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Joshua’s Conquest of the Promised Land

The Deuteronomy is the Book of the Law of Israel. The Deuteronomic History is the history of Israel from the conquest of the Promised Land until the subjugation of Israel by the Babylonians and until the Babylonian Exile. The first book of the Deuteronomic History recounts the battles of the people of Israel in Palestine from the moment that Joshua crossed the Jordan. This happened just after Moses’ death. Joshua, son of Nun, was Moses’ adjutant and the new leader of the people.

Joshua first sent spies over the Jordan into Canaan to reconnoitre the defences of Jericho. His spies were found out but saved in Jericho by Rahab the prostitute. The spies told Joshua that the inhabitants of the first town over the Jordan were panic-stricken at the approach of the Israelites. The Canaanites had heard of the great deeds of the God of Israel, Yahweh, on the flight from Egypt. Joshua ordered one man of each of the twelve tribes to wear the Ark of the Covenant on their shoulders and with the ark leading, Joshua’s army crossed the Jordan. The sons of Reuben, the sons of gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh crossed in battle formation at the head of the Israelites, some forty thousand warriors at arms. They stopped on the other side of the river, at Gilgal. Joshua ordered the whole nation to be circumcised then, for many had not been circumcised in the desert. The Israelites celebrated Passover and then started out to fight Jericho.

Yahweh told the Israelites to take seven priests carrying ram’s horn trumpets in front of the ark and go on the seventh day seven times around the city. Then the priests had to blow their trumpets, the Israelites had to shout a terrible war cry and the city walls would collapse. Everything was done as Yahweh ordered. The walls collapsed and Joshua captured the city. The Israelites enforced the curse of destruction that Yahweh had thrown on the Canaanites and they slaughtered all the inhabitants of Jericho except Rahab and her family. The city was burned. The silver, gold, bronze and the iron things were put in the treasury of the Ark.

Joshua then sent three thousand men to attack Ai, but these men were ignominiously repulsed. That was because Israel had sinned against the curse of destruction on Jericho ordained by Yahweh. Achan, son of Camni (?) had kept something back. He had hidden in his baggage a fine robe, some silver and gold. Joshua took Achan and his family to the Vale of Achor. All of Israel stoned Achan’s family, burned them and raised a great mound of stones over them. After that Joshua could march against Ai and capture that city too. Israel killed all the inhabitants of Ai, twelve thousand people in all.

Joshua built an altar to Yahweh on Mount Ebal and he wrote on the stones of Ebal a copy of the Law of Moses. Joshua loudly read the Law again to the people of Israel.

The next city on Joshua’s road was Gibeon. The Gibeonites however feared Yahweh and used a ruse before Joshua attacked their city. They set out to meet the Israelites as if they came from a far land, had heard of the fame of Israel and asked for a treaty. Joshua struck indeed a treaty with them, guaranteeing their lives. When Joshua learned who the newcomers really were, the inhabitants of Gibeon, Chepirah, Beeroth and Kiriath-Jearim, he spared them since the leaders of these communities had sworn to the Israelites by Yahweh. The Israeli made woodcutters and water-bearers out of them.

Five Amorite kings then attacked Gibeon. These were the kings of Jerusalem, of Hebron, of Jarmuth and of Lachisch. Joshua caught their armies unaware and he defeated them completely. Yahweh hurled hailstones from heaven at them and more of them died from these hailstones than under the swords of Joshua. Joshua found the five kings that had fled from the battlefield in a cave. He told all the man of Israel to put their feet on the necks of the kings. Then he struck the kings, killed them and hanged them from five trees.

Consequently to these events Joshua captured the towns of Makkedah, Libnah and Lachisch. He also defeated Horam, king of Gezer. He took Eglon. He took Hebron and Debia. Then he captured all the towns and kings of the whole country, the Negeb, the highlands and the lowlands and the watered foothills.

