Joshua: The Chal­lenge of the Promised Land

Michael Hat­tin
  • Review
By – September 8, 2015

Rab­bi Michael Hat­tin, Direc­tor of the Beit Midrash for the Pardes Cen­ter Insti­tute for Jew­ish Edu­ca­tors, con­tributes a vol­ume on the Book of Joshua to the excel­lent Mag­gid Stud­ies in Tanach series.

Adapt­ed from Hat­tin’s semes­ter-length cours­es on Joshua, Joshua: The Chal­lenge of The Promised Land is acces­si­ble enough to be read as a stand-alone book, though it func­tions best as a com­pan­ion vol­ume to the bib­li­cal text.

In 29 chap­ters pro­ceed­ing sequen­tial­ly through the 24 chap­ters of the bib­li­cal book, Hat­tin iso­lates two over­ar­ch­ing sto­ry­lines. The first is that of Joshua him­self grow­ing into the lead­er­ship role he assumed as Moses’ suc­ces­sor, and the sec­ond is that of the Israelites ris­ing to meet the chal­lenge and respon­si­bil­i­ty of their nation­al des­tiny through the con­quest and set­tle­ment of the Promised Land. The two sto­ry­lines are inter­twined; the book begins just after Moses’ death as Joshua receives encour­age­ment both from God and his new charges, still encamped in Tran­sjor­dan, and con­cludes with Joshua’s own Moses-like vale­dic­to­ry address, deliv­ered as the Israelites begin the work of set­tling into their new­ly con­quered homeland.

Hat­tin syn­the­sizes a mod­ern yet firm­ly Ortho­dox approach to his sub­ject mat­ter. Though he is aware of con­tem­po­rary arche­ol­o­gy, he refers to it only to explain the text as we have it, not to test his­tor­i­cal accu­ra­cy, com­po­si­tion, or devel­op­ment. Sim­i­lar­ly, he does not make ref­er­ence to mod­ern aca­d­e­m­ic bib­li­cal schol­ar­ship. Instead, he unpacks the unfold­ing themes of the book in the con­text of the Book of Deuteron­o­my (which pro­ceeds it), demon­strat­ing how the lit­er­ary devices in the text refer mean­ing­ful­ly to oth­er bib­li­cal pas­sages and episodes. Through­out, he demon­strates how tra­di­tion­al medieval and rab­binic texts were sen­si­tive to lit­er­ary nuances, using them both explic­it­ly and implic­it­ly to for­mu­late their own expla­na­tions and commentaries.

The Book of Joshua’s exten­sive depic­tions of bloody con­quest — and the over­all goal of dis­plac­ing Canaan’s indige­nous peo­ples — are some­what trou­bling for Hat­tin, as they may be for any con­tem­po­rary read­er. Hattin’s expla­na­tion is that the Israelites’ goal of cre­at­ing a moral­ly just soci­ety based on eth­i­cal monothe­ism required being free of the per­ni­cious influ­ence of the moral rel­a­tivism and injus­tice that essen­tial­ly fol­lowed from poly­the­ism. In oth­er words, the Israelites were not xeno­pho­bic per se, but did what was nec­es­sary for their own self-preser­va­tion as God’s peo­ple. Though firm­ly sit­u­at­ed with­in the clas­si­cal bib­li­cal and rab­binic sources, this expla­na­tion, and the assump­tions behind it, rais­es oth­er trou­bling eth­i­cal ques­tions, left unasked, about means and ends, as well as his­tor­i­cal ques­tions about the mean­ing of monothe­ism and poly­the­ism in Joshua’s time.

Relat­ed Content:

Avra­ham Bron­stein writes fre­quent­ly on top­ics of Jew­ish thought, con­tem­po­rary issues, and their inter­sec­tion. A past Assis­tant Rab­bi of The Hamp­ton Syn­a­gogue and Pro­gram Direc­tor of Great Neck Syn­a­gogue, he lives with his fam­i­ly in Scran­ton, PA.

Discussion Questions