Joshua and the Emperors


This story, based on the book of Joshua, is taken from the book Shay Lamora volume 2, by Solomon Zarqa and Judah Darmon, published in Leghorn, Italy, in 1864. The book is an encyclopedic commentary on the book of Exodus, very similar in nature to the Judeo-Spanish classic, Me`am Lo`ez, written in the vernacular current in Algeria. But it is not a translation of that work, and is quite independent. I found it to be a rich source of the now extinct Lingua Franca and you can find further details about Zarqa and Darmon's book on this website. It is a delightful book, written in a simple yet rich style, containing an amalgam of biblical exposition in the rabbinic mode, folklore, folk medicine, and sage advice. It was being reprinted in Tunisia as late as the thirties of the last century, but there are few people now qualified to enjoy its racy style and attractive content. Works such as this were frequently studied in synagogues by those who did not have a thorough command of Hebrew. The translation which follows is a small sample of its delights.

Joshua and the Emperors

The following happened when Joshua son of Nun killed thirty-one heathen kings and seized their cities. Joshua 12.24 Afterwards he besieged the city of Jericho, the name of whose king was Emperor Shobach. When Shobach heard of the attacks that Joshua was making, and of the power of the children of Israel, and of the miracles that God was working for them, he became troubled and deeply disturbed, and could hardly contain himself, for he feared that they would come and fall upon him and attack him too. So he sent letters to everybody, and told of the power of the children of Israel, and that they should gather courage to fight against the children of Israel. He wrote: "We must go and fight them. You too must participate. We shall go at one time and destroy this people of Israel! You know that they are a great army, very powerful, and one of them can beat a hundred of us. Therefore, if all our people do not band together at one time and destroy them, they will smite both you and us with a mighty blow, and soon our names will be blotted out from the world. Therefore, be men, O our brothers! Let us join together, you with us, and we with you, and thereby your manliness will be evident."

When the letters from Shobach reached them, they too were filled with apprehension, and immediately all the kings of the world gathered their troops, and announced that everyone who was skilled in battle, fighting weapons, and snares, and was fit, should present himself and bring along his sword to fight the Israelite forces on a certain day. Whoever would be absent and not come, his sin would be on his head. Then there gathered forty-five kings, and each king brought an innumerable host. These kings came altogether, and gathered before Shobach on one day. The forty-five kings gathered together and had a conference in the presence of the Emperor Shobach, and they decided unanimously to write a letter to Joshua the son of Nun, and inform him that he should present himself to battle.

This is the text of the letter which they sent to him.

Greeting from the forty-five elect, powerful and gracious kings, among whom is the King of the Medes and Persians. The undersigned bid peace to Joshua son of Nun.
We beg to inform you that you should not become proud, O wolf of the forests. We know well everything you have done to our friends and allies. You have torn down their houses, and destroyed their cities, and slaughtered them young and old with the sword, attacking them mercilessly. Therefore we beg to inform you that you should prepare yourself, for, thirty days from this date, we shall march against you to attack you, and your people the children of Israel, and we shall destroy you with the sword. Moreover, we inform you that you should not say that we came treacherously to attack you; and be informed that we number forty-five kings, great, powerful and exalted. Each one of us has 600,000 soldiers, each of them a sword-toting hero, well trained in fighting. Amongst us is the powerful king, famous in strength and deeds of heroism, Japheth. Therefore, get ready, and do not imagine that we came upon you unawares. Farewell.

Emperor Shobach and Emperor Japheth.

They entrusted the letter to a fast messenger, who brought it immediately to Joshua. When Joshua received this letter, it was the day of the Pentecost festival, which is the day of the giving of our holy law. Joshua opened the letter and saw what was written in it. A great sadness entered his heart. He did not want to reveal the news to Israel, because he feared they might be grieved, and leave off their joy in our holy Torah. So on the day after the holiday, Joshua gathered them all together in a public place and said: "Give me your attention, because I have something to talk to you about." All the Jews said together: "Yes sir, we are obedient to whatever your honor orders us." Thereupon Joshua mounted a platform, and took that letter from his pocket and read it to them word for word. When he had finished reading, he said to them: "You know, O my brothers, how many kings I attacked and conquered. And I know that before I began to attack them, I was never afraid of them at all. But this time great fear and dread has entered into me. You must understand the explanation of this."

