A Review of Rabbi Michael Hattin’s “Joshua: The Challenge of The Promised Land”

Joshua: The Challenge of The Promised Land by Rabbi Michael Hattin, Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2014.


There are many approaches to writing about a section of tanakh, from the disinterestedly academic to the passionately religious. Even between those two poles, the chosen approach can be as nuanced as an academic approach that participates in religious discourse, or a religious book that makes use of academic tools. Rabbi Michael Hattin’s “Joshua: The Challenge of the Promised Land” falls squarely in the latter category. Joshua is not an academic book that gleans religious meaning from dispassionate study but a deeply and unapologetically religious book that uses the best tools of the secular world to uncover the meaning behind the biblical text.

Joshua is essentially a collection of essays on the biblical book of Joshua, arranged according to the order of the biblical text. Each chapter opens with a quick introduction to a section of biblical text, and in short order, an apparent problem within the text or the story is presented. By the end of the chapter not only is the problem resolved, but it is resolved in such a way that what had at first seemed to be a problem is now an expression of a religious theme or ideal. While each chapter focuses on a different concept, there are several recurring concepts that Hattin highlights as the dominant themes of the biblical book of Joshua. Hattin discusses the way the biblical text explores the character of Joshua as he takes over the leadership role of his late mentor, Moses, through parallels between events in the Torah and events in the book of Joshua. He also looks at the tension between divine providence and human initiative as the Israelites transition from the Wilderness, where they were entirely dependent upon God, to the land of Canaan, where they will have to run their own society.

The common thread that runs throughout Joshua is the idea that the biblical text is inherently meaningful. There is no such thing as a passage that doesn’t have relevance to our lives, including the long lists of geo-topographical data in the second half of the book. All of it is meant to guide us in our religious and moral development, and thus the act of studying the biblical text is religious, not literary. This orientation towards meaning drives much of the content of Joshua. The book’s hermeneutic, it’s guiding principles of interpretation, flow directly from this orientation. The discussions of both morality and archaeology throughout the book are not abstract, but driven by their relevance to the modern Jew. The same goes for Hattin’s discussions of rabbinic literature related to the book of Joshua.

The basic religious hermeneutic of Joshua is laid out in the introduction, in a section discussing the pros and cons of secular scholarship. While many fields of academia are trumpeted as greatly valuable, one field is rejected quite forcefully. According to Hattin, source criticism “hinges upon charging the text with literary superficiality that… relegated the underlying message to the proverbial dustbin” (pg. xx). However, it is not that he rejects source criticism, but how he does so, that makes his book so firmly religious. Source criticism can be rejected from a secular perspective; the rise of Literary Criticism in the last half a century more than demonstrates that. That Hattin chooses to reject source criticism from a strictly religious perspective is therefore incredibly significant.

The Tanakh is, at its core, a sacred document that describes the ongoing interaction between God and humanity, between God and the people of Israel. It is a document that continuously challenges us to ask penetrating questions that relate to the essence of human nature and the purpose and meaning of existence. Its ancient but timeless words kindle the spiritual yearning that glows in every human heart, the longing for God, for goodness and a better world. No assault on the text can ever rob it of this transcendent quality. (pg. xx)

With this, Hattin not only rejects source criticism, but also sets up a strictly religious hermeneutic that will guide the reader throughout the rest of the book. It is not simply that source criticism is incorrect, it’s that it fails to appreciate the inherently meaningful nature of the text.

Hattin makes a phenomenal attempt to integrate the narrative of Joshua with modern archaeological discoveries. He rightly trumpets the scorched ruins of H̱atzor as fitting the biblical narrative perfectly. He is willing to remain agnostic on some issues, leaving the challenge to the biblical narrative unanswered, but he is impressively willing to reinterpret the biblical text when the popular interpretation does not fit the archaeology. For example, the ruins of Jericho bear no indication that the entirety of the walls came down in the period of history under discussion. Hattin begins by suggesting why the ruins might indicate this when in fact the entirety of the walls had come down, enabling the reader to affirm the traditional understanding of the text. He then switches gears and discusses traditional approaches that don’t contradict the archaeological record. Applying this method to the issue of the speed of the conquest of the land, which the bible indicates is miraculously fast while archaeology suggests that it was very slow, Hattin differentiates between the conquering of the land, which was fast, and the settling of the land, which was slow. Hattin also points out that not only does this fit with the biblical data from other books of Tanakh, but also with the text of Joshua itself.

