Category Archives: Joshua

Reuven, Gad and Menashe and Joshua’s farewell

Summary: Following the division of the land between all of the tribes, Joshua summons the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of the tribe of Menashe who chose to settle on the eastern side of the Jordan River.

In his final days Joshua assembles the people and encourages them to remain steadfast in their connection to God, or else forfeit His Divine support. In his final speech before his death, Joshua retraces the whole of Jewish history and concludes by entreating the people to abandon idolatry and direct their hearts to God. The book ends with the deaths of Joshua and Elazar the son of Aharon, and the burial of Joseph.

A deeper look: In an act of apparent treachery the eastern tribes built an altar near the Jordan River. Since the tabernacle had been established in Shiloh, it was forbidden to offer sacrifices anywhere else, even to God as there was a concern that it could lead to idol worship. As the western tribes readied themselves to do battle, Pinchas ben Elazar was sent with ten emissaries to elicit an explanation. Pinchas commanded this mission as he had led the fight against the Midianite idol worship of Baal Peor when killing Zimri and Cozbi (Numbers 25:7-14).

The eastern tribes explained that the altar was not meant for offerings but was merely symbolic to show the future generations that all of the tribes – even those on the eastern side of the Jordan – had a share in God. After the true intent is related to the other tribes, approval was given and the altar was named eid – meaning witness.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Sorotzkin explains the deeper nature of the perceived threat by citing Rabbi Yehudah Löwe ben Bezalel (known as the Maharal, d. 1609) who explained that the unity of the Jewish people derives it source from the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and subsequently, the Beit HaMikdash (Rinat Yitzchak on Joshua 22:19). Without unity, the Shechinah (Divine Presence) cannot rest on the people.

This is the final message of the book of Joshua. Our unity is dependent on our connection with God and in turn, when we find unity His Presence rests with us. With this in mind, we will continue next week with the Book of Judges.

Levite cities

Summary: God commands Joshua to designate cities in the Land of Israel as cities of refuge for a person who had killed unintentionally but with some element of negligence. This fulfilled the command given to Moses in the book of Numbers (35:9-34). The tribe of Levi petitioned Joshua and Elazar, the high priest to fulfil God’s promise to designate cities for them.

In depth: The Torah rules that the tribe of Levi would not receive a portion of the land of Israel because ‘God is their inheritance’ and they will receive the offerings from the Temple together with the various tithes (Deuteronomy 18:1-2). They would however, live in six cities designated as ‘cities of refuge’ in addition to 42 other cities, together with their open spaces (Numbers 35:6-8). The Gemara explains that the additional 42 Levite cities also served as cities of refuge with some minor differences (Makkot 13a).

The number of additional Levite cities is the same as the number of encampments made by the Jewish people between Egypt and the land of Israel. This is not coincidental as the portion of the Torah describing the 42 encampments directly precedes the commandment regarding the Levite cities.

Rabbi Shlomo Kluger (d. 1869) explains that since at each of these encampments God turned the desolate wilderness into a place fit for living, the Jewish people were required to repay His kindness measure for measure by separating an additional 42 cities from their allotted land for the Levites, the servants of God.

With respect to the other six cities, the Tanaaic sage Jonathan ben Uzziel explains that after Aharon died, Amalek attacked the Jewish people once again. Some Jews fled back towards Egypt, retracing their steps by six encampments. Leaders from the tribe of Levi chased them and fought to bring them back. There were casualties on both sides and although the survivors returned, the tribe of Levi concluded that their losses were as a result of not mourning for Aharon properly (Targum Yonatan on Deuteronomy 6:10). While this was not intentional, they were still accountable for this lack of respect.

Similarly, the primary six cities of refuge gave sanctuary to those whose hands were guilty, but hearts were innocent.


Division of the land

Summary: The conquests of both Moses and Joshua are recounted in the first of these chapters. In the following chapters (13-19), the book of Joshua details the division of the Land of Israel between the tribes.

