Joshua's Conquest: Did It Happen?
Robert M. Bowman, Jr.
The reliability of the account of the Conquest in the book of Joshua has
been challenged on two fronts. First, many critics argue that it simply did not
happen, at least not in any way similar to the account in Joshua. Second, many
critics argue that the idea that God authorized the Israelites to conquer the
people of Canaan and kill not only men but, in some instances, women and
children, is immoral, and therefore evidence that the Bible is not inspired.
This article addresses the first objection; I will address the second objection
in a separate article.
"We Didn't Do It—and Here's Why We Did"
The first point to be made about these criticisms is that they are actually
incompatible with each other. Who offers theological justification for doing
something they didn't do?
Critics of the Bible almost uniformly assert both that Joshua
didn't fight the dramatic battles of conquest recorded in the book of Joshua
and that the biblical writers rationalized the Israelites' supposedly
immoral battles of conquest by claiming that God told them to wage them.
Richard Dawkins, for example, describes the book of Joshua as "a text
remarkable for the bloodthirsty massacres it records and the xenophobic relish
with which it does so," while asserting at the same time, specifically with
regard to Joshua's conquest of Jericho, that "it didn't happen."1
But this doesn't make any sense. People do not create theological
justifications for things that they did not do.
It gets worse when one considers the larger context in which the divine
command to wage a war of conquest against the Canaanites is set. The claim of
the Pentateuch is that the Israelites were reticent to invade Canaan at all and
did so only after a generation died in the wilderness. If we apply the
"criterion of embarrassment" (more familiar perhaps in its widespread
application by biblical scholars to the Gospels) to the Pentateuchal narrative,
the portrayal of the generation that left Egypt as hardheaded and hardhearted
unbelievers who died ignominiously in the wilderness must be assigned
considerable credibility. It requires no little ad hoc
reasoning2 to maintain that a biblical author justified Israel's
supposedly immoral (and fictitious!) wars of aggression by glorifying Israel as
God's dutiful army at the same time as he scathingly condemned Israel's
cowardice and unbelief. Nor can Pentateuchal source criticism help here, since
both motifs are found in the same putative sources.
The best escape from this problem would be to claim that the biblical
authors created the fiction of Israel's cowardice and unbelief to underscore
the claim that the conquest and massacre of Canaanites was God's idea and not
Israel's. But such an explanation undermines the basic claim that is being made
against the Old Testament narrative, namely, the claim that the authors were
writing from the perspective of a culture that erroneously assumed the
legitimacy of wars of aggression and the notion that God must be on the side of
the victor. Writers who approached their subject from such an assumption would
not have any reason to invent fictions about their forebears being hopelessly
idolatrous and unbelieving on the borders of Canaan despite having witnessed
the most stupendous signs and wonders in history.
If Numbers and Deuteronomy are telling us the truth about the Israelites in
the wilderness, as I have argued that they are, then we must take much more
seriously the claim of those same books that God commanded the Israelites to
invade and conquer Canaan. To be more precise, we will have to recognize that
the idea that God wanted the Israelites to wage their war of conquest against
Canaan dates from before the Conquest. The theory that this belief arose as an
after-the-fact theological justification begins to lose credibility.
Joshua: The Evidence
We have already seen some evidence that the Old Testament account of
Israel's conquest of the land of Canaan is at least based in historical fact.
Although a great deal could be said on this subject, I will highlight three
pieces of evidence that support the historicity of the account found in the Old
(1) The list of cities in the Transjordan region through which the
Israelites passed on their way into the land in Numbers 33:45-50 includes Iyim,
Dibon-gad, Abel-shittim, and Jordan. A list of places through which Egyptian
armies passed in their military incursions dating from the same general period
include these four places in the same order. Ian Wilson in his book The
Bible Is History quotes archaeologist Charles Krahmalkov on this point:
"The biblical story of the invasion of Transjordan that sets the stage for the
conquest of all Palestine is told against a background that is historically
accurate. The Israelite invasion route described in Numbers 33:50 was…an
official, heavily trafficked Egyptian road through the Transjordan in the Late
Bronze Age."3 By itself, this piece of information does not
prove that the Conquest happened, but it does lend some credibility to
(2) Although most archaeologists today think that the story of
Joshua's conquest of Jericho cannot be true, their reasoning is likely based on
a mistaken chronology. As Time magazine recently put it, "Did Joshua
conquer the city of Jericho? The walls of this Canaanite city did come tumbling
down, say most historians, but centuries before Moses' protégé could have
arrived."4 This assessment is based on the conclusions of Kathleen
Kenyon, who in the 1950s dated Jericho's fall to around 1500 BC while assuming
a late date of around 1200 BC for the Conquest. The issue here, then, is one of
chronology. The bottom line is that "the walls" did, in fact, "come a
tumblin'down," just as the Bible says, although the current archaeological
convention does not date the event to the period indicated by the Bible.
