When I was an undergrad writing major, I spent a lot of time in workshops discussing how the use of flat, underdeveloped characters work against a story. Often times, writers (perhaps unintentionally) incorporate these flat characters because they are easier to foist an idea onto. If you wanted to write a story about how underfunding education in this country is a problem, you might use a stereotypical teacher who has his or her hands tied in the classroom due to scant resources. Those pesky complex nuisances people possess make it more difficult to make a clear, easily-understood point. But easier doesn’t equal better, as a reader of a story populated with only flat characters can tell you.
In fiction though, a story (as Robert Olen Butler discusses in his book From Where You Dream), should be more about the character and less about an idea. Writers decide for themselves how they feel about this point. In general, though, you know when you’re being force fed an idea rather than experiencing a character. Readers, in general, don’t like to be preached to. Well, okay, some do.
One of the issues I anticipated about reading the Bible for the first time would be dealing with a bunch of flat characters upon whom a series of life lessons are foisted.
Thankfully, like other sections of the Old Testament, Joshua contains a healthy amount of interesting, complex characters who act like people and not merely flat characters who exist to illustrate a tidy point. They’re not developed to the level you would find in a novel but they feel like real people nonetheless.
Take Joshua. Although he didn’t ask to be the one to fill Moses’ shoes, he gets right to work planning the conquest of neighboring lands. And he executes his plans with a deft hand (all of chapter 12 lists his victories). He has his doubts, sure, but he knuckles down and leads his people.
He also is humanized well. When the Gibeonites fear they’re on Israel’s radar, they devise a plan to be spared (9:6). Through a trick, they get Joshua to forge a treaty with them. Even when he learns he’s been duped, he honors this treaty (9:26-27). They get stuck being slaves, basically. (Though this is better than death, right?) Even though much of the Old Testament thus far suggests that these tricksters would have been struck down once discovered, they’re handled here by a man (Joshua) who feels bound by his word, something a real, complex person would experience. A flat character would have merely punished them and reneged on the deal in the face of the trick.
Joshua is also bold enough to command the lord, ordering God to halt the sun and the moon (which he apparently does) (10:13). So we see another complex layer to him: stupidity mixed with brazenness. He’s also a bit of a braggart. In his dying speech to the Israelites (wherein he reminds them to keep God’s rules—which, silly Joshua, they will probably not), he makes mention of all the nations he’s conquered (23:4). (Though, he doesn’t give any credit to the soldiers, who had a lot to do with this too. Oh, God too, don’t forget, right?)
So clearly Joshua is a mixed of positive and less-than-positive traits.
But what’s also nice is that, for a change, a woman is shown in an active role. While on a scouting trip to Jericho (a town the Israelites will demolish), two spies fall under the protection of one of the town prostitutes, Rahab. (Given how many prostitutes have inhabited these stories, it makes sense why people refer to this as the oldest profession.)
It’s a bit unclear how she knows of the lord’s promise to Israel (the land is theirs); however, she does what she feels is right and devises a plan by which they can hide out and then escape Jericho… or maybe she’s just smart enough to know what’s about to happen and sees an opportunity. She makes them a deal: I’ll protect you if you spare me and my family. Bold choice. By putting the life of her family and her own in jeopardy, she exhibits the fortitude the bible has thus far reserved for me. Even better: she pulls this off.
Seeing the stories inhabited with characters like this remind the reader that these were people at the heart of these tales, not merely concepts upon which to hang ideas and moral lessons.
The Book of Judges is next. I wonder if Judge Judy built her personality of this book.