Joshua’s Conquest: Did It Happen?

Robert M. Bowman, Jr.

The reliability of the account of the Conquest in the book of Joshua has been challenged on two fronts. First, many critics argue that it simply did not happen, at least not in any way similar to the account in Joshua. Second, many critics argue that the idea that God authorized the Israelites to conquer the people of Canaan and kill not only men but, in some instances, women and children, is immoral, and therefore evidence that the Bible is not inspired. This article addresses the first objection; I will address the second objection in a separate article.

“We Didn’t Do It—and Here’s Why We Did”

The first point to be made about these criticisms is that they are actually incompatible with each other. Who offers theological justification for doing something they didn’t do?

Critics of the Bible almost uniformly assert both that Joshua didn’t fight the dramatic battles of conquest recorded in the book of Joshua and that the biblical writers rationalized the Israelites’ supposedly immoral battles of conquest by claiming that God told them to wage them. Richard Dawkins, for example, describes the book of Joshua as “a text remarkable for the bloodthirsty massacres it records and the xenophobic relish with which it does so,” while asserting at the same time, specifically with regard to Joshua’s conquest of Jericho, that “it didn’t happen.”1 But this doesn’t make any sense. People do not create theological justifications for things that they did not do.

It gets worse when one considers the larger context in which the divine command to wage a war of conquest against the Canaanites is set. The claim of the Pentateuch is that the Israelites were reticent to invade Canaan at all and did so only after a generation died in the wilderness. If we apply the “criterion of embarrassment” (more familiar perhaps in its widespread application by biblical scholars to the Gospels) to the Pentateuchal narrative, the portrayal of the generation that left Egypt as hardheaded and hardhearted unbelievers who died ignominiously in the wilderness must be assigned considerable credibility. It requires no little ad hoc reasoning2 to maintain that a biblical author justified Israel’s supposedly immoral (and fictitious!) wars of aggression by glorifying Israel as God’s dutiful army at the same time as he scathingly condemned Israel’s cowardice and unbelief. Nor can Pentateuchal source criticism help here, since both motifs are found in the same putative sources.

The best escape from this problem would be to claim that the biblical authors created the fiction of Israel’s cowardice and unbelief to underscore the claim that the conquest and massacre of Canaanites was God’s idea and not Israel’s. But such an explanation undermines the basic claim that is being made against the Old Testament narrative, namely, the claim that the authors were writing from the perspective of a culture that erroneously assumed the legitimacy of wars of aggression and the notion that God must be on the side of the victor. Writers who approached their subject from such an assumption would not have any reason to invent fictions about their forebears being hopelessly idolatrous and unbelieving on the borders of Canaan despite having witnessed the most stupendous signs and wonders in history.

If Numbers and Deuteronomy are telling us the truth about the Israelites in the wilderness, as I have argued that they are, then we must take much more seriously the claim of those same books that God commanded the Israelites to invade and conquer Canaan. To be more precise, we will have to recognize that the idea that God wanted the Israelites to wage their war of conquest against Canaan dates from before the Conquest. The theory that this belief arose as an after-the-fact theological justification begins to lose credibility.

Joshua: The Evidence

We have already seen some evidence that the Old Testament account of Israel’s conquest of the land of Canaan is at least based in historical fact. Although a great deal could be said on this subject, I will highlight three pieces of evidence that support the historicity of the account found in the Old Testament.

(1) The list of cities in the Transjordan region through which the Israelites passed on their way into the land in Numbers 33:45-50 includes Iyim, Dibon-gad, Abel-shittim, and Jordan. A list of places through which Egyptian armies passed in their military incursions dating from the same general period include these four places in the same order. Ian Wilson in his book The Bible Is History quotes archaeologist Charles Krahmalkov on this point: “The biblical story of the invasion of Transjordan that sets the stage for the conquest of all Palestine is told against a background that is historically accurate. The Israelite invasion route described in Numbers 33:50 was…an official, heavily trafficked Egyptian road through the Transjordan in the Late Bronze Age.”3 By itself, this piece of information does not prove that the Conquest happened, but it does lend some credibility to the account.

