An audio discussion of the famous episode in the Book of Yehoshua in which the sun stands still while the Jewish people battle their enemies. Specifically, this presentation focuses on what is generally dismissed as the "radical" or "hyper-rational" interpretation of the Ralbag in light of a literary analysis of the text, and the conclusions are quite eye-opening!
The Day The Sun Stood Still
Wednesday, October 29, 2014
Yehoshua Chapter #6
(It is important to mention that, in the Hebrew original, the first verse of this chapter is actually the final verse of the previous paragraph. It describes the fact that Yeriho was totally sealed and fortified – nobody can enter or leave.)
Hashem speaks to Yehoshua through the angelic messenger and informs him that the battle of Yeriho will be a successful one but will not be conducted in a conventional manner. Instead, it will be a miraculous victory. All of the soldiers will parade around the city once a day for six days, together with seven Kohanim and the Ark of the Covenant. On each of these days, the people were commanded to be silent; only the Kohanim would blow shofarot at the conclusion of each circuit.
Finally, on the seventh day, the delegation will encircle the city seven times; when the Kohanim blow their shofarot, the people will shout as loudly as possible, and the walls of the city will shake and tumble to the ground. Yehoshua warns the people to spare the lives of Rahav and her family, and not to take any of the spoils of the city. All of the property of Yeriho is to be set aflame; only the silver, gold, copper and iron will be preserved and dedicated to the sanctuary of Hashem.
The Jewish people follow the instructions of Yehoshua to the letter. Yeriho is captured, its inhabitants slain and its buildings burned to the ground. Rahav and her relatives are retrieved by the two spies who first visited her and they willingly join the people of Israel and choose to live in their midst. The precious metals recovered from Yeriho are deposited in the treasury of the sanctuary of Hashem. Finally, Yehoshua pronounces a curse upon anyone who might rebuild the city of Yeriho – “he will cause the death of his firstborn in laying the foundation and the death of his youngest son when he sets up its gates.”
It is critical for us to understand why Yeriho was captured in such a dramatic and miraculous fashion, and what the symbolism of the parade with the Ark and the blowing of the Shofarot is meant to convey. Moreover, why forbid the Jews from partaking of the spoils of their enemies? The Torah states clearly that the Israelites will be entitled to enjoy whatever material goods they seize in the process of conquering their homeland.
In light of what was mentioned in the previous chapter regarding the angelic “rebuke” of Yehoshua, we may have the answer. The miraculous crossing of the Jordan River elevated Yehoshua to a position of prominence and greatness in the eyes of the Jews as well as the inhabitants of the land. This was important for him because it gave him the authority he needed to direct and educate the Jews. However, it was also dangerous, both for him and for them. It was critical that Yehoshua bear in mind that this was not HIS victory, HIS conquest, HIS war. He was merely an agent of Hashem charged with the carrying out the Divine plan.
In future battles, Yehoshua would have to rely upon his own military prowess and tactical skill to capture fortified cities and to defeat enemy armies. This time, however, it was crucial that the proper “tone” be set for the whole conquest of Israel – Yehoshua could not be the victor in this war, only Hashem could be. Therefore, the walls of Yeriho were brought down not by military might or strategic brilliance, but by the Ark of the Covenant and the Kohanim, the two symbolic representatives of Torah and the Divine presence in Israel. The repetition of the number seven – seven Kohanim, seven Shofarot, seven days – clearly points to the idea of the seven days of creation and to the Creator. The Shofar itself recalls the Revelation at Sinai and the majesty of Hashem. And tradition tells us that the last day, when they paraded about Yeriho seven times, was Shabbat – a day that is totally dedicated to humble reflection upon the greatness of Hashem and His handiwork, a day when human creativity, material conquest and productivity is strictly forbidden.
The message that this was not “our” battle was reinforced by the prohibition on taking any of the spoils of war, and the consecration of the precious metals of Yeriho to the Almighty. It was solidified by Yehoshua’s curse upon anyone who might use even the ruins of Yeriho as a foundation for some future building project.
The miraculous capture of Yeriho helped Yehoshua to refocus on his role as implementer of Hashem’s plan. It also helped remind the Jewish people that the conquest of the land of Israel was not to be an occasion for nationalistic fervor, personal advancement or self-aggrandizement. It was a necessary step toward establishing a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” in Israel so that they could serve Hashem and sanctify His name in the place that He had chosen.
