February 17, 2008

Joshua 16-18: But can you walk the walk?

Today's reading is Joshua 16-18 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the land allotment for Ephraim and the half-tribe of Manasseh west of the Jordan; Joshua's sending of scouts into the rest of the land; and the allotment for Benjamin.

Though we started discussing the land allotments west of the Jordan in our last set of readings, the trend continues today. One of the things we learn is that the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh are quite large. If you find any map of the Israelite tribes in Canaan, at least any map with borders, you'll see that Manasseh gets quite a large amount of land. The two tribes together hole essentially all the land from the northern tip of the Dead Sea to the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee (along the Jordan) across to the Mediterranean. That's roughly a third of all the lands for the Israelites west of the Jordan (Judah gets a fair amount as well). And that's not even counting the lands Manaaseh holds east of the Jordan. It's certainly more than any other tribe, except possibly Judah.

You would think this would be enough for them, but you would be mistaken.

The sons of Joseph, perhaps capitalizing on their patriarch's favouritism with Jacob, ask Joshua for yet more land. (Josh 17:14) They say, "I am a great people," and they should therefore get more than just one portion of land.

Joshua, to his credit, comes up with an acceptable solution to this quandary in Josh. 17:11-18. It turns out that though the children of Joseph had been given all this land, some of it was yet unconquered. There is a whole list of cities in Josh. 17:11, mostly in forest-land situated in the north-east of their territory, occupied by the Perizzites and Rephaites ("the giants" in the KJV, Josh. 17:15). Joshua tells them that if their current allotment is too small, all they need to do is go conquer those cities and they'll have more land.

Here the children of Joseph balk. The people in those cities have iron chariots! And if you believe the KJV, they're giants! Even if their current lands aren't big enough, they don't want to go conquer those north-eastern cities.

Joshua gives them a stern reprimand: you are numerous and powerful. Go drive them out, and you'll overcome them, even though they have iron chariots. (Josh. 17:18) You can almost hear the unwritten text, "God is fighting for you."

Oddly enough, we never find out what happens to these cities. We read in Josh. 17:13 (in the middle of this whole interchange) that when the Israelites were stronger, they subjected the Canaanites in those cities to "forced labour" (NIV) or "put [them] to tribute" (KJV). The text is unclear about whether this is the situation at the time of the narrative, or at the time of the writing many years later, as the text tends to add occasional references to "things are still like this today." Nonetheless, it seems like the Children of Joseph may have been less successful than Joshua anticipated.

At this point, we need to re-evalutate some of our previous assumptions. First, we assumed that the whole land was conquered, except for a few outlying areas. This is clearly not the case. In fact, much of the land around the Sea of Galilee is still unconquered at this juncture.

Next, we assumed that the Israelites were fearless warriors. It certainly seemed that way last time, when Caleb conquered Hebron and his nephew conquered Debir. (Josh. 15) In fact, it seemed like the Israelites were almost unstoppable during their long campaign, conquering massed forces of numerous Canaanite kings. But perhaps when it came to assembling an army without Joshua at its head, the Israelites were less courageous. Even though they'd conquered giants before (Og, king of Bashan, for example), and they'd defeated foes with chariots (Josh. 11), they seemed less inclined to do it again, at least if they needed to do it by themselves.

Finally, we assumed that the tribes were mostly in harmony. Throughout most of the Pentateuch and Joshua up to this point, the "Israelites" were always referred to as a single entity, a six-hundred-thousand-person happy family. We learn here that this might not have been the case. The various tribes were jealous of their borders, wanted more land, and essentially behaved like small kingdoms unto themselves. Yes, certainly they all followed the same God, and they were all descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but they also had their own tribal patriarchs and their own tribal identities. Manasseh seems to have no problem with claiming more land from, say, the territory of Judah to the south or Zebulun to the north.

What can we deduce from this small section, then? Perhaps that the Israelites were not quite as noble, mighty, and fair as we originally assumed. Or, perhaps, the men of Ephraim and Manasseh were simply human beings acting in their best interests. One thing we can be fairly certain of, however, is that either way, it was probably bad news for the Canaanites.

3 comments:

feygele said...

I'm glad to see you've started this up again.

Question: do you have an url to the KJV with "giants"? The one I found said nothing about the northerners' stature. I'm curious, because there's nothing in the Hebrew that suggests size/giants/them there massive folks.

Julie said...

Odd. The very link you used in this comment, for me, says "giants" specifically: 15. And Joshua answered them, If thou be a great people, then get thee up to the wood country, and cut down for thyself there in the land of the Perizzites and of the giants, if mount Ephraim be too narrow for thee." (My emphasis.)

I used to have some concordances, but I don't know where I put those bookmarks in the intervening months. I'll trust your knowledge of the Hebrew as being far superior to mine.

feygele said...

Clearly I am blind as it does indeed say "giants." But it's an odd translation - the Hebrew is

בארץ הפרזי והרפאים

which I'd translate as "in the land (of) the Perizzites and (of) the Rephaim." Rephaim is usually translated as "ghosts" or "spirits" (as in, I used to live on rechov Emek Rephaim - Valley of the Spirits street - boo!). So whether this was the name of a tribe of people, or a descriptor, it still isn't "giants." I don't have a BDB next to me, but I'll look it up tomorrow in the beit midrash. See what I can find about them.