Joshua’s Conquest: A Cultural and Pedagogical Dilemma in Modern Israel
The book of Joshua tells the story of how Israel enters the Promised Land after years of slavery and wandering. Upon arrival, they annihilate the local Canaanite inhabitants, and then settle the land and build it up as their new national home.
Millennia later, in the late 19th century, descendants of the Israelites entered the land to resettle it. This led to skirmishes with the land’s inhabitants, and the 1948 War of Independence, fought against neighboring countries as well as Arab residents. Israel won this war, and Jews again took possession of the land.
For Zionist thinkers and leaders, the biblical story of Joshua felt like a reflection of their own lives. The arrival to the land, the wars, the victories, and the establishment of the new homeland, seemed like a reenactment of the past and assumed an almost divine nature.
Ben Gurion Reflects on Joshua
On more than one occasion, David Ben-Gurion (1886–1973), Israel’s first Prime Minister, and the political leader of Israel before, during, and after the War of Independence, expressed how strong a connection he felt between the wars of Joshua and the War of Independence. In a speech delivered on October 9, 1949, in the aftermath of the 1948 war, he stated:
אף אחד ממפרשי התנ"ך, יהודים או גויים, בימי הביניים או בימינו, לא יכול היה לפרש את פרקי יהושע כאשר עשו זאת עלילות צבא ההגנה לישראל בשנה שעברה.
None of the commentators of the Bible—Jewish or non-Jewish—in the Middle Ages or today—could have been able to interpret the chapters of Joshua as the IDF did last year.
Earlier that year (January 15, 1949), in a speech delivered during the war, Ben Gurion contextualized these two campaigns in what he saw as the larger arc of Jewish history:
תמיד בכל הדורות, מימי יהושע בן-נון ועד מלחמת צבא הגנה לישראל, עמדנו מעטים כנגד רבים.
Always, in all generations, from the days of Joshua Bin-Nun to the war of the Israel Defense Forces, we have stood few against many.
The language here of “few against many” links the reader with another famous Jewish victory, that of the Maccabees against the Syrian Greeks, as described in the rabbinic prayer Al Ha-Nissim. Ben Gurion indeed made this connection explicit in his book on the 1956 Sinai campaign, where he used the historical arc—from Joshua to Judah Maccabee to the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) as a moral and spiritual imperative for the new generation of Jewish fighters:
צבא הגנה לישראל אינו המשך של ההגנה, אלא מפנה חדש בתולדות הגבורה היהודית, כמלחמת יהושע בן-נון, מלחמות דויד המלך והחשמונאים.
The Israel Defense Forces is not a continuation of the (pre-state) Haganah, but it is a new turning point in the history of Jewish heroism, such as the war of Joshua Ben-Nun, the wars of King David and the Hasmoneans.
For Ben-Gurion, the success of the IDF represented a link in the chain of Jewish history, something that gave meaning and encouragement to his endeavors to strengthen the nascent state.
Natan Alterman’s Poem: “Pincer Movement”
The renowned Israeli poet, Natan Alterman (1910–1970), also drew connection between Israel’s success in the war and the image of Joshua’s campaigns. During the war he wrote the poem תנועת המלקחיים “Pincer Movement,” which appeared in the newspaper Davar. The poem describes the first part of Operation Danny (July 9–19, 1948), in which the IDF captured territory near Tel Aviv (Lod, Ramla, Rosh HaAyin, the airport region) in an overwhelmingly successful pincer movement:
וטוב אשר נדע שהדורכים אי-שם, רגלים או תותחנים וכל שירות וחיִל,
And we should know that the fighters out there whether infantry or artillery corps and every serviceman and a soldier
קשורים במו דברי ימיו של זה העם
ולא יוצאו משם אף במלקחיים
Are connected to the chronicles of this very nation and will not depart it even with forceps
... מנגבה עד לקצות גליל בן-נון עצמו כחי חלף פה השבוע
… from the Negev to the ends of the Galilee, Bin-Nun himself has passed here this week.
The dual meaning of the term תנועה, “movement,” is used by Alterman to speak both about the Israeli troops’ military maneuver, as well as their role in Jewish history as a continuation of earlier “movements” (e.g., he mentions messianic movements, the enlightenment, Zionism) which were aspiring and leading to the IDF’s “Pincer Movement.”
This description portrays the Israeli military as a new Jewish spirit. A spirit of independent and fighting Jews, who have taken control over their destiny and the land, the way Joshua did in biblical times.
