Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Earl, Douglas, Reading Joshua as Christian Scripture (Journal of Theological Interpretation Supplement 2; Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2010). Pp. xiv + 277. Softcover. US$37.95. ISBN 978-1-57506-701-8.

Reading Joshua as Christian Scripture, Douglas Earl's slightly revised doctoral thesis submitted to the University of Durham in 2008, is concerned with how the Old Testament might continue to be understood and received by Christian readers as Scripture, in spite of the problems it raises in three areas, namely historical, ethical and theological (p. 3). It is a rigorous and ambitious project, which brings several disciplines to bear on the interpretation of Joshua. In this regard he finds the concept of “cultural memory” useful: Joshua has aspects which make it difficult for the Church to “apply” in any direct way, but it nevertheless belongs in its “cultural memory” in beneficial ways, for example in the way in which the fall of the walls of Jericho has come to be read as a symbol of the overcoming of evil. This premise, that the book in some ways resists Christian reception yet continues to be read as Scripture, becomes the starting-point for “a discussion about ‘how we learn about learning’” (p. 13).

For this discussion he adopts as a key category the concept of “myth,” as understood in contemporary anthropology as a means of shaping identity. Here he takes a cue from the work of William Doty, who documents ways in which myths find expression in societies (including imaginative stories, symbols, imagery, actions, adopted roles and statuses, together with “aspects of the real, experienced world” [p. 16]). Myth as used in anthropological studies is of various kinds, including ideological, sociological and political, existential and symbolic, psychological, and structuralist. While Earl thinks it appropriate to use several approaches to myth in reading Joshua, he wants to “locate this work on myth in a theological frame of reference,” and thus withhold autonomy from them (p. 19). Mythical readings, however, can divert attention away from the literal, or “first-order” sense of a text (pp. 46–47), which brings an important gain in the case of Joshua. Joshua may be set in “foundational” or “prototypical” time, and expresses a profound desire for “rest” (p. 47). From Doty, he also adopts the notion of a “limit-situation,” that is, an extreme depiction of a paradigm of behaviour, which can be followed in more moderate ways (pp. 47–48).

From this analysis of how myth and symbol may function in the interpretation of a text, Earl goes on to the more strictly hermeneutical question of how and whether Joshua may be considered to be “true,” and to this end adopts from Ricoeur and Beardsley the concepts of “plenitude” and “fittingness” (pp. 49–50). Does the text offer a “fitting redescription” of the world, such that the reader or community finds new ways of thinking about God and the world, leading to “fuller and more faithful participation in their humanity as created in the image of God and perfected in Christ” (p. 49). In this sense Earl thinks a text, and its reception, may become “revelatory” (p. 50). Earl then adds the further category of “witness.” Witness is complicated in the sense that it does not refer to history in a straightforward way (pp. 59–60), and requires an understanding of the symbolic qualities of a text, and something akin to a “spiritual” or “figural” understanding of such questions as how the חרם (the “devotion to destruction” of the Canaanite population) may have meaning for a contemporary community. This is a form of the question “what the text is really about?” (pp. 63–64; emphasis original).

There follow sections on Joshua as part of traditions, that is, those literary traditions found by source-criticism to lie behind the present form of the book, and also ancient Near Eastern forms, such as conquest narratives. On the priestly and Deuteronomic elements in Joshua, Earl finds that they mutually reinforce each other, and this internal dialogue is part of what makes Joshua “revelatory” (p. 87). Regarding conquest-narratives, Joshua cannot be identified straightforwardly as such, but knowing the genre fosters an appreciation of the ways in which the book has been stylized (p. 93).

A chapter is devoted to the חרם (pp. 94–112). Earl finds several different understandings of this concept within the Old Testament, and regards Joshua as distinctive. Essentially, Joshua draws on the command to annihilate the inhabitants of the promised land in Deut 7:1–5, but in such a way as to qualify it, which it does, for example, by means of its narratives of Rahab and Achan, and the Gibeonites.

After a long chapter entitled “Reading Joshua,” a succinct commentary on the book, the final chapter, “Drawing it all Together,” begins by suggesting a symbolic reading of key characters and events, which challenges the (ancient) reader on the question of identity. The re-description of identity is neither xenophobic nor geographically limited (Joshua 22), but redefines response to Yahweh in ways that recommend virtues such as boldness and zeal, and opposition to patriarchy (Achsah) (pp. 200–203). The ideas of crossing the Jordan and resting in the land illustrate searching demands made of the faithful community, with incipient eschatology and the internalization of idolatry. By means of converging Old Testament understandings of חרם, Earl pursues an analogy with the crucifixion, seen as a judgment on idolatry (“Deuteronomistic”), and also as the “holy one” given over to death (P). This kind of extension he sees as imaginative and symbolic, not allegorical (p. 206)

Joshua's pushing of the boundaries introduces the possibility of “transformation,” which is a preparation, according to Earl, for the Gospel (pp. 212–13). There is an extended consideration of faith and works in the light of the allusion to Rahab in James 2:20–26, which “reflects the development of Joshua as myth” (p. 215), and which argues that early Christian tradition understood works in connection with virtue, while the opposition between faith and works arose only in the Protestant Reformation. Modernity also, with exceptions, sees faith as “epistemological,” rather than part of a life-commitment (pp. 216–25). Earl reflects further on the salvation of Rahab and the “conversion” of Israel, which make of Joshua an “ecumenical text” (p. 232). He differs finally from readings of Joshua that would make an original setting determinative, such as in connection with Josiah, and also from the post-colonial angle that would make Rahab a traitor, since this is not true to the aims of the text (pp. 233–36).

Earl's thesis is a powerful contribution to the recovery of Joshua from potential oblivion in the face of post-colonial readings. The difficulty of retaining a text as Scripture when in crucial respects it cannot be imitated, and must correspondingly be rejected, Earl addresses helpfully by means of “cultural memory” and in the context of ancient interpretation. The application of notions of “fittingness” on the one hand, together with imaginative and symbolic readings, is an important stimulus to interpretation. In my view, the least successful part of the thesis is that which sets the reading of Joshua in the context of Old Testament traditions. Earl makes acute observations on the inherent difficulties of defining such traditions, especially the Deuteronomic/-istic, yet decides to adhere to the concept because of its heuristic value and because most scholarship on Joshua is conducted within that framework (pp. 75–76). Yet his close reading of Joshua, which shows that the text is markedly individual, seems to call in question the notion of Deuteronomistic “family resemblances,” rather than suggesting that it can be “read well” with either D or P emphases in mind, or that its “revelatory” capacity was to be located in a critical adoption of P and D in such a way that these strands should be mutually reinforcing (pp. 86–88).

The biggest challenge to the approach Earl offers here may be the nexus of Joshua-narrative and land-possession. Earl has paid relatively little attention to the division of land and cities of refuge (confessedly so, pp. 177, 239), such texts having been important for ancient Israel, but with little to offer the Christian interpreter. This understates, I think, the importance of the theme of land in the Old Testament, and the role of the book of Joshua in the narrative of Genesis–Kings in this regard. He notes the connection between Josh 18:1 and Gen 1:28, on “subduing the land,” but essentially in relation to the Priestly affinities of Joshua (pp. 83–84, 176–77). Possessing the land is here understood in terms of entering the fullness of the Christian life. But the creational-eschatological implications of this (which he sees) might have been taken in a different direction, into a wider biblical consideration of how land might rightly be held and used, a question which many Christian readers of the Old Testament as Scripture are bound to be exercised by.

J. Gordon McConville, University of Gloucestershire, Cheltenham, England