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The Conquest of Canaan

This is part of a series of articles, describing each of the 66 books of the Bible and how it relates to the one overall story of God’s relationship with man. The story is examined in terms of the five recurring themes below. The series cover page can be reached here.

& Justice
Love &
Pursuit of
& Sin
A Redeeming

The author and date of the book are a bit uncertain. The events described are during Joshua’s lifetime, and show detailed insider knowledge that would be appropriate if he had written most of it himself. It also uses “I”, “we” and “us” words as if it is a first-person account. However, it also describes Joshua’s death, and has several references to something still being present “to this day”, as if written at some time after than the original event. It seems likely that Joshua kept detailed notes and is responsible for most of the content, but a later editor 1 compiled them into their final form.

The literary style of the book is literal, historical narrative. The tone is matter-of-fact, even when describing obvious miracles. People and places are named in real-world context, with nothing “once upon a time” or “in a galaxy far, far away”.

This book continues our story, with the adventures of the Israelites as they entered their Promised Land after the Exodus from Egypt. Canaan at the time was a bunch of independent city/states, each with its own king and fortified city. Joshua led the Israelites to conquer them all 2, then apportioned out the land to the twelve tribes. The book includes all five of the major themes presented in this article series.

The Torch Passes

As we left Deuteronomy, in chapter 31, Moses designated Joshua to be his successor. As we begin the book named for Joshua, in chapter 1, God confirmed that commission. He told Joshua to proceed into Canaan, the Promised Land, with courage: God would be with him and give him success (Joshua 1:1-9).

Joshua obeyed, telling the people to get ready to cross the Jordan River boundary and enter Canaan. He reminded those tribes whose territory fell on the near side of the river that they were still obligated to fight alongside the others (Numbers 32). The Reubenites and Gadites agreed, promising to keep their word and assist with conquering the land.

In chapter 2, Joshua sent two spies across the river on a scouting mission. In the city of Jericho, they found unlikely help. A prostitute named Rahab hid them from the king and helped them escape the city. In return, they promised to protect her and her family when the Israelites came to conquer the city. Rahab’s faith was remarkable: She knew that God was with them, and that they would win: “I know that the LORD has given you the land…for the LORD your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath.” (Joshua 2:8-11)

Crossing the Jordan

Chapters 3 and 4 describe the actual crossing of the Jordan River boundary as the entire Israelite nation enters Canaan. The priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant led the way, with the people staying a respectful 2000 cubits (about 1000 yards) back. As soon as the priests stepped into the river, it dried up (similar to the Red Sea incident in Exodus 14) until all of the people has crossed and the priests left the river.

Before the waters released, however, God had Joshua order twelve men, one from each tribe, to each pick up a large stone from the riverbed and carry it to the shore. Those stones were placed as a memorial:

He said to the sons of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, ‘What are these stones?’ then you shall inform your children, saying, ‘Israel crossed this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed, just as the LORD your God had done to the Red Sea, which He dried up before us until we had crossed; that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, so that you may fear the LORD your God forever.”

Joshua 4:21-24

Chapter 5 tells that, once across the Jordan, the people participated in two acts of obedience to God. First, the men were circumcised, as commanded to Abraham in Genesis 17 (which apparently not been done for those born during the forty years of wilderness crossing). Second, they celebrated Passover using some of the produce from their new land. That ended the era of manna being provided for them, now that they had a place to produce their own food.

The chapter ends with Joshua near the city of Jericho, and meeting an unknown warrior. When Joshua asked if he was on their side or that of their adversaries, the answer was “No, rather I indeed come now as captain of the host of the LORD.” (Joshua 5:13-15) The Israelites were to be on God’s side, not the other way around!


Chapter 6 is the story of Jericho, when “the walls came tumbling down“. The unorthodox assault on the city was a demonstration of God’s power rather than military might. At God’s command, the entire army marched around the city walls, led by the Ark of the Covenant and priests with trumpets. After six days of one circuit each, on the seventh day they did seven circuits. Then at a blast on the trumpets and a shout by the people, the walls “fell down flat” and the army was able to easily take the city. They killed the inhabitants, other than the prostitute Rahab and her family as promised. 3 They destroyed everything except the precious metals, which were taken for the tabernacle treasury. Joshua had the people take an oath that the city would never be re-built.

Note: One likely meaning for the name “Jericho” is City of the Moon. From this, scholars infer that it was a center of worship for the moon god, Yarikh. Destroying it would have sent the message that God was stronger than the Canaanite gods.


