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The Bible & History: The Conquest

The events of the Exodus are not genuinely historical. The conquest narratives rely on the Exodus as its context. Without it, it doesn’t nearly make as much sense. So, we must ask once again to what extent are the events in Joshua based on factual historical memories?

After Moses’ death at the end of Deuteronomy, Joshua is appointed commander in chief and given the task of leading his people into Canaan, the promised land. He is presented as a sort of second Moses, leading the Israelites through the parted waters of the Jordan River much like Moses did in the Red Sea. Rather than a staff, the source of Joshua’s miracles is the Ark of the Covenant. After crossing the sea all of the men are circumcised, as required by Yahweh. It is interesting to consider why Moses, the giver of the law, would have let all of these men go uncircumcised throughout the forty wandering years such that they would need to have it done prior to the conquest. Nevertheless, they are now ready for battle.

The book of Joshua marks the beginning of what scholars call the Deuteronomistic History, which consists of all of the books from Joshua through 2 Kings. This is a history that spans over 600 years, from the emergence of Israel in Canaan to the Babylonian Exile. It is believed to have been compiled in two stages – part of it during the reign of King Josiah in the 7th century and the rest during the Exile as a means to bring the history up to date. That Joshua was compiled much later than the events it describes (and certainly not written by Joshua himself) is a consideration that will become important as we take a look at this book of the Bible.

The conquest itself is described as a lightning-fast takeover of Canaan by a band of people who had been wandering in the desert for forty years. That such a rag-tag group could have defeated the professional armies of the kings of Canaan in such a short period of time does seem more than a bit unrealistic, but the authors, of course, wanted to emphasize the fact that Yahweh was on their side. The conquest is a continuation of the Exodus story that I established in the previous series would have occurred, if historical, during the second half of the 13th century. Since the conquest would have happened shortly after those events, this would place it between 1230 and 1220 BCE (additionally, remember that the Merneptah stele gives evidence that Israel as a group of people living in Canaan existed by 1207 BCE). As it happens, archaeology has a bit to say about Canaan during this time period.

I’ve already explained in a previous article why the events of the Exodus are not genuinely historical. The conquest narratives rely on the Exodus as its context. Without it, it doesn’t nearly make as much sense. So, we must ask once again to what extent are the events in Joshua based on factual historical memories?

Joshua’s first act as commander in chief is to send two spies to the city of Jericho. Jericho is a very ancient, fortified city that sits in the Jordan valley 15 miles northeast of Jerusalem. Evidence appears for human occupation at this site dating back as late as 9000 BCE. The two spies discover that the citizens of Jericho are extremely fearful and on edge. To avoid being captured, they take refuge in the house of the prostitute Rahab. In exchange for helping them escape, Rahab asks that the Israelites spare her house and family when they attack.

But instead of attacking, Joshua has seven priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant circle around Jericho once a day for six days. On the seventh day, the priests circle around Jericho seven times, blow their trumpets, and after the people give a shout the walls of Jericho come tumbling down (with the exception of the house of Rahab). Every living thing inside Jericho, except for Rahab and her family, are slaughtered and offered as a sacrifice to Yahweh. The city is burnt completely to the ground and Joshua lays a curse on the land, saying that whoever decides to rebuild it, he will lose his first born after laying the foundations and will then lose his youngest son after he sets up the gate. As it is, some 300 years after this purported time, during the reign of King Ahab, Jericho was rebuilt and flourished until invasions of the Persians and Arabs destroyed it in the 7th century CE. It was rebuilt once again by Crusaders four centuries later.

Naturally, archaeologists have studied ancient Jericho’s site extensively. The findings, however, look very poor for the Biblical account. They found that there are no signs of a settlement of any kid in Jericho during this time period (13th century). Jericho a century earlier was tiny, unfortified, insignificant, and does not bare any traces of destruction. It did exist as an Israelite fortified stronghold, however, by the time King Josiah was on the throne and this history was first compiled.

The next city that the Israelites target is Ai, which literally means “ruin”. That’s not a very flattering name for a city, to be sure. The name, then, is probably symbolic rather than historical. Joshua’s first attempt is unsuccessful, so Joshua pleads to Yahweh, who tells Joshua that He was not with his army because an Israelite soldier stole some booty from Jericho. This is but one of many examples in the Bible of the collected guilt and punishment of many for the acts of one. When the sinner is discovered, he, his family, and his flocks are stoned to death. The sinner’s name is Achan, which means “trouble”, and is obviously another symbolic name rather than a historical one.

Once the bodies of Achan’s family are burned, Yahweh loses his “burning anger” and Joshua’s second attempt is highly successful. While a small army draws Ai’s army out of the fortified city, a second army of Joshua’s ambushes the defenseless city and burns it to the ground. Unlike Jericho, which seems to have been defeated strictly by a divine miracle, Ai is portrayed as being taken through sheer strength and clever tactics alone.

