The book of Joshua is one of the most controversial books in the Bible because, taken literally and historically, it describes God-ordered genocide of tens of thousands of men, women, and children.
Joshua and his Israelite army went from city to city, killing everyone—young and old, rich and poor, men and women, healthy and sick, and elderly and infants.
They killed the inhabitants of Jericho first. Then they killed all 12,000 people in Ai.
Afterwards, they impaled five kings on large poles and killed everyone in Makkedah, Libnah, Lachish, Gezer, Eglon, Hebron, Debir, Hazor (burning it down), the hill country, and the entire area. Possibly 80,000+ people!
Deuteronomy, probably written or edited by some of the same authors as Joshua and itself controversial, explains God had told the Israelites to “annihilate them …, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.”
What Really Happened?
Did this mass killing and destruction really happen as the Book of Joshua describes?
Nearly all Old Testament scholars who are not employed by fundamentalist organizations and who have studied and published on the question in the past 50 years say no or not likely.
Many of them say Joshua is a rhetorical and exaggerated description that is consistent with the style of the times … a theological description of a powerful God, rather than a historical description … a description intended to bolster the spirits of Jews in exile … a writing intended to scare those who would oppose Israel … or propaganda to address national and religious issues of the day in a metaphorical way.
Are they right? Or are those who say Joshua gives an accurate, historical description right? And does it matter?
Here are seven reasons many scholars and others say the book of Joshua is probably not an accurate, historical account:
1. Credit for writing Joshua is neither claimed nor given, and it is highly likely that it was pieced together by multiple people over a long period of time.
Both the book of Joshua and the Bible as a whole are silent on the book’s authorship. Joshua himself is traditionally identified as the author, but the book refers to Joshua in third person and describes Joshua’s death and burial.
Few publications, even those considered relatively conservative, today defend the concept of Joshua as the author. For example, a Tyndale publication explains, “[i]it is likely that the book … existed in more or less its present form no later than … the time of David and Solomon,” which is around 200 – 400 years after Joshua is said to have died.
Scholars believe features of the book “indicate that it was not composed all at once as an accurate account …. Instead, they point to a gradual composition, which took place mainly” from 200 – 600 years after the events of the book of Joshua are said to have occurred. They note, for example, that the events reported in the book of Joshua were more than 600 years before the events reported in the book of 2 Kings and that 2 Kings, 1 Kings, Deuteronomy, and other books are similar in composition and style to the book of Joshua, which indicates they had the same editors, if not the same authors.
Many scholars believe “[t]he individual narratives in Joshua began as folktales about merely local victories, but were eventually gathered into a connected narrative as the triumphs of a unified Israel (chs. 2-11). Later this collection was reedited, growing to chs. 1-12, 23 ….”
2. It was common to write exaggerated warfare rhetoric at the time Joshua was written.
One professor explains scholars’ views of how the stories of folktales about local victories grew into the story of total devastation of the land in Joshua this way:
The language of military accounts at that time was “typically exaggerated and full of bravado, depicting total devastation. The knowing ancient Near Eastern reader recognized this as hyperbole; the accounts weren’t understood to be literally true. … [A]ncient Near Eastern accounts readily used ‘utterly/completed destroyed’ and other obliteration language even when the event didn’t literally happen that way.” Egyptian, Hittite, Moabite, Assyrian, and other examples of obliteration language like that used in Joshua have been found from the 14th through 7th centuries that are hyperbolic, rather than historical, accounts.
The earliest evidence of the existence of Israel as a people may be an example of such an account. The Merneptah Stele is an inscription by King Merneptah of Egypt, who reigned 1213 to 1203 BC. It says:
The princes are prostrate, saying, “Peace!”
Not one is raising his head among the Nine Bows.
Now that Tehenu (Libya) has come to ruin,
Hatti is pacified;
The Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe:
Ashkelon has been overcome;
Gezer has been captured;
Yano’am is made non-existent.
Israel is laid waste and his seed is not;
Hurru is become a widow because of Egypt.
3. Archaeological evidence does not support the story as told in Joshua.
The New Interpreter’s Study Bible and The Jewish Study Bible summarize the general view of scholars on archaeology relative to the book of Joshua:
“Numerous excavations have sought to prove that the ancient Israelites wrought destruction on Canaanite cities, especially Jericho, Ai, Bethel, … and Hazor. Yet the evidence has not been forthcoming.”
