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Joshua: The Conquest of Canaan

1 Introduction

2 Campaigns of Conquest (1–12)

3 Tribal Territories (13–21)

4 Covenant Considerations (22–24)

5 Joshua as a Book

Study Guide


Achan, Ai, Ark of the covenant, Cities of refuge, Conquest, Divine warrior, Etiology, Gibeon, Gilgal, Habiru, Hazor, Holy war, Jericho, Joshua, Lots, Rahab, Shechem



According to the Bible, Canaanites were the inhabitants of Palestine at the time the Israelites, led by Joshua, entered the Promised Land. Modern historians ask whether Israelites were Hebrews from an exodus that left Egypt or were they really themselves Canaanites.

Source: P. E. Newberry, Beni Hasan, Volume I (London, 1893), plate XLVII.


Palestine has been the object of conquest for thousands of years. As the land bridge linking the African and Asian continents, it was highly desirable for military and economic reasons. Past conquerors include the Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, and the Turks. Jews living in Palestine asserted their independence from the British in 1948 and founded the modern state of Israel.

The book of Joshua is the story of how the Israelites entered the land of Canaan to create a homeland. Under the leadership of Joshua, the descendants of Jacob, now called the Israelites, entered Canaan and began to settle there. The book of Joshua picks up the story where Deuteronomy left off—the death of Moses. It exhibits

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both historical and thematic continuity with the Torah. One of the central themes of the Pentateuch was the promise of land, and the book of Joshua details the actualization of this promise.

The book of Joshua consists of three major sections. Chapters 1–12 contain stories of military confrontations with Canaanites, resulting in victory for the Israelites. Chapters 13–21 delineate Canaanite territories that were distributed among the twelve tribes of Israel. Chapters 22–24 wrap up the book with Joshua bidding farewell to the Israelites.

1.1 Conquest of Canaan—A Summary

The book of Joshua begins by citing the death of Moses. God spoke to Joshua, Moses’ successor, and encouraged him to lead Israel into the land of Canaan (Joshua Chapter 1). Joshua sent two spies to Jericho to provide intelligence before the battle. There they met Rahab, a Canaanite who assisted them (2). The Israelites crossed the Jordan River and went to Gilgal where all the men were circumcised (3–5). They attacked Jericho and were victorious (6). But Achan stole some property in the process, so the Israelites lost the battle of Ai the first time; they succeeded the second (7–8). The Gibeonites became allies, but Israel attacked other cities, including Hazor (9–12). Although many territories were not taken (13), Joshua divided the conquered areas among the tribes (14–19) and designated cities of refuge (20). The Levites were given towns but no tribal lands (21). The tribes settled in their territories (22), and Joshua gathered the people to Shechem for his final address and for covenant renewal (23–24).

1.2 Reading Guide

Read the first eleven chapters. This is the main narrative portion of the book that consists of the episodes of conquest. In these chapters, the Israelites rapidly take control of Palestine after only a few military campaigns. They were united under Joshua’s leadership and were devoted to the covenant. Consider how this portrayal of the process fits the agenda of the Deuteronomistic historian. Then ask yourself how the total pacification of Palestine by violent conquest fits within this picture. Does the Bible really condone such violence? Does the narrative actually depict it as total? Lastly, read Chapters 23–24, which describe the end of Joshua’s life and the covenant renewal occasion that it prompts. How does this fit Deuteronomic theology?


A straightforward reading of the book of Joshua suggests that all the Israelite tribes were united in one mighty fighting force that was led by Joshua and they stormed into Canaan and settled there. But be alert to hints that it may not have been quite so simple; a close reading of the books of Joshua and Judges suggests that the settlement was a long and complex process.

2.1 Joshua’s Commission

After Moses died on Mount Nebo (Deuteronomy 34), Yhwh designated Joshua to take over as leader of the Israelites. Besides maintaining a connection with

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Deuteronomy by its references to Moses, see how the introduction to the book of Joshua in Chapter 1 stresses the qualities of leadership Joshua must possess to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land:

After Yhwh’s servant Moses died, Yhwh spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, “My servant Moses is dead. Get up now and cross over the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land I am giving to them, the Israelites. I have granted every place on which the soles of all your feet tread, just as I told Moses I would do. These will be your boundaries: from the wilderness and the Lebanon as far as the great river, the Euphrates—the land of the Hittites all the way to the Great Sea in the west. No one will be able to resist you as long as you are alive. Just as I was with Moses, I will be with you. I will not fail you. I will not abandon you. Be strong and courageous, for you will enable this people to inherit the land which I swore to their fathers I would give them. Just be very strong and courageous. Make sure you do all the Torah which my servant Moses commanded you. Do not veer from it right or left. In that way you will succeed wherever you go. Do not let this book of the Torah be missing from your mouth. Recite it day and night, so you are sure to do what is written in it. Then your way will prosper and you will succeed. Have I not commanded you?—Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified or frightened. Yhwh your Elohim will be with you wherever you go.” (1:1–9)

This passage contains Yhwh’s speech commissioning Joshua as the new leader of his people. Yhwh does three things here: he encourages Joshua, he defines his responsibilities, and he assures him of God’s continued presence. The vocabulary and sermonic style of this passage clearly mark it as Deuteronomistic. Many of the same phrases are found, for example, in Deuteronomy 31:1–8 where Joshua received his first commissioning—phrases such as “Be strong and courageous” and “Do not be terrified or frightened.” Note also the following features of this passage.