Joshua’s Conquest in Israel’s Education System in the 1950s
The desire to see Joshua’s conquests as the spiritual predecessor of the Israel’s army’s success in 1948 was emphasized in the newly established education system. Attributing to the biblical ethos a major role in pedagogical and cultural activity, educators of the young country utilized it to shape their identity and the national spirit. Ministry of Education chief executive, Yaakov Sarid, explained in 1958:
בדור האחרון קיבל חלק זה של התנ"ך אקטואליות מיוחדת במינה... בפרקים על כיבוש הארץ – מיום שהתחלנו לבנות את הארץ הזאת, קיבלו המאורעות והמקומות בהם משמעות.
The book of Joshua received in the last generation a unique relevance… from the day we began to build this land, the events and places in the conquest narratives have taken meaning.
As was enthusiastically explained in a book on the teaching of the Joshua chapters by Oved Amitai (1953), this new meaning had a concrete application in the school curriculum:
עלינו לראות עתה את עצמנו כאילו עברו עלינו מלחמות כיבוש כנען בימי יהושע... על כן אין אנו רשאים ללמד עתה את ספרי נביאים ראשונים כחומר היסטורי ספרותי עתיק יומין, אלא כיצירות המעוררות חוויה רוטטת של מעשים ומאורעות שכאילו קרו בדורנו.
We must see ourselves as if we ourselves have experienced the wars of the conquest of Canaan in the days of Joshua... we are not allowed to teach the book as ancient material, but as a text that evokes a vibrating grasp of the actions and events, as if they happened in our own generation.
This approach to Joshua was dominant in the early years of the state. Nevertheless, the legacy of Joshua also gave Israelis a level of discomfort.
A Violent Book about Conquest
The book of Joshua describes a violent conquest of the land, including the total slaughter of its native inhabitants. For example, upon conquering the city of Ai, the Israelites slaughter all 12,000 of its residents, men and women:
יהושע ח:כד וַיְהִי כְּכַלּוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל לַהֲרֹג אֶת כָּל יֹשְׁבֵי הָעַי בַּשָּׂדֶה בַּמִּדְבָּר אֲשֶׁר רְדָפוּם בּוֹ וַיִּפְּלוּ כֻלָּם לְפִי חֶרֶב עַד תֻּמָּם וַיָּשֻׁבוּ כָל יִשְׂרָאֵל הָעַי וַיַּכּוּ אֹתָהּ לְפִי חָרֶב. ח:כה וַיְהִי כָל הַנֹּפְלִים בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא מֵאִישׁ וְעַד אִשָּׁה שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר אָלֶף כֹּל אַנְשֵׁי הָעָי... ח:כח וַיִּשְׂרֹף יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אֶת הָעָי וַיְשִׂימֶהָ תֵּל עוֹלָם שְׁמָמָה עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה. ח:כט וְאֶת מֶלֶךְ הָעַי תָּלָה עַל הָעֵץ עַד עֵת הָעָרֶב...
Josh 8:24 When Israel had killed all the inhabitants of Ai who had pursued them into the open wilderness, and all of them, to the last man, had fallen by the sword, all the Israelites turned back to Ai and put it to the sword. 8:25 The total of those who fell that day, men and women, the entire population of Ai, came to twelve thousand… 8:28 Then Joshua burned down Ai, and turned it into a mound of ruins for all time, a desolation to this day. 8:29 And the king of Ai was impaled on a stake until the evening…
To many Israeli thinkers, such descriptions of brutal executions and wholesale slaughter of civilian population reflected the opposite of what they believed Israel’s values should be.
Criticism of Civilian Targeting in Natan Alterman’s Poem: “About This”
On November 19, 1948, only four months after he wrote “Pincer Movement,” where he lauded the “Joshua-like” military operation, Alterman penned the poem על זאת, “About This.” This time he featured harsh criticisms of the military operation, which allegedly involved actions of ethnic cleansing:
חָצָה עֲלֵי גִ'יפּ אֶת הָעִיר הַכְּבוּשָׁה,
נַעַר עַז וְחָמוּשׁ... נַעַר–כְּפִיר. וּבָרְחוֹב הַמֻּדְבָּר אִישׁ זקֵָן וְאִשָּׁה נִלְחֲצוּ מִפָּנָיו אֶל הַקִּיר.
In his jeep, he crossed the conquered city, A lad bold and armed, a lion’s whelp And on that very street an old man and a woman Cowered against a wall, in fright.
וְהַנַּעַר חִיֵּךְ בְּשִׁנַּיִם–חָלָב: "אֲנַסֶּה הַמִּקְלָע"... וְנִסָּה. רַק הֵלִיט הַזּקֵָן אֶת פָּנָיו בְּיָדָיו... וְדָמוֹ אֶת הַכֹּתֶל כִּסָּה.
The lad smiled, with milky white teeth, “I’ll try the machine gun”… and tried it! The old man just had time to hide his face in his hands… When his blood was spattered on the wall.
