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In the beginnings: Israel Comes to Canaan – 2

Original Date
May 3, 2009

The Biblical Conquest Tradition

The traditions preserved in both Joshua and Judges were passed down through the generations. They reached their current form long after the Israelites came to possess the land. In other words, they are not eyewitness reports and do not claim to be. As Abraham Malamat, the eminent Israeli biblical scholar and historian, explains, “The tradition of the conquest that the Bible records crystallized only after generations of complex reworking and, in certain respects, reflects the conceptions … of later editors and redactors .”[1]  The resulting biblical historiography “explained historical events theologically,” in a fashion that “accentuated the role of the Lord of Israel and submerged the human element.[2] ”  Thus, the canonical, or “official,” tradition of the conquest emerged. According to this tradition, all 12 tribes of Israel acted together in military operations on both sides of the Jordan. “Thus,” Malamat writes, “the divine pledge to the Patriarchs (see for example Deuteronomy 30:20) that Canaan would be occupied in its entirety was redeemed. ”[3] 

The Joshua account of the conquest provides signals here and there that it was composed long after the events described. For instance, Joshua 8:28 states that “Joshua burned Ai, and made it forever a heap of ruins, as it is to this day.” The site of Ai was a village from about 1200 to 1050 BCE, after which it was abandoned and never rebuilt [4] .  Joshua 8:28, therefore, reflects a time when Ai was in ruins, that is, after 1050 BCE, and not the time of the conquest some centuries earlier. In Joshua 10:12–13, the Book of Jashar is cited as a source of information about the sun standing still in the battle between the Israelites and the Amorites at Gibeon. The Book of Jashar has not survived, but it is mentioned again in 2 Samuel 1:18 as containing the lament of David over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan at the battle on Mt. Gilboa. If this Book of Jashar is the same as that mentioned in Joshua 10:12–13, then it dates at least as late as the time of David. This also would place the current composition of the Book of Joshua hundreds of years after the settlement in Canaan.

What we have, then, in the Book of Joshua is the “official” view, to use Malamat’s term, of later editors who had access to traditions and documents that do not exist today. They had theological reasons for selecting only short sections of documents such as the Book of Jashar that suited their purposes and for leaving out the rest. This was a common practice in history writing in the biblical period, evident in passages such as 1 Chronicles 29. The account of David’s rule is concluded in verse 28, and the sources used by the writers, who lived at a later time, are cited in verses 29–30. These sources are “the Chronicles of Samuel the seer … the Chronicles of Nathan the prophet … and the Chronicles of Gad the seer.” Not one of these sources, which belong to the time of David, exists today, and we have only the parts selected by the later editors to present their view of David’s history.

The “official” view of Israel’s history writers, who lived hundreds of years after the settlement in Canaan, favored the notion of a divinely directed military conquest of the land. This view is spelled out dramatically in the Book of Joshua and, as we have noted, this is often regarded as the biblical view. Yet the biblical narrators also preserved and transmitted in the Book of Judges traditions that assume a different understanding of how the Israelites came to be settled in the land. The Judges narratives, as we have seen, assume a longer process in acquiring the land through isolated fighting, infiltration and coexistence. This Judges perspective clearly was secondary to the official view. Nevertheless, it too is a biblical view on two counts. First, this perspective apparently was held by some during biblical times, as is evidenced by its survival in the Judges narratives; and second, Judges is of course as much a part of the Bible as is Joshua.

Did Israel Take the Land by Conquest?. If there were different perspectives during biblical times regarding the circumstances under which the Israelites came to possess the land, it is hardly surprising that 20th century scholars hold different views on the matter. To understand current trends in the discussion, we need to review two alternate approaches to the conquest-settlement issue that were articulated during the 1930s and 1940s and tended to dominate the discussion through the early 1970s. Both of these approaches recognized that the materials in the books of Joshua and Judges were compiled and shaped long after the events reported and thus were not to be regarded as historically accurate in every detail. At the same time, both approaches presupposed that the biblical traditions preserved kernels of authentic historical memory. An important difference between the two approaches is that, while one of them focused on the conquest perspective and attempted to correlate the Joshua 1–12 account with archaeological evidence, the other regarded the notion of an early military conquest as very unrealistic historically and developed a scenario for Israel’s settlement of the land more in keeping with the traditions preserved in the Book of Judges. Let us review these two approaches, beginning with the one that favored a military conquest.

