The Hebrew Bible identifies Joshua as one of the twelve spies of Israel sent by Moses to explore the land of Canaan. In Numbers 13:1, and after the death of Moses, Joshua led the Israelite tribes in the conquest of Canaan and allocated lands to the tribes. But was the land stolen or reclaimed?
According to biblical accounts and interpretations, Joshua was a leader of the Israelites who received a command from God to ‘conquer and completely destroy the Canaanites’, the people who lived in the land of Canaan. God had promised to the Israelites. God’s command was seen as a way of removing evil and corruption from the land and bringing justice and holiness to his chosen people. However, a deeper reading reveals that the reasons for the conquest were more complex, the scope of the destruction was smaller, and God’s mercy was present throughout.
This paper explores the history and culture of the Canaanites, looking at their achievements and challenges and their interaction with other ancient peoples.
Picture Credit: Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872), The Battle of Jericho.
Attribution: Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872), German painter
Page URL: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/19/JSC_the_battle_of_Jericho.png
The Canaanites and their History
The Canaanites were a group of ancient peoples who inhabited the regions of modern-day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria during the Bronze Age and Iron Age. The Canaanites were not a unified or homogeneous group but a collection of city-states and tribes that shared some cultural and linguistic characteristics.
The Canaanites were known for their skilled artisans, seafaring abilities, and trade networks, and their influence can be seen in the art, architecture, and religious practices of neighbouring cultures such as the Israelites, Phoenicians, and Babylonians. The Canaanites also left behind a significant body of literature, including religious texts, poetry, and historical accounts.
The Canaanites’ history is complex and multi-faceted, with many different perspectives and interpretations. As with any ancient civilisation, there were undoubtedly both positive and negative aspects of their culture, as well as moments of beauty and moments of darkness.
Some positive aspects of Canaanite culture include their artistic and architectural achievements. The Canaanites were skilled artisans and builders, and their cities were often adorned with beautiful temples, palaces, and other structures. They were also known for their metalworking, pottery, and textile production traded throughout the region.
- One example of Canaanite art is the Megiddo ivories, small carved pieces of ivory found in the ancient city of Megiddo, also known as Armageddon. The ivories date from the 13th to 12th centuries BCE and depict scenes of animals, humans, gods, and mythical creatures. They show influences from Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Hittite, and Aegean art styles.
- Another example of Canaanite architecture is the Baalbek temple complex, located in modern-day Lebanon. The complex was originally a Phoenician sanctuary dedicated to the god Baal-Hadad but was later expanded by the Romans into a glorious city with three massive temples dedicated to Jupiter, Bacchus, and Venus. The temples are remarkable for their size, design, and engineering feats. Some of the stones used to build them weigh more than 800 tons.
- The Canaanites were also skilled seafarers and traders who established colonies and ports throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. They traded cedar wood, spices, precious metals, textiles, pottery, glassware, wine, olive oil, and purple dye. They also developed an alphabet later adopted by other cultures, such as the Greeks and Romans. Some of their most famous seafaring descendants were the Phoenicians, who founded cities such as Tyre, Sidon, and Carthage. Another positive aspect of Canaanite culture was their seafaring and trade networks.
Picture Credit: Female sphynx plaque, ivory, Megiddo 1300-1200 BCE
Attribution: Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Female_sphynx_plaque,_Megiddo,_Stratum_VIIA,_Late_Bronze_IIB,_1300-1200_BC,_ivory_-_Oriental_Institute_Museum,_University_of_Chicago_-_DSC07703.JPG
However, there were also negative aspects of Canaanite culture, including their practice of child sacrifice in some religious rituals. This was condemned by some neighbouring cultures, including the Israelites, who saw it as barbaric and inhumane. Other negative aspects of Canaanite culture were political instability, frequent wars with other nations, and moral corruption.
Interactions with other Cultures
The Canaanites had a complex relationship with the Israelites. While they shared many cultural and linguistic similarities, they were also often in conflict, with the Israelites conquering many Canaanite cities and territories.
Overall, the history of the Canaanites is rich and complex, with many different perspectives and interpretations. While there were undoubtedly both positive and negative aspects of their culture and history, it is important to approach this history with an open mind and a willingness to learn from the past.
Unfortunately, the historical records available about the Canaanites are often incomplete or difficult to date with precision, which makes it challenging to establish a comprehensive timeline of their history. However, some broad dates and periods are often used to describe the history of the Canaanites. For example, the Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean, which saw the emergence of early Canaanite city-states, is typically dated from around 3200 BC to 1200 BC. The Iron Age, which saw the rise of more powerful Canaanite kingdoms, is generally dated from about 1200 BC to 586 BC, when the Babylonians conquered the region.
