It is written:
“So Joshua conquered all the land: the mountain country and the South and the lowland and the wilderness slopes, and all their kings; he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD God of Israel had commanded.” (Joshua 10:40)
Despite Joshua’s claim that he “utterly destroyed all that breathed” in the land of Canaan, we see several references to the Canaanites in the land after this passage. In fact, Joshua himself refers to them years later (Joshua 23:12-16)!
Was Joshua a liar?
No, he wasn’t.
In fact, what we learn is that Joshua was simply using the military rhetoric of his day and age.
“Most Christians read Joshua’s conquest stories with the backdrop of Sunday school lessons via flannel graph or children’s illustrated Bible stories. The impression that’s left is a black-and-white rendition of a literal crush, kill, and destroy mission. A closer look at the biblical text reveals a lot more nuance—and a lot less bloodshed. In short, the conquest of Canaan was far less widespread and harsh than many people assume. Like his ancient Near Eastern contemporaries, Joshua used the language of conventional warfare rhetoric. This language sounds like bragging and exaggeration to our ears. Notice first the sweeping language in Joshua 10: 40: “Thus Joshua struck all the land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes and all their kings. He left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded.” Joshua used the rhetorical bravado language of his day, asserting that all the land was captured, all the kings defeated, and all the Canaanites destroyed (cf. 10: 40–42; 11: 16–23: “Joshua took the whole land . . . and gave . . . it for an inheritance to Israel”). Yet, as we will see, Joshua himself acknowledged that this wasn’t literally so. Scholars readily agree that Judges is literarily linked to Joshua. Yet the early chapters of Judges (which, incidentally, repeat the death of Joshua) show that the task of taking over the land was far from complete. In Judges 2: 3, God says, “I will not drive them out before you.” Earlier, Judges 1: 21, 27–28 asserted that “[ they] did not drive out the Jebusites”; “[ they] did not take possession”; “they did not drive them out completely.” These nations remained “to this day” (Judg. 1: 21). The peoples who had apparently been wiped out reappear in the story. Many Canaanite inhabitants simply stuck around. Some might accuse Joshua of being misleading or of getting it wrong. Not at all. He was speaking the language that everyone in his day would have understood. Rather than trying to deceive, Joshua was just saying he had fairly well trounced the enemy. On the one hand, Joshua says, “There were no Anakim left in the land” (Josh. 11: 22); indeed, they were “utterly destroyed [haram]” in the hill country (11: 21). Literally? Not according to the very same Joshua! In fact, Caleb later asked permission to drive out the Anakites from the hill country (14: 12–15; cf. 15: 13–19). Again, Joshua wasn’t being deceptive. Given the use of ancient Near Eastern hyperbole, he could say without contradiction that nations “remain among you”; he went on to warn Israel not to mention, swear by, serve, or bow down to their gods (Josh. 23: 7, 12–13; cf. 15: 63; 16: 10; 17: 13; Judg. 2: 10–13). Again, though the land “had rest from war” (Josh. 11: 23), chapters 13 and beyond tell us that much territory remained unpossessed (13: 1). Tribe upon tribe failed to drive out the Canaanites (13: 13; 15: 63; 16: 10; 17: 12–13, 18), and Joshua tells seven of the tribes, “How long will you put off entering to take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you?” (18: 3). Furthermore, God told the Israelites that the process of driving out the Canaanites would be a gradual one, as Deuteronomy 7: 22 anticipated and as Judges 2: 20–23 reaffirmed. Whatever the reason behind Israel’s failure to drive them out—whether disobedience and/ or God’s slow-but-sure approach—we’re still told by Joshua in sweeping terms that Israel wiped out all of the Canaanites. Just as we might say that a sports team “blew their opponents away” or “slaughtered” or “annihilated” them, the author (editor) likewise followed the rhetoric of his day. Joshua’s conventional warfare rhetoric was common in many other ancient Near Eastern military accounts in the second and first millennia BC. The language is typically exaggerated and full of bravado, depicting total devastation. The knowing ancient Near Eastern reader recognized this as hyperbole; the accounts weren’t understood to be literally true. 4 This language, Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen observes, has misled many Old Testament scholars in their assessments of the book of Joshua; some have concluded that the language of wholesale slaughter and total occupation—which didn’t (from all other indications) actually take place—proves that these accounts are falsehoods. But ancient Near Eastern accounts readily used “utterly/ completely destroy” and other obliteration language even when the event didn’t literally happen that way. Here’s a sampling: 5 • Egypt’s Tuthmosis III (later fifteenth century) boasted that “the numerous army of Mitanni was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally, like those (now) not existent.” In fact, Mitanni’s forces lived on to fight in the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries BC. • Hittite king Mursilli II (who ruled from 1322–1295 BC) recorded making “Mt. Asharpaya empty (of humanity)” and the “mountains of Tarikarimu empty (of humanity).” • The “Bulletin” of Ramses II tells of Egypt’s less-than-spectacular victories in Syria (around 1274 BC). Nevertheless, he announces that he slew “the entire force” of the Hittites, indeed “all the chiefs of all the countries,” disregarding the “millions of foreigners,” which he considered “chaff.” • In the Merneptah Stele (ca. 1230 BC), Rameses II’s son Merneptah announced, “Israel is wasted, his seed is not,” another premature declaration. • Moab’s king Mesha (840/ 830 BC) bragged that the Northern Kingdom of “Israel has utterly perished for always,” which was over a century premature. The Assyrians devastated Israel in 722 BC. • The Assyrian ruler Sennacherib (701–681 BC) used similar hyperbole: “The soldiers of Hirimme, dangerous enemies, I cut down with the sword; and not one escaped.” You get the idea.” (Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, 170-172 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books)
From these facts, we learn several important truths.
First, the Bible writers spoke in the language and jargon of their day and age. We need to approach Scripture with this in mind-the Bible was not written in English for English speaking readers! The study of context is absolutely vital to understanding Scripture.
Second, the claims of antagonists of the Bible are shown here to be quickly defeated. God is not the bloody and genocidal being often portrayed in anti-Christian books and films.
Third, God blessed His people when they obeyed His Word. In the same way, Jesus is the Author of eternal salvation to all those who obey Him (Hebrews 5:8-9).
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.