The Israelite Conquest of Canaan (Part 3): Let’s Get a Clear Historical Picture of What Happened

Before I cover the sections in John Walton’s book, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest where he discusses (1) how the Bible depicts the Canaanites (i.e. their identity), and (2) how the Mosaic Law relates to the Canaanites (i.e. their fate), I feel it is necessary to lay out my own understanding of the actual historical timeline of both the Exodus itself and Israel’s entrance into Canaan. This post, therefore, will not directly cover Walton’s book, but rather will cover an issue that will make interaction with Walton’s book (i.e. his discussion on Canaanite identity and the fate of the Canaanites) more substantial. Simply put, if you’re going to critique things mentioned in the Bible about the conquest, you want to make sure you have a clear understanding of the timeline the Bible lays out regarding the conquest.

To briefly review: In Part 1, I discussed Walton’s two main points:

  1. The Canaanites were not being punished for disobeying God’s moral law, and
  2. The conquest of Canaan was not genocide or ethnic cleansing.

In Part 2, the two points of focus were:

  1. The conquest is depicted as a recapitulation of creation, and
  2. Genesis 15:13-16 is not saying that God was going to wait until the Canaanites sinned enough to warrant annihilation, but rather only that the destruction of the Canaanite culture would not happen until long after Abraham had passed away.

With that, let’s try to get a handle on what actually happened with the conquest. What can we know about the actual historical event?

Israel Battles the Amalekites (Exodus 17)

An Overview of Israel’s Journey from Egypt to Canaan
The actual Exodus from Egypt begins in Exodus 13. As I said in an earlier post, I believe that there were about 25,000 Hebrew slaves that left Egypt under the leadership of Moses. They made their way to Sinai Peninsula, and with the Egyptian army bearing down on them, they made their way through the Red Sea and into Midian. On their way to Sinai, the Amalekites came out to attack the Israelites (Exodus 17:8-16), yet the Israelites managed to defeat them. Nevertheless, the text tells us that they were told by YHWH to not venture into Edom (i.e. the descendants of Esau) or Moab (i.e. the descendants of Lot) to harass or confront them—and so the Israelites purposely avoided them (Deut. 2:1-13).

At Sinai, they encountered YHWH, and entered into covenant with Him as their king and they as His vassals. They then made their way to the borders of Canaan, where Moses sent twelve spies to survey the land. Despite the promising report of Joshua and Caleb, the people ended up siding with the opinion of the other ten spies (Numbers 13:25-29) who told them about the giant sons of Anak being in the land, and about the impregnable Canaanite cities. As a result, they refused to go in and try to take the land.

When Moses said they were to go back out into the wilderness to live because they had failed to trust in YHWH, some of the Israelites changed their minds and decided to take the land anyway, and were easily defeated by the Canaanites and Amalekites (Numbers 14:25-45). And so, that generation ended up dwelling in the wilderness until it died off and the next generation rose up.

After about 38 years, the new generation of Israel began to make its way to Canaan. As with Edom and Moab, YHWH told them not to harass or confront the Ammonites (i.e. descendants of Lot) (Deut. 2:19-23). Yet, YHWH told them that He would give King Sihon of the Amorites and King Og of Bashan into their hands (Deut. 2:24-25). The way that played out was that the Israelites first asked Sihon if they could pass through his land; but instead of allowing them to pass through, King Sihon attempted to attack the Israelites—and the result was that the Israelites were able to defeat him and take control of his land (Deut. 2:26-37). After that, King Og of Bashan attacked the Israelites, but the Israelites were able to defeat him as well and take control of his land (Deut. 3:1-22).

***Thus, what we see depicted in the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, are accounts of the Israelites’ interactions with a number of Canaanite peoples.

