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Mordechai Cogan





Israel’s Incomplete Conquest of Canaan





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Mordechai Cogan





Israel’s Incomplete Conquest of Canaan








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Israel’s Incomplete Conquest of Canaan

Biblical authors struggled to explain why Canaanites remained on the land after Israel settled it. Exodus (23:29–30) and Deuteronomy (7:22) suggest that Israel needed time to settle the land. The opening of Joshua reimagines the past to include an Israelite Blitzkrieg that removed the inhabitants entirely. Other approaches see the remaining Canaanites as a punishment (Judges 2) or a test of Israel's resolve (Joshua 23).


Israel’s Incomplete Conquest of Canaan

Israelites Cross the Jordan / Fall of Jericho, Jan Luyken, 1698 (colorized). Rijksmuseum

The Slow Takeover of Canaan

At the close of the Covenant Code,[1] YHWH cautions Israel not to expect an immediate conquest of the entire Promised Land. First, YHWH states that his angel or messenger (מלאך) will lead Israel safely on the way to Canaan and conquer it for them:

שמות כג:כג כִּי יֵלֵךְ מַלְאָכִי לְפָנֶיךָ וֶהֱבִיאֲךָ אֶל הָאֱמֹרִי וְהַחִתִּי וְהַפְּרִזִּי וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי הַחִוִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי וְהִכְחַדְתִּיו...
Exod 23:23 When my messenger goes before you and brings you to the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and I annihilate them…

YHWH then explains how the conquest will begin, first through frightening the locals with His terror (v. 27) and then by sending the tzirʿah (hornets)[2] after them to drive them out (v. 28).[3] But then, YHWH goes on to explain that the takeover will be a protracted process since the Israelites do not have sufficient numbers to replace the Canaanites if the land is conquered all at once:

שׁמות כג.כט לֹא אֲגָרְשֶׁנּוּ מִפָּנֶיךָ בְּשָׁנָה אֶחָת פֶּן תִּהְיֶה הָאָרֶץ שְׁמָמָה וְרַבָּה עָלֶיךָ חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה. כג:ל מְעַט מְעַט אֲגָרְשֶׁנּוּ מִפָּנֶיךָ עַד אֲשֶׁר תִּפְרֶה וְנָחַלְתָּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ.
Exod 23:29 I will not drive them out from before you in a single year, lest the land become desolate and the wild animals multiply to your hurt. 23:30 I will drive them out from before you little by little, until you have increased and possess the land.[4]

An empty land would allow wild animals to thrive, creating a new threat to Israel’s existence.[5] The full conquest of Canaan, therefore, will depend on the future growth of Israel’s population. This ecological understanding of the intertwined relation between land and people, a delicate balance that ensures survival, requires the postponement of the full occupation of Canaan.

YHWH’s Land Promise to Abraham

Delayed possession of the land appears already in the account of YHWH’s covenant with Abraham, though in a different context and for a different reason. First, YHWH promises Abraham that the land will be given to his descendants (Gen 15:18).[6] Nevertheless, YHWH makes clear that this takeover will be delayed for centuries until the sinful ways of the Amorites multiply beyond forbearance, thus providing YHWH with the moral justification needed to transfer their land to Israel:

בראשׁית טו:יג וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה.... טו:טז וְדוֹר רְבִיעִי יָשׁוּבוּ הֵנָּה כִּי לֹא שָׁלֵם עֲוֹן הָאֱמֹרִי עַד הֵנָּה.
Gen 15:13 Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years… 15:16 And they (your offspring) shall return here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.

Israel will have to wait out this period in Egyptian servitude until the grant can be made good.

According to the Exodus passage discussed above (23:28), even those Israelites freed from the lengthy bondage in Egypt, who eventually make it into the land, will experience further delays in taking control of all of it, given the natural constraints on a small population attempting to people a large swath of land. It is thus to Israel’s benefit, God explains, that the land will not be conquered in one fell swoop, but piecemeal over decades or even centuries.

Complete Conquest: Deuteronomistic View

Deuteronomy also knows of the wild beast concern and the promise of slow conquest:

דברים ז:כב וְנָשַׁל יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵל מִפָּנֶיךָ מְעַט מְעָט לֹא תוּכַל כַּלֹּתָם מַהֵר פֶּן תִּרְבֶּה עָלֶיךָ חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה.
Deut 7:22 YHWH your God will dislodge those peoples before you little by little; you will not be able to put an end to them at once, else the wild beasts would multiply to your hurt.

Yet, elsewhere, Deuteronomy contradicts this passage, and speaks of a quick dispossession of the Canaanites:

דברים ט:ג ...וְהוֹרַשְׁתָּם וְהַאַבַדְתָּם מַהֵר כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ־הוָה לָךְ.
Deut 9:3 …so that you may dispossess and destroy them quickly, as YHWH has promised you.

This passage does not share the concern about leaving the land empty.[7] This is true as well for the opening half of the book of Joshua (chs. 1–12)—the locus classicus for the complete conquest of Canaan—a literary patchwork of traditional tales, edited and supplemented to reflect the theological conceptions of its Deuteronomistic author.

