Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

The Invasion According To Joshua and Judges

Posted by foryourfaith on September 9, 2011

 

After Moses’ death, according to the Bible, the Israelites entered and conquered the “Promised Land.” The best known version of the conquest (Joshua 1-12) begins with Yahweh’s instructions to Joshua, Moses’ successor; “. . . go now and cross the Jordan, you and this whole people, into the country which I am giving to them. Every place you tread with the soles of your feet I shall give to you” (Joshua 1:2-3). There is then a description of how the unified tribes, under Joshua’s leadership, systematically conquered within a few years the land west of the River Jordan. The narrative ends with a list of conquered kings.

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Most of the cities of the 31 Canaanite kings whom Joshua supposedly conquered can be probably or definitely located. Jericho, Ai and Hazor are explicitly said to have been destroyed. After Joshua’s conquests, there was still “a great deal of territory left to be taken possession of” (Joshua 13:1). This includes the lands of the Philistines, Avvites, and Sidonians.

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A more fragmentary version of the conquest, supposedly relating to the time immediately after Joshua’s death, appears in Judges 1-2:5. Apparently contradicting the Joshua account, it describes the Israelites as only just beginning to gain a foothold in Canaan. The conquest is described in terms of sporadic military operations by individual tribal groups. Judges 1 concludes with a list of important cities whose inhabitants the various tribes did not drive out, including several which Joshua is supposed already to have conquered.

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The Book of Judges begins by describing the conquests of Judah, Simeon, Caleb and the Kenites, mainly in the south. Bethel was by the House of Joseph. The Israelites “could not, however, dispossess the inhabitants of the plain, since they had chariots” (Judges 1:19). Many important cities, particularly in central and northern Palestine, remained unconquered.

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The discrepancies between the two accounts have led to widely differing ideas on the nature of the conquest. Early scholars tried to harmonize the two versions by explaining that, although Joshua conquered the land, the tribes delayed taking possession of it. Many scholars still hold a modified form of this view. They maintain that Joshua’s initial conquest involved certain key cities which weakened the Canaanite city-state system. This made possible a second stage of conquest, when the tribes gradually gained complete possession of the land.

Other scholars think there was a gradual movement of the nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes into the Palestinian hill country. These tribes initially coexisted peacefully with the Canaanite cities. Later, the Israelites became sedentary farmers and moved into the arable lands of the city-states. There they came into conflict with the Canaanites and sometimes resorted to military conquest. This view rejects a sweeping, unified conquest under Joshua. It is based more on the Judges account, and on other selected passages, which are generally agreed to belong to a more reliable and older tradition.

The third approach maintains that there was no conquest from outside but an internal revolt against the Canaanite authorities by exploited elements of the rural population. The Hebrews are equated with the habiru – the term habiru seeming to denote individuals or groups who were in some way outside the social system.

There is not yet any definite solution to the problem. Certainly, examples within the context of Near East history show that such a “conquest” usually occurs as a result of the gradual infiltration of new groups rather than a sudden violent invasion. If the Joshua version is ignored, the other Biblical sources more or less support this interpretation of events.

Contrary to what the Biblical account implies, the tribes almost certainly came into being after the settlement in Canaan. Some tribal names apparently came from the names of regions where the people settled, such as “mountain of Naphthali,” and “desert of Judah.” The Joshua account, which in fact refers almost exclusively to the small territory of the tribe of Benjamin, was probably used by the later writers as the basis of an idealized, rather than an actual, pan-Israelite conquest.

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The inscription on the Merneptah stela, which dates to the late 13th-century BC, probably refers to a small scale Palestinian campaign by the Egyptian pharaoh. It is the earliest text which explicitly mentions Israel. Israel seems to be located in Canaan, perhaps in the Judean hill country. The way the name is written indicates a “people,” so it seems that at this period Israel existed as a people but not yet as a nation.

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Archaeology and Biblical Scholarship

Most scholars date the “conquest” of Canaan to the end of the Late Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age (thirteenth to twelfth centuries BC) and see the process of settlement continuing until the time of David. In view of the conflicting nature of the Biblical sources, archaeological evidence is of prime importance in any attempt to reach the truth.

Attempts to correlate the archaeological and literary evidence in relation to particular cities mentioned in the Biblical account have not on the whole been successful. Of the three cities specifically said to have been destroyed by Joshua – that is, Jericho, Ai and Hazor – the first two were abandoned at this period or had only an insignificant population. Some other places mentioned in the conquest account were also uninhabited. Hazor, however, was destroyed at about this time. The Israelites may have been responsible, but the destruction could equally well be attributed to other factors. The same holds true for other cities which show evidence of destruction, such as Bethel and Lachish.

In the more densely populated areas of Syro-Palestine, there is no marked break in continuity between the Bronze and Iron Ages. There is, however, a significant change in the pattern of settlement. With the beginning of the Iron Age, numerous unfortified villages appear in hitherto unsettled areas, particularly the central an southern hill country and parts of Galilee. There are a few villages on abandoned mounds such as Arad and Ai, and villages supersede the Bronze Age cities of Hazor and Megiddo. These villages had an economy based on agriculture and stock breeding. It is tempting to equate this new settlement with the Israelites, but so far nothing definite can be said of the origin of these settlers.

 

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