied, “Now you will see what I
will do to Pharaoh. Because of my mighty hand, he will let them go.” It would
not be accomplished through extended negotiation, but by way of decisive action.
After this, the plagues follow in succession, as if to verify the Lord God’s
Two examples will suffice. Initially,
“With the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water of the Nile, and it
will be changed into blood.” “The blood-red coloring has been attributed to an
excess of both red earth and the bright red algae and its bacteria, both of
which accompany a heavier than usual flooding.”31
Even were this the case, it would not account for the excessive nature of the
flooding, nor its providential timing. As such, it was calculated to strike
Pharaoh as something quite out of the ordinary.
Additionally, the Lord informed Moses:
“Every firstborn son of Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh to the
firstborn son of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and the firstborn of
the cattle as well.” This seems meant to impress of Pharaoh the divine anguish
associated with the oppression of the Israelites, as his beloved firstborn.
Furthermore, the various efforts to explain this event in naturalistic
terms have been less than convincing.
During the night, the ruler summoned Moses
and Aaron. “Up!” he urged them. “Leave my people, you and the Israelites. Go,
worship the Lord as you have requested. Take your flocks and herds, as you have
said, and go. And also bless me.” This was in the form of a farewell
benediction, rather than a lingering curse.
In this regard, The holiday of Pesach
(Passover) commemorates the seminal event in Jewish history—the Exodus of the
people of Israel from Egyptian bondage. Most notable among those propositions
(associated with the deliverance) was the notion that God is present in human
lives, that he hears the cries of the suffering and tormented, and that he
intervenes in history to deliver man from affliction and to redeem him from
In Jewish tradition, it is said that no one is
actually free so long as anyone remains in bondage.
When their departure was reported, Pharaoh
and his officials had a change of mind. “What is this that we have done?” they
inquired among themselves. “We have let the Israelites go and have lost their
services!” Consequently, the Egyptians set out in pursuit, and overtook them as
they were encamped by the sea.
“Was it because there were no graves in
Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?” the people protested to Moses.
“It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the
“Do not be afraid,” Moses resolutely
replies. “Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you
today.” As instructed, he then “stretched out his hand over the sea, and all
that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind. The waters were
divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground.”
The Lord then prompted Moses, “Stretch out
your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and
their chariots and horsemen.” So it came to pass. Incidentally, some have
speculated that this resulted from intensive volcanic activity documented in the
Aegean at that time.
In any case, the Israelites were jubilant.
“I will sing to the Lord, for his is highly exalted,” they enthused. “The horse
and its rider he has hurled into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my sun; he
has become my salvation” (15:1-2). Then, in conclusion, “The Lord will reign for
ever and ever.”
* * *
A Vassal Treaty
The traditional cite for Mount Sinai is a
granite ridge, “the peaks of which reach about 8,000 feet above sea level. The
most conspicuous peak, Jebel Musa (Mountain of Moses) looks out toward a wide
plain approximately four miles in length and up to a mile in width—providing a
plausible place for the people of Israel to have encamped.”33 It was here, if tradition is
accurate, that the Israelites gathered—having been dramatically delivered from
Then the Lord informed Moses to relay to
the people, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all
nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine,
you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:5-6).
Worthy of note, a priest intercedes not only on his own behalf, but that of
others—in this instance, the Gentiles.
The covenant was in the form of a vassal
treaty, whereby the Lord pledges his benevolent oversight on condition of the
people’s faithful observance. The treaty appears to consist of five parts.
Initially, there is a preamble—which accents the sovereign character of the
Almighty. This is followed by a prelude, recalling the providential events
leading up to the treaty. Moreover, it gives way to the stipulations—which
constitute the bulk of the treaty. There follows the blessing and cursing
associated with keeping the covenant, and concludes with a provision for renewal
in the light of subsequent developments.
The significance of the decalogue can
hardly be overstated. The rabbis “speculated that it was prepared on the eve of
creation in anticipation of subsequent use; they asserted that as each
commandment was sounded . . . it filled the world with a pleasing aroma; they
concluded that all nature hushed to hear every word as it was spoken.”34
The so-called ten words are apodictic rather than casuistic,
pertaining to general principles instead of particular applications.