In depth: The Torah recounts the command to divide up the Land of Israel for each of the tribes. While the actual distribution is described at length in these chapters, there is some discussion regarding the method employed. The Torah appears to give contradictory instructions. Firstly, the area of each portion must correspond proportionally to the size of each tribe (Numbers 26:53-54). Yet in the following verse God commands that the land should only be divided up by lottery (ibid. 55).

Now that Joshua had conquered the land and the division into tribal territories could take place, we see that the lottery is employed for each tribe. The Seforno (d. 1550) comments that even though the land must have been divided proportionally to the size of each tribe, the lottery engendered a feeling in each tribe that their portion was given by God rather than a result of mere population control.

Indeed, the Gemara (Bava Batra 122a) describes the process of the division by lottery. Elazar, the son of Aharon and high priest wore the urim v’tumim, a slip of parchment on which God’s ineffable name was written and placed inside the high priest’s breastplate. This was adorned with stones on which the names of the twelve tribes were etched. He would place each hand into a box; one box contained the names of the tribes and the other, the names of each portion of land. The Gemara describes how Elazar would even predict through Divine inspiration which tribe and portion of land would come up before he had even drawn the lots.

Yet the lottery could be seen as more than merely God’s approval for apportionment of land. This moment was the culmination of four centuries of Jewish history which began with God’s covenant with our forefather Abraham. The lottery provided a covenantal tone in which the people witnessed the transfer of God’s land to His people.

Southern and Northern conquest

Summary: Five Amorite kings gathered to attack the Gibeonites, who had previously made a pact with Joshua and the Jewish people. Joshua fought the belligerent Amorites and beat them into retreat. Yavin king of Chatzor also gathered a huge army to fight Joshua but were defeated following a pre-emptive strike.

In depth: As Joshua is fighting the five Amorite armies, he commands the sun and moon to stop in order to complete the battle. According to Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (d. 118CE) it was Friday afternoon so Joshua entreated God to delay the onset of Shabbat in order to complete the battle. If so, why did Joshua also command the moon to stop? Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Zimra (Radbaz, 16th Century) explained that this was to prevent a solar eclipse. Why is this significant?

Many of our ancient texts contain references to the celestial bodies and their movements which are difficult to reconcile with scientific reality. The Midrash records that the sun exits through a window in the sky during the night which is why its light does not penetrate at night time (Exodus Rabbah 15). Similarly, in the Shabbat morning service we describe God as the One Who “cleaves the windows of the sky, Who brings the sun out of its place and the moon from its abode” (Green Siddur page 373).

Rabbi Chaim Moshe Luzzato (Ramchal, d. 1746) explained that when the sages employed references to celestial bodies, they were not necessarily referring to their physical reality, but employed them as metaphors for metaphysical phenomena.

Rabbi Naftali Tvi Yehudah Berlin (Netziv, d. 1893) explains that the sun refers to the flow of God’s positive influence and blessing, emanating from the heavens down to earth. The physical sun provides just enough light and warmth to allow life to flourish. So too God’s positive influence supplies the perfect balance of spiritual impact in this world.

Joshua wanted to prevent both the sun from setting and a solar eclipse in order to reinforce the message which has been a theme throughout this book; victory was dependent on God’s power and authority, not solely on the physical might of the army.


Summary: After the victories of Jericho and Ai, the kings of the remaining Canaanite nations gathered to wage war against Joshua and the Jewish people. The people of Gibeon however devised a cunning strategy to trick the Jewish people into making a covenant with them.

In depth: God commands that a Jewish army must offer an enemy the opportunity to flee or try to make peace with them before attacking (Deuteronomy 20:10). Maimonides (d. 1204) elucidates the conditions for peace which include the enemy accepting the seven Noachide laws (Talmud Sanhedrin 56a). Refusal of either alternative would result in war. The Girgashites were the only Canaanite nation who chose to flee (see Rashi on Exodus 34:11).

The Gibeonites who lived in the city of Givon were members of the Hivites, one of the remaining Canaanite tribes who had chosen to fight Joshua. They wanted to split from the rest of the Hivite nation but erroneously thought that it was too late to make peace with Joshua. They trick Joshua into making a covenant with them by hiding their Canaanite identity and dressing up as weary travellers from a distant land.