Chapters 7 and 8 tell of the next city to be conquered: Ai. This did not proceed as easily as Jericho, though. At first, scouts tell Joshua that it will only take a small force, so only 3000 fighters head to the battle. They are soundly defeated, chased off the battlefield. When Joshua asked God “Why?”, he was told that God was not with them because of sin within the camp. A man named Achan had kept some loot from Jericho for himself, when all was ordered to be destroyed or set aside for sacred use. When he was found out, Achan was executed along with his entire family. All of his goods were burned.

With the sin purged, God told Joshua to attack Ai again. Since the original attackers had fled in the first battle, Joshua used that fact as a strategy. He set up an ambush, where part of his army pretended to flee. The Ai warriors chased them, only to be caught from behind by the rest of Joshua’s army. Like Jericho, Ai and its people were destroyed and it was ordered that the town never be re-built.

Afterward, Joshua built an altar and offered sacrifices and worship to God. He wrote out a stone copy of all of the law given to Moses, and read it aloud in the hearing of all the people.


Chapter 9 describes a deception that set the stage for a major victory. The city of Gibeon decided that it wanted no part of battle with the Israelites and their God. They knew that the Israelites were conquering all the cities of Canaan, so they pretended that they were NOT Canaanites. They dressed in old, worn-out clothes, as if they had come on a long journey. They convinced Joshua that they had traveled just for the sake of making a treaty with Israel. Joshua fell for it, and without first checking with God, he made a covenant with the Gibeonites. Then, he found out that they were neighbors from within Canaan. Joshua kept his word, not destroying them although he did make them into servants. They became “hewers of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of the LORD“.


Chapters 10 through 12 describe the remaining battles won by the Israelites under Joshua’s leadership. The first came about because of the Gibeonite deception. Five kings — Adoni-zedek king of Jerusalem, Hoham king of Hebron, Piram king of Jarmuth, Japhia king of Lachish, and Debir king of Eglon — banded together to attack Gibeon in retaliation for making peace with the Israelites. The Gibeonites called on their Israelite allies for help. God sent a large hailstorm that killed more men than the actual battle. He also extended the daylight until the battle was over.

There was no day like that before it or after it, when the LORD listened to the voice of a man; for the LORD fought for Israel.

Joshua 10:14

Those five kings fled and took shelter in a cave near another city, Makkedah. They were captured and killed, and the city of Makkedah was destroyed. After that Joshua continued to destroy all the cities in southern Canaan before returning to base camp at Gilgal.

The kings of the northern city/states took the battle to the Israelites, banding together to attack them at Gilgal. Joshua defeated the combined army, then spent a long time continuing to subdue all of Canaan. The end of chapter 12 lists 31 kings and their cities that were conquered.

There was not a city which made peace with the sons of Israel except the Hivites living in Gibeon; they took them all in battle. For it was of the LORD to harden their hearts, to meet Israel in battle in order that he might utterly destroy them, that they might receive no mercy, but that he might destroy them, just as the LORD had commanded Moses.

Joshua 11:19-20

Apportioning the Land to the Tribes

Chapters 13 through 19 describe how the Promised Land was divided among the twelve tribes of Israel, giving a lot of geographical details. Chapter 13 begins with God telling Joshua to divide out even the area that had not yet been conquered. Those lands could be given to the tribes, because God promised to give them to Israel; they were counted as already belonging to them. In chapter 14, Caleb — the other faithful spy, along with Joshua, from Numbers 13-14 — asked for and received the inheritance promised to him for his faithfulness.

Chapter 20 sets aside six “cities of refuge” where someone who was responsible for an accidental death could flee for protection against revenge by relatives of the deceased while awaiting proper judicial action.

Chapter 21 gives cities and associated pasture land to the Levite tribe, who otherwise made their living by serving in the sanctuary.

So the LORD gave Israel all the land which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they possessed it and lived in it. And the LORD gave them rest on every side, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers, and no one of all their enemies stood before them; the LORD gave all their enemies into their hand. Not one of the good promises which the LORD had made to the house of Israel failed; all came to pass.

Joshua 21:43-45

Reuben and Gad Tribes Return Home

Chapter 22 tells of the Reubenites and Gadites returning to the lands on the eastern side of the Jordan. They had fulfilled their obligation to help their brothers, and could now go home to their families. However, they immediately caused a controversy without intending to. They built an altar on their side of the river, the opposite of all the other tribes. The others were angry at the seeming rebellion: They thought the Reubenites and Gadites were setting up as their own nation, ready to worship God by themselves. This was opposed to His command that everyone come to one central place (yet to be named) to worship as a single nation.

