Tuesday, November 27, 2007

There were giants in the earth in those days (Joshua 12-15)

Throughout the next few chapters, the notes get rather sparse. A lot of the book of Joshua is pretty much an accounting of which cities were destroyed, how many kings vanquished, and who got the real estate.

In chapter 12 however, the SAB finds one thing noteworthy: giants. Once again, there is little given in the way of explanation, only the icons for absurdity and science/history. Oddly enough, there is nothing scientifically wrong or absurd about the notion of giants, as we know they live among us today. Robert Wadlow came up on a quick Google search as the tallest man to have been verified to have lived, and he was just under nine feet tall, only a few inches short of Goliath. There may indeed have been giants in Canaan, and there isn't even need to appeal to the supernatural to explain them.*

Following no notes in chapter 13, the SAB brings up an interesting question in verse 14 that is of particular interest to me. Does the Bible condemn gambling? I'm going to come down on the side of "No" for this one. The two verses on the "Yes" side are not really very convincing to me at all, although it's still an issue worth considering, as a lot of Christians condemn it. Personally, I would advise against gambling in general, but don't consider it to be outright sinful. I have in the past rather enjoyed a good game of poker, and probably would still, but I think the principle of the Proverbs 28:22 verse is a good one to keep in mind. Get-rich-quick schemes rarely live up to their promise.

It's of particular interest to me because my college major was mathematics, and my final project (I sometimes call it a "thesis", although it's a stretch of the term) was on gambling theory. I was very interested in the mathematical principles behind various casino games, and as an avid Contract Bridge player, the general question of how probability governs card games. In my studies, I came across some interesting facts that not everyone is aware of, namely that the history of religion and gambling are intertwined. You'll find many instances in the Bible of the practice of "casting lots" which is another way of saying "letting random chance make the choice for you". In many societies where they had religion, they had no voice of God speaking to them out of a cloud to give them specific directions, so they'd find some equivalent of asking their God(s) a yes-or-no question and flipping a coin. Some societies used a method of divination that involved throwing small pieces of bone that were the precursors of modern dice. In any case, before such things were used in games of chance, they were common forms of divination.

In chapter 15, there are a handful of notes on various topics. Caleb offers to give his daughter away to the warrior who can successfully destroy the city of Debir, and the winner is his nephew Othniel. While the SAB notes the violence inherent in destroying a city, and we have already discussed that time and again throughout this book, it also makes a few other notes that are not entirely clear, but I think I know what's being implied. The real issues that the SAB has with this story on top of the violence are those of women's rights and incest. Taking the latter first, even in today's culture marrying one's cousin is not illegal, despite what most people seem to believe. The issue that exists with marrying cousins is more of a social taboo in some societies than a legal or even genetic one. The Bible certainly never condemns it as far as I know.

As for the rights of this young woman Achsah, well, arranged marriages for one reason or another were common in those days, and it simply was the case that a woman married the man that her father chose for her. A lot of people take issue with this custom, but in this context, I don't think there's anything to address, since this is simply stated as a fact, neither praised nor condemned by the author. It may be notable however that immediately following this, Achsah comes to her father and asks him to give her a portion of land with fresh water on it, which would be precious real estate indeed in the Middle East. He gives it to her.

I really have to hand it to Steve Wells for his thoroughness for noticing some tiny details at times. I would have never noticed among the ongoing lists of place names the repetition of Eshtaol and Zorah. I checked the Hebrew, and indeed, while the KJV varies the spelling slightly, these two verses reference the exact same names. As Wells has said in his blog, however, contradictions are often very easy to explain one's way out of, and this is no exception: The key is in the term "coast" used in 19:41, which indicates a few possibilities. Looking at only the English, I suspected that there might be multiple cities in Canaan with the same name, and two in the central valley of Judah's territory happened to have the same name as two on the coast of Dan's territory. Looking further into it, I suspected, and it turned out to be true, that the Hebrew term translated as "coast" actually means "border" more or less, and sure enough, according to a map I have of ancient Canaan, the city of Zorah (Zoreah?) is on the border between Judah and Dan. It may be that these cities formed the boundary between the two tribes, and they may have either shared them or simply knew that arriving at those cities implied that Dan's territory was ended.

Chapter 15 ends with the first mention of a tribe of people that the Israelites did not manage to defeat. Why did this happen? Who really knows? Other than the things that I commented on before, something worth noting here is that this lack of victory comes after the Israelites start divvying up the land. Why are they trying to settle all of this before the conquest is complete? I suspect that once they started settling into the land and building it up as their own, they didn't bother to try so much. Go fight the Jebusites? Why? Don't we have enough land already? I don't think that God only wanted to give them land, He wanted them to deal with the previous inhabitants fully, and they didn't. It's really a shame, as it leads to struggle for years and years to come.

* A reader commented on the previous chapter that while nonetheless giants do exist today, there is some belief that certain groups of giants were the result of supernatural breeding of human women and fallen angels. Those who believe this (and I don't consider it outside of the realm of possibility, myself) will remember that it was one of the main reasons that God brought the flood in Noah's time. It may be that the existence of the giants in Canaan is once again one of the main reasons why the people of Canaan had to be exterminated.

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