When Israel heard Joshua speak to them in this way, fear entered their hearts also, and they trembled greatly. But right away they plucked up courage greatly, and spoke up and said to Joshua: "O our master, O long-lived one. You know that we have neither opinion nor desire in this matter. We are like sheep, and you are our shepherd. Where you lead us, we shall follow you. We put our heads under your feet. As we were obedient to our master Moses, so we are obedient to you. And if your honor feels that you should respond to their letter, do so and prosper. Pay no attention at all to what they say and declare, for the living and enduring Lord of the Worlds is our helper. He can destroy and remove them in a twinkling, without even a battle."

Joshua said to them: "That is just what I thought too. I have a letter to send to them which I shall read to you."

This is the text of the letter:

In the name of God, the exalted and powerful God of the children of Israel, Creator of all the worlds, who weakens the strong, and abases the powerful who are rebellious and hypocritical. He punishes sinners, and protects the just, the noble and the generous. He is the God of all gods, and Lord of lords. There is no master like him, nor any fit to worship beside him. He is the God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Lord of wars, God is his name. From me, Joshua, son of Nun, servant of God, may He be exalted, and from the holy congregation, pure and elect, of the children of Israel, the noble ones of the worlds, the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to the congregation of the wicked idolatrous peoples, may God curse them and be angry with them continually, amen. We inform you that you have aroused the lion from its thicket, and the lioness from her drowsing, and brought great injury upon yourselves in your accursed congregation, wherein you have assembled against us and sent us an announcement. We want you to know that he has brought you to us, the pure and holy congregation, and your meeting with us is known to us. Therefore, be it known to you that I am going to do you a favor in not bothering you to come here to attack us. No, you can stay at home and remain at work, for one week from now I the undersigned will present myself to you, and I will bring along just a few men of the children of Israel, and we shall wage a fierce war with you with the help of God, may He be exalted. And we shall kill all your troops, young and old. We shall not return until we destroy you from this world, and not a single one of you will be left to tell the tale. Moreover, even though you number forty-five kings, and you boast of your soldiers that they are numerous and experienced, be it known to you that I and my congregation rely only on the Lord of the World, who created heaven and earth and everything in them, by whose command Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, and who brought the waters of the flood on the world because they were disobedient. Noah saved his children from the waters of the flood, and from them were descended all mankind who are in the world, and the globe was divided among seventy nations. And we, the children of Israel, were made to pass through the middle of the sea to the number of 600,000 souls, and the sea became absorbent like the land. The light of God went before us in a pillar of cloud and fire, and 12,000 of us killed five kings of Midian. And we killed the sorcerer Balaam with the sword, and he was surely stronger than that Japhet on whom you rely. But we did not lose a single one of the children of Israel.
We have a leader whose name is Phineas, who has trumpets and bugles, and when he blows on them, all our enemies fall on the ground and die. It is indeed apparent to me that you know what God, may He be praised, did to Pharoah King of Egypt, and to all his people, for the punishments he imposed on them were even stranger that the miracles he showed them. Finally, he drowned them all in the sea. Moreover, you are aware of what he did to that dog Amalek and his army, and to Sihon and Og, kings of the Amorites and Bashan, who were the most notorious kings in the world. By God's power we destroyed them from the world. You are aware what God, may He be praised, did for a period of forty years that we dwelt in the wilderness. He gave us the manna and the quails, and clothed us in miraculous garments. When we grew, our clothes grew with us, and they stayed new, not getting old or worn. There were additional miracles which God wrought for us, innumerable and endless. If you rely on the hero Japheth, why, we rely on Him who is stronger than the strong, higher than the high, and more powerful than the powerful, God who is sole and without partner, may He be praised.

