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The Meanings of Joshua and of Jesus

January 27, 2013

Late last week, I managed to blog some about the opinions of some evangelical Christian bloggers concerning what’s in the “Old Testament” that would be horrific as historical genocide. But I didn’t have time to discuss much, if any at all, the very common view for many evangelical Christians that the solution to the problems with the Jewish Joshua and his charge to slaughter women and children is Jesus. I could have linked to an earlier blogpost of Claude Mariottini in which he raises the “question whether the God who revealed himself to Israel and the God who was manifested in the person of Jesus Christ are the same God or whether this God is a God of love and mercy.” There Mariottini was also asking, “How could God order Joshua and the Israelites to conquer the land of Canaan and in the process destroy many cities and exterminate entire populations, including men, women, and children, young and old?” Clearly, John Piper and Rachel Held Evans in their respective posts and comments suggest that God is better after Joshua and is more trustworthy, believable, and loving and loveable in Jesus. (I’ve bolded the font of the quotation above and of those below).

Yesterday, Peter Enns added his evangelical Christian opinion to the ostensible Christian difficulty with the ostensible genocide of non-Jews (whom he refers to as Canaanites) by God and Joshua. At any rate, Enns is hinting that it should be just fine for evangelical Christians not to conclude that “the historicity of the … conquest of Canaan [must absolutely be historical fact] pretty much as the Bible describes.” Enns is calling for evangelical Christians not to do intellectual exercises just to do them if they plan on always only coming to the same conclusion that is the one that must be evangelical and Christian. On his blog, Enns says he “follows Jesus,” so it’s not clear how that might inform his thinking and his conclusions, or not.

To Enns and his post, one commenter replies:

I consider myself evangelical and I have no issues with academic exploration at all. I hold to the worldview that Jesus had and affirmed, and I filter information from the lens of that worldview. I have no problem wrestling with issues, hard questions and constructive dialogue is important, but at the end of the day I will submit myself to the authority of the Scriptures whilst continuing to explore the ever-changing views and evidences of science, archaeology, etc.

Similarly another commenter says:

What Paul was talking about in that verse was the Old Testament – the only Scripture available to them at the time. His letters weren’t considered Scripture to him. They weren’t compiled yet into the Bible or “Scriptures” we know today. Evangelicals are supposed to check their mind at the door and accept all the positions that people simply want to read into as being God-breathed. Especially Paul’s restrictions upon women. The John Piper’s of the world and countless others through the ages WANT to see that men are superior, women should be submissive, slavery is acceptable, and all that other BS. None of which, of course, Jesus himself said.

Likewise another commenter writes:

The real problem is that Evangelicals (and those who share their mindset) are imprisoned within an ideology of revelation rather than a true theory of revelation. For them, as well as for many other Christians, the crisis for their faith arises from the notion that revelation is contained in a book rather than in the person Jesus.

Thought experiment: Imagine history without Jesus. Now explain why the Israelite scriptures (aka “Old Testament”) are revelational, and if you think they are, in what sense.

What seems clear is that Jesus as the loving merciful God incarnate is better than Joshua as the willing participant in genocide as commanded by the Old Testament God. That seems to be clear to many evangelical Christians anyway. And yet what must be meant by “Joshua” and by “Jesus”? That’s really where I’d like to go with the rest of this post.


Let’s say that Moses nicknamed Joshua. In Numbers 13:16, there’s this statement that he did:

וַיִּקְרָ֥א מֹשֶׁ֛ה לְהֹושֵׁ֥עַ בִּן־נ֖וּן יְהֹושֻֽׁעַ׃

What does that mean? Well, whoever wrote Numbers or Bəmidbar or בְּמִדְבַּר (was it Moses?), was letting him play with language.

Moses nicknamed or renamed his assistant who had been named Hoshea (הוֺשֵׁעַ); and so the former renamed the later the name Joshua (יְהוֹשׁוּעַ), and he did so ostensibly by speaking the younger person’s name with a contraction of the unspeakable Name (יהוה). After all, HaShem (the LORD) had spoken to Moses (in verse 1 of chapter 13)

From הוֹשֵׁ֥עַ comes יְהוֹשֻֽׁעַ. When it is written, then the pun is literary, no longer only soundplay but visual wordplay. And this can be explained otherwise, and is some explained with different meanings, by Tamar Kadari, who discusses the explanation of midrash. Notice, literally, the letters:

As regards the significance of this change [of the name Sarai to Sarah], the Rabbis explain that initially she was a princess [sarai] over her people, while now she will be a princess over all the inhabitants of the world [sarah] (Tosefta Berakhot [ed. Lieberman] 1:13). In an additional exegetical explanation, because Sarai performed good deeds, God added a large letter to her name, and she would now be called “Sarah” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Masekhta de-Amalek, Yitro 1). The Rabbis determined that whoever now called Sarah by her former name transgressed a positive commandment (JT Berakhot 1:6, 4[a]). The midrash relates that the letter yud that was taken from Sarai’s name flew up before God. It complained: “Master of all the worlds! because I am the smallest of all the letters, You removed me from the righteous woman’s name?” God replied: “Before, you were in a woman’s name, and at the end of her name, now I put you in a man’s name, and at the beginning of the name [Num. 13:16]: ‘but Moses changed the name of Hosea [hoshe’a] son of Nun to Joshua [yehoshua]’” (Gen. Rabbah 47:1).

Before we get to Jesus, let’s recap. We read something Moses ostensibly writes about Moses renaming Hoshea ben Nun “Yehoshua.” It sounds like it means “YHWH will Hoshea” or “the Lord will Deliver Us.” It also looks like it can mean The Princess Over All the Inhabitants of the World (or Sarah) gave up her name The Princess Over [Just] Her People to help Moses change this young man’s name. A little feminine Yod makes him more manly.


Let’s move forward, then, to Jesus. What’s that mean? Well, we have to move forward to around 250 B.C. We have to get Moses back in Egypt, where we find ourselves in namesake Polis of the conqueror Alexander the Great. It’s in Alexandria, Egypt where the name Jesus first appears, sort of. The Jewish sons of Sarai, of Sarah, have translated the Torah, the five books of Moses, and it’s referred to as the Pentateuch. The fourth book becomes Ἀριθμοὶ, Numbers. And Numbers 13:16 is rendered as follows:

καὶ ἐπωνόμασεν Μωυσῆς τὸν Αυση υἱὸν Ναυη Ἰησοῦν

In Numbers 13:1, HaShem has become κύριος, Lord or Master.

So all of the wordplay between the tetragrammaton and Hoshea to make Joshua is gone, and all of the lore of Sarai’s Yod making Hosea Sarah’s Yeshua is lost. (The Greek only adds the manliness to the command to Joshua to be “courageous” by mandating ἀνδρίζου or andr-izou.) It could even be argued that the Latin transliterations of the much later Vulgate Bible get at the playful sounds and lettering of the Hebrew names with “Osee” renamed by Moses as “Iosue.” At least the Latin conveys more than does the Greek Αυση turned Ἰησοῦν (or Ayse turned Iesous).

What is important to infer here is that Jewish readers of the Greek translation of the Book of Joshua and of the five Books of Moses would likely have not even needed to pay attention to what the Greek lost of the wordplay. The meanings of Ἰησοῦς, as the meanings of יְהוֹשׁוּעַ, are only understood by insiders.

And when the stories of Jesus Christ are told and written, the Greek name Ἰησοῦς, as יְהוֹשׁוּעַ, is understood by insiders. In other words, when in the gospels of Matthew and of Luke the virgin Mary and her betrothed Joseph are to name their baby boy, they are to name him יְהוֹשׁוּעַ, which means Joshua, which means the son of Sarai, become Sarah, whose YOD has become part of Hosea’s new name. This Yeshua, if we transliterate the sounds with English letters, would have meant for some listeners that this baby’s name means Yah-Delivers-Us. The warrior-conquerer, the assistant to Moses in the dessert who led the people into the Promised Land, was the namesake of this little baby.

When the writer of the gospel of Matthew has this little baby boy grown up and preaching, then this young man, this Joshua or Yeshua, or Ἰησοῦς, or יְהוֹשׁוּעַ, hints at the significance of the Hebrew letter YOD in the Torah. In Matthew 5:8, this young man declares:

“ἰῶτα ἓν ἢ μία κεραία οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου”

or, “neither the littlest letter י nor some serif stroke will go away from Torah.”

And later the writer of the Book of Hebrews writes of Joshua, of the two different Joshuas, the original and the one named after the original. Hebrews 4:8 followed by Hebrews 4:14 shows the same name for both men:

εἰ γὰρ αὐτοὺς Ἰησοῦς κατέπαυσεν, οὐκ ἂν περὶ ἄλλης ἐλάλει μετὰ ταῦτα ἡμέρας·

Ἔχοντες οὖν ἀρχιερέα μέγαν διεληλυθότα τοὺς οὐρανούς, Ἰησοῦν τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ θεοῦ, κρατῶμεν τῆς ὁμολογίας.

In a very short context, the writer of Hebrews, using Greek, is specifying two different Joshuas, or Yeshuas.

