Caleb's daughter - Achsah the Pushy

READING: Joshua 15.13-19

Achsah is almost forgotten in the Bible. She has just a few verses
- no-one remembers her story or her name, partly because it keeps changing
- Bible versions have several spellings for it: Achsah, Akhsah, Acsar, Aksar, Axa
- but she is someone who refused to give up. She was pushy and got her way
- and the Bible seems to celebrate that fact – it even tells her whole story twice
- Judges 1.12-15 repeats everything recorded in Josh.15 in case we missed her story

Here's her story, as we have it. There isn't much. It is very abbreviated:
- her father Caleb offers her as bride as a prize to whoever does a job for him
- the job is the tricky one of capturing the town Debir from its Canaanite inhabitants
- presumably it was a fortified town which was being unfriendly to Israelites
- Othiel, his nephew, took the city, so he got the bride, Achsah
- she asked her husband to ask her father for a field. We aren't told what happened
- suddenly in the next sentence she is jumping off her donkey in front of Caleb
- he's as surprised as us, the readers, and asks what she wants
- she said: "You've given me land in the Negev (ie desert land). Give me springs too
- so he gave her land with two lots of springs.

OK, now we have to read between the lines a little, to un-abbreviate the text
- it looks like when her husband asked for a field, Caleb gave him desert land
- not very generous. But Caleb was that kind of guy. He didn't make things easy
- like millionaires who want their children to make their own way in life
- we don't hear what Achsah said to her husband when he returned from her father
- though their neighbours could probably hear her angry words quite clearly
- but we do know what she did: she jumped on her donkey to demand some springs
- we don't know if she had to argue or threaten or plead or wheedle them from him
- but we do know that he had met his match and gave her two sets of springs

That's put a bit more flesh on the story, but we don't really understand it yet
- to understand it properly we have to understand Caleb and conquering the Land
- once we understand the sort of person Caleb was, then Achsar comes into focus
- we have to discard all that we thought we knew about conquering the Land

In Sunday School we probably learned that Joshua's army conquered Palestine
- they crossed the Jordan, destroyed all the cities, killed all the people and settled
- it didn't happen like this. Archaeologists tell a different story and so does the Bible 

But before we annoy all the Sunday School teachers, lets get acquainted with Caleb
- here's a picture by Paul Kidby which accurately represents what is in my head
- he is actually a character from a Terry Pratchett novel I love, but it is appropriate
- the Bible tells us that Caleb was old, stubborn, and brave to the point of stupidity
- he was one of the 12 spies sent to see if the Promised Land was worth conquering
- they all reported back that the land was full of fierce enemies including giants
- they all said: We look like grasshoppers to them. Lets go somewhere else.
- Caleb and Joshua disagreed. They said: Bring them on. We aren't afraid
- God is on our side and we will win, whatever the odds against us  (Numb.14)

That's when they left Egypt. That generation spent 40 years in the Wilderness.
- at the end of 40 years, everyone in that generation had died except Joshua & Caleb
- they were still saying: Bring them on! And they'd convinced the  new generation
- by this time Joshua and Caleb were old men, but that didn't stop them
- Joshua was the commander, and perhaps that gave him some slack
- although he led the march round Jericho he "sent" an army to Ai
- but Caleb didn't lead from behind in any way at all.

After about five years in Canaan, Caleb stomped up to Joshua and said:
Josh.14.10-12:   … "I am  eighty-five years old!  11 I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out; I'm just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then.  12 Now give me this hill country that the LORD promised me that day. You yourself heard then that the Anakites were there and their cities were large and fortified, but, the LORD helping me, I will drive them out just as he said."
- there are still heroes like him "I'm 85 you know, but I've still got my own hips."

