The Conquest Narrative of Joshua 6-12

I know it’s a bit late as far as the Sunday School schedule is concerned, but I thought that I would share what the scholarship has discussed regarding Israel’s appearance in Canaan with the blogernaccle. I feel that what those in the field discuss about it can contribute to our own peculiar views of scripture and how they tie into Biblical Studies in general and in the book of Joshua proper.

There are basically four theories regarding the emergence of Israel in Canaan. They are 1) the Conquest model (or, the one faithful to the book of Joshua), 2) the Pastoral Nomad hypothesis, 3) the Peasants’ Revolt theory, and 4) the Ruralization hypothesis. During the early 20th century, ideas emerged, based on archaeological findings, that perhaps the account of the Israelite introduction into Canaan is not quite as accurate as it reads. Many of the cities excavated at the late Bronze Age level, such as Jericho, Ai, or Hebron, either contain meager settlements at the time that Joshua and the Israelites would have come upon the scene, or have no settlement evidence during this time period at all. As a result of these findings, the issue of interpretation of the Joshua material subsequently polarized. On one hand, the fundamentalists, as is usually the case, began to engage in fierce apologetic interpretations of the lack of evidence or meager evidence of some of the settlements of this era in support of the text (I won’t go into details). On the other hand, many biblical scholars swung this way and that in their acceptance of the biblical model, until the theories in discussion were born. Each theory is summarized here.

The Conquest Model
Again, this is the model which more closely follows the book of Joshua, specifically chapters 6-12, and perhaps even Judges 1. Many great minds (such as Albright and Yadin) clung to this model because of archaeological evidence of widespread destruction in the eastern Mediterranean at the close of the Bronze Age (cf. Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age). This view says that outnumbered Israel entered Canaan from the eastern highlands and took control of the land. This view, according to Lawrence Stager of Harvard University, has three core assumptions:

1. The implanted culture would be distinguishable from the native culture in Canaan. There should be distinctive destruction layers in the archaeological record which consist of old Canaanite settlements underneath, and new Israelite settlements on the top.

2. Signs of the originating culture (Egypt or the Syro-Palestinian highlands) ought also to be evident in Canaan. These would include objects which were introduced into Canaan upon the arrival of the newcomers.

3. If the second premise is valid, then one ought to be able to trace the route of the incomers based upon the objects they picked up along the way and subsequently deposited in their new homeland.

It is estimated by biblical archaeologists that only about 1/3 of the cities listed in Joshua 6-12 had any sort of settlement in them at the end of the Bronze Age. The lack of synchronous destruction-level events in the archaeological record led those in the field to conclude that perhaps the introduction of the Israelites into Canaan was instead a peaceful infiltration, which leads us to the second hypothesis.

The Pastoral Nomad Hypothesis
This model attempts to quell the archaeological problem and simultaneously comply with biblical history. Albrecht Alt was the German scholar who pioneered this method, and his findings were so good, in fact, that they still have recognition today (decades later). This model indicates that the Israelites were outsiders, as the Bible claims, but that their infiltration into the land was peaceful and began at the outlying and sparsely populated regions, and slowly moved inward toward the center diachronically. But there are problems with this model as well. In late Bronze Age Canaan the evidence shows that pastoral nomadism was on the decline, and not on the rise as more people moved inwards toward the urban areas in order to trade and obtain tools and other services which allowed them to grow food and shelter quicker and easier. It is imperative to remember that Canaan had many large urban areas that only differ today in technology. The “failure” of this model to reconcile with the data led to the next model.

The Peasants’ Revolt Theory
George Mendenhall was the brain-child of this method, followed by Norman Gottwald. For them, the Israelites were essentially Canaanites by DNA, but that they were oppressed peasants who rose up in rebellion against the power brokers who held them in captivity. In this case, the peasants revolted away from the urban areas and out into the lowland valleys and hills. The revolting lower classes, it is theorized, might have started the insurrection due to their Yahwistic faith (ala Mendenhall), or that their Yahwistic faith was born from it (ala Gottwald). Either way, we see the idea that the “Israelites” are really just Canaanites with cause. The breakdown of this model is that we do not have any sort of evidence that Israelites were once peasants in the land. There are also concerns regarding the archaeological make-up of a city which was abandoned by its peasant class.

Ruralization Hypothesis
In the late Bronze Age, the archaeological records indicate fierce changes in settlement patterns. The urban areas were marked with a shortage of labor-intensive workers, and a ruralization movement may have resulted. With the collapse of many of the city-states in the interior of Canaan around 1200 BCE, the resulting economic forces would have put the outlying pastoral nomads in a better economic situation to match the centrifugal movement of people groups from these urban areas. With this newfound demand for pastoral, agricultural, and semi-nomadic lifestyle, the pre-existing and outlying Canaanites would have come to power with the influx of the formerly urban labor-seekers. Once the economy began to settle at the dawn of the Iron Age, the vacuum left in the urban areas would naturally be filled by the power brokers of the rural areas. So in a sense, the ruralization hypothesis is a role-reversal model. The largest assumption in this hypothesis is the economic one. Where Yahwism plays its role in this model is a matter of dispute, but most who espouse this model agree that Yahwism was the result of the movement and not its cause.

The point here is that the DH (Deuteronomistic History, or Joshua – 2 Kings) is complex in its structure, and that the scholarship has taken careful measures to attempt to reconcile what has been found with what has been written. Personally, I think the (lack of) archaeological evidence and the story as it is related in the text evidences a late authorship for the DH, or at least for the conquest narrative, where the author was recalling things that were perhaps hyperbolically transmitted in oral stage before they were finally written down. The conquest narrative of Joshua, then, may have played the role of polemic if it had been written down during the exile, or perhaps as a polemic against the Persian authorities of the post-exilic (restoration) period as a way of saying “We were tough once too, you know.”

5 Replies to “The Conquest Narrative of Joshua 6-12”

  1. David,

    Enjoyed the post; Is there a book that you would recommend for an extended introduction or survey of this topic?

  2. Karl, most of what I have here was pieced together from about a handful of different sources, some of which are more technical or geared toward the expert than others. But I’ll recommend some starting points:

    1. IVP’s Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books edited by Bill T. Arnold. This is a dictionary, so it’s not very good bed-side, coffee table, or bathroom reading. It’s big and pricey, but worth it if you’re interested in DH studies.

    2. Oxford History of the Biblical World edited by Michael D. Coogan. This book should be on every Bible guy’s shelf. Honest and balanced. It’s where I got Stager’s 3 assumptions above.

    3. Life in Biblical Israel by King & Stager. Another one worth owning. It contains most of the pastoral-nomad stuff in it, as well as a bunch of other goodies. This book is one of the best for background stuff in biblical studies. Kind of technical, but not too bad.

    In addition, there are a lot of articles in scholarly journals which throw a lot of these theories around (JBL, BASOR, etc.), most of which are referenced in the works above.

  3. Thanks David. I think at the very least I will pick up a copy of Oxford History of the Biblical World.

  4. I’m such an idiot! I forgot the magnum opus for this subject, by one of my favorite scholars:

    Dever, William G. Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? Cambridge: Eerdman’s, 2003.

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