Yehoshua Chapter 7
This chapter opens with the ominous “foreshadowing” statement that the Jewish people had, in fact, violated the prohibition on taking any of the spoils of Yeriho. Specifically, Akhan, of the Tribe of Yehuda, was guilty of misappropriating items that were supposed to have been destroyed upon the city’s capture.
In the meantime, Yehoshua leads the nation toward their next target of conquest, dispatching spies to assess “Ha-Ai” so that he can formulate a plan of attack. Ha-Ai should be familiar to students of the Torah, since it was “between Bet El and Ha-Ai” that Avraham, our forefather, originally camped when he arrived in the land of Israel. The spies report that the city does not appear difficult to conquer; only two or three thousand men should be necessary for the military operation and there is no reason to weary the rest of the soldiers with a battle for which their services are not needed. Heeding their advice, Yehoshua sends in three thousand soldiers; however, much to his chagrin, they are driven away and thirty six Jewish men are killed. Yehoshua, the elders and the people are devastated and cry out to God, fearing that this failure leaves them exposed to their enemies and also amounts to a desecration of Hashem’s name.
Hashem replies that the Jewish people have lost their claim to special providence and will not be able to defeat their enemies until they correct the sin that has been committed in their midst; namely, someone secretly took possession of some of the spoils of Yeriho, violating the ban. Through a process of lottery, Yehoshua identifies the perpetrator of the sin as Akhan. Akhan confesses to having stolen a garment, some silver and some gold. Messengers are sent to search his property and confirm his admission of guilt. He, his family, his livestock and all of his possessions are taken to a place that would later be named Emeq Akhor (Valley of Trouble) because of this incident. There Akhan and his animals are stoned and all of his material possessions are burned and Hashem’s positive relationship with the Jewish people is restored. (Rashi explains that his family members, themselves not guilty of any trespass, merely accompanied him to watch and learn a moral lesson from his punishment. Others suggest that they too were complicit in the sin and died.)
The obvious theological question that confronts us in this chapter is how a battle could be lost and thirty six innocent Jews could die simply because of the sin of one person – a sin nobody else even knew about, let alone participated in! One way to resolve this is to assume that although Akhan was the only person who actually committed a sin of misappropriation, it was the atmosphere and attitudes of his fellow Jews that allowed him to do it. His behavior reflected a sense of entitlement, victory and self-indulgence which was precisely what the miraculous triumph over Yeriho was supposed to NEGATE. He felt he deserved what he took, that he had somehow earned it, and we can assume that this attitude was not limited to him (although no one else acted on it). Consider how we are much more sympathetic when an ordinary citizen steals from a large, wealthy corporation than we would be if big business took advantage of the “little guy”. This attitude makes people feel comfortable stealing towels from hotels and committing other forms of petty theft they feel they are entitled to commit.
We can see a hint of the national hubris felt by the people and translated into action by Akhan when we examine Yehoshua’s approach to the battle of Ha-Ai from the outset. It was going to be a “piece of cake”, he thought. No need to invest too much effort or deploy too many soldiers; the city will fall into our hands like it’s supposed to do, with minimal strain on our part, because we are invincible, Hashem loves us and we deserve it. The loss at Ha-Ai was a wakeup call, corrected the feeling of automatic self-entitlement that had reared its ugly head among the Jews, and drew attention to the sin of Akhan who, out of the same kind of feeling of entitlement, helped himself to the spoils of Yeriho. The execution of Akhan was the nation’s way of saying “we recognize that the attitude that motivated Akhan was wrong, and we reject it”, and it thereby brought them once again beneath the wings of the Divine Presence.
Yehoshua Chapter 8
The second time around, Yehoshua is commanded by Hashem to attack Ha-Ai instead of initiating the battle on his own. He approaches the battle with creative strategy, capitalizing on the fact that the Jews were defeated in the first conflict. Two ambushing parties were positioned to the west of the city, one of thirty thousand men and one of five thousand men, while a third group led personally by Yehoshua would march against the city through the valley directly opposite its gates. When the people of Ha-Ai emerged to fight against the Jews, Yehoshua and his men planned to flee as if they were suffering defeat once again, further luring the enemy out of the protective walls of their city and leaving it exposed. Finally, while the citizens of Ha-Ai were distracted by the prospect of thoroughly routing the Jewish army, the ambushing group was instructed to enter and capture the city.
