Holman Bible Dictionary
Conquest of Canaan
Historical Setting The Israelite conquest came at a time when Egyptian control of Canaan was weakened. Historians have not been able to pinpoint the time when the conquest of Canaan occurred. The difficulty lies in the fact that the date of the Exodus is uncertain. Scholars have proposed quite a number of dates for this important event. The most commonly accepted period for the Exodus is around 1280 B.C. Such a date would place the conquest at about 1240-1190 B.C. Other scholars prefer to date the Exodus around 1445 B.C., which would suggest that the conquest occurred about 1400-1350 B.C.
While it is not possible to be definitive about the date of the conquest, it is possible to draw some general conclusions regarding the situation of Canaan in the approximate time frame of the conquest. Shortly after 1500 B.C., Egypt subdued Canaan. Canaanite society operated according to a feudal system whereby the kings of city states paid tribute to their Egyptian overlords. The city states were numerous in the heavily-populated Palestinian coastal plain; the mountainous regions were lightly populated. From about 1400 B.C. onward, Egyptian control of Canaan weakened, opening the land up for possible invasion by an outside force.
Joshua's Strategy Joshua led a three-campaign invasion of Canaan. At the close of the wilderness wanderings the Israelites arrived on the plains of Moab in the Transjordan (“beyond the Jordan”). There they subdued two local kings, Sihon and Og (Numbers 21:21-35 ). Some of the Israelite tribes—Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Manasseh—chose to settle in this newly conquered territory (Numbers 32:1 ).
After Moses died, Joshua became the new leader of the Israelites. As God instructed him, Joshua led the people across the Jordan River into Canaan. The crossing was made possible by a supernatural separation of the water of the Jordan (Joshua 3-4 ). After crossing the river the Israelites camped at Gilgal. From there Joshua led the first military campaign against the Canaanites in the sparsely-populated central highlands, northwest of the Dead Sea. The initial object of the attack was the ancient stronghold of Jericho. The Israelite force marched around the city once a day for six days. On the seventh day they marched around it seven times, then blasted trumpets and shouted. In response the walls of Jericho collapsed, allowing the invaders to destroy the city (Joshua 6:1 ).
The Israelites then attempted to conquer the nearby city of Ai, where they met with their first defeat. The reason for the failure was that Achan, one of the Israelite soldiers, had kept some booty from the invasion of Jericho—an action which violated God's orders to destroy everything in the city. After Achan was executed, the Israelites were able to destroy Ai (Joshua 7-8 ).
Not all of the Canaanites tried to resist Israel's invasion. One group, the Gibeonites, avoided destruction by deceiving the Israelites into making a covenant of peace with them (Joshua 9:1 ). Alarmed by the defection of the Gibeonites to Israel, a group of southern Canaanite kings, led by Adoni-zedek of Jerusalem, formed a coalition against the invading force. The kings threatened to attack the Gibeonites, causing Joshua to come to the defense of his new allies. Because of supernatural intervention, the Israelites were able to defeat the coalition. Joshua then launched a southern campaign which resulted in the capture of numerous Canaanite cities (Joshua 10:1 ).
Joshua's third and last military campaign was in northern Canaan. In that region King Jabin of Hazor formed a coalition of neighboring kings to battle with the Israelites. Joshua made a surprise attack upon them at the waters of Merom, utterly defeating his foe (Joshua 11:1-15 ).
The invasion of Canaan met with phenomenal success; large portions of the land fell to the Israelites (Joshua 11:16-12:24 ). However, some areas still remained outside their control, such as the heavily-populated land along the coast and several major Canaanite cities like Jerusalem (Joshua 13:1-5; Joshua 15:63; Judges 1:1 ). The Israelites struggled for centuries to control these areas.
Israelite Settlement The Israelite tribes slowly settled Canaan without completely removing the native population. Even though some sections of the land remained to be conquered, God instructed Joshua to apportion Canaan to the tribes which had not yet received territory (Joshua 13:7 ). Following the land allotments, Israel began to occupy its territory. Judges 1:1 describes the settlement as a slow process whereby individual tribes struggled to remove the Canaanites. In the final analysis the tribes had limited success in driving out the native population ( Judges 1:1 ). As a result, Israel was plagued for centuries by the infiltration of Canaanite elements into its religion (Judges 2:1-5 ).
Conquest Reconstructions Scholars have proposed varying models for understanding the conquest of Canaan. The previous description of the nature of the conquest and settlement presents a traditional, harmonizing approach to the interpretation of the biblical material. Some scholars have proposed other interpretive models. One is the immigration model, which assumes that there was no real conquest of Canaan but that peoples of diverse origins gradually immigrated into the area after 1300 B.C. They eventually took control of the city states and became the nation of Israel. The difficulty with this model is that it ignores the general biblical picture of God constituting the nation of Israel in the desert and leading them to invade the Promised Land.
Other scholars have put forth a revolt model for understanding the nature of the conquest. This approach suggests that there was no major invasion of Canaan from an outside force but simply the immigration of a small group of people who inspired a revolt of the Canaanite peasants. The result was the overthrow of the feudal city-state kings and the emergence of what became the Israelite nation. This interpretation of the conquest diverges from the biblical record in its claim that the bulk of the population of Israel was made up of former Canaanite peasants. It also reveals a tendency to read back into Israelite history modern Marxist theory about the struggle between classes. The best approach to understanding the conquest of Canaan is one which is rooted in the biblical materials. See Achan; Ai; Exodus; Gilgal; Jericho; Joshua .
Bob R. Ellis
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Conquest of Canaan'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/c/conquest-of-canaan.html. 1991.