Possession of the Promise Land
Joshua began the conquering of the land with the taking of Jericho (Josh. 6) and then lost at Ai. This loss was brought about by Achan’s taking of some of the possessions of Jericho (Josh. 7:1), a violation of God’s will (Josh. 6:18-19; compare with Deut. 7:5). Joshua 10:40-43 shows us that Joshua had conquered the country of the hills, of the south, of the vale, and of the springs (v:40). These verses do not say that Joshua had conquered all the land of Canaan, but contextually speak of those lands he had fought against to that time. Joshua 10:41 mentions that Joshua had conquered unto Gibeon, a land he did not take in battle but subdued in slavery, because he wrongfully made a pact with them (Josh. 9). This was a clear violation of Deuteronomy 7:2. It came about because they “asked not counsel at the mouth of the Lord” (Josh. 9:14).
Joshua’s conquests continued in chapter 11, and in verse 23 we are told “Joshua took the whole land.” Some would cite this as showing that nothing was left that needed to be conquered. However, in context, the term “whole land” refers to that land which Joshua had done battle against. This is evident since verse 22 says that some of the Anakim still remained in Gaza, Gath, and Ashdod. Since these were not yet conquered, it follows that the “whole land” included only those lands conquered to this point, which according to Joshua 12:7 stretched from Lebanon to Edom. At this time, they rested from war and divided the land. Of the land divided, some still needed conquering (Josh. 13:1), and this would have to be done by those who inherited the land (Josh. 13:6). In Joshua’s final charge to the people, he reminded them of the condition for possession:
As Judges 1 shows, the children of Israel did not conquer all their possessions. Judges 2:1-5 explains why. Note the following:
And an angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said, I made you to go up out of Egypt, and have brought you unto the land which I sware unto your fathers; and I said, I will never break my covenant with you. And ye shall make no league with the inhabitants of this land; ye shall throw down their altars: BUT YE HAVE NOT OBEYED MY VOICE: why have ye done this? Wherefore I also said, I will not drive them out from before you; but they shall be as thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare unto you. It is obvious that the Israelites made leagues with these people and quit fighting. Thus, they violated all conditions set forth by God: (1) they quit “walking” (Josh. 1:3), (2) they made pacts with the enemy (Deut. 7:2), and (3) they disobeyed God’s commands (Deut. 8:1). Therefore, these people could not fulfil all of what God wanted done.
The Battle Of Jericho
The people go into the land and they fight a series of battles. The first is the battle of Jericho, the entrance to the heartland of Canaan. Some archeologists have suggested that the easy conquest of this heavily-fortified city was made possible by a well-timed earthquake. But isn’t it remarkable that precisely when the Jewish people need the city to fall, there is an earthquake and it does? No matter how you explain it, it is still miraculous. The waters of the Jordan miraculously stop flowing and they cross on dry land, then the Jordan refills with water. Next they march around the city walls, which crumble before their eyes. They conquer the city, taking no booty as commanded by God. It must be clear by now that this is not the typical war of conquest such as we read about in human history of bloody warfare, of raping and pillaging. God has said, “Nothing like that here. And if you follow My instructions all will go well.”
- Historical Perspectives on the Entry into the Land
Of course, historians and biblical scholars have offered various theories to address these questions. For various reasons, as noted at the beginning of this study, the historical questions have tended to dominate study of this material. As a result, many of the theories are to answer the historical questions raised by the books, since this has tended to be the area of most concern even to those who want to use the Bible as Scripture. While there are many variations and refinements of the historical approach, most of them can be summarized under four major categories.
- Literal Conquest
This view favors the majority voice of Joshua as being the historical core of the traditions. It also assumes the biblical books are primarily a historical record of Israel’s entry into the land preserved within the community simply because they were historical records. A well-known proponent of this perspective is Yezekiel Kaufmann.
This perspective basically accepts the traditional way of viewing the books. It assumes that the accounts are basically historically reliable as they stand in the Bible with the character of Joshua as the focal point. He led the Israelites in a near total conquest of the land in a series of lightning strikes against the Canaanites, successful because God led them into the battles and fought for them. Judges portrays a much later time when the Israelites had abandoned the worship of God, and therefore were suffering under God’s condemnation. All of the failures of the people can be traced to their disobedience. The entire account is of military battles being fought; there was no peaceful occupation of the land at any time. What appear to be discrepancies in the accounts could be explained if we had more information. Lacking that, we simply have to accept the majority voice of Joshua as the most reliable and suspend judgment on anything that does not fit with the idea of a literal and absolute conquest of the land as portrayed in Joshua 1-11 unless or until we have more information.
- Conquest Modified by Tradition
This perspective tries to balance Joshua and Judges as historical sources, but actually favors the evidence of archaeological data and historical reconstruction built from them as more reliable sources of historical evidence than the biblical texts. William F. Albright, G. E. Wright, and John Bright are well-know proponents of this perspective, although they would differ in details.
This view sees the traditions of a conquest of the land as a valid historical memory of Israel, but one that has been greatly modified by tradition and the retelling of the story within the community over the centuries. While the basic details of the biblical traditions need to be taken seriously as preserving that historical memory, they cannot be taken literally or at face value without some corroborating evidence that would lend support to them. Where archaeology cannot directly support the biblical traditions, they should not be taken as reliable history, although they may still preserve valid historical memory. We simply have no way to know in cases where there is no supporting evidence. Some scholars at this point would feel much more free to speculate about the actual history, while others would insist that we should follow the biblical text in the absence of contrary evidence.
So this view tends to lean heavily on archaeology to support the basic history, assuming that the biblical story line has been heavily schematized and simplified in the biblical accounts. This view would see Joshua as a leader in early Israel, but one that become a hero figure in later generations. As a result, the traditions expanded his role and attributed some of the actions of later figures, for example some of the conquests of David, to him to validate his position as God’s leader of the people.
- Peaceful Settlement
This view leans toward Judges, as well as the minority voice of Joshua, as a more reliable source of early Israel’s history. The majority voice of Joshua is rejected as being too idealized and too heavily influenced by theological and tribal agenda to be of much value. The methods employed are far more historical, trying to reconstruct history from ancient documents, artifacts, and preserved traditions in order to build a historical stage on which to set the biblical material. As a result, there is heavy dependence on comparative religion, as well as logical interpretation and reconstruction of history, a technique common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth are the most well known advocates of this approach.
Israel’s movement into the land is seen as a relatively peaceful migration of tribes who gradually settled among the city-states of Palestine. After an extended period of consolidation in the 11th and 10th centuries, the settlement climaxed in a period of expansion under the leadership of David in the 9th and early 8th centuries. The Israelites who first entered the land joined remnants of family units who had not joined the migration to Egypt with Jacob and had remained through the centuries in the central highlands around Shechem. They fought isolated battles as they expanded their territory and encroached into Canaanite controlled areas. But there were no “all Israel” wars, which was a romanticized nationalistic ideal projected back into this period from a much later time, reflected in the book of Joshua. Joshua himself was only a local Ephraimite leader who gradually became associated with the “all Israel” ideal. There was no “people” until the tribal confederation portrayed in Joshua 24. This covenant ceremony became the focal point for the rise of the unified people that would become the nation of Israel.
- Peasant Revolt
This perspective rejects both Joshua and Judges as reliable historical accounts, and rather depends on modern social theory to address the historical issues. The methods employed are a specific type of social theory that sees progression and development in society as the result of class struggle between the “haves” and the “have nots.” This view sees the biblical traditions as largely folklore that arose out of the social progression of a group trying to justify its own national identity. Proponents of this perspective are George Medenhall and Norman Gottwald.
In this view, the idea of “tribe” should be understood as a social unit, not a family unit. The relationships that appear as family relationships in the traditions are actually ways to describe social relationships and interactions. The conflict present in the accounts between Israelites and Canaanites should be understood as an internal class struggle between peasant villagers (Israelites) and wealthy city dwellers (Canaanites), a struggle between the “haves” and the “have nots.” This struggle was precipitated in Canaan by the influx of a small core group of escaped slaves, the original Israelites, who rallied the people to rise up in rebellion against the oppression of the dominant class. The association of all the later Israelites with the early events of the exodus, Sinai, and entry into the land is a projection back into history of the story of the group that emerged as a dominant “tribe” in the area. They simply adopted the story of the small group of escaped slaves that first entered the land and made it a national heritage.