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We recently received an email from a visitor concerning the Conquest of Canaan. He sent us an excerpt from an undergraduate course at Yale, outlining the standard liberal view on the chronology and historicity of the book of Joshua. Dr. Bryant Wood responds.

The following comments were sent to ABR concerning the website article Extra-Biblical Evidence for the Conquest. The comments are found in italics, and Dr. Wood's answers are in regular font.

“What is your take on the following? Why didn’t you discuss these credible arguments in the article?”

The purpose of my article was to report on evidence outside the Bible that supports the historicity of the Israelite conquest of Canaan as recorded in the Hebrew Bible, not to delve into the various scholarly interpretations of the biblical record of the Conquest.

The quotation you sent is part of a course in the Religious Studies department of Yale University. The course, RLST 145, Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), is an undergraduate course taught by Prof. Christine Hayes, whose field is Talmudic-midrashic studies. The quotation is a portion of (Lecture 12, The Deuteronomic History: Life in the Land (Joshua and Judges) (off site link). In it, Prof. Hayes presents the standard view of the Conquest advocated by liberal scholarship. I will comment on Prof. Hayes’ statements in the order in which they were presented in her lecture.

This is a very neat picture of the rapid conquest of Canaan, but it’s at odds with statements elsewhere in Joshua and in the book of Judges.

There is no biblical text that suggests the Conquest happened quickly. Exod. 23:29–30, Deut. 7:22 and Josh. 11:18 all indicate that the occupation of the land took place gradually over a protracted period of time. The perception of a rapid conquest is due to the presentation of the key events in a series of narratives in the book of Joshua, giving the reader the impression that the events transpired in rapid succession. A careful reading of the Bible's account reveals that the conquest of Cisjordan by the unified tribes occurred over a duration of about 6 ½ years. Caleb was 40 years old when the spies were sent out from Kadesh Barnea (Josh. 14:6) and 85 at the end of the Conquest (Josh. 14:10). Since the spies were sent out approximately a year and a half year after the Israelites left Egypt (Num. 10:11 + events of Num. 10:12–13:20), and the total period of the Wilderness Wanderings was 40 years (Exod. 16:35; Num. 14:33–34), the conquest of Cisjordan lasted approximately 45 – 38 ½ = 6 ½ years. The total length of the conquest of both Transjordan and Cisjordan would have been about 7 years. The Conquest was followed by the period of Judges in which the individual tribes struggled to gain control over their assigned allotments for several centuries, until the tribes were unified once again under Saul in ca. 1050 BC.

For example, the victories in Chapters 2 through 10 are confined to a very small area, what would actually be the tribe of Benjamin basically, so just one small area.

The drama of the Israelite conquest of Canaan was played out on a small stage, but certainly not as small as the tribal area of Benjamin. The area captured by Israel in Cisjordan was essentially the highlands, or central hill country, and the Negev. In Joshua 2–8 the Israelites conquered the territory later occupied by the tribe of Benjamin, an area of ca. 200 square miles. In chapter 10 they conquered the territory south of Benjamin, as far as Kadesh Barnea, over 100 miles south of Benjamin, an area of ca. 5,500 square miles. Prof. Hayes failed to discuss Josh. 11, where it is recorded that the Israelites took Hazor, all the northern “royal cities,” and the region as far north as Mt. Hermon, over 100 miles north of Benjamin, an area of ca. 4,500 square miles. Thus, the total area captured by Israel was on the order of 10,000 square miles.

In Joshua 13:1: Joshua 13 opens with the statement that Joshua was old, advanced in years, and there was much of the land remaining to be possessed. In Joshua 10 (which is in the first part of Joshua — Joshua 10) verses 36-39 report the conquest of several cities in the south, including Hebron and Debir. But in Judges, we read that they had not been captured: they were captured later, after Joshua’s death.

The book of Judges does not state that Hebron and Debir had not been captured previously under Joshua, but merely that the men of Judah were required to fight against the Canaanites living in Hebron and Debir. Joshua died some 35 years after the completion of the Conquest at age 110 (Josh. 24:29). Following his death, Judges 1:2–20 records the “mopping up operation” of the tribe of Judah to consolidate their hold on the large territory allotted to them by Joshua (Josh. 15). In the several decades that had elapsed since the Conquest, it is clear that the Canaanites had regained control of the Hebron-Debir area, requiring the Judahites to recapture the region. The initiative entailed not only campaigns in the Negev in the area of Hebron and Debir, but also the hill country in the area of Jerusalem, and the western Shephelah.

