Conquering Canaan — Bringing the Promise Home



Canaan, the “promised land” – it was not a land of rich, empty acres anxiously awaiting its new occupants; is a territory made up small, independent city states which owed their allegiance to either Egypt, Mittani or the Hittites, depending on which year it was. It was a significant place strategically and geopolitically; here the Egyptian, Hittite and Assyrian Empires’ spheres of influence converged. Here the superpowers of the day kept each at bay and added to their coffers through taxation. But THE LORD is maneuvering to give the Israelites an opening.

The Canaan the Israelites found had developed city-states of merchant princes along its coast and agricultural producers in the interior. They not only harvested sufficient amounts for subsistence living, but practiced commercial agriculture and supplied the region with their goods. The land was located between the ancient civilizations of the Middle East: Egypt, Mesopotamia (Sumer, Akkad, Assyria, and Babylonia), the Hittites, the Mittani and Minoan Crete. The land was dotted with small walled market towns surrounded by peasant farmers. They were independent “kingdoms.”

Life’s rhythms were simple. Harvest was in the summer. The landscape was dominated with shepherds and their herds moving back and forth between seasonal pastures. Tribal groups often wandered in a circular pattern north to the Euphrates or south to the Egyptian delta.

Overlaying this local scene, Egypt, Babylonia and Assyria warred against each other in the late Bronze Age to control the region and as a result, trade in Canaan had dwindled, weakening it. This was not unusual. When the political situation stabilized, trade resumed. It was the promise of wealth to those who controlled the trade routes that attracted, and would continue to attract, invaders and would-be occupiers.

When the Hebrews left Egypt, they spent 40 years wandering in the desert. The book of Joshua retells the conquest of the land once they were allowed to take it. The complete conquest took at least 6 years. The dates of the Exodus are subject to much scrutiny and controversy (to say the least!). For our purposes, we use the traditional biblical scholar method. 1 Kings 6:1 says that the Exodus occurred 480 years before King Solomon built the temple; this occurred in 966 BC. This dates the Exodus at CA 1446 BC. After 40 years of wandering, they would have entered into Canaan sometime around 1406 BC.

Archaic_ageTHE TAKING OF JERICHO:  Joshua begins his military campaign by cutting the territory in half: he has the Israelites cross the Jordan and, from their base in Gilgal, attack Jericho. Jericho was, then, one of the oldest cities in the region and it controlled the door into central Palestine. It sat at the hub of 4 major roads: one to Gerazim, one to Jerusalem, one to Hebron, and one to ford the Jordan River. It was located 10 miles to the north, northwest of the mouth of the Dead Sea and featured a natural spring which gave it the nick name, “the city of palm trees”. It was a small city of about 6 acres with double walls, 30 feet in height, with each wall being separated by a dead space of 15 feet between them.

The next town to be taken was AI – a small city whose remains have never been definitively identified outside of the vague “east of Bethel” description. AI, unlike Jericho, fought but was ultimately tricked and lost soundly. When the walls of Jericho fell and AI fell soon after, the countryside took notice. The town of Gibeon, which lay directly in the Israelite army’s path, immediately cooked up a rouse to get a peace treaty signed and to spare themselves. The Israelites, without consulting THE LORD or following his directives, were caught in the deception and the Gibeonites became a thorn in the Israelites’ side.

THE SOUTHERN CAMPAIGN:  Once the middle was taken, Joshua then designed a Southern Campaign against the Amorite League (a defense league consisting of the city-states of Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish and Eglon). These were located in the hill countries of southern Palestine. Originally, this league attacked not the Israelites, but Gibeon out of outrage for their capitulation to the Israelites. The Gibeonites called in their marker with Joshua and after a remarkable march; the Israelites came to their aid. While Joshua was mostly victorious, he failed to take Jerusalem and he failed to permanently drive out the Canaanites.

THE NORTHERN CAMPAIGN:  The northern campaign was fought against the Northern Alliance (Hazor, Madon, Shimron, cities of Arbah in the upper Jorand river valley, Dor and the Canaanite tribes of Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites and Hivites). He had better success against them and they were destroyed.


FOREIGN REACTION:   How were the Israelites able to do this without raising the ire of Egypt or Mitanni? Or worse, their fighting forces. This was, after all, a concentrated invasion of what both empires considered to be their territories — although it was not formally within their borders. Before all of this, Egypt under Pharaoh Thutmose III (1504 – 1450) had been in an expansion mode. This was no longer the case. Like our current day nations, a nation follows the interest of it’s government and dictates. Pharoah Thutmose III, the pharoah during Moses’ youth, had been co-regent with his stepmother Hatshepsut and had served as the head of her armies. He was considered a military genius and conducted at least 17 military campaigns which expanded the Egyptian empire’s borders from Niya in North Syria to Nubia. He had battled in Canaan for control and strengthened the Egyptian sphere of influence there. With the Battle of Megiddo, (ca 1457) against a coalition of Canaanite vassal states under Hittite control, Canaan was firmly under Egypt’s control. The Hittite presence was deterred for the time being.

In the last 2 years of his, Thutmose III’s, reign he appointed his son Amenhotep II as regent. Amenhotep II had not been the pharaoh’s first choice: Thutmose III’s firstborn son had died earlier leaving the younger son as the unlikely successor. It is possible that he died during the plague where the firstborn of all Egyptians died, including in the house of the pharaoh. Amenhotep II is considered to be the (1450-1424) pharaoh of the Exodus. He was not the gifted military figure that his father had been. Amenhotep II is more focused on the gold that Egypt had found in Kush and in the Nubia and on domestic affairs within the boundaries of his empire.

While the Israelites wandered, Thutmose IV (1424-1414) came to power and his focus was diplomatic rather than military. To pacify the Mitanni Empire which lay to the north of Canaan and which there were constant border skirmishes; he married the daughter of the Mittani King Artatama. It was the not the first marriage between the rulers of the Mitanni and the Egyptians. Egypt was not paying close attention to Canaan anymore. The other powers, not realizing this and fearing Egypt, as a result, were reluctant to invade.

Thutmose IV’s son, Amenhotep III (1414-1370), likely the pharaoh during the conquest, was likewise disengaged militarily and also focused on domestic interests. A series of diplomatic letters (known as the Tell el-Armarna letters) depict the Canaanite vassals as begging for Egyptian military help against the Hapiru’s invasions and Amenhotep III and Thutmose IV ignoring them. The Hapiru was a general nick name given to foreign marauders; the Hebrews are considered to be part of them. The letters also tell of how the potential allies sought Egypt’s favor because of all the gold that Egypt was mining in Nubia/Cush/Sudan. Thutmose IV launches a tremendous building program inside of Egypt’s borders and deploys a non-violent diplomatic policy towards Egypt’s old vassals and adversaries, buying them off with gold. For example, to avoid problems with the Mittani, Thutmose IV married the daughter of Mittani King Shuttarna II. However, the Mittani Kings, Artatama I, and his successor, Shuttarna II, were focused more and more on the Hittites who were aggressively invading them on their northern border. The vassal city-states in Canaan are on their own with no relief in sight from the Hebrews. There will be no calvary coming over the hill for them.

Once the land is conquered, Joshua gives each tribe its share to colonize, settle and make its own. But this is not a fairy tale, and possession is only 9/10th of the law. They now must hold it against foreign enemies. No longer are they just foreign invaders; now they must learn to govern and to defend. As all powers know, the story doesn’t end with a victory, it just enters into a different chapter.


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