“So Joshua smote all the land… he utterly destroyed all that breathed” Joshua 10:40

As a Jewish nationalist, I was always interested in the Bible’s historical descriptions. As a man of common sense, I account for priestly Sadducean and modern archeological views that much of the chronicled events amount to saga rather than an impeccable rendering of history. Indeed, it would be odd to expect an objectively true account in the Chronicles when such a concept did not even exist in ancient historiography, whose authors set before themselves didactic rather than record-keeping goals. Moreover, nothing like objective historiography exists even today, when contradictory and doubtful facts are reported of recent events, and each side’s descriptions of a war paint a different picture.

The Bible’s historical accounts are precious to me because they show something more important than facts—attitudes. It does not matter that speaking of Joshua’s ambush on the town of Ai, the chronicler gives two contradictory figures in the same chapter, either five or thirty thousand Jewish fighters. The figures can be perhaps correlated by reading “elef” as a detachment of varying size rather than a thousand; such a reading would make sense of the unrealistically high head-count of Jews in Sinai. Still, other details are unrealistic: no sane commander would order his entire army to feign a retreat, as Joshua allegedly did in the battle of Ai. It is impossible to turn around an untrained, fleeing contingent; such maneuvers are always conducted by small detachments.

But the story tells us a thing more interesting than any amount of factual details: the authors of the Book of Joshua view genocide and collective punishment as meritorious, and expected their readers to hold similar views. They describe with admiration Joshua’s acts, which would send your Reform rabbi running for an exorcist—if only he had read the Tanakh when taking his rabbinical classes at a secular school. This concept is of paramount importance for comprehending the Tanakh: the less factually accurate are the accounts, the more important they are to understanding the true, operative Judaism of the real Jews. In that sense the Book of Joshua, which reflects the real attitude, is more precious than Leviticus, with its idealistic pronouncements.

The Book of Joshua is modeled upon the Exodus. Its authors likened Joshua to Moses in many details, and thus obtained religious sanction for their realpolitik views. Joshua mediates between God and the Jews just like Moses did, with the same otherwise-unparalleled kind of unquestionable authority. In fact, Joshua enjoys even more compliance than Moses who had faced not a few rebellions. Theologically inspired volcanic events also made their path in Joshua: Moses received the law on a burning mountain while hailstones smote Joshua’s enemies at Gilgal. Some parallels are clumsy: in an effort to copy Moses’ partitioning of the Reed Sea, the authors of Joshua included an episode in which he stops the River Jordan for the Jews to cross it. That account, however, fails the test of a miracle: it is not realistic. All miracles must be at least remotely realistic; the miracle consists in making a highly improbable thing happen. Not so with stopping the river: the incoming flow would have created a wall of water miles high, which contradicts the divinely created laws of nature. Joshua might not be the best theology, but it serves as a pamphlet by Jewish nationalists of antiquity.

It is hard to escape the impression that Joshua is Machiavellian in its attitude toward religion. Machiavelli referred to the Spanish expulsion of Jews as an employment of religion for political ends. After the victory at Jericho, Joshua was sufficiently emboldened to send only a small detachment to conquer the town of Ai. When the locals beat off the Jews, Joshua sought to reassure his troops, and found a good reason for the defeat in Achan’s keeping booty from Jericho. The booty was proscribed in that case, and Achan allegedly incurred divine wrath on Israel; the concomitant prohibition of rebuilding Jericho was the reason why I never objected to handing the cursed city over to the PLO. If Joshua’s argument were true, Achan’s execution expiated his sin, and the Jews could have conquered Ai with a small contingent. Nevertheless, Joshua dispatched his entire army against that town, and cunningly ambushed the residents. He also resorted to a stratagem when fighting at Gilgal: the Jewish army marched all night and caught the Amorites by surprise. The Jews who wait for messiah might derive a great lesson out of this: even Joshua, acting with the fullest divine assistance imaginable, had to resort to military tricks, and essentially fought the enemy as if he had no divine cooperation at all. Jews must not count on God’s intervention, but have to do his bidding all by themselves. Only after the Jews “slew them with a great slaughter” does the Tanakh say that God fought for Israel (Joshua 10:10, 14). We cannot be sure that God is on our side until we do everything.

The ignorant Jews who decry vengeance have to account for an astonishing phrase, “until the nation had avenged themselves of their enemies” (Joshua 10:13). Avenged? The Amorites did not wrong the Jews in any way, they merely defended their land against the Zionists. Moreover, in that particular battle the Amorites did not even go out to fight the Jews, but their own traitors, the Gibeonites. By any standard, the Jews were the aggressors, so why vengeance? The lesson is as paramount as it is politically incorrect: the Amorites offended God and the Jews by refusing to vacate the land immediately. Opposing Israel, however unjust her ways might seem to outsiders, is a crime which merits vengeance.

Joshua also defies modern Jews’ legalistic notions. In a blatant case of collective punishment, he sentenced Achan’s entire family, including his children of both sexes, to death. Children do not bear their parents’ guilt only in common legal matters. In cases of national security, evil must be punished with sufficient severity to prevent recurrence. When the entire Jewish people is at stake, it is far better to kill many innocents than to risk recurrence. If this cruel logic of the real world applies to Jews, it applies all the more to our enemies. The notion of collateral damage to enemies was alien to Joshua: all of them must be killed.

The only exception to that rule were the Gibeonites, and they provide a lesson on coexistence. The Gibeonites, a Canaanite tribe whose settlements can still be seen near Jerusalem, survived Joshua’s divinely ordered genocide by deceitfully making themselves serfs for the Jews. Their servitude, moreover, was of the lowliest type: they hewed wood and carried water for Jews. Menial labor, you see, was never popular among Jews.

The Torah, theoretically, commands Jews to expel the natives rather than kill them. By the time of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan that prescription was understood to be excessively idealistic. Rabbis, accordingly, interpret it as an offer of a choice: if the natives refuse to leave, they have to be killed, because killing them all is the only practical way to observe the divine commandment for Jews to settle the land and rule over it. The fact that the Gibeonites resorted to subterfuge in order to deliver themselves into slavery suggests that the third rabbinical option for natives, staying in the land under tribute and servitude, was unheard of at the time.

Nor were the Jews particularly humanistic. The Tanakh relates no qualms of theirs when Joshua told them to exterminate every living being of Jericho except the families of traitors. Nor did the Jews become more compassionate as the slaughter progressed; they similarly annihilated other towns. Looting has been the only change from Jericho onwards: once Jews proved to God their ability to fight selflessly they were allowed in other conquests to loot their murdered enemies—who, actually, were not enemies in any sense, but peaceful residents of land that Jews had decided to take over. Our brethren had less reverence for foreign leaders then than we do today: Joshua hanged the king of Ai from a tree after exterminating and robbing his people; quite a lesson for dealing with a petty king of Jordan.

The ostensibly humanistic concerns turn out under closer examination to be more cynical. Jews are prohibited from cutting down an enemy’s fruit trees—not because of any ecological concerns, but for the simple reason that those will be their trees, and cutting them down in a fit of anger makes no economic sense. Likewise, when Jews are commanded to besiege towns from three sides only, leaving the residents an escape route, the reason is that we need to take over the land. Genocide is a means rather than the end. If former inhabitants leave our land voluntarily, we won’t need to cleanse it of them. So let them leave the town if they want. This is different from blockading Gaza: border openings must exist to allow enemies to flee forever, not for supplies to come in and perpetuate their existence in our land.