Evolution Of A Revolution: A Review of “Joshua” by Rabbi Michael Hattin


Considering the sheer antiquity of the Tanakh as we have it, coupled with the phenomenal amount of scholarly ink shed over the millennia in various analytical, homiletic and exegetical endeavours that comprise our magnificent textual heritage, one could perhaps be forgiven for assuming that we have intellectually plateaued, that no more tremendous revelations – in either analysis or methodology – remain concealed in the field of Orthodox Biblical study. Extraordinarily, and in an admirably unobtrusive manner, there has occurred a veritable renaissance, perhaps a revolution, in the field of Tanach learning in the past decade or more. Emanating almost exclusively from the mighty confluence of Yeshivat Har Etzion and Herzog College, (Both located in Alon Shevut, Israel) an astounding plethora of scholars have been produced an ocean of books, articles and lecture series’, inexhaustibly revealing, evaluating, and delighting in hitherto undiscovered vistas in our Book of Books, much to the delight of their growing faithful.

While a thorough analysis of the intellectual underpinnings and philosophical implications of this renaissance is far beyond the scope of this essay, a brief overview is in order. This new intellectual movement straddles – with striking dexterity - an awkward boundary; on the one hand it remains unabashedly orthodox, unswervingly subscribing to and advocating for ancient Jewish beliefs of both the Divinity and relevance of the Bible and her prophets; yet on the other hand engaging intelligently with all the aspects of modern academic study that most Orthodox thinkers historically recoiled from. Fascinatingly, one could find in a characteristic passage, (say, by Harav Yaakov Medan or his protégé Harav Amnon Bazak) a position put forth by Rashi facing a counter-argument from Ramban, A Midrash Tankhuma butting heads with a historical note from Josephus, geographical evidence countered by archaeological findings, Rav Kook sparring with Professor Cassuto, philological theories colliding with psycho-analytical hypotheses; all these contending forces marshalled and phalanxed by the author, to be directed into the academic fray to substantiate an overarching theory of one sort or another.

The fundamental Modus Operandi of much of this new movement’s methodology can be condensed into a single, laconic principle: “HaTanakh Mepharesh Et Atsmo” – that to a certain extent, when analyzed in a sufficiently keen, sensitive and knowledgeable manner, the Tanakh – viewed not as a loose confederacy of disparate texts but rather a cohesive, internally consistent oeuvre - is largely self-explaining and self-commentating. Thus all techniques of modern literary analysis (linguistic and thematic parallels, analysis of character and plot development, to name but a few) are employed, albeit gingerly, to facilitate a deeper understanding of our precious texts. This faith in both the importance and validity of excavating virgin layers of meaning and inspiration in the Bible by harnessing all available source material from both Hazal and the academic world has welded a formidable alloy, a genre at once genuinely revolutionary and counter-revolutionary; works of fierce and fearless independence coupled with an indissoluble attachment, loyalty and respect toward the Jewish tradition have risen up and given birth to, almost immaculately, an intellectual universe of unbridled vibrancy and tenacity, one in which serious questions are given due comprehensive treatment.

In this vein, and as part of this new avalanche of writings, we have before us ‘Joshua: The Challenge Of The Promised Land’ (Maggid books, Jerusalem, 2014) by Rabbi Michael Hattin, (perhaps a tad predictably) a graduate of Yeshivat Har Etzion as well as a teacher of Tanakh at the Pardes Institute, Jerusalem. The book constitutes a conscious attempt to stake a claim in this revolution of learning and writing, and to a large extent this is successful. He (R’ Hattin) falls very much in line with his illustrious predecessors by presenting a work that is – apart from articulate, intelligent, concise, sweeping and ambitious – positively bristling with crisp, creative Peshatim based on rigorous analysis and careful adjudication of the extensive assortment of sources culled to weigh in on any given issue. He skilfully divides the book chronologically, discusses all manner of issues which arise in the plain reading of the text (such as the transition of leadership from Moses to Joshua, the various preparations for the Israelites’ war of conquest in Canaan, the repercussions, dividing the land between the tribes, etc.) and deliberates upon - with a sizeable helping of Midrash and Radak, among others - the pertinent philosophical, theological and ideological undercurrents, unabashedly utilising the most modern methods of literary analysis to demonstrate his point. A justificatory line in the book’s introduction asserts that “Modern literary analysis has searched for underlying structure, characterization and plot, tonal qualities and cadence… to ignore it is to overlook an important dimension of biblical exegesis.” Utilizing these tools, topics such as the precarious and tempestuous love triangle between God, His land and His people, divergent models of leadership, the appropriate place of miracles, prophets and angels in the Torah’s worldview, the almost dangerous sanctity of the Holy Land, among others, are dissected with the precision of a surgeon and the sophisticated poise of a seasoned Mehanekh.