Many kings of the North then gathered. They set out with all their troops and assembled at the Waters of Merom. These were the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites and the Jebusites, and the Hivites. Joshua caught these armies unawares with all his warriors. Yahweh put the opponents at Israel’s mercy and Joshua defeated the northern kings. Then Joshua pursued them to the four directions. He only turned back at the borders of the country and took Hazor, putting its king to the sword. Hazor had been the ancient capital of all the northern kingdoms. Joshua continued his campaign and wiped out the Anakin of the highlands, of Hebron, of the highlands of Judah and of all the highlands of Israel.

Thus Joshua conquered the Promised Land and finally the country had rest from warfare. Joshua divided the land among the twelve tribes of Israel.

When Joshua became old in years, he felt death approach. He gathered all the tribes of Israel together at Shechem. He told Israel to fear Yahweh and to serve their God truly and sincerely. But he prophesied that they would not be able to serve Yahweh since this was a holy and a jealous God who would not tolerate misdeeds or sins. The people however accepted once more Yahweh as their God. Joshua that day made a covenant with the people at Shechem. He wrote that down in the Book of the Law of Israel. Then he dismissed the people and died shortly after. He was buried at Timnath-Serah in the highlands of Ephraim, north of Mount Gaash.

Joshua was a warrior-leader but in the Book of Joshua we learn little of his character. He appears as a man without a face, the instrument of Yahweh. He wins battles, but words that often return in the narrative of the Bible are, ‘he caught them unawares’. The battles are won by Yahweh, inexorably won, and not by Joshua. In one instance Yahweh destroys more enemies by hailstones than Joshua by the sword. This one-sidedness of the narrative is remarkable in its implacable logic. Yahweh told to kill and burn all the towns and Joshua does just that. When there is dissension in his own army, like when Achan keeps a few trinkets back from the destruction, the revenge is as implacable and Achan’s whole family is burned in a holocaust. This horror is told in the Bible in an impersonalised, un-human way.

The Bible writers tell a few more human stories however. A prostitute at Jericho helps Joshua’s spies and she is saved from the slaughter. The Gibeons enter the Israelite camp in disguise and win their lives as well as a place within the Israeli community by ruse. Yahweh does not object to this.

We only hear something of Joshua’s character when he nears death. He then assembles all the tribes at Shechem and makes them vow to Yahweh. Here he appears as a man without illusions, who predicts that the people will not be able to face hardships before a jealous God. His last words are terrible with premonition, but they are the conclusion of hundreds of years of Israelite history as written down by learned and devote Jews. Joshua says, ‘You have chosen Yahweh to serve him.’ Saying that to people only too eager to serve nobody but themselves, is indeed a terrible message. And these words Joshua carved in stone.

Stone is the material we think off when we see the image of Joshua. He was a warrior, merely driven by a God who wants to destroy and to conquer. Whenever Joshua reached a major breakthrough, the Israelites took stones together, and piled them up to a mound in remembrance of the original conquest of Palestine. It happens from the beginning, when stones are taken from mid-Jordan and piled on the other shore of the river and it happens after the conquest when the Reubenites, Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh build a huge altar of stone near the stone circle by the Jordan. These stone mounds will be the only but during witnesses that remain of Joshua’s devastating passage. They are the signs of a rapid and devastating campaign of Yahweh to hand over the Promised Land to the Israelites. After that only came human fickleness, the eternal flux of arrogant refusal to serve a god and the humble obedience after the punishments.

Joshua’s Battle

Johann Heinrich Schönfeld (1609-1684). The Prague Castle Gallery – Prague

Schönfeld was a German, Swabian painter of the seventeenth century. He worked in southern Germany and in Switzerland, and he also stayed for long periods in Rome and Naples. From 1633 on he had been part of the painters that worked around the French Classicist painters Nicolas Poussin and Claude le Lorrain in Rome. From after 1635 and until 1649, he worked in Naples where he would have seen the pictures of the Neapolitan masters Micco Spadaro and Bernardo Cavallino (1616-1656). A9. He was a Baroque painter, but one very much interested in classic landscapes. He expressed particular moods with a Romantic character in the depiction of ancient Roman ruins. Schönfeld also painted scenes of heroic, antique battles, such as ‘Joshua’s Battle’.

