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The conquest of the land of Canaan is a pivotal event in the Bible’s redemptive history. Many years before, God had made a covenant with Abraham and promised him that his descendants would become a great nation in the land where He would send him (Gen. 12:1–3). On the basis of his faith in this promise, Abraham left Ur at the center of civilization to travel to Canaan, a relative backwater. But despite the fact that he gained great wealth and prestige during his lifetime, he remained a wanderer in the land of promise. Thus, at a time of doubt, God appeared to Abraham and reaffirmed to him that the land would remain with his people (Gen. 15:18b–21).

The book of Joshua celebrates the beginning of the fulfillment of the promise. It is absolutely crucial that we affirm its historical nature for a number of reasons. In the first place, judged by the standards of its day, the book’s genre is historical, which means that it is claiming that the events it describes actually happened. Second, the geographical concreteness of the promise in the patriarchal narrative requires a concrete, historical fulfillment. If the conquest never took place, then the promise was never fulfilled. The book of Joshua is no mere metaphor or parable of God’s power and sovereignty; it narrates His actual mighty acts in history.

It is equally important to remember that the book of Joshua is a theological history. That does not modify the space-and-time nature of its narrative, but it does remind us that the book does not intend to give us a full picture of what went on. The author’s selectivity, at least in the first half of the book, is in keeping with his intention to celebrate the beginning of the conquest. To gain a fuller picture of the historical event, we have to keep in mind other passages that are not so optimistic about the success of the conquest (Josh. 13–24; Judges).

The account begins with the crossing of the Jordan River (Josh. 1–3). God reassured Joshua and the people that He was still with them by performing an act that echoed the crossing of the Red Sea. We need to remember that among the people standing on the banks of the Jordan, only Joshua, Caleb, and those who were younger than 20 at the time of Israel’s initial refusal to invade Canaan (Num. 14:26–30) had witnessed the earlier mighty deed of God. By causing the Jordan River to stop flowing so the people could cross on dry land, God was saying that He was still there as their divine warrior to protect them and defeat their enemies.

After this exciting entrance, the Israelite armies, directed by God, cut the Canaanite kings into two parts, north and south. The first Canaanite city-state that the Israelites encountered was Jericho. God met with Joshua on the eve of the battle against Jericho (Josh. 5:13–15) and gave him the battle strategy. Jericho theoretically would have been the most potent of Israel’s targets. It was the oldest city in the area and was renowned for its defensive walls. However, before God the walls were like nothing at all. The focus of the battle strategy was on the ark of the covenant, which went at the head of the seven-day march around the walls. The ark was the symbol of God’s presence with His people, and when on the final day the priests blew the “seven trumpets of rams’ horns,” the walls came tumbling down and the city was taken easily.

The book of Joshua is no mere metaphor or parable of God’s power and sovereignty; it narrates His actual mighty acts in history.

That it was God who won this victory is underlined by the second battle of the conquest, the taking of Ai. This city also was in the center part of the land and should have proved no match for the Israelites. After all, its very name means “dump” in Hebrew! Nonetheless, Israel’s success or failure in battle did not depend on relative strength but on God’s decision. Since Israel in the person of Achan had broken the law against taking part of the plunder of Jericho for personal use, God punished the people by allowing the army of Ai to defeat them initially. After repentance and judgment on Achan, however, the city of Ai was subdued and the center was almost taken.

The first phase of the conquest came to an end in an unexpected and unwanted way when a group of travelers came into the Israelite camp to make a treaty of submission with Joshua. They said they came from a faraway land, not from Canaan, a subtle deceit since they knew that Israel was to destroy all the people within the land without mercy (Deut. 20). In his haste, Joshua didn’t consult God before agreeing to a treaty (Josh. 9:14), and soon afterward the Israelites discovered that these men were from the Gibeonite confederacy just down the road. In any case, Joshua now controlled the middle of the land, setting up the conditions for the rest of the conquest.

Until this point, the Canaanites had remained fragmented and Joshua had gone from city to city. After the defeat of Jericho and Ai, and the submission of Gibeon, the kings of the south banded together and attacked Gibeon for its betrayal of the Canaanite cause. As it turned out, this only made things easier for Joshua, who took on the massed armies of the south on the open battlefield. Due to God’s intervention, most notably by raining lethal hailstones on the enemy and causing the day to lengthen by holding the sun and moon still in the sky, Joshua took the south. At that point, the kings of the north gathered together and attacked, but the result was the same. With the middle, the south, and the north subdued, the first half of the book of Joshua concludes with a list of defeated kings, emphasizing Israel’s success on the battlefield (Josh. 12).

In the second half of the book, the emphasis remains the same. The bulk of the remainder of Joshua is devoted to specifying the boundaries of the tribal allotments. Modern readers understandably find this portion of Scripture quite tedious, but we need to remember that each named city would evoke praise from the Old Testament people of God. The Abrahamic promise was in the process of fulfillment! After centuries of waiting, it was becoming a reality.

The conquest is the account of the beginning of the establishment of God’s kingdom in the land in accordance with the promise to Abraham many years before.

However, a close reading of the tribal allotments indicates that the conquest was far from complete; there was much land within Canaan that remained under Canaanite control (Josh. 15:63; 16:10, etc.). Then, when we come to the book of Judges (ch. 1 especially), we learn that there is a need to continue driving out the native inhabitants. Soon thereafter, we encounter foreign oppressors in the land.

Space does not allow for a full development of all the nuances of the biblical presentation of the taking of the land of Canaan. There is evidence, for instance, that some of the native population (most notably Rahab) aligned themselves to the Israelite cause and faith, joining the “mixed multitude” that came up from Egypt (Ex. 12:38). Already the Gentiles were being gathered into the people of God. However, the conquest reached its dénouement, so to speak, only with David, whose defeat of the Philistines brought Israel peace with its surrounding enemies (2 Sam. 7:1) and triggered the building of the temple, the symbol of establishment within the land.

When did these events take place? At first glance, the Bible seems clear about this matter. Solomon started building the temple “in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel had come out of the land of Egypt,” also identified as the fourth year of his reign (1 Kings 6:1). Scholars are reasonably certain that Solomon’s fourth year was 966 B.C. It seems obvious then, if we do the simple math, that the Exodus took place during the fifteenth century B.C. and the conquest followed on its heels. To make a long story short, however, some scholars argue that other evidence within the Bible (i.e., the name of the storage city Raamses in Exodus 1:11) pushes the date toward the thirteenth century (the time of a king named Raamses). It is further suggested that what we know of the archaeology of the time fits better with a thirteenth-century date, and then we are also provided with alternative ways of understanding the number in 1 Kings 6:1. One popular suggestion is that 480 is really a symbolic number representing the sum total of 12 generations of 40 years, whereas a real generation is more like 30 years. Personally, I find these explanations quite tendentious and stretched, and I still prefer the earlier date; however, we must admit that it is possible to present an argument in favor of a thirteenth-century date that does not impute error to the Bible.

Thus, the conquest is the account of the beginning of the establishment of God’s kingdom in the land in accordance with the promise to Abraham many years before. God, Israel’s warrior (Ex. 15:3), gave His people the victory and the already/not yet fulfillment of the promise.

Like the Israelites, Christians today are in a covenant with God, the new covenant that fulfills the old covenant. We look forward to entering our promised land. We also live in an already/not yet period of time as we look back to the cross, where Christ secured the victory over Satan, and look forward to the final victory anticipated by the book of Revelation. In the meantime, we may be assured that Christ, our warrior, is with us in our present spiritual struggles (Eph. 6:10–20).

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