The Story of Israel
TO THE PROMISED LAND: THE CONQUEST OF CANAAN
Read Joshua 1-6
The books of Joshua and Judges pose some difficult questions for Christians today, as they describe violence and warfare in ways that make us uncomfortable. How could the God of Jesus, who came to bring the world peace, have sanctioned these actions? Here is what one commentator wrote: “How could the Lord be with those who committed such atrocities? There are no simple answers to these honest and valid questions. People in the ancient Near East (not Israel alone) had the concept of holy war, which viewed human enemies as their God’s enemies. People were not just killing other people; they were destroying those who opposed their God(s). This does not validate genocide and injustice but suggests that God, for whatever reasons, worked within a particular historical, theological context, taking people where they were and then moving them beyond where they were. Throughout the OT, God continued to reveal more of Himself and His ways, until He ultimately revealed Himself in Jesus, who was the perfect revelation of God, and who revealed some things about God that superseded earlier ideas held about God. Too many people, unfortunately even Christians, have used OT scriptures to justify all sorts of horrible attitudes and acts against others. Just because events occurred in certain OT texts does not mean that they are to be imitated today” (Cheryl Brown, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, New International Critical Commentary, 150).
As difficult as these texts of warfare are, we should trust that God always acts justly in punishing wickedness. God did not clear the land simply to give it to Israel, but He was bringing justice upon centuries of sinful behavior: “It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land, but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you” (Deut. 9:5; also Lev. 18:24-25).
The Canaanites were notorious for sexual immorality, social injustice, and even human sacrifice with children offered to gods such as Molech (Lev. 18:21; Deut. 12:31; 2 Kings 23:10; Jer. 7:31). Below you can see a Canaanite altar from the site of Megiddo.
El the sky-god was pictured as old and bearded, and called father. Not considered very powerful, he was pushed around by the other gods; his daughter Anat threatened to kill him unless he built Baal’s palace. El is described as merciful and compassionate; however, these were seen not as positive qualities but signs of weakness, someone not to be feared. El is one of the names for God in the Old Testament as well but with very different attributes.
Athirat or Asherah (in Hebrew) was a fertility goddess whose worship was associated with trees and poles (see Ex 34:13, Deut. 16:21, Judges 6:28, to name just a few biblical references).
Baal was the storm god, called “the rider of the clouds” in Canaanite texts (the same phrase is applied to Yahweh: Deut 33:26; Ps 68:4; Isa 19:1). His voice is thunder (similar to Ps 29:3; 68:33). Baal literally means lord or master; God is called baal in Jer 3:14, translated as “husband.”
In one myth, Baal challenges Mot, the god of death, but he succumbs by attending a feast in the underworld, meaning he cannot return to earth. During Baal’s absence, the summer heat without rain withers the ground. Anat, Baal’s sister/consort rescues him and restores life to the land.
Athtar “the terrible” tried to usurp the throne in Baal’s absence, but he was too short to rule. Also called Molech (king), idolatrous Israelites sacrificed children to him (Lev 18:21; Jer 32:35).
Dagon was a grain god associated in the Bible with the Philistines (Judges 16:23; 1 Sam 5:2-5).
El Asherah Baal
For centuries all we knew about the people of Canaan were the few details found in the OT, but in 1928 archaeologists discovered the ancient port city of Ugarit in modern-day Syria. They found texts and deciphered their language which told stories of their gods. The city was an important trade center between Egypt and Mesopotamia from 1800 – 1200 BC. Here is the entrance to the ruins of the royal palace at Ugarit.
Archaeological evidence shows that the number of settlements in the region of Canaan rose from about thirty to over 250 during the 12th century BC. One scholar notes, “This expansion cannot be due to natural population growth, but must indicate the arrival of a new people in the region” (Ancient Israel, ed. by John Merrill and Hershel Shanks, 2021, p. 59).
Many of these early settlements had a distinctive configuration of an oval with tents or later houses surrounding a central courtyard. This design allowed for protection of livestock at night.
Another clue that these were Israelite settlements is the almost total absence of pig bones. Jewish dietary laws didn’t allow them to eat pork (Lev. 11:7). In contrast, pig bones found in nearby Philistine towns reveal that they had a heavy diet of pork (Ancient Israel, p. 65).
The name Joshua means “Yahweh is salvation.” In Hebrew it is the same name as Jesus — Yeshua. “Jesus” is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name.
