Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A Curious Passage from Joshua on the Environment

A Christian discussion of the environment will usual start with Genesis 1-3, make copious use of the word "steward" and move on from there. It is curious, though, that there is only one passage I know of which gives specific, hand's on advice on how to deal with an problem in a way that takes account of the environment. I've never seen it referred to in that context, so I'll talk about it here.

Here was the problem: the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim were given land in the forested hills and in the lowlands of Canaan. The uplands were hard to farm because of the trees, while the lowlands were the richest lands and had long been farmed. But, the Canaanites (with, historical research suggests, their Egyptian garrisons) occupied the lowlands and were hard for the Hebrews to dispossess. (A big irony is noted by Barry Beitzel in his Moody Bible Atlas, that distribution of Jews in Israel today and in the Judges period is almost exactly inverse. With the exception of the Gaza Strip, the Jews of modern Israel settled almost entirely the Canaanite/Philistine/Egyptian lowlands, while the Jews of pre-Davidic Israel settled almost exclusively the Palestinian lands of the West Bank, the Nazareth area of Galilee, and Jordan.)

So much of their allotment was inaccessible. What to do? Here is Joshua's advice from Joshua 17:

And the children of Joseph spake unto Joshua, saying, "Why hast thou given me but one lot and one portion to inherit, seeing I am a great people, forasmuch as the LORD hath blessed me hitherto?"

And Joshua answered them, "If thou be a great people, then get thee up to the wood country, and cut down for thyself there in the land of the Perizzites and of the giants, if mount Ephraim be too narrow for thee."

And the children of Joseph said, "The hill is not enough for us: and all the Canaanites that dwell in the land of the valley have chariots of iron, both they who are of Bethshean and her towns, and they who are of the valley of Jezreel."

And Joshua spake unto the house of Joseph, even to Ephraim and to Manasseh, saying, "Thou art a great people, and hast great power: thou shalt not have one lot only; But the mountain shall be thine; for it is a wood, and thou shalt cut it down: and the outgoings of it shall be thine: for thou shalt drive out the Canaanites, though they have iron chariots, and though they be strong."

So here's Joshua's answer: first clear the hill country by cutting down the forests. Then you will get stronger and can eventually subdue the Canaanites (as happened during the days of the monarchy).

This is also a nice illustration of the peculiar mix of confirmation and incongruities that reading the Bible against archeology gives. As I mentioned before, the Late Bronze-Iron Age transition (what I would correlate with the Deborah age of the Biblical record) is marked by a dramatic increase in dispersed settlements in the upland areas, establishing the Israelite distribution pattern. This reference to clearing the upland forests and then dominating the lowlands is archaeologically confirmed; that is indeed how Israel grew (The upland nature of Israel was observed by those around: see 1 Kings 20:23 And the servants of the king of Syria said unto him, Their [i.e. Israel's] gods are gods of the hills; therefore they were stronger than we; but let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they. Cf. Judges 1:19: And the LORD was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron.)

But as Donald Redford would undoubtedly note, the "Canaanites" here are, if this account is to be fitted into any plausible historical framework, ruled by the Egyptians of the New Kingdom. So how come Egyptians aren't mentioned? Huh? And the iron chariots seem anachronistic as well. What we seem to have is an account in which real historical realities are being phrased in language that makes sense to the writers, probably in the seventh century.

But back to the environment. Here is a case where clearing forests is seen as a proper response to lacking farmland. Presumably, if we wish to turn to the Bible for teaching on environmental issues, this passage should be front and center.

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