Moses is repeatedly called “Yhwh’s servant.” This is a title of honor and reflects that Moses was dedicated to God’s service. The title “Servant of Yhwh” is a favorite Deuteronomistic description of holy men and was applied primarily to kings and prophets in Deuteronomistic literature. Nelson (1981) observes the royal quality of the language here and the close relationship between Joshua and Josiah of Judah, who was king in the later 600s. The “book of the Torah” of Moses, which was to be Joshua’s leadership manual, recalls the book by the same name discovered in the temple during Josiah’s reign (see 2 Kings 22:8, 11). Recall that most scholars hold the view that this book is Deuteronomy. These correspondences lead some scholars to suggest that Joshua is intentionally presented as the precursor and model of Josiah: Both sought to establish the state of Israel in Canaan (see Finkelstein, 2001).

The death of Moses signaled the start of the occupation of Canaan. Moses was not allowed to enter the land himself because he disobeyed God at Kadesh (see Numbers 20:1–13 and Deuteronomy 32:48–52). Moses’ death marks a major transition in Israel’s history.

Notice the geographical markers in the text. The Jordan River is the eastern boundary of Canaan. The land lying to the east of the Jordan was called Transjordan by the Israelites. Such a term obviously presupposes a position within Canaan for that land to be called the “across the Jordan” land. Still, certain Israelite tribes did claim

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territory in Transjordan at various times, including Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh. The reference to “the wilderness” is ambiguous. It could mean the eastern Arabian Desert or the Sinai/Negev to the south.

The boundaries of the Promised Land laid out here define the northern and western borders in an expansive way. The territory promised to the Israelites extended as far north as the Euphrates River. The Abrahamic covenant (see Genesis 15:18) and the Mosaic covenant (see Deuteronomy 1:7) also extended the Promised Land to the Euphrates River. Not coincidentally, the boundaries specified here in Joshua appear to align with the territorial extension of the Davidic kingdom; see 2 Samuel 8:3, which extends David’s reach far into Syria, if not all the way to the Euphrates River. The point is that the eventual Davidic kingdom was viewed as a fulfillment of God’s design going back to Joshua, Moses, and Abraham. Chapter 1 ends with Joshua instructing his helpers to prepare the people to cross the Jordan River. They accepted his leadership and obeyed him, thereby demonstrating the effectiveness of his authority.

2.2 First Campaign: Jericho and Ai

In preparation for the invasion, Joshua sent two men across the Jordan River to infiltrate Jericho and discover its weaknesses. The spies found an accomplice in Rahab, a Jericho prostitute. She hid them from the king of the city-state of Jericho and in return extracted a pledge of protection from them: When they attacked Jericho, she and her family would be spared.

Before the spies left, Rahab uttered an amazing profession of faith (2:8–13). She, a Canaanite, expressed her belief that Yhwh had providentially given the land of Canaan to the Israelites. The spies brought back an encouraging report, no doubt intentionally in contrast to the report of the ten cynical spies in the wilderness (see Numbers 13–14). Israel was ready to attack.

The priests picked up the ark and left Shittim, heading for the Jordan River. When their feet touched the waters of the Jordan, it stopped flowing, and the people crossed over on dry ground. This miracle of the crossing parallels the miracle of crossing the Reed Sea (see Exodus 14), and by association with Moses and this miracle, Joshua’s leadership is again validated. Furthermore, these two crossings bracket the early history of the Hebrews: Yhwh delivered them from oppression crossing the Reed Sea on dry ground, and he brought them into the Promised Land crossing the Jordan River on dry ground.

Once the entire group had crossed over, a representative from each tribe picked up a stone from the river bottom and carried it to Gilgal (see Figure 6.1). Together they erected a twelve-stone monument to the crossing. One of the historical–theological motifs of the book of Joshua is remembering. The events to be remembered include this miraculous crossing that Yhwh engineered, the victory over Jericho, and especially the making of the covenant. As you read the book of Joshua, note how the Israelites were to remember the work of Yhwh and how each event was marked with a physical memorial, usually a heap of stones in some distinctive formation. This twelve-stone monument is just the first of many such monuments.

Also at Gilgal, Joshua had all the male Israelites circumcised. The core of this circumcision story appears to be an etiology—that is, a story explaining a phenomenon well known to the writer and his original readers. In this case, the pile of foreskins left over after the mass circumcision (notice that this is another “heap”—hence a

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FIGURE 6.1 Israel Entering Palestine

memorial) was used to explain the place name Gibeath-ha’araloth (5:3), a place presumably in the vicinity of the crossing. The name literally means “Hill of Foreskins.” This etiological tale was then taken up by the writer and incorporated into the narrative to make a significant point about the spiritual disposition of the Israelites. Those who were circumcised were of course the second generation of Israelites since the departure from Egypt. That they were uncircumcised implies that the first generation had been unfaithful in yet another way. They had failed to perpetuate the essential sign of the covenant (see Genesis 17). The Deuteronomistic historian used this story of circumcision as the occasion to condemn the generation that left Egypt because they had not listened to the voice of Yahweh. However, if other people had joined the Hebrews along the way, as some revisionist historians argue, this may have been the initiation rite that bound them to the Hebrews.

Gilgal, the first stopping place in the Promised Land, had additional significance. There the Israelites kept the Passover celebration for the first time since its founding in Egypt on the night of the Exodus. This was supposed to be a yearly celebration, yet it was the first time it had been observed since leaving Egypt. The text again suggests that the second generation was faithful whereas the first had not been.

Finally, with an unmistakable sign, Yhwh signaled that the Israelites had finally arrived in the land of promise: The manna that had sustained them for forty years in the wilderness ceased. Why? They no longer needed miraculous feeding because the produce of the “land flowing with milk and honey” would amply provide for them.