Joshua was one of Moses’ chief assistants (Ex. 17, 24:13, 33:11). Joshua was one of the 12 original spies who, along with Caleb, believed that with God’s help they could take the land, but the ten others were afraid and convinced the people. Of that generation only Caleb and Joshua were allowed to enter the Promised Land because they had faith in God’s promise to deliver the land to them (Num. 13-14).
Moses commissioned Joshua as his successor (Deut. 31). The book of Joshua describes the “passing of the torch” of leadership to a new generation. There are several parallels between Joshua’s leadership and Moses. Both lead the people across bodies of water (Reed Sea, Jordan River). Both times they celebrate Passover. Both Moses and Joshua meet with the Lord on holy ground, and must remove their shoes.
Jericho is one of the oldest known cities in the world; some archaeologists date its origins to 9000 BC. You can see the ruins of the ancient city today, ten miles north of the Dead Sea. Although no evidence has been discovered which points to the conquest by Israel, excavation at other cities in Israel (Lachish, Debir, Hazor) reveal massive destruction layers from the 13th century BC. See pictures of ancient Jericho here.
Joshua meets an angel, the commander of the army of the Lord. “This encounter reminds Joshua that God is not automatically at Israel’s disposal. God will fight for Israel as long as Israel faithfully serves him. God has already warned his people that he will fight against them if they are unfaithful (Deuteronomy 28:25). In what ways might presuming that God is ‘on our side’ lead us to neglect humbly seeking God’s will and instead act in self-serving ways?” (Briley)
Rahab was well known by NT writers as a woman who demonstrated faith (Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25). She is listed as one of Jesus’ ancestors (Matthew 1:5). She stands as an example of how God accepts non-Israelites, even prostitutes, if they show faith in Him. The Bible does not criticize her for lying to the guards about the spies but praises her efforts to save them. “The case of Rahab suggests that other Canaanites could have been spared if they had truly acknowledged God.” (Briley)
Other non-Israelite women who are notable in the OT: Ruth the Moabite and the widow of Zarephath who ministered to Elijah (1 Kings 17), whom we will read about in Unit 4.
The spies tell Rahab to hang a red cord/thread outside her window to warn the Israelites not to attack her family. The red sign reminds us of the blood that the Israelites put on their doorways to escape the angel of death at Passover. Some commentators suggest that originally this red cord was an advertisement of her occupation, prostitution, but the text does not say.
The priests carried the Ark of the Covenant about 1000 yards (ten football fields) before the people, not as a weapon (as imagined in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark), but as a sign that God was leading them. When their feet touched the waters, the Jordan parted and the people could pass on dry land. After crossing the Jordan, the people took stones from the river bed and constructed a memorial at Gilgal to serve like Passover as a reminder to future generations of what God had done to save his people.
You might read Ps. 114 which commemorates God’s parting the Jordan.
The Jordan River in Israel today
In ch. 5, the generation of men who had lived in the desert had not been not circumcised as a sign of the covenant, and so now they were. Circumcision for the Jews, like baptism for Christians, was an outward sign of inner faith. The physical act is important, being commanded by God, but it accomplishes nothing without faith (1 Cor. 7:19). The OT taught that the people, both men and women, should be circumcised in their hearts, that is, they must cut out the sin that displeases God (Deut. 10:16; Jer. 4:4; 9:25-26). An inner transformation needed to accompany the outward act.
God commanded the performance of these symbolic acts, circumcision for the Jews, baptism for Christians, as a physical representation of faith. In the NT, Paul compares circumcision to baptism (Col. 2:11-14). We are saved by faith in Jesus, symbolized by baptism representing his death, burial and resurrection (Romans 6:1-4). Baptism demonstrates our faith in Christ and our obedience to his commands (Matt. 28:19).
For more biblical teaching on the importance of baptism in the New Testament, see these notes.
To be clear, circumcision was a special practice for the Jews only. In his letters to the Romans and Galatians, Paul taught that this command did not apply to Gentile Christians. Today circumcision is sometimes practiced for medical reasons, not religious.
The latter part of Joshua describes how the land was to be divided among the twelve tribes. Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh had land on the eastern side of the Jordan, but they were required to help conquer the land for the other tribes. There was no tribe of Joseph but instead two tribes from his sons Ephraim and Manasseh. Levites did not receive a particular territory (Joshua 13:14, 33) but as priests they served in all the regions of the land in 48 cities (ch. 21).