Archaeological evidence that mass destruction and genocide occurred as described in Joshua has not been found. No mass graves corresponding to any of the mass slaughters recorded in Joshua have been found, for example. Signs of a rapid series of battles as described in Joshua have not been found.
“The story of the conquest of Joshua does not accord, either in its general outlook or its specific details, with the archeological data.”
Some associated with Young Earth advocates emphasize that archaeological evidence shows destruction around Hazor and other cities and dispute the general view of the majority of scholars who acknowledge the destruction evidence but explain that “[a]ny destruction levels found have ranged over a century or more before the story of Joshua.”
4. The Book of Joshua contradicts itself, and the Book of Judges contradicts some parts of Joshua.
Many scholars point out that the portions of the book of Joshua describing a slaughter conflict with other parts of Joshua and with the book of Judges.
They explain that parts of Joshua indicate a total, or near total, and rapid conquest of the Promised Land (see, for example, Joshua 11:12-20), but a “[c]loser reading of the book of Joshua suggests a more limited conquest. … The actual narratives of conquest appear quite spotty as compared with the sweeping claims in the summaries.” Other parts of Joshua indicate a “gradual infiltration and occupation (Josh. 13:1-7; 16:10; 17:12).”
In several places, the text says Joshua defeated or took “the whole land.” (see, e.g., Joshua 10:40, 11:16, 11:23) But at the end of the book, God says to Joshua, “You are old and advanced in years, and very much of the land still remains to be possessed.” (13:1).
Scholars point out, too, that Joshua 12:7-10 reports that the Israelites defeated Jerusalem, while Joshua 15:63 says that “the people of Judah could not drive out the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem; so the Jebusites live with the people of Judah in Jerusalem to this day.” As another example, Joshua 11:16 says “So Joshua took … the hill country of Israel …,” while Joshua 13:1-6 says that God explained that “very much of the land still remains to be possessed. This is the land that still remains: … all the inhabitants of the hill country from Lebanon to Misrephoth-maim ….”
Joshua also conflicts with the book of Judges, they explain, as Judges describes the conquest as fragmentary, in stages, and limited, as opposed to the near-total and rapid conquest described in Joshua:
Judges describes the conquest as “limited to certain regions in which the indigenous populations had no interest: desert, steppe, mountains and wooded country. This made the settlement of the new arrivals [(the Israelites)] automatically either a matter of no interest to the city state or in some cases even desirable. The settlement took place, but only in small groups. The same chapter [chapter 1 of Judges] shows how most of the time the attempts of the invaders to occupy better territory … came up against the resistance of the inhabitants, who almost always proved victorious.”
Joshua talks about “violent warfare by all Israel,” killing all the Canaanites, “while [Judges] picture the individual tribes or clans taking their own territory and settling alongside Canaanites.” Moreover, some of the cities reported as conquered in Judges 1 are described in Joshua as already conquered.
5. Beyond not supporting, archaeological evidence also contradicts parts of Joshua.
There are multiple contradictions between Joshua and archaeological evidence, per most scholars. Archaeologists describe evidence of Jericho’s destruction, but note that the evidence indicates that Jericho—which was not much bigger at the time than a typical neighborhood cul de sac—, including the wall of Jericho, was destroyed 150 – 350 years before the Israelites supposedly destroyed it and that Jericho was not occupied at the time associated with the Israelite conquest.
As another example, they explain that “[d]uring the period described in Joshua, [Ai] was at most a small unwalled village nestled amid the remains of a long-ruined walled city from the third millennium BCE.” In other words, at that time, it was not the significant city of over 12,000 people that the book of Joshua describes.
One professor summarizes scholars’ views this way: With Joshua and Judges suggesting a “gradual infiltration and occupation …, the biblical text leads us to expect what archaeology has confirmed—namely, that widespread destruction of cities didn’t take place and that gradual assimilation did. … [I]f we had lived back in Israel in [the relevant time-frame] and looked at an Israelite and a Canaanite standing next to each other, we wouldn’t have detected any noticeable difference between them. … Israel itself wasn’t a pure race …. [A]rchaeologists have discovered that by 1000 BC …, Canaanites were no longer an identifiable entity in Israel.” The evidence suggests that a new people, the Israelites, “had migrated here, had gradually occupied the territory, and had eventually become dominant.”
6. No historical records from surrounding countries have been found reporting the mass killing, destruction, and rapid take-over of a neighboring country described in Joshua.