  1. Israel purposely avoided confronting the Edomites, Moabites, and Ammonites
  2. Israel was attacked by the Amalekites, but was able to defeat them
  3. Israel asked to pass peaceably through the lands of King Sihon and King Og, but were attacked by those kings; yet they were able to defeat those kings, and in doing so, take control of their lands

An Overview of Israel’s Conquest of Canaan
It is in the book of Joshua where we find the account of Israel’s conquest of Canaan. The first thing to note comes in Joshua 2, and the story of Rahab and the two spies. She tells them that the people of Jericho are terrified of the Israelites, because the Israelites’ reputation had preceded them: Jericho knew what had happened to King Sihon and King Og (Joshua: 2:9-11).

The actual account of the fall of Jericho is in Joshua 6, where we learn that (A) it was actually YHWH who gave the city into Israel’s hands; (B) once the walls fell, the Israelites put the city to herem (6:17, 21), burned the city (6:25), took the iron and bronze vessels, and put them in the treasury of the house of YHWH (6:19, 25).

The account of Ai is in Joshua 7. After the initial failure to take the city, Joshua learns the reason why was because Achan had taken some of the things that were to be herem in Jericho, and had secretly kept them for himself. Therefore, because he had disobeyed the command of YHWH and had taken things designated as herem, he became herem himelf (7:10-11)—and he and his family were stoned to death (7:10-26). After that, the Israelites took Ai on the second try, and we are told that they did to Ai just what they had done to Jericho and its king (8:2), but this time they were allowed to keep the livestock and spoil. They put the city and its inhabitants to herem (8:22-29).

After they devoted Jericho and Ai to herem, they had given themselves a foothold in the central part of Canaan. They then went to Mount Ebal, where they—both Israelites and the sojourners who were living among them—renewed the covenant (8:30-35).

In Joshua 9, we are told that after the kings from all around Canaan gathered together to fight Israel (9:1-2), the Gibeonites from the city of Gibeon essentially broke with those kings and wanted to side with Israel. And so, they essentially tricked the Israelites into entering into a covenant alliance with them. Even though Joshua soon learned that the Gibeonites had tricked him, he still honored the alliance he made with them and did not kill them. They ended up being wood-cutters and water-drawers to serve at the altar of YHWH.

In Joshua 10, we are told specifically that there were five Canaanite kings from the southern part of Canaan (Adoni-Zedek of Jerusalem, Hoham of Hebron, Piram of Jarmuth, Japhia of Lachish, and Debir of Eglon) who decided to attack the Gibeonites, because they had allied themselves with Israel (10:1-5). The Gibeonites appeal to Joshua for help, and he honors the alliance by coming to the defense of Gibeon (10:6-27). In the process of coming to the defense of Gibeon, the Israelites ended up taking control of the southern region of Canaan. In the description of “the southern campaign,” we are given the following details:

  • Israel struck the city of Makkedah, and its king, and put the city to herem (10:28)
  • Israel struck the city of Libnah, and its king (10:29-30)
  • Israel struck the city of Lachish, as well as King Horam of Gezer who came to the aid of Lachish (10:31-33)
  • Israel struck the city of Eglon, and put the city to herem (10:34-35)
  • Israel stuck the city of Hebron, and its king, and put the city to herem (10:36-37)
  • Israel struck the city of Debir, and its king, and put the city to herem (10:38-39)

Then, in summary, 10:40-43 tells us that Joshua struck the whole land and its kings, and put them to herem.

In Joshua 11, we are told of the events that precipitated “the northern campaign.” King Jabin of Hazor allied with King Jobab of Madan, the king of Shimron, the king of Achshaph, and various other kings of the northern hill country, the south, the east, and the west—Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, and Hivites—to go and fight against Joshua (11:1-5). In the battle at Merom, Joshua defeated them (11:6-9). Then we are told that Joshua went to Hazor, struck the city and king, and put it to herem (11:10-11), and then went to the other cities of those kings, struck them down and put them to herem (11:12), and took the livestock and spoil (11:14-15). The text also points out that only Hazor was burned down, and that the other cities were not (11:13).

After a summary of the victory (11:16-20), we are then told that Joshua successfully cut off the Anakim from the hill country and put their cities to herem, and that the only Anakim left in the land settled in Gaza, Gath, and Ashdod (i.e. Philistine territory).