The plan worked perfectly; every man in Ha-Ai and Bet El chased after Yehoshua’s seemingly vulnerable group and left the city defenseless. Hashem commands Yehoshua to lift up his spear, signaling the ambushing party to conquer the city and set it aflame, and he keeps his spear aloft until the battle has concluded. The soldiers of Ha-Ai look behind them and, noticing smoke billowing up from their city, realize that they have been fooled and suddenly find themselves caught between Yehoshua’s men on one side and the ambushing party on the other.
The inhabitants of Ha-Ai are killed and its king captured and hung from a tree; however, in fulfilment of the mitzvah not to leave a dead body exposed, the corpse is removed at sunset and buried beneath a pile of stones. Ha-Ai was completely destroyed and rendered a mound of rubble, but the Jews were permitted to enjoy the spoils of war, including the cattle and other material goods they found during the battle. Since this was an attack they conducted utilizing their own strategy and manpower and was not a miraculous intervention, they were indeed entitled to claim the benefits of victory.
The chapter concludes with a description of how Yehoshua led the Jews to Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval to build an altar, offer sacrifices, write the entire Torah on large stones, and pronounce the blessings and curses upon the nation, all as Hashem expressly commanded Moshe in Devarim chapter 27. Just as the Jews had previously reenacted the experience of Passover, this served as a virtual reenactment of the receiving of the Torah – it was an affirmation of the covenant at Sinai. One of the critical questions raised by the commentaries is why they delayed the fulfillment of this commandment for so long – after all, the Torah states that these rituals must be conducted on the day that the people of Israel enter their land, and it has clearly been a while since they arrived! Rashi argues that the Book of Yehoshua is not written in chronological order and that these events actually occurred on the day they crossed the Jordan River.
Of course, this only partially solves the problem, since even if we accept Rashi’s interpretation we still must explain WHY it is recorded here and not beforehand. I would suggest that perhaps the Jews were not considered to have truly “entered the land” until they conducted a battle where they actually could lay claim to the territory and the spoils that they acquired in war. Yeriho didn’t become “their” conquest because it was totally devoted to Hashem; this time, however, they could genuinely see themselves as having inherited a portion of their new homeland. So whether the ceremony at Mt. Eval and Mt. Gerizim occurred right after they crossed the Jordan River or was indeed delayed until after the battle of Ha-Ai, the explanation is the same – it was only after the second military campaign, which they won on their own merit by virtue of intelligent strategy and real manpower, that they could be said to have “arrived” in the Land of Israel.
Yehoshua Chapter 9
When word spread throughout Canaan that the Israelites had defeated both Yeriho and Ha-Ai, the response of the leadership of nearly all of the kingdoms in the region was to come together as one to repel the Jewish invasion of their territory. However, the people of Givon had a diametrically opposite strategy; their philosophy was “if you can’t beat ‘em, join em”. Knowing that they had been commanded to eliminate all of the inhabitants of Canaan as they conquered the land, the Givonim assumed that the Jews would be determined to annihilate them and would be totally unwilling to accept a peace agreement.
Therefore, the Givonim sent a delegation of messengers to Yehoshua that presented itself as if it had arrived from a faraway land, with worn out shoes, tattered clothing and stale provisions. The group claimed they had heard of the wonders of Hashem in Egypt and in the battles against Sihon and Og, they were deeply impressed and inspired, and they had traveled many months to visit the Jews and forge a covenant with them. Without too much deliberation and without consulting with Hashem, the Jews accepted the word of the Givonim and swore to maintain a peaceful alliance with them...Three days later, they discovered that the Givonim were, in fact, indigenous inhabitants of Canaan and not visitors from a distant realm.
The community was very upset and complained to their elders but the elders refused to dishonor the solemn oath they had taken. To satisfy the wrath of the Jewish people, the elders suggested that the Givonim be welcomed as allies of Israel but only on the condition that they become water-drawers and wood-cutters for the congregation. Yehoshua addressed the Givonim and called them out for their dishonesty, and the Givonim explain that they only misrepresented their identities in order to protect themselves from destruction. They begged Yehoshua to understand and sympathize with their plight. Yehoshua graciously spared them but commanded them to serve as wood-cutters and water-drawers for the community and for the altar of Hashem forever more.
