Did the Israelites Completely Destroy the Canaanites or Not?
Even though the Canaanites were “greater and mightier” than the Israelites (Deuteronomy 7:1), and although they were “strong,” even possessing “iron chariots” (Joshua 17:18), “Joshua conquered all the land: the mountain country and the South and the lowland and the wilderness slopes, and all their kings; he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel had commanded” (Joshua 10:40).1 Similar statements are made in Joshua 11:8-23. The Bible reader learns later, however, that “Israel…did not completely drive them out” (the Canaanites, that is—Judges 1:28).2 In fact, in some situations the text says, “they could not drive out the inhabitants” (in part because “they had chariots of iron,” Judges 1:19; Joshua 17:12-13). Instead, “the Canaanites dwelt among them, and were put under tribute” (1:30).
How are we to make sense of these differing statements? Are they contradictory, as skeptics allege, or are there logical explanations? Consider a few plausible reasons for the differences in the statements in Joshua and Judges regarding the conquering of the land of Canaan.
First, sometimes the statements are contextually limited to a particular region of Canaan. For example, Joshua 10:40 (“all the land” was conquered) is limited to the southern part of Canaan, as Joshua 10:28-43 indicates.3
Second, just as writers and speakers today use intended exaggeration “all the time,” Bible writers also used this figure of speech (known as hyperbole). Similar to Luke’s statement in Acts 2:5 that Jews “from every nation under heaven” had journeyed to Jerusalem for Pentecost or similar to Paul’s statement that “every creature under heaven” (Colossians 1:23) had heard the Gospel, some of the conquering language in Joshua and Judges should likely be understood (at least in part) as hyperbolic—the description of something “that is better or worse than it really is"4 for the sake of emphasis. If we had been at some of the battles led by Joshua against the inhabitants of Canaan where a weaker army (Deuteronomy 7:1) repeatedly and soundly defeated the stronger armies of Canaan, might we also have truthfully described the events as we read them portrayed in Joshua? If today, we can honestly tell others “we are starving” when we are very hungry (but not literally “starving”), or that one team “destroyed” another team (but actually just won the basketball game by 30 points), could Joshua not honestly, though hyperbolically, similarly describe the Israelites’ impressive victories in Canaan?
Third, the conquering of the land of Canaan took approximately 10 years5 (and a lot can happen in a decade!). Just as land has been won and lost through the millennia by various nations in rather short periods of time, could Israel not have conquered various regions one year and yet it be retaken by certain Canaanites (who had temporarily fled their homeland for fear of their lives) in subsequent months or years (cf. Joshua 10:36-39; 15:15-16)? No doubt, many statements in Joshua and Judges are referring to two different periods of time, including the time following Joshua’s death when Israel severely digressed spiritually (Joshua 2:7-10,21-23).
Fourth, one must be careful not to assume that everything in Joshua and (especially) Judges was written in precise chronological order. Just as the Bible as a whole is not a strict book of chronology,6 nor are these two books.7 Non-sequential examples are quite obvious at times. For example, after noting the death of Joshua in the first verse of Judges, the writer gives more details about his death and burial in Judges 2:7-9.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, many fail to recognize the conditional nature of God’s promise to give Israel all the land of Canaan. God was not going to give Israel the Promised Land if they failed to take it obediently. They obviously were not going to receive Canaan as their inheritance if they had never left Egypt or if they were going to be as fearful and unbelieving as was the generation that died in the wilderness (Numbers 13-14). Israel failed in their first attempt to defeat Ai because of sin in the camp (i.e., Achan’s sin; Joshua 7:1-26). God said to Israel following this failure: “You cannot stand before your enemies until you take away the accursed thing from among you” (Joshua 7:13). Unfortunately, time and again Israel disobeyed Jehovah, which resulted in God withdrawing His helping hand from them (Judges 2:1-3), which led to repeated defeats, even after victory at one time was known (cf. Joshua 17:18; Judges 1:19).
Due to distrust, disloyalty, and disobedience, some parts of Israel were never fully and continually possessed by the Israelites in Joshua’s day. Rather than stand in firm reliance on the promises of God, trusting in Him every day in every way, and possessing all the land for generations, Israel freely (and sadly) fulfilled the dismal prophetic warnings of God given in the days of Moses and Joshua.
[T]his people will rise and play the harlot with the gods of the foreigners of the land, where they go to be among them, and they will forsake Me and break My covenant which I have made with them. Then My anger shall be aroused against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide My face from them, and they shall be devoured. And many evils and troubles shall befall them, so that they will say in that day, “Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?” (Deuteronomy 31:16-17).
When you have transgressed the covenant of the Lord your God, which He commanded you, and have gone and served other gods, and bowed down to them, then the anger of the Lord will burn against you, and you shall perish quickly from the good land which He has given you (Joshua 23:16).
1 For a reasoned defense of “God’s Just Destruction of the Canaanites,” see /AllegedDiscrepancies.aspx?article=1630&b=Joshua.
2 For other specific scriptures about the failure of the various tribes of Israel to drive out the Canaanites, see Joshua 13:13; 16:10; 17:11-13; 15:63; Judges 1:21,27-36; 2:1-5.
3 When Luke wrote that “all the world should be registered” by the decree of Caesar, and that “all went to be registered” (Luke 2:1,3), he obviously meant “all” in a limited sense—not every single person on the planet, but those under Caesar’s rule (i.e., within the Roman Empire).
4 “Hyperbole” (2018), Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hyperbole.
5 If (a) there were a total of 450 years from the oppression of Abraham’s descendants to inheriting the land of Canaan (Acts 3:17-20 (NASB), and (b) Abraham’s descendants were oppressed in a foreign land for 400 years (Acts 7:6), and (c) they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years (Acts 13:18), then it must have taken them about 10 years to conquer the nations in the land of Canaan and receive their inheritance (Acts 13:19).
6 For more information, see Eric Lyons (2005), “Alleged Chronological Contradictions,” http://apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=13&article=1582.
7 Simply because much of Joshua is sequential does not mean that every single statement was written in chronological order.