The decalogue deals successively with the
covenant people’s relationship with the Almighty, and with one another. “I am
the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, and out of the land of
slavery,” the text begins. “You shall have no other gods before me.” This takes
aim “at atheism (we must have a God), idolatry (we must have Yahweh as our God),
polytheism (we must have the Lord God alone), and formalism (we must live, fear,
and serve the Lord with all our heart, strength, and mind.”35
Herein lies the key to genuine piety.
The second prohibition expressly expands on
idolatry. “For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children
for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate
me, but showing love to a thousand of generations of those who love me and keep
my commandments.” This is by way of emphasizing the social implications of our
religious beliefs, along with God’s inclination to temper the results in a
“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord
your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.”
Accordingly, one is not to used God’s name casually, hypocritically, or for
magical purposes. Conversely, it should be employed reverently, lovingly, and
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it
holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a
Sabbath to the Lord your God.” This was meant to put life in proper perspective,
and be renewed in spirit. Incidently, the rabbis reasoned that one must be
diligent in his or work through the intervening days in order to properly
observe the Sabbath celebration.
“Honor your father and your mother, so
that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” This
requires respect, obedience, and loving devotion. It also extends to taking care
of one’s parents in their declining years, and remembering them with
appreciation following their demise.
“You shall not murder.” In comprehensive
terms, we are charged with the safety of all. This, in addition, requires an
affirmation of the sanctity of life.
“You shall not commit adultery.” While
expressly insisting on marital fidelity, the principle was cited as a
prohibition against a variety of unacceptable sexual behavior. The rabbis also
advocated that one take precaution against falling into temptation, expressed in
terms of building a fence.
“You shall not steal.” This pertained not
only to taking that which belonged to another, but the shirking of one’s
responsibilities, defaming someone’s character, and similar infractions.
“You shall not give false testimony
against your neighbor.” In general terms, truth (like life) constitutes
a sacred trust. As such, it honors the Almighty. Moreover, it provides a needed
catalyst for society’s well-being.
“You shall not covet anything that belongs
to your neighbor.” This final interdict makes explicit what was implicit up to
this point, that our predatory desires are at the root of our perverse
practices. All things condidered, God’s ways are preferred.
* * *
The Spies’ Report
Now it came to pass that the Israelites took
their leave from Sinai, and set out the promised land. Having negotiated the
distance between, the Lord instructed Moses: “Send some men to explore the land
of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites. From each ancestral tribe send
on of its leaders” (Num. 13:2). In keeping with this injunction, Moses addressed
Go through the Negev and on into the hill
country. See what the land is like and whether the people ho live there are
strong or weak, few or many. What kind of land do they live in? Is it good or
bad? What kind of towns do they live in. Are they unwalled or fortified? How is
the soil? Is it fertile or poor. Are there trees on it or not?
He also urged them to bring back sample produce.
The spies journeyed north, surveying the
land as they went—before returning. It took them forty days in all. In greater
detail, they made their way through the Negev, a region south of the Judean hill
country. It is shaped like a butterfly, its wings extended from Beersheba. While
it enjoys rich alluvial soil, the “sparse rainfall in the Negev makes water
conservation a very important aspect of the areas’s economy. Droughts are
frequent. Settlements have usually existed along the wadis (seasonal streams),
where water could be collected during the rainy season to store for later use.”36
They continued on into the Judean hill
country, which rises above the Shephelah (rolling hills) to the west, and dips
down toward the Jordan rift to the east. It provides an ample region for
grazing, and sustains olive groves. Hebron is expressly mentioned in the text.
Jerusalem lies still further north, inciting the psalmist to observe: “As the
mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people both now and
“We went to the land to which you sent us,
and it does flow with milk and honey (ideal from a pastoral perspective)!” the
spies allowed. “Here is its fruit. But the people who live there are powerful,
and the cities are fortified and very large.” “All the people we saw there are
of great size,” they added. “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we
looked the same to them.”