What was it that caused the nation to accept the far-fetched story of the Givonim so quickly? Why didn’t they consult with Hashem before making such a drastic move and obligating themselves with an oath? I would suggest that they believed the story of the Givonim because they WANTED to believe it. According to the account of the Givonim, the events surrounding the Exodus and Conquest had truly sanctified Hashem’s name in the world and had elevated the Jewish people above all nations. The promise vouchsafed to us by Hashem - that all the nations on Earth would look to us for inspiration – was being fulfilled before their eyes! It should come as no surprise that the people of Israel would be thrilled to endorse the report of the Givonim that indicated that in countries across the globe, Hashem and His people were held in such lofty esteem. One of the lessons of the story is that when a narrative sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Why were the Givonim permanently made to draw water and chop wood when their deception was discovered? The elders mention that these services will be rendered to the community; Yehoshua mentions both the Tabernacle and the congregation. The Givonim claimed to have been inspired by the awesomeness of the deeds of Hashem and that they had traveled a great distance “for the sake of the name of Hashem, your God”; as a consequence, their services are dedicated to the honor of Hashem and His sanctuary.
Moreover, the deception perpetrated by the Givonim was a disrespect to the community itself; they said “we are your servants” but were actually attempting to manipulate the Jews to achieve their own purpose. This was corrected by assigning them the subordinate role of arranging for the provision of water and wood to members of the congregation. Just as the elders of Israel honored the oath and covenant they took in the name of Hashem, not deviating from the words they spoke and the promises to which they committed, so too were the Givonim compelled to honor their very own statements in describing themselves, their motives and the roles they were destined to play.
Yehoshua Chapter 10
The voluntary surrender of Givon, a great and powerful city, increased alarm among the kings of Canaan. Five kings of the southern region of the land came together to lay siege to Givon as a kind of reprisal for what they perceived as a treacherous act of treason, making peace with enemy invaders. The citizens of Givon sent word to Yehoshua to request military support in defending them from this attack – they had little chance of surviving a battle against the united armed forces of five kingdoms. Yehoshua responded by intervening with a surprise attack and soundly defeating the five kings, who flee from before the army of Israel. Those who escape find themselves in the midst of a divinely orchestrated and deadly hailstorm that claims more of their lives than the battle itself had.
One of the most famous and startling moments in Tanakh is recorded in this chapter – Yehoshua called upon Hashem before all of Israel, and said “may the sun be still in Givon and the moon in the valley of Ayalon”, and his prayer was answered. According to the traditional understanding of the text, the verses indicate that sun and moon literally remained in place for a full twenty-four hours, until such time as the Jewish people had fully and decisively triumphed over their enemies. However, in my weekly in-depth analysis of our Nakh content on Thursday evening, I will be delving into a variety of interpretations of this passage and will suggest a surprisingly different approach…stay tuned.
Yehoshua urged his soldiers to pursue their enemies with alacrity and not to allow them to find refuge again in their walled cities. He also ensured that the five kings, who had hidden themselves in a cave, were trapped inside and not able to escape. He eventually ordered his men to lead them out of the cave and lay them upon the ground, and instructed his officers to place their feet upon the necks of these kings in a sign of triumph. He reminded them that this success was granted to them by Hashem, who would continue to assist them in their military campaigns as long as they remained committed to His Torah. The five kings were executed by hanging, but were left there only until sunset, at which time they were buried in the cave that had initially served as their hiding place.
Building on this momentum, Yehoshua proceeded to conquer several other key southern targets, including Maqedah, Livnah, Lakhish, Gezer, Eglon, Hevron, and Devir, before finally returning to their camp at Gilgal. The Navi notes that all of these regimes were defeated at one time because Hashem enabled the Jewish people to achieve their military objectives in a miraculously fast, efficient and decisive manner.
The initial attack on Givon was a test for the Jewish people. After all, the Givonim had misled them, and the Israelite alliance with Givon was based upon false premises from the outset. The Jews certainly could have allowed them to be decimated by the five kings and could have dismissed it as their “just desserts”. However, they stood by their word and defended their new allies, and in so doing they took advantage of a rare golden opportunity to defeat five kings simultaneously – kings who resided in heavily fortified locations and each of whom would have required a separate, and possibly lengthy, military campaign to overthrow.
Another significant thematic element to this chapter is the connection between Yehoshua and Avraham. Of course, Avraham Avinu was the first Jew to relocate to Israel and settle there; the promise to bequeath the land to us was initially made to him! It seems like no accident that these first battles of conquest take place in precisely the location that Avraham Avinu camped.
Moreover, the five kings who lay siege to Givon evoke a memory of the war of the four and five kings as recorded in Parashat Lekh-Lekha, when, like Yehoshua, Avraham was faced with the dilemma of whether to get involved in a military campaign on behalf of someone who “didn’t deserve it.” In the case of Avraham, the motive for involvement was to protect Lot, the “wayward” nephew who had left him and his holy path and gone to live in Sodom. In the story of Avraham, a nighttime surprise attack allows a smaller band of fighters to overcome a larger and physically stronger one (four kings who had previously defeated five kings), and so too here in the story of Yehoshua.
