Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

McConville, J. Gordon and Stephen N. Williams, Joshua (The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010). Pp. xii + 257. Paper. $20.00. ISBN 978-0-8028-2702-9.

The new volume in this unique commentary series joins two widely-respected scholars, both Christian theologians—McConville, the biblical theologian and Williams, an expert in systematic theology—to explore the theological depths and ethical morasses of the violence-filled and promise-laden book of Joshua. The obviously warm relationship and mutual respect between the two authors let them succeed in an assignment ripe with opportunities to fall apart into disjointed pieces.

McConville, with obvious suggestions from Williams, presents the introduction to Joshua. Well aware of the depth of history and editorial work behind the canonical text, the authors choose to acknowledge such historical development witnessed by the text but to refer to it only seldom. In fact, most critical tools hide their heads behind the theological explanation and discussion of the Masoretic text. Pointing to an original audience would be hypothetical, writes McConville, but so would pointing to a final exilic editor of Genesis–Kings. Thus the exegesis and systematic exploration function in canonical exegesis and in a strong way in Christological interpretation.

The Introduction gives the first notation of this methodological decision, claiming that land theology must be read not only as capture and possession but also as loss of land in 2 Kings. This becomes theologically important in light of the reality that Israel would never again experience the situation Joshua and his generation enjoyed. McConville follows Lawson Younger in categorizing the text in Joshua as a Near Eastern conquest account which engages in a different type of storytelling than does the modern historian.

Starting from the resurrection as a primary case, McConville insists on a historical core in the material since for him the “proclamation of the Old Testament's message depends on a close relationship between fact and interpretation, history and tradition” (p. 7). Still, he confesses the tendency to leave historical questions open. Later Williams will raise strong hermeneutical issues at this point where the two agree to disagree. Both agree strongly, however, that the ultimate goal is to determine how the texts bear witness to Christ. Trying to reduce some of the book's danger, these interpreters fall back on the obvious maxim that “much of what is commanded and done in Joshua cannot be taken as command to any modern people” (12).

This reviewer must admit some disappointment in the exegetical section, but that comes mainly from unreal expectations fed by some of the author's previous work and by the somewhat unrealistic blurbs on the back cover. The format provides only 80 pages for commentary. This brings forth solid theological discussion but only a minimum of statements that stop the reader and invite further meditation or research. Some statements do catch the eye. We will group a few striking statements by their theological theme rather than simply following chapter by chapter.

1. A central focus spotlights the land, as gift and expectation, possession and dispossession, reality and hope:

“At the beginning of the book, Israel stood outside the land and had before them every opportunity for life. At the end, they stand within it, still with all those opportunities, yet also facing the possibility of losing everything” (88).

“Possession of the land, though legitimated first of all by God's gift, can continue to be legitimate only when it is held by God's law” (14).

“The act of possessing is at the same time a dispossessing of the population of Canaan” (21).

2. Israel's identity finds focus in covenant commitments:

“The standard of being truly ‘Israel’ in Joshua remains covenantal” (35).

“Blithe confidence was not matched by performance” (38).

3. Israel's history includes symbols and contraction, event and historical interpretation, statements and counter statements:

“The taking of Ai is symbolic of what would have had to be a more extensive campaign than is actually described” (44).

“Joshua's conquest accounts have the theological purpose of declaring the irresistibility of Yahweh in his resolve to overcome the nations of Canaan” (55).

“In sum, the detailed descriptions have the effect of calling into question the text's basic predicate of a rational, complete distribution of an entirely subdued land” (79).

McConville thus presents Joshua as a literary masterpiece that seems to present easy answers but then introduces themes like the land that remains which caution the reader not to take too much for granted. Gift of land entails covenantal obligations. The taking of the land is never complete. History narration becomes theological confession. Stories of violence test human obedience and witness to divine power and plan.

The heart of the book consists of Williams' “Theological Horizons of Joshua,” McConville's “Joshua and Biblical Theology,” Williams' response to McConville and “Reading Joshua Today,” and McConville's response to Williams.”

