The biblical story of the conquest of Canaan is found in Joshua 1–11 and Judges 1. The Joshua account continues the story of the conquest of the Transjordan given in Numbers 21; it depicts the conquest as quick and complete. The Israelites cross into Canaan and capture Jericho (Josh. 6) and Ai (Josh. 8). Although tricked into an alliance with the Gibeonites (Map 3:X5; Josh. 9), they defeat a coalition of cities led by Jerusalem (Josh. 10.1–27) and sweep through the southern part of the country, destroying everything in their path (Josh. 10.28–42). This southern campaign is followed by a victory over an alliance of northern cities led by Hazor (Josh. 11.1–5). The subjugation of Canaan takes only five years (see Josh. 14.7, 10), and most of the indigenous population is destroyed (Josh. 11.16–20). Judges 1, however, gives the impression that the conquest was a matter of individual tribal actions occurring over an extended period and often with inconclusive results.
Modern historians have attempted to describe the process by which Israel came into control of Canaan. It seems to have had two phases, one of peaceful settlement in the hills and one of conflict with the cities of the lowlands. Surveys of Israel and Jordan show that the central highlands were sparsely populated before 1200 BCE, when a marked expansion began. Most of the newcomers were agriculturalists, not nomads. They seem to have been of mixed origin, arriving from several directions and settling in villages. Certain continuities in material culture, including pottery and architecture, suggest that a substantial number came from the Canaanite cities of the lowlands. These peoples made up the bulk of the population of later Israel. They aligned themselves with an existing group called Israel, who were already living in the region, as shown by a reference made to them in about 1207 BCE by the Egyptian king Merneptah. The resulting larger community developed a strong sense of ethnic identity, sharply separating themselves from the peoples of the neighboring lowland cities, whom they eventually grew strong enough to conquer or assimilate in a process that was not complete until David's capture of Jerusalem in the tenth century BCE. It was probably the memory of this process that gave rise to the tradition of Joshua's conquest.
Archaeology has cast doubt on the historicity of many of the specific victories described in Joshua, including especially the battle of Jericho, which was not fortified at the time of the Israelites' arrival. The story of the crossing of the Jordan and the first victory serves the theological purpose of presenting the conquest as a part of Yahweh's plan for Israel, the means by which the land promised to the ancestors was acquired. The crossing into the sacred realm and siege of the first Canaanite city are presented in ritual terms, while the divine participation in the war is made clear (Josh. 5.13–15; cf. 10.12).
See also Joshua, The Book of.
P. Kyle McCarter, Jr.