Joshua and the conquest of Canaan

The Biblical book of Joshua is an edited account of the conquest and settlement of Canaan.

There are at least four components to the book of Joshua:

  1. The annals of Joshua’s wars.
  2. The oral traditions of the tribe of Ephraim (Joshua’s tribe).
  3. The oral traditions of the tribe of Judah and of Caleb, their chieftain.
  4. The editorial changes made in the final version, which reflected the hopes and vision of the writer of Deuteronomy, but were not made by that author.

Annals of Joshua’s wars

These are fairly easy to extract, once it is assumed that such annals would have been intended just to list the events of Joshua’s military campaign, and that the more colourful story elements would have been carried down (and elaborated) through the oral traditions of the people.

Early in the morning Joshua and all the Israelites set out from Shittim and went to the Jordan, where they camped before crossing over.

On the tenth day of the first month the people went up from the Jordan and camped at Gilgal on the eastern border of Jericho.

On the evening of the fourteenth day of the month, while camped at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho, the Israelites celebrated the Passover. The day after the Passover, that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land: unleavened bread and roasted grain.

The gates of Jericho were securely barred because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in.

Joshua son of Nun called the priests and said to them, “Take up the ark of the covenant of Yahweh and have seven priests carry trumpets in front of it.” And he ordered the army, “Advance! March around the city, with an armed guard going ahead of the ark of Yahweh.”

When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, everyone charged straight in, and they took the city.

Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai, which is near Beth Aven to the east of Bethel. So three clans went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai, who killed about thirty-six of them. They chased the Israelites from the city gate as far as the stone quarries and struck them down on the slopes. So Joshua and the whole army moved out to attack Ai, and took the city.

Then Joshua built on Mount Ebal an altar to Yahweh, the God of Israel, as Moses the servant of Yahweh had commanded the Israelites. On it they offered to Yahweh burnt offerings and sacrificed fellowship offerings.

When the people of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and Ai, they went to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal and said to him and the Israelites, “Make a treaty with us.”

Then Joshua made a treaty of peace with them, and the leaders of the assembly ratified it by oath.

Adoni-Zedek king of Jerusalem heard that Joshua had taken Ai and totally destroyed it, doing to Ai and its king as he had done to Jericho and its king, and that the people of Gibeon had made a treaty of peace with Israel and had become their allies. He, together with his people, were very much alarmed at this, because Gibeon was an important city, like one of the royal cities; it was larger than Ai, and all its men were good fighters. So Adoni-Zedek king of Jerusalem appealed to Hoham king of Hebron, Piram king of Jarmuth, Japhia king of Lachish and Debir king of Eglon to assist him in attacking Gibeon.

Then the five kings of the Amorites—the kings of Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish and Eglon—joined forces. They moved up with all their troops and took up positions against Gibeon and attacked it.

So Joshua marched up from Gilgal with his entire army, including all the best fighting men.

After an all-night march from Gilgal, Joshua took them by surprise. Yahweh threw them into confusion before Israel, so Joshua and the Israelites defeated them completely at Gibeon. Israel pursued them along the road going up to Beth Horon and cut them down all the way to Azekah and Makkedah.

When Jabin king of Hazor heard of this, he sent word to Jobab king of Madon, to the kings of Shimron and Akshaph, and to the northern kings who were in the mountains, in the Arabah south of Kinnereth, in the western foothills and in Naphoth Dor on the west. They came out with all their troops and a large number of horses and chariots—a huge army, as numerous as the sand on the seashore. All these kings joined forces and made camp together at the Waters of Merom to fight against Israel.

So Joshua and his whole army came against them suddenly at the Waters of Merom and attacked them, and Yahweh gave them into the hand of Israel. They defeated them and pursued them all the way to Greater Sidon, to Misrephoth Maim, and to the Valley of Mizpah on the east, until no survivors were left.

At that time Joshua turned back and captured Hazor put its king to the sword and burned the city to the ground. (Hazor had been the head of all these kingdoms.)

Then the land had rest from war.

[Then follows the allotment of the land and cities to the tribes of Judah and Joseph.]

Following this, the people of Joseph said to Joshua, “Why have you given us only one allotment and one portion for an inheritance? We are a numerous people, and Yahweh has blessed us abundantly.”

Joshua said to the tribes of Joseph “You are numerous and very powerful. You will have not only one allotment but the forested hill country as well. Clear it, and its farthest limits will be yours; though the Canaanites have chariots fitted with iron and though they are strong, you can drive them out.”

The whole assembly of the Israelites gathered at Shiloh and set up the tent of meeting there. The country was brought under their control, but there were still seven Israelite tribes who had not yet received their inheritance. So Joshua instructed three men from each of these tribes, who had been appointed to make a survey of the remaining land, saying, “Go and make a survey of the land and write a description of it. Then return to me, and I will cast lots for you here at Shiloh in the presence of Yahweh.” So the men left and went through the land. They wrote its description on a tablet, town by town, in seven parts, and returned to Joshua in the camp at Shiloh. Joshua then cast lots for them in Shiloh in the presence of Yahweh, and there he distributed the land to the Israelites according to their tribal divisions.

[Then follows the allotment of land and cities for Benjamin, Simeon, Zebulun, Issachar, Asher, Naphtali and Dan.]