(2) Although most archaeologists today think that the story of Joshua’s conquest of Jericho cannot be true, their reasoning is likely based on a mistaken chronology. As Time magazine recently put it, “Did Joshua conquer the city of Jericho? The walls of this Canaanite city did come tumbling down, say most historians, but centuries before Moses’ protégé could have arrived.”4 This assessment is based on the conclusions of Kathleen Kenyon, who in the 1950s dated Jericho’s fall to around 1500 BC while assuming a late date of around 1200 BC for the Conquest. The issue here, then, is one of chronology. The bottom line is that “the walls” did, in fact, “come a tumblin’ down,” just as the Bible says, although the current archaeological convention does not date the event to the period indicated by the Bible. Similar chronological difficulties attend the events of the Exodus: there are records of Egypt being devastated by the kinds of plagues recorded in the Book of Exodus, but modern archaeology dates this devastation to a period hundreds of years earlier than the Bible indicates. One should not underestimate the extreme complexities and difficulties of calibrating archaeological finds across the region with the chronological information found in ancient written sources.

(3) Scientists have discovered evidence that provides remarkable confirmation of one of the miracles of the Conquest: the crossing of the Jordan River. The book of Joshua reports that when the Israelites began to cross the Jordan opposite Jericho, the waters of the Jordan “rose up in one heap a great distance away at Adam” as they flowed down toward the Dead Sea (Josh. 3:14-17). This damming of the river allowed the Israelites to walk across the riverbed on dry ground. Critics of the Bible routinely claim that no such event occurred, and suggest that the book is crediting Joshua with a miracle similar to the crossing of the Red Sea in order to portray him as Moses’ true successor. However, we have good evidence, both internal and external, supporting the historicity of the account of Joshua’s crossing of the Jordan.

Adam was a village some fifteen or twenty miles upstream (north) from where the Israelites crossed the river. (They crossed directly across from Jericho.) There is nothing historically or religiously significant about this village other than its role as a “footnote” in this account that would explain why the book of Joshua specifies it as the place where the waters were stopped. Furthermore, a writer composing a “pious fiction” about Joshua stopping the waters of the Jordan would surely have had the waters stop right in front of the Israelites, not miles upstream. This incidental detail clearly indicates that the story is at least based on fact.

But there is more: we now know how the Jordan River was dammed up. The crossing of the Jordan was made possible by a mudslide, itself caused by an earthquake precisely where the book of Joshua specifies. Historical records confirm that such mudslides that temporarily dam up the river have occurred from time to time at that very location on the Jordan, including in the years 1160, 1267, 1546, 1834, 1906, and 1927. With this evidence, we may confidently declare the case closed: The Israelites did indeed cross the Jordan River after it was dammed up several miles upstream from them.6

By the way, the fact that the river was stopped by an earthquake and mudslide does not in any way undermine the Bible’s giving God the credit for it. There is nothing wrong with thinking that at least some of the Old Testament wonders may have involved natural processes over which the Lord exercised dramatic sovereign control. Mudslides damming the Jordan did not happen every day; from what we can tell such an event happens there on average once every couple of centuries or so. Yet the river was stopped at just the right time for the Israelites to cross over into the Promised Land and march on Jericho. Ironically, by using such natural processes to bring about some of his dramatic provisions for the people of Israel, God left behind “clues” to the veracity of the biblical accounts that we can examine and verify millennia later.

It would be unreasonable to insist that we be able to prove every detail of an account of events occurring more than three thousand years ago. However, it is rather surprising how much evidence we actually have to corroborate or confirm the account of the Conquest. The skeptic’s claim that it never occurred would seem to be the view that should be on the defensive.


1Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 247.
2An argument or claim is said to be ad hoc if the only apparent reason for proposing it is to save one’s theory.
3Ian Wilson, The Bible Is History (Washington, DC: Regnery, 1999), 66, quoting Charles Krahmalkov, “Exodus Itinerary Confirmed by Egyptian Evidence,” Biblical Archaeological Review, Sept./Oct. 1994, 58.
4Michael D. Lemonick, “Are the Bible’s Stories True?”  Time, Dec. 18, 1995, 69.
5See, for example, Francis Hitching, The Mysterious World: An Atlas of the Unexplained (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979), especially 173; Emmanuel Anati, The Mountain of God (New York: Rizzoli, 1986); Norman L. Geisler and Ronald M. Brooks, When Skeptics Ask (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1990), 191-96.
6Colin J. Humphreys, The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientist’s Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), 15-27; Wilson, Bible Is History, 73-74; Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 167.


Published March 30, 2016