‘Joshua’s Battle’ may represent the battle for the town of Gibeon. Gibeon was allied to Joshua but attacked by the Canaanites. Joshua caught the attacking armies unaware and unprepared. Yahweh hurled hailstorms unto the attackers, who were the Amorite Kings of Jerusalem, of Hebron, of Jarmuth and of Lachisch. Yahweh made the sun and moon stand still at Gibeon until Joshua had won the battle. The painting of Johann Heinrich Schönfeld therefore shows two scenes, one under the moon and one under the sun. The Amorites are driven away by the hailstorms and they fight in the dark of evening, at the right of the picture. On the left, Joshua attacks, supported by the light of the resplendent sun. The sun itself is not shown, but a very bright, diffuse light helps Joshua’s armies to advance. Obviously this is the winning side. Joshua leads and points forward.

The composition of Schönfeld’s picture is based on the horizontal part of the two armies. Out of this part rise the old Roman ruins that Schönfeld saw and copied in Rome. Thus he painted the three columns of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, the remains of the Temple of Vesta and the Pyramid of Cestius. Between these high ruins advance the threatening war towers, loaded with warriors and drawn by elephants. Between the two armies the landscape opens wide, so that the composition is also a very long ‘Open V’. ‘Joshua’s Battle’ is indeed a huge picture. It is almost four metres long and a meter and a half high. Few scenes more heroic than these in their panoramic scope have ever been painted, so that in its two parts the picture has once been associated with the battles of Alexander the Great instead of with the battles of the leader of the small Jewish armies entering into Canaan. Schönfeld even added an oriental touch in many places, in the elephants, in the shields lying on the battlefield and in the dresses of the soldiers and their leaders. That oriental touch however reminds of Arabic hordes or of Indian armies.

More than a battle scene, we have the impression that Schönfeld tried to paint an Italian capriccio. The ancient ruins give that impression, but also the high-tone, light, hazy colours that the painter used. In that sense, Schönfeld’s picture could resemble Dutch or Italian pictures of the Baroque period. But the scene is not close to the viewer, since Schönfeld showed a very long battlefield and that feature marks the end of Baroque and the beginning of a more Classicist depiction of a new type. The light colours, some of the frozen attitudes of the soldiers, and the far distance from which the viewer looks at the scenes, are features we also find back for instance in Jacques-Louis David’s pictures of classic themes. Classicist tendencies of course also run through the Baroque period, as for instance in the paintings of the Carracci family of Bologna. Schönfeld added a touch of German logic and distance to a Baroque depiction.

On the left of the painting, the warriors are mostly shown in yellowish-grey hues, in very light tones, as the light is strong there. The splendid, very bright light permeates the whole sky there and only few clouds are in the sky. On the far right, the soldiers are unrecognisable in the sombreness. We see dark mountains here and a menacing veil of black thunderclouds cover the attackers. The army of the Amorite kings is in disarray in the darkness as Joshua’s men push forward with archers in the front. In both the battle scenes we perceive chaos of soldiers, horses, lances, and shields. We cannot but admire the skill with which Schönfeld presented all these details. In the apparent chaos Schönfeld introduced symmetries. Thus a horse and a shield lie on the ground to the left and to the right, two bluish-white flags are held high on both sides and also in the colours we find twice very striking patches of fierce red and blue hues combined in soldiers. One can perceive symmetries like this in various other details in the painting. So the painter drew the two battle scenes to one whole by these linking features of design.