Williams begins by discussing the land as possession and loss, claiming that land dominates the Hebrew Bible (95). He places land in the larger context of covenant and obedience before turning to a Christological view, finding the New Testament silent on land because Christ is the promised inheritance. “The exalted Lord privileges no land, language, or temple to the exclusion of others” (104). Modern Jews cannot claim that some as yet undefined land is rightfully theirs, but the land “may yet be the site of peculiar blessing for a people that stands in some ethnic continuity with the ancient people of Israel” (105). Priestly ark-bearing and levitical cities “point to something “beyond war and even beyond land, displacing both of them in time” (107).

Next Williams turns to the question of genocide. The battle belonging to the Lord may breed “a perverted form of humility.” Williams finds the “whole business “nauseatingly repulsive” (110). The problem is related to the larger one of suffering and evil: “God works within a situation radically alien, completely opposite to his nature” (122). Williams sums up in one sentence: “the divine will of the Warrior God is not our guide to the divine nature of the Crucified God” (124).

Idolatry is the next subject, one which brought judgment on Jews as well as Canaanites. Idolatry is “the essence of covenant violation” (125). Practicing it unravels the whole of social life. “What the heart worships and the life practices form the person at the core of his or her being” (135). Biblical teaching on idolatry does not of necessity condemn all other religious belief outside Israel's as idolatrous. Idolatry does include all kinds of covetousness with thanksgiving as the opposite attitude to covetousness.

Turning to discuss idolatry and beauty, William succinctly says, “if…only divine holiness brings life and only divine glory brings joy to mankind, God's directing of human creatures to himself is no egoism” (140). Deeply imbedded in the “law of our being” is to love God and to love our neighbour as self. Thus “idolatry is practical atheism” (140).

For Israel, idolatry is basically a breach of covenant. Williams uses Abraham's prayer for Sodom to conclude that people outside Abraham's line can be considered righteous. God does not practice “unworthy favoritism.” Williams explains: “Saving action is a bridge from God to the world, and the bridge must come down somewhere in particular” (146). “The privilege of one nation is the privilege of all (148).

As regards covenant and law, Williams sees both Testaments seeking to produce a people with lives of holy love based on atonement and forgiveness” (149). Such lives come through gratitude not legalism. God created the law to fit the human being so we would know good and not evil. Knowing both good and evil is self-alienation and division. Law was never meant to deliver salvation. The Christian faith maintains “requirements,” better stated, opportunities for growth in holiness. Human obedience in righteousness has ultimate meaning in a new heaven and new earth.

A concluding look at miracles finds God does many things in this world, “some more and some less extraordinary.” (157). We must not have a preconceived definition of miracle. Miracles like the sun standing still are observation statements, not scientific ones. Much of God's work we cannot understand or explain. The resurrection of Jesus stands at the fountainhead of all belief in miracles. Divine transcendence and immanence stand beyond human description. “Both testaments indicate a cosmic order in which heavenly commanders can indeed hold commerce with earthly mortals” (168). Finally, Joshua's experience is not a blueprint for all generations.

McConville next turns to biblical theology, looking for themes in Joshua that feed into Christian theology. In so doing he shows the relationship of Joshua with each of the biblical books preceding it in the canon and with Judges–Kings. Then he looks specifically at the problem of evil and violence in Joshua–Kings and then at Chaos and History in the rest of the Old Testament. He finds a great underlying theme in Genesis–Kings, namely, God's purpose to bring peace and justice among his creatures on earth” (186). Israel's role is as witness and representative or mediator. The servant's suffering (Isa 53) is the real representative, not the Canaanite-slaughtering Joshua. Prophets and Psalms show God in a cosmic war with evil. Daniel then pictures a humanity finally able “to shoulder the responsibility of proper dominion” (195).

Williams' and McConville's responses to one another represent a good editorial design, but in this case they offer too little  of a real confrontation, the major issue being how much history is needed for Scripture to be true and reveal truth. In “Reading Joshua Today,” Williams skims through the questions of history and the God of Joshua. He places emphasis on a close reading of the text over the actual historical event. Still he wants to retain the “core claim” of the text as having a real basis.

Williams finally outlines three features in Joshua's “nothing obviously very distinctive” view of God (214–15): immense power, “moral” character, and universality.

Christian theological studies of Joshua in the future will have to deal with this volume and the issues it raises. Yet the book leaves the reader wanting more interchange between authors and more direct discussion of the Book of Joshua and its theological structure and intention without hurrying quite so fast to canonical and Christological interpretations.

Trent C. Butler