Joshua’s Conquest: Rapid, Always Violent, & Total?

Joshua’s Conquest: Rapid, Always Violent, & Total? May 1, 2023

This is a reply to a guest article on Jonathan MS Pearce’s atheist blog, by “Lex Lata”: a sharp and civil atheist commentator (a professor?), with whom I have had some stimulating dialogue now and then. It’s entitled, “Canaan begat Israel: What the Bible gets wrong about Hebrew origins” (4-16-23). His words will be in blue; those of others whom he cites in green.

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Per the title, the article is primarily a series of contentions based on (from where I sit) one false premise: that the Bible supposedly teaches a rapid, altogether violent, and total destruction of Canaanite cities and culture by the conquering Israelites, with no gradualism of either a cultural or military / “taking over” nature. Here is a collection of those sorts of statements (bear in mind that mere repetition of a falsehood makes it no less of a falsehood):

1) [R]egiments of Hebrews did not swoop in under Joshua’s command and take or destroy city after city in the space of a generation. Rather, the evidence converges on a more gradual and less violent process. 

2) [T]his planned eradication unfolds more-or-less resoundingly and swiftly in the book of Joshua . . . City after city falls to Joshua’s forces.

3) The preponderance of the evidence points to a process not of familial/tribal segregation followed by wholesale, bloody conquest, but of demographic evolution and differentiation, of continuity with change . . . 

4) As for the traditional Conquest narrative, on the whole, it does not fare well in the light of modern fieldwork and analysis. Archaeologist William Dever (a careful and caustic academic moderate after my own heart) not long ago surveyed the material alignments and misalignments between the biblical account and the archaeological record at Ai, Arad, Dibon, Hazor, Heshbon, Jericho, and other key sites in his magnum opus about what the Bible gets right and what it gets wrong, Beyond the Texts: An Archaeological Portrait of Ancient Israel and Judah. [2017]

5) [I]n the light of the overwhelming archaeological evidence, there was no large-scale warfare on the thirteenth- and twelfth-century horizon, except that initiated by the Philistines along the coast . . . . The inevitable conclusion is that the book of Joshua is nearly all fictitious, of little or no value to the historian. It is largely a legend celebrating the supposed exploits of a local folk hero. [Dever, ibid., 185-186]

6) [T]here is little that we can salvage from Joshua’s stories of the rapid, wholesale destruction of Canaanite cities and the annihilation of the local population. It simply did not happen; the archaeological evidence is indisputable. . . . there simply was no Israelite conquest of most of Canaan . . . . There was no wholesale conquest, no need for it. [Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (2003), 227-228]

This motif sounds fine and dandy and all wrapped up in a neat little bow, that is, until we discover that the Bible and “maximalist” archaeologists who take the Bible seriously as a profoundly trustworthy historical document, do not actually believe in this myth, as constructed by anti-theist atheists and biblical minimalists. Did you notice how Lex Lata didn’t cite even one individual Bible verse in its entirety? He never got down to Bible specifics and serious analysis of the actual texts involved. I shall correct this serious deficiency presently.

Now, it must be granted that there is a kernel of truth in what Lex states (as in all good grand falsehoods). There are indeed biblical statements that, prima facie, sound as if a sweeping, quick, violent conquest of Canaan took place. For example:

Joshua 10:40-42 (RSV) So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD God of Israel commanded. And Joshua defeated them from Kadesh-barnea to Gaza, and all the country of Goshen, as far as Gibeon. And Joshua took all these kings and their land at one time, because the LORD God of Israel fought for Israel. [Joshua’s “southern campaign”]

Joshua 11:16-18, 23 So Joshua took all that land, the hill country and all the Negeb and all the land of Goshen and the lowland and the Arabah and the hill country of Israel and its lowland from Mount Halak, that rises toward Seir, as far as Baal-gad in the valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon. And he took all their kings, and smote them, and put them to death. Joshua made war a long time with all those kings. [Joshua’s “northern campaign”]

Joshua 21:43-44 Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land which he swore to give to their fathers; and having taken possession of it, they settled there. And the LORD gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers; not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the LORD had given all their enemies into their hands.