Undoubtedly, this story is meant to emphasize to us the reenactment of Avraham’s personal life story through the lives of his descendants and to relate their conquest of the land and the fulfillment of Hashem’s promises in the time of Yehoshua back to the original promises that were made to Avraham and actions that he himself took when he arrived there centuries earlier.
Yehoshua Chapter 11
When the King of Hazor heard of the military and territorial advances of the Children of Israel, he formed an alliance with the kings of the Northern provinces of Canaan in order to put a stop to the Jewish invaders once and for all. Hashem reassured Yehoshua that he had no reason to worry; once again, he will defeat the enemies that rise up against him. Hashem further instructed Yehoshua to burn the chariots of his enemies and to hamstring their horses. This may have been in order to discourage the Jewish people from usurping and adopting the warlike trappings of their opponents. Otherwise, they may have been tempted to hold onto the chariots and horses in imitation of the style of Egypt from whence they came or in order to adapt their military tactics to those of the neighboring gentiles.
Rather than waiting for the alliance of kings to make the first move, Yehoshua preempted them with a surprise attack and, in fulfillment of the divine directive, burned the chariots and maimed the horses. He then proceeded to Hazor, set it aflame and razed it to the ground. The soldiers eliminated all of the citizens of Hazor and kept only the spoils of war for themselves. Yehoshua subsequently laid siege to each of the home cities of the remaining kings who had mobilized against him and overtook them, slaying the inhabitants and taking possession of all of the land and material goods they found. Of all of the cities captured, however, only Hazor was burned to the ground. Since the King of Hazor initiated the resistance against the Jews, it may be that Hazor was treated in a harsher manner than the territories of the other kings who joined in his campaign.
Two points are worthy of note in this chapter. First, the Navi mentions that, unlike the conquest of Southern Israel, it took Yehoshua “many days” to defeat the kingdoms of the North. The Rabbis interpret this as a criticism of Yehoshua – he knew that once he completed his God-given task of conquering and dividing up the land of Israel, he would pass away, and he preferred to drag out the process as long as possible and extend his life. Little did Yehoshua know that, unfortunately, this initial lack of zeal to fully settle the Jewish community in the land of Israel had far reaching implications the impact of which would continue to be felt centuries later.
Second, the Navi mentions that none of the cities or nations in Canaan made peace with the Jews except for the people of Givon, and that, therefore, they were all decimated by Yehoshua’s army. This is important because we are often taken aback by the seemingly wanton violence in the Book of Yehoshua, especially the wholesale liquidation of entire populations of Canaanites in the course of each battle. These verses support the view of HaRambam and others, that Yehoshua was obligated to extend an offer of peace to each community before laying siege to it, allowing them the opportunity to accept the Seven Noachide Laws and remain in Israel or to vacate their land rather than face a military conflict (the Rambam says this is true even of the war against Amaleq!) No one accepted the offer, and the Givonim obviously didn’t realize this option would be on the table so they engaged in subterfuge to accomplish the same goal (although we can now understand why Yehoshua was permitted to uphold his covenant with them rather than destroy them – they would have been allowed to remain in the land anyway under the peace terms he would have offered them.)
It is critical that the Navi explain that for Jews, war is never the first choice of action, and that this series of battles was unique in Jewish history, never to be repeated. Only in a land purified from the enticing influences of idolatry could the nation of Hashem establish itself, thrive and sanctify God’s name in the world – regrettably, without the cooperation of the indigenous peoples, the Jews had no option but to create this sacred monotheistic zone by force.
Tuesday, October 28, 2014
Our community has recently begun a Nakh Yomi program in which participants study one chapter of Tanakh per day, not including Shabbat. For each day, I prepare a written summary of the chapter as well an audio recording of the chapter chanted with the Yerushalmi melody and a mini-shiur (ten minutes or less). We are currently up to chapter 10; here are the summaries and links for the first five chapters.
