Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Killing Time with Rituals and Magic: Joshua 3 - 5:12

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

The Israelites are ready to begin the invasion, so the author of Joshua takes us through a number of events clearly intended to symbolize Israel's history prior to that long-awaited moment. Following exceptionally detailed instructions from God, the Israelites re-enact the crossing of the Red Sea, this time at the Jordan river, where the priests carry the magic Ark of the Covenant into the water and by doing so make all the waters pile up before them, creating dry land. The Israelites "hurry across."

This verse accidentally gives us another opportunity to estimate Israelite military strength. According to Joshua, the Manasseh, Reuben, and Gad settlers who won't be coming with the rest of the Israelites into the promised land send their full military divisions, totalling 40 000 men-at-arms. Assuming this is representative of Israelite arming trends generally, we can assume they have an army of a little over 200 000 men, organized in 12 divisions. With good tactics and training, this should easily make them superior in any full engagement. Major powers of the time, like Egypt, could raise larger armies through conscription, but would never have moved them all in one formation the way the Israelites seem to do routinely. Keep that in mind when the Israelites require divine aid at every turn - maybe they do, but if the numbers were given are historically accurate, they really ought to be pretty capable of fighting for themselves.

Anyway, the Israelites finish crossing the Jordan and the priests carry the ark out of the riverbed. When they do, the magic dam breaks and the river resumes its normal course.

Afterwards, the Israelites decide to re-establish circumcision. Actually it seems to be God's idea; he tells Joshua they will need a large number of flint knives for the task. According to Joshua, none of the people born in the desert had been circumcised. I wonder why not. What nullified the Abrahamic covenant? Helpfully, the Bible says that "they were uncircumcised beacuse they had not been circumcised." Presumably there's something we're losing in the translation, because that's not a very helpful explanation. Anyways, it's very convenient for the narrative, because after the men have recovered, God says their circumcision has "rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you" and returned Israel to a proper state with God. The Israelites name their camp Gibeath Haaraloth, which sounds a lot cooler when you don't check out the footnote to see that this means "Hill of Foreskins."

Finally, the Israelites celebrate Passover. For the first time, they eat bread and grain taken from conquered land. The next day, they get up to find that God will no longer be sending any manna. Now they will eat real food again, which must come as a relief to those who were tired of eating manna.