Category Archives: Exegetical and Biblical Commentary

Themes in the Book of Joshua

Caution: You have to read Joshua chapters 1 to 12.

The Book of Joshua is a lot more than about Joshua fighting the battle of Jericho, and it’s easier to understand than you might think – and personally challenging.

The book of Joshua really provides a fulfillment of the five books of Moses. It may be divided into two major sections chapters 1-12 cover the conquest of Canaan and chapters 13-24 the division of the land. As is typical of Hebrew history writing, a theological purpose shapes the form in which the narrative is given, and much is omitted about the conquest which should be included if a full record was desired. The importance of a form suited for a largely oral society is also reflected in the structure, a structure in which narratives are paired in different ways.

The content of the first half of Joshua’s book can be set out as follows:

Conquest of Canaan

1st phase – entering Canaan (chs 1-8)

1. Rahab spared 2:1-24

2. Jordon ‘stopped’ [Hebrew: ‘amad] 3-5

3. Jericho captured and burned 6:1-27

4. Achan put to death 7:1-8:29

 

2nd phase – conquering Canaan Chs 9-12

1. Gibeonites spared 9:3-27

2. Sun ‘stopped’ [Hebrew: ‘amad] 10

3. Hazor captured and burned 11:1-15

4. Canaanites put to death 11:16-23

If we now compare these pairs we see some very important points are being made.

1. Faith saves not physical descent

The book opens with encouragement to Joshua and the people to trust the LORD. The incident of Rahab, which often gets lost in arguments about her deception and lie, highlights that faith in the LORD brings deliverance. For all her personal hang-ups, and given her profession and Canaanite upbringing they’re not surprising, she risks her own life in order to save it . Hebrews 11:31 is right!
In the second phase the men of Gibeon also practice deception. But consider their position. They know the Canaanites are under the ban and that Joshua is obliged to kill them. They can’t simply go up to Joshua and ask to be spared. However, like Rahab, they are convinced that God is with Joshua. They therefore see no future unless they can secure a covenant with him. This they do by deception.

While their strategem is soon discovered they are safe because of that covenant. You could do worse than be a woodcutter or a water-carrier in Israel. The covenant with the Gibeonites was to be kept (10:6-7), and the LIRD avenged their slaughter by over-zealous Saul (2 Samuel 21). So the incident is not a warning to the church about receiving new members without enough enquiry, but a reminder that faith in the LORD is the key to blessing. As the Psalmist put it, he would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of the LORD than dwell in the tents of the wicked (Ps. 84:10).

2. The LORD acts for his people

On the way to Canaan the barrier of the Jordan river faces the Israelites. God removes this barrier by causing a blockage upstream so that the river is ‘stopped’ and the people can cross safely. From one viewpoint it’s a ‘natural’ event, but Biblically there is no such thing as a purely natural event for all is under the control and direction of the LORD. The incident recalls the earlier deliverance under Moses at the Red Sea, and the timing points to the hand of the LORD. It is he who gives them the land, not their swords or bows (Ps. 44:3).

Later Joshua is called on to save the Gibeonites from the Amorites. Joshua’s men must have been tired after their forced march the 30kms from Gilgal the night before, but they put the Amorites to flight. God sent a great hailstorm on the Amorites which killed many of them, and Israel gained a complete victory. This followed on Joshua’s cry to the LORD at midday (10:13) for the sun and moon to ‘stop’ (in context does this mean ‘to cease to shine’?).

It looks as though God answered Joshua by sending peculiar weather which included the severe hail and perhaps reflected the light of the sun and moon in a strange way, so that it gave respite from the heat to Joshua’s weary soldiers, yet light for them to continue their pursuit, while the Amorite army were struck by the storm which reduced it to a remnant easily finished off. Whatever the precise explanation it is clear that the LORD fights for his people.

3. The Capture of the Canaanite cities

The capture of Jericho is done in a peculiar way. Why the elaborate strategy? Even if we rejig the numbers of the Israelites to say the 18,000 fighting men John Wenham suggests (on the ground of translation error) we still have a significant fighting force. Jericho was not a very large place – a population of under 10,000 and a wall less than a kilometre long, according to the archaeologists. However, it was fortified and it represents the barrier to conquest. So what happens to it is the key to everything.

The soldiers, with the ark carried by the priests, go around the city every day, and on the seventh, which I reckon was a Sabbath, they go around seven times, and the walls fall at the blast of the trumpets. There is surely more than psychological warfare here. We have a picture of the overthrow of the kingdom of man on the great day which shall usher in the kingdom of God and the everlasting Sabbath. If this is right then the total destruction is fitting: fitting because the iniquity of the Canaanites was now fully developed; fitting because it pictures the Last Judgment in which all the wicked will perish, and the people of God enter into their true rest.

