Dan's pseudo-conquest

Joshua as an anticipation, Part I

Having looked at a number of ways in which the book of Joshua looks backwards to what has preceded it, I now turn to some of the ways in which it looks forward to matters yet to unfold.

The various identities of the tribes and their distinct narratives have come into focus as I've listened to the Former Prophets lately. Here, I sketch some initial reflections on the narrative arc of one particularly interesting example: Dan.

The latter part of the book of Joshua records various distributions of lots of land to the tribes. After the trans-Jordanian tribes, Judah, Ephraim and the other half-tribe of Manasseh inherit their land, there remain seven tribes without land apportioned to them. Of these remaining distributions, the seventh and final lot goes to the tribe of Dan. (We might recognise the names of some of the town they inherit in the story of Samson, such as Zorah, Eshtaol and Timnathah/Timnah.)

However, this inheritance doesn't seem to work out for them:

And the territory of the Danites fell from their hands. And the Danites went up and did battle with Leshem [or, Laish] and took it. And they struck it with the edge of the sword and took hold of it and dwelled in it. And they called Leshem Dan, like the name of Dan their forefather. [Joshua 19:47, The Hebrew Bible]

This episode is told in further detail towards the end of the book of Judges, in the section about Micah the Ephraimite and his idols. The story is quite familiar: the people are wandering yet without an inheritance, they send men to spy out some land, the spies find some suitable land, the spies report to the people that the land is indeed very good, and thus the whole people come to strike the people of that land with the edge of the sword and burn their cities with fire. Along the way, a Levite joins in their mission and speaks some kind of oracle to ensure their success.

This is, of course, a retelling—yea, a parody—of the Exodus and the conquest of the promised land. The Levite from the house of Micah functions for them as a fake Moses: we discover at the end of this sordid episode that this Levite is the grandson of Moses.

Dan does not settle properly in the promised land as the other tribes do, and they continue as pilgrims until they can stage their own pseudo-exodus with a pseudo-Moses. Apparently, they can't fight cities of giants like Joshua did; instead, they find for themselves a quiet little town that won't put up much of a fight, and they achieve a pseudo-conquest against them. Rather than coming in with the ark of the covenant, they come in with molten images, and establish false worship in their territory. This false worship in Dan continued uninterrupted “all the days that the house of God was in Shiloh” [Judg. 18:31]; that is, until the ark was captured by the Philistines as we read about in Samuel.

The story of Dan's wanderings seems to be part of a larger picture of an incomplete conquest that is painted for us in Joshua, Judges and the early parts of Samuel. Dan, who gets the seventh lot of land (the Sabbath lot?) does not actually enter into rest in the land.

What I've sketched above might explain why Dan is (strangely) missing from the 144,000 Israelites in Revelation 7. This tribe struggled to settle in the land under Joshua and became a restless cesspit of idolatry; they are in the end unrepresented in this climactic ingathering of Israel, and thus they do not participate in the greater Joshua's conquest of his enemies.