Joshua 12:10 reports the defeat of the king of Jerusalem. In Judges 1:8 and 21, we read that the people of Judah did this (conquered the king of Jerusalem) and that despite that victory they failed to actually drive out the inhabitants, the Jebusites, who lived there. And it is not until King David, 200 years later that, in fact, we will read about the capture of Jerusalem.

Judges 1:8 states that the men of Judah attacked and burned Jerusalem, but there is no reference to the king. Judges 1:21, on the other hand, recounts the fact that the Benjaminites were unable to dislodge the Jebusites from Jerusalem, again with no mention of the king. The presumed difficulty here is that there are two accounts of the defeat of Jerusalem—one during the Conquest, based on Josh. 12:10, and one in the time of the Judges, based on Judges 1:8. Josh. 12:10 lists the king of Jerusalem along with the other kings defeated in the Conquest. The full account of his demise is recorded in Joshua 10. Following the capitulation of the city-state of Gibeon to the Israelites (Josh. 9), five kings of the southern highland city states of Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish and Eglon formed a coalition to attack Gibeon (Josh. 10:1–4). The coalition was defeated by Israel and the five kings were subsequently captured and killed at Makkedah (Josh. 10:5–27). In the ensuing account of the campaign against the southern city-states there is no mention of Jerusalem being captured. The king of Jerusalem and his army were defeated at Gibeon, but there is no indication that the Israelites under Joshua attacked Jerusalem itself. In fact, Jerusalem is specifically named in Joshua 15:63 as a city Israel could not conquer. Jerusalem was on the border between Judah and Benjamin and the city was assigned to both Judah (Josh. 15:8) and Benjamin (Josh. 18:28). Following the death of Joshua the tribe of Judah attacked and burned Jerusalem (Judges 1:4–8). It is clear, however, that neither Judah nor Benjamin were able to occupy the city at this time because Judges 1:21 explicitly states that the Benjaminites failed to dislodge the Jebusites from Jerusalem. This is reinforced in Judges 19:10–12 where it is stated that the Jebusites were in control of Jerusalem at the time of the events described in Judges 19–21. Finally, in ca. 1000 BC, David was able to wrest Jerusalem from the control of the Jebusites (2 Sam. 5:6–10).

Judges 1 gives a long list of the places from which the Canaanites were not expelled.

The implication here is that the successful takeover of Canaan presented in the book of Joshua is inaccurate because of the list of places the Israelites could not capture given in Judges 1. The focus of the book of Joshua is on the victories of the Israelites as a result of their faithfulness to Yahweh, whereas the focus of the book of Judges is on the failures of the individual tribes because they turned away from Yahweh and worshipped the pagan deities of the indigenous population. Judges 1 serves as a bridge between these two accounts. The book of Joshua in fact has several lists of places that the Israelites could not conquer (11:22; 13:1–5; 15:63; 16:10; 17:11–12, 16), but they are mentioned only in passing as the primary emphasis is on the victories. It turns out that the places the Israelites could not subjugate, with the exception of Jerusalem, were lowland sites in the Jezreel Valley (Josh. 17:16) and along the coastal plain, areas which were under the control of Egypt at this time. Many of the places named in Judges 1 that the tribes could not defeat also appear in the lists of non-conquered cities in Joshua:

In the tribal area of Judah—Gaza (Judges 1:18 [LXX]=Josh. 11:22; 13:3); Ashkelon and Ekron (Judges 1:18 [LXX]=Josh. 13:3)

In the tribal area of Benjamin/Judah—Jerusalem (Judges 1:21=Josh. 15:63)

In the tribal area of Manasseh—Beth Shean (Judges 1:27=Josh. 17:11–12, 16); Ibleam, Dor, Taanach and Megiddo (Judges 1:27=Josh. 17:11–12)

In the tribal area of Ephraim—Gezer (Judges 1:29=Josh. 16:10)

In the tribal area of Asher—Sidon and Aphek (Judges 1:31=Josh. 13:4)

