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The Longest Day; Israel's Enemies Humiliated, from The Crusader Bible (The Morgan Picture Bible), MS M.638, fol. 11r. by Unknown French Artist [Paris]
Liberation of a Beleaguered City by Unknown Western Roman Empire artist
Joshua Roll, Vat. Pal. graec. 431 (sheet 13) by Unknown Byzantine Artist

Unknown French artist [Paris]

The Longest Day; Israel's Enemies Humiliated, from The Crusader Bible (The Morgan Picture Bible), c.1244–54, Illumination on vellum, 390 x 300 mm, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, MS M.638, fol. 11r, Photo: Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

Unknown Western Roman Empire artist

Liberation of a Beleaguered City, c.400, Boxwood carving, 45.5 x 22.5 x 10.3 cm, Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst der Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Inv. 4782, bpk Bildagentur / Staatliche Museen, Berlin / Jürgen Liepe / Art Resource, NY

Unknown Byzantine artist

Scenes from Joshua 10, from the Joshua Roll, c.950, Tempera and gold on vellum, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vatican City, Vat. Pal. graec. 431, sheet XIIIr, By permission of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, with all rights reserved

Emergency Stop

Comparative Commentary by

Earth stopped. The Holy City hit a mountain
As a tray of dishes meets a swinging door
(X. J. Kennedy, ‘Joshua’) 

If the sun and moon were to stop moving for a day, what chaos would be caused? Could the earth survive?

Only in the last two generations has humanity had the power to destroy its own planet. With this new sensitivity to humanity’s capacity to cause global disaster, we are bound today to read Joshua’s command to the sun and moon to stop in their courses (Joshua 10:12–14) in a very different way from previous generations. That he does so to enable him to complete his military relief of the Canaanite town of Gibeon, and the defeat of the besieging Amorites, could appear to us to be a gravely insufficient justification.

The stopping of the spheres may simply be a literary trope, of course. This literary line of thought is strengthened by the reference in Joshua 10:13 to ‘the Book of Jashar’—a lost book, mentioned only twice in the Hebrew Bible (cf. 2 Samuel 1:18), perhaps containing battle hymns. What is more, there are other such cosmic allusions embedded in the narratives of the Bible. Rather than Joshua 10’s continued sunlight, Exodus 10 describes three days of darkness as one of the plagues inflicted upon Egypt before the Exodus, and in the book of Judges the Song of Deborah tells of how the stars in their courses fought against Sisera (Judges 5:20).

Perhaps the extraordinary events of Joshua 10 may refer to an actual eclipse. This hypothesis was first proposed in 1918, but only very recently has science been able accurately to test it. Based on their recent research, two Cambridge physicists have argued that the events of Joshua 10 took place on 30 October 1207 BCE, in the afternoon: the oldest solar eclipse ever recorded (Humphreys and Waddington 2017).

But the real issue posed for modern readers by the text may not so much be this sun-stopping, science-stretching event, as the genocidal destruction apparently commanded by God (Joshua 10:40). There is now widespread scholarly agreement that, although the text recounts events of c.1200 BCE, it forms part of the work of the Deuteronomist historian(s), receiving its final editing in the exilic period in the mid-sixth century BCE. Some contemporary writers (Collins 2005: 62) have commented on the irony of the fact that in this text the Hebrews apparently show no misgivings in doing to others what they themselves have just suffered.

Recent instances of genocide have brought home the urgent need to come to some accommodation with these herem (total destruction) texts, which are connected with ideas about the importance of radically ‘purifying’ a land. But one should not jump to the conclusion that readers of these texts through history have always had such ideas as their principal focus. The three artworks chosen here—from three different medieval contexts—reveal a more complex picture.

The original provenance of the remarkable and rare carved wood relief, now in Berlin, is not known, but it seems to date from the fifth century, a time when Joshua was being cited as a prefiguration of Christ by both Eastern and Western writers.

By the mid-tenth century, when the Joshua Roll was created in Constantinople, the use by Byzantine emperors of Old Testament warrior prototypes (such as Joshua) as exemplars is well-attested, as they sought to wrest control of Syria and Palestine from rival Islamic caliphates. Western crusaders made these links too, as evidenced by the folios dedicated to the Joshua story in the Morgan Crusader Bible (10r–11v)—not to mention episodes such as their solemn circumambulation around the walls of Jerusalem in 1099, before its bloodthirsty sack, which self-consciously replicated the sack of Jericho in Joshua 6.

All three works are unflinchingly honest in their use of graphic images of warfare. But they vary in the role they give to the cosmic intervention in the battle. The Berlin relief does not refer to it at all; the Joshua Roll reverses the biblical order of events and makes the hailstones the culmination of God’s intervention. Only the Morgan Bible gives centre stage to Joshua’s hubristic command to the sun and moon to stand still.

At a time when human hubris could have cosmic consequences, it seems that both theologians and artists have yet fully to explore the significance of the Deuteronomist writer’s unique event: ‘when the Lord hearkened to the voice of a human being’ (10:14) and made the movement of the spheres serve the outcome of a military campaign.

 

References

Collins, John J. 2005. The Bible After Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company)

Hofreiter, Christian. 2018. Making Sense of Old Testament Genocide: Christian Interpretations of Herem Passages (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Humphreys, Colin, and Graeme Waddington. 2017. ‘Solar Eclipse of 1207 BC Helps to Date Pharaohs’, Astronomy & Geophysics, 58.5: 5.39–5.42

Kennedy, X. J. ‘Joshua’. In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems, 1955–2007, p. 89. © 2007 X. J. Kennedy.  Reused with permission of Johns Hopkins University Press