***Thus, what we are told about the conquest is actually quite a different picture than what critics often give. After Jericho and Ai, all the battles Israel engages in involve (A) either coming to the aid of an ally who was being attacked (i.e. the southern campaign), or (B) defending themselves against an alliance of kings who come out to attack them.

Samuel Strikes Down Agag

Two Final Notes: The Amalekites
Related to the conquest is an event that comes hundreds of years later, during the reign of King Saul. In I Samuel 15, we are told the prophet Samuel told Saul that YHWH wanted him to take revenge on the Amalekites for their opposition to Israel ever since the time they first attacked Israel during the Exodus (Exodus 17), and to put them to herem. So, Saul went to the city of Amalek, convinced the Kenites to depart from the Amalekites, and thus avoid being killed in the battle, and then defeated the Amalekites. But instead of killing King Agag of the Amalekites, Saul took him captive, and also took the best of the sheep and oxen for themselves. They only killed the weak and worthless animals. Not only that, but Saul then made a monument to himself. In response, Samuel confronts Saul, condemns him for not obeying YHWH, and says that because of his disobedience, YHWH would tear the kingdom away from him and give it to another. Samuel then personally killed King Agag.

Then, at the end of I Samuel, in chapters 27-30, are told a few interesting things about David. He and his men had fled to Philistine territory to avoid Saul, and had taken up residence in the town of Ziklag, under the protection of the Philistine king Achish. We are told that he would routinely go out and raid the Amalekites, but then tell Achish that he was raiding Judean towns.

And then, during the short time David and his men were away from Ziklag (they had been enlisted to fight for the Philistine army against Saul, but at the last minute were released from their service), the Amalekites had raided Ziklag and had taken everyone captive. In response, David and his men pursued the Amalekites and killed all but 400 Amalekites who managed to flee (I Samuel 30:1-20).

What I have just laid out is what the Old Testament tells us about the Exodus journey, the conquest of Canaan, as well as the later interactions of Saul and David with the Amalekites. We will now be in a better position to understand the specifics of what is being described. But one thing should be clear: the modern depiction of Israel’s conquest of Canaan as some sort of xenophobic, ethnic-cleansing genocide on par with the Nazis’ attempted extermination of the Jews, or any other modern equivalent of ethnic-cleansing, is simply not true.

Incidentally, we need to get out of our minds our modern idea of “the nation-state.” The various Semitic people lived all around the area, and because most of them were nomadic or semi-nomadic, there were no such thing as clear-cut national boundaries. There were city-states, not nation-states. Simply put, Israel was not invading a sovereign nation. They were a Semitic people whose ancestors had lived in Canaan, and who were related to the other Semitic people who were also living in the land in and around Canaan, coming back to the land of their ancestors as they fled from slavery.

And what we find in the biblical account is that when the Israelites tried to settle back in the land in which their ancestors lived—a land that was not a nation-state, and a land that was home to a number of semi-nomadic Semitic tribes already—they found themselves attack numerous times by the various Canaanite people of the land, and thus ended up fighting back and securing land for themselves from the Canaanite groups who had initially attacked them.

Sure, one can question the practices of ancient warfare, and one can say, “Well, that may be how Israel depicts the conflict, but how can you trust their version of events? After all, they were the victors, and this is clearly propaganda to justify their actions.” But the problem with that, of course, is that the biblical account is the only one we have—and so to question the veracity of the biblical account, while at the same time basing one’s criticism and condemnation of the events in the biblical account on the information the biblical account provides, borders on the absurd. It is accepting the veracity of the biblical account, while at the same time rejecting the veracity of the biblical account, based on the assumption that Israel had to be in the wrong, because, after all, they won.

The biblical description of the Exodus and the conquest is that of ancient warfare, plain and simple. It is not describing (or promoting) unprovoked genocide and ethnic-cleansing of peaceful people by xenophobic, fanatical Israelites. One may still object to the practices of ancient warfare, but it’s time to reject the misleading notion that the conquest as an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation-state, and a purposeful act of genocide and ethnic-cleansing.

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