Conquest, Peasant Revolt and Immigration

1. Textual Discrepancies in the Conquest Model
2. Other Theories about the Occupation of Canaan
3. The Warfare
4. The Battle of Gibeon
5. Canaanites and the Religion of Yahweh

Textual Discrepancies in the Conquest Model

A rapid reading of the Book of Joshua suggests that the conquest model is an airtight case. A closer reading reveals some discrepancies. The most significant one the biblical text presents is that the whole land was not conquered all at once. Here the key passage is 13:1-6a where the Lord said to Joshua, "You are old and advanced in years, and very much of the land still remains to be possessed" (13:1). To add emphasis, the areas still to be taken are listed in detail. The statement that Joshua was old suggests that a long time was necessary for the warfare. Furthermore, in later chapters we learn that various non-Hebrew groups continued to occupy the land: the Jebusites in Jerusalem (15:63); the Canaanites in Gezer (16:10); the Canaanites in lands allotted to the tribe of Manasseh (17:12); and the Canaanites who militarily dominated the plains (17:16). As we have seen, the Book of Judges presents a similar picture. We learn from these passages that not all the land was taken, and not all the people were killed.

The Book of Judges is also about the occupation of the Promised Land. However Judges 1:1-34 tells a very different story from that found in the early chapters of the Book of Joshua. Here the struggle for the land is ongoing. The Canaanites and others firmly remain in the land and put up much resistance. Like the Book of Joshua, the Book of Judges was edited by the Deuteronomistic Historians. However, it is based on much older material. (The preface, "After the death of Joshua..." is probably a Deuteronomistic addition to facilitate the transition from the Book of Joshua and to soften the real contradiction between views of the conquest).

Furthermore, the nature of the warfare is described differently in the two books. The Book of Judges describes the war as guerrilla*-type warfare led by tribal captains (Judges 1:34).Not even all the tribes joined in the fight (Judg.5:15c-18).At times they turned against each other, as evidenced by the war against the tribe of Benjamin (Judg. 20). Sometimes they won; sometimes they lost. They seldom were able to defeat superior military technology, such as the armored chariots of the Canaanites who dominated the plains. Only in the hill country where chariots were unsuited to the terrain were the Hebrews somewhat successful. This meant that the Canaanites continued to control the most fertile land and the camel caravan routes. The story of the Book of Judges is about the ongoing struggles for the land.

In addition to these contradictions, the text presents some historical problems. The main one is that the lands said to be taken in Joshua 11:16-17 (cf. 1:4) correspond to the empire later established by David and Solomon. The Deuteronomistic Historians dreamed of restoring David’s empire. They hoped King Josiah would do it. Perhaps this was the reason for describing the conquest as taking those lands. Historically, however, these lands did not come under Israelite control until many years after the period of the conquest.

Another problem concerns archaeological evidence. For example, in spite of its prominence in the story, the city of Jericho was not an active settlement at the time of Joshua’s conquest. Likewise, the "city" of Ai appears to have been only a small village.

Archaeologists have never found it for certain. Until more research is done, archaeology cannot confirm the account of the Book of Joshua concerning massive destruction of the cities due to warfare or the Israelites.

Finally, the text raises some problems of logic. For instance, would it have been physically possible for the Hebrews to have killed so many thousands and, especially, to have done so without any casualties of their own? Then too, one wonders about the disposal of so many bodies! Remember, the Israelite army did not have military experience. It was made up of a new generation of Hebrews. Their parents had done the fighting with Moses to conquer the lands east of the Jordan River. The males of this generation even had to be circumcised to affirm their Israelite identity (Josh. 5:1-9). The cities, however, had standing armies with military professionals. It seems unlikely that such undisputed military victories as described in the Book of Joshua would have been physically possible.

Rather, these are examples of historical exaggeration that served the Deuteronomistic Historians’ purposes. During the reign of King Josiah when the first edition of the Book of Joshua was edited, these reports were supportive of his efforts to restore the empire. During the Babylonian Exile when the book was finalized, they provoked hope for deliverance. Descriptions of such great victories had ideological functions. As a literary style, they emphasized God’s unbreakable power. They were not intended as literal depictions of actual events.

Return to Top of Page

Return to Joshua: Arise! Cross!

Other Theories About the Occupation of Canaan

These questions raise doubts about the historical accuracy of the struggle for the Promised Land as a great conquest. But, if there wasn’t a conquest, what did happen?

An influential current of scholarship has proposed that the land was occupied mainly through a process of immigration. According to this theory, little by little the Hebrews moved into Canaan from the south and east. Slowly they dominated the land and culture. This process was peaceful through population growth and gradual takeover of the local culture. This theory is known as the "immigration" model. It is helpful for explaining sociological processes involved in Israel’s formation but it is not entirely satisfactory, in part because stories in both the Book of Joshua and the Book of Judges insist on sustained armed action. Aspects of immigration are apparent, but this reflects a peaceful movement of settlement into someone else’s land.

Recently it has been proposed that the conquest of the Promised Land followed more likely the "peasant rebellion"* model from within Canaan itself. Peasant rebellion means that the masses of poor, traditional farmers take up arms to force social change. Some scholars believe that this is what happened in Canaan.1 The Israelites played a fundamental role in provoking and leading this uprising. This theory proposes that, because of economic and social oppression by the kings, impoverished Israelites and Canaanites made common cause and overthrew the kings and powerful cities. They divided the land among themselves. Rural villages and small farmers, not cities and urbanites, became the center of social life. This model is similar to the example of traditional Mayan farmers in Mexico: that of poor farmers fighting for land.2


Return to Joshua: Arise! Cross!

The Warfare

The guerrilla-type warfare suggested in Judges 1 and 5 is different from that fought by standing armies under unified command because of its often uncoordinated battle strategies among individual commanders, lightening attacks on economic targets, and piece-meal territorial strongholds.