Within these broad periods, numerous events and developments shaped Canaanite history, including wars and conflicts, the rise and fall of various city-states and kingdoms, and the emergence of new cultural and religious practices.
It’s worth noting, however, that the understanding of Canaanite history is constantly evolving as new archaeological and historical evidence comes to light. As such, the dates and periods used to describe their history may be refined or revised in the future.
Conflicts and Adversaries
The Canaanites were a complex and diverse group of peoples who inhabited the eastern Mediterranean region during the Bronze Age and Iron Age. The conflicts and adversaries were many and varied, and they changed over time as their society evolved.
One of the most significant conflicts in Canaanite history was with the Israelites, who emerged as a distinct cultural and religious group in the region around 1200 BC. The Israelites and the Canaanites shared many cultural and linguistic similarities but also had many differences, causing conflict over land ownership and resources, religious practices, and political power. The Israelites ultimately conquered much of Canaan, including many of the major Canaanite cities, such as Jericho, Ai, and Hazor, and established the kingdom of Israel.
Another significant adversary of the Canaanites was the Assyrians, a powerful empire in the region during the Iron Age. The Assyrians invaded and conquered many Canaanite cities and kingdoms, including Damascus, Tyre, and Sidon, and imposed their own political and religious systems on the region.
In addition to these major conflicts, the Canaanites also had numerous smaller-scale conflicts with neighbouring peoples, including the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, and various tribal groups in the region.
It’s worth noting that the Canaanites were not always the aggressors in these conflicts and often faced significant challenges and setbacks. Nonetheless, their history is marked by a series of struggles and conflicts that shaped the evolution of their society and culture over time.
Many conflicts and battles were fought between the Canaanites and their adversaries throughout history, a few examples of some of the most significant battles and adversaries being:
- Battle of Megiddo: This battle took place in the 15th century BC between the Canaanite city-state of Megiddo and the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III. The battle was part of a larger campaign by the Egyptians to expand their territory into the Levant. The Egyptians ultimately emerged victorious, and the battle is notable for being one of the earliest recorded battles in history.
- Battle of Kadesh: This battle occurred in the 13th century BC between the Canaanite city-state of Kadesh and the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II. The battle was part of a larger conflict between the Egyptians and the Hittites and is notable for being one of the largest chariot battles in history. The battle’s outcome is disputed, with both sides claiming victory, but it is generally seen as a stalemate.
- Conquest of Jericho: This event, as recorded in the Hebrew Bible, describes the Israelite conquest of the Canaanite city of Jericho around 1400 BC. According to the biblical account, the Israelites marched around the city for seven days, and on the seventh day, the city’s walls came tumbling down. The conquest of Jericho is seen as a significant moment in Israelite history and is often cited as an example of divine intervention on behalf of the Israelites.
- Assyrian conquests: During the Iron Age, the Assyrians were a powerful empire in the region, and they frequently engaged in military campaigns against the Canaanites and other neighbouring peoples. The Assyrians conquered many major Canaanite cities and kingdoms, including Damascus, Tyre, and Sidon, and imposed their own political and religious systems on the region.
- Battle of Aphek: This battle took place in the 14th century BC between the Canaanite city-states of the Amorites and the Israelites. According to the biblical account, the Amorites launched a surprise attack on the Israelites and initially gained the upper hand. However, the Israelites ultimately rallied and defeated the Amorites, capturing their king and many of their soldiers.
- Battle of the Hill of Megiddo: This battle, in the 6th century BC, was fought between the forces of Egypt and Babylon. The action was near the city of Megiddo in northern Israel and was part of a larger conflict between the two empires to control the region. The Babylonians emerged victorious, and the event is notable for being one of the earliest recorded instances of the use of cavalry in battle.
- Siege of Jerusalem: This event took place in the 10th century BC when the city of Jerusalem was besieged by the forces of the Israelite king, David. The city was held by a Canaanite tribe known as the Jebusites and was considered a strategic stronghold due to its location. According to the biblical account, David captured the city by sneaking his soldiers in through a water shaft, and the city became the capital of the Israelite kingdom.
- Battle of Qarqar: This battle occurred in the 9th century BC and involved a coalition of Canaanite city-states fighting against the Assyrian empire. The coalition included the cities of Damascus, Hamath, and Tyre, among others, and was led by the king of Damascus. The battle ended in a stalemate, with neither side gaining a clear victory, but it is notable for being one of the earliest recorded instances of a large-scale coalition of Canaanite city-states working together in battle.
