Monday, November 17, 2014

Conclusion of Sefer Yehoshua - Tying the Loose Threads Together

Audio Chanting and Summary of Chapter 24

The Book of Yehoshua concludes with a final address delivered by Yehoshua to the entire nation, leaders and laypersons alike. This speech was given at Shekhem, and begins with a description of the pre-history of the Jewish people, starting with Abraham’s father Terah who served idols and charting the development of the nation of Israel through Avraham, Yitschaq, Yaaqov and Yaaqov’s descendants. Yehoshua mentions the highlights of the Exodus from Egypt, the dramatic salvation at the Sea of Reeds, the period of wandering through the desert and the miraculous military successes and conquests that Hashem orchestrated for the benefit of the Jews.

Yehoshua first exhorts the nation to serve Hashem in purity and to reject all other gods. However, he then presents them with the option of changing their minds and reverting to the gods of Terah or of their Canaanite neighbors, saying only that “as for myself and my household, we will serve Hashem”. The Jewish people responded to this offer with an unequivocal affirmation of their intent to serve only Hashem, the God Who has been the source of their salvation from the beginning, and to reject any other mode or object of worship.

Yehoshua responds that Hashem is too holy and too demanding; committing to His service is a significant and risky challenge! The Jews rebuff Yehoshua and again insist that they will remain true in their dedication to Hashem. Yehoshua makes an official covenant between the Jewish people and Hashem, and places a large rock under an oak tree beside the sanctuary of Hashem as a memorial to that covenant.

Yehoshua dies at the age of 110 and is buried in his territory in Timnat-Serah; the bones of Yosef are laid to rest in Shekhem, in the portion of land that Yaaqov had purchased centuries earlier in that area. The final verse of the Book of Yehoshua tells us that Elazar son of Aharon, the Kohen Gadol, passed away and was buried as well.

Several questions can be raised regarding this chapter. First of all, what is the need for two speeches – one directed to the leadership and one addressed to everybody? Couldn’t Yehoshua consolidate his remarks in one speech?

Second, we know that at this time the Mishkan was positioned in Shiloh, not Shekhem. Why does Yehoshua deliver this final address in Shekhem rather than Shiloh and why does the text imply that they were standing beside the Sanctuary of Hashem nonetheless?

Third, why did they wait so long to bury Yosef’s bones in Shekhem?

Finally, why does Yehoshua chart Jewish history all the way back to Terah’s time, and why does he raise the possibility that the Jews might want to give up the Torah and revert to the idolatrous traditions of their distant past? Doesn’t the first speech insist that the Jews must keep their commitment to Hashem no matter what?

Several modern commentators and scholars have grappled with these problems and none has provided a fully satisfactory explanation for them. I would like to offer a suggestion of my own that I believe is persuasive and meaningful in its own right even if it doesn’t resolve all the difficulties.

The Book of Yehoshua can rightly be understood as the “postscript” or epilogue to the Torah. It describes the fulfillment of all of Hashem’s promises to the Jewish people and is the conclusion of the historical saga that began with the enslavement in and Exodus from Egypt. In that way, the Book of Yehoshua is the conclusion of a national narrative, the final stage of the founding of Israel as a community in its own land.

The first closing speech of Yehoshua, which presupposes the inviolable nature of the covenant made at Sinai and is directed to the LEADERSHIP alone, is a fitting end to the Book of Yehoshua insofar as it is the history of a nation that was first introduced in the Book of Shemot.

At the same time, however, the dramatic departure from Egypt and conquering of Israel is not only the story of a newly founded polity; it is also the fulfillment of the promises made to the Patriarchs and is the final chapter of THEIR complex and dramatic story. When Avraham arrived in Canaan, he pitched his tent in Shekhem and was there informed that his descendants would inherit the land. When Yaaqov returned from “exile” in the house of Lavan, he immediately purchased a parcel of land in Shekhem, and before departing, he instructed his household to rid themselves of any foreign gods and buried them “under the oak tree in Shekhem”. When Yosef is seized and sold by his brothers into slavery, it is because he went to check on them in Shekhem. When Yaaqov blesses Yosef at the end of his life, he tells Yosef that he has bequeathed to him “Shekhem ahad al ahekha”, meaning one parcel of land more than his brothers – this parcel of land is Shekhem.

Seen from this angle, then, the Book of Yehoshua is not only a sequel to the Book of Devarim, it is the conclusion of the Book of Beresheet – the life stories of the Patriarchs – as well. In that context, Shekhem is clearly a critical location at which all of the dramatic turning points took place, and it is therefore fitting that Yehoshua would deliver his final speech there.

The last speech begins from Terah and focuses on the individuals whose progeny became the Jewish people; it deals with the Abrahamic covenant that we are members of INDIVIDUALLY and as FAMILIES, not nationally as citizens (Berit Milah is an expression of this aspect of our covenant with Hashem). And while the national covenant would naturally be reaffirmed at Shiloh, home of the national sanctuary, the individual/familial covenant between the descendants of Avraham and Hashem would be best renewed at Shekhem, the location that is emblematic of the Patriarchs and their physical and spiritual journeys – even if that meant having to bring the Ark over to the exact place in Shekhem where Yaaqov originally commanded his household to dispose of any idols in their possession.

Unlike the national covenant, maintenance of which is incumbent upon the leaders of the nation as a whole (addressed in the first speech), the Abrahamic covenant is a matter of personal choice, participation and commitment on the part of each individual, hence Yehoshua’s statement in the second speech “as for me and my household, we will serve Hashem!”

Yehoshua is a descendant of Yosef and dies at the age of 110 just like Yosef himself did. Their burials are juxtaposed, with the burial of Yehoshua symbolizing the end of the era of the Exodus and the burial of Yosef in Shekhem representing the end of the saga of Beresheet – keep in mind that the final verse of the Book of Beresheet describes Yosef being placed in a coffin above ground in Egypt; he was waiting for his return to Israel and proper Jewish burial for centuries!

We need not assume that the Jews actually delayed the burial of Yosef’s bones all this time, although it is possible that Yehoshua did this for the thematic effect. What is important is that CONCEPTUALLY the link between the burial of these two key figures interconnects and ties up all of the loose ends in the Torah narratives of the Patriarchs of Beresheet and of the Jewish nation of Shemot-Devarim, making the Book of Yehoshua the proper integration and resolution of the plot lines of both of these grand and rich narratives. Beresheet precedes Shemot-Devarim and here the conclusion of Shemot-Devarim precedes the conclusion of Beresheet – on a literary level, this A-B-B-A structure indicates the ultimate intertwining and interconnecting of the two stories into one complete, unified and indivisible narrative.

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