Is the G-d of the Book of Joshua a moral G-d? Is Joshua a moral leader?

Is the G-d of the Book of Joshua a moral G-d?  Is Joshua a moral leader?

Eric Cohen, Executive Director of the Tikvah Fund, triggered a lively and fascinating conversation this week with these questions at Tikvah’s Advanced Institute on War and Human Nature, where I am a participant.  The premise of these questions is that at least on first reading Yehoshua has Divine sanction to act in ways that defy contemporary morality – for example, he exterminates the inhabitants of various cities, including children, without regard for the innocence or guilt of particular individuals, and not distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants.

I admitted early in the conversation that this issue had bothered me since high school, and that I had not yet found a satisfying way to read the Book.  This is still the case, and I’m glad to be challenged to revisit the issue.   However, based on the conversation at the Tikvah seminar, it seems to me that there may be value in laying out some preliminary methodological thoughts and tentative theological guide posts.

1) One can simply invalidate the question, or deny it any significance.  Behavior that G-d approves is proper, and “morality” is a useful category only insofar as it enables us to accurately predict what behaviors G-d will approve.

This is not an approach I generally find religiously useful or attractive.  From an internal Biblical perspective, as several participants noted, there are clear instances where prophets challenge G-d on the basis of an external standard, and from a Rabbinic perspective, Torah can be properly interpreted only on the basis of a priori moral intuitions.

We do recognize a category of “hora’at sha’ah”, of actions that are given Divine sanction even though they violate our standard norms.  However, this category refers generically to actions that violate legal norms for the sake of principles that antecede the law – they do not refer specifically to teleological suspensions of the ethical.  It may be at times useful to argue that a hora’at sha’ah legitimates violation of moral norms as well, but that seems to me at best a last resort.

2) One can morally rationalize Joshua’s actions in a way that seeks to prevent them from serving as a legitimating precedent for any subsequent behavior.  One can say, for example, that such behavior is justified only when a people is returning to its Divinely granted homeland, or when an enemy population is so culturally corrupt as to make the prospect of their repenting – even partial – utterly ridiculous.  Or one can say that his behavior was grounded in prophetic knowledge of consequences, so that he was able to make utilitarian judgments in circumstances where uncertainty would generally forbid them.

My sense is that such approaches fail in practice.  I may think that I have effectively quarantined a text, but someone else will come along and argue that his or her circumstances exactly match those I described.  For example, the conversation at Tikvah took place with an unspoken agreement that no one would evaluate interpretations by their implications for current or past Israeli policies, but it was clear to all that such implications were lurking close to hand.

Furthermore, defending Joshua’s actions on utilitarian grounds often fails empirically.  If the justification is that it was necessary to prevent all Canaanite resistance, and/or eliminate all subsequent Canaanite cultural influence, why is it that he did not in fact complete the conquest, and that Canaanite influence seems alive and well in subsequent Biblical narratives?

3) One can critique the applicability of ordinary morality to particular political situations.  For example, one may believe that national origin stories inevitably involve aggressive violence, and that nonetheless nations have a right to emerge, as birds have the right to crack their shells.  Joshua – or the American West – must be judged by a different standard than we use to judge life as conducted within an existing political entity.

This position is to some degree embodied in the rabbinic presumption, sometimes given legal effect–that all land outside Israel was obtained by robbery.  I understand this as a recognition that all land titles that don’t trace directly to G-d trace back rather to an act of conquest, and conquest per se can rarely if ever be condoned by the moral rules that apply within a political community.

I am not willing, however, to concede that moral rules by definition apply only within settled political communities.  As I have written elsewhere, the practical ethical rules of war may not be those of ordinary society, but that does not mean that there are no rules.  So it may not be proper to judge Yehoshua by the standards of behavior within a state, or by the standards of international behavior in a community of nations that recognize an effective system of international law.  But there must nonetheless be standards by which his behavior can be judged.

4) One can seek to reinterpret the story so that Joshua’s actions conform to a standard of morality one is willing to defend in ordinary life.  For example:  One can adopt the halakahic position that the Canaanites were entitled to convert or flee, and adequately informed of this right, and thus anyone remaining in the cities was in fact a combatant.  This seems to me a plausible approach in some cases.

5) One can seek to reinterpret the text so that it is not evident that G-d approves of some of Joshua’s actions.  This is difficult, as overall Divine approval of Joshua is repeated and unquestioned in the book.  In general, the Book of Joshua seems to have a more values-transparent narrator than is usual in Biblical narratives, and to leave less space for readers to make their own evaluations.

Nonetheless, this is the approach I find most religiously attractive, because I think it most allows genuinely wrestling with the text rather than imposing on it – and in the end, if we come to the conclusion that G-d did approve, we will need to rethink our assumptions.  But I want to make clear that I think it is legitimate to say that for the time a narrative’s meaning is opaque to us, and therefore that we will not seek to derive values from it, although we aspire to do so in the future.

Here is one resource that I hope and suspect will eventually prove helpful:

In 5:13, before the conquest of Jericho, Joshua sees an angel holding its sword drawn, and asks: “Are you for us, or for our enemies”?  I think the most plausible reading of his uncertainty, following the Talmud, is that he fears that the angel intends to slaughter the Jews, because they have done or intend to do something wrong.  The Rabbis identify that wrong with failure to study Torah or bring the daily sacrifice, but these are in the first instance likely symbolic, and in the second instance difficult to find evidence for in the text (see Radak for a remarkably pointed rejection of this midrash).

The angel’s possible ambivalence here puts me in mind of G-d’s ambivalence in the story of the Concubine of Give’ah (Judges 19-21).  In that story, the Urim veTummim endorse an attack on the tribe of Binyamin – and the attack fails, twice, with heavy losses.  A third attack is endorsed with the note that it will lead to victory, which it does.  To me, this clearly indicates that G-d is (to put it mildly) not wholly comfortable with those He grants overall victory, and perhaps the angel indicates something similar here.

Those who seek to argue that only Divine command matters in this narrative cannot, to my mind, well explain why Rachav and her family are saved from Jericho, and the Gibeonites from among the Canaanites generally.  In each case the presumptive command to kill everyone seems to be trumped by a humanly assumed commitment, and at least in the case of Rachav, the decision to spare her seems to be as endorsed as the killing of everyone else.  What if, as a tactic to induce surrender rather than fighting to the last man, Joshua had sent in a herald promising to spare noncombatants generally?  So I don’t think that the question is so easily evadable.

But as noted, this is not yet a reading, only a suggestion of a possible seed out of which such a reading might develop.  I welcome your suggestions, assistance, and critiques.

Shabbat shalom


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