The "Song of Deborah" in Judges 5, one of the oldest pieces of literature in the Old Testament, is the nearest glimpse we have of the revolt itself.3 This text suggests that the fundamental conflict, initially at least involved payment of tribute and other policies that gouged peasants of whatever profit they managed to gain (v. 19b, reference to silver). The warfare is pictured as guerrilla action (v.6, raiding camel caravans) and banditry (v.7, plundering). It was a peasant army (v.11) led by individual commanders (v.9), including women such as Deborah (v. 7). Furthermore, some tribes were slow to join (v. 16), and not all the tribes even participated (v. 17), indicating tribal autonomy. What tied the tribes together was their belief in Yahweh as liberator and promiser of land (v.5).

Beyond this, we scarcely know anything about the warfare. The stories in the Book of Joshua are graphic, but they tell us very little.

Return to Top of Page

Return to Joshua: Arise! Cross!

The Battle of Gibeon

This interpretation of the conquest as a war waged by farmers and field workers and other poor against powerful kings and wealthy urbanites helps explain the battle of Gibeon (9:1 - 10:1-15). Although the biblical text refers to Gibeon and three other towns as "cities" (10:2 claims it was a "large city"), archaeologists believe that they were no more than unwalled villages. They had no king and had joined together as a federation of peasant villages. They were rural towns, not urban cities.4

Because of rising levels of violence, the Gibeonites* decided to avoid trouble and guarantee their security by seeking a treaty with the Israelites. Perhaps they were in basic agreement with the Israelite cause, although there is no direct evidence of that. The Gibeonites resorted to flattery, trickery, and submission. They successfully negotiated the treaty. Not surprisingly, a lot of Israelites didn’t like the arrangement since the Gibeonites had used deception. Furthermore, their loyalties weren’t clear. The treaty, however, prohibited the Gibeonites from having their own army. They were allowed only domestic functions (v.27). Israel assumed their defense.

The Gibeonite alliance with Israel implied a political victory for Israel and strengthened its position against the cities. This so frightened five area kings that they launched an all-out attack against the Gibeonite village federation (10:1-5). The Gibeonites called on the Israelites to honor their treaty obligations to defend them against the Amorite kings.

This led to one of the most fearsome battles of the whole rebellion (10:6-15). According to biblical tradition, so determined was Yahweh, through Joshua’s army, to protect the unwalled villages against the cities that miraculous giant hailstones fell on the Amorites.* Then, to extend the number of hours for the battle and assure an Israelite victory, time was extended by making the sun and the moon stand still (vs. 12-13)! In biblical accounts about Yahweh, the Divine Warrior often used miracles to achieve victory. Of course the original meaning of this ancient poem is obscure. However, as part of ancient tradition it emphasized the importance that the defense of the Gibeonites had for Yahweh. The biblical account emphasizes that Yahweh sided with villagers, not kings.

Top of Page

Return to Joshua: Arise! Cross!

Canaanites and the Religion of Yahweh

During the uprising, Canaanite peasants and ‘apiru were converted to the religion of Yahweh. Religion probably was a compelling factor in their joining with the Israelites. The promised land as God’s gift, the divine command to take it, freedom from Egyptian slavery, and a commitment to social equality attracted Canaan’s disgruntled and oppressed rural (and urban) population. This new religion offered freedom! Thus Yahwism was central to the formation of Israel.

Top of Page

Return to Joshua: Arise! Cross!

This page is an excerpt from Joshua and the Promised Land
copyright © Roy H. May, Jr. Order the book today!


1. Norman K. Gottwald is the principal proponent of the peasant rebellion model which he develops extensively in his important book The Tribes of Yahweh. Many scholars do not agree with Gottwald and attack him vigorously. Objections to this model tend to be three-fold: First, there is little direct, material evidence to support the theory; it relies primarily on "circumstantial" evidence from the times and interpretation of the biblical narrative. Second, the methodology is unaccepted because insights from modern sociology, political economy, and social anthropology are viewed as inapplicable to ancient societies. Third, the most prominent objections are ideological. The model is seen as political propaganda based on an "ideological system that has spelled out in advance what must be," according to George E. Mendenhall (even though he was the first to propose the basis for the rebellion model). Mendenhall concludes that those who rely on the peasant rebellion model are "political propagandists." See George E. Mendenhall, "Ancient Israel’s Hyphenated History," in David Noel Freedman and David Frank Graf, eds., Palestine in Transition: the Emergence of Ancient Israel, The Social World of Biblical Antiquity Series, 2 (Sheffield: The Almond Press in association with The American Schools of Oriental Research, 1983), pp. 92,91. These objections are debated among scholars.

2. For a review of these theories, see Norman K. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bibles: A Socio-Literary Introduction (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), pp

3. Carlos A. Dreher, "A formaçao social do Israel pré-estatal, Uma tentativa de recontruçao histórica, a partir do cântico de Débora (Jz5)," in Estudos Teológicos 2 (1986), pp.169-201. See also Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh, pp. 503-507, for a similar discussion of Judges 5. Gottwald notes that the enemies named in Judges 5 are kings, rulers, caravans, warriors, horses, chariots, and the army commander Sisera. All these relate to the royal, urban upper class.

4. Boling, Joshua, pp. 262-63, 288. Earlier we explained that the word "inhabitants" should best be translated as "rulers". Here, however, Boling believes the context makes clear that reference is to the general population, not kings. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh, pp. 521-24, nevertheless, argues that "rulers/authorities" is the most accurate translation, but urges not in the sense of "kings." He argues that they were the leaders of non-monarchical cities, thus significantly separating the Gibeonites from the other city-states.

Top of Page

Return to Joshua: Arise! Cross!