2.2.1 Commander of Yhwh’s Army

In a curious encounter between Joshua and a supernatural being prior to the battle for Jericho, Joshua’s understanding of Yhwh’s role in the conquest became clear:

When Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and was surprised to see a man standing right in front of him. His sword was unsheathed in his hand. Joshua walked up to him and said to him, “Are you on our side or are you against us?”

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He said to him, “Neither. I am the commander of the army of Yhwh. Now I have come.” Joshua fell face down on the ground and did obeisance. He said to him, “What does my Lord have to say to your servant?” The commander of Yhwh’s army said, “Take off your sandal from your foot, for the place on which you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. (5:13–15)

On first meeting this “man,” Joshua thought he was just another soldier. He innocently asked him if he would be joining the Israelite cause, or was he on the Canaanite side? When his identity as a representative of Yhwh became clear, Joshua immediately humbled himself by falling face down to the ground. This “commander” is probably to be identified with the “angel of Yhwh,” who appears elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, most notably in the ancestors’ encounters with God (Genesis 16:7–10; 22:11, 15; 24:40) and to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:2). As commander he was in charge of leading the conquest of the army of Yhwh, elsewhere called “the host of heaven.

The meaning of this story is elusive and questions remain because the account is so sketchy. One possible interpretation is that this encounter would teach Joshua who was fighting for whom. This meeting clarified that Yhwh does not fight for Joshua, as if Yhwh was at Joshua’s command. Yhwh’s army retains its independence, with Joshua fighting for Yhwh. Perhaps the writer is issuing a caution to all Israel’s kings that they should remember they are not in charge—Yhwh is—and that the army is at divine command, not theirs.

The directive to take off his sandals is similar to that in Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush (Exodus 3). This experience of Joshua parallels that of Moses and further reinforces the legitimate succession of Joshua, as well as the need for him to accept his servant status and honor the holiness of Yhwh. The statement that “this is holy ground” originally marked the site of this encounter as a holy place. Used now within the context of the Israelite movement into Canaan, it confirms that this was the “holy land,” implying that Yhwh dwells here.

Cryptic though this story is, it is of signal importance, much as the other events at Gilgal were. Such a meeting with God’s representative, a theophany, indicates that Yhwh is now present and accessible in the Promised Land. The fight for the holy land can now begin. The first battle is over Jericho.

2.2.2 Jericho’s Walls Fall Down

The story of the famous fight against Jericho does not detail the military side of things. It does not describe the armor of the Israelites or any siege devices. Rather, the account describes the battle as a sacred event. Notice the centrality of the ark of the covenant, the sacred storage box for the covenant documents, which doubles as God’s throne and marks the location of his presence.

Jericho was closed and inaccessible because of the Israelites. No one came out and no one went in. Yhwh said to Joshua, “See, I have given you control of Jericho, including its king and soldiers. Have all the men of the camp walk around the city. Circle the city one time. Do this for six days. Seven priests will carry seven ram’s horn trumpets before the ark. On the seventh day you will circle the city seven times, and the priests will blow the trumpets. When the ram’s horn sounds, when you hear the sound of the trumpet, let the people shout loudly. Then the wall of the city will fall down, and each person can go straight in.” (6:1–5)

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Notice the repeated use of the number seven. This stamps the event as priestly and holy. The number seven is associated with the divinely ordained structure of the week. Remember the priestly account of creation (Genesis 1:1–2:4a). The seventh day, the day the walls fell, would naturally be considered the Sabbath, although this is not stated in so many words. The fall of the city, taking place on the seventh day, Israel’s holy day, marks the victory as the work of Yhwh. Remember that this story may have taken its final shape in the exilic community for whom circumcision and the Sabbath were central to their sense of identity.

2.2.3 Divinely Sanctioned Violence

The army followed Yhwh’s instructions and the city walls collapsed. Entering the city was now possible through breaches in the fortifications, so each soldier went straight in:

They devoted to destruction by the sword the entire city: man and woman, young and old, cow and sheep. (6:21)

The phrase “devoted to destruction,” sometimes called “the ban,” refers to the divine injunction to destroy the entire population of a city along with all its material goods. This injunction has often been referred to as holy war though the phrase is never used in the Bible. This approach to conquest views Yhwh as the divine warrior who alone fights the battle and achieves the victory, therefore to him alone belong the spoils. By killing and then burning the entire city, everything was given over to the deity. In principle, the Israelites were not allowed to benefit personally or materially from the victory.

The instruction to totally eliminate the Canaanite enemy was commanded to effect a complete separation between the incoming Israelites and the indigenous Canaanites. As the account of the book of Joshua goes on to describe, this instruction was not carried out to the letter. The result was that many Canaanites remained in the land, and the eventual spiritual problems of the Israelites were traced to this shortcoming: The Canaanites lured the Israelites into following after foreign gods.

The notion of divinely commanded violence continues to be a problem to many of those who hold the Hebrew Bible dear. For many modern readers, it is a scandal that Israel’s God should have mandated the complete destruction of a human population. Can the same rationale be used in the postbiblical age to justify war against “heathens and infidels” as happened during the Crusades and at other times? How should we deal with the warfare ideology of the book of Joshua?

There is no easy answer, certainly no acceptable justification, but certain issues should be considered. For one thing, the biblical narrative may be an idealization; that is, perhaps the Israelites never consistently enforced the ban or completely destroyed a resident population. That they did not might be, in hindsight, the Deuteronomistic historian’s theological explanation of why pure Yahwism never took hold. Also, the results of archaeological investigations are inconclusive, but they do suggest that there was no complete destruction of Jericho or most of the other cities cited in the book of Joshua at the presumed time of Israel’s incursion. In other words, the archaeological record suggests that the ban was never in fact completely carried out.