In Focus: The Siege of Jerusalem
The siege of Jerusalem occurred in the 10th century BC, during the reign of the Israelite king David. At the time, Jerusalem was held by a Canaanite tribe known as the Jebusites, who had established it as their stronghold.
According to the biblical account, David and his army laid siege to the city, cutting off its food and water supplies. The Jebusites taunted David, believing that their fortified city was impregnable and that they would be able to hold out against the Israelites indefinitely. However, David’s army eventually breached the city’s defences by gaining ingress through a water shaft. Once inside, David’s soldiers began fighting with the Jebusites, eventually gaining the upper hand and capturing the city. According to the biblical account, the city was renamed “The City of David” and became the capital of the Israelite kingdom.
The duration of the siege is not clear from the biblical account, but it is generally believed to have lasted for several months, if not longer. It is also unclear how many casualties were borne by either side, as the biblical account focuses more on the tactics David and his army used rather than the details of the battle itself.
Picture Credit: Lanfranco Moses and the Messengers from Canaan
Attribution: Giovanni Lanfranco, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lanfranco_Moses_and_the_Messengers_from_Canaan.jpg
Both sides likely employed a combination of traditional weapons such as swords, spears, and bows and more advanced siege weapons such as battering rams and siege towers. As for prisoners taken, the biblical account does not mention any specific individuals who were taken captive during the siege, but some Jebusites were likely taken as prisoners of war.
The outcome of the siege was significant, as it marked the establishment of Jerusalem as the capital of the Israelite kingdom and solidified David’s position as king. It also marked the beginning of the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan, which continued over the following centuries. Overall, the siege of Jerusalem is a significant event in Canaanite history, as it represents a turning point in the region’s political landscape, establishing the stage for centuries of conflict and conquest.
Joshua, Successor to Moses, and Fighting the Battles of the Lord
Joshua is a central figure in the biblical account of the Israelite conquest of Canaan. Joshua is believed to have lived during the 13th century BC and is perhaps best known as the successor to Moses and the leader of the Israelites as they entered and conquered the land of Canaan.
Little is known about Joshua’s personal life outside of his role as a military leader and prophet. According to the Bible, Joshua was born in Egypt during the Israelite enslavement and was one of the 12 spies sent into the land of Canaan by Moses. He was chosen by God to succeed Moses as leader of the Israelites and led the conquest of Canaan following Moses’ death.
Joshua is credited with overseeing the division of the land of Canaan among the 12 tribes of Israel and with establishing a system of governance for the new nation. He is believed to have died at the age of 110 and was buried in the territory of his tribe, Ephraim.
The Bible provides little information about Joshua’s family, but it is believed that he had a wife named Achsah and two sons, one named Gershom and the other unnamed. According to some rabbinic traditions, Joshua was also a descendant of Caleb, one of the original Israelite spies.
Joshua’s importance in the history of the Israelites is significant, as he is credited with leading the Israelites into Canaan and establishing the nation of Israel. He is also a key figure in Jewish and Christian religious traditions and is often seen as a symbol of courage, faith, and obedience to God.
Among Joshua’s achievements, perhaps his greatest, was his leadership during the conquest of Canaan. According to the Bible, Joshua and his army overcame several powerful Canaanite city-states, including Jericho, Ai, and Hazor. He is also credited with leading the Israelites in key battles against other Canaanite armies, including the famous battle of Gibeon.
In addition to his military prowess, Joshua is also believed to have been a prophet and a spiritual leader and is credited with overseeing the renewal of the covenant between God and the Israelites at Shechem. Overall, Joshua’s legacy as a leader, conqueror, and prophet has made him an important figure in the history of the Israelites and a significant character in religious traditions to this day.
In Jewish tradition, Joshua is considered one of the 12 minor prophets, and his story is recounted during the holiday of Sukkot as part of the reading of the Torah. In Christianity, Joshua is seen as a precursor to Jesus, who is also considered a conqueror and leader of his people. In fact, the name “Jesus” is derived from the Greek version of the name “Joshua.”
Beyond his role in religious traditions, Joshua’s story has inspired countless works of art and literature. In particular, the story of the battle of Jericho has been the subject of many famous works, including the African American spiritual “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,” as well as paintings by artists such as John Martin and James Tissot.
Overall, Joshua’s story is a fascinating glimpse into the history of the Israelites and a reminder of the importance of courage, faith, and leadership in times of great challenge.
Origins and Fate of the Canaanites
The origins of the Canaanites are a topic of much debate among scholars and historians, but it is generally believed that they were indigenous people who inhabited the region of Canaan for many centuries.