This approach, articulated very successfully by William F. Albright and his students,[5]  placed the Exodus from Egypt and conquest of Canaan at the end of the Late Bronze Age. The close of that age, approximately the 13th century BCE, was marked in Palestine by a pattern of city destructions, and Albright attributed these destructions to the invading Israelites. Two other important spokespersons for this approach were archaeologists Yigael Yadin[6]  and Abraham Malamat[7] . “The fact is,” argued Yadin as late as 1982, “that excavation results from the last 50 years or so support in a most amazing way (except in some cases … ) the basic historicity of the Biblical account.”[8]  Yadin noted that “the Biblical narrative in broad outline tells us that at a certain period nomadic Israelites attacked the city-state organization of the Holy Land, destroying many cities and setting them on fire. Then, slowly but surely, the Israelites replaced these cities with new, unfortified cities or settlements.”[9]  Yadin went on to say that this account “is exactly the picture which the archaeological finds present to us: a complete system of fortified cities collapsed and was replaced by a new culture whose material aspect can be defined as the first efforts of seminomads to settle down.”  [10]

Both Yadin and Malamat recognized that the actual events of the conquest and settlement were more complex than they appear in the Book of Joshua. “But at the core,” Malamat contended, “a military conquest remains.” [11]
This is reflected in “an intimate and authentic knowledge of the land, and a knowledge of its topography … as they relate to military strategy.” [12] Examining the military strategy reflected in the Joshua account, Malamat considered how the Israelites could have managed to conquer a land with strong fortified cities. One factor that worked to the Israelites’ advantage, he explained, was disunity on the part of the inhabitants of the land. The Canaanite city-states and ethnic groups “had no unified, overall military organization with which to confront the [invading Israelites]. Their [the Canaanites’] absence of political cohesion was matched by the lack of any Canaanite national consciousness.” [13] As a result, no effort was made to keep the Israelites from fording the Jordan.

Canaan’s City-States.  During the century or so before the close of the Bronze Age (when these scholars dated the conquest), the land was organized politically into small city-states. Occasionally these city-states were clustered in small alliances; often they were in conflict with each other. Joshua 1–12 reflects a similar situation.

Jericho, the first city encountered in the conquest account (Joshua 6:1–21), seems to stand alone, not allied with any other city. It is located on the western edge of the Jordan Valley, a few miles south of the Wadi Makkuk, a deep network of valleys that cuts an opening into the hill country.[14]  The second city, Ai (Joshua 7:2ff.), is on the plateau of the hill country, about 10 miles in distance and 3,500 feet in elevation from Jericho. Located about 2 miles southeast of Bethel, Ai (modern et-Tell) sits on the eastern limit of cultivated land, at the edge of the wasteland that reaches down to Jericho. In the biblical account, Ai seems to be allied with Bethel; according to one tradition, the men of Bethel fought with the men of Ai in defense of Ai (Joshua 8:17). Whatever the association was, Bethel and Ai appear in later references together (cf. Nehemiah 7:32; Ezra 2:28), and Nehemiah 11:31 describes Bethel as having “its villages,” which would make it the center of a small city-state.

