Joshua 7

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ichard Elliott Friedman in The Hidden Book in the Bible argues the J Source composed all of Jo 7. Let us now look at a few key points in Jo 7. Joshua was confronted with an uncharacteristic moment of clarity when he realized what God meant when he said he would be with him as he was with Moses: Oh no, this is not what I expected. But he should have well expected that siding with God was a grievous thing, for Moses, in a J Source document, appealed to God’s image of himself and the deleterious image he would create among other peoples (Nm 14.15-17) were he to kill all of Israel as he was inclined to do.

Envisioning Israel’s blood spilled all over the country, Joshua wagered, “What will become of your great name?” Joshua’s diplomatic appeal sounds like Moses’ wager, which suggests the work of J, but it could just as well be that the J scribes emulated Jo 7. More to the point, Moses did not ask about God’s great name because in J God’s name evoked the infamous dispensation of Cain. Moses presaged, “If you destroy these people as one man, then the nations which have heard of your fame will say you destroyed them.” Because ‘fame’ carries the connotation of an “evil report,” there is a distinct difference between Joshua’s appeal and Moses’, which indicates two very different perspectives from two discrete schools of ideology. We should not attribute this fragment to J.

God told Joshua, “Israel sinned in taking the accursed thing.” The ‘accursed thing’ is a garment (Jo 7.21) fit for a goddess, for ‘accursed’ means “devoted to destruction.” So nervous was God about the object’s sacred power to ruin him, he argued that if the garment is not destroyed, he would not be with Israel, which meant that since God’s presence in Israel was as a warrior god, God would not lead Israel’s armies. Why he would no longer lead them will be explained soon enough.

God commanded the man who took the ‘accursed thing’ to be burned along with the object because he committed folly. ‘Folly,’ was Shechem’s rape of Dinah (Gn 34.7); the intended the rape of the Levite by the sons of Benjamin (Jgs 19.23-24); Amnon’s rape of Tamar, King David’s daughter, (2 Sam 13.12); a daughter’s fornication (Dt 22.21); and  adultery (Jer 29.23). Achan’s folly was sexual in nature.

God ordered the tribes to appear and Joshua summoned Achan to confess. Achan confessed he took a “goodly Babylonish garment” as well silver and gold. The garment was the accursed thing. God would have the garment destroyed because through magic contact with the statue of the goddess the garment possessed mystical power–the power of Ishtar, the warrior goddess, who subdued gods, which explains why Israel was defeated in its initial battle with Ai and why God would no longer lead Israel into battle.

Jericho, from where Achan took the sacred object, was a city of palm trees. It stands to reason that the garment was woven for Asherah in her syncretism as Ishtar, the Babylonian warrior goddess whose epiphany is the palm tree. The garment, ‘addereth, carries the meaning of “glorious, magnificence.” The garment signified the wearer’s glory and magnificence–language fit for a goddess. For these convergences, it is likely that Achan undressed the goddess, stripped her of her robe, which in itself was a sexual violation, as exposing another’s nakedness is.

Here is the problem with Friedman’s attributing this “goodly Babylonish garment” to J: it does not jive with the Babylonian garment in which both Joseph (Gn 37.3) and Tamar (2 Sam 13.19) were dressed in J documents. Based on A. Leo Oppenheim’s article, “The Golden Garments of the Gods,” [A. Leo Oppenheim, “The Golden Garments of the Gods,” in Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 8, No. 3 (July 1949): 172-193, spec. 179] in which Oppenheim describes a kusîta garment as one that is “decorated with golden appliques” that in Neo-Babylonian literature is reserved for the dressing of female deities, and a pišannu garment that was reserved in the Neo-Babylonia period exclusively for the clothing of sacred images, E.A. Speiser [Ephraim Avigdor Speiser, Genesis, The Anchor Bible Vol. 1, (NY: Doubleday, 1964), 290] identifies Joseph and Tamar’s kᵉtonet passîm:  

“Cuneiform inventories may shed light on the garment in question. Among various types of clothing listed in the texts, there is one called kitû pišannu. The important thing there, besides the close external correspondence with the Heb. phrase, is that the article so described was a ceremonial robe which could be draped around statues of goddesses, and had various gold ornaments sewed onto it.”

If the “goodly Babylonish garment,” were a J composition, the J scribes would have identified the garment as kitû pišannu. That it is not a kitû pišannu suggests this “accursed thing” predated the Neo-Babylonian Empire, which means Achan’s folly cannot be attributed to J, J being a postexilic composition.

And now we come to the extermination of Achan. The extermination of Achan, his family and their possessions should not be interpreted through the lens of collective responsibility, or the imputation of guilt upon the many for the offense committed by one; rather, the destruction of Achan reflected the belief in magic contact in which the taboo item conferred sacred power by its mere presence. Rather than a punishment, the stoning and burning of Achan was a purging of the occult powers from the camp. Indicative of an early period in Israel’s history, the purge was likely the precursor to the concept of collective responsibility. Judeans exiled to Babylonia echoed the unfairness of collective responsibility (Ezk 18.25, 29; 33.17, 20).  Reflecting on their torn social fabric, exiled Judeans realized neither God nor the community afforded them protection; they developed instead, according to Mario Liverani (Mario Liverani, trans. Chiara Peri and Philip R. Davies, Israel’s History and the History of Israel (London: Equinox, 2007), 211) , the concept of individual responsibility. Because the purge of the taboo item predated Israel’s concept of collective responsibility, Friedman is mistaken in assigning the extermination of Achan to J. And so, given all these arguments, we must conclude none of Jo 7 belongs to J.

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