Also archaeological evidence contradicts the picture in Joshua. In the Ancient Near East, destroyed cities tended to be leveled, and then a new city would just be built on top of the ruins, and you would have these slowly rising mounds — each one of those is called a tell (so you may have heard of Tell Dor?). These are mounds which represent the successive layers of destroyed and rebuilt cities. And excavations will reveal the destruction layers under the floor of new cities. So following the biblical account, we would expect evidence of a thirteenth century destruction of Canaanite cities. And archaeologists for a long time were convinced that they would find these destruction layers. But they were disappointed. They have found really no evidence of extensive conquest and destruction in thirteenth and twelfth century archaeological layers. Some of the sites that are said to be destroyed by Joshua and the Israelites weren’t even occupied in this period, the late Bronze Age, beginning of the Iron Age; the Iron Age begins around 1200.

The difficulty here is that the Conquest did not occur in the 13th century BC. This theory was a scholarly construct championed by W. F. Albright and has now been thoroughly discredited. According to the internal chronological data in the Hebrew Bible it is clear that the Conquest occurred at the end of the 15th century BC, not in the 13th century BC. Thus, evidence for the Conquest will not be found in the 13th century BC, but rather at the end of the 15th century BC. For the reasons why the 13th century theory is invalid, see the following:

  • The Rise and Fall of the 13th Century Exodus Conquest Theory
  • The Biblical Date for the Exodus is 1446 BC: A Response to James Hoffmeier
  • A Critical Analysis of the Evidence from Ralph Hawkins for a Late Date Exodus-Conquest

The evidence for a late 15th century date for the conquest is presented here:

  • Recent Research on the Date and Setting of the Exodus
  • New Evidence Supporting the Early (Biblical) Date of the Exodus and Conquest
  • When Did Solomon Die?
  • Evidence for Inerrancy from an Unexpected Source: OT Chronology

Professor Hayes Continues:

Excavations at Jericho and Ai indicate that both of these towns were laid waste at least 200 years before the probable time of Joshua; so there weren’t even any walls in Jericho at the time of Joshua. Of 20 identifiable sites that were said to be conquered or captured by Joshua and the next generations, only two show destruction layers for this time, Hazor and Beth-el. And yet interestingly enough, Hazor’s capture described in Joshua is contradicted elsewhere in the Bible, because in Judges 4 and 5, it is still a Canaanite city. It is said there that it is still a Canaanite city and Joshua failed to take it.

For Prof. Hayes, the “probable time of Joshua” is the 13th century BC. She is quite right in stating that there were no walls at Jericho in the 13th century. The same is true of Ai. Since the Conquest took place much earlier, one would not expect to find evidence for the Conquest in the 13th century BC. The two 13th century BC destruction layers Prof. Hayes refers to are from the period of the Judges and have nothing to do with the Conquest under Joshua. Three of the cities conquered by the Israelites were burned: Jericho (Josh. 6:24), Ai (Josh. 8:28) and Hazor (Josh. 11:11). All three sites have been excavated and at all three there is evidence for destruction by fire at the end of the Late Bronze I period, ca. 1400 BC, the date of the Conquest according to biblical chronology. For details, see the following articles:

  • Jericho: Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho?: A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence
  • Dating Jericho's Destruction: Bienkowski is Wrong on all Counts
  • Ai: The Search for Joshua's Ai (ABR has conducted its own archaeological excavations with respect to Ai at Khirbet el-Maqatir).
  • Hazor: The Dating of Hazor's Destruction in Joshua 11 Via Biblical Archaeological and Epigraphical Evidence

Hazor’s capture described in Joshua is not contradicted in Judges 4 and 5 as Prof. Hayes maintains. The Bible simply records that Hazor was destroyed twice, once by the unified tribes under Joshua in ca. 1400 BC and again some 160 years later by the tribes of Naptali and Zebulon under Deborah and Barak in the 13th century BC. Archaeological findings at Hazor demonstrate that the city was destroyed in ca. 1400 BC, rebuilt, and destroyed again in ca. 1240 BC, perfectly in accord with the biblical record. The evidence for this is detailed in the above cited article on Hazor.

Contrary to Prof. Hayes’ lecture, the Bible presents a clear, consistent and accurate record of the conquest of Canaan which is borne out by the results of archaeological research.


Bryant G. Wood, Ph.D.

See Dr. Wood in this video, Jericho Unearthed, available from the ABR ministry.

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