While certain other key Canaanite cities are destroyed, the Israelites were allowed to plunder Ai and also Hazor when Joshua destroyed them (chs. 8, 11).  Why is it we so often think God has nothing good in store for us?

4. Unbelief destroys regardless of physical descent

At first the Israelites are defeated trying to take Ai, a small place, and the problem is traced to Achan, who had taken plunder from Jericho. The sin of Achan is indeed serious. Although an Israelite he is not a person of true faith, and so perishes with the ungodly. If he had only trusted the LORD the opportunity to enjoy the bounty of Canaan would have been his as soon as Ai was taken.

Kings and great men of the unbelieving Canaanites are put to death (ch. 12), but neither are Israelites spared if they are unbelieving. If they do not trust their extraordinary God, if they do not rely on his covenant, they perish too.

Conclusion

So this little survey of the first half of the book of Joshua helps us see that there is much more here than a few bits of ancient history. The powerful message about safety only through faith in the LORD who had given his covenant to the fathers and proclaimed it through Joshua, is clear. And not all descended from Israel are Israel in truth (Romans 9:6).

‘These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.’(1 Cor 10:11)

 

Review: A Study Commentary on Daniel by Allan M. Harman

Review: A Study Commentary on Daniel

by Allan M. Harman (Evangelical Press, 2007) hbk., 333pp.

Allan Harman has written another OT commentary that displays the typical marks of his work in sensitivity to the text, honesty and sobriety in exegesis, and clarity of expression. Additionally, as befits the EP Study Commentary series, there are points of practical application at the end of each section. The Commentary reads well, the print is clear, and its perusal will profit the average busy pastor and stimulate the more advanced student.

While I regard Harman’s work on Deuteronomy and Isaiah as very helpful, I am less confident about the interpretation offered at key points in this volume.

Dr Harman is not afraid to offer explanations that challenge traditional understandings. The four fold vision in Chapter 2 is not regarded by Harman as indicating successive world empires (New Babylonian, Medo-Persion, Greek and Roman & its successors) because the image is destroyed at one time, not successively, so the last three kingdoms must really be contemporaneous he says (p.69). Nor, says Harman, should the kingdoms be identified with specific empires except for the first head of gold. Similarly, in Chapter 7 Harman does not see the four beasts as successive kingdoms parallel to those in Chapter 2, since the fourth beast is destroyed first (7:11). Unless the verbs in 7:12 are taken as pluperfects (so eg. Calvin & NIV), verse 12 seems to indicate the continued existence of the first three beasts.

Against these positions, the traditional approach argued for successive empires, and that the spirit of the four kingdoms was the same: what was true of the first passed into the second and so on. Further, the setting up of the kingdom of God occurred in the time of the fourth world empire, and so decisively dealt with the kingdom of man wherever found. This fact is well represented by the stone which struck the foot of the image (chapter 2) or by the overthrow of the fourth beast (chapter 7).

Harman does not discuss the possible relationship the little horn of the fourth beast in Chapter 7 with the little horn that arises in the time the third beast (chapter 8), identified in the text as the Greek kingdom (8:21), except to say that they are not the same. Harman agrees with most commentators that the developments in the Greek kingdom with the persecution Antiochus launched against the Jews about 170 BC are in view. It would have been helpful to discuss the way in which the little horn in chapter 8 is in certain ways typical of the persecution the people of God experience in the period begun by the resurrection of Christ. This could have strengthened his comments on chapter 9.

Daniel’s 70 weeks

In regard to the important but difficult chapter 9, Harman helpfully outlines five views of the seventy weeks prophecy (pp. 225-232) including the sabbatic approach advanced by Meredith Kline which, in my view, is much to be preferred. Affirming a symbolical rather than literal meaning to the 70 sevens, Harman decides for an eschatological view with 9:24 referring to the ultimate kingdom of God and the consecration of a new sanctuary, and 9:26-27 referring to Antichrist not to Jesus Christ.

He notes a Christological interpretation seems to be excluded by the way the Massoretes punctuate the Hebrew text of 7:25 to have ‘the anointed prince’ coming at the close of the first seven and thus before the 62 sevens during which the city of Jerusalem is rebuilt. He points out that a Christological interpretation is not found in early Christian writers, and notes that Daniel does not speak elsewhere of a suffering Messiah. In Harman’s view the first seven sevens cover the period from Jeremiah’s ‘word’ in Jeremiah 29:10 about 594 BC to Cyrus’ decree in 538 BC (remember Cyrus is described as God’s Anointed in Isaiah 45:1); and the Anointed One who is cut off at the end of the next 62 weeks refers to Antichrist.