If nearly all the people in a neighboring land (80,000+ people) are suddenly killed by a previously unknown invading army, it would have likely set off alarm bells and much communication. Your next-door neighbors—your trading partners, your relatives, the parents and children across the way, your friends or your enemies …—have been suddenly wiped out. But, scholars emphasize, “[n]o textual source, aside from the Bible, speaks on the subject.”
7. Jesus does not mention anything from the Book of Joshua, and the New Testament barely mentions Joshua, the book or the man.
Jesus does not mention Joshua or the book of Joshua even a single time.
There are only a handful of minor allusions to the book of Joshua in the New Testament. Eight verses—three verses in Acts, four in Hebrews, and one in James— allude or may allude to events or statements in Joshua. At least five of them, though, might instead allude to verses in other Old Testament books that make the same or similar statements or to a different Joshua.
Joshua, the man, is mentioned only twice in the New Testament, and then only briefly. In Acts 7:45, when giving a speech before his death, Stephen says the Israelites brought the tabernacle “in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors.” Hebrews 4:8, when discussing rest, says “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later about another day.” There is a debate about whether the Joshua mentioned in the latter verse is Joshua from the book of Joshua.
How did the Israelites come to occupy the Promised Land? By settling in an unpopulated area first and then gradually expanding to mix with and assimilate the Canaanites, with occasional local battles, according to most of the scholars. Other models, alone or combined with the gradual-emergence model, have also been proposed.
It is possible that, despite all this, it happened as described and Joshua is historical and accurate? Of course. Conclusive evidence could be found tomorrow. Anything is possible.
There are some who advocate that Joshua is a historical description. As far as I could find, such advocates have identified little evidence to support their position. One of them, an archaeologist, challenges the view that the evidence shows that Jericho was destroyed well before the date the Israelites would have entered the Promised Land. His assertion is based primarily on his analysis of pottery found in Jericho, but he appears to be mostly alone in the archaeological field in this assertion and his work has been highly criticized.
If not literal and historical, what is the book of Joshua? It could be—
- Oral tales of the Israelites move into Canaan that had reached the level of exaggerated lore by the time the stories were written down
- Written from a theological perspective, rather than a historical perspective, to convey the power of God or the power of the Israelites
- Written with the hyperbole and exaggeration that was common in writings of the time describing battles
- Written as propaganda (For example, the Assyrians departed the northern kingdom around 630 BCE; it could be that Joshua was written as propaganda, based on an oral tradition, for King Josiah’s plans in the 620s to expand Judah to those territories described in Joshua. In other words, Joshua might have been written to convince people who occupied the territory that resistance to the Israelites reoccupying that territory would be foolish.)
- An edited collection of other works and tales, written long after the events supposedly occurred, and edited into a cohesive whole
- Written to encourage the exiled Jews during a time of great difficulty, to remind them that God is great and has the ability to free them from exile
It could be all of these. Or none.
Does whether the story described in Joshua is historical, theological, hyperbolic, or something else matter in relation to Jesus? As far as I could find, few say it has much bearing. The New Testament, for example, makes little connection to Joshua.
Some will object and say that if Joshua is not a historically accurate account, then it calls the accuracy of the whole Bible into question. But this seems alarmist and untrue. There are lots of genres of writing in the Bible—poetry, songs, parables, erotic tales, elliptical prophecy, moral stories, etc.—that are not there for their historical accuracy, but are useful for our understanding. And the New Testament was written centuries later, in a different setting, and there is a tremendous amount of historical evidence confirming the vast majority of it.
Joshua is taught in many churches as unquestionably historically accurate. Many church-going people insist that it is. How does this teaching and insistence impact those whose studies as teenagers or adults reveal to them that it probably is not? Does such teaching and insistence help or hurt them in understanding that the Gospel of Christ is true?
(The photograph is of me at one of the cities discussed in the article, Hazor (Tel Hazor), Israel, north of the Sea of Galilee, in January 2017.)
Sources & Notes
See generally the sources cited below and, specifically:
” … Jericho first … all 12,000 people in Ai”: Joshua 6:21, 8:25.
“…impaled five kings …”: Joshua 10:26.
“… killed everyone in Makkedah (10:28), Libnah (10:30), Lachish (10:32), Gezer (33), Eglon (35), Hebron (37), Debir (39), Hazor (burning it down) (11:10-13), the hill country (10:40), and the entire area (10:40-42; 11:12-14).”
80,000+ is my estimate based on some specific numbers (e.g., 12,000 at Ai) and inferences from the sources cited generally.
“because of the wickedness of these nations … annihilate them …”: Deuteronomy 9:3-5.