Caleb demanded his cut of the land, but he didn't ask for a cushy bit
- he asked for land which was rebelling against Israel and hadn't yet been conquered
- he asked for Hebron and the surrounding land inhabited by the Anakim
- this includes the area of giants that the other spies had shied away from
- huge men like Goliath, 9-foot tall and strong. They didn't scare Caleb
- we don't actually read about his defeat of Hebron, but it goes without saying

Caleb had a harder task. Finding a son-in-law. This is never an easy task
- I warned both my daughters that whoever they chose wouldn't be good enough
- how can you find someone who is capable of protecting your most precious child?

- Caleb found a way: he devised a test: break into a fortified town and conquer it
- anyone who can do that might be just about good enough to protect his daughter
- bravery the size of a gorilla was in his genes. His nephew Othniel did it
- and as a result he was entrusted with Achsah

 

He also got the privilege of renaming the town. Kiriath Sepher became Debir
- there's a nice play on words. Kiriath simply means "town" and Sepher is "book"
- so this town was called "Book". But Othniel reduced its status considerably
- when he finished, it wasn't even called "Paragraph" or "Sentence"
- it was merely called "Debir" which means "Word".

Wait a minute: Why did he have to conquer this town. Wasn't it done already?
- in chapter 10, the Debir and Hebron attacked Gibeon who had allied with Israel
- so Joshua sent in the army who defeated them and it says he killed everyone:

Joshua 10:38-40  38 Then Joshua and all Israel with him turned around and attacked Debir.  39 They took the city, its king and its villages, and put them to the sword. Everyone in it they totally destroyed. They left no survivors. They did to Debir and its king as they had done to Libnah and its king and to Hebron.  40 So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded.

So was Cohen a trickster or a coward? Was he defeating a defeated city?
- did he ask Othniel to sneak up to an empty town and raise a flag in it?

This is where we have to forget everything we learned in Sunday School
- Joshua did not conquer the land of Palestine and kill all the Canaanites
- we know this from archaeology which shows only a few towns were burned
- and the Canaanites carried on living in Canaan for many more centuries
- we know that because where Israelites live, there aren't any pig bones
- and pig bones continued to be discarded in rubbish tips in many areas

Also, this simplistic view of conquering Canaan is different from the Bible
- when you read through Joshua carefully, you find a very different story
- Ken Kitchen showed this very well in his Reliability of the Old Testament" ch.5
- he points out that Joshua and their army only fought when they were attacked
- and afterwards they always retreated back to Gilgal where they lived
- that’s why, when we get to Judges, they are still struggling with enemies
- they destroyed three cities: Jericho, Ai and Hazor – and only them.
- Jericho was more of a military outpost than a city at that time, and Ai was small
- and they were both on their doorstep at Gilgal, so they couldn't just let them be
- but for other cities, the text summarises:  Israel did not burn any of the cities built on their mounds--except Hazor, which Joshua burned.  (Josh.11:13)

It is true that it says they killed everyone, but it also says "as the Lord commanded"
- what did he command? He commanded that they kill everyone who attacks them
- and they were NOT supposed to kill all the women and children in the city
- and any men who decided not to stand up against Israel were left alone
- most people didn't live in cities, but in the surrounding farms and farmhouses
- cities were were administrative and military centers with some houses and shops
- when they faced up to an enemy they called in all the men willing to fight
- it was these men who were killed when Israel defeated their enemies

Joshua was told to do different things at different times
- Jericho, the military outpost, was destroyed completely, even the animals
- Ai, the small town which stood up to them, was destroyed but not the animals
- Gibeah, which surrendered to them, was left alone but gave Israel wood and water
- Hazor was the only other town which was destroyed, as far as we know

Deuteronomy 20 tries to make sense of this with some general rules in hindsight
- you fight only if you are attacked, and if they surrender, you don't kill them (v11)
- if they don't surrender, you attack and kill all the fighting men (v.13-14)
- (there was no other choice - there were no prisoner-of-war camps to put them in, so if they didn't kill them, they'd simply attack again once your back is turned).
- but sometimes they were told to kill everyone, including women and children
- Deut.20 says this is only "the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance"
- you could interpret this as any city within the borders of Israel
- or they are special cities designated by God – those he specifically gave to them
- and from reading Joshua, it looks like that's how they interpreted it

