Sefer Yehoshua – Evolving Plans


Often, readers of Tanakh come to the text with knowledge of the end of the story.  This frequently means that one forgets that the written outcome was not necessarily the only possible one, and that the Biblical characters were not privy to it.  Below are several examples drawn from throughout Sefer Yehoshua where it is possible that there was a change in plan. In each case, such a hypothesis explains otherwise difficult aspects of the narrative.

Crossing of the Jordan

Chapters 3-4 describe the miraculous splitting of the Jordan.  It is possible, however, that the initial plan was to cross the Jordan naturally, at the river's fords, and that Yehoshua was only told of the miracle immediately beforehand.  This would explain several difficulties and inconsistencies in the text:

  • Provisions – In Yehoshua 1:11, Yehoshua commands the people to prepare food for the crossing, a seemingly unnecessary preparation1 if the river was to split and the nation to cross in a matter of hours.2  If, however, Yehoshua was thinking about millions of people traversing the river naturally, an event that would take days, it is clear why provisions were needed.
  • Day of crossing – There is a discrepancy between the date set for the crossing in Chapters 1 and 3.  In the former, Yehoshua tells the nation that "in another three days you will cross the Jordan", yet in Chapter 3 the verses state that "after three days" Yehoshua told the people to sanctify themselves so as to cross "the next day".  It is possible that after Yehoshua was told of the miracle, he needed to postpone the crossing so that everyone could prepare for Hashem's revelation and merit Divine intervention.3
  • Following the ark – Another discrepancy in the text relates to the directives regarding the ark. In Yehoshua 3:4, the officers tell the nation to follow the ark at a distance of 2,000 cubits.  During the actual crossing, however, the people do not follow the ark, but rather pass it, and there is no mention of keeping a distance. This, too, might be understood if we assume that the officers were speaking under the assumption that the crossing was to be natural.  Once the plan changed, their original instructions were overruled as Hashem directed that the ark should stay at the edge of the river.

Conquest of Yericho

Yehoshua 6 depicts the conquest of Yericho and the supernatural tumbling of its walls.  It is likely that here, too, Yehoshua was initially unaware of Hashem's plans and assumed that the city was to be destroyed via natural means in a human battle.  After all, it is only first in Chapter 6, immediately before the conquest, that Hashem mentions the miracle. 

  • Need for spies – This suggestion explains the need for the espionage mission of Chapter 2. Had Yehoshua known in advance that the city was to fall via Divine intervention, there would have been no reason to risk the lives of spies for superfluous military information.  It also elucidates why the spies did not hesitate to hang an identifying rope on the outer walls of the city, which were later to fall.  Having no clue that this was to happen, the spies had no reason to believe that the rope might not survive.  For elaboration on this reading of the purpose of the spies' mission, see Purpose of the Spies in Yehoshua 2.
  • Why didn't Hashem tell Yehoshua in advance?  It is possible that Hashem simply wanted the nation to put in their own effort before He helped them. Now that they had arrived in the Land of Israel, they needed to begin to learn to rely on themselves and not expect the miracles of the Wilderness period.  Alternatively, it is possible that Divine intervention only became necessary after the spies' mission. If their near-capture cut their scouting short, the spies might not have gathered enough information for a successful military conquest, necessitating Hashem's help.

Canaanite Plan of Attack

Sefer Yehoshua does not provide enough information to know with certainty how the Canaanites had planned to defend themselves against the Israelite attack.  It is likely, however, that here, too, plans evolved and the tactics taken were not necessarily those originally prepared:

  • "וִירִיחוֹ סֹגֶרֶת וּמְסֻגֶּרֶת מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל" – Yehoshua 6 opens by sharing that the Canaanites enclosed themselves in their walled cities, suggesting that rather than going on the offensive, they planned to trust in the strength of their fortifications and sit put.  However, it is possible that this strategy was chosen only in the aftermath of the miraculous splitting of the Jordan. Originally, the Canaanites might have hoped to attack the Israelites as they were in the midst of crossing the river and vulnerable to enemies.  In addition, it is likely that they never anticipated that the nation would cross in Nisan, when the waters were overflowing, and assumed that they had until the summer to prepare an attack.  Only because they found their plans thwarted, did the Canaanites retreat into their cities.
  • "וַיִּתְקַבְּצוּ יַחְדָּו לְהִלָּחֵם עִם יְהוֹשֻׁעַ וְעִם יִשְׂרָאֵל פֶּה אֶחָד" – In Chapter 9, after the battles of Yericho and Ai, we are told that the various kings of Canaan joined together to fight against Yehoshua.  Apparently, the quick victory over Yericho taught them that they could not simply trust in their walled cities, while the original flight of the Israelites from the Ai led them to believe that the Israelites were not totally invincible.4  Thus, the various Canaanite nations reverted to their original plans to go on the offensive, forming a coalition and hoping that fighting with a united front would enable them to defeat Israel.
  • "עֲלוּ אֵלַי וְעִזְרֻנִי וְנַכֶּה אֶת גִּבְעוֹן" – Surprisingly, though, after the narrator shares news of the Canaanites joining of forces, this coalition is never heard of again.  Instead, Chapter 10 describes how the Southern kings gather to attack Givon!   What happened to the plans for a joint attack?  Apparently, when the Gibeonites made peace with Israel, they prevented the possibility of the Northern and Southern kings from forming a coalition. There was now a line of Israelite controlled territory (Yericho - Ai - Shekhem - Givon and suburbs) cutting through the center of the country, making cooperation between the endemic population of the two halves of the country much more difficult.

Dividing of the Land

Sefer Yehoshua appears to describe two separate stages in the division of the land.  In Chapter 14, a lottery is drawn by Yehoshua and Elazar in Gilgal to apportion the land among the 9 1/ 2 tribes.5 Chapters 15-17 then describe the borders of the lands to be inherited by the tribes of Yehuda and Yosef. Surprisingly, though, Chapter 18 does not continue to list the lands of the other tribes, but instead describes how scouts are sent to split the remaining land among the seven tribes who had not yet inherited.  Afterwards, they return to Shiloh where the inheritances are affirmed by Divine lottery. What was the need for two different phases in the distribution of the land? 

It is possible that this, too, is the result of a change in plans.  E. Assis6 suggests that  really all 9 tribes received their allotted portions with the first lottery, but only Yehuda and Yosef managed to conquer their individual territories.7  As such, there was a need to redivide the already conquered land among the remaining tribes.  This hypothesis can account for many of the differences between the two divisions:

  • Yehuda and Yosef versus the other tribes – Only Yehuda and Yosef's inheritances are mentioned in the first division since they were the only ones who succeeded in inheriting their given portions.8
  • Lottery versus scouts – Since the first division was based on the ideal promised borders of the land, it was performed via Divine lottery and the high priest. The second apportioning, however, was based on the reality on the ground and required an assessment of the available land.
  • Gilgal vs. Shiloh – The first division took place soon after the nation finished their joint battles and, as such, logically took place in the campsite at Gilgal.  The second division, however, took place only much later, after the tribes had already dispersed and begun to settle and the ark had already moved to Shiloh.
  • Borders versus cities – While Yehuda and Yosef are given the borders of their inheritance, most of the other tribes are just told which cities they were to receive.  This might be due to the fact that these portions were meant to be just temporary allotments until the rest of the land was conquered.