“… exaggerated … theological description …”: See, e.g., J. Alberto Soggin, Joshua, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press (1972), page 4.
Authorship of Joshua: See, e..g., The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. II, at 556; J. Maxwell Miller & Gene M. Tucker, The Book of Joshua, London: Cambridge University Press (1972), page 2.
“… conservative … do not defend the concept of Joshua as author”: Tyndale.
“Scholars believe … after those events.”: The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. II, at 556; see also J. Maxwell Miller & Gene M. Tucker, The Book of Joshua, London: Cambridge University Press (1972), page 2.
“… folktales … reedited …”: HarperCollins Study Bible, Revised Ed., New York: HarperOne (2006), page 311 (“stories and other materials taken up in Joshua cannot be used directly as historical evidence for a violent conquest”).
“military accounts … ‘typically exaggerated … weren’t understood to be literally true’ … have been found … that are hyperbolic …”: See, e.g., Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books (2011), page 170-173 (citing K.A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans (2003), pages 173-174; K. Lawson Younger, Jr., Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press (1996), pages 227-28, 245).
Merneptah Stele: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merneptah_Stele (section added September 12, 2017)
“Numerous excavations … Archaeological evidence ‘has not been forthcoming. … [a]ny destruction levels found … over a century … before … Joshua …”: The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Nashville: Abingdon Press (2003), page 307.
“does not accord … with the archeological data”: The Jewish Study Bible, 2d ed., New York: Oxford University Press (2014), page 439.
“Closer reading …”: John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 2d ed., Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2014), page 189.
” … gradual infiltration and occupation …”: Copan, supra, page 182.
Judges contradicts parts, “… limited …”: See, e.g., J. Alberto Soggin, Introduction to the Old Testament, 3d. ed. Louisville: Westminster / John Knox Press (1989), page 191.
“violent warfare … settling alongside Canaanites …. already conquered”: Miller & Tucker, supra, pages 10-11.
“… 150-350 …”; “… during the period …”: HarperCollins Study Bible, Revised Ed., New York: HarperOne (2006), page 311, 319.
“With the Biblical text … suggesting a ‘gradual infiltration and occupation’ … eventually become dominant.”: Copan, supra, page 182-83.
” … no textual sources, aside from the Bible …”: The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Nashville: Abingdon Press (2003), page 307.
“Jesus does not mention Joshua …”: Exhaustive Concordance, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers (1991), at 681; John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life, Vol. 3, Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic (2009), page 579.
no quote / Hebrews 13:5: http://www.kalvesmaki.com/LXX/NTChart.htm; https://www.blueletterbible.org/faq/don_stewart/don_stewart_387.cfm.
“handful”: Exhaustive Concordance, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers (1991), at 681; also see http://www.semanticbible.com/hyperconc/J/Joshua.html. Luke 3:29 appears to refer to a different Joshua.
Eight allusions (Joshua verse; also the allusion’s possible other sources):
Acts 7:16 (Joshua 24:32; also see Gen. 33:19; 49:33, 50:13; Exodus 13:19);
Acts 7:45 (mentions Joshua by name) (Joshua 3:14 and 18:1; also see 2 Sam 6:1-17);
Acts 13:19 (Joshua 14:2; also see Deut. 7:1; Psalm 78:55);
Hebrews 4:8 (mentions Joshua by name; there is some debate about whether this refers to Joshua from the Book of Joshua);
Hebrews 11:30 (Joshua 6:20);
Hebrews 11:31 (Joshua 2:1, 6:17, 23);
Hebrews 13:5 (Joshua 1:5; also see Genesis 28:15; Deuteronomy 31:6, 8; 1 Chronicles 28:20);
James 2:25 (“Rahab the prostitute … [was] justified by works …”) (Joshua 2:1, 6:17, 23; cf. Hebrews 11:31 (“By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish …”)).
“By settling …”: See sources cited herein.
“Other models …” John J. Collins, supra, page 192-198.
“One archaeologist … challenged this finding” (re Jericho’s destruction date): https://answersingenesis.org/archaeology/the-walls-of-jericho/. See also http://www.nytimes.com/1990/02/22/world/believers-score-in-battle-over-the-battle-of-jericho.html?mcubz=0.
“some who advocate Joshua is a historical description”: See, e.g., https://www.namb.net/apologetics/joshua-s-conquest-did-it-happen; https://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=13&article=593; http://christianthinktank.com/noai.html
Conclusion: See generally sources cited above.