Yehoshua has one of the least enviable jobs imaginable – he has been appointed as successor to the most illustrious prophet and Jewish leader of all time, Moshe Rabbenu. Hashem’s first communication to Yehoshua begins, “Moshe, my servant, is dead”, suggesting that Yehoshua’s entire career is only “bediavad” – Hashem is, as it were, settling for second best because Moshe Rabbenu, the servant of Hashem, is no longer available to continue his service. Rather than being charged with his own unique prophetic mission, Yehoshua, the servant of Moshe, is commanded to complete the tasks that Moshe himself would have carried out had he not been prevented by the Almighty from entering the land of Israel.
A cursory examination of the chapter reveals that Moshe’s name, memory and authority is invoked several times, emphasizing the idea that Yehoshua is merely a “relief pitcher” or “closer” who will do nothing more than see his revered master’s life’s work to its Divinely mandated conclusion. So, on one hand, Yehoshua is exhorted to present himself as a spiritual and political authority figure to the Jewish people. On the other hand, his autonomy and independence is curtailed by his commitment to preserving the legacy of Moshe Rabbenu and to ensure fidelity to the teachings and directives of a Torah that he himself did not receive. This need to balance the roles of teacher and student, leader and follower, independent thinker and dutiful servant may explain why he questioned the extent of his ability to win the respect, admiration and devotion of the nation like his teacher had.
Hence the need for Hashem to reassure Yehoshua three times by citing the very same phrase Moshe Rabbenu had used three times when he handed the reins of leadership over to Yehoshua, “be strong and courageous” – battle your enemies with confidence, study the Torah with diligence and lead your nation with strength. “Be strong and courageous” is both an inspiration to Yehoshua and a reminder of where he came from, vividly awakening memories of the master and emboldening the disciple at the same time.
Yehoshua will conquer the land of Israel and apportion it to the Jewish people, as Moshe was commanded. In anticipation of he instructs them to prepare themselves to cross the Jordan River in just three days’ time. Yehoshua then addresses the tribes of Gad, Reuven and half of Menashe, who had agreed to help their brethren fight in mainland Israel before returning to settle in the Transjordan with their families, and confirms that they plan to honor the promise they made to Moshe. The nation of Israel accepts the authority and leadership of Yehoshua as they did that of Moshe, echoing the words of the Almighty, “be strong and courageous”, remain loyal to the teachings of Moshe Rabbenu and His God and we will remain loyal to you.
In this chapter, Yehoshua dispatches spies to investigate the heavily fortified city of Yeriho (Jericho). Unlike Moshe Rabbenu, who sent a large delegation of very prominent spies and had them deliver their findings to the entire congregation at once, Yehoshua is careful to avoid any mishap or public relations disaster; therefore, he sends just two anonymous spies, he authorizes the mission in secret, and he instructs them to report back directly to him. On the surface, the purpose of their visit is not entirely clear, since the spies return shortly afterwards with limited information. Moreover, their destination is a house of ill repute that is being managed by Rahav, a famous prostitute – an odd choice of venue for a reconnaissance mission!
However, upon further reflection it seems that the objective of this operation was to evaluate the morale of the people of Yeriho and of Canaan in general. Wisely, the spies were sent to a seedy location where men prefer to preserve their anonymity and where they would therefore be less likely to be noticed or questioned. Moreover, it is a setting in which the foibles, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities of even the most powerful and influential men are revealed, and it is therefore an excellent place in which to evaluate the morale of a nation.
Rahav misleads a delegation from the King of Yeriho that attempts to apprehend the visitors, sending them on a “wild goose chase” while the spies hide safely in her loft. She then informs the Jews that the Canaanites are indeed fearful of the people of Israel and their God, and that ever since the Children of Israel left Egypt in a miraculously dramatic fashion, they have been intimidated. Out of recognition of her efforts in saving them from the King of Yeriho, the spies swear that, when siege is laid to the city, the lives of Rahav and her family will be spared.
As she lowers them out of her window (her house is in the wall of the city, so this is effectively an exit from the otherwise heavily guarded and fortified city), they mention that their oath, taken under duress, is not really binding. Nonetheless, they will honor it. They instruct Rahav to tie a red string in her window when the Jews arrive, apparently an allusion to the red blood placed on the doorposts of the Jews in Egypt when they were spared the fate of their Egyptian neighbors during the plague of the firstborn. Here too Rahav demonstrates her willingness to sever any identification with her host culture and her readiness to link her personal destiny to that of the Chosen People. The spies hide in the hills until the search parties seeking them give up hope, and then return to the Israelite camp to share news of their findings with Yehoshua, specifically, to inform him that “Hashem has given over the entire land into our hands, and those who dwell in the land have melted before us”. The purpose of their mission was to provide inspiration, moral support and encouragement to the Jews before their entry into the Land of Israel, and it has succeeded.