Shechem, the third city Joshua appears in, would have been the center of a larger city-state. During this period, the ruler of Shechem extended his power as far north as Megiddo and controlled a large territory of villages that must have reached as far south as Shiloh. The biblical account does not name the villages allied with Shechem, but Joshua 12:7–24 lists among the captive kings the rulers of Tappuah, Hepher, Aphek and Tirzah, all located in the vicinity of Shechem. Evidence of a fourth city-state alliance is found in the negotiations between Joshua and the Hivites from Gibeon (Joshua 9:3–27). (Gibeon has been identified with modern el-Jib, located about 5 miles north of Jerusalem.) The Hivites possibly were related to the Hittites or Hurrians, who originated to the north of Canaan. They settled four cities named in Joshua 9:17—Gibeon, Chephirah, Beeroth and Kiriath-jearim—and seem to have maintained a separate identity from the Amorites, who lived south of Gibeon.

Jerusalem seems to have been the head of an Amorite alliance that included the major cities of the southern hill country. Joshua 10:5 names five cities: Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish and Eglon. Hebron is the southernmost city, 17 miles from Jerusalem. Lachish guards one of the classic routes from the southwest into the hill country. Jarmuth and Eglon are in the foothill region near Lachish. The Amorites generally are associated with the “Amurru” of extrabiblical texts, a West Semitic people whose Bronze Age origins may be traced to northeastern Syria. [15]

Hazor, the last major city featured in the Joshua account of the conquest, was the head of an alliance that included Madon (possibly Merom), Shimron, Achshaph and some unnamed villages around southern Galilee and in the hills of northern Galilee (Joshua 11:1ff.). Hazor itself is on the west side of the fertile Huleh Valley and on the route that runs north-south on the western side of the Sea of Galilee. It appears to have been the leading city of a Canaanite alliance whose origins may be traced to the Phoenician coastal region.

The Israelite conquest of the land of Canaan, therefore, would have involved military penetration and then settlement of a politically fragmented land. Specifically, the Israelites would have encountered (1) an Amorite alliance of cities that included Jerusalem and other cities to the south; (2) a Hivite (member of an ancient people inhabiting Canaan, conquered by the Israelites) alliance that united four villages north and west of Jerusalem, with Bethel and Ai sitting alone on the east side of the Hivites; (3) Shechem and its allied towns and villages in the central hills, known later as Samaria; and (4) a league of Canaanite towns and villages in Galilee, headed by the king of Hazor. Jericho, not allied with any of the city-states, was alone in the Jordan Valley.

Israel’s Military Stratagems Both Yadin and Malamat characterized the Israelites as seminomads, “emerging from the desert fringes.” [16]  Facing the chariots and trained forces of Canaan’s strongly fortified cities, Israel’s “unmounted horde” would have been at a definite disadvantage. However, Malamat explained, this disparity was compensated by maximum use of reconnaissance, clever stratagems such as ambush and preemptive strikes, and the convenient recruitment of defectors, such as Rahab, the Canaanite harlot of Jericho who collaborated with Israel against her own people. Furthermore, considerable attention was given to “logistics,” that is, to organizing support services for fighting men in the field and timing campaigns to enable the army to live off the land. For instance, before crossing the Jordan, Joshua commanded his officers to order the people to “prepare [their] provisions; for within three days [they] are to pass over this Jordan” (Joshua 1:10–11). The crossing itself occurred on “the tenth day of the first month” (Joshua 4:19), in early spring, when crops had begun to ripen in the Jordan Valley.[17]

Joshua dispatched two men to spy out Jericho (Joshua 2:1), and they went forth and found lodging at the house of Rahab, which was the nearest thing to a hotel in those times. Rahab’s friendly reception enabled the spies to dodge the king of Jericho, who was trying to capture them, and to return safely to the camp at Shittim. The Israelites placed Jericho under siege, and the city gate was shut (see Joshua 2:5) so that “none went out, and none came in” (Joshua 6:1). In the biblical account, the Israelites marched around the city seven days, and on the seventh day the priests blew their trumpets, the people shouted and the wall of Jericho “fell down flat” (Joshua 6:20). A hint of more military action than this ritualistic account indicates is found in Joshua’s farewell address: “And you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho,” he said, “and the men of Jericho fought against you” (Joshua 24:11).