Schönfeld knew very well the value of emotions evoked in the viewer and how to emphasise emotions by elements of design. Thus the victorious troops of Josiah are of course in the light side of the painting. The Roman ruins on this left side are painted higher up and also glimmer in the full brightness of the sun. The commanding figure of Joshua on horseback rises out of the crowd like a distant statue, out of a mass of figures painted in yellow and grey. In this way armies would have seen Joshua: only in the distance, a mythical figure showing where to advance only; in battle every one faces an enemy directly and sees the commanders only from the far. The weight of the scenes in the bright light pushes on the armies in dark of the right side by the weight of the bright colours and by the higher lines of the architectures. The soldiers of Joshua advance, whereas on the right the Amorite king of Jerusalem flees in full wealthy ornate, an arrow in his side, with his pink flowing cloak behind him. He flees in panic and in pain. Look how Schönfeld drew this figure to show to the viewer the emotions at the moment of the action of flight.

Johann Heinrich Schönfeld painted an impressive, panoramic view of a battle form the Bible, but the armies look like Roman and oriental armies clashing. Schönfeld’s picture therefore also is an italianising one, in a trend we know from the Dutch painters working in Rome. Schönfeld added a heroic touch to a picture that would have been a landscape with ancient ruins. This kind of painting was much appreciated in the seventeenth century and would indeed have been a grand scene as the master picture of a large hall in a Roman or Neapolitan palace. Although his work is Classicist and although we almost see the picture of ‘Joshua’s Battle’ as a capricious landscape, Schönfeld succeeded in showing under the landscape the chaos, thronging of a real battle.

Schönfeld’s picture has nothing to do with any battle that would have happened in Biblical times in Canaan. Schönfeld would have had to show poorly clad peasant armies brandishing all kinds of weapons, some of which would have been merely tools used for tilling the land transformed into weapons. The armies would but have scant real armour, no elephants, and no imposing battle towers. These armies would have fiercely stricken at each other but there would be far less people involved than the grand masses Schönfeld tried to show. The battle would have taken place in rich green meadows and not in barren, desert hill country. The Romans would only arrive ten of centuries later. Schönfeld gave an imaginary interpretation of the bible theme, proving his belief that Joshua’s battle was a symbol of the mind, more than an actual historic clash of bands of peasants around a Canaanite village, from which the elected leaders would be called kings.

Joshua orders the Sun to stand still

Jacques Courtois called Il Borgognone (1621-1675). The Gallery at Palazzo Spada. Rome.

The scene of Joshua’s battles by Jacques Courtois is from the same battle as the picture made by Johann Heinrich Schönfeld. Joshua had to fight a coalition of Amorite kings: Adoni-Zedek, king of Jerusalem, Hoham king of Hebron, Piram king of Jarmuth, Japhio king of Lachish and Debir king of Eglon. The kings attacked the town of Gibeon and the Gibeonites appealed to Joshua for help. Joshua marched his army from Gilgal and caught the Amorites unaware of his arrival. Yahweh threw the Amorites in disorder, the disorder that Jacques Courtois knew so well to paint. As the Amorites fled, Yahweh sent hailstorms on Joshua’s enemies. Joshua wanted complete victory, so he said to the sun to stand still over Gibeon and also the moon to stand still over the Vale of Aialon. Sun and moon then indeed stood still until Israel had taken its vengeance over the Amorites. The sun stood still in the centre of the sky for almost a whole day. The Bible mentions that there never was a day like that before or after, when Yahweh obeyed to Joshua’s voice, since Yahweh and Joshua together were fighting for Israel.

Jacques Courtois was born in 1621 in France, in Saint-Hippolyte of the Franche-Comté region but after having studied painting with his father Jean-Baptiste Courtois, he went to Italy, just fifteen years old. He travelled to Bologna, then Florence and Siena, to reach Rome at around 1640. The Italians called him by various names: Il Borgognone or the Burgundian, Giacomo Borgognone, or even Giacomo Cortese. He painted landscapes and religious pictures, but he also specialised on battle scenes. In 1657 his wife died and it was thought that Courtois might have murdered her. He then became a Jesuit. He died in Rome in 1675.