After their ruse is discovered, the Jewish people complain that since the Gibeonites had lied the covenant had been made with them under deceit. A principle found throughout Jewish law is that an agreement, whether contractual, marital or religious that is made on false pretences is null and void. The people argued that the Gibeonites remained enemies and prepared to do battle with them.

Joshua however was concerned that while the people were technically correct, the effect of attacking a group who had struck a deal – even falsely – with the Jewish people, could cause a terrible chillul HaShem (desecration of God’s name). Other nations might believe that the Jewish people do not really fear God if they are willing to annul a contract so easily. Therefore, Joshua honoured the covenant with the Gibeonites who were given the lowly jobs of serving as woodchoppers and water drawers for the temple.

Joshua showed that leaders must often make what appear to be painful and unfair concesions in the short term to protect long term interests.

Defeat at Ai and Achan

Summary: After the victory at Jericho, Joshua leads the people to their second conquest against the city of Ai. A relatively small army is sent to attack but is defeated. Joshua prays and is answered by God explaining that the nation has sinned. In fact, only one Jew sinned by removing consecrated property. The offender, Achan ben Karmi is discovered through a lottery and punished accordingly. After planning a rear attack on the city, the people succeed in capturing Ai. The recitation of the blessings and curses on mount Eival and Mount Gerizim, commanded in Deuteronomy chapter 27 is recounted.

A deeper look: During the conquest for Jericho, the people were commanded to resist the temptation to pilfer the many riches of the city. Out the entire nation of 3 million, only one individual succumbed to human frailty. Nevertheless, given the exceedingly high standards expected from the Jewish nation coupled with the principle of כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה– that the Jewish people are intrinsically bound together, the effect of one person’s sin degraded the stature of the entire people.

The nation had been promised God’s protection in their conquest for the land. Yet it was now clear this was unambiguously contingent on their conduct. Whereas the first army to attack Ai was only 3,000 strong, Joshua now assembled his soldiers in full force and devised a complex rear end attack on the city to ensure victory.

One might ask why such plans were necessary. God had assured the people of victory and explained the reason for defeat at the first attempt on Ai. Surely such a display of force could jeopardise the people’s belief that it was only God’s Divine assistance which could assure victory.

Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain (d. 1926, known as the Shem MiShmuel) explains that Joshua did not muster such force out of fear of defeat. In the aftermath of defeat, Joshua included the entire military might of the people to rebuild morale through the unity of the people. The message was, and still is clear; the Jewish nation is like one being and when our hearts beat as one, we can overcome the greatest foes.

National Bris Milah

Summary: The kings of Canaan become frightened when they heard about the splitting of the Jordan River. At that time, Joshua commanded the men to perform circumcision after which they were able to offer the Pesach sacrifice. The manna dried up and that year the people ate the grain from the land. As they arrived in the outskirts of Jericho, an angel appeared to Joshua as a man with a drawn sword.

A deeper look: According to Rashi (d. 1105), the angel that appeared to Joshua was Michael (Rashi to Joshua 5:16). By appearing with a drawn sword the angel was indicating to Joshua that he was worthy of punishment. On reflection Joshua realised that there were two sins for which he could have been liable for the death penalty. He had prepared so eagerly for battle that according to Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet (Rashba, d. 1310) the people had neglected to perform the Tamid (daily continual) offering with the required procession of priests and levites. In addition to this he had prevented the people from learning Torah that night.

The medieval French commentators, the Tosafists explain that since the angel exclaimed that עתה באתי – “I have come now”, Joshua understood that he was liable for the current sin of impeding Torah study (Tosafos to Megillah 3a). In his contemporary commentary Mishbetzot Zahav, Rabbi Shabbatai Sheftil Weiss highlights the differences between the sacrificial offerings and Torah study. Offerings and their contemporary equivalent prayer are certainly important mitzvot, but the study of Torah surpasses all other commandments.

The angel tells Joshua to remove his shoe from his foot, reminiscent of the episode of Moses and the burning bush over forty years before. Interestingly, in both cases Moses and Joshua inquire regarding the nature of the vision they see (Exodus 3:3 and Joshua 5:13). Yet whereas Moses is spoken to directly by God, Joshua is only addressed by an emissary.