Rabbi Hattin’s most important and enduring contribution here is his ability to compellingly contextualise. In consonance with the worldview in which his intellectual moorings are grounded, he advances a convincing case for treating many of the events recorded in the Biblical book of Joshua not in isolation but rather as part of a broader linear continuum; mirroring, reflecting and thereby providing a wide-angle lens through which to assess several events in the humash. Hence, under analysis, Joshua’s sending of the spies intentionally parallels the disastrous events of Moses’ spies in Parshat Shelach, providing the reader with important similarities and differences to be cognizant of and glean lessons from, pointing out, for example, that “Joshua wisely chooses a different course of action, tightly shrouding the mission in secrecy… it is Joshua alone who is privy to their account” (Page 24). Operating under this model, the splitting of the Jordan is likewise paralleled to the splitting of the sea, and the reinstitution of circumcision and Korban Pesach after a national forty-year abstention is subject to characteristically systematic examination, emblematic of the rejuvenation of the national symbiosis between the Jewish Nation and God, a relationship tragically ruptured by the faithlessness of those involved with the episode of Moses’ Spies. To quote directly, “… as a conceptual idea, circumcision implies a national identity and its corollary an autonomous existence in a homeland… their bodies marked with the seal of God’s covenant and minds seared with its eternal promise, they venture forth to secure the land…” (Page 91). Tangentially, this compare-and-contrast method has the added advantage of serving as a wonderfully strident, if implicit, riposte to perhaps the most pervasive and insidious axiom currently in vogue in countless academic circles: that the books of the Bible are a haphazard collection of incongruent manuscripts crudely shoehorned into a master-text masquerading as a faithful historical account. By presenting events in the book of Joshua as a seamless continuation of, indeed a form of commentary on, the preceding works of the Pentateuch, Rabbi Hattin makes a strong case for viewing the Biblical corpus as a unified whole, as a work constructed with self-evident intentionality and painstaking literary care.

There are, however, certain flaws in this work that ought to be aired out and ruminated upon. To pre-empt certain potential critiques, it is crucial to state categorically that R’ Hattin’s book is absolutely not an exhaustive, scholarly tome, replete with myriad footnotes and sources, and nor does it attempt to be. The style is decidedly brisk and concise, with an emphasis on a single core idea in each chapter, succinctly elucidated and refrigerated for later use. For its relative brevity – a mere 267 pages long - this constellation of compact, interdependent essays punches far above its textual weight, yet it is precisely this audience-expanding concision that limits the book’s usefulness for those who prefer a more thorough, multi-angled approach to sources. This is clearly a deliberate editorial decision, and while this could hardly be construed as a failing, it remains a point to be duly noted.

However, there was one minor  weakness present in this book deserving of brief attention and discussion. The author (in a couple of isolated instances), could readily be indicted of the literary equivalent of ‘shooting the arrow and proceeding to draw the target around where it happens to land’. On occasion it appeared that R’ Hattin abandoned the pursuit of rigorous analytical interpretation in favour of  utilizing a passage or a character as a mouthpiece to express his own  point,, At times, he freely seems to superimpose  implausible motives and thoughts on an array of characters and situations. Take Rahab. A harlot in Jericho, it was in her ‘home of ill repute’ that Joshua’s two scouts find refuge upon arrival. Surprisingly, she proceeds to shield them from the city’s authorities, spin a web of deceit on their behalf, and proclaims her knowledge both of the events surrounding the Exodus and Israel’s subsequently victorious battles, culminating her soliloquy in an unexpectedly lyrical proclamation of allegiance to the God of Israel (Joshua, Ch. 2). In what seems to be a departure from Peshat, R’ Hattin dismisses the traditional Rahab (presumably a weathered stalwart of Jericho’s burgeoning pornocratic underworld, wholly unperturbed by the notion of wholesale sedition) in favour of a portrait of what appears to be an archaic Martin Luther King, someone who foresees an ethically superior system of societal hierarchy (in Rahab’s case, that of the Israelite nation), and resolves to dedicate their resources to its actualisation. To assert, as does R’ Hattin, (Pages 27-37) that Rahab’s shifting loyalties was a manifestation of her identification with a higher plane of virtue is difficult to accept on a peshat level.. Far more likely is that Rahab was backing - according to her perception - the stronger horse, that she genuinely believed the Israelite God to be more powerful than any boss in her local pantheon. Considering her occupation, fidelity could hardly be her most practiced attribute; hence the impulse to betray her city (of which she was scarcely a respectable affiliate) to save her family would not have kept her up at night.

