Did Joshua’s Conquest of Canaan Actually Take Place?

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Conquest of Canaan Script: 

Most people are familiar with the story of the Exodus as told in the Bible or depicted in various pop-culture renditions:

An oppressed multitude of Jewish slaves are led by Moses out of Egypt. They flee across the parted Red Sea to freedom and eventually make their way to the Promised Land. I’ve explored some of the Historical problems with the Exodus narrative in past episodes of this series. But what happened once they arrived in Canaan? According to the Bible, the Israelites swept through the land and dealt the natives a heaping helping of genocide.

If you assume that the Biblical narrative is true, then first you have to realize that this is all one connected story.


If the Biblical story of the Exodus and conquest of Canaan is historical - then not only does all the archaeological evidence at these locations and the surrounding regions need to fit the Biblical account, but the dates have to line up relative to each other and fit the Biblical timeline.

For example, if the Bible says the Israelites under Joshua conquered all of Canaan after leaving Egypt. Then even if you find evidence of Semitic people leaving Egypt and you find evidence for all of these cities and their destruction. If they were destroyed before the Exodus, then you don’t have a consistent narrative. Or if the cities were destroyed hundreds of years apart from each other, then the story falls apart.

In archaeology, the proper dating of cities, artifacts, and events is crucial! And most of the time, stuff from Egypt and Canaan from the Late Bronze Age onwards can usually be accurately dated with a very small margin of error of about a few decades or less.

So when a creationist organization finds bits of evidence that seem to fit their Biblical beliefs, but won’t tell you when it dates to. Be cautious. There’s bias at play. Or when they pretend like it fits the right time period, by making the time window so huge that everything fits in it.

Show clip: “This dates to the Old Testament period.”

Are you serious? It dates to the time of the Old Testament? Wow! That’s a 4000-year window. That’s the equivalent of arguing that Julius Caesar could have met Queen Elizabeth because they both lived during the Holocene Epoch.

Show Queen stabbing Caesar

Let’s take an objective look, though, and see if the archaeological evidence in Canaan matches the Biblical story of the conquest of Canaan and see if the dating of these towns, events, and objects fits the Biblical timeline.

According to the Bible, God told the Israelites to completely wipe out everyone living in Canaan, and Joshua 12 records the Israelites facing off against the armies of 31 kings of major Canaanite cities listed by name whom the Israelites allegedly conquered.

And there’s a problem with this. Whether you put the Exodus in the 1400’s or the 1200’s BCE this large-scale destruction of Canaanite cities by a massive Israelite army doesn’t bear out in the archaeological record.

William Dever: “Only two or three cities show a destruction at this time…”

So how do creationists and Biblical literalist fringe scholars get around this. Well this passage says Joshua defeated these kings, but it doesn’t outright say he destroyed their cities, so Ted Wright with the Associates for Biblical Research who has a bachelors in archaeology and a masters in mental gymnastics… I mean Christian apologetics has this to say.

Epic Archaeology: “Only three major cities that the Bible says Joshua destroyed.”

Except, that couldn’t be further from the truth!

You see, before entering the Promised Land, God has Moses command the Israelites to wipe out all of the inhabitants of Canaan. They’re told to slaughter every man, woman, and child, conquer their cities, and seize their land. (Deut 7:2)

After a detailed description of the destruction of Jericho (Joshua 6) and Ai (Joshua 7 & 8), The Bible describes the complete and total destruction of the cities of Makkedah (Joshua 10:28), Libnah (Joshua 10:29-30), Lachish (Joshua 10:31-32), Eglon (Joshua 10:34-35), Hebron (Joshua 10:36-37), Debir (Joshua 10:38-39 & Judges 1:11-13), and Hazor (Joshua 11:10) it mentions them by name saying they conquered each of these cities and put everyone in them to the sword. And before that, it says they utterly destroyed 60 fortified cities with high walls, gates, and bars in the region of Bashan (Deut 3), wiped out numerous other unwalled villages there, and did the same thing to every single town and city in area of Heshbon (Deut 2).

So we’re already at over 69 utterly destroyed strongholds according to the Bible. And we’re just getting started. Joshua 10 goes on to describe how the Israelites conquered the whole region from Kadesh Barnea in the North to Gaza in the South - sweeping through the hill country, desert, foothills, and mountains - “totally destroying all who breathed just as the Lord, the God of Israel commanded...” “All these kings and their lands Joshua conquered in one campaign.”

Joshua 11 describes how all of the kings came out in battle against them - a huge army, as numerous as the sand on the seashore. Joshua 10:4
“The Lord gave them into the hand of Israel. They defeated them… until no survivors were left.” (Joshua 11:8)

And after defeating these kings…

“Joshua took all these royal cities and their kings and put them to the sword. He totally destroyed them… not sparing anyone that breathed.” Joshua 11:12

“Except for the Hivites living in Gibeon, not one city made a treaty of peace with the Israelites, who took them all in battle. For it was the Lord himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy.” (Joshua 11: 19-20)

Just how many cities did they conquer and exterminate according to the Bible? Well most of the rest of the Book of Joshua describes how the land and various towns and villages were divided among the tribes of Israel.