The earliest evidence of Canaanite culture dates back to the Neolithic period, around 8000-5000 BC, and by the Bronze Age (about 3000-1200 BC), the Canaanites had established several city-states throughout the region. These city-states were characterised by their distinctive architecture, art, and religious practices, which often included the worship of deities such as Baal, Asherah, and El.
It is not entirely clear where the Canaanites originated from, but some scholars believe that they may have been descended from an earlier culture known as the Ghassulians, who inhabited the region during the Chalcolithic period (around 4500-3200 BC). It is possible the cultures of ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia may have influenced the Canaanites.
Regardless of their origins, the Canaanites played a significant role in the region’s history, and their legacy can still be seen today in the languages, religions, and cultures of the modern Middle East.
As for the ultimate fate of the Canaanites, it’s a complicated question with no simple answer. While the biblical account portrays the Israelites as conquering and destroying many Canaanite cities and peoples, archaeological evidence suggests a more complex and nuanced picture. While there is evidence of violence and destruction at many Canaanite sites, there is also evidence of continuity and cultural exchange between the Canaanites and the Israelites, suggesting that the conquest was not a straightforward process of total destruction and replacement.
Furthermore, while the Israelites did conquer and establish control over much of Canaan, they were not the only group to do so. Over the centuries, the region was conquered and ruled by numerous other empires and peoples, including the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans.
In summary, the ultimate fate of the Canaanites is complex and contested and varies depending on the specific time period and context. While the Canaanites faced numerous conflicts and adversaries throughout their history, they were not entirely destroyed, and their legacy continues to be felt in the modern Middle East.
Sources and Further Reading
- Canaan Possessed: Studies in Ephesians and Joshua by John Stuart Blackburn and Tom Tyson. Publisher: Understanding Christianity (2020). Available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Canaan-Possessed-Ephesians-Understanding-Christianity/dp/0951151541
- Spies of Promise: The Untold Story of Joshua’s 40 Days in Canaan by Philip Allan Turner. Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2015). Available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Spies-Promise-Untold-Joshuas-Canaan/dp/0692372180
- The Destruction of the Canaanites: God, Genocide, and Biblical Interpretation by Charlie Trimm. Publisher: Eerdmans Publishing Company (2021). Available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Destruction-Canaanites-Genocide-Biblical-Interpretation/dp/0802879624.
- Book of Joshua (Hebrew Bible). Author unknown (traditionally attributed to Joshua). Published (estimated between 13th to 6th century BC). See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Joshua
- Introduction to the Book of Joshua: Conquering Canaan by Jack Zavada (online article). Publisher: Learn Religions website (learnreligions.com) (2019). Available at: https://www.learnreligions.com/book-of-joshua-701114
- Book of Joshua | Summary, Analysis, & Facts by The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (online article). Publisher: Britannica website (britannica.com). Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Book-of-Joshua
- Joshua and the Conquest of the Canaanites: Biblical Chronology and Archaeology by Dr Bryant Wood. Date of publication: (2019). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VahUwte53rg
- Who Were the Canaanites?: Episode 2 by BibleProject. Date of publication: (2020). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4KN4NIVAqE
- Introduction to Ancient Canaan and the Canaanites by Ancient Mediterranean. Date of publication: (2018). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrqsAEUfvfg
- Who were the Canaanites? (The Land of Canaan, Geography, People and History) by Epimetheus. Date of publication: (2020). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a4-y6U5pezw
- The Conquest Of The Promised Land – Joshua – Bible Story For Kids & Children by Bible Stories for Kids (biblestoriesforkids.com). Date of publication: (2019). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VahUwte53rg
- Canaanite DNA Confirms Biblical Accuracy (Again) by Inspiring Philosophy: Apologetics (inspiringphilosophy.org). Date of publication: (2017). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrqsAEUfvfg
- The Book Of Joshua Explained In Five Minutes | History & Timeline by The Ten Minute Bible Hour (thetmbh.com). Date of publication: (2018). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrqsAEUfvfg
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End Notes and Explanations