Hattin also tackles the moral difficulties of the book of Joshua. It is difficult to read the book of Joshua in the 21st century without being bothered, at least a bit, by the morality of a holy war to conquer the land of Canaan. Hattin’s main argument is that the narrative of Joshua cannot be taken in a vacuum; Joshua assumes the reader is familiar with many of the narratives and polemics of the Torah. Hattin quotes numerous biblical texts which suggest that the war against the Canaanites is not racial but moral; the Israelites are not wiping out a different race, but an incompatible moral system. In this light, the entire discussion of the morality of the conquest is flipped. In place of a morally dubious land grab, Hattin depicts the victory of a divine moral system over pagan moral relativism, of human dignity over oppression.

It is at this point that Hattin perhaps becomes a little overzealous in his depiction of the conquest as a moral war. Hattin sees this moral understanding of the war not just in the voice of the biblical text, but also in the minds of its characters. In discussing the textual depiction of Raẖab, Hattin discusses the way that Tanakh generally takes a rather dismal view of prostitutes, something that surprisingly fails to manifest here. Hattin argues that the reason for the generally dismal view of prostitutes is that they are seen as disloyal. In contrast, he argues that Raẖab should be seen as motivated by the vision of a moral society heralded by the arrival of the Israelite nation. This explains the Tanakh’s positive depiction of Raẖab, as her betrayal of Jericho is not a function of disloyalty but of a strong sense of morality. While this moral depiction of the entire conquest may be the way the Tanakh depicts the war, it seems incredibly forced to read this into Raẖab’s motivation. Hattin ignores the possibility that it is at least as likely that she was motivated by the survival of herself and her family, and that the reason the Tanakh does not depict her badly, despite being a prostitute, is that she was instrumental in the success and survival of the Israelite spies.

A similar instance is found in Joshua’s discussion of the battle with the Southern Kings. He describes the Southern Kings gathering together to fight the Israelites not just because they’re afraid for their survival, but because they see the Israelite invasion as the end of their immoral pagan societies. This moral awareness seems like a stretch in a situation where it is so much simpler and more likely to say that the kings were afraid of physical destruction.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Joshua is the total mastery Hattin displays over not just the biblical text of Joshua itself, but over any and all related rabbinic literature. Throughout the various essays that comprise the book, textual problems are resolved not just from the text, but also from the traditional rabbinic commentaries. But Hattin doesn’t just bring the commentary that he feels best resolves the problem; instead, he brings a variety of opinions, and then shows what in the text led each commentator to their opinion. When those opinions are actually based on midrashim from Hazal, he not only points this out, but goes in depth to show the various exegetical understandings underlying the midrashim.

However, Hattin’s approach to midrashim is frustratingly vague. He continuously refers to midrashim as “traditions,” but this phrase could mean prophetic revelations passed down from Sinai or rabbinic exegeses passed down through the generations. He is also unclear about whether he considers midrashim to be taken literally, figuratively, or some blend of the two. He reads them thematically, showing how the midrash plays off and expands themes of the text, but he doesn’t seem to take them to be entirely metaphorical in nature. Perhaps, however, it is for the best. Hattin’s studies in midrashim and their relationship to the text allow for appreciation of hazal not just as legalists and story-tellers, but as careful readers of texts in a way the “metaphorical” approach does not do. Midrashim are a complex and disparate body of work, and appreciating that complexity by default leads to some vagueness and ambivalence. Hattin does a good job of demonstrating that this in no way detracts from their significance; in fact, it makes them all the more meaningful.

Rabbi Michael Hattin’s Joshua: The Challenge of The Promised Land is a deeply religious book that is simultaneously engaged with modernity, a description that is equally apt when applied to Joshua’s audience. As part of Maggid Books’ new line of English books on Tanakh, Joshua serves as an introduction, not only to the book of Joshua, but to the field of Tanakh study in general. Many Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist Jews, presumably the book’s target audience, who might once have delayed their forays into Tanakh indefinitely will now find its pages open before them. Rabbi Hattin has succeeded in making Joshua not only accessible, but incredibly meaningful as well. While Hattin does not mention the immediate, everyday, relevance of each chapter, he demonstrates the basic meaningfulness inherent in the text and leaves the reader to apply it to their daily life. Simultaneously, he introduces the reader to a range of modern literary techniques for understanding tanakh, from literary parallels to keywords. Thus armed with both newfound skills and an orientation toward meaning, the reader can begin to approach Tanakh on his or her own.