Rabbi Yitzchak Abravanel (d. 1508) explains that the command for Joshua to remove his shoe indicated that the land was holy and could therefore only be conquered with God’s help, not through physical might alone. As Joshua’s conquest for the land begins, this concept will become a recurring theme in the coming chapters.

Crossing the Jordan

Summary: As the people prepared to cross the Jordan River, God commanded Joshua to instruct the Kohanim carrying the Ark to enter the water. The upstream waters stopped and formed a column while the Kohanim were able to advance to the centre of the river before the rest of the nation crossed on dry land into Canaan. Once the nation had crossed, the Kohanim ascended with the Ark and the waters returned.

A deeper look: After the nation had crossed the Jordan River, God commands Joshua to instruct the Kohanim to ascend from the Jordan (Joshua 3:16-18). The simple meaning is that they came out of the Jordan River carrying the Ark before the waters returned. Yet the Gemara understands their ascent to be literal; more than they carried the Ark out, the Ark carried them (Sotah 35a).

The Ark is referred to primarily in chapters three and four as אֲרוֹן בְּרִית־הַשֶׁם– the Ark of the Covenant of God. This refers to God’s covenant with the Patriarchs that He will give the Land of Israel to their descendents which is the primary theme of these two chapters; the Jewish people are finally beginning their conquest of the Promised Land.

Yet on one occasion it is referred to as אֲרוֹן הָעֵדוּת– the Ark of Testimony (Joshua 4:16), referring to the Ark bearing witness to the close relationship between the Jewish people and God. The phrase אֲרוֹן הָעֵדוּתis mentioned on eleven other occasions in Tanach, either in relation to the פָּרוֹכֶת, the curtain which separated the Ark from the rest of the Tabernacle or regarding God communicating to Moses or Aharon.

The Midrash explains that the termאֲרוֹן הָעֵדוּתinforms us of God’s power and might. When God spoke to Moses and Aharon, He was like a king lowering himself to speak to his subjects (Pesikta Zutra on Exodus 25:22). The פָּרוֹכֶת represents both the division between the King and His people (Rashi on Exodus 26:31) promoting a healthy distance between leader and subject and yet teaches in this verse in Joshua that the role of a king is to carry his subjects, not the other way round. Kingship does not assign power to merely subjugate, but allocates authority to inspire, motivate and guide the people to a better place.

Entering the land and the story of Rachav

Summary: The first two chapters of the book of Joshua detail the preparation and ultimate entry into the Promised Land. Joshua dispatches two men, identified by the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 16:1) to be Calev ben Yefuneh and Pinchas ben Elazar to spy out the area and city of Jericho. They arrive at the house of Rachav, whose house was built into the wall of the city.

After a tip off to the king of Jericho, Rachav protects the spies from danger, pleading with them to reciprocate by pledging to protect her and her family during the imminent battle. They agree and she ties a scarlet thread in the window to mark her location. After relating the incident to Joshua they declare that God has delivered the land to the Jewish people.

A deeper look: Rachav is described in the beginning of chapter two as a זוֹנָה(zonah). Rashi (d. 1105) explains this to mean an innkeeper while Radak (d. 1235) applies the usual translation of harlot. The Gemara ties the two concepts together, describing Rachav as a woman of exceptional beauty (Megillah 15a) who was indeed an innkeeper and was therefore visited by many of the leaders and monarchs (Zevachim 116b).

The Midrash relates that she repented and drew close to God (Bamidbar Rabbah 3:2). The Gemara further explains that Rachav converted and married Joshua (Megillah 14b). Tosafos raise an interesting questing that since the Jewish people were forbidden to marry into any of the Canaanite nations (Deuteronomy 7:3), how could Joshua have married her?

Two answers are proposed; Either Rachav and her family were in fact strangers living among the people of Jericho and were not from one of the seven Canaanite nations or if they were from one of the Canaanite nations, they converted before the Jewish people entered the Land of Israel, allowing Rachav to marry Joshua. Either way, to her merit the Gemara lists eight prophets who were descended from Rachav and Joshua including Jeremiah (ibid.).