But the language they use sometimes seems to say the opposite
- it often sounds as though they killed everyone, or devote them to total destruction
- but they don't literally mean it – it's like footballers saying: "we slaughtered them"
- Ken Kitchen points out that we find the same kind of language in other documents of the time – they are just formulae which aren't meant literally

- how do we know Deuteronomy didn't mean it literally? Well, listen to this:
Deut 7:2-4   When the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.  3 You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons,  4 for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. 
- this says they were "devoted to complete destruction" – ie everyone was  killed
- but if this is literal, how can it go on to say: "You shall not intermarry with them?
- although sometimes this "devotion" meant destruction, usually it didn't.

Israel did kill any soldiers who attacked them – they had to
- and occasionally they killed a whole population in a town set against them
- perhaps this was because they knew the children grow up to take revenge
- in many cultures it is incumbent to take revenge for family deaths even in war
- but this was very rare – it happened on only three occasions as far as we know

 

Israel conquered Palestine mainly by replacing their religion
- they pushed out the child sacrifices of Molech and cult prostitutes of Baal
- they got rid of the fertility cult of Astate and prayed to Yahweh, God of creation
- their God didn't demand sacrificed children or sex with priests for crop or rain
- Yahweh created all things and gave good things to the just and the unjust
- and the Canaanites were gradually converted to understand this
- but many were justly afraid that the Israelites would take over, and fought back

So yes, Caleb did have to subdue Hebron again. It quickly built up a new army
- and Othniel did have to defeat Debir even though Joshua had defeated its army
- and the Israelites were struggling to occupy the land for the next 400 years
- the time of Judges wasn't a time of reversal but a time of ongoing struggle

One final twist in the story of Achsah.
- we can see now where she got her pluck and pushy determination
- from her father, who refused to give in to anything, even to old age
- he finally met his match when his own daughter stood up to him
- she demanded some good land as well as the desert scrub he'd given her
- actually she got twice as much as she demanded – Upper and Lower springs
- so perhaps her father was a softy in the end, at least with regard to his daughter

But women who were pushy and stood up to men later became offensive and wrong
- later, when the Greek culture took over the world, the role of women changed
- women were supposed to know their place and keep out of the way of men
- they had their own quarters and stayed there while the men worked and played
- this story offended the Greeks who translated the Old Testament in 200 BC
- so they made a subtle change in their translation which was normally very literal
- instead of translating literally that Achsar "told her husband to ask her father"
- they wrote "she suggested to him: I will ask my father…",
- so they turned Achsah, a strong determined daughter of Caleb into a dutiful wife. 

Personally I prefer the Bible as it was – with Achsah as a strong pushy woman
- women like Achsah who stood up to the Canaanites, fighting when necessary
- women like Achsah carved out a new life in the Wild West of America
- whatever misgivings we have about the way Indians were treated, most of the new immigrants were just settlers in a harsh land which they turned into fertile fields
- women like Achsah were at the forefront of many missionary movements
- brave women served Jesus abroad when they weren't allowed to serve at home
- and women like Achsah now serve in all branches of the church
- where would the church be without them?


God has given us all kinds of talents and temperaments
- some have the courage to stride forward without anyone showing the way
- others of us prefer to follow in paths which have already been tested
- some of us are fearful of what people think, of hardship and of failure
- others don't care about any of those things, but want to explore further
- we are all different, and God made us for different tasks in his Kingdom
- so long as we all acknowledges God as King and seek his will we should all get to the right conclusion, even if we find each other's methods irritating sometimes.
- we should respect each others gifts without jealousy or disrespect
- because whatever our characters, we are made in God's image for his glory.


 


 

(C) Dr David Instone-Brewer 2011



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