JOSHUA WAS THE MOST corpulent man of his people. He would eat anything and everything edible that he laid eyes on: grasshoppers, fruit, eggs, meat, whether raw or cooked, plants and roots and ants; he was always chewing something. He would even devour bones and seedpods, since his eating knew no bounds. His corpulence was not only confidence-inspiring and majestic, it was larger than life, even supernatural. His name meant “God is salvation.”
He ate not from normal hunger or greed. No, he ate because it was the essence of his being. Eating was his way of relating to his surroundings. God had made him a nibbler and a guzzler. He ate from love and impassioned benevolence; his progress through the world was motivated by an irresistible urge to infuse external things with his own self, to take possession of all matter, to use and consume every substance he could possibly appropriate.
When Moses died in the land of Moab and God had buried him, and Joshua became the leader of the people—he was the only imaginable leader because he stood out more prominently than other men; the others merged into the mass of the populace, but Joshua in his immensity was always distinctive, and tangibility and visibility were indispensable attributes for the ruler of a people who otherwise only followed an invisible or at least transparent God—he went up to the summit of Mount Nebo and saw the land that God had promised them; grinding a sheep’s ear between his molars, he gazed upon their future homeland with impassive and covetous piety, and said to Gaddiel the butcher-cook-counselor who was always at his side:
“On the horizon I can see a ewe with four lambs. Before those lambs are old and tough, that’s where we shall be.”
For so it was: where the land of Canaan met the sea, at a distance of fifty Egyptian miles, stood a ewe with her lambs. And Joshua thought: God is saving those lovable little lambs for me in all their childlike innocence.
A lamb is fully grown at the age of one year, and at four starts to become tough. So in the space of four years Joshua and his people would conquer the whole of the land of Canaan, the promised land, the ancestral realm, paradise, the earth that is blessed.
They crossed the River Jordan, its waters parting for the ark of the covenant of the Lord and for Joshua’s barge-like figure, and then they took Jericho, slaying all the men, women, oxen and sheep and asses, sparing only the elusive chickens and doves and a harlot named Rahab.
After a year and a half they came to the city of Ai, which they torched and turned into a pile of rubble. They slaughtered the twelve thousand inhabitants of Ai and hanged the king from a tree until he was dead. God had commanded what they should do: they should do as they wished.
When two and half years had passed they came to Gibeon, the royal city of the Hivites. The Gibeonites sent emissaries to them with a hundred wagonloads of meat, cheeses, eggs, and dates, and two days and nights of continuous eating produced in Joshua such a state of saturation that from weariness and voluptuousness he made a treaty with the Gibeonites; he conquered peacefully and let them live, and they yielded to his will and surrendered in gracious fury.
Three years were soon gone and the lambs that Joshua had seen from Mount Nebo were now full-grown sheep and their flesh was becoming ever coarser.
Then the kings of Jerusalem and Hebron and Jarmuth and Lachish and Eglon gathered together with all their hosts to seek both peace and the annihilation of the ravenous parasite Joshua.
And Joshua perceived that against five monarchs and five armies the unobtrusive tramping and smiting and warring and temperate slaughter that had heretofore been his mode of action would no longer suffice—this time he would have to achieve something over and above the ordinary, something exceptional.
“I feel an urgent and impatient desire for a miracle,” he said to Gaddiel. He was gnawing on a roasted ox-head, an ox-head the size of his own. They were standing on one of the bare hills to the north of Gibeon, the multitudinous enemy camped below them, a gentle rain falling.
“A miracle?” said Gaddiel.
“Something manifestly counter to Nature,” said Joshua.
“Nature?” said Gaddiel.
“Yes,” said Joshua. “Nature.”
“What do you mean by Nature?” Gaddiel asked.
“Nature is everything that is inherent in Creation,” said Joshua. “It is all the attributes of Creation. The first cause of matter. The created world in its entirety. Creative motion. The world order. Every physical thing on earth and the innate forces in all that is created.”
“I always thought that Nature was the soil and the flowers and the sweet little animals,” said Gaddiel, distractedly fingering his huge butcher’s knife.
“Your concept is much too circumspect,” said Joshua. “You are too undemanding. The hungrier and thirstier the concept, the greater and more satisfying Nature becomes.”
“So is Nature stronger than God?” asked Gaddiel apprehensively.
“God is invisible Nature,” said Joshua. “It is this invisibility that we worship.”
“So God is part of Nature?” said Gaddiel.
“God is the only natural thing there is,” Joshua asserted. “God’s absence would be unnatural. A God who does not exist is inconceivable.”
“But,” said Gaddiel, “wouldn’t the miracle you desire be incompatible with God if God is all that is natural?”
“The supernatural and the unnatural are naturally inherent in Nature,” said Joshua. “And God has created us human beings to rule over it all.”
“Do we then rule even over God?” asked Gaddiel fearfully. “Can we command God to perform miracles?”
“As long as we live, God belongs to us,” said Joshua.
“Then we belong to God.”
“So while we live our power over Nature is absolute?” said Gaddiel.
“By God!” said Joshua. “That’s right!”
“I’ve always thought that Nature was subject to eternal and immutable laws,” said Gaddiel. “The law of gravity and the laws of motion and the law of extinction and the law of digestion and the laws of heat and cold and the law of love.”
“We human beings are above all laws,” said Joshua. “No law in the world can withstand our burning desires and our persistent cravings.”
“Your presumption frightens me,” Gaddiel whimpered.
“Even mankind’s monstrous presumption is part of Creation,” declared Joshua. “Man’s presumption is a manifestation of Nature’s longing to be uncreated again and at peace.”
“Yes,” said Joshua. “Peace.
“Nature is so unfathomable,” he continued, “that even in Creation rent asunder, the individual parts can still experience peace independently and alone.”
And then he roared, “O Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon! And thou, Moon, in the Valley of Ajalon!”
And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, and all the animals froze in their tracks or in flight and the insects and raindrops hung suspended in the air and reptiles no longer crept upon the earth and all the enemy below them were paralyzed and rigid. Yea, even time itself ceased to move. Only Joshua and his people remained in motion, and all the stones that had been held in place in the heavens by the laws of motion and the dictates of time fell to earth and destroyed half of the five kings’ armies. And Joshua and his people went down to the enemy’s camps and slit the throats of those still alive, all who had not been slain by the hail of stones. They made no haste, since they had all the time in the world. They were the only ones in the world who had time, while the hosts of the five kings sat or lay or stood completely immobile to be beheaded with the edge of the sword, devoutly, not to say God-fearingly. They were within the unfolding miracle and took their extinction as completely natural.
And thereafter, when the requisite hacking and slaying had been satisfactorily accomplished, Joshua signaled with his bloodied hand to God or perhaps directly to the heavenly bodies that they could sail or glide on again, and immediately the whole of creation awoke from its stupor and muffled creaking and time sluggishly resumed its course.
And so Joshua and his people streamed forth onto the plains where the land of Canaan met the sea, until at last they came to the ewe with the four lambs. The lambs were now full-grown sheep, and Gaddiel slaughtered them and skinned them, and Joshua straightaway helped himself to the thickest chine, snatched it out of Gaddiel’s hands and began to tear and gnaw at it with his teeth, the glistening blood trickling down his beard, and at the corners of his mouth you could see the not quite dead flesh still twitching. So unfathomable is Nature that even as slaughtered meat the flesh can still live independently and alone.
Translated from the Swedish by Tom Geddes
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.