Confronting The Book of Joshua

The Joshua Generation: Israeli Occupation and the Bible – Rachel Havrelock (Princeton University Press, 2020)

If these are indeed the last days of Benjamin Netanyahu’s reign as Prime Minister of Israel, then one of his most notable parting gifts will have been the political rehabilitation of the strand of Religious Zionism represented by right-wing politicians Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich and Avi Maoz. This alliance of his own making – extremist ‘on three fronts’: the national, the religious and the homophobic – has six seats in the Knesset and, judging by coverage in the local media, has been normalized as a legitimate part of mainstream politics.

These have been difficult weeks: tensions in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah where Palestinian families are facing eviction; Operation Guardian of the Walls in Gaza and the ensuing death toll; lynch mobs on the streets in mixed population centres and talk of a new intifada. It is difficult to separate these connected occurrences from the influence and activities of a particular kind of fundamentalist extremism with an interest in provocation.

The Prime Minister’s Office has acknowledged implicitly the link between the latest conflict with Hamas and the establishment of a presence in Sheikh Jarrah by Religious Zionism’s Itamar Ben-Gvir. And for weeks, his fellow Knesset member, Bezalel Smotrich, has been stoking up tension with Palestinian citizens during attempts to form a coalition backed by parties representing ‘Israeli Arabs’. For Smotrich, the latter are ‘citizens of Israel, for now at least.’ He argues that a ‘true Muslim must know that the Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel and over time, people…who don’t recognize that will not remain here.’

In this context of the increasing influence of a Zionism informed by fundamentalist readings of the Bible, a book published last year by biblical scholar Rachel Havrelock, The Joshua Generation: Israeli Occupation and the Bible (Princeton University Press), presents a timely reflection on the status of the book of Joshua as a foundational reference point for both religious and secular leadership in the State of Israel. The book charts the elevated importance of the Joshua narrative in the twentieth century, a status triggered by the rise of Zionism. The subtitle signals a focus on Israel’s history of conquest and settlement both in terms of the generation of Ben Gurion and the post ‘67 settlers of Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful).

The book of Joshua describes the conquest of Canaan by the ancient Israelites and for many, is not an easy read. It has been seen as a story of violent conquest and slaughter commanded by a genocidal god. This book offers up a more nuanced reading. Havrelock, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, discusses Joshua in terms of its reflection of a desire to unify and centralize a fragmented people. She describes Joshua as a book of two parts; whilst the dominant theme of the first is conquest, the second part shifts to the idea of settlement ‘as war by other means’ and the way to complete fully the task of conquest and unification.

Havrelock does not restrict herself to biblical scholarship and traces how Joshua became a cornerstone text of Zionism, assuming an importance it did not have in the diaspora. She sees the establishment of Ben Gurion’s Joshua study group in 1958 as a ‘key point of alignment between Joshua and modern Israel when occupation became a definitional part of the Jewish state.’ The group produced a narrative based on a reading of Joshua designed to provide historical legitimacy for conquest and to unite a fledgling country busy with the absorption of both Jews from diverse cultures and indigenous Palestinians.

Later, Joshua became a key text for Religious Zionism and the settler movement. The first post ’67 settlers – like those today – took a literalist approach to Joshua and the promise made to him by God: ‘every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, that I have given unto you.’ The names of new settlements (Gilgal, Gibeon, Ofra) referenced the book of Joshua. Ben Gurion hoped that the Joshua narrative would help bring unity to Israel but in the wake of 1967, it became a politicized marker: ‘to love Joshua was to be a settler, and to hate it was to oppose the occupation.’ Today, for the likes of the supporters of the Religious Zionism alliance, Joshua remains both an historical record and, as Havrelock puts it, ‘an instruction manual of what to do in the present.’ As Religious Zionism’s Smotrich has said, ‘When Joshua ben Nun entered the land, he sent three messages to its inhabitants: those who want to accept [our rule] will accept; those who want to leave, will leave; those who want to fight, will fight. The basis of his strategy was: We are here, we have come, this is ours. Now too, three doors will be open, there is no fourth door. Those who want to leave – and there will be those who leave – I will help them. When they have no hope and no vision, they will go. As they did in 1948.’

The Joshua Generation ends with a closing chapter that puts forward a vision of bioregional cooperation as the key to a more hopeful future. This feels a little semi-detached considering what has come before but it offers a more positive note with which to end. Prior to this, Havrelock recalls novelist and Knesset member S.Yizhar’s high profile confrontation with the God of Joshua in the 1990s and his reading of the text as a divisive force. Yizhar understood that to stand against Joshua ‘puts one in a moral minority.’ In the current climate of an Israel of fragmented tribes, this remains a truth.

Yizhar ultimately saw Joshua as a warning against the corrupting forces of conquest and occupation. Havrelock’s book raises serious questions about a broader settler movement (not confined to the Religious Zionism Knesset faction) fuelled by literalist readings of the Bible and underlines the centrality of Joshua to the mythmaking of the modern State of Israel. It presents an opportune critical reconsideration of the status of a text that can help in understanding where we are and how we are to go forward. It will not please everyone and there have been some unfavourable reactions. However, Havrelock’s book highlights the dangers of becoming enslaved to fundamentalist readings of sacred texts. It’s a reminder that there is a choice – that there are alternatives to continual conquest and settlement in the name of the God of Joshua. This does not have to remain a place of unending war where the Bible provides only one people with the deeds to all the land. There are other stories, other possibilities. Those who live in Israel and Palestine deserve better than the brutal vision of Jewish supremacy offered by the disciples of Kahane.

Anthony Fulton is a writer and activist based in Israel-Palestine. He is a member of a kibbutz in the Galilee.