The Bible describes the location of Ai as just east of Bethel. A site has been located there and excavated. Significantly, the modern name of the site is et-Tell, which means “the ruin”. Again, however, archaeology found that this site was not occupied during this time. It’s ruins date from nearly 1000 years earlier. Neither Jericho nor Ai existed when the Bible tells us that Joshua attacked and conquered them. (See The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, pg. 82 or The Oxford History of the Biblical World, pg. 96).

After the destruction of Jericho and Ai, the Bible tells us that fear spread throughout the other cities in the region. The Gibeonites send messengers out to plead for mercy to Joshua. They tell him that they are foreigners and are not natives to the land, so Joshua decides to make a peace treaty with them. The Gibeonites, however, were not natives. The city of Gibeon was located some seven miles west of Jericho and five miles south of Ai. When Joshua finds out about this deception he honors the treaty but reduces the Gibeonites to slaves. That Joshua would have honored a treaty based on a deception seems rather unlikely. Isaac Asimov suggests on page 216 of Asimov’s Guide to the Bible that the book’s author needed a way to account for the fact that some Canaanite cities remained independent throughout this time, and that this was an easy way of doing so without taking away the glory of Joshua’s military conquest.

Joshua commands the sun to stand still

While this was going on the king of Jerusalem created an alliance with the kings of Jarmuth, Lachish, and Eglon. Their combined forces marched around Gibeon, which they wished to force back to the Canaanite side. Joshua and his men march all night long from the Jordan valley and surprise the coalition forces. Yahweh throws the armies into a panic and kills most of them with stones from heaven. Joshua 10:11Open Link in New Window says that more men died from the giant stones than from Israelite swords. Night was falling but Yahweh and the Israelite army was not done slaughtering just yet. Here we come to the famous scene in which Joshua commands the sun to stay still in the sky until all of the killing is finished.


So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the LORD listened to a man. Surely the LORD was fighting for Israel! (Joshua 10:13-14Open Link in New Window)

That such a phenomenon actually occurred is of course, impossible. Thomas Paine noted back in the 18th century that such an event would have undoubtedly been noticed around the world. One side of the world would have wondered why the sun didn’t set while the other half would have wondered why it never rose. Either way, such a fantastic event would have been universally recognized and recorded. Yet, the author of Joshua is the only person to have ever mentioned it.

After the Israelites finish their slaughter of the allied armies, they continue to destroy Canaanite cities in the south, completely conquering the region. They then prepare for their next major conquest at Hazor.

If you return your attention to the quote from Joshua citing the sun standing still, you will notice that there is a reference to the “Book of Jasher”, which is presumably a book of poetry that is now lost. This is important in recognizing that an eyewitness or Joshua himself did not write the book of Joshua, since the author cites another book as a source for the miracle of the sun. Also significant is that when Joshua makes the Gibeonites slaves of Yahweh, the Bible says that they remained slaves “to this day”, suggesting that the author is writing much later than the events he is describing (additionally this phrase occurs elsewhere). Joshua 24:29Open Link in New Window records the death of Joshua with four more verses left in the book.

Returning to Gibeon, excavations of the site of biblical Gibeon reveal what should now be a familiar picture: Gibeon simply did not exist during the time of the Conquest, but existed much later. The same holds true for three other Gibeonite cities, Chephirah, Beeroth, and Kiriath-jearim. For the third time in a row we discover that the author of Joshua cannot possibly be recording historical truth.

At this point in the Bible, a coalition of Canaanite forces lead by Jabin of Hazor battles the Israelites up north in Galilee. Joshua’s forces completely destroy the armies and burn the city of Hazor to the ground. “Everyone in it they put to the sword. They totally destroyed them, not sparing anything that breathed, and he burned up Hazor itself” (Joshua 11:11Open Link in New Window). With this victory Joshua laid claim to the entire promise land, which was subsequently divided up among the tribes of Israel. “So Joshua took the entire land, just as the LORD had directed Moses, and he gave it as an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal divisions. Then the land had rest from war” (Joshua 11:23Open Link in New Window).

Unlike the other 3 locations discussed, Hazor did exist as a flourishing city with temples and palaces during the 13th century (supposed time of the Conquest). Even more shockingly, the city was utterly destroyed—set ablaze to be more exact—sometime during the century in question. In addition, the cities of Aphek, Lachish, and Megiddo were also destroyed sometime around this same time period. All are said to have been destroyed by Joshua in the Bible. Despite the lack of evidence elsewhere, this would seem to confirm at least a portion of the Conquest tale, wouldn’t it?

Not particularly. Scholars have postulated a number of different theories for the sudden break down of these important Canaanite economic centers, including sudden climate changes or widespread famine. Either way, some intensifying crisis could have lead to conflicts over agricultural systems between neighboring cities in Canaan. An internal war could have broken out across the land. What is for certain, however, is that the destruction of these cities was not caused by a single army. The “archaeological evidence shows that the destruction of those cities took place over a span of more than a century. The possible causes include invasion, social breakdown, and civil strife” (The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, pg. 90). Thus, the destruction of these cities does not confirm the book of Joshua’s account.

This page was last modified on November 13th, 2009 at 7:16 pm

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