The generally accepted date of Joshua’s incursion into Canaan is the late 1200s BCE. This puts it at the end of the Late Bronze Age or early in the Iron I Age.

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Archaeologists have not found any remains of a fortification wall that date to this period at the only possible site of ancient Jericho, Tell es-Sultan. By the time Joshua would have arrived there, Jericho already had a venerable history of many millennia. The excavations have revealed a fortification wall and tower dating to the Neolithic period (8000–7000 BCE). Walls dating to the Early Bronze Age (third millennium BCE) were at one time attributed to the age of Joshua, but this correlation is now known to have been in error. Fortified walls dating to the end of the middle Bronze Age have been identified. Wood (1990) claims that the archaeological evidence of this destruction correlates well with the biblical description of the Israelite battle but only if Joshua’s battle of Jericho is dated earlier, as suggested by Bimson (1978, 1987).

According to the narrative, Jericho was a pile of burned rubble after the Israelites were done with it—another monumental heap. It was never to be rebuilt as a reminder of the power of Yhwh and the Israelites over the Canaanites, and anyone attempting it was cursed. Nonetheless, Hiel of Bethel later rebuilt it and at considerable cost (see 1 Kings 16:34).

After the victory at Jericho the Israelites attacked Ai. Expecting only minimal resistance, Joshua sent a small raiding party against the city, yet the Israelite fighters were soundly defeated. This defeat was a sign that God was displeased with the Israelites. By casting lots—small objects that are made of clay, wood, or stone that function like dice—an Israelite named Achan was identified as the culprit. Casting lots was the mechanical means whereby God revealed his decisions. After being thrown, their configuration provided answers. Because Achan had stolen goods from Jericho, God was displeased with all the Israelites. Only after the offender was purged from their midst would God’s favor be restored.

Using a method of execution called stoning, Achan was taken outside the camp where he and his entire family were killed. Although the punishment is severe—not just Achan himself but also his entire family were killed—it has a certain logic. The act of disobedience was considered so serious that Achan needed to be deprived of any future existence in Israel. By eliminating all his offspring, his family line was forever erased from among the Israelites. It is ironic that nonetheless we still remember him through the narrative. And the pile of rocks heaped over Achan and his family was a reminder to Israel of the need for strict obedience to Yhwh.

Having been purged of the sinner, the Israelites again attacked Ai. Although the community was now right with God, still Joshua was more deliberate in his plans the second time around. He set an ambush to draw the soldiers of Ai outside the city walls, surrounded them with his men, and completely burned the city and its inhabitants. Ai in Hebrew means “ruin” (today the site is called et-Tell, which in Arabic also means “ruin”).

This story may be another etiological tale along with a clever pun. The Israelites of the monarchic and exilic periods would have known this site as a ruin, and this story told them how it had happened. Ai was a fortified city of some twenty-seven acres through much of the Early Bronze Age (3300–2000 BCE). From then until the beginning of the Iron I Age, it lay in ruins. If the conquest is to be dated around in the 1200s, there would have been no occupation at Ai at the time of Joshua. The Iron Age occupation of Ai began around 1125 BCE, covering only about two

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acres consisting of an unfortified village. Perhaps a later Israelite capture of Ai was credited to Joshua.

The account ends with Joshua covering Ai with stones “which stand there to this day” (8:29). Joshua and the Israelites were intent on leaving stone memorials wherever they went, and they all remain “to this day.” They did it at Gilgal after crossing the river, Jericho’s walls fell in a heap of stones, Achan and family were buried under stones, and here is yet another sad stone memorial. However, the next mound of rocks is more positive: a covenant memorial altar.

2.2.4 Altar at Shechem

Moses had instructed Joshua to build an altar on Mount Ebal (Deuteronomy 27:4). Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim flank the important site of Shechem in central Canaan. Here, Joshua paused with the people to recall to their memory the Torah of Moses.

Then Joshua built an altar to Yhwh the Elohim of Israel on Mount Ebal, just as Moses, Yhwh’s servant, commanded the Israelites, as it is written in the book of the Torah of Moses: “an altar of untrimmed stones on which no iron tool has worked.” They offered burnt offerings to Yhwh on it, and sacrificed peace offerings. He wrote on the stones there a copy of the Torah of Moses. He wrote it in front of the Israelites. All Israel (that is, the elders, the officers and the judges), foreigners as well as citizens, were standing on either side of the ark facing the levitical priests who carry the ark of the covenant of Yhwh. Half of them were in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them were in front of Mount Ebal, just as Moses, Yhwh’s servant, had commanded earlier, so that the people of Israel could get blessing. Then he called out the words of the Torah, blessing and curse, according to all that was written in the book of the Torah. There was not one word which Moses commanded that Joshua did not call out before the congregation of Israel, including women and children and the foreigners who lived among them. (8:30–35)

It did not take long for us to come across another rock memorial: here a pile of stones forming an altar to Yhwh. The altar was erected in connection with the ceremony of remembering the Torah of Moses—that is, the covenant God had made with Israel through Moses.

You may have noticed that this passage has strong Deuteronomic overtones. It is in fact a passage with many parallels to Deuteronomy 27:1–8, which calls for a time of remembering the covenant once the people reach the Promised Land. The event recorded here marks a milestone in the Joshua stories of conquest. This story seems to imply that after taking Jericho and Ai the Israelites were secure enough in the land that they could do what Moses had commanded them in Deuteronomy. Perhaps it attests the faithfulness of the second generation, which was a major concern of Deuteronomy.