What is this unfaithful act which you have committed against the God of Israel, turning away from following the LORD this day, by building yourselves an altar, to rebel against the LORD this day?

Joshua 22:16

The Reubenites/Gadites answered that No, they weren’t rebelling at all. They did not intend to use the altar as a worship location, or to distinguish themselves from the other tribes. Rather, they were showing solidarity with those tribes.

But truly we have done this out of concern, for a reason, saying, ‘In time to come your sons may say to our sons, “What have you to do with the LORD, the God of Israel?

Therefore we said, ‘It shall also come about if they say this to us or to our generations in time to come, then we shall say, “See the copy of the altar of the LORD which our fathers made, not for burnt offering or for sacrifice; rather it is a witness between us and you.”’

Joshua 22:21-29

The others accepted this explanation, and did not follow through with the punishment they had been planning. Crisis averted!

Joshua’s Farewell and Covenant Renewal

Chapters 23 and 24 are Joshua’s farewell speech to the people before his death at the age of 110. He reminded them of their history with God, and His protection and guidance to them from Abraham…through Egypt…to their current rest from war in their own Promised Land. He repeated the warning against mixing with the Canaanites and worshipping their gods. As before, this included blessings for obedience to God vs. curses for rebelling and disobeying. Joshua’s mind was firmly made up:

If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

Joshua 24:15

The people promised — several times — to be faithful to God (Joshua 24:16-28).

Joshua died, and was buried in his inherited territory “in Timnath-serah, which is in the hill country of Ephraim“. The priest Eleazar, son of Aaron, also died, and was buried in the territory of his son Phinehas. And, the bones of Joseph which had been brought from Egypt were also buried in the Promised Land as he requested in Genesis 50:24-25.

Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua and all the days of the elders who survived Joshua, and had known all the deeds of the LORD which He had done for Israel.

Joshua 24:31

After the days of Joshua and that generation that remembered God, however, things changed!

One Story

Major ThemeExamples in this Scripture
God’s Sovereign PlanEvery step of the way, God was telling Joshua that He was giving them the land. He was keeping His promise to Abraham, as well as preparing the homeland for Jesus’ arrival.
It was God who chose the area for each tribe (via Joshua casting lots “for them before the Lord” (Joshua 18:10).
God’s Majesty, Holiness & JusticeGod used the Israelite conquest as His way of judging the Canaanite nations for their rampant evil. Their form of “worship” for their gods included gross sexual immorality and child sacrifice. God had held off for over 400 years, since He told Abraham that “the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete” in Genesis 15:16, but He didn’t let evil go unpunished indefinitely.
God showed His power over nature in the crossing of the Jordan, and also in the “long day” of chapter 10’s battle.
The loss of God’s presence at initial battle of Ai due to Achan’s deceit is representative of how sin always separates us from God.
The repeated commands to wipe out the idolatrous cities, and the ending commands to never intermingle with the Canaanites or follow their gods, are reminders that God alone is worthy of worship.
God’s Love & Pursuit of RelationshipGod emphatically reassured Joshua of His presence, especially in Joshua 1:1-9 and 3:7. In all the battles, it is emphasized that the Lord was fighting on behalf of the Israelites.
The restored presence of God for the second battle of Ai shows reconciliation. There are consequences for sin, but God doesn’t forsake His people forever.
Man’s Rebellion & SinAchan’s theft of the loot in Jericho, and the Gibeonites’ deception, both are examples of disobedience to God’s righteousness.
God’s Solution: A Redeeming SacrificeLike Moses before him, Joshua prefigured Jesus in several ways. Both were Deliverers of their people, who interceded with God on their behalf and led them to the inheritance that God had planned for them.

Continue to Judges – Deborah and Gideon.

Footnotes and Scripture References

  1. Aaron’s son Eleazar and grandson Phineas, who succeeded him as high priests (Joshua 24:33) would have been in a good position to do this editing. That is speculation, however, not known for certain.
  2. Here is an article with a helpful perspective on the problematic-to-Western-minds conquest.
  3. Rahab later became the grandmother of King David. She was not only redeemed from both paganism and prostitution, but she was also accepted in the lineage of Jesus. She is mentioned in the Hebrews list of heroes of the faith. (Matthew 1:5-6, Hebrews 11:31)