Note that the Philistines lived along the Mediterranean coast, and continued to plague Israel for centuries. Perhaps because the proximity of the Philistines, the tribe of Dan eventually moved to settle in the north (19:47).
Read Joshua 24: 14-20
The book ends with Joshua giving the people one of the most familiar exhortations in scripture: “Choose you this day whom you will serve … but as for me and my house we will serve the Lord.” God created all people with free will, and gives us a choice to make. Notice how the people respond positively, but Joshua warns them that obeying God will not be easy, and they will fail many times in their future.
If we choose to follow God, we must count the cost, as Jesus tells us (Luke 14:28). The path of faith is not an easy one, but it will prove the most rewarding.
Read Judges 2:6-23 (introduction)
The term “judges” is not the best translation of the subject of this book. The men (and one woman) in this period of Israel’s history served as leaders or deliverers of God’s people, not as judges in the modern sense of making decisions in court. Some such as Samson acted alone.
This book describes six major leaders and six minor ones. Other than Deborah (whom you should remember as the only female leader), in this survey we will focus on two of these leaders, Gideon and Samson.
This passage in ch. 2 serves as an introduction to the time period. Each of the stories follows a similar pattern. First, the narrator says that Israel did evil in the eyes of the Lord. Thus, God punished Israel by allowing an enemy to oppress them for a certain number of years. Israel then cries out to God for help. God raises up a deliverer, who defeats the oppressors and gives Israel peace for a time, until they fall into sin again.
The chronology of the book is a bit confusing. If we add up the number of years for each leader, we have over 400 years, which does not fit into the overall biblical timeline. We should understand that these leaders served in different parts of the land often at the same time, so that the years overlap. We are probably considering a little over a century of Israel’s history in this book, sometime in the 12th century BC.
In 2:10 it says the people did not “know” the Lord or what He had done for Israel. Their problem was more than lack of knowledge, as they “did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” In the Bible knowing God involves more than intellectual belief; it demands an ethical life. Faith in God requires living righteously.
Reading the book of Joshua alone might give the impression that all the cities of Canaan were conquered, but Judges shows that the Israelites continued to live alongside pagan tribes, and thus were tempted to worship their false gods. For instance, the city of Hazor was the largest in the land, ten times the size of Jerusalem. Joshua 11 records Israel’s conquest of Hazor and its destruction. However, the city was rebuilt, and its rulers continued to threaten Israel. Judges 4 tells how the king of Hazor oppressed the people of Israel for 20 years, until God delivered them under the leadership of Barak and the one female judge, Deborah. Below is a photo of the excavation of Hazor today.
Read Judges 6-7 (Gideon)
Unlike Israel’s other enemies, Midianites were not from Canaan but invaded the land from the south. Remember that Moses lived in Midian and married a woman from there (Exodus 2). As nomads, the Midianites took over the land and left it in ruins. Other local groups such as the Amalekites took advantage of the chaos as well (6:3, 33).
The Midianites descended from Abraham and one of his concubines, Keturah (Genesis 25). There was long-time rivalry between those who descended from Isaac and Jacob, and those who descended from other family lines.
At this time Israel was not a united country but a loose collection of tribes who often fought with each other (Joshua 22:10-12, Judges 12:1-6, 20:1-48). There was no national army. Gideon must organize the tribes nearest him to fight for themselves (6:34-5).
In 6:11 angel means the same as messenger in Hebrew (and Greek). In this case, the Lord himself appears in human form to meet with Gideon.
It’s ironic that Gideon, whom the messenger calls “mighty warrior,” is in fact hiding his activity of threshing from his enemies. Gideon does not appear to be a strong leader at first. God does not choose him for his great faith, as the first thing he says demonstrates doubt: how can God be with us if He allows this suffering to happen to us? Similar to Moses, Gideon hesitates when God first calls him. He feels inadequate for the mission, claiming that his family were the least important in his tribe. God promises him that He will be with him and provide the strength he needs. This lesson reminds us that we do not have to be great or important people for God to use us in His kingdom.
Gideon follows the Lord’s command and tears down the altar to Baal and the Asherah pole beside it. When the people protest, his father defends him: “If Baal is truly god, let him defend himself!” Gideon receives a second name, Jerubbaal, meaning (roughly) “Let Baal defend.”
Even after speaking with God, Gideon wants more signs that he will succeed. He asks the Lord to place the morning dew only on the fleece, then the next day asks for the opposite.