‘Joshua orders the Sun to stand still’ is a typical Borgognone picture. We see Joshua commanding his armies and of course also the sun, over a tumult of heavy battle. Courtois gave this the first, immediate impression of the picture: there is chaos everywhere among friend and foe, men and horses; this is the heat of the battle at which point dramatic, drastic action needed to swing the balance of victory to the Jewish men. Jacques Courtois painted an extraordinary mêlée of fallen soldiers, slaughtered horses, risen swords, flowing flags, prancing cavaliers, dashing plumes on helmets, which are all intertwined in the fierce action. Courtois did not have to paint all the details here; he only had to convey to the viewer this impression of chaos to have the viewer grasp immediately the crux of the battle. Better to show a mix of vaguely indicated fighting, a hint of arms and swords all thrown together, than fine details of just a part of the army. In a real battle also, the impression one has of the whole remains vague and blurred in the action of clashing men amidst the dust and movements of the fight. We thus see only two rears of horses and the back of Joshua in some detail, the heads of two horses also, and this only because the light falls directly on them.

The sun stands in the middle of the sky, overpowering in brightness, like a sudden vision of Joshua, but low and ready to set. Joshua points his sword straight at it, commanding the sun to stand still so that the battle might linger on and so that the Jews would be able to kill all their opponents. Joshua commands like a god and Yahweh answers Joshua’s order. Thus, Courtois painted one of the rare scenes of the Bible in which a man commands both the elements and God. And God complied.

Jacques Courtois emphasised of course the epic of the scene. So he painted the battle low in the frame, against a wide and low landscape as background (on the right) and with a wonderful sky and fully coloured clouds. The low scene well renders Courtois’ message that despite a heroic battle, man remains small in nature and before the God of the skies. Only the finest soldier of Yahweh, Joshua, dominates the field.

Courtois used for the earth and for the battle mostly brown and deep orange hues. These ochre colours are warm and Courtois helped the warm mood by painting hues inclining further to red towards the left side of the scene: Joshua’s cloak is red-brown and so is the large flag on the left. While Courtois brought in cooler hues also, below, a few blue patches and very white hues in the landscape on the very right, the predominant ochres must have been meant to form an overall hue that well suited walls of a main hall of a Roman palace, like the Palazzo Spada where the painting hangs now. Even Courtois’ sky gives a warm, open impression since he tempered the blue sky not only with the radiant bright yellow sun, but also with brown hues in the clouds.

If the picture had to evoke a rapid impression of action and energy, Courtois also defined its structure to support this feeling. Slanting lines are always the lines of movement. So Courtois grew his scene from the lower right upwards. Very many lines of swords heaven, horses, and figures are slanting and also in various directions. Courtois’ scene grows to the left, upwards, and Courtois did not even position Joshua in the middle, but skewed his figure to the left, so that symmetries around Joshua could not easily form. Such symmetries of shape, colours, balance of areas, would bring static and stability again in the picture, and fixed positions of figures. Courtois wanted to avoid that above all.

When we find for instance in Johann Heinrich Schönfeld’s pictures of battles epic grandeur of mystery, we find in Borgognone’s images the swirl of mighty action. We cannot recognise in Courtois’ picture the enemy and Joshua’s soldiers. It is impossible to tell who is who, so that only the impression of the battle itself was of value for this painter. He also had to show that the battle was fierce, rapid and vicious, so he painted fallen horses and fallen, dead soldiers.

Jacques Courtois yielded to a fashion of paintings of heroic battles, painted in fine colours and with the dash of rapid brushstrokes that appealed to the quick, flaring and sometimes dangerous tempers of the noblemen of Rome. He had a great sense of drama and epic, and together with his fine skills of a professional painter, he delivered scenes that are still agreeable to look at.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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