A further note of fulfillment echoes in this passage. Although Shechem is not mentioned, every Israelite would have known that it lay between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. Shechem had significant associations. It was Abraham’s first stopping place when he entered Canaan. There he built an altar, and there Yhwh first promised him possession of Canaan (Genesis 12:6–7). Shechem also

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has important associations with the tribal federation. As we will see in Joshua 24, this is where Joshua binds the tribes together in a covenant, and it will be the site where the northern kingdom consolidates itself under Jeroboam after the ten tribes break away from Judah.

After this Shechem interlude, the narrative returns to the business of securing the land. The first campaign in the central hill country established only a minimal Israelite presence in Palestine. New territory must now be taken—first south, then north, in two additional campaigns.

2.3 Second Campaign: Five City-States

Most of the indigenous Canaanites viewed the presence of the Israelites in Canaan as a threat. But some isolated villages decided it would be to their advantage to make peace with the Israelites. One such village was Gibeon. The problem, however, was that the Gibeonites knew that the Israelites were not in the practice of making peace but were under divine orders to exterminate everyone. But the Gibeonites were clever in avoiding this. Although they lived only a short distance from Gilgal where the Israelites were encamped, they disguised themselves as travelers from afar. They figured that if they were perceived to be foreigners, who presumably held no claim to Canaan, then the Israelites might make a treaty with them.

The Israelites were tricked by this deceit and entered into formal treaty arrangements with the Gibeonites, which included a pledge of protection. Shortly afterwards, the Israelites found out that these people lived only a short distance away. They were furious but could not dissolve the treaty and still be deemed honorable. In retaliation for their trickery, the Israelites enslaved the Gibeonites, making them “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” but stopped short of exterminating them.

When the larger Canaanite city-states of the area heard of the Gibeonites’ accommodation to the Israelites, they were furious and attacked Gibeon. The Israelites were bound by treaty to come to their aid. In the process of rescuing the Gibeonites, Joshua and the Israelites defeated the kings of five important southern city-states: Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish, and Eglon. This secured the territory of what would become Judah for the Israelites. In the course of Joshua’s battle against Gibeon’s enemies, he called upon the sun to stand still in the sky to give the Israelites enough time to defeat the Amorites. “The sun stood in the middle of the sky and delayed setting for about a full day” (10:13).

2.4 Third Campaign: Hazor

A coalition of city-states in the region of the Sea of Galilee was organized by Jabin, king of Hazor, and they fought against the Israelites at Merom. Joshua and the Israelites won a great victory and finished by burning Hazor to the ground. This was a tremendous victory because Hazor was the dominant urban center in northern Canaan in the Middle Bronze Age. Though smaller in the late Bronze Age, Yadin (1972), its principal investigator, called it “the New York City of Canaan.” Hazor contains unmistakable evidence of destruction by fire in the second half of the thirteenth century BCE and was resettled by a less sophisticated people, judging by the material remains, who lived in tents and huts. Archaeologists and historians have credited the destruction and subsequent resettlement to

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Compaigns of Conquest

FIGURE 6.2 Campaigns of Conquest

the Israelites though that identification is increasingly being called into question. The site was refortified and redeveloped in the time of Solomon.

The narrator asserts that the conquest was now complete (see Figure 6.2). Note the finality of his summary statements: “Joshua left nothing undone of all that Yhwh had commanded Moses” (11:15); “Joshua took all that land, just as Yhwh told Moses. Joshua gave it as an inheritance to Israel. Each tribe received its allotment. The land had rest from war” (11:23). With the wars of conquest now at an end, Joshua set about dividing up the land among the tribes (see Figure 6.3).

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Tribal Territories

FIGURE 6.3 Map of the Tribal Territories

The ideal Israel had twelve tribes after the twelve sons of Jacob. Although the number twelve was always maintained, the specific tribes that made up the twelve were somewhat fluid. In late lists, Simeon disappears, Levi is omitted, and Joseph is divided into the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.


Chapters 13–21 list the tribal boundaries and settlements and, frankly, make for boring reading. Nonetheless, they provide a more nuanced picture of the occupation. In addition to tallying the territory taken by the Israelites, there are accounts of Israelite failures to expel the Canaanites.

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Thematically, the narrative makes a point about possession of the land. Joshua apportioned the territories on the basis of lots, the same method used to determine Achan’s guilt. Distributing the land by this means reinforced the belief that Canaan belonged ultimately to Yhwh, and God distributed it according to divine wishes.

Also notable was the establishment of cities of refuge. These were six cities to which a person could flee and find protection in case he accidentally killed another person. The intention of this provision was to call a halt to the clan feuds that might otherwise result when such accidents happened.

The Levites were given forty-eight cities throughout the land. The Levites did not have an extended tribal territory as such. Instead, they were scattered throughout all the other tribes and lived in these Levitical cities. An examination of the cities and their histories of occupation suggests that this list better reflects a network of Levitical cities in the 700s BCE rather than the 1200s. These sites appear to have been centers for Torah instruction by the Levites. The Levites appear to be responsible for the Deuteronomistic History, so naturally they would be concerned to suggest that their special cities had authorization going back to the earliest period of the settlement, the time of Joshua.

As with the account of military occupation, so with the account of territorial allotments: The account ends with a neat summary suggesting finality and completeness:

So Yhwh gave to Israel all the land which he had sworn to give to their fathers. They took possession of it and settled in it. Yhwh gave them rest on every front just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of their enemies remained facing them. Yhwh gave them power over all their enemies. Not one promise of all the good promises that Yhwh spoke to the house of Israel remained unfulfilled. Everything came true. (21:43–45)

In no uncertain terms, this summary reinforces the fulfillment dimension of the occupation—everything happened just as Yhwh had promised to the ancestors! God was with his people, giving them complete victory and perfect shalom. The phrase “house of Israel” (21:45) is used only here in Joshua. It encapsulates the notion of the unity of Israel and suggests that they are now a family living in a homeland of their own.