Oh, and it should be clear that when the New Testament quotes the Book of Joshua it is putting the words into the mouth of Jesus: Hebrews 13:5 quotes Joshua 1:5 and Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30, 33; Luke 10:27 all quote Joshua 22:5 .


So what does that mean for evangelical Christians who believe that Joshua leading a God-commanded genocide is not as good as Jesus as a merciful and loving incarnate son of God? I’m not really sure.

The gospels of the New Testament do not always make Jesus, as a Joshua, always kinder or less violent or easier to understand or accept or believe.

Matthew 10 (ESV) has Jesus saying this:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Luke 12:49–53 has him saying:

I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

Luke 14:26 has him saying:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

Luke 19:27 has him saying:

But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.

Luke 22:35–38 has this dialogue between Jesus and his disciples saying:

And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.”

So what? Well, it’s tough to say Jesus, given those statements, is much different from his namesake, Joshua. Doesn’t it make us all want to pay a little more attention to the narratives, to history painted, to the words spoken and written and translated? To the wordplay and the nuance and the context? If our ethics must come from texts or from the gods or men or women within the texts, then what?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 27, 2013 6:41 pm

    Kurk – this is most enlightening – play on and be filled with joy; fear neither the curmudgeon, nor the unimaginative. And teach, stimulate, refine with each blessing.

  2. January 28, 2013 12:55 pm

    This is undoubtedly one of the most difficult problems for Judaism and Christianity.

    The example I like to point to is the commandment to destroy Amalek; since that is a commandment of pure genocide (even children must be destroyed) and not necessarily related to conquest or territorial acquisition.

    The process of understanding the commandment of Amalek homiletically (rather than as a literal commandment) was already well under way at the time of Jesus, and a survey of the Greek-Jewish sources (as opposed to the traditional rabbinic sources) can be found in Louis Feldman’s admirable volume Remember Amalek!: Vengeance, Zealotry, and Group Destruction in the Bible According to Philo, Pseudo-Philo, and Josephus.

    While Feldman does not extensively deal with early Christianity, it is interesting to compare early Christian thought (particularly Jewish-Christian thought) with the Hellenistic-Jewish perspective.

  3. January 28, 2013 1:20 pm

    I recall re Amalek, that the assembly I visited in my youth clearly marked the passages as symbolic of the struggle against ‘the flesh’. The symbolic interpretation does not undo the horror of the commands in their plain meaning. I pondered this in the last few days by thinking of the repeated question – in different words each time – in Psalms 8 and 144 – what is a mortal? for you remember it. and a child of humanity? for you visit it; and what is this humanity that you know it – a mortal child that you devised it? A different expression with an even more mocking sentiment is in Job 7:17. What is a mortal that you make him great and that you set your heart on him and that you visit him every morning and every moment scrutinize him?

    The psalmist is not afraid to use Qohelet’s favorite word – futility – as an answer. Psalm 144: אָדָם לַהֶבֶל דָּמָה.

    So a vile worm needs a vile message for its futile situation, yet the unclean is made clean and the defiled restored to its virgin status. Perhaps this is in the nature of the Holy. It is not a moral question.

    At the same time these two psalms are marked out as a part of a large chiasm in the Psalter (8 – 36 – 110 – 144). There’s a lovely puzzle for you. (hint: Each of these is followed by an acrostic).

  4. January 28, 2013 11:29 pm

    Kurk, what tool did you use to prepare this post? I am wondering because you use indented paragraphs rather than blockquote.

  5. January 29, 2013 8:01 am

    Your kind words are most encouraging. Some days I’m sure that I’ll never blog again. But it’s conversations with you and others that get me going. My prayers continue with you and for you, my friend, as you blog on and face the real enemies of life:

    You’re going to get me reading Feldman! It’s “interesting” yes. But I think too it’s also very important “to compare early Christian thought (particularly Jewish-Christian thought) with the Hellenistic-Jewish perspective.” In all of the recent blog discussions of Joshua and the genocide, there’s far too little of this. It’s been, from what I’ve seen so far, much more only about the directions evangelical Christians might go with their theology and how they might do it given the necessary evangelical approach to parts of the “Old Testament.” (No one in these circles much talks about the horrific statements of Jesus, some of which I noted above.)

    Theophrastus – per your question re the tool for indented vs. blockquote paragraphing. I used the WP wysiwyg and the back-end html code (specifically style=”padding-left: 30px;”). In my first of the two recent posts, I liked the blockquote for the long quotation of Rachel Held Evans but the indented quotes for all others; my reason – I don’t like how certain browsers force italics on the entire blockquote; indented quotes can contain italics selectively.


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