Early Israelite campaigns

According to the Bible, after the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites moved into Canaan, the land promised to them by God. The Book of Joshua, describing the early Israelite campaigns, relates how they entered Canaan with two fierce battles (Jericho and Ai) and gained control of the land through their campaigns against the Canaanite kings of north and south.

This picture has been dramatically revised as a result of the archaeological evidence, as Jericho and Ai were not occupied in the Near Eastern Late Bronze Age, and the destruction of other cities as recounted in Joshua cannot be assigned to the Israelites.[1] As a result there is general agreement among scholars that the Book of Joshua holds little historical value.[2] The story of the conquest represents the nationalist propaganda of the 8th century kings of Judah and their claims to the territory of the Kingdom of Israel;[3] incorporated into an early form of Joshua written late in the reign of king Josiah (reigned 640–609 BCE). The book was revised and completed after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586, and possibly after the return from the Babylonian exile in 538.[4]

Biblical narrative

According to the Biblical narrative, the Israelites successfully attack the Canaanites at such locations as Jericho and Ai. In the south, Joshua honors the treaty with Gibeon and defeats the kings of five cities — Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish, and Eglon (ch.10). Soon, a coalition of Canaanites and other northern city-states of Canaan send a force to halt the Israelite invasions of their country. However, an Israelite counterattack catches their enemies by surprise at the Waters of Merom and routs them (ch.11). In chapter 12, Joshua lists 32 cities reportedly conquered by the Israelite army. Afterwards, the Israelites become established in their "Promised Land".

However, scholars have also raised concerns about inconsistencies in the Biblical representation of how the Israelites emerged in Canaan, especially between the books of Joshua and Judges.[5]


In early 20th century academic scholarship, the historicity of the early Israelite campaigns was taken for granted (e.g., Paton). However, by the 1930s Martin Noth issued what Albricht termed "a sweeping criticism of the legitimacy of using biblical data in Joshua as material for history."[6] Noth was a student of Alt, who emphasized form criticism and the importance of etiology.[7] Alt and Noth posited a peaceful movement of the Israelites into various areas of Canaan, contra the Biblical account.[8]

Albricht himself questioned the "tenacity" of etiologies, which were key to Noth's analysis of the campaigns in Joshua. Archaeological evidence in the 1930s showed that the city of Ai, an early battled in the putative Joshua account, had existed and been destroyed, but in 22nd century BCE.[9] Kathleen Kenyon showed that Jericho was from the Middle not the Late Bronze Age[10] Hence, it was argued that the early Israelite campaign could not be historically corroborated, but rather explained as an etiology of the location and a representation of the Israelite settlement.

In 1955, Wright discusses the correlation of archaeological data to the early Israelite campaigns, which he divides into three phases per the Book of Joshua. He points to two sets of archaeological findings that "seem to suggest that the biblical account is in general correct regarding the nature of the late thirteenth and twelfth-eleventh centuries in the country" (i.e., "a period of tremendous violence").[11] He gives particular weight to what were recent digs at Hazor by Yigael Yadin.[12]

As an alternative to both the military conquest and uncontested infiltration hypotheses, Mendenhall and Gottwald suggested that the Israelites emerged through a kind of peasant revolt against their Canaanite lords. However, as explained by Rendsburg (p.510f.), archaeological findings (presented by Israel Finkelstein in 1986) undermined this idea because the Israelites first settled areas not held by Canaanites, whose cities were sustained alongside Israelite areas.

In later years of the 20th century, academic analysis tended to be increasingly skeptical of the historicity of the early Israelite military campaigns as described in Joshua. To be sure, scholarship remained somewhat divided with some more deferential to the Biblical account. For example, Kennedy argues that "a vast amount of archaeological evidence indicates that the sites of Jericho, Hazor, Shechem, and Dan were occupied, destroyed, and resettled at the specific times and in the manner consistent with the records from the books of Joshua and Judges."

On the other hand, the work of Dever and Van Seters, among others, pulls back considerably from the presuppositions of early scholars.

Whether through pastoral migration or military conquest, the Israelite settlement cannot easily be pegged to a specific time period. Scholars have argued the 14th, 13th, and 12th centuries BCE.[13]

Moral and political interpretations

With the Zionist struggle for a Jewish state, the early Israelite campaigns have undergone renewed attention and interpretation. The early Zionists, according to Rachel Havrelock, "read the book of Joshua as explaining their times and justifying their wars. From this perspective, God fought on behalf of manifest Israel.... Joshua’s vocabulary informed the lexicon of Jewish nationalism."[14]

Later, in 1958, David Ben-Gurion "saw the biblical war narrative as constituting an ideal basis for a unifying myth of national identity." This was a unity that was framed against a common enemy, Arabs beyond Israel's borders.[15] Ben-Gurion met with politicians and scholars, such as Bible scholar Shemaryahu Talmon, to discuss the conquests in Joshua. He later published a book of the meeting transcripts. In a lecture at Ben-Gurion's home, archaeologist Yigael Yadin argued for the historicity of the Israelite military campaign and remarked on how much easier it was for military experts to appreciate the plausibility of the Joshua narrative. Yadin specifically pointed to the conquests of Hazor, Bethel, and Lachish. Conversely, archaeologist Yohanan Aharoni argued against the historicity of the early Israelite campaigns, instead favoring a migration model.[16]

Havrelock herself argues that the myth of conquest, although shaped by ardent nationalists with a military agenda, could be re-interpreted for the purposes of a decentralized post-nationalism.[17]

By the same token, the Biblical narrative of conquest has been used as an apparatus of critique against Zionism. For example, Michael Prior criticizes the use of the campaign in Joshua to favor "colonial enterprises" (in general, not only Zionism) and have been interpreted as validating ethnic cleansing. He asserts that the Bible was used to make the treatment of Palestinians more palatable morally.[18] A related moral condemnation can be seen in "The political sacralization of imperial genocide: contextualizing Timothy Dwight's The Conquest of Canaan" by Bill Templer.[19] This kind of critique is not new; Jonathan Boyarin notes how Frederick W. Turner blamed Israel's monotheism for the very idea of genocide, which Boyarin found "simplistic" yet with precedents.[20]


  1. Rogerson & Lieu 2006, p. 63.
  2. Killebrew, p. 152.
  3. Coote 2000, p. 275.
  4. Creach 2003, p. 10–11.
  5. See Kennedy's discussion and attempted resolution, p.3., and Japhet p.206ff.
  6. Albricht, April 1939, p.12
  7. Abricht, ibid. Kennedy (p.2) cites later scholarship behind this model, e.g., Noort 1998: 127-28.
  8. Rendburg, p.510
  9. Albricht, p.16
  10. see Kennedy, p.11
  11. Wright, p.107
  12. Wright, p.107
  13. For a review, see Kennedy, among others.
  14. Havrelock, Rachel (2013). "The Joshua Generation: Conquest and the Promised Land". Critical research on religion. 1 (3): 309. doi:10.1177/2050303213506473.
  15. Havrelock, p.309
  16. Havrelock, p.310f.
  17. Havrelock, p.310
  18. Prior, Michael (2002). "Ethnic Cleansing and the Bible: A Moral Critique". Journal of Holy Land and Palestine Studies. 1 (1): 37–59.
  19. Templer, Bill (1 December 2006). "The political sacralization of imperial genocide: contextualizing Timothy Dwight's The Conquest of Canaan". Postcolonial Studies: Culture, Politics, Economy. 9 (4): 358–391. doi:10.1080/13688790600993230.
  20. Boyarin p.525


Other academic writings

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