But how does this ideal picture compare with historical reality? The archaeological evidence from Jericho and Ai at times seems to clash with the biblical narrative. Text scholars and archaeologists have been wrestling with the historical and material evidence to reconstruct how the Israelites came to occupy Canaan. This in turn has implications for the question of the ethnic and sociological identity of the nation of Israel, which will be discussed in more detail in the next chapter.

The stories of military conquest in Joshua 2–12 account for only a small number of Canaanite cities. Conquering Jericho, Hazor, and a handful of other places does not constitute a sweeping military subjugation of Canaan. Joshua 13 mentions certain territories that remained unconquered during Joshua’s lifetime. The incompleteness of the occupation under Joshua becomes even clearer when reading the book of Judges. The first chapters contain inventories of land not taken, indicating that the Israelites were actually a minority in Canaan, subsisting primarily in the hill country. The cities and the plains were still controlled by Canaanites.

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How, then, did the Israelites eventually come to dominate the area? All indications point to a complicated and gradual process whereby an Israel established an identifiable presence in Canaan. This issue is the subject of vigorous debate, and the issue will not be resolved for some time to come. Four influential models of the emergence of Israel have developed within the academic world. Each uses archaeological, sociological, and historical data in its own way.


1. Military conquest model. This approach has been associated primarily with Albright (1949) and Wright (1962) and has been the dominant model in American academic studies until recently, perpetuated especially by Anderson (1987) and Bright (2000) This approach tends to accept the basic historical accuracy of the Joshua account and finds evidence in modern archaeological fieldwork to affirm the essential correctness of the biblical text. It suggests that Joshua led a core group of Hebrews who had escaped from Egypt into Transjordan and Canaan and secured their presence in the land. They claim the evidence of a sudden violent destruction in the 1200s BCE can be found at several city sites. Some of these cities were subsequently rebuilt but in a manner suggesting a lower level of skill and resources. This change in technique and level of material culture correlates with the transition from a sophisticated Canaanite occupation to a less-developed Israelite takeover. One of the problems with this theory, however, is that the key sites of Jericho and Ai do not evidence destruction at the expected time.

2. Migration model. This is sometimes called the peaceful infiltration model and the immigration model. Formulated by Noth (1960) and refined by Weippert (1971), this theory denies that there was any significant military action, apart perhaps from a few minor skirmishes. Instead, over a span of centuries, groups of seminomadic herdsmen began to settle in those regions of Canaan that were capable of sustaining a sedentary agricultural way of life. The entity called Israel took shape after such groups settled following a period of peaceful infiltration. They derived their unity not from shared ancestry but from a common sociotheological perspective. Each group took with them stories of their past, including their religious traditions. The stories were combined, unified, and harmonized to suggest that from the beginning the entire history was the product of the entire group. Thus, the final story, contained in Genesis through Joshua, is a synthesis of many histories. They further hypothesize that the twelve tribes were joined together as a religious league around a central sanctuary. This would be analogous to the Greek amphictyony, a religious confederacy best known from the Apollo league at Delphi. Shechem would have been the first shrine city where Joshua united the twelve tribes into a covenant league (Joshua 24); later, Shiloh became the central sanctuary. For a critique of the amphictyony hypothesis see de Geus (1976), and for a critique of Noth’s overall reconstruction, including the presumed opposition between seminomads and sedentary populations see Gottwald (1979).

3. Internal revolt/peasant revolt model. First articulated by Mendenhall (1962, 2001) and now also closely associated with Gottwald (1979), this theory holds that there was at most only a minimal incursion of foreign groups from outside of Canaan. Predominately, the birth of Israel was the result of internal political upheaval and social revolution. In the 1200s BCE, Canaan was controlled by numerous city-states, and these in turn were controlled by kings and aristocrats who oppressed the rural farmers and herdsmen. The latter became

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increasingly disaffected with the autocratic control of the urban establishment. These disenfranchised people banded together and wrestled control away from the oppressing upper class. Joshua and a small group of Hebrews were the catalyst for the insurrection. Mendenhall finds support for this theory in a known group of marginalized citizens called the habiru, the indigenous inhabitants of inferior social status who pressured the ruling establishment of Canaan. They are attested in Canaanite-related documents called the Amarna letters (see ANET, 483–490). The Hebrews may have been this kind of people, living on the fringes of established Canaanite society. Other investigators, however, have discounted any connection between the habiru and the Hebrews, pointing out that the two words cannot be linguistically related despite the fact that they have similar sounds. Furthermore, the social and political conditions described in the Amarna letters do not match the Israelite situation as found in the books of Joshua and Judges.

4. Political propaganda model. In this approach, advocated by Finkelstein and Silberman (2001), the historical narrative of Joshua, indeed of the entire Primary History (the Pentateuch and the Deuteronomistic History), was shaped in the late 600s BCE and was linked to the ambitious political program of the Judean kingdom of Josiah. In particular, Joshua and Josiah mirror each other, and the story of the Joshua-led conquest actually gives expression to Josiah’s vision of expanding Judah northward to recover and incorporate the former Israelite tribal territories into his own kingdom. Archaeological support for this view is found at the sites associated with Joshua’s conquest, such as Jericho. In addition, Finkelstein’s (1988) archaeological examination of a large number of early Iron Age settlements in the hill country of Palestine is the basis for his view that the Israelites emerged out of the indigenous population of Palestine. Therefore, the biblical account of the conquest is not historical but reflects the political geography of the 600s and the political vision of Josiah.