The servant of God, Joshua son of Nun.

When Israel heard the wondrous text of the letter, they approved it, and were greatly encouraged, and said to Joshua: "We hope you will send it off without delay." Immediately, Joshua signed and sealed the letter, and gave it to the messenger to deliver it. When he came to King Shobach and the other kings who were with him, he handed over the letter to them, and told them of the dominance and superiority of Israel, and how Joshua was sitting as ruler with a crown of authority of his head, on which was inscribed the Tetragrammaton. When they heard what he said, they read the letter, and comprehended its contents, and great fear and trembling overtook them, and they regretted that they had brought about their own destruction, and did not know what would become of them.

Thereupon Joshua son of Nun gathered the soldiers of Israel to the number of twelve thousand warriors carrying with them swords and javelins for the attack. Within one week they rode and fell upon Shobach and the rest of the kings. When Shobach saw the army of the Jews, and their height and stature, and the light shining in their countenances, he was paralyzed with fear, and confused and astounded to the extent that he did not know how to begin to repel them. He then summoned the rest of the kings who were with him and said to them: "You observe the countenance and stature of these people. I see that for sure they will destroy us utterly. Figure out something so that we can save ourselves." They took counsel with one another, and concluded that they had to go and get advice and guidance from Shobach's mother, who was a witch. This witch was very wicked, and very expert at witchcraft. They went to her and told her the whole story. She told them to go and relax, and not worry at all, because she would take care of their affair and work her witchcraft and lock up Joshua and his army inside the seven iron walls of Jericho. (Jericho had seven walls, one inside the other.) Her incantation reached Joshua and his army, and they found themselves inside the seven walls, and they could not find a way to get out and enter the city. Joshua was weeping and imploring God to help him, and then it occurred to him to write a letter to Yaniah of the tribe of Reuben, who was ruler of the two and a half tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh, to bring his army, and Phineas too with his loud-sounding trumpets. When he had written it, he could not find anyone with whom he might send it. Night fell while he was considering the matter, when suddenly a dove came to him. He decided to send the letter with her, because this bird is known to be reliable, as we find in the case of Noah, who dispatched a dove. Moreover, the community of Israel is compared to a dove, as the verse says: "Do you lie between the sheepfolds, wings of a dove?" Psalm 68.14 So he took that dove, and tied the letter to her wing and released her. Immediately she flew off to Yaniah. When she reached his territory she came and stood before Yaniah, and flapped her wings until she gave him a headache. Yaniah took her and examined her, and found a letter tied to her wing. He opened it and read it, and he became very sad. Immediately he sent a crier to the square with a drum and other instruments, and gathered all his army, and also summoned Phineas. He read them the letter from Joshua, and immediately they made up their minds. Then Yaniah and his army rode off, and Phineas with his pipers, and they reached Joshua in Jericho. When the witch the mistress of witchcraft saw them, she called to her only child Shobach and said to him: "My son, know that today I cast a horoscope and found a star ascending in the east. I said I would repeat the horoscope, and I found that powerful star rising, and no one can overcome it."

When Joshua wanted to enter Jericho, he gathered together before him all Israel, and gave them orders and told them: "Be it known to you that all the gain and profit from Jericho is utterly forbidden. No Israelite is permitted to benefit from it even to the extent of a single needle. I ask you this favor, that you take care to get Rahab the harlot and her family out of the city. Pay careful attention to them so that no one hurts them. But the city of Jericho you should set on fire and burn. Gather together all the gold, silver, brass and iron that you come across and put it all to sacred use." All Israel accepted all that Joshua had commanded, and said: "To hear is to obey."