Tribal inheritances in Israel
Tribal inheritances in Israel


When they had finished dividing the land into its allotted portions, the Israelites gave Joshua son of Nun the town of Timnath Serah in the hill country of Ephraim. He built up the town and settled there.

The Israelites also gave the Levites the following towns and pasture lands out of their own inheritance:

  • The first lot came out for the Kohathites, according to their clans. The Levites who were descendants of Aaron the priest were allotted to thirteen towns from the tribes of Judah, Simeon and Benjamin.
  • The rest of Kohath’s descendants were allotted to ten towns from the clans of the tribes of Ephraim, Dan and half of Manasseh.
  • The descendants of Gershon were allotted to thirteen towns from the clans of the tribes of Issachar, Asher, Naphtali and the half-tribe of Manasseh in Bashan.
  • The descendants of Merari, according to their clans, were allotted to twelve towns from the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Zebulun.

Then Joshua assembled all the tribes of Israel at Shechem. He said to all the people. “This is what the Yahweh, the God of Israel says, ‘Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshipped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants. I gave him Isaac, and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I assigned the hill country of Seir to Esau, but Jacob and his family went down to Egypt. Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I afflicted the Egyptians by what I did there, and I brought you out. When I brought your people out of Egypt, you came to the sea, and the Egyptians pursued them with chariots and horsemen as far as the Reed Sea. But they cried to Yahweh for help, and he put darkness between you and the Egyptians; he brought the sea over them and covered them. You saw with your own eyes what I did to the Egyptians. Then you lived in the wilderness for a long time. I brought you to the land of the Amorites who lived east of the Jordan. They fought against you, but I gave them into your hands. I destroyed them from before you, and you took possession of their land. Then you crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho. The citizens of Jericho fought against you, but I gave them into your hands. I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove the Amorite kings out from before you. You did not do it with your own sword and bow. So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.'”

“Now then,” said Joshua, “throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to Yahweh, the God of Israel.”

And the people said to Joshua, “We will serve Yahweh our God and obey him.”

And Joshua recorded these things in a tablet. Then he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of Yahweh.

Then Joshua dismissed the people, each to their own inheritance.

Ephraim’s oral traditions

The following stories include elements drawn from the oral traditions of the people of Ephraim:

  • The fall of Jericho, with its dramatic account of the collapse of the walls of the city. (These walls were already down centuries before Joshua – the people defeated in Jericho were occupying a city without effective fortifications.)
  • The taking of Ai. (This town has not been definitively identified.)
  • The sun stands still when fighting Adoni-Zedek, the Amorite king of Jerusalem.
  • The Amorite kings hide in the cave at Makkedah.
  • Eastern Israelite tribes return home, across the Jordan, their work having been done.
  • Phineas leads a delegation to rebuke the tribes on the east side of the Jordan for erecting an imposing altar, perceived to be a rival for the altar at the Tent of Meeting in Shiloh.
  • Joshua is buried in his own land at Timnah Serah.

Just because a story was drawn from oral traditions does not mean it is not historical, although stories handed down in this way are likely to have been elaborated on their journey through time. The encapsulation of these stories in writing can be placed in the same period as the E Source.

Judah’s oral traditions

The following stories include elements drawn from the oral traditions of the people of Judah (J Source):

  • Rahab the innkeeper (who is not a prostitute) helps the Israelite spies and is later saved by the Israelites. (This story is part of David’s story, thus accounting for its survival through the centuries.)
  • Caleb is given Hebron as his possession.
  • Caleb victory over the Anakites (giants). This story is from the same source as that found in Judges 1, but has been adapted in the book of Joshua to place Caleb’s operations during Joshua’s lifetime, rather than after Joshua’s death (as in Judges).

Editor’s additions

The final editor has made many additions in order to make the story conform more closely to the vision of the conquest presented in Deuteronomy. These additions are not the work of the writer of Deuteronomy, since that writer perceived that Israel’s difficulties were due to lack of rigour by the Israelites in casting out the nations from Canaan. These additions are also not the work of Ezra either, since his interventions were of a different kind.

In this editor’s view, Joshua must have acted in accordance with the vision presented in Deuteronomy and also in accordance with the imperatives of the writer of the P Source. This required a number of changes to the basic story:

  • Crossing the Jordan with the ark of the covenant going before the people.
  • Circumcision at Gilgal.
  • Achan’s sin as an explanation of the difficulty in taking Ai.
  • Elaboration of the story of the renewal of the covenant at Mount Ebal.
  • Elaboration of the account of the treaty with the Gibeonites, explaining it as being due to the Gibeonite deceit of Joshua and the Israelites.
  • Conquest of the southern cities (which is clearly in conflict with Caleb’s version of this story), including the list of the defeated kings.
  • List of land still to be taken (note the anachronism of including the Philistines, who were not in the land at the time of Joshua).
  • Establishment of cities of refuge.
  • The part of Joshua’s speech to the people that reflects the interests of the writer of Deuteronomy.

In addition, the editor is probably responsible for adding the allocation of land to the Israelite tribes who remained on the east side of the Jordan River, having drawn this from the J Source record of the possession of the lands of those people.

The editor also included the account of the re-burial of Joseph’s bones, and of adding the historical detail that Phineas succeeded his father, Eleazar, as high priest.