The Curious Samaritan Book of Joshua

When looking back at ancient literature, at times it is best to forget what we know and take a fresh look at things. This, however, often seems impossible. We read and hear the same old things, and even if the texts are different our ears form them into the same old stories.

I recently read this book:

The Samaritan Chronicle, Or The Book of Joshua, the son of Nun.

Translated from the Arabic, with notes by Oliver Turnbull Crane, M.A.

John B. Alden, Publisher, New York, 1890

It is a book written by Samaritans that corresponds in genre to the “historical” books of the Old Testament (Chronicles, Kings) as well as Joshua (reckoned as a prophetic book by ancient Jews). It was translated from Arabic and is based on manuscripts that are less than 500 years old. However, much of the content could reach back into the Hellenistic era (3rd c. BCE) or even later. We can be sure that the final form is much later, as the history does not stop where the Biblical history does, but continues into the 5th century CE.

Contents

The contents and style of the book are hard to describe. It reads as Islamic in some sense, in that the phrases “Peace be upon him” and a few other epithets are employed regularly. But the theology is very much in line with the Old Testament, with a few exceptions. The storyline stretches from Exodus to the Byzantine period. To give an indication of what the book is like, I’ll quote the first chapter:

CHAPTER I. 

IN THE NAME OF GOD, THE COMPASSIONATE.

This is the book narrating the chronicles of the children of Israil, from the time that our master Musa (Moses), the prophet- peace be upon him- the son of ‘Amran, invested Yush’a (Joshua) the son of Nun with the Kalifate over his people.

All of this is translated from the Hebrew language into the Arabic language, after the manner of a rapid translation by word of mouth, and giving only the statement of the narrative, and nothing more: even what God- Powerful and Glorious- showed forth of signs and miracles and wonders, which man is too weak to adequately specify and describe; such as, what happened at the Urdun (Jordan), and also at the time when the giants were humbled, and with what victory and power and might and authority God came to his (Joshua’s) assistance; also what they (the children of Israel) witnessed at the time of their entering the land, besides what they witnessed in Wady el-Mujib, and on mount Sina (Sinai) and its vast wilderness, with the essential incidents of this event which God made manifest, even the quaking of its mountains, together with what there was of thunders and lightnings connected with this, and joining the fires to the very heaven, and their hearing the code of their laws from the divine and eternal voice, from whom shone forth flashes of light, representing the form of its writer, even the Creator.

Afterwards what happened to them at the greater Sea, not to mention what their adversaries witnessed in Greater Misr (Egypt), and what calamities overtook their enemies, such as Fir’aun (Pharaoh) and his army, and ‘Amlaq (the Amalekites) and its host, and Sihun (Sihon) and his kingdom, and ‘Uj (Og) the father of ‘Anaq with his sorcery, and kings of Mab (Moab) with their greatness.

Also what happened unto Qarun (Korah) the son of the uncle of Harun (Aaron) and to the company who were with him, namely that some of them the earth opened its mouth and swallowed, and they went down alive to the deepest depths, while as to others of them the divine fire came forth and consumed their bodies.

And also what happened to the people while they were in the wilderness forty years, suffering want, without a guide and with no provisions or clothing, and barely living and existing; whom the cloud overshadowed by day and the pillar of fire protected from cold by night, and whose food was the manna from heaven; and when there was need of water, our master Musa- peace be upon him- the son of ‘Amran, brought it forth for them from the rock and from the parched ground and stone, until they themselves had drank, and all that were in the company both living souls and animals.

And it shall come to pass, that when they who are possessed of intelligence, but are yet unbelieving, shall have heard of what God did bountifully bestow upon them (the children of Israel), and with what happiness He did surround them, and how He lifted off of them all calamities, whether heavenly or earthly, and also what new things He revealed unto them, then they will know that, there is no Lord but their (the children of Israel) Lord and no prophet, but their prophet, and no book but their Book, and no true religion but their religion; and (they shall also understand) the excellency of the perfect creed, and the certainly of its validity, and that it is greatest in rendering praise to the Creator- Mighty and Glorious- the One who is omnipotent to do whatever He pleaseth.

And when one shall hear of the decline of the kingdom of the children of Israil, and what calamities and misfortunes and exiles and dispersions overtook them by reason of their disobedient doings and their rebellious actions, his fear will be increased for Him from Whom nothing escapes and of Whose kingdom nothing is destroyed- Blessed be he and exalted! And now of Him do we implore complete right-guidance and all-embracing favor in His mercy. Verily He is a hearer and answerer (of prayer).”

I highly recommend reading this book for a fresh perspective on the Old Testament. The text is of little use for those wanting to reconstruct history with any kind of certainty. The stories in the book could be ancient or modern, and the transmission of the text is very much unknown.

Yet one of the valuable things about reading the text is that it references magic and miracles, heroes, and villains. It is clearly a “fantastic” work. Yet it is strikingly similar to the Old Testament, leading us to ask ourselves whether the Old Testament is a totally different ballgame or whether we simply are more familiar with the OT narratives and don’t see their fantastic narratives as actual fantasies. We believe them and accept them as authoritative.

The Samaritan Chronicle challenges the idea that we can take these ancient narratives at face value. For example, Joshua is crowned king by Moses, and a series of kings follow him. This is not found in the Old Testament, where instead no real successor to Joshua is named and a series of Judges rule “Israel” for a period of centuries. This period is marked by strife and a lack of unity, but in the Samaritan version it is marked by good kings and peace.

In the OT the book of Judges serves to show that Israel needed a king. They had Moses, then Joshua, then various judges. But the judges were less than satisfactory, and the end of the book of Judges has terrible crimes taking place in Israel precisely because they had no king. This problem is solved in the book of 1 Samuel, where the people ask for a king and God allows it. The entire search for a king in 1 Samuel is seen as a rejection of God’s rule, while in the Samaritan tradition God had been ruling through kings for centuries.

The Prophets

Samaritans do not accept as Scripture any books other than the Penteteuch, or any prophet other than Moses. This should be tempered with the realization that these statements are largely rhetorical: Moses is the greatest among the prophets, to the extent that none are like him (except the coming Messiah which he predicted). The Penteteuch is on a different level than other writings, but Samaritans did not cease to write other books (e.g. The Samaritan Chronicle) even though they were not considered Scriptural or canonical.

In other words, the Prophets (as literature) are not accepted by Samaritans. They don’t care what Isaiah said, nor what Jeremiah said. Most shockingly of all, they portray Elisha the prophet as evil!

In the next few days I will be posting some reflections on particular aspects of the story that are surprising and/or interesting.

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