Was It a Military Conquest of Canaan?

17 Jan
Figures of Speech

from Google Images

Certainly Israel under Joshua engaged in military conflicts with the residents of the Land of Canaan, but to what degree is this true?[1] The Sunday school model would have us believe that this is all that occurred. Israel came into the Promised Land, destroyed the Canaanite cities and displaced the residents forcibly. Certainly the Scriptures reveal that this is at least partially true, but, when other Scriptures are taken into consideration, it is not completely so. Something more than a military campaign had to have taken place for Israel to move into her inheritance and displace the Canaanite people.

If God had commanded Israel to utterly destroy (charam – H2763) the Canaanite people (Deuteronomy 13:15), why did Joshua cease his military campaign against the inhabitants of Canaan before they were completely expelled from the Promised Land (Joshua 22:1-6; cf. Judges 1:1)? The Scripture clearly states that Israel was faithful to the Lord all the days of Joshua’s leadership (Joshua 24:31), implying that Joshua was faithful in all the Lord commanded him to do (Joshua 11:23). Therefore, if the Lord had really intended to exterminate the Canaanite people, why does the Scripture say God gave his people rest, showing they could cease their warfare (Joshua 21:44-45)?

It appears there is more to the conquest of Canaan than at first meets the eye of a cursory reader. It also seems that Israel’s first objective was to gain a presence in Canaan, that is, to infiltrate the land and gain a place to live, then to conquer the land in increments. Meanwhile, if the Canaanites wished to leave, they were free to do so. What kind of genocide or ethnic cleansing is this? Does this sound like a bloodthirsty[2] God? Although warfare was a necessary means for the objective of gaining the Promised Land, the issue is much more complex. Mercy was shown to the inhabitants of the land, and time was given them to flee, if they had a desire to do so.

Some critics will point to Scriptures that seem to show Joshua was a bloodthirsty leader, killing everyone and leaving absolutely no one alive:

So Joshua smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD God of Israel commanded. (Joshua 10:40 KJV; cf. 11:23 and 21:45– emphasis mine)

The Bible is written under many literary patterns, such as: law, history, apocryphal, poetry, proverbial wisdom literature and letters to name some. Moreover, it also uses figures of speech such as metaphor, simile, synecdoche, allegory, hyperbole and many more. However, for our interest at the moment, I wish to highlight hyperbole (exaggeration) which is often used to make a point. Did all of the dust of the land literally become lice or is the expression used to say that throughout the land lice arose (Exodus 8:17)? Did the walls of the cities literally extend to the heavens or is that merely an expression to say they were of great height (Deuteronomy 1:28)? More to the point, did Joshua really destroy everyone or was hyperbole (exaggeration) employed to describe the success of the military campaign in Joshua 10:40? Moreover, such language was used in every other ANE culture of Joshua’s day and later. For example, Tuthmosis III of Egypt (late 15th century BC) wrote “the numerous army of Mitanni was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally like those (now) not existent.” Nevertheless, Mitanni’s army lived on to wage war in the 15th and 14th centuries BC. This type of language was accepted literary rhetoric to show successful military campaigns. [3] Later in the Book of Joshua the writer readily admits that all the Canaanites were not destroyed or expelled from the land (Joshua 13:1-3).

Israeli infiltration of Canaan of some sort had to have accompanied Joshua’s military campaign, because there remained much more to be done even after the warfare ceased (Joshua 11:23; 13:1-3), and this has not gone unnoticed by Biblical scholarship:

“…the stereotypical model of an all-consuming Israelite army descending upon Canaan and destroying everything in its wake cannot be accepted. The biblical data will not allow for this.”[4]

Therefore, it would be wrong to assume that either God or Israel intended genocide when expelling the Canaanites. Military force was indeed used, especially to gain a foothold in the land, but infiltration of Canaan and later internal struggles between Israel and the Canaanites were necessary realities. When Israel declined to continue its military campaign against the Canaanites (Judges 1:21-36), the Angel of the Lord spoke with the people, confronting Israel over her disobedience. Nevertheless, the Lord didn’t force Israel into warfare but, rather, told them the foreign inhabitants of the land would become troublesome and their gods would be a snare to Israel (Judges 2:1-4).


[1] As I said HERE, this current theme about “making sense of the Old Testament God” is based upon the book: Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan. These are my thoughts about his book. He may or may not agree with the impression his book has made upon me, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading what Paul wrote and recommend his book to anyone who is looking for a good read concerning defending our faith.

[2] Term used of God by Dr. Richard Dawkins in his book, The God Delusion (page 31).

[3] On the exaggeration of numbers in the ancient Near East/Old Testament, see Daniel M. Fouts, “A Defense of the Hyperbolic Interpretation of Numbers in the Old Testament, “Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40/3 (1997): 377–87.

[4] David M. Howard, Jr., Joshua 5, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1998), 39-40.

Comments Off on Was It a Military Conquest of Canaan?

Posted by on January 17, 2016 in apologetics


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: