Conquering Canaan

Joshua and Judges present different versions of the Israelite conquest.

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Finally, archeological research has found no traces of any sudden violent destruction of the major Canaanite towns. Jericho, for example, was clearly not destroyed in the time of Joshua. On the other hand, excavations reveal that many small settlements began emerging on the outskirts of the existing Canaanite towns, not in place of them. Dwelling structures and pottery typical of semi‑nomadic people indicate a long process of colonization rather than a short war of total conquest.

On the basis of such evidence, modern scholarship offers three basic theories concerning the conquest and settlement of the land. The first two accept in essence the historical truth of the Exodus story; one suggests two major waves of emigration from Egypt, reaching Canaan separately within several decades and occupying the land; the second theory proposes a continuous flow of migration from nomadic tribes from Egypt through Sinai, and also from Mesopotamia, which gathered around common religious centers, forged alliances in times of crisis, and eventually consolidated into one nation.

The third model is far more "Canaanite" and underplays the importance of foreign ethnic elements. According to this view, the nucleus of the nation of Israel was comprised of slaves and oppressed people in Canaan who abandoned their masters and settled outside the towns. They were perhaps joined over the years by nomadic tribes from the Sinai desert, but these could not have been many. In any event, all of the oppressed elements combined to rise against their former lords and took over the land. In the process they evolved into a national society which invented for itself the tradition of a common past.

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Yair Hoffman

Yair Hoffman is a Professor of Bible at Tel Aviv University.