In Joshua 1–12, the whole of the Land of Canaan falls to Joshua and the invading Israelites, whose unfailing loyalty to the Teaching (תּוֹרָה) taught by Moses leads to their victory.[8] It is a campaign of destruction; all the Canaanites perish.[9] Joshua then parcels out the newly empty land to the Israelite tribes:

יהושׁע יא:כג וַיִּקַּח יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אֶת כָּל הָאָרֶץ כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיִּתְּנָהּ יְהוֹשֻׁעַ לְנַחֲלָה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּמַחְלְקֹתָם לְשִׁבְטֵיהֶם וְהָאָרֶץ שָׁקְטָה מִמִּלְחָמָה.
Josh 11:23 Joshua conquered the whole country, just as YHWH had promised Moses; and Joshua assigned it to Israel to share according to their tribal divisions. And the land had rest from war.[10]

A list of 31 kings of Canaan whom the Israelites have defeated (Josh 12), including 14 cities that do not appear in the earlier narratives in Joshua, rounds off this Deuteronomistic presentation of the complete conquest.[11] The compiler of this list wanted to make sure that there were no misunderstandings: All of the Land of Canaan was indeed taken, even if there isn’t a story about the capture of every particular city.

Incomplete Conquest in Joshua

The overarching Deuteronomistic view of the complete conquest that unites the first half of the book of Joshua (Josh 1–12) is immediately qualified in the succeeding vignette that tells of the remaining land not taken by Joshua:

יהושׁע יג:א וִיהוֹשֻׁעַ זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֵלָיו אַתָּה זָקַנְתָּה בָּאתָ בַיָּמִים וְהָאָרֶץ נִשְׁאֲרָה הַרְבֵּה מְאֹד לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.
Josh 13:1 Joshua was now old, advanced in years. YHWH said to him, “You have grown old, you are advanced in years, and very much of the land still remains to be occupied.”

The remaining land, according to this text, consists of all of the Philistine cities and the extensive territories in distant Lebanon and Syria (vv. 2–6).[12]

Remaining Canaanites will be Thorns in Your Eyes

The theme of “remaining land” is picked up in Joshua’s farewell speech (Josh 23:4–5). Joshua warns the people not to merge with the local Canaanites or else YHWH will not continue to drive the locals out:

יהושע כג:יב כִּי אִם שׁוֹב תָּשׁוּבוּ וּדְבַקְתֶּם בְּיֶתֶר הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה הַנִּשְׁאָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אִתְּכֶם וְהִתְחַתַּנְתֶּם בָּהֶם וּבָאתֶם בָּהֶם וְהֵם בָּכֶם. כג:יג יָדוֹעַ תֵּדְעוּ כִּי לֹא יוֹסִיף יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם לְהוֹרִישׁ אֶת הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה מִלִּפְנֵיכֶם...
Josh 23:12 For should you turn away and attach yourselves to the remnant of those nations, to those that are left among you, and intermarry with them, you joining them and they joining you, 23:13 know for certain that YHWH your God will not continue to drive these nations out before you…

If this should take place, Joshua tells them, the Canaanites will become a perpetual danger to Israel:

יהושע כג:יג ...וְהָיוּ לָכֶם לְפַח וּלְמוֹקֵשׁ וּלְשֹׁטֵט בְּצִדֵּיכֶם וְלִצְנִנִים בְּעֵינֵיכֶם עַד אֲבָדְכֶם מֵעַל הָאֲדָמָה הַטּוֹבָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָכֶם יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
Josh 23:13 …they shall become a snare and a trap for you, a scourge to your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land that YHWH your God has given you.

But Joshua’s old age is not the only reason for not completing the conquest.

Israel Leaves Many Canaanite Cities Unconquered

Another set of biblical texts in Joshua claims that Israel could not conquer the Canaanites since the latter were militarily more powerful. Several short notes in Joshua 15–19 (the town and district lists of the tribal allocations) tell of areas from which the native population has not been driven out and where it continues to live alongside the Israelites.

For example, the Judahites could not remove the Jebusite inhabitants of Jerusalem, who remain alongside them:

יהושׁע טו:סג וְאֶת הַיְבוּסִי יוֹשְׁבֵי יְרוּשָׁלִַם לֹא (יוכלו) [יָכְלוּ] בְנֵי יְהוּדָה לְהוֹרִישָׁם וַיֵּשֶׁב הַיְבוּסִי אֶת בְּנֵי יְהוּדָה בִּירוּשָׁלִַם עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
Josh 15:63 But the Judahites could not dispossess the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem; so the Judahites dwell with the Jebusites in Jerusalem to this day.

Ephraim experiences a similar coexistence, though the account claims that the Canaanites in that region have been enslaved:

יהושׁע טז:י וְלֹא הוֹרִישׁוּ אֶת הַכְּנַעֲנִי הַיּוֹשֵׁב בְּגָזֶר וַיֵּשֶׁב הַכְּנַעֲנִי בְּקֶרֶב אֶפְרַיִם עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה וַיְהִי לְמַס עֹבֵד.
Josh 16:10 They (the Ephraimites) failed to dispossess the Canaanites who dwelt in Gezer: so the Canaanites remained in the midst of Ephraim as is still the case. But they had to perform forced labor.

Manasseh, too, faces this problem, but once the tribe establishes itself, it is able to exact tribute from the lingering Canaanites:

יהושׁע יז:יב וְלֹא יָכְלוּ בְּנֵי מְנַשֶּׁה לְהוֹרִישׁ אֶת הֶעָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וַיּוֹאֶל הַכְּנַעֲנִי לָשֶׁבֶת בָּאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת. יז:יג וַיְהִי כִּי חָזְקוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּתְּנוּ אֶת הַכְּנַעֲנִי לָמַס וְהוֹרֵשׁ לֹא הוֹרִישׁוֹ