Joshua, A Commentary

Written by Richard D. Nelson, OTL Reviewed By David Pennant

The overwhelming impression given by this commentary is that the author is an expert in his field. His own translation, backed by detailed comments on the Hebrew text, the extensive bibliography with further references in footnotes, and the depth and extent of the indices combine to convey a powerful sense of authority, and a mastery of the text. There is a formidable mass of well-researched and well-presented detail here.

Nelson’s views may therefore cause us some dismay. The book of Joshua, we are told, is literary and theological, but not historical. ‘Joshua’s account of a large-scale invasion and conquest of Canaan by Israel … cannot be supported by the archaeological evidence’ (2–3, 4). Rather this ‘chronicle of brutality and genocide’ (2) witnesses to what later generations believed happened to their ancestors (4–5). It is historiography, designed to create and support the identity of the people it calls all Israel (15).

At the same time, the text of the book is clearly the product of a multilayered tradition and a process of literary growth (1), and it is possible to reverse some of the later editing with confidence (5–7, 12–13), particularly by comparing the Hebrew and Greek versions and removing the obvious scribal expansions of each, on the basis that the shorter reading is better (23).

All this is expressed as if no other view were tenable. If I were to accept Nelson’s thesis, as the depth of his scholarship encourages me to do, then my trust in the text as witnessing to the acts of the God that Jesus described as our loving heavenly father would be severely dented if not destroyed. And yet, he appears both highly knowledgeable and supremely confident in his views, and not to be lightly dismissed. No wonder I feel threatened by what I read!

In fact, each point of view summarised above can be balanced by another. Archaeology cannot prove or disprove anything with the degree of certainty claimed. Unearthed stones and artefacts need to be interpreted, and there will be different opinions as to the correct reading of each riddle. Even Nelson’s own index of archaeological sites has the word ‘probably’ against a quarter of the sites. So to claim that archaeology rules out an invasion is to go too far.

To talk of brutality and genocide is to ignore the Bible’s own explanation of the conquest, found in Genesis 15:16. This key text appears not to be quoted in the commentary, which is a serious omission, since much of the OT story is illuminated by it.

Those who attempt to isolate previous sources of a text in a dead language from a distant culture would do well to ponder Dame Helen Gardner’s remark that this is ‘like trying to weave ropes in sand’ (Oxford: The Business of Criticism. 1959, 120). They should also note E.V. Rieu’s sadly neglected discussion about layers of editing in his introduction to The Iliad written as long ago as 1950, (Harmondsworth). And to describe the conquest of Jericho as a foundational myth (68) is to run the risk of committing the mistake so ably exposed by C.S. Lewis in his essay ‘Fernseed and Elephants’.

The weakness of this commentary lies in the overuse of phrases such as ‘there can be no doubt that’ (41), ‘obvious redactional links’ (91), ‘it is almost certain that’ (147). Few things in biblical studies are certain! Having said that, its strength lies in the clear, precise and painstaking way in which the author has presented his case. It is as good an introduction to the views of OT authorship associated with Noth’s Deuteronomistic History theory that one could hope for, even if its underlying assumptions are not always sustainable.

It seems to me that if one compares this commentary with, say, Cranfield on Romans, it becomes evident that a dogmatic approach is less helpful than one where the author presents different possibilities with the pros and cons of each, and encourages readers to decide for themselves. Let those who aspire to write commentaries please take note.

David Pennant