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Notebook: The Conquest of Canaan

J Grant

The book of Joshua contains the record of one of the most remarkable military campaigns of history. The invasion of Canaan by the Children of Israel was the climax of events that had taken place over the previous forty years, and followed the defeat of two powerful monarchs, Sihon and Og, whose kingdoms were situated on territory east of the Jordan. It should not be forgotten, however, that this victory was not the result of the military prowess of Israel alone. The Lord had promised in His charge to Joshua, "Go over this Jordan, thou, and all this people, unto the land which I do give to them, even to the children of Israel. Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, that have I given unto you, as I said to Moses" (Josh 1.2-3).

The inhabitants of Canaan

The map overleaf shows that the population of Canaan was made up of a number of peoples. They were ruled by kings some of whom are mentioned in the book of Joshua, such as the king of Jericho (2.2), the kings of the Amorites on the west bank of the Jordan (5.1), the kings of the Canaanites which were by the sea (5.1), and the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, and the king of Eglon (10.5). Although they may be regarded as kingdoms that were of no great size, they nevertheless were formidable foes particularly when they formed alliances.

In total there were seven nations in Canaan facing Israel: the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. These were all "greater and mightier" than Israel (Deut 7.1).

Lest Israel felt that it was because of their righteousness that the Lord would give them the Land they are reminded that "for the wickedness of these nations the Lord doth drive them out from before thee" (Deut 9.4).

The religion of Canaan

The religion of the Canaanites is not specifically stated but there is enough evidence to show that Baal was the main deity. Baal (Lord of the Earth) was a "deity" whose voice was thunder. It was thought that he opened the sluice gates and poured rain upon the earth to give life. In the dry months between the rains it was believed that he died and came to life again in the autumn when the rains returned. Around this there were elaborate rituals in temples where, under an organised priesthood, every dark art was performed. Together with this there was immorality and obscenity based on rites which were associated with their teaching on sex and fertility. Among these "goddesses" of fertility were Anath, Asgerah, and Astarte. It is sad to note that after the conquest of Canaan Israel adopted these "deities". They "did evil in the sight of the Lord" when "they forsook the Lord, and served Baal and Ashtaroth" (Judg 2.11,13).

The horror of their practices is clearly expressed by the Lord. "Thou shalt not do so unto the Lord thy God: for every abomination to the Lord which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and daughters have they burnt in the fire to their gods" (Deut 12.31).

The cities of Canaan

The reader of today must not imagine that the cities of Canaan were similar to the cities of today. They were very much smaller in size. Their population is calculated to have averaged about 1,000. Many years later Jerusalem is reckoned to have had an area of 13 acres.1 The "cities" appear to have been so named because of the defensive walls that surrounded them. They were strongly fortified, surrounded by solid walls of stone and brick which struck terror into the hearts of Israel’s spies who returned from their mission declaring that "the cities are great and walled up to heaven" (Deut 1.28).

Entering Canaan

Israel entered Canaan by crossing the river Jordan, which the Lord opened up for them as He had opened the Red Sea at the beginning of their journey from Egypt (Josh 3-4). How impressive must have been the sight as the priests carried the Ark to the banks of the river, and as their feet touched the Jordan the waters were cut off allowing the people to cross over "on dry ground" (Josh 3.15-17). This was a very public demonstration that the Lord was at work.

The commander chosen

Joshua, who had first commanded the armies of Israel forty years earlier when they met Amalek (Ex 17.8-13), the first enemy barring their journey to Canaan, was chosen for this mighty enterprise. He was one of the twelve who had spied out the Land before Israel refused to enter, despite the fact that he and Caleb urged them to go (Num 14.6-10).

The military campaign

The city of Jericho barred the way by which Israel would enter the Land. The remarkable victory (Josh 6) should have taught them that victory was certain when they obeyed the Lord. This triumph must have reminded many of them of the disastrous advice of the spies to their fathers, that Canaan was too heavily fortified to be conquered.

There were three phases to the campaign, the first being the attack on Jericho and Ai which, as both these cities were situated in the centre of Canaan, effectively divided the enemy armies. There followed an attack on the south, after the conclusion of which Joshua struck north.

Initial attack to divide the country (Josh 6-7)

1. This campaign commenced with the fall of Jericho and the sad initial attempt to capture Ai. The sin of Achan, when he took the spoil of battle for himself (Josh 7.1-15), should have been a salutary lesson to Israel. Although Ai fell to them it was not the triumph that had been at Jericho when the walls fell down without military action to bring this about.

2. An altar was built between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, and Israel reaffirmed the covenant (8.30-35).

Southern campaign (Josh 9-10)

1. Alliance of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites to oppose Israel (9.1-2).

2. Alliance of Israel with the Gibeonites who claimed that they had come from a far country, but really were inhabitants of Canaan. This was a failure on the part of Israel. They did not ask guidance of the Lord (9.3-27).

3. Israel spared the cities of the Gibeonites: Gibeon, Chephirah, Beeroth, and Kirjath-jearim (9.17-18).

4. Adoni-zedek king of Jerusalem, Homah king of Hebron, Piram king of Jarmuth, Japhia king of Lachish, Debir king of Eglon made war with Gibeon but were defeated by Israel. During this battle the sun and moon stood still in the heavens until the battle was won (10.1-27).

5. Following this Joshua defeated the kings, and destroyed the cities, of Makkedah, Libnah, Lachish, Horam king of Gezer, Eglon, Hebron, and Debir.

6. The far south of the country, from Kadash-barnea to Gaza, was then attacked and occupied.

7. Back to Gilgal.

Northern campaign (Josh 11)

1. An alliance was formed between Jabin king of Hazor, Jobab king of Madon, the king of Shimron, and the king of Achshaph. These were kings in the north of Canaan, and were joined by kings north of the mountains, in the plains south of Chinneroth, and in the valley of Dor, and by the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, and Hivites (11.1-3).

2. This mighty host was defeated by Joshua and the armies of Israel at Merom (11.6-9).

3. Hazor the leader in the alliance was defeated and taken (11.10-14).

4. A long war followed which saw the defeat of the nations in the north (11.15-20).

5. The Anakims, those who had struck fear into the hearts of the spies (Num 13.1-33), were defeated (11.21).

6. "So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the Lord said to Moses" (11.23).

In total 31 kings were defeated in the conquest of Canaan (Josh 12.7-24). Despite that, the Canaanites still occupied some of the land (Josh 13.1). Joshua was old and the task of completing the work fell to others. Nations were left to "prove" Israel (Judg 3.1) but God’s people failed the test and they "did evil in the sight of the Lord" (3.7,12).

That great exploits for God are possible is one very clear message from Israel’s conquest of Canaan. Let us all seek to live a triumphant Christian life, overcoming the spiritual foes besetting us.

1 E W Heaton; Every Day Life in Old Testament Times.

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