Because the discussion is ongoing and active, a verifiably accurate picture of early Israel’s occupation of Canaan cannot be drawn at this time, but we can say certain things about the issue. It should be granted that the story as told in the book of Joshua is to a certain extent a theo-political idealization intended to affirm the fulfillment of God’s promise of the land. Perhaps it never intended to provide a complete historical account, choosing only a few incidents of conquest to characterize the powerful work of God.

On the other hand, history and archaeology, along with hints in the biblical text, combine to fill out our understanding of Israel in Canaan at this time. Israel was certainly more diverse than authorities earlier had thought. It was apparently a melting pot of people. Remember that Rahab of Jericho was a Canaanite, yet her family was permitted to live in Israel (6:25; according to Christian tradition, she became a node in the genealogy of David and Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew 1:5). The Gibeonites likewise were incorporated into Israel though their inclusion was justified because they were made slaves. The town of Jebus remained a Canaanite enclave until David conquered it and made it his capital. Certainly a core group traced their ancestry back to the patriarchs and matriarchs, and the nucleus of the occupation force came to Israel via Egypt (see Figure 6.4). However, other indigenous Canaanite social and ethnic groups aligned themselves with this nucleus for religious and political reasons. Although the process of occupation begun under

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Merneptah Stele

FIGURE 6.4 The Merneptah Stele

This stele, a stone slab bearing an inscription, dates to the time of Pharaoh Merneptah (1224–1211 BCE). It contains the earliest historical reference to Israel in any source. This means that by the time of Merneptah, Israel had existed as a nation, so the Exodus must have happened before this. The generally accepted date of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt is 1280 BCE, with the conquest forty years later.

Photo by Barry Bandstra (Cairo:Egyptian Museum), 1987

the leadership of Joshua achieved some victories that foreshadowed complete control, the occupation efforts lasted a long time after his death and were accomplished with a combination of military coercion and peaceful absorption. Probably none of the above models alone explains what must have been a complex and lengthy process.


The last three chapters of the book draw the Joshua era to a close. Joshua exhorts the tribes to remain faithful when he addresses them in covenant renewal.

4.1 Joshua’s Farewell

Toward the end of Joshua’s life a conflict arose, and the Transjordanian tribes of Reuben, Gad, and East-Manasseh fought against the Israelite tribes in Canaan (22). The dispute was religious in nature and almost provoked a full-scale civil war.

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The Transjordanian tribes wanted to have their own worship center, specifically an altar—yes, another pile of stones! The Canaan tribes believed that Yhwh could be worshipped only where the ark of the covenant was located; at this time, it was resident in Shiloh. The matter was settled only after those remote tribes agreed to not use the altar for sacrifice but only as a memorial to the work of Yhwh. These are their words of dedication: “This is a witness among us that Yhwh is God” (22:34).

Although this is a somewhat obscure incident, it nonetheless served to make two points. First, it affirmed the religious centrality of the worship center that housed the ark of the covenant. Here, it applied to Shiloh, but the principle later applied to Jerusalem. This principle was always important to the tradition of Deuteronomy. Second, it allowed for the possibility that Yhwh could still be honored elsewhere, even in the “foreign” territory of Transjordan. Those living in exile (where these stories were finally edited) certainly took comfort knowing that, although they were far distant from Jerusalem and the temple, they were not necessarily distant from God.

The first five verses of Chapter 22 and all of Chapter 23 are heavily Deuteronomic in style and content. Chapter 23 contains the farewell speech of Joshua. Such speeches are characteristic of the Deuteronomistic historian. The farewell speeches of Israel’s great leaders typically articulate the Deuteronomic theology of covenant. The whole book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ farewell address and is all about covenant—likewise, Samuel’s farewell (1 Samuel 12) and David’s (1 Kings 2:1–9). Here in Chapter 23, Joshua stresses the fulfillment of promise and encourages the people to remain faithful to the Torah of Moses, but he also sounds a strong note of warning. The Canaanites who were left in the land would threaten Israel’s loyalty to Yhwh. If the Israelites strayed from complete covenant loyalty and worshipped the gods of the Canaanites, they would be removed from the land of promise.

These dire words of warning match what actually happened to Israel as a result of the Assyrian destruction in the late 700s BCE and to Judah in the Babylonian exile in the early 500s—not surprisingly, given the fact that this account was shaped after those experiences. But the words are not just here as an “I told you so.” They implicitly contain the theology that would enable the Israelites to make sense out of what happened to them when they were dispossessed of the land. Punishments involving removal from the land are Israel’s own fault, and restoration could come if the people renewed their obedience.

4.2 Covenant Renewal at Shechem

Joshua called all the tribes to meet at Shechem (again, compare Joshua 8:30–35). In a prophetic type of address, speaking for Yhwh in the first person, Joshua reviewed the history of Yhwh’s care: I took Abraham from Mesopotamia, I gave him Isaac, I brought you out of Egypt, I gave you the land. This historical review is reminiscent of the historical prologue section of treaty documents (see RTOT Chapter 5). Indeed, Joshua seems to be holding a virtual treaty-signing session here. He put down in writing the tribes’ pledge of loyalty to Yhwh, their overlord (24:26).

Joshua challenged the people to choose Yhwh and reject both their ancestral gods and all the gods of Canaan. The people answered, “Yhwh our Elohim we

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will serve. Him we will obey.” Joshua recorded the covenant in the book of the Torah of God and set up a stone as a memorial to the event. The stone monument would be a witness to the people’s pledge to serve Yhwh. As throughout the book of Joshua, a monument serves as a lasting testimony to the faithfulness of Yhwh and the people’s acknowledgment of God’s goodness.