The stratagem of marching around besieged cities until the enemy inside relaxes its defenses is known from ancient military annals, as Malamat noted. In one case, Frontinus, a Roman military strategist of the first century CE, cited a Roman general who “marched his troops regularly around the walls of a well-fortified city in northern Italy, each time returning them to camp; when the vigilance of the defenders waned, he stormed the walls and forced the city’s capitulation.”  [18]

The biblical account of the conquest of Ai, located 10 miles west of Jericho on the plateau of the hill country, also displays sound military strategy, in Malamat’s view. Spies sent from Jericho to assess the strength of the city returned with a report that the people “are but few” and that a large force was not needed (Joshua 7:2–3). Some local realism stands out in the spies’ request: “Do not make the whole people toil up there.” The route to Ai would have been along the deep, rugged Wadi Makkuk, which snakes relentlessly upward from the vicinity of Jericho, 700 feet below sea level, to the hilltop site of Ai, about 2,800 feet above sea level. Based on the spies’ report, Joshua sent about 3,000 men from Jericho to Ai, and they were chased back down the valley toward Jericho with a loss of 36 men (Joshua 7:3–5).
As Malamat recognized, theology then takes over in the biblical account of the capture of Ai. The Israelite defeat is attributed to the sin of Achan, who disobeyed the command that everything in Jericho was to be destroyed in a kind of sacrifice to the Lord of Israel of the first fruits of the military campaign. When Achan, his household, his possessions and the items he had salvaged from Jericho were destroyed to eradicate the sin, Joshua prepared another expedition to Ai. Nothing is said about the spies underestimating the strength of the defenders at Ai; the defeat of the first expedition is laid to the sin of Achan. However, Joshua led 35,000 men the second time in an elaborate ambush. This second expedition succeeded: The defenders of Ai were drawn out of the city into the deep valley by a feigned retreat of Joshua and a force of 5,000 men. Meanwhile, 30,000 Israelites lying in ambush rose up and took the city. Joshua’s decoy force then helped destroy the men of Ai, who were trapped between the two Israelite forces (Joshua 8:10–23).

Considering the Topography of the Land. Malamat’s analysis of the military strategy employed is not entirely convincing, however, even if one agrees with him that the Book of Joshua reflects “a basic element of Israelite consciousness … that Canaan was ‘inherited’ by force.” In the first place, if we take seriously Malamat’s acknowledgment that the present biblical account of the conquest took shape long after the Israelites already were settled in the land, the question emerges whether this “Israelite consciousness” of taking the land by force, to say nothing of the military stratagems narrated, may not also be a product of later times. Moreover, our knowledge of the lay of the land around Jericho and Ai raises further questions regarding the practicality of these stratagems.

According to Malamat, the Wadi Makkuk, leading up from Jericho to the north side of Ai, was chosen as the point of entry. However, the Wadi Makkuk is very narrow, deep and rugged in this region of Ai. It is lined with caves and small branch wadis, including the Wadi Asas, which defines the steep north side of the site of Ai. Actually, the Wadi Makkuk and the Wadi Asas are better suited to infiltration by small bands than by an army of thousands, which would be strung out in such a thin column that superior numbers would not give superiority in fighting ability. Even 3,000 men (Joshua 7:3) in the Wadi Makkuk, and especially in the Wadi Asas, would have been strung out half the distance from Jericho to Ai; 30,000 men (Joshua 8:3) would have had to find another route to the Bethel-Ai plateau [19] .


The general lay of the land in the vicinity of Ai does lend itself in part to the strategy described in Joshua 7–8. Ai is “east of Bethel” (Joshua 7:2); also the site is 3,500 feet in elevation above Jericho, or “up” from Jericho (Joshua 7:2–4); and there is a mountain “behind” Ai, between it and Bethel (Joshua 8:2, 9). But again, the numbers of people involved would have been too many for managing an ambush in the terrain. These, admittedly, are the kinds of details that Yadin and Malamat would not press, but they do jeopardize the claim of a military operation that involved all Israel and that placed an army of thousands in a valley too narrow and steep for it to operate.