The Jewish people encamp by the Jordan River and prepare to cross it. For the first time, instead of the Ark traveling amidst the people and being carried by Levites, it will be carried by Kohanim and will go forth 2,000 cubits ahead of the nation, leading the way. Yehoshua instructs the Children of Israel to prepare themselves fully because they will witness miracles in the course of their journey. Hashem informs Yehoshua that the crossing of the Jordan will elevate him to grandeur in the eyes of his people and allow them to perceive that Divine providence is protecting him as it protected Moshe.
Yehoshua gathers the Jews together and proclaims that the miracles they observe this day will instill confidence in their hearts that Hashem is with them and that He will enable them to conquer the Canaanites and settle in their new homeland. Yehoshua selects one representative from each tribe for a purpose that will be explained in the next chapter, and then describes to the people what they are about to see: When the Kohanim, carrying the Ark of the Covenant, step into the water of the Jordan River, it will stop flowing. The water traveling downstream will continue to the sea, while the water arriving from further upstream will pile up in midair, leaving dry land upon which the Israelites can walk. This indeed happens, and the Kohanim remain standing in the Jordan until the entire nation has crossed over successfully.
Undoubtedly, the stopping up of the Jordan is reminiscent of the Splitting of the Sea in the story of the Exodus. It is worthy of note that the generation that entered the Land of Israel, by and large, did not directly experience the departure from Egypt. There is a disconnect between the exit from bondage and the settlement of the land, which was a deviation from the original plan – if not for the sins of the Jewish people, they would have transitioned in a seamless fashion directly from Egypt to Israel with a relatively brief sojourn in the wilderness. The crossing of the Jordan simulates one of the most dramatic and powerful moments of the Exodus and in a sense recreates it; here, instead of the Jews “believing in Hashem and in Moshe, His servant” they arrive at belief in Hashem’s continued providential care and the authority and credibility of Yehoshua, the successor.
The use of the Ark and Kohanim in this capacity brings us back to the original appointment of Yehoshua in Parashat Pinhas in the Book of Bemidbar, wherein Moshe is told “and before Elazar HaKohen he [Yehoshua] will stand, and he will inquire of the Urim and Tummim before Hashem – by his word shall they go out and come in, he and the entire Children of Israel with him, and all of the congregation.” As Rashi explains, the dependence of Yehoshua on the Kohanim, the nephews of Moshe Rabbenu, reflects the continued influence of Moshe and his family on the destiny of the Jewish people. The Ark, embodying the Torah received by Moshe at Sinai, underscores this as well. So again, at the moment of Yehoshua’s elevation to prominence, there is a recognition that he stands on the shoulders of giants – we never forget where he came from.
After the Jewish people complete their passage to the other side of the Jordan River, Hashem commands Yehoshua to address the twelve men – one per tribe – who had been selected for a special task previously. They are instructed to retrieve one stone each (a total of twelve) from the place where the Kohanim are standing in the river and to carry these stones on their shoulders to the location where they will be spending the night. There, they will become monuments to the miraculous “cutting off” of the Jordan River that allowed the Jewish people to cross on dry land. Yehoshua himself set up twelve additional stones in the river itself at the spot where the Kohanim stood. Twelve stones being set up is also undoubtedly an allusion to the twelve stones that Parashat Mishpatim tells us Moshe Rabbenu set up at Mount Sinai, one for each tribe, when the Jews officially accepted upon themselves the covenant of Torah observance. And, in fact, many commentators suggest that these stones were the ones on which the Torah was to be written, as commanded in Parashat Ki Tavo.
According to the simple meaning of the text, the Kohanim remained in place until the entire nation had passed over the Jordan and then they too crossed over before the river resumed its flow. However, the Rabbis of the Talmud, cited by Rashi, understand that the Kohanim stepped back out of the river onto its eastern bank, allowing the river to return to normal, and that only then did the Ark miraculously carry them in midair over the rushing water to the western side.
The text notes that the crossing of the Jordan took place on the tenth of the month of Nisan. To the student of Torah this is a memorable date for another important reason. Immediately prior to the Exodus from Egypt the Jews were commanded to offer a sheep as a Paschal sacrifice. The mitzvah was “on the tenth of this month [Nisan] each person should take a sheep for his family or household. And it shall be safeguarded until the fourteenth of the month…” The process of leaving Egypt began on the tenth of Nisan, and here too, the crossing of the Jordan, clearly designed to remind the Jews of the Exodus, took place on the 10th of Nisan as well. One verse in our chapter makes this connection explicit, “Hashem your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you crossed, just as Hashem your God did with the Sea of Reeds, when he dried it up before us until we had crossed.”
