Joshua and the Conquest of the Land of Canaan Joshua

The basic outline and focus of the book of Joshua are clear-cut. The text opens with Joshua’s appointment as Moses’s successor, followed by Israel’s crossing of the Jordan, a series of conquests, the division of the land among the tribes, and a farewell address before the renewal of the covenant by Joshua at Shechem. Essentially the book of Joshua demonstrates the way that the Israelites should live in the land of Canaan, following the divine laws given by Moses.

Boundary and City Lists

Chapters 13–19 of Joshua list the boundaries of the territories conquered by the Israelites along with an account of the cities that are in each territory. The narrative then goes on to describe how these lands were divided up among the twelve tribes. While this is not exciting reading, these lists are important because they demonstrate the importance attached to the land in both the Deuteronomistic History and the Bible as a whole.

            These lists provide a detailed description of the lands belonging to Judah while giving a very limited description of other tribal lands, suggesting that the lists were composed in Judah. Archaeological evidence also sheds light on these lists, as many of the cities that are discussed demonstrate no sign of settlement before the seventh century BCE. This fact indicates that the lists were probably compiled during the reign of Josiah. Last, the city lists describe the six cities of asylum that were controlled by the Levites. However, it is questionable whether these cities actually functioned as cities of refuge in the biblical period. Whatever the case may be, the main purpose of the narrative is to demonstrate that Joshua carried out the commandments as laid out in the Deuteronomic Code.


Obviously Joshua is the main character in the book that bears his name. In essence, his character is meant to stand as a paradigm. He is an ideal leader and warrior who served as the archetype for the later kings of Israel. Moreover, Joshua’s life is modeled after that of Moses. The book of Joshua makes a great effort to provide parallels between these figures, including the crossing of a major body of water and farewell addresses to the people. Despite these parallels, the character of Joshua is not nearly as complex as that of Moses. Joshua is one-dimensional and single-minded in purpose, while Moses has personal flaws. Ultimately, it is difficult to determine whether or not there was a historical Joshua. However, the clustering of events in his life in an area in the territory of the tribe of Ephraim suggests that Joshua may have originally been a local hero whose deeds were embellished by later writers.

            In addition to Joshua, the characters of Rahab and the Gibeonites play a major role. Rahab is important because she is a Canaanite woman who becomes a true believer in Yahweh. As a result she turns against her own people and helps the Israelites defeat the king of Jericho. Perhaps the most notable aspect of her character is that she is named in this account, unlike many women in the Old Testament. The Gibeonites are also important to the book of Joshua. Initially they deceive the Israelites and trick them into making a covenant with them. The account of the Gibeonites is probably an extended etiology explaining both why and how this group of Canaanites was spared by the Israelites and also why they were a people of inferior status.


The book of Joshua contains more etiologies than any other book of the Bible. These etiologies probably originated as independent local legends that functioned as explanations of phenomena or etymologies. These explanations are usually fictive and often are provided to explain a feature of the landscape or the existence of an ethnic difference within Israel. Notable examples include the account of the city of Ai, which helps to explain how the ancient ruins got there, and the accounts of the Gibeonites and Rahab, which attempt to explain how Canaanite groups became a part of Israel.

Joshua and History

Until modern times, the book of Joshua was accepted as an accurate account of the conquest of Canaan. However, even the Bible itself points out that the takeover of Canaan and the annihilation of its people were not complete. In many cases the Israelite tribes failed to drive off the inhabitants of the land and were forced to live side by side with them.

            A more plausible reconstruction of events suggests that Joshua was a local hero who defeated some neighboring communities of Canaanites. Over the course of history, the later biblical writers embellished and amplified these victories. The archaeological evidence demonstrates that during the thirteenth century BCE (the most widely accepted date for these events) the cities of Jericho, Ai, and Gibeon were uninhabited. While Lachish and Hazor were ruined in this period, their destruction occurred nearly a century apart and therefore does not suit the chronology of Joshua. Shechem poses a particular problem since it was not sacked during this period and the book of Joshua does not describe an Israelite battle for the city. However, the Israelites do control Shechem according to Joshua, but no explanation is given for how this takeover occurred.

            Thus, Joshua’s conquest of Canaan should be understood as an extended etiology that explains how the Israelites came to control the land with the help of Yahweh. The battles described were included in the narrative as a way of explaining the existence of the ruined and uninhabited cities that dotted the landscape. While there undoubtedly were some military campaigns involved in the Israelite takeover of Canaan, Israel’s emergence in Canaan was actually a slow and uneven process.

Implications for Our Study

The book of Joshua marks something of a turning point for both the Israelites and the Bible as a whole. For the Israelites, the people have finally completed their long journey from Egypt to the Promised Land and have begun to establish themselves as a people in this land. For the Bible, this marks the beginning of the Deuteronomistic History. The writers of this history understood Deuteronomy as the “constitution” for the nation of Israel, and they continued to elaborate on the themes presented in it throughout their writings. Mainly, the Deuteronomistic historians believed that Israel needed to be unified under one earthly ruler and under one God according to the laws of Moses. In the books that follow, we will see how the observance of these precepts played out through six hundred years of Israelite history and how failure to live by them had catastrophic results.