The lowest possible estimate is minimum: over 300, and a better estimate would probably be over 400 towns and villages that the Bible claims Joshua conquered. Oh, and based on the age of Caleb at the start and end of this campaign - this all allegedly happened in just a 5 year window.

So that’s a long shot from:
Epic Archaeology: “Only three major cities that the Bible says Joshua destroyed.”

But even the three that he hand-picks as his “proof'' are problematic. Even to other creationists like the Egyptologist Dr. David Falk.
Show this clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4PqEAVJbodo&t=1412s

And this isn’t anti-religious propaganda, Dr. Falk himself is a creationist. He’s a rare breed of fringe Egyptologist who actually believes in a literal Exodus and Conquest of Canaan just at a later date, albeit with smaller numbers and a non-literal interpretation of Biblical genealogies and dates.

Here’s his evidence for late date conquest of Canaan:

Except that it doesn’t! Not even remotely. For starters, he completely glossed over Ai. Hazor is pretty much all they have. It was destroyed in this time period, but as I showed in a previous clip: https://youtu.be/BBIJRtsnNPY?t=1076

As for Jericho, what Kathleen Kenyan found was that the city and its great walls were utterly destroyed hundreds of years before Falk is claiming and 150 years before Ted Wright’s date.

But Falk then cites Lorenzo Nigro’s more recent work as confirmation. Nigro is a reputable archaeologist who’s excavated Jericho for years, but even his recent publications on Jericho say almost nothing about the late Bronze Age other than that one small clay tablet from this time with administrative text suggests that there may have been some sort of political structure, palace, or ruler. So I emailed Dr. Nigro, to ask if there was any evidence that the fortifications were rebuilt in the Late Bronze or Early Iron Age to support Falk’s claim. And while I haven’t heard back from him yet, I did found the answer in this clip:

Nigro: “Up to now nobody has found this wall. The city has been extensively excavated.”

There was some evidence of a small wall reconstruction around 1400 BCE, but nothing in the time period Falk is reaching for.

In summary, all of the examples given by both Wright and Falk are problematic, and what’s more, neither of them address the over 300 cities the Bible claims Joshua exterminates in a five year window.

If you just show up in Canaan and start looking for cities destroyed around this time period, you’re going to get some hits, but even in relatively peaceful times, the cities and settlements throughout Canaan were constantly squabbling or were attacked by internal and external forces. We know from the Amarna letters that many of these city states squabbled among themselves. We know that at the end of the Bronze Age there was a major long-lasting drought and some cities were abandoned due to water shortages or were raided while in their weakened state. We have evidence that various people from the Mediterranean Sea settled on the western coast and fought battles throughout the near east.

And the final nail in the coffin is that we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Egypt controlled this region as part of its empire for pretty much this entire time period - periodically sweeping through and crushing rebellions. They had a strong garrison as far north as Beth Shean and occupied this area all the way up to 1140 BCE - after even the latest date most Bible scholars argue for the conquest of Canaan. But I’ve covered that in past videos.

But who cares though (aside from people who actually care about the truth)? Why does it matter if the Exodus and conquest of Canaan is historical or not?

Well, it’s because of slimy organizations like the Associates for Biblical Research that your average run-of-the-mill evangelical will ignorantly claim that everything in the Bible is backed up by evidence. And how can you blame them? These seem like legit archaeologists.

They then treat the Bible as literal and historical and are firmly convinced that it should be followed literally. In fact a literal historical reading of this story is why there’s so much needless violence in Israel and Palestine today.

Religious literalism is why there will never be a successful two-state solution in Israel and Palestine. This region is a geopolitical tinderbox waiting to go off with Jewish fundamentalists literally believing that God gave them this land as their birthright over 3000 years ago so rather than coexisting peacefully, they continue trying to push out the Palestinians who have been living here for centuries. Meanwhile, the third most holy site in Islam, the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem is built directly on top of the destroyed Jewish Temple leaving Jews with nothing but a wall to whale at. So they fight and squabble, kill and bomb each other while over 4 billion foreign Christians and Muslims look on, acting as if it’s only someone else’s religion that’s the problem - while the most radical among them are stoking the apocalyptic fire.

I don’t expect everyone who watches this video to become an atheist, nor would I want you to change your mind over just one video. But for God’s sake, can we please stop treating these texts like every word is literal history written by a perfect God whose farts don’t smell.

There are elements of the Bible that are historical, yes. But when you stop and actually critically examine the archaeological evidence, you discover that... especially the earlier stories in the Bible... can not be taken literally and that’s where you find that Nothing Fails Like Bible History.

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