May 30, 2014

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: The Israelites cross into the Promised Land

John F. Fink(Twenty-first in a series of columns)

After God first promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation, his descendants the Israelites finally entered the Promised Land in the Book of Joshua—roughly 700 years later.

Between those events, Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, (called Israel) took his family to Egypt where it stayed for 430 years. Moses led the Israelites, who had grown to 600,000 men plus women and children, out of Egypt and into the desert, and God formed a covenant with these people and laid down strict laws, but allowed them to stay in the desert for 40 years.

Now, according to the Book of Joshua, God gave the Israelites the land he promised them by conquering the tribes that were living there. Joshua led the people in the battles that defeated 31 kings, but the book makes it clear that it was really God who won those victories, usually miraculously. He kept the promise he first made to Abraham 700 years earlier.

We are not reading a history book here. As The Catholic Study Bible says, “The events that led up to Israelite possession of the land of Canaan were far more complicated than is indicated in the version of the conquest found in the Book of Joshua.” Furthermore, no archaeological evidence backs up the stories in this book.

Keeping this in mind, let’s see what the Book of Joshua says:

After Moses’ death, God instructed Joshua to prepare for the invasion of Canaan. First, Joshua sent two spies to Jericho where they went into the house of a harlot named Rahab to spend the night. When the authorities learned that they were there, Rahab hid them on the roof of the house, which had been built into the city wall. When it was dark, she let them down with a rope and the men got away.

They promised that they would save her and her family when the Israelites destroyed Jericho, and they did. Rahab married Salmon of the tribe of Judah and became the great-great-grandmother of King David. Matthew’s Gospel includes Rahab in Jesus’ genealogy (Mt 1:5).

So the Israelites crossed the Jordan River, and the miracles began. When the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant waded into the river, the waters parted just as they did 40 years earlier at the Red Sea. The whole community marched into Canaan on dry land and camped at Gilgal, just east of Jericho.

Before conquering Jericho, though, God ordered Joshua to have all the men circumcised. We learn for the first time that “none of those born in the desert during the journey after the departure from Egypt were circumcised” (Jos 5:5). Why wait until now to have it done? We’re not told that.

We are told, though, that the Israelites celebrated the feast of Passover while they were camped at Gilgal. They ate of the produce of the land on the west side of the Jordan River, and the manna they had eaten for 40 years ceased.

Now they were ready for their military campaigns. †

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