Actually Malamat himself had difficulties with the biblical narrative of the capture of Ai on yet another point. He noted that the stratagem described in Joshua 8:1–23 is almost identical to that of the internecine battle at Gibeah, reported in Judges 20:18–44. In the latter, the people of Israel went up against the Benjaminites at Gibeah twice and were driven back with heavy casualties (Judges 20:18–28). On the third attempt, an ambush was set “round about Gibeah” (Judges 20:29), and the Benjaminites were drawn out of the city and trapped between the main force of the people of Israel and the ambush, which rose up and cut them off from the city. Malamat notes that this similarity of stratagems “has led many commentators to believe that one of the two accounts served as the literary model for the other .” [20]  Malamat, yielding to the archaeological record at Ai, concluded that “if indeed there was interdependence the capture of Ai (et-Tell) is more likely the copy, for the archaeological evidence there is quite negative, indicating no destructionlevel during the period of the Israelite conquest and settlement.


[1]  Abraham Malamat, “How Inferior Israelite Forces Conquered Fortified Canaanite Cities,” BAR 08:02, 3/4-82
[2]  Ibid.
[3]  Ibid.
[4]  Joseph A. Callaway, “‘Ai,” Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, 4 vols., ed. Michael Avi-Yonah and Ephraim Stern (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975) (EAEHL), vol. 1, p. 52
 [5]   For William F. Albright’s pioneering work on the issue, see especially his “Archaeology and the Date of the Hebrew Conquest of Palestine,” BASOR 58 (1935), pp. 10–18; “Further Light on the History of Israel from Lachish and Megiddo,” BASOR 68 (1937), pp. 22–26; and “The Israelite Conquest of Canaan in the Light of Archaeology,” BASOR 74 (1939), pp. 11–23. His views were developed and widely popularized by his students; see G. Ernest Wright and Floyd Filson, The Westminster Historical Atlas of the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956); and John Bright, A History of Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959).
[6]  Yigael Yadin born Yigal Sukenik (1917 – 1984) was an Israeli archeologist, politician, and the second Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Upon leaving the military, he devoted himself to research and began his life’s work in archeology. In 1956 he received the Israel Prize for his doctoral thesis on the translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. As an archeologist, he excavated some of the most important sites in the region, including the Qumran Caves, Masada, Hazor, and Tel Megiddo.
[7]  Abraham Malamat  – Prof. Emeritus – Hebrew University, Jerusalem -  Institute of Jewish Studies, Faculty of Humanities.
[8]  Yigael Yadin, “Is the Biblical Account of the Israelite Conquest of Canaan Historically Reliable?” BAR 08:02, March/April 1982, p. 18.
[9]  Ibid.
[10]  Ibid.
[11]  Abraham Malamat, “How Inferior Israelite Forces Conquered Fortified Canaanite Cities,” BAR 08:02, March/April 1982
[12]  Ibid.
[13]  Ibid.
[14]  Ibid.
[15]  William H. Stiebing, Jr., “When Was the Age of the Patriarchs?—Of [15] Amorites, Canaanites, and Archaeology,” BAR 01:02, June 1975, pp. 17–21.
[16]  See Yadin, “The Transition from a Semi-Nomadic to a Sedentary Society in the Twelfth Century BC,” in Symposia, ed. Frank M. Cross (Cambridge, MA: American Schools of Oriental Research, 1979), pp. 57–68.
[17]  Abraham Malamat, “How Inferior Israelite Forces Conquered Fortified Canaanite Cities,” BAR 08:02, March/April 1982
[18]  Ibid.
[19]  Actually, for a large army, the Wadi Farah, beginning some 15 miles north of Jericho and emerging in the hills at Tirzah, east of Shechem, would have been much more suitable. The Wadi Farah is wide and is currently planted in lush banana and citrus groves.
[20]  Abraham Malamat, “How Inferior Israelite Forces Conquered Fortified Canaanite Cities,” BAR 08:02, March/April 1982


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