As a matter of record, most of the
inhabitants lived in valleys along the coastal plain. There were only a few
important settlements in the hill country, such as Hebron. These were strongly
fortified and ably defended. The Canaanite culture at that time was relatively
advanced. There were skilled craftsmen, experienced merchants, and productive
Although Caleb urged the people to go up
and possess the land, they were intimidated by the spies’ report. That night
they wept aloud, and vented their concerns on Moses and Aaron. “If only we had
died in Egypt!” they complained. “Or in this desert. Why is the Lord bringing us
to the land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be
taken in plunder” (14:2-3). “We should chose a leader and go back to Egypt,”
“How long will the people treat me with
contempt?” the Lord rhetorically inquired. He “was understandably angry with His
covenant people because the nation was still rejecting Him after all He had
already done and was promising to do for them in the future. The Israelites seem
to have gained the impression that the Sinai covenant was one of privilege
without any responsibility.”37
Whereupon, Moses mused: “The Lord is slow
to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not
leave the guilty unpunished.” Accordingly, he petitioned: “In accordance with
your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them
from the time they left Egypt until now.”
“Not one of you will enter the land I
swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb and Joshua,” the Lord
resolutely replied. “As for your children, I will bring them into the land you
have rejected. (They) will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your
unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the desert.” Forty
years were to unfold, one year for each of the days the spies spent in
surveying the land.
When Moses reported this to the people,
they mourned bitterly. Early the text morning they went up into the hill
country, only to suffer defeat at the hands of its inhabitant. The ark of the
covenant remained in camp, as if to signify that they were strictly on their
The precise location of the engagement is
uncertain. However, “The scenario plays out time and again in the course of
salvation history. Persons squander their gracious opportunities. Too late, they
realize their error. A belated effort proves disastrous. One must either learn
from history or be destined to repeat its tragedies.”38
* * *
The Jordan River “is the largest perennial
course in Palestine, and its distance of some 120 kilometers from Lake Huleh to
the Dead Sea is more than doubled by its meaner. No other river has more
biblical allusions and significance.”39
“Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah,
across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land” (Deut. 34:1). He
was thus assured that the Israelites would cross over the land once he had
“Since then, no prophet has risen in
Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew fact to face. For no one has ever shown
his mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of
Israel.” Not only had he been instrumental in the deliverance of his people from
bondage, but in their journey to the promised land.
After Moses’ demise, the Lord directed
Joshua: “Now then, you and all these people get ready to cross the Jordan River
into the land I am about to give them. I will give you every place where you set
your foot, as I promised Moses” (Josh. 1:2-3).
“Be strong and courageous, because you will lead
these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them,” the
Lord continued. “Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do
not turn to the right or the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.”
The exhortation be strong and courageous is expressed four times, by way
of documenting its critical importance. This, in turn, recalls the admonition:
“Expect great things from God, and undertake great things in his name.”
It would be to no avail should they
disregard their covenant obligations. This would require continuing diligence,
and faithful application. Neither to the right or to the left may be a
subtle reminder that we tend to err in keeping with opposite extremes, so that
when we attempt to escape one fault we fall prey to the converse.
So it was that Joshua ordered his officers
to instruct the people: “Get your supplies ready. Three days from now you will
cross the Jordan here to go in and take possession of the land the Lord your God
is given you for your own.”
“Whatever you have commanded us, will do,”
the people assured Joshua, “And wherever you send us we will go. Just as we
fully obeyed Moses, so we will obey you. Only may the Lord your God be with you
as he was with Moses.” We are thus assured: “God encourages leaders when they
feel insecure and weak. (He also unites) divided forces for the task at hand.
When leaders faithfully prepare to do God’s will they discover that (he) has
prepared the way for success. Courage and unity also are divine gifts for
Meanwhile, Joshua sent out two persons to
reconnoiter the land, and Jericho in particular. They subsequently found lodging
in the house of a prostitute named Rahab. She confided in them, “I know
that the Lord has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen
on us” (2:9). In retrospect, “By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she
welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient” (Heb.
After three days had passed, the people
were instructed: “When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God and
the priest, who are Levites, carrying it, you are to move out from your
positions and follow it” (3:3). “And as soon as the priests who carry the ark of
the Lord—the Lord of all the earth—set foot in the Jordan, its waters flowing
down stream will be cut off and stand up in a heap.”