זֶה צִלּוּם מִקְּרָבוֹת–הַחֵרוּת, יַקִּירִים. יֵשׁ עַזּיִם עוֹד יוֹתֵר. אֵין זֶה סוֹד. מִלְחַמְתֵּנוּ תוֹבַעַת בִּטּוּי וְשִׁירִים... טוֹב! יוּשַׁר לָהּ, אִם–כֵּן, גַּם עַל זֹאת!
This is a snapshot from the battle for liberty, dear friends, There are more brazen ones, this is no secret. Our war requires slogans and songs…
Alright! We will sing to it, then, also about this.
While the need for ethics in war was noted from the beginning of the state, whether in newspaper columns like this or in official public statements, the view of “Jewish power” as represented by biblical Joshua remained positive in the early years of the state.
Changes in Israel’s Attitude towards Military Power
The admiration for Joshua has diminished over the years, and sectors in Israeli society increasingly have distanced themselves from the book and its military protagonists. For some, this was because they no longer felt any need to rely on an ancient document to prove Israel’s “right to the land.” For others, it was the result of the difficult implications of the ongoing wars and military conflicts, as well as the harsh consequences of the very achievement of dominating over new territories and a foreign population.
Rebelling Against Joshua (S. Yizhar)
The shift in the attitude to Joshua is reflected in the words of Israel prize winning author S. Yizhar (Yizhar Smilansky, 1916–2006) in 1993:
השואה לא חיסלה את הקנאות היהודית ואת היכולת לפלוש לכפר סילואן, להשליך החוצה דיירים ערביים מתוך בתיהם לרחוב... ולרקוד שם עם ספר התורה... עם ספר יהושע... ומעל יהודים אלה מתנפנף ספר יהושע...
The Holocaust did not annihilate Jewish zealotry and its ability to sneak into the village of Silwan, and to throw its Arab occupants out of their homes onto the street… and to dance there with the Torah Scroll… with the book of Joshua… and above the heads of the Jews the book of Joshua is waving…
התיאור הזוועתי בספר יהושע, איך יורשים, מורישים, משמידים עם וקוראים לזה "התנחלות". איך מוטלת על עם אחד זכות להוריש את זולתו ולרשת את ארצו... זהו קוטב הקנאות הקיצונית שגם הוא ידוע לאורך כל ההיסטוריה... ועל כך אני מתקומם בכל כוחי נגד יהושע!
The horrific descriptions in the book of Joshua, where one inherits, dispossesses, and annihilates a people, and calls it a “settlement.” How does one people have the right to dispossess another people and inherit its land?… This is the extreme of radical fanaticism that has been known throughout history… This is why, with all my might, I rise up in revolt against Joshua!
Like Yizhar, contemporary humanist educators in Israel and in the Jewish diaspora have found those “horrifying descriptions” in the book of Joshua challenging. Not only do they glorify scenes of murder, stoning, genocide, and plunder, but they are also performed in God’s name and according to his will, thereby receiving a stamp of moral legitimacy.
The Modern Educators’ Dilemma
As a public intellectual, S. Yizhar could decide to simply “rebel” against the book of Joshua and discount it. School teachers, however, who are taxed with teaching Jewish history or Bible in schools did not have the luxury of dismissing the book in class. They have had to find ways to mediate these stories for their students.
One approach, which appears in a teachers-edition textbook for 4th grade in the non-religious-school system, is to put aside the moral question, while noting that ethical norms were different in the past. Thus, as part of its suggested discussion about whether Achan’s family was stoned to death with him or not—Achan took forbidden booty from the city of Jericho (Josh 7)—the authors warn:
אין לשפוט נוהגים וחוקים קדומים על פי ההשקפות המודרניות המקובלות בימינו
One cannot judge ancient practices and customs according to modern conventions and standards.
While there is certainly truth to this argument, this pedagogical approach prevents a moral engagement with the story. Paradoxically, this creates a vacuum, where the harsh narratives remain without mediation. They are presented as faits accompli – “what’s done is done, let’s not make an example from it and let’s not judge it either.”
Moreover, it leads to an estrangement of the readers from the text, precluding an engagement with the social, religious, and ethical meanings it may have for them. Take, for example, the suggested exercise in this book with regard to the Ai story quoted above:
התכנית שאלוהים הודיע עליה בקצרה ליהושע, ושיהושע העביר אותה בהרחבה לעם, התבצעה בדיוק כמתוכנן. קראו את התיאור של מהלך הקרב בפס' 14–29 והכינו כתבה לעיתון, לטלוויזיה או לרדיו (היעזרו בפירושי המילים והביטויים). דמיינו שאתם מרחפים בכדור פורח מעל לכוחות הלוחמים ויכולים לראות את כל מה שהתרחש במערכה. נסו לתאר את הדברים בצורה מדויקת ביותר ו"חיה", כך שהקורא, הצופה או המאזין יוכלו לדעת בדיוק מה התרחש במלחמה.