Lesson note: “The characters in the historical literature are not intended to serve as role models instructing us by their conduct how we are to act. The fact that Gideon used a fleece to determine God’s will must not be taken as a way of telling us that a fleece (or something serving in place of it) should be used for determining God’s will in our lives. … The fact that God used Gideon’s fleece to give him guidance does not suggest that He will guide us in the same way, or even that he was pleased with Gideon’s approach. To the contrary, it is easy to see that the fleece approach puts people in the position of dictating terms to God. This is never desirable” (John Walton, Old Testament Today, 2004, 217).
32,000 thousand gather to fight against the Midianites. Remember that the Hebrew word for “thousand” can also mean a military unit, so the number may not be that great literally. Whatever the exact number, God says these are too many, for He wants Israel to recognize that God won the battle, not the Israelites by their own strength. Twenty-two “units” go home, leaving ten “units.” Still this is too many, and God tells Gideon to separate the men by how they lap up water from the river. Those who kneel on the ground to drink (making themselves more vulnerable) can go home; those who scoop up water in their hands (remaining alert to an enemy attack) should remain (as the text does not say, not all commentaries agree with this explanation). Now only 300 men will join in the battle.
Gideon uses a clever ruse to fool the Midianites that they are facing a great army. The men hide their torches in jars, sneak up to the camp at night, and break them all at once while sounding their horns. God causes the Midianites to panic and kill one another.
After this episode in Judges, the Bible never mentions the Midianites again.
Read Judges 13-16 (Samson)
Samson’s birth to an infertile woman reminds us of earlier stories of Sarah and Rachel. Samson is the only judge who was chosen by God at his birth. God had special plans for Samson, but Samson lived a selfish life and showed little devotion to God; in that way he represents the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, who never lived up to their covenant with God. Nevertheless, the story of Samson shows that God can use even sinful people (like ourselves) to accomplish His will.
The Nazirite vow is first described in Numbers 6:3-21. Samson had to avoid alcohol, corpses, and cutting his hair. Eventually Samson broke all of these vows. In the NT, John the baptist appears to have taken the Nazirite vow in special, lifelong dedication to God.
Unlike other “judges,” Samson acts alone and never commands an army. He resembles individualistic heroes such as the Greek Hercules.
The text says that God’s spirit began to work in Samson (13:25) and came on him “in power” (14:6, 19; 15:14). Unlike other passages where this phrase is used, this spiritual power did not result in righteous living but only in physical strength.
In 14:3, Samson says (in a literal translation), “Get this Philistine woman for me. She is right in my eyes.” This is the same problem that the people of Israel have, when the text says, “Every person did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6, 21:25). When the Philistines finally capture Samson, they gouge out his eyes, a great and tragic irony, since the text frequently mentions “seeing” women as his downfall (14:1-2, 16:1). What we see with our eyes and want is not always what God wants for us.
Samson’s riddle: “Out of the eater, something to eat. Out of the strong, something sweet.” By “plowing with his heifer” (conspiring with his woman) the men discover the answer.
When Samson kills the men with the donkey’s jawbone, there is a play on words in Hebrew. The word for donkey sounds like the word for heap, hence a literal translation of the pun: “With the jawbone of an ass (hamar), I have made a heap of them (hamartim).”
Samson is easily fooled by Delilah. Why would he tell her his secret when she had betrayed him to the Philistines three times already? Passion often blinds people to the faults of others.
His death along with killing thousands of Philistines is hardly noble, as he dies for revenge, not to defeat God’s enemies.
The Philistines migrated across the sea, probably from Crete (Amos 9:7), to settle in Canaan, thus they are sometimes called the Sea People. Egyptian records mention them as invaders during the early 12th century BC. There were five major Philistine cities, three along the coast — Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod — and two inland — Ekron and Gath. The area today in Israel is known as the Gaza Strip, territory of the Palestinians. The Romans called Canaan “Palestine” based on the Philistines.
Based on archaeological evidence, the Philistines were an advanced culture which had technological, military, and artistic superiority to their Israelite neighbors. They used iron for their weapons. 1 Sam. 13:19-20 says, “Not a blacksmith could be found in the whole land of Israel, because the Philistines had said, ‘Otherwise the Hebrews will make swords or spears!’ So all Israel went down to the Philistines went down to the Philistines to have their plowshares, mattocks, axes, and sickles sharpened.”
In Egyptian art, the Philistines are identified by their distinctive headdress, seen below, along with an example of Philistine pottery.