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Joshua’s Conquest

This week’s Haftorah reading is from chapter 2 in the Book of Joshua. It relates an event that seems identical to one that had taken place 39 years earlier. At that time Moshe, under pressure from the nation, sent out 12 spies to scout the land of Canaan which they were primed to enter. However, as this week’s Torah reading reveals, a tragic consequence resulted from that mission. The entire nation was punished with living in the desert until that generation of men died out. So why is Joshua seemingly making the same mistake by conducting another reconnaissance mission?

To answer we must pay careful attention to the words of the Haftorah. It says “Joshua sent out 2 spies secretly…” Joshua did not inform the rest of the nation, the High Priest, nor any close advisor or member of the Sanhedrin. He was well aware of the danger in making his plan public. He had been one of those original 12 spies sent out by Moshe. He and Caleb, the other remaining spy from this first mission, were the only survivors of men from that generation. (The women of that generation were also not punished with death in the desert but merited entering the land later with Joshua)

The 2 spies Joshua sent out, identified in the Talmud as Caleb and Pinchas, were instructed to “Go, observe the land and Jericho.” Where did they go? They went to the inn of a woman known as Rahab. Her inn was not the kind of motel you would bring your family. Rather, it was a “house of ill repute.” Why did they go there? What was Joshua concerned about knowing?

Although God promised the successful conquest to Joshua and told him, “Now, get up and cross the Jordan,” Hashem never said specifically when to crossover the river. Joshua had to think into the command very carefully. Joshua wanted the conquest to manifest the divine providence and at the same time instill in the people an attitude of trust in the word of God. To accomplish these two lessons, Joshua needed to know level of resistance the Children of Israel might encounter. If the inhabitants feared Israel, Joshua would know that reaction was the sign that God was ready to secure the people in the land of their forefathers. Their long journey and time of exile was over. Their return home would be successful and the people would recognize their special metaphysical relationship to God.

Rahab’s inn was chosen as the place to learn about the men of Jericho. The Talmud relates that the 2 spies learned from Rahab that she did not have business for the past 40 years. Since the men of Jericho heard how the Children of Israel got out of Egypt, about the splitting of the sea for them, the food that fell from heaven to sustained them for 40 years in the wilderness, how they defeated the powerful kings Sichon and Og, and the failure of Balaam to halt the march of the Children of Israel, the hearts of the men of Jericho melted. They no longer even had a desire for her services. As a postscript to this story, the Talmud tells us Rahab converts to Judaism. Joshua eventually marries Rahab and their union produced many great Torah scholars over the ensuing years.

So Joshua was not repeating the mistake of the previous generation. He was not spying the land to see how good it was or how strong the fortifications were. No one but he knew what the information was to be used for. There was no reporting back to the generals or a debriefing by the elders. No! Joshua was using his wisdom and deep insight to bring about the will of God. The fulfillment of God’s will, the creation of the Children of Israel living in the Land of Israel, is the underlying theme of the entire Chumash. It fell to Joshua to bring God’s will to fruition. But Joshua understood that this expression of God’s purposefulness had to be inculcated into the very fabric of the nation. This idea would best be demonstrated and internalized in a conquest by the Children of Israel without recourse to military force.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan