I have just been reading a very good book on different delineations of the Promised Land in different biblical texts — All the Boundaries of the Land by Nili Wazana (Eisenbrauns, 2013). Anyway, this morning I was reading about the allocation of tribal allotments in the second half of Joshua. The book argued pretty convincingly that the tribal allotments were put together from diverse sources and synthesized into a new literary whole. Some of these originals were likely boundary lists drawn up by rulers for the purposes of taxation. In their new location they serve a different function.
This raises a question that could be raised in many ways from many different texts, namely, what are the implications of this for the doctrine of Scripture?
The synagogue and the church have historically considered the book of Joshua to be part of inspired Scripture. But, of course, this does not require us to believe that God dictated it nor that it did not have a complex pre-history. Many biblical books may have rather complicated journeys towards the final form that we know today. And it is the canonical form that is regarded as Scripture, not previous versions of it nor the sources that may have been used to write it.
Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, a boundary list used by a king for taxation was reused in the book of Joshua as part of the tribal allotments. Was that taxation document inspired by God? Was it inerrant? Was it Scripture? The answer is no to all three questions. But then it is picked up and reused by the author of Joshua. The text was adopted, adapted, and reappropriated by the author of Joshua for his own purposes. His new use of it confers a new meaning and status on it.
But even the author of Joshua was not intentionally writing Scripture (Joshua was not considered "Scripture" until quite some while after it was written) and quite likely was not conscious of being "inspired" in the way that a biblical prophet such as Ezekiel may have been. However, Israel and subsequently the church came to recognize the hand of God in the composition of this text and to see it as a site of ongoing divine encounter between God and his people. This recognition was not understood as conferring inspiration on the text but as recognizing it retrospectively in light of the experience of the community with the text over sustained periods of time.
What is recognized by the church and synagogue? That the new text is in some way inspired by God? Yes, though I stress "in some way" because inspiration worked in very different ways for a text like Proverbs, say, than it did for a text like Revelation. In some ways to speak of Joshua as "inspired" is to use an analogy drawn from prophetic and apocalyptic literature and to stretch it into a new shape.
It may also be helpful to think of God's relation to Joshua in the way that the author of Joshua used the king's taxation document. Through the medium of the community of God, God picks up Joshua, adopts it and reappropriates it by adapting it (by means of placing it in new interpretative contexts within the canon and within the life of the community). The synagogue and the church do not consider Joshua as Holy Scripture on its own, in isolation from the rest of the Bible. It is Scripture only when read in the context of the canon and in the context of the community of God. Likewise, it is authoritative only when engaged with in such contexts. It is not a stand-alone authoritative text! Removed from the right reading contexts it is not Scripture at all, even if we think that God was at work behind the scenes in its composition.
This is a rambling thought and I'll shut up and get back to work.
- Robin Parry
- Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).