So it came to pass. Then the “priests who
carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firm on dry ground in the
middle of the Jordan, while all Israel passed by until the whole nation had
completed the crossing on dry ground.”
This was during the time when the river is
in its flood stage and therefore wider than its normal width of 90-100 feet and
deeper than its average 5-10 feet. The southern flow of the Jordan is turbulent.
Form a geological perspective, the Jordan River Valley lies at the juncture of
tectonic plates that create an unstable region. Earthquakes can occur and have
been know to block the flow of the river.41
Whatever secondary means may have been employed,
the account is calculated to express its religious implications.
Whereas a previous generation had failed,
this time there would be no turning back. For better and worse, the conquest had
* * *
Joshua’s central campaign began with Jericho,
the oldest known fortified city in antiquity. Its capture was strategically
important because it provided access to the valleys ascending into the hill
country. It also appears to have been an important commercial center at the
“Now Jericho was tightly shut up because
of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in” (Josh. 6:1). A prolonged
siege seemed imminent. However, the Lord said to Joshua:
See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands,
along with its king and its fighting men. March around the city once with all
the armed men. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams
horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven
times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long
blast on the trumpets, have all the people give a loud shout; then the wall of
the city will collapse and the people will go up, every man straight in.
The extended march around the city was
calculated to diminish its resolve to resist. This, in turn, would serve a
similar purpose as the word spread to surrounding areas. It would be coupled
with reports of how the Lord had delivered the Israelites from bondage, and in
anticipation of possessing the promised land.
Given its geological setting, as noted
above, one could readily imagine an earthquake of sufficient proportion to
collapse the walls of the city. Whether in this manner or some other, it would
have been a terrifying experience for its inhabitants. Resistance would have
While the loss of life, whether in this
connection or some other, “is to be regretted, we must recognize that there are
times when only radical surgery will save the life of the cancer-stricken body.
The whole population of the antediluvian civilization had become hopelessly
infected with the cancer of moral depravity (cf. Gen. 6:5).”42
In addition, this was meant to bring about a redemptive recovery in the course
of salvation history.
Had this devastation not come at the hands
of Joshua, then presumably by some other means. Since their corporate guilt was
compounded by previous generations (cf. Exod. 20:5). Then, too, the Israelites
were not to benefit from their involvement.
Rahab and those associated with her were
spared. This had broader implications for any showing deference to the Lord’s
righteous ways. In this regard, it would appear that the Almighty is much more
prone to forgive than persons are to repent.
“Cursed before the Lord is the man who
undertakes to rebuild this city,” Joshua cautioned. “At the cost of his
firstborn son will he lay its foundations; at the cost of his youngest will he
set up its gates.” This is likely a reference to the practice of child sacrifice
in connection with foundation ceremonies, meant to point out the fruitlessness
of the enterprise.
Now Achan of the tribe of Judah took
forbidden spoils from the conflict, inciting the Lord to anger. Unaware of this
complication, Joshua sent persons to appraise the situation at Ai. Upon
returning, they advised: “Send two or three thousand men to take it and do not
weary all the people, for only a few men are there. So about three thousand went
up” to engage the adversary (7:3-4).
Initially, thirty-six Israelites were
killed in the encounter, and the remainder fled from the onslaught. “At this the
hearts of the people melted and became like water.” Not only was this a disaster
in and of itself, but word of what had happened would reverberate throughout the
Then Joshua tore his clothes, and
prostrated himself before the ark of the Lord. The elders of Israel did the
same, and sprinkled dust on their heads. “Ah, Sovereign Lord,” Joshua
plaintively inquired, “why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to
deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us?”
“Israel has sinned,” the Almighty
responded. We are thus reminded that God plays no favorites. “Go,” the Lord
commanded, “consecrate the people.”
Early the next morning, Joshua set out to
discover the guilty person. “Tribe by tribe, clan by clan, and households file
by to be judged. Guiltiness may have determined by casting lots or some test. In
any case, Achan was found guilty.”43
Whereupon, he was summarily
After than, the Lord encouraged Joshua to
go up a second time against Ai. This time the Israelites were successful, having
rid themselves of the contagion. In the process, it was meant that they would
learn a valuable lesson.