Similar chronological difficulties attend the events of the Exodus: there are
records of Egypt being devastated by the kinds of plagues recorded in the Book
of Exodus, but modern archaeology dates this devastation to a period hundreds
of years earlier than the Bible indicates.5 One should not
underestimate the extreme complexities and difficulties of calibrating
archaeological finds across the region with the chronological information found
in ancient written sources.
(3) Scientists have discovered evidence
that provides remarkable confirmation of one of the miracles of the Conquest:
the crossing of the Jordan River. The book of Joshua reports that when the
Israelites began to cross the Jordan opposite Jericho, the waters of the Jordan
"rose up in one heap a great distance away at Adam" as they flowed down toward
the Dead Sea (Josh. 3:14-17). This damming of the river allowed the Israelites
to walk across the riverbed on dry ground. Critics of the Bible routinely claim
that no such event occurred, and suggest that the book is crediting Joshua with
a miracle similar to the crossing of the Red Sea in order to portray him as
Moses' true successor. However, we have good evidence, both internal and
external, supporting the historicity of the account of Joshua's crossing of the
Adam was a village some fifteen or twenty miles upstream (north) from where
the Israelites crossed the river. (They crossed directly across from Jericho.)
There is nothing historically or religiously significant about this village
other than its role as a "footnote" in this account that would explain why the
book of Joshua specifies it as the place where the waters were stopped.
Furthermore, a writer composing a "pious fiction" about Joshua stopping the
waters of the Jordan would surely have had the waters stop right in front of
the Israelites, not miles upstream. This incidental detail clearly indicates
that the story is at least based on fact.
But there is more: we now know how the Jordan River was dammed up.
The crossing of the Jordan was made possible by a mudslide, itself caused by an
earthquake precisely where the book of Joshua specifies. Historical records
confirm that such mudslides that temporarily dam up the river have occurred
from time to time at that very location on the Jordan, including in the years
1160, 1267, 1546, 1834, 1906, and 1927. With this evidence, we may confidently
declare the case closed: The Israelites did indeed cross the Jordan River after
it was dammed up several miles upstream from them.6
By the way, the fact that the river was stopped by an earthquake and
mudslide does not in any way undermine the Bible's giving God the credit for
it. There is nothing wrong with thinking that at least some of the Old
Testament wonders may have involved natural processes over which the Lord
exercised dramatic sovereign control. Mudslides damming the Jordan did not
happen every day; from what we can tell such an event happens there on average
once every couple of centuries or so. Yet the river was stopped at just the
right time for the Israelites to cross over into the Promised Land and march on
Jericho. Ironically, by using such natural processes to bring about some of his
dramatic provisions for the people of Israel, God left behind "clues" to the
veracity of the biblical accounts that we can examine and verify millennia
It would be unreasonable to insist that we be able to prove every detail of
an account of events occurring more than three thousand years ago. However, it
is rather surprising how much evidence we actually have to corroborate or
confirm the account of the Conquest. The skeptic's claim that it never occurred
would seem to be the view that should be on the defensive.
1Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston and New York:
Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 247.
2An argument or claim is said to be ad hoc if the only
apparent reason for proposing it is to save one's theory.
3Ian Wilson, The Bible Is History (Washington, DC: Regnery,
1999), 66, quoting Charles Krahmalkov, "Exodus Itinerary Confirmed by Egyptian
Evidence," Biblical Archaeological Review, Sept./Oct. 1994, 58.
4Michael D. Lemonick, "Are the Bible's Stories True?"
Time, Dec. 18, 1995, 69.
5See, for example, Francis Hitching, The Mysterious World: An
Atlas of the Unexplained (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979),
especially 173; Emmanuel Anati, The Mountain of God (New York:
Rizzoli, 1986); Norman L. Geisler and Ronald M. Brooks, When Skeptics
Ask (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1990), 191-96.
6Colin J. Humphreys, The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientist's
Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories (San
Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), 15-27; Wilson, Bible Is History,
73-74; Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 167.