The plan that God announced to Joshua, and that Joshua passed on extensively to the people, was carried out exactly as planned. Read the story of the battle (against Ai) in verses 14–29 and prepare a write up for newspaper, television, or radio (make use of the glossary for difficult terms and expressions). Imagine you are floating above the battlefield on a hot air balloon, and can see everything that is taking place during the campaign. Try to describe it in exacting detail, make it “come to life,” such that the reader, observer, or hearer will know precisely what is happening in the battle.
Such an exercise is probably useful in teaching children how to envision what they are reading and how to write descriptively. Nevertheless, the actual outcome of the essay is that the ten-year-olds will describe the wiping out of every last human being, without raising a moral discussion about their reactions to the story.
While this is certainly not the intent of the authors, the lack of an explicit and critical discussion over the narrative read in class, allows the vacuum to be filled with subtextual messages, either from the text, or influenced by surrounding ideologies of the society. Thus, a child might conclude that genocide is a legitimate consequence of a war; that a divine commandment is unquestionable and constitutes an affirmation for moral decisions; that the IDF is a direct continuation of Joshua's army, and that the Promised Land belongs to the Jews for natural and supernatural reasons.
The Joshua Myth: Can Academia Help?
The three approaches surveyed here: lionizing Joshua (Ben Gurion), demonizing Joshua (Yizhar), or treating Joshua as an unconnected relic of the past (some modern textbooks), are all unsatisfactory, even problematic. Thus, many contemporary teachers and thinkers in Israel grapple with the question of how we can read and engage with the biblical story of Joshua’s conquests while maintaining our humanistic values.
Is it possible to teach the biblical narrative without making it serve an agenda, to speak plainly about the ethical problems it brings up, and yet not distance the readers from the text? Biblical criticism, which traces the realpolitik behind the narratives, may be helpful for tackling this cultural-pedagogical dilemma.
Using archeological, philological and historical tools, biblical scholarship has shown the fictional nature of the conquest account in Joshua. Various pieces of evidence point to the likelihood that when these stories were composed, Israel had already been destroyed by the Assyrian Empire, and Judah was likely under a Babylonian vassal.
Such an outlook naturally shifts the question from how we feel about Joshua’s having perpetrated genocide to why Judean authors invented such a history at all. A critical approach and academic tools enable us to trace the historical circumstances of the authors and the possible psychological or ideological factors that drove them to envision their history this way.
Were they responding to a feeling of subjugation? Were they looking to boost national pride by responding to their failure with the imagined power and glory of the distant past? Or were they reflecting on actual events of defeat, conquest, and massacres they witnessed, experienced, or perpetrated?
At the same time, we can point to traditions in the Bible (Josh 17; Judg 1) that present an alternative version of a gradual and incomplete conquest that did not involve genocide and ethnic cleansing. Once we understand that the book of Joshua is not a history book, a larger range of options lie before us.
This does not remove all the problems from the biblical text, of course, but the distress that we see in reactions such as Yizhar’s is somewhat mitigated once we no longer need to defend a historical act perpetrated in the name of God, but to explain the role an imaginary vision of history had—and still has—in people’s lives.
Shining the Historical-Critical Mirror on Joshua’s Reception in Israel
The development in the Israeli outlook on the book of Joshua can be subject to a similar kind of analysis. It is not a coincidence that it was Ben Gurion, in the aftermath of the ’48 War of Independence, who lionized Joshua.
At this point in Israel’s history, the country was small and fragile, surrounded by enemies who wished to defeat it. The Holocaust was a recent and raw memory. No one knew if the nascent state could survive militarily or economically. Naturally, its leaders and thinkers seized every opportunity to identify with images of power and victory.
Decades later, with Israel as a local powerhouse, peace accomplished with some of its neighbors, and the pull of so many years of conflict weighing on its citizens, the mythological affirmation in the book of Joshua is turning into more of a burden than an inspiration.
Nevertheless, Israel’s position as a western power, no longer living in daily existential fear, should encourage its leaders and educators to look at the text with open eyes, to acknowledge the ethical problems it raises, to use it to evoke/target moral dilemmas, and to discuss the very creation of a complex human ethos.
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Dr. Gili Kugler is a Senior Lecturer of Biblical Studies in the University of Haifa. Until recently she was a lecturer in Biblical Studies and Classical Hebrew at the University of Sydney. She holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and teaches and writes about topics such as chosenness in biblical theology, religion and politics in prophecy, and biblical narratives and mythology in light of modern psychology. She is the author of several articles as well as the book When God Wanted to Destroy the Chosen People: Biblical Traditions and Theology on the Move (De Gruyter, 2019).
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