A similar  example of  a strained reading unsubstantiated readings occurs in the analysis of a terse and puzzling episode (Joshua, Ch. 5) of the Angel of God who appears to Joshua in his military encampments just before the Israelites enter Jericho, identifies himself, brusquely instructs Joshua to “Remove your shoes, for the land you are standing upon is Holy” and instantly evaporates, ending the narrative. There are perhaps many ways to understand this mystifying passage, perhaps most plausibly through the prism of introducing Joshua (and the reader) to the concept of Kedushat Eretz Yisrael. Incomprehensibly, R’ Hattin extend the text much further, choosing to explicate the terse instructions of the Angel as an exhortation aimed at Joshua that he and his army must not imbue these necessary wars with wanton cruelty, but rather “…must never lose sight of the land’s sanctity, of man’s inherent worth, of a vision of a better world…” (P. 105). This theory, seems antithetical to the text and to the thematic import of the book.Would it be likely that on the eve of a campaign of Divinely mandated genocide of nauseating proportions, God would send an angel to laconically and cryptically hint at platitudes of the ‘inherent worth’ of human life? Could there be a more futile endeavour? It appears that in the two aforementioned cases – Rahab and the Angel - R’ Hattin’s honourably sensitive moral antennae appear to have unfortunately hijacked and overridden his customary fealty toward the pursuit of sober, rigorous and well-grounded textual analysis. Having said all this, it is important to reiterate that, fortuitously, these instances are relatively rare and isolated in an otherwise unimpeded voyage of meticulous scholarly excellence.

To be sure, for anyone studying the book of Joshua, from the novice to the specialist, there lurks an elephant in the room. Once simply cannot enter the room of Joshua without encountering this beast, nor exit satisfactorily without finding a method of either circumventing or neutralizing the elephantine question of the morality of Joshua’s lifelong endeavour, namely the Israelites’ wars of conquest. One may exhaust both intellect and patience with talk of leadership, transition, holiness and division of Land, but sooner of later every student must confront the self-evident, all-encompassing moral question: How could God, ostensibly the ultimate source of Goodness and mercy, have commanded the Israelites, in a manner most emphatic and unambiguous, to mercilessly wipe out every man, woman and child of the seven indigenous nations of Canaan? Indeed, the text spares us none of the gory details, relishing (sometimes poetically!) the pitiless obliteration of entire civilisations. R’ Hattin attacks this question with commendable lack of ethical circumlocution; without recourse to moral or cultural relativism, he confronts, admirably, the question in its naked form. Whilst not managing to entirely exculpate the actions of the conquering Israelite nation, he certainly goes a long way in charting a course for reconciling the text with correct moral sensibilities. To extravagantly condense his methodology  R’ Hattin adopts a comprehensive two-pronged approach (Pages 165-183), first highlighting the Torah’s injunction to offer peace terms to any city before laying siege to it (citing  Ramban who extends this command even to Canaanite cities), and complements this by once again contextualising (convincingly asserting, “One cannot read the book of Joshua in splendid isolation and expect to comprehend its message while remaining oblivious to the larger framework that is provided by the humash”. Page 169). Thus, R’ Hattin underscores both the importance of the Israelites’ mission (the spread of ethical monotheism) as well as the need to utterly uproot the abominable Canaanite culture in order for this message of ultimate moral goodness be able to take root. Whilst not entirely exonerating wholesale butchery, in spelling out the above case in a compelling and articulate manner, he goes further to assuage the conscience of the modern, enlightened reader of Joshua than could almost any other commentator, thus limning an eminently reasonable course for further discussion on this crucial topic. ,

The book of Joshua is anomalous in the biblical canon as it chronicles a markedly smooth and successful period in History. All the battles are (eventually) won, the land is entered and divided correctly, Joshua’s iron grip on his leadership position is unswerving and unassailable. In a declaration both unprecedented and unequalled the Pasuk declares: “And Israel served God all the days of Joshua…” (Joshua 24:31). Being thus deprived of the multi-faceted characters, leadership contests, mutinous fratricide, narrowly avoided disasters or feverishly pitched stories of love, betrayal, prophecy and power that so characterise most biblical works, it is almost a wonder that anyone could sew together enough interesting material to make a book on Joshua a truly rewarding and riveting read. In this light, Rabbi Hattin’s achievement is remarkable: he has revitalised (perhaps even resurrected) an understudied and underappreciated part of the Tanakh, adding his lucid, scholarly and impassioned penmanship towards this crescendo of scholarly productivity, illuminating a path toward a greater understanding of our most sacred texts.

J.J. Kimche is a visiting student of sorts at YU, having just finished his service in the I.D.F., he is starting Shalem College in Jerusalem in the fall.