Massoretic punctuation is late, inevitably interpretive and is not an insuperable problem. Given the difficulty of the passage the punctuation cannot be decisive. Early non-Christological interpretations of Daniel 9:25-26 by the Church Fathers are also not decisive given that the NT does not give us specific exegesis of all OT passages referring to Christ. To refer the two references in the passage to an Anointed One to two different figures – Cyrus who prefigures the true Messiah in allowing the people to return and build the city and the temple, and Antichrist who is the reverse, seems difficult to sustain. The reference to Jeremiah 29:10 is important, but while Jeremiah refers to the plans of God and the promise yet to be fulfilled (‘my good word to restore’) Daniel refers to the commencement of an action (‘from the going forth of a word to restore’).

I respect the honest intent of the commentator. His book certainly has value. But it does not contain sufficient supporting argumentation to justify the more noval positions referred to. Those wanting a straightforward commentary on Daniel along more traditional lines will find Sinclair Ferguson’s work in the Mastering the Old Testament series (Word 1988) more helpful. [I also regret that Harman’s busy schedule has not allowed him time to interact with a draft of this review provided three months before it was published here.]

 

5 July 2008.

A note on the prophecy of the virgin birth – Isaiah 7

The passage has sometimes been confused by supposing a double fulfilment – first of an ordinary child in Ahaz’s time and then the coming of Jesus. Also it has often been thought that verse 16 refers to Israel (Ephraim) and Aram (Syria), whose kings were Pekah (the son of Remaliah) and Rezin respectively, rather than to the land of promise itself, which at that time was ruled by the kings of Judah and of Israel. This explains why the Hebrew verb in v16 is often translated ‘you dread’ rather than ‘you are tearing apart’ – its usual meaning (note same word in v.6).

So we may translate 7:13-17 thus:

13 Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you – house of David – [the you is plural] a sign: Behold, the virgin is/will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. 15 He will eat curds and honey – the food of a desolated country [see verse 22] – when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. 16 But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land [singular] of the two kings [ie Israel and Judah] you are tearing apart, will be laid waste. 17 The LORD will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria.”

Ahaz, representing the House of David, will not stand firm to God’s covenant promise and therefore will not be confirmed. Ahaz sounds pious in his response (v12) but in fact is unbelieving. God therefore will impose a sign. We expect a very important announcement. The announcement is that a virgin will conceive and bear a son. That is startling enough. The word in Hebrew translated virgin is almah which commonly means a young woman of marriageable age. It is never used of a married woman and a reference to a promiscuous young unmarried woman is precluded by the context. The name of the child is significant also. Immanuel is not simply to be taken as a pious name for an ordinary child as an expression of faith, but as a description of character – the child is ‘God with us’. This fits with the reference to the child as David’s successor in Isaiah 9:6-7, and it also provides God’s answer to the unfaithfulness of the House of David. The Davidic king of the future will not be faithless.

The child is a child of the future, but is viewed as a reality in the prophetic eye of Isaiah, and the period to his maturity is made the period to the coming of Assyria bringing devastation to the land of promise. That event occurred within 10 years (in 722BC Assyria overthrew the northern kingdom of Israel) and is a pledge of the ultimate fulfilment of the prophecy.

So although a promise of the Messiah who was to come in the distant future, it also involves a sign to Ahaz representing the House of David. Matthew 1:22-23 refers to Isaiah 7:14, the technical word in Greek for a virgin (parthenos) being used. This is the term used in the Septuagint translation by Jewish scholars circa 200BC. They correctly saw that that was its meaning.

Why then was not the technical word for virgin (bethulah) used in the Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14? Perhaps the reason is that frequently in the Old Testament, Israel as a nation is called ‘the virgin daughter of Israel’ – somewhat ironic given that Israel’s (Jacob’s) only daughter Dinah was raped as she entered the promised land (Gen 34), and also striking, given the nation Israel’s frequent unfaithfulness. If Israel is portrayed as a virgin daughter she is also an unfaithful bride. “Like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you have been unfaithful to me, O house of Israel,” declares the Lord. “Return, faithless people, for I am your husband. I will choose you . . . and bring you to Zion” (Jer 2:20; 3:14) Other nations who don’t know the Lord can also be described as a ‘virgin daughter’. So there are connotations that might suggest the use of almah, a young woman of marriageable age, is preferable. There are no adverse uses of the term which would cloud its meaning in context. As Luther said, ‘almah’ is never used of a person in a way suggesting she is not a virgin.