No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 2: Critical Approaches and the Documentary Hypothesis

No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 2

Critical Approaches and the Documentary Hypothesis

 (For Part 1: Introduction, see here)

Perhaps the biggest issue people face when approaching Biblical Criticism is their misconceptions about what it really is. When most people hear the words “Biblical Criticism” they immediately think of the Documentary Hypothesis, but, ultimately, the Documentary Hypothesis (henceforth ‘DH’) is only a small portion of the vast tapestry that is Biblical Criticism. In truth, Biblical Criticism is such a broad field that the best definition might be “Academic Approaches to the Bible.” What this means is that Biblical Criticism (henceforth ‘BC’) includes lots of different approaches with lots of different interests. Some of these approaches, like Form Criticism and Source Criticism, parent category of DH, are solely an attempt to determine what sources the human authors of the Tanakh used to compose the texts we see before us today. Such an approach is obviously anathema to a religious believer dedicated to the idea of a purely divine text. However, BC also includes Literary Criticism, which might be thought of as “the study of the Bible as Literature.” While that same religious believer might take offense at calling the Torah as “Literature,” they presumably would not disagree with the literary critic about the incredible beauty and complexity of the Torah text, or the significance of every word. However, the picture I’ve just painted is not helpful to the average person’s encounter with BC. Instead of “just DH”, I’ve now given them “DH + all this other stuff.” With that in mind, I will attempt to begin to explain a few of these different approaches, as well as how they relate to each other and the religious believer. While some approaches, like Archaeology or Patternism, will have to wait for a later section, DH will be given primary placement in this segment, as it is both the most famous part of BC, and possibly the most challenging to the religious believer.

The Documentary Hypothesis is the culmination of hundreds of years of Biblical Scholarship, starting from the first medieval scholars that ever questioned the Mosaic Authorship of the Torah[1]. It’s first fully realized manifestation was the work of Julius Wellhausen. Wellhausen was the first to not only create a full picture of which parts of the Torah were assigned to which source, but also when in the history of the Israelites the different sources had been written. He broke the text down into four basic sources, (J)awhist, (E)lokist, (P)riestly & (D)ueteronomist, and a (R)edactor who put them all together. Historically, these sources had been broken up based on the different names they used to refer to ‘א, repetitive or contradictory stories, and writing styles. Wellhausen was the first to take these sources and figure out where they might fit historically. He placed the writing of J & E the time of the split kingdoms of Judah and Israel, with J being written in Judah and E being written in Israel[2]. He placed the writing of D in the reign of King Yoshiyahu, and the writing of P in the time of Ezra, in the Second Temple Period. However, this last placement of P has long been recognized to be based not only on some faulty assumptions, but also on some underlying antisemitism, as P includes most of the ritual laws that people associate with Judaism. Thus many people eventually began to place P earlier, at which point it becomes a matter of much debate amongst Bible scholars. Some even split P into P and H, the Priestly Source and Holiness Code, and suggest that while one was written earlier, one as written very late[3]. This, writ large, is the basic concept of the Documentary Hypothesis. Each of these sources may have had it’s own development, it may have been written by a single person, or perhaps even a school of writers, but whatever that may have been, these were the sources the Redactor combined to make the text we today call the Torah.

While much of this was initially challenging to Orthodox Jewry, Rabbi Mordechai Breuer developed what is known in Hebrew as “Shitat HaBehinot,” “The Method of the Aspects,” which said that all of these different voices and styles that DH scholars had found were really there, but that they represented not different human authors but different aspects of the Divine Truth, which cannot be put simply into Human language without compromise or contradiction (B”H we will return to this in a later segment). However, the DH was to suffer lots of critique from within BC, not only from literary critics, but also from within Source Criticism itself. In recent decades, advancements in the study of ancient languages and how they changed over time, the way scribal copying really used to work, and the like, has changed the face of Source Criticism, to the point where a critic’s ability to really identify sources with a large degree of accuracy has been called into question[4]. Thus the whole practice of identifying source documents is considered by many Source Critics to be rather passé[5]. Further, harsh critiques have been leveled against Source Criticism in general, and DH in specific, by the rising trend of Literary Criticism, as will be discussed below. For now, it is safe to say that DH need not trouble the believer too much.

Source Criticism, to reiterate, is the attempt to uncover the different sources that were combined to create the text as we have it today. This is done by rather intensive dividing up of texts based on repetitions, contradictions, and supposed authorial styles. There is a similar approach called Form Criticism, which intends to find the original forms of these sources, the original written or oral compositions that developed into the narratives the of the biblical text as we know it. This is done by determining the beginning and end of each unit of the Torah text, and then attempting to determine what “genre” the unit would fall under (examples: kingship myth, victory song, folktale, etc.). Then this genre can be used to determine the meaning of the text, as well as it’s sitz en leben, the situation in the national life in which the text would have (example: a funeral, a coronation, a sacrificial procedure, etc.). However, much as Source Critics are forever arguing over the correct divisions of the Torah text, so too Form Critics argue about the beginning and ends of units in the text. Moreover, there is little agreement among Form Critics regarding the number of genres in Biblical Literature, or what exactly those genres might be. That these two fields struggle from an incredible amount of internal debate[6]. However, perhaps their greatest critiques have come from the field of Literary Criticism.

