Fixing Boundaries The Construction of Identity in Joshua -- By: L. Daniel Hawk

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 32:0 (NA 2000)
Article: Fixing Boundaries The Construction of Identity in Joshua
Author: L. Daniel Hawk


Fixing Boundaries
The Construction of Identity in Joshua

L. Daniel Hawk

L. Daniel Hawk (M.Div., Ashland Theological Seminary; Ph.D., Emory University) is Professor of OT and Hebrew at ATS.

Possession of the promised land, obedience to the commands of Moses, and the extermination of the peoples of the land constitute the primary themes which configure the book of Joshua. Although there has been common agreement that these themes function to establish a sense of national identity, attempts to describe how they do so have been frustrated by the contradictory perspectives they present. Claims that Israel “took all the land” vie with assertions that vast tracts of the land must still be possessed. Demonstrations of Israel’s precise execution of divine commands conflict with episodes that depict Israelites breaking the commandments of Moses and YHWH. And reports that the Israelites slaughtered “everything that breathed” are opposed by stories which relate the survival of the peoples of the land.

These conflicting perspectives have often been explained in terms of the Joshua’s complex compositional history. That is, the tensions are seen as a consequence of a process in which multiple editors commented on and modified source materials or earlier versions of the book. While it offers an attractive scenario, this approach conveniently sidesteps the vexing difficulties that arise from the canonical form of the text. If Joshua aims to construct a national identity for Israel, why does it continually undercut those themes which seem to reinforce Israel’s distinctive character?

The ambivalent presentation of these themes in Joshua suggests that the book is not so much advancing as it is working through issues of identity. Motifs of land, kinship, and religious observance articulate common ethnic signifiers. Each is repeatedly presented and tested as the story moves from beginning to end, but none finally proves to be a definitive mark of national identity. Enclaves of Canaanites, as well as Israelites living east of the Jordan, belie the notion that Israel the nation can closely associated with the land west of the Jordan. Repeated infractions of the commandments illustrate that obedience does not essentially characterize Israel. The incorporation of indigenous peoples on the one hand, and the extermination of an Israelite family on the other, reveal that a sense of blood relatedness does not essentially define the nation. By subverting notions of identity along these lines, Joshua lays the foundation for the presentation of an alternative vision of Israel. The final section of the book (Josh 22–24) advances this vision by recasting identity in terms of loyalty and decision. In short, Joshua is a caref...

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