Monday, May 05, 2008

Joshua Executes Prisoners of War: Joshua 10:1-28

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

With Gibeon out of the way, it's time for Israel to take on the Alliance of Five Nations (I've borrowed the term from the Iroquois Confederacy, which incidentally was also blown apart by religious foreigners). The alliance was hinted at in the previous chapter but now we learn that it was created by king Adoni-Zedek of Jerusalem (his name means Justice is my master, but in this case that isn't enough to redeem him from the high crime of being pagan). He makes treaties with the nations of Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish and Eglon, and considers attacking Gibeon first, since they spurned the opportunity to be part of the alliance.

In what might be an honorable move, Joshua marches his army back into Gibeonite territory to defend them from the five kings, which according to the Bible are Amorites. (I thought we'd killed them all back in Numbers, but my memory is clearly playing tricks on me.) He pulls an unexpected all-night march and - like the military genius he's regularly portrayed to be - catches the Amorite forces completely off guard.

In a somewhat dubious move, God decides that the battle looks like fun and gets involved himself. All of a sudden, he starts hurling "huge hailstones" which crush the Amorites. God's surprise storm, according to Joshua, kills more people than the entire Israelite army. Then, because there are still some Amorites left alive, God pulls another miracle out of his hat: he makes the sun "stand still" so that the Israelites have a few extra hours of daylight in which to finish massacring the Amorites. For this information, the book of Joshua actually cites its sources: a non-canonical source called the Book of Jashar. It's interesting and rare in the Bible. The writer of Joshua is supremely, arrogantly proud of God's miracles on this day, announcing that "surely the Lord was fighting for Israel!"

What follows, however, is even more dubious. The five kings of the unified alliance had fled the field and were hiding in a cave system. Since there are still some fleeing Amorites left to murder, Joshua orders the entrances to the caves barricaded until he had time to deal with the surviviors.

Once only some fortified cities - necessitating long sieges - remain, Joshua's forces return to the caves, and here is where the details get truly grisly. Joshua orders the kings brought out to the assembly of the Israelites then instructs his men to put their feet on the necks of the five kings. While the kings are thus pinned, he utters the absurd admonition that his Israelites should not be fearful or discouraged in battle. Then, he executed them all, and strung the corpses up in trees. Eventually the bodies were pulled down and thrown back into the caves. The cheerful, celebratory tone of Joshua's militaristic author as he recounts this barbaric event is truly disturbing.

I didn't like Numbers because it was pessimistic and sided with the priesthood, but at least in that story, Moses seemed a little uncomfortable at the extent of the slaughter. Here, the writers - and Joshua - are positively joyful.