Seems pretty clear, doesn’t it? But it’s not so simple — and it isn’t because it’s a question of how to interpret biblical language and rhetoric in context. The Bible can be literal and it can be non-literal and poetic, including rhetorical exaggeration. Maximalist Egyptologist and archaeologist Kenneth Kitchen explains:

It is the careless reading of such verses as these, without a careful and close reading of the narratives proper, that has encouraged Old Testament scholars to read into the entire book a whole myth of their own making, to the effect that the book of Joshua presents a sweeping, total conquest and occupation of Canaan by Joshua . . . based on the failure to recognize and understand ancient use of rhetorical summations. The “alls” are qualified in the Hebrew narrative itself. In 10:20 we learn that Joshua and his forces massively slew their foes “until they were finished off” . . ., but in the same breath the text states that “the remnant that survived got away into the defended towns.” . . .

Then we have a series of notices which indicate that, already under Joshua, the tribesfolk could not easily take possession of the territories raided; cf. such as 15:63; 16:10; 17:12-13, 18; Joshua’s still later critique, 18:3, before the second allotment; 19:47 . . . So there is no total occupation shown to be achieved under Joshua himself . . .

The type of rhetoric in question is a regular feature of military reports in the second and first millennia, as others have made very clear. . . . It is in this frame of reference that the Joshua rhetoric must also be understood. (1)

The text of Joshua does not imply huge and massive fiery destructions of every site visited (only Jericho, Ai, and Hazor were burned).” (2)

Prominent maximalist archaeologist James K. Hoffmeier concurs:

Joshua does not describe a widespread destruction of the land. Rather, as Joshua admits (13:1), there was still much land not in Israelite hands, and the book proceeds to outline those areas (vv. 2–8). . . . Contrary to a blitzkrieg and “whirlwind annihilation” conquest  . . . as understood by some critical readers of Joshua, quite the opposite is reported. . . .

A careful reading of the text of Joshua suggests a far more modest military outcome than those advanced by twentieth-century biblical scholars either supporting or critiquing the conquest model. (3)

The idea of a group of tribes coming to Canaan, using some military force, partially taking a number of cities and areas over a period of some years, destroying (burning) just three cities, and coexisting alongside the Canaanites and other ethnic groups for a period of
time before the beginnings of monarchy does not require blind faith. (4)

A close look at the terms dealing with warfare in Joshua 10 reveals that they do not support the interpretation that the land of Canaan and its principal cities were demolished and devastated by the Israelites. (5)

Since hyperbole . . . was a regular feature of Near Eastern military reporting, the failure of Miller, Dever, Redford, and others to recognize the hyperbolic nature of such statements in Joshua is ironic because the charge usually leveled at maximalist historians is that they take the text too literally. As a consequence of this failure, these historical minimalists have committed “the fallacy of misplaced literalism” that Fischer defines as “the misconstruction of a statement-in-evidence so that it carries a literal meaning when a symbolic or hyperbolic or figurative meaning was intended.” (6) (7)

The idea that the Israelites would have destroyed and leveled cities indiscriminately, makes little sense for they intended to live in this land. A scorched-earth policy is only logical for a conqueror who has no thought of occupying the devastated land. (8)

The Bible portrays a limited conquest of key sites in strategic areas . . . there are regions that the Bible clearly claims were not conquered. These include the territory later taken by the philistines along the southern coast of Canaan, and north to Phoenicia and the Mount Hermon region (Joshua 13:1). Furthermore, there are pockets within north an central Canaan that were not seized. These city-states include Jerusalem (Joshua 15:63), Gezer (Joshua 16:10), Dor, Megiddo, Taanach, Beth Shan and the fertile Jezreel Valley (Joshua 17:11, 16). . . . Clearly the Bible does not claim a maximal conquest and demolition of Canaan as Albright and others believed. (9)

But Lex Lata goes far beyond this error at the level of premise. He cites minimalist archaeologist Dever, absurdly maintaining that “the book of Joshua is nearly all fictitious, of little or no value to the historian. It is largely a legend . . .” I am the author of the book, The Word Set in Stone: How Archaeology, Science, and History Back Up the Bible (Catholic Answers Press: March 15, 2023). It’s doing quite well on Amazon as I write (4-29-23), with Kindle ratings of #9 in Religious Antiquities & Archaeology, #12 in Christian History, and #81 in Christian Historical Theology.

In this book, I massively cite factual archaeological data, with regard to (among many other things) Joshua’s “conquest,” which was quite real and historically substantiated; just not as rapid and total as Lex wrongly believes Christian scholars and maximalist archaeologists think. I devote a 14-page chapter to the topic and an additional related 12-page Appendix.

I painstakingly go over many many individual cities mentioned in the Bible in conjunction with Joshua and warfare or “cultural domination,”  that have now been excavated, showing how archaeology is — despite Dever’s false presupposition-driven mythmaking — in more or less complete accord with the biblical accounts. But the maximalists and believers in biblical inspiration such as myself, and the Bible, as shown, do not characterize the entire “conquest” as Lex claims they do. He’s caricaturing and warring with straw men.

