The Power of the Pen

The latest cycle of Nach Yomi, an initiative to read one chapter a day of the biblical books of the Neviim (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings), began in January, and participating students are now deeply immersed in the Book of Shoftim (Judges). As I read through these holy books, which I have read at least superficially in the past, I find myself being struck by words, events, or ideas that I passed over on past readings.

For example, a few weeks ago, in reading chapter 18 of the Book of Joshua, I came upon the extraordinary instruction of Joshua to the tribes of Israel to “write” about the land of Israel. The directive comes in the course of dividing up the land among the tribes. By chapter 18, several tribes have been assigned to inherit particular portions of land, with the borders and topographical features described in great detail. However, much of the land has not yet been assigned.

Joshua’s instructions, using the Hebrew word “kotev,” the standard word used to mean “to write” in Hebrew, is an injunction for the remaining tribes to not waste their time in staking their particular claims to the land. Three representatives of each of the remaining seven tribes are to traverse the unclaimed land, and in effect produce a comprehensive land survey that will result in an equitable distribution of the land through a lottery system.

The word “kotev” appears in several verses in chapter 18 to record Joshua’s instructions to the tribes. Verse 8 is the most direct of these verses, when Joshua tells the tribes, “Go, walk through the land, describe it in writing.” 

Based upon the context of the previous chapters, it seems that Joshua is telling the tribal scouts to record their observations about the length and breadth of the land, to note its size, natural borders in the form of rivers, forests, and mountain tops, and to note the best use of the various sections of land, such as areas for grazing or planting. With three representatives of each tribe at work, the information gathered will be substantial, and will serve the immediate purpose of dividing the land, and the long-term purpose of having a record of how it was divided.

Beyond the practical understanding of this section, I read in the words a more poetic interpretation.

It feels to me like Joshua is telling the tribes to connect to the land through writing about it. These stragglers among the tribes seem reluctant to lay claim to their portions. Part of this is circumstantial – for various logistical reasons, a handful of the tribes received their portions before the others. But perhaps the remaining tribes didn’t fully appreciate the land or had misgivings about making it their long-term home. Perhaps they needed to commit their observations to writing to feel more invested, and more ready to make the transition from nomadic people to land owners.

As a writer, I can well appreciate the benefits of processing thoughts through writing them down. Even writing a seemingly dispassionate description of a place can lodge it in one’s imagination in a richer and more emotionally resonant way. Writing about a place gives it more significance, and makes us feel personally attached.

Looking back to the Book of Numbers (Bamidbar), Moses instructs the 12 spies who enter the land of Israel to report to him about the nature of the land, including its produce and its other inhabitants. The mission is tactical, but conceived with the hope (later dashed) of demonstrating the magnificence of the land to the spies, and thus to the whole nation.

The context here is different. The Hebrews have been within the land for years by this point, but they are not yet rooted. They need to feel a deeper sense of connection and ownership. When there was a group of 12 “tourists” in the Book of Numbers, a verbal report was all that was requested, and ends up failing miserably. When the children of Israel hear a negative report from 10 of the spies, they despair, and the nation is punished by wandering in the desert for 40 years.

At the beginning of the Book of Joshua, there is a second exploratory mission. Two spies enter the land to devise a military strategy, and they also bring back a verbal report. This time, the report is fact-based, and their mission is successful, resulting in conquering the city of Jericho at a time when all the tribes were united in their mission. Now, the time of apportioning the land, there is the potential for dispute about borders and other matters of land ownership. This time Joshua gives the tribes a writing assignment. 

As an aside, I was struck with Joshua’s assumption of a level of literacy among the ancient Hebrews. There is no question that there will be at least three literate members of each tribe to write down their observations. This seems noteworthy for the ancient world. Perhaps this story gives credence to the tradition that the Jews spent their 40 years wandering in the desert immersed in Torah study, and thus had a high level of literacy. In any event, Joshua gave this command without hesitation, knowing that each of the tribes would easily produce representatives capable of carrying out his writing assignment. 

Presumably, writing helped the tribes to produce an honest assessment of the land, but again, I think there is more to it. As opposed to verbalization, writing requires more commitment because more effort is involved. At the same time, formulating one’s thoughts in writing increases our commitment to those ideas. If you are invested in the outcome of a situation, you put it in writing. Joshua wants the tribes to be invested in the land of Israel, so he tells them to put it in writing.

And so they do, and this leads to a successful distribution of land parcels to all the tribes of Israel, fulfilling Joshua’s responsibilities as leader and enabling the people to move forward with settling down. Though conflicts later arise, at this moment, there is agreement among the tribes. The land gets divided, and the people can proceed with establishing agriculture and commerce through their new communities. The writing assignment has served its purpose.


Comments are closed.

Susan Jablow, Free-lance Writer

Follow Susan Jablow