* * *
The Unfinished Task
Joshua’s task was far from finished, since
critical engagements lay ahead. After that, it would be necessary to institute
land reform. All this was anticipated by covenant renewal at Mount Ebal, where
its binding provisions were acknowledged in an alternative setting (Josh.
A new phase begins with the hill country
as “the next challenge for possessing the land. The narrator tells of
independent ethnic enclaves who plot war against the tribal threat (9:1). These
live in the hill country, in the western foothills, and along the coast of the
Mediterranean, as for north as Lebanon.”44
Conversely, the Gibeonites resorted to
deception—fearing that they were no match for the invaders. They sent a
delegation pretending to have come from some distance, intent on making a
treaty with the Israelites. In this regard, “The men of Israel sample their
provisions but did not inquire of the Lord. Then Joshua made a treaty of peace
with them to let them live, and the leaders of the assembly ratified it by
Three days later, it was learned that they
lived nearby. This incited the whole assembly to grumble against their
leaders. Nevertheless, the latter replied: “We have given them our oath by the
Lord, the God of Israel, and we cannot touch them now.” Instead, “Let them be
woodcutters and water carriers for the entire community.” Even so, those who
were allowed to remain proved to be hindrance in the Israelites’ attempt to
realize their covenant calling.
When it became known that the Gibeonites
had defected to the enemy, Adoni-Zedek—king of Jerusalem formed a coalition of
Amorite city states to retaliate. Whereupon, the Gibeonites sent word to Joshua:
“Do not abandon your servants. Come up to us quickly and save us!” (10:6).
Joshua set out from Gilgal to relieve the
besieged Gibeonites. After an all-night march, the Israelites took them by
The Lord threw them into confusion before
Israel, who defeated them in a great victory at Gibeon. As they fled before
Israel on the road down from Beth Horon to Azekah, the Lord hurled large
hailstones down on them from the sky, and more of them died from the hailstones
than were killed by the swords of the Israelites.
“In second-millennium B.C. Hittite and
first-millennium B.C Assyrian sources, ‘stones from heaven’ are used by deities
in similar contexts of battling with the enemy. As here, it is often an
explanation of how the enemy was thrown into confusion.”45
The resulting loss of life was thereby greatly increased.
Joshua subsequently interceded: “O sun,
stand still over Gibeon, O moon, near the Valley of Avalon.” Then the “sun
stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. There
has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord was fighting
The event has been variously explained.
Some take it to mean that these celestial bodies actually remained fixed or
appeared to do so, there being similar parallels in classical Greek literature.
Incidentally, there may be metaphorical implications of which we are unaware.
Others think it a reference to a solar
eclipse, along with the notion that Joshua’s request was for relief from the
heat of the sun beating down from overhead. It would be calculated to send fear
through the ranks of the enemy, and thereby diminish their resolve.
A third alternative alludes to
Neo-Assyrian astrology. In this instance, the unexpected appearance of the sun
and moon is thought to be either a favorable omen for the Israelites and/or an
unfavorable omen for their adversary. Worthy of note, this issue concerns not
what God can do, but did do on that occasion.
There follows a brief account of Joshua’s
military accomplishments, before an impressive list of defeated foes. “You are
very old,” the Lord acknowledged, “and there are still very large areas of land
to be taken over” (13:1). Then, too, land reform would play a critical role.
Previously, Sociological studies indicate that the aristocracy, temple, and
governmental officials, making up about 2 percent of the population of Canaan
has control over 50 percent of the land as patrimonial holdings. These holdings
were worked by slave or sharecropping peasants who paid over half of their
produce to the landlords. The rest of the land was tilled by villagers who paid
heavy taxes to support the urban elite.46
However, from a Jewish perspective, the
land ultimately belonged to the Almighty, who meant it to be available to his
people. This implied that none should be given special privileges while others
were discriminated against. Impartiality was initially achieved by casting lots,
and its periodic restoration as a clan and family inheritance.
* * *
Proceed to Section Three