Secondly, a sub-theme of this motif of gradualism and process rather than swift and total change is Lex’s contention that Hebrew evolved in large part from Canaanite precursors:

1) . . . continuity with change—not only in material culture (such as pottery), but also in language, . . . 

2) [T]he Canaanite origins of Israelite language, . . . remain clearly evident in the literary and archaeological remains of ancient Israel and Judah. [Lester L. GrabbeThe Dawn of Israel: A History of Canaan in the Second Millennium BCE (2022), 281]

3) Scholars of ancient Semitic languages tell us archaic Hebrew began as a dialect that branched out from the Northwest Semitic Canaanite tongue. . . . (In fact, the shared linguistic pedigree allowed the Hebrews and other Northwest Semitic ethnolinguistic groups to readily adopt the Phoenician alphabet for their own writings.) Notably, Semitic philologists see no evidence of the sort of abrupt linguistic domination, displacement, or disruption that external conquerors generally precipitate . . . 

But I’m unaware of any important Christian linguistic scholar or expert on the Ancient Near East or “biblical maximalist” archaeologist who would deny this. Nor am I aware of anything in the Bible (maybe I missed something) that would imply such a thing. Certainly there is no claim along the lines of “Hebrew developed completely separately from Canaanite languages!” So it’s a clear straw man in the article: regarding both biblical claims and supposed beliefs of the relevant Christian scholars. In sum, then, Lex contends that there is strong disagreement here when in fact there is little or none.

For example, as just one of numerous statements of this sort made by Kitchen, here is one I cite in my book (page 86). It clearly shows that this area is not one of disagreement among minimalist and maximalist archaeologists (and Kitchen is widely considered the greatest of the latter class of scholars):

From the fourteenth/thirteenth century onward, the [Canaanite] alphabet could be freely used for any form of communication. The contemporary north Semitic texts found at Ugarit in north Phoenicia illustrate this to perfection. . . . The Amarna evidence [c. 1360–1332 B.C.] and handful of pottery finds prove clearly that Canaanite was the dominant local tongue and could be readily expressed in alphabetic writing. . . . During the two centuries that followed, circa 1200–1000, standard Hebrew evolved out of this form of Canaanite, probably being fully formed by David’s time. Copies of older works such as Deuteronomy or Joshua would be recopied, modernizing outdated grammatical forms and spellings. (10)

Thirdly, Lex claims that early Israelite religion was polytheistic, in line with that of most of the surrounding nations:

1) The preponderance of the evidence points to . . . demographic evolution and differentiation, of continuity with change . . . in . . . religious beliefs and practices.

2) [T]he Canaanite origins of Israelite . . . religion remain clearly evident in the literary and archaeological remains of ancient Israel and Judah. [Grabbe, ibid.]

3) [T]he early henotheistic or monolatrous form of Israelite religion was, in many respects, “essentially the Northwest Semitic religion shared by Canaanites and others in the region.” [Grabbe, ibid., 232; Grabbe, Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know it? (2017), 127; Mark S. SmithThe Early History of God: Yahweh and Other Deities of Ancient Israel (2nd ed., 2002), 28-31]. The Bible itself retains vestiges of the polytheistic Divine Council common to cultures of the Ancient Near East in Deuteronomy 32, Psalm 82, and elsewhere. Relatedly, the God of Abraham is sometimes called “El,” the name of the chief deity in the older Canaanite pantheon, and scholars of the period are in general agreement that a number of Israelites practiced a folk religion involving both Yahweh and Asherah (El’s Canaanite queen/consort goddess) prior to the ascendancy of monotheistic Yahwism.

4) In short, the “religion of the Canaanites . . . constituted the background from which Israelite religion largely emerged.” [Smith, ibid., 13]

This is false. Indeed, there is a stark differentiation from early on (from Abraham or even earlier). As I’ve addressed this claim five times now, there is no need to do it again. See:

Seidensticker Folly #19: Torah & OT Teach Polytheism? [9-18-18]

Seidensticker Folly #20: An Evolving God in the OT? (God’s Omnipotence, Omniscience, & Omnipresence in Early Bible Books & Ancient Jewish Understanding) [9-18-18]

Loftus Atheist Error #8: Ancient Jews, “Body” of God, & Polytheism [9-10-19]

Do the OT & NT Teach Polytheism or Henotheism? [7-1-20]

Seidensticker Folly #70: Biblical “Henotheism” [?] Redux [1-31-21]

Atheists who write about these sorts of topics cite — almost exclusively — both archaeological “minimalists” and theological liberals, who no longer — or never did —  adhere to traditional Christian beliefs, and who (generalizing) don’t take into account the Bible’s cultural milieu and the particularities of Hebrew and Greek idiom and style in their interpretation of the Bible.