However, a certain man by the name of Achan son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zarach, of the tribe of Judah disobeyed Joshua's orders. When he entered Jericho he came across a Babylonian cloak, and the sum of two hundred shekels, and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels, and took them and hid them, and no one disturbed them.

After Joshua took the city of Jericho, he sent some men to scout the city of Ai, so that they might go and take it. They answered Joshua and said that it was a small city, and he should not bother sending the whole army. Just one or two thousand men could take it. Thereupon Joshua gave orders to three thousand men to attack Ai. They went and were unsuccessful in their attack, and Yair son of Manasseh, who was accounted like thirty-six righteous men was killed. And when Israel saw God's decree that the righteous man was lost, and they could not take the city, they straightway returned to Joshua, and repeated the story to him. When Joshua heard of their victory which had occurred, he immediately gathered the elders of Israel, and they made a great lament, and put dust on their heads, and fell on their faces before the Ark of the Torah with great weeping. Joshua arose and prayed to the Holy One, blessed be he, and implored him and said: "Master of the universe! Get us out of the straits in which we are. For if the Amorites, Canaanites and other peoples hear of the defeat we have sustained they will assemble against us, and destroy us from the world, God forbid.

The Holy One, blessed be he, answered him and said to him: "Why have you allowed such sadness to enter your hearts? Why are you punishing yourselves thus? Put your mind at ease. However, this is the reason for your trouble. A certain Israelite has transgressed the ban I have enacted. Greed has tempted him, and he has taken some of the goods of Jericho, and on his account this thing has befallen you. You must take notice of this and search for the guilty party until you find him. For so long as he is not exposed, Israel will have no success in her attacks, and will constantly lose to her enemies. When you come across the guilty party, you must judge him and burn him, because he transgressed the ban, and caused harm to Israel."

Next morning, Joshua arose and gathered all Israel and set each tribe separately. He made them all pass in front of the Urim and Thummim. When the turn of the tribe of Judah came, the stone which was in the Urim and Thummim lost its brightness. Joshua understood and released the other tribes. He took the tribe of Judah, and divided it into families, and cast the lot over them. The lot fell on the family of Zarah. He then gathered all the men of the family of Zarah, and cast the lot over them. The lot fell on Achan, the guilty party. Joshua took him and said: "My son, I want you to confess to me your guilt, for you see the trouble that has befallen Israel. So do honor to the God of Israel and confess." Achan replied to him: "I am surprised that you trust the lot and want to harm me. If I cast the lot on you and Eleazar the priest, it would have to fall on one of you, even though you are the leaders of Israel, and I know that both of you are blameless. Hear then the reason that you should not trust the lot." Joshua said to Achan: "For God's sake, do not slander the lot. You know that our master Moses wrote in the holy Torah: 'The land shall be divided only by lot.' Numbers 26.55 So you had better confess the truth, and have no fear."

When Achan heard what Joshua said, he understood it to mean that he would suffer no harm in this world. But Joshua was referring to the world to come, while in this world he must be punished. Thereupon he confessed and said: "I have sinned against the God of Israel. From the great lust of my heart, temptation deluded me, and I took some of the things of Jericho. I have hidden them in such and such a place. I also confess to you that this is not the first time I have done it. In the time of our master Moses, I acted similarly in one of the cities which Israel captured, and they proclaimed a ban that no one should benefit from its booty. But temptation deluded me, and I benefited therefrom." Right away Joshua brought those things from Achan's house, and he took them in his hand and threw them in anger upon the ground. He raised his eyes to heaven and said: "Master of the universe, for such trifles you have to bring an evil decree against Israel!"

They took Achan and all his herds, and cast them into a blazing fire. His family and all Israel were present at the spectacle, so that thereafter they would be careful not to do such things. However, our sages, peace be upon them, declared that Achan would have a share in the world to come, learning it from the verse the Lord trouble you this day. Joshua 7.25 This means that on that day only he was punished. But he will gain admission to the next world because he made confession and repented.

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Alan D. Corré