Literary Criticism is an approach that eschews the whole practice of searching for the origins of the biblical text, not because it’s difficult or impractical, but because such an approach cannot tell you what the text means. Literary Criticism says that regardless of whether the author of the Torah may have been using varied sources or not, the text was composed with great intent. Therefore the meaning of the text can be best assessed not by picking it apart, but by looking at it as a unitary text. In fact, such an approach says that even if the text is a combination of older sources, what matters is how they were put together, not what they were separately. Therefore, what appear to be seams uniting two texts will often unlock the greatness and meaning of the larger text[7]. This approach was developed by thinking of Tanakh not as scripture, but as literature, and thus subject to Literary Theory. This type of analysis originally suffered due to comparing Tanakh to various forms of literature, such as Homer or Shakespeare, where the comparison was totally artificial. However, as knowledge of the Ancient Near East and, more importantly, the field of Literary Theory[8] improved, Literary Criticism became an approach that truly appreciates the incredible nature of the text of Tanakh. It is from this literary vantage point that many critiques have been launched against Source Criticism and Form Criticism. One of the foundational concepts of Source Criticism is that a repetition means the combination of two sources. However, repetition often serves a purpose within a narrative, so assuming that it requires a combination of sources is far from necessary. An excellent example is pointed out by Professor Robert Alter in his seminal work, “The Art of the Biblical Narrative.” He points out that when Yosef reveals himself to his brothers (Bereishit 45), he says, “I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?,” then a verse later he repeats himself, “I am your brother Yosef whom you sold to Egypt.” Source critics split these two verses into two separate sources, but Alter argues that the repetition is obviously a function of the psychological and dramatic narrative, where the brothers are initially dumbfounded, and only after they draw closer and Yosef repeats himself, can they truly understand[9]. Professor Adele Berlin, in “Poetics and the Interpretation of the Biblical Narrative,” argues that many such repetitions also come from switches between various perspectives, not from multiple sources. In the same chapter[10] she compares Form Critical analysis of Tanakh with Form Critical analysis of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and shows that even in the case of the Epic of Gilgamesh where we have obvious and empirical development from primitive sources to more complex literary works, such development still cannot account for the literary complexity of the final composition. All the more so in the case of Tanakh, where there are no extant version of primitive sources, the text can really only be understood in terms of an author with full control over the text, not someone gingerly combining older sources. All in all, Literary Criticism is actually a realm of Biblical Criticism where the religious believer can feel fairly at home.

The first mistake in approach BC is believing that it is a monolithic entity. It is a large tapestry, and not all the different strands get along with one another. Moreover, even within each strand there is much disagreement. BC is not some big scary entity to be fear or adored, to be either entirely accepted or entirely rejected. Hopefully this segment has conveyed that one can examine BC critically, and see that we do not need to fear the elements we cannot accept, and perhaps also that there may be some element we will want to embrace.


(Onward to Part 3)


[1] Much of the information in this paragraph comes from Richard Elliot Friedman’s “Who Wrote the Bible?”, a clear and easy text explaining the development of DH, and one which a clear-headed believer should not haven much trouble with.

[2] This type of assignment is usually made on the assumption that the biblical authors would only have written things that would benefit themselves, and thus a source that talks about Hebron must be from the Kingdom of Judah, which was originally based in Hebron. Simply put, this assumption is one of several options, and not necessarily the preferred one, as people, particularly religious people, are often motivated by something other than personal gain.

[3] Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus, Yale Anchor Bible Commentary, Vol. 1, Introduction.

[4] For more on this, see Professor Alan Brill’s fantastic interviews with Professor David Carr and Professor Jacob Wright.

[5] This has also called into question some of R’ Breuer’s conclusions, and thus many religious academics have failed to embrace it. However, it should also be noted that this newer conception is largely based on the assumption that ancient Israelite society functioned just like the societies around it, something not necessarily conclusive.

[6] For more on the development of internal debates of Form Criticism, see Appendix II of Meir Weiss, “The Bible From Within”.

[7] This was the “Holistic Method” of Moshe Greenberg, which is wonderfully and masterfully demonstrated in his analysis of Yehezkal’s vision of Idolatry in the Bet HaMikdash in Yehezkal 8-11.

[8] For a survey of the development of Literary Criticism, including the literary-critical sides of Form Criticism, see the First Introduction to The Bible From Within.

[9] Robert Alter, “The Art of the Biblical Narrative”, Chapter 8, “Narration and Knowledge”.

[10] Her critiques can be found here.