- Explanation: Canaan was a Semitic-speaking civilisation and region of the Southern Levant in the Ancient Near East during the late 2nd millennium BC. Canaan had significant geopolitical importance in the Late Bronze Age Amarna Period (14th century BC) as the area where the spheres of interest of the Egyptian, Hittite, Mitanni and Assyrian Empires converged or overlapped. Much of present-day knowledge about Canaan stems from archaeological excavation in this area at sites such as Tel Hazor, Tel Megiddo, En Esur, and Gezer. The name “Canaan” appears throughout the Bible as a geography associated with the “Promised Land“. The demonym “Canaanites” serves as an ethnic catch-all term covering various indigenous populations—both settled and nomadic-pastoral groups—throughout the regions of the southern Levant or Canaan. It is by far the most frequently used ethnic term in the Bible. Sources: (a) Brody, Aaron J.; King, Roy J. (1 December 2013). “Genetics and the Archaeology of Ancient Israel”. Wayne State University and (b) Dever, William G. (2006). Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 219. ISBN 9780802844163. Both cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canaan ↑
- Note: Canaanite is by far the most common ethnic term in the Hebrew Bible. The pattern of polemics suggests that most Israelites knew that they had a shared common remote ancestry and once common culture. Reference https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canaan ↑
- Source: https://bibleproject.com/blog/why-did-god-command-the-invasion-of-canaan-in-the-book-of-joshua/ ↑
- Source: https://www.nogarlicnoonions.com/baalbeck-the-largest-and-grandest-roman-temple-ruins/ ↑
- Sources: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ancient-art-civilizations/ancient-near-east1/x7e914f5b:canaanites/a/canaanites-an-introduction and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canaanism ↑
- Commentary: The earliest recorded evidence of a people by the name of Israel appears in the Merneptah Stele of ancient Egypt, dated to about 1200 BC. According to the modern archaeological account, the Israelites and their culture branched out of the Canaanite peoples and their cultures through the development of a distinct monolatristic—and later monotheistic—religion centred on the national god Yahweh. They spoke an archaic form of the Hebrew language, which was a regional variety of the Canaanite language, known today as Biblical Hebrew.Sources: (a) Mark Smith, in “The Early History of God: Yahweh and Other Deities of Ancient Israel”, says, “Despite the long-regnant model that the Canaanites and Israelites were people of fundamentally different culture, archaeological data now casts doubt on this view. The material culture of the region exhibits numerous common points between Israelites and Canaanites in the Iron I period (c. 1200–1000 BCE). The record would suggest that the Israelite culture largely overlapped with and derived from Canaanite culture… In short, Israelite culture was largely Canaanite in nature. Given the information available, one cannot maintain a radical cultural separation between Canaanites and Israelites for the Iron I period.” (pp. 6–7). Smith, Mark (2002) “The Early History of God: Yahweh and Other Deities of Ancient Israel” (Eerdman’s), (b) Rendsberg, Gary (2008). “Israel without the Bible“. In Frederick E. Greenspahn. The Hebrew Bible: New Insights and Scholarship. NYU Press, pp. 3–5, and (c) Gnuse, Robert Karl (1997). No Other Gods: Emergent Monotheism in Israel. England: Sheffield Academic Press Ltd. pp. 28, 31. ISBN 1-85075-657-0. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israelites ↑
- Commentary: The Battle of Jericho, as described in the Biblical Book of Joshua, was the first battle fought by the Israelites in the course of the conquest of Canaan. According to Joshua 6:1–27, the walls of Jericho fell after the Israelites marched around the city walls once a day for six days, seven times on the seventh day, and then blew their trumpets. Excavations at Tell es-Sultan, the biblical Jericho, have failed to substantiate this story (ref (i)), which has its origins in the nationalist propaganda of much later kings of Judah and their claims to the territory of the Kingdom of Israel.(Ref (ii)) The lack of archaeological evidence and the composition, history and theological purposes of the Book of Joshua have led archaeologists like William G. Dever to characterise the story of the fall of Jericho as “invented out of whole cloth” (Ref (iii)). References: (i) Jacobs, Paul F. (2000). p. 691. “Jericho”. In Freedman, David Noel; Myers, Allen C. (eds.). Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Eerdmans. ISBN 978-9053565032. (ii) Coote, Robert B. (2000). p. 275. “Conquest: Biblical narrative”. In Freedman, David Noel; Myers, Allen C. (eds.). Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Eerdmans. ISBN 978-9053565032. (iii) Dever, William G. (2006). p. 47. Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?. Eerdmans. ISBN 978-0802844163. Cited from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Jericho ↑
- Explanation: The Twelve Tribes of Israel are, according to Hebrew scriptures, the descendants of the biblical patriarch Jacob, also known as Israel, through his twelve sons through his wives, Leah and Rachel, and his concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah, who collectively form the Israelite nation. In modern scholarship, there is skepticism as to whether there ever were twelve Israelite tribes, with the use of the number 12 thought more likely to signify a symbolic tradition as part of a national founding myth. Source: Glassman, Ronald M. (2017). The Origins of Democracy in Tribes, City-States and Nation-States. Cham: Springer. p. 632. ISBN 978-3-319-51695-0. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelve_Tribes_of_Israel ↑