Joshua: Inheriting the Land

Written by E. J. Hamlin Reviewed By Gordon McConville

This volume is another in the ITC series, which is ‘addressed to Ministers and Christian educators … moves beyond the usual critical and historical approach to the Bible and offers a theological interpretation of the Hebrew text’. The aim is admirable. In this book it is achieved with mixed success.

Joshua, of course, is not an easy book to comment on. It is one of those Old Testament books which stress the exclusiveness of Israel, thus in contrast to, e.g., Isaiah which shows more clearly that God has plans for other nations. And this exclusiveness indeed becomes for many a particularly difficult moral problem because of the command of God in the book to destroy the nations which inhabit Canaan. In addition, its authorship, transmission and purpose are problematic, and it raises difficult historical questions.

Hamlin’s approach to the historicity of Joshua is significant in relation to all these matters. He attaches some importance to his identification with the view popularized by N. K. Gottwald in The Tribes of Yahweh that Israel’s origins in Canaan are to be sought not in a conquest (as per Exodus—Joshua) but as the result of a social revolution. This means that the underlying issue in Joshua is not, or at least not obviously, chosen people versus non-chosen peoples, but rather the attempt of a revolutionary grouping (Joshua’s ‘mixed multitude’) to replace the Canaanite system of tyrannical petty kingdoms with a society based on principles of justice (pp. xxii ff.). His approach to Joshua, therefore, involves the view that much that is recorded there is not in all respects historically accurate, but rather represents centuries of theologizing about ancient traditions, applying them to ever new generations. (In terms of composition he follows Noth’s theory of the deuteronomist.)

This view of historicity carries over to the exegesis, naturally, in many respects. The most pervasive effect is the difficulty which arises in pinning down any text to a particular situation in Israel’s history. Narratives are rarely taken to derive in their entirety from the period of Joshua and to be comprehensible against that background. Often a threefold development is discerned (the ancient traditions, a ninth-century Narrator and a seventh-century Teacher), e.g. on 9:1–27, pp. 77ff. Yet the impression is often gained that the meaning of a text can only be obtained by seeing it in relation to many situations. A related feature of the exegesis is that the explanation of texts is often sought by analogy with any number of other biblical texts. Indeed it sometimes seems that Hamlin thinks there are ‘meanings’ which are independent of texts and alongside which texts may be laid by way of illustration (cf. p. 50). This is methodologically highly suspect, and a threat to genuine exegesis. If the ‘meanings’ come first then the interpretation of Scripture is open to abuse.

The dangers of the procedure described could be illustrated in many ways. A striking example is the interpretation of the covenant with the Gibeonites as one of three ‘models’ for Israel’s relationships with Canaanites living in the land, and for Hamlin the preferable one is co-existence, the others being Jericho-extermination and Ai-cultural exclusivism with economic co-operation (pp. 74f.). This is consistent with seeing Joshua as a theological treatise (and no-one is saying it is not theological), but hardly with its being historical narrative. In particular, it regards what the text presents as a specific exception based on a trick and an error, in the Gibeon story, as typical and even legislative.

Another effect of Hamlin’s approach to history is that what many readers perceive as moral problems are somehow spirited away. An example is the herem or command to destroy the inhabitants of Jericho (ch. 6). Hamlin takes this as nothing more than the teaching of a theological point (i.e. the need to keep separate from Canaanite practices) unrelated to any particular destruction of Canaanites, on the grounds that such would have been irrelevant in the Teacher’s day (pp. 52ff.). He has thus dexterously applied his historical eclectism to try to avoid what seems to be the plain sense of the text—and of course, has not avoided it, since the text still says it!

It has perhaps been unfair to dwell on shortcomings only. There are many perceptive comments on individual points. My concern has been with what seems to be a basically unsatisfactory methodology. The danger of theological predilections obtruding upon good exegesis is one which faces us all constantly, but which regrettably is well illustrated here.

Gordon McConville

Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education