There is one last fascinating link between our chapter and the narrative of the Exodus – the use of the phrase “so that this shall be a sign amongst you, when your children ask in the future, saying ‘what are these rocks to you? And you shall say, etc.”, which is an obvious allusion to the famous declaration of Moshe Rabbenu to the Jews at the time of the Exodus “And it will be when your children shall say to you ‘what is this service to you’? And you shall say, etc.” Again, in our chapter “When your children ask their parents in the future, saying ‘what are these rocks’? You shall make known to your children, etc.”
By now, the miracles of the Exodus were already a fading memory for the Jewish people, their dramatic effect had begun to wear off after forty years of wandering in the desert. The experience of Divine intervention at the Jordan River provided a new and exciting story for a new generation that could be passed from parents to children and could serve as a basis for faith in Hashem and His providence as they established themselves in the Holy Land.
Word of the miraculous crossing of the Jordan River spreads throughout the region, leaving the kings of Canaan scared and bewildered by the newly arrived Jews. In the meantime, Hashem commands Yehoshua to prepare sharp rocks in order to circumcise the Jewish people. During the forty years of sojourn in the desert, the ritual of circumcision was not practiced, so only those Jews who were born in Egypt had fulfilled the commandment. Everyone born in the desert was still uncircumcised as of the entry into Israel (although Rabbinic tradition states that the Levites did, in fact, circumcise their children even in the desert). The reason offered in most commentaries for the deferral of circumcision is that it was dangerous and could be potentially life-threatening to undergo a surgical procedure while traveling in the wilderness.
Here we find the clearest and most explicit connection between the arrival in Israel and the Exodus from Egypt, as immediately following the mass circumcision is the celebration of the Passover holiday. We know from Parashat Bo that an uncircumcised male is not permitted to participate in the Paschal sacrifice; hence the need for the ritual to be carried out right away. Indeed, the Rabbis have a tradition that the Jews had a similar mass circumcision before the first Paschal offering in Egypt itself. The idea is clear: a personal commitment to the covenant of Abraham, symbolized by the berit milah, must precede the affirmation of the national covenant of the people of Israel, symbolized by the Paschal sacrifice. As the Jews are performing the circumcisions, Hashem Himself says “today I have rolled the disgrace of Egypt off of you”, a fitting preparation for the Passover observance.
We may even suggest that the fact that the Jews did not circumcise in the desert was not motivated by practical concerns but was divinely mandated for a theological purpose. The delay of circumcision until right before the first Passover celebrated in the Holy Land allowed the people to recreate the experience of the Exodus as it actually occurred to their parents and grandparents. The tradition teaches that, other than the first anniversary of the departure from Egypt, the Passover sacrifice was not offered for the forty years that the Jews wandered in the desert. So this unique convergence of events – crossing the Jordan, berit milah and Passover – were indeed a powerful “second take” of the story of the Jewish people, a kind of virtually remaking of their past to connect it to their future. Our chapter then describes how the Jews, now able to eat of the produce of the land, stopped receiving the manna from heaven that had been sustaining them for the past four decades. Truly the end of an era.
The chapter concludes with an encounter between Yehoshua and an armed and apparently threatening figure who turns out to be an angel of God. The angel tells Yehoshua to remove his shoes because he is treading upon holy ground and is about to receive a communication from God. The chapter divisions, which were not made by Jews, do us a bit of a disservice here in leaving the content of the message for the chapter six. However, it is interesting to note that the Rabbis interpret the appearance of this angel as a rebuke to Yehoshua for one of two sins – either neglecting the daily Temple service or neglecting the study of Torah. The Midrash states that Yehoshua asked which of the two failures he was being criticized for and was told it was for his failure to study.
This is fascinating because, as mentioned before, the honor given to the Temple Service and Kohanim as well as the focus on learning Torah are two ways in which Yehoshua demonstrated his loyalty to Moshe Rabbenu and the legacy that preceded him. The Rabbis are suggesting that he had become overly concerned with his own success and image as a leader and had lost some of his earlier devotion to the teachings of his mentor. The visit from the angel reminded him to put his ego in check and remember the purpose for which he had been chosen to lead. In the following chapter, we will see the relevance of this Midrash to the content of the angel’s message.