This covenant commitment event helps explain how the Israelites found unity. Going back to our discussion of the nature of this early community, we recognized that early Israel was most likely composed of many different groups. Some came from outside Palestine, descending from Abraham. Others were native to the area, such as Rahab and the Gibeonites. What did they have in common? How did they find and maintain unity? It was through a common commitment to Yhwh. This commitment was formalized in covenant and was recorded in the Deuteronomic literature. It defined the people’s loyalty to Yhwh and to each other.

Concluding the book, we are told that Joshua died and the bones of Joseph, which the people had been carrying around since they left Egypt, were finally laid to rest at Shechem. Thus, the first “monumental” phase in the occupation of the land finds closure and fulfillment.


The book of Joshua contains stories and other material from many sources: sagas of military confrontation, origin stories that explain phenomena familiar to Israelites of the monarchy (the etiological tales), lists of conquered kings, and inventories of tribal territories. All of this material was organized to tell a story of lightning conquest, and it was all placed within the career of Joshua.

The book of Joshua in its final form consists of three main parts, all flowing rather smoothly in a linear fashion: the campaigns of conquest, the distribution of tribal territories, and covenant renewal before Joshua’s death. Yet the surface simplicity of the story masks an underlying literary and historical complexity, as we have seen.

Why was the conquest story told in this simplistic way? No doubt part of the reason has to do with historical memory and the creation of legends. Joshua was idealized and the sweep of victory was portrayed as absolute. The picture also has to do with the troubled times during which the story of occupation was shaped. It was crafted during the time of Babylonian domination in the late 600s and 500s BCE, so the writers placed emphasis on possession of the land as the fulfillment of promise. They stressed the faithfulness of Yhwh to his word, for they, too, were looking to retain or reclaim their ancestral homeland, to maintain a home of their own.

To that end, the Deuteronomistic historian framed the book with a theology of promise. Chapters 1 and 23–24 form the interpretive framework of the book. The opening address of Yhwh and the closing address of Joshua confirm that the occupation of the Promised Land by the Israelites was in fulfillment of a promise made to the ancestors. On this promise, projected into the future again by the exiles who heard this story, Israel based its hope. When we turn to the book of Judges, we will find that the people’s lack of faith weakened their grip on the Promised Land.

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The book of Joshua and its main hero are much loved. The book presents a confident tale of promises fulfilled, gifted leadership, and mission accomplished. The spiritual “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” is widely known and is still sung around summer evening campfires. In terms of the Bible’s master narrative, it marks the moment that Israel conquered the territory that was divinely promised and took full and complete possession of it. But the book has also become a flash point in the controversy over how to read and understand biblical history and what role archaeology should play. The issue of how to read the book theologically and historically presents significant challenges.

The book has also become the target of criticism for its ethnic exclusivity and its adoption of militaristic violence in pursuit of nationalistic goals. The book has been used throughout the ages, especially by certain Christians, to justify wars of faith against so-called pagan infidels. The book has also been used to justify on divine grounds a Jewish presence in Palestine over indigenous populations, with a predictable push back from the Palestinian perspective (see Whitelam, 1996). In addition to issues of historicity, the book of Joshua has become a much debated book within communities of faith because it challenges fundamental notions of humanity and decency. For all these reasons, it demands close and critical reexamination.



1. Joshua. In what ways was Joshua was like his mentor Moses and in what ways was he different?

2. Conquest. What were the major campaigns of the conquest and the major scholarly models of the Israelite occupation of Canaan?

3. Holy war. What is the notion of holy war and what conquest stories or parts of stories illustrate its principles?

4. Monuments. What monuments did Israel set up in Canaan in connection with conquest events? What lesson did each monument teach?


1. Archaeology. What archaeological evidence supports the narrative of the conquest? What archaeological evidence seems not to support the narrative? Given the conflicted nature of the material evidence, what do you think the role of archaeology should be in biblical studies?

2. Deuteronomic perspective. What Deuteronomic themes surface in the book of Joshua? How does the Deuteronomistic historian express his perspective in the book? How might the connection between Deuteronomy and Josiah be a factor in the way that the themes come to expression in the book?

3. Us and them. On the surface, the book of Joshua draws a hard and fast distinction between Israelites and Canaanites and advocates the removal of Canaanites from the land lest they jeopardize Israel’s covenant with Yhwh. But evidence from the book itself, as well as from archaeology, suggests that this distinction was not strictly maintained. What is the evidence? What then does the book, and hence the Bible, have to say about ethnic boundaries and religious exclusivity?

4. Holy violence. Yhwh commands what amounts to an ethnic cleansing of Palestine in order to create a safe space for Israel. Does this create an enduring biblical principle that God’s people can rightfully employ violent militaristic means to promote the creation of a nation under God and maintain its security? Are there factors within the book itself or approaches to its interpretation that might temper such a principle and perhaps call it into question? Do you think that the adoption of violence in this book and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible leads to or supports a general acceptance of violence by Jewish and Christian communities?

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War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence, by Susan Niditch (1992), examines the ethical problems of Israel’s war with the Canaanites. A student’s question regarding the Exodus and conquest, “But what about the Canaanites?”, inspired Regina M. Schwartz (1997) to write a book about religion, collective identity, and racial division entitled The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts, by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman (2001), is must reading in order to understand the challenges of contemporary archaeology and how it forces a revised understanding of how and why the Hebrew Bible was written.