Lex writes, “current scholarship in archaeology, philology, and history reveals a substantially different account”: as if the only legitimate scholarship is minimalist, as if there are no respectable maximalist scholars, too, and as if one monolithic opinion exists in these fields. Later he similarly refers to “a few exceptions among researchers committed in some way to scriptural inerrancy, . . .

Convenient, isn’t it? It’s either radical skepticism or intellectually challenged and stunted blind faith. There is no happy medium or “center” of a “orthodoxy.” But such minimalism has its own set of arbitrary dogmatic presuppositions that are altogether challengeable. Kitchen observes about this school of thought:

What had been merely bold theory became fixed dogma, as though set in concrete. A purely theoretical minimalism (lacking any factual verification) was enshrined as dogma in theology and divinity schools and faculties, while the vast worlds of ancient Near Eastern studies slowly began to be unveiled, offering huge additions to factual knowledge. And almost none of it agrees with the dogmas so uncritically perpetuated into the present. Early, middle, and late minimalists alike face the need for some very drastic changes in their fantasy worlds. And that, not from rival brands of philosophy or theology, but in factual terms from the firmly secular disciplines of Assyriology, Egyptology, parallel studies for the rest of the Near East, and the whole of its regional archaeologies (Syro-Palestinian archaeology included). (11)

Dr. Kitchen certainly can speak with authority on the topic, as one of the leading Egyptologists in the world, and co-author of Treaty, Law and Covenant in the Ancient Near East, Part 1-3 (Harrassowitz Verlag: 2012). Volume 1 alone is 1641 pages. The description at Amazon reveals the enormous amount of extraordinary research involved:

This work presents a far-reaching social profile of life in the Ancient Near East, based on its wealth of law-collections, treaties and covenants through three millennia. Volume 1 (The Texts) sets out a uniquely comprehensive corpus of over 100 such documents in 10 languages, mostly displayed in facing-page transliterations and English translations with individual bibliographies. Volume 2 (Text, Notes, and Chromograms) provides essential philological and background commentary to the texts, fully indexes their subject-matter, and concludes with a revolutionary and innovative series of full-colour diagrams of every text, vividly highlighting variations through the centuries. Finally, Volume 3 (Overall Historical Survey) outlines the flowing interplay of political history, changing social norms and varying documentary formats throughout the whole period. Taken together, this tryptich offers a striking and indispensable new overview of its multifaceted world for Ancient Near-Eastern and biblical studies.

Kitchen also authored the “magisterial” Ramesside Inscriptions: Historical and Biographical (8 Volumes, Oxford: B. H. Blackwell Ltd., 1969-1975). See the table of contents of Volume 1 and Volume 8 at Internet Archive. That is firsthand familiarity with the “facts on the ground” of Near Eastern history and archaeology. So he is utterly qualified to make the critiques he does of minimalist archaeologists and armchair theorists and “fantasy” writers.

As far as I know, Lex Lata never responded to my previous lengthy critique of another article of his: Moses Wrote the Torah: 50 External Evidences [12-14-22]. And he was informed of it; or at least I let webmaster Jonathan M. S. Pearce know. If he did reply somewhere, I was never told. Maybe this time it will be different. How nice it would be to have an intelligent debate, and to compare the competing views, point-by-point. Lex is a sharp guy and fun to talk to (what little I have done that). I hope he is willing to engage in a full dialogue. I think it would be challenging and fun, but it takes two . . .

FOOTNOTES

1) Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 173-174.

2) Ibid., 183.

3) James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 36.

4) Ibid., 43.

5) Ibid., 34.

6) David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 58.

7) Hoffmeier, 42

8) Ibid., 43-44.

9) James K. Hoffmeier, The Archaeology of the Bible (Oxford: Lion Book / Lion Hudson, 2008), 67-68.

10) Kitchen, 304-305.

11) Kitchen, 497.

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Photo credit: Moses Blesses Joshua Before the High Priest (Numbers 27:22), by James Tissot (1836-1902) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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Summary: I reply to an atheist regarding Joshua’s conquest, and show how in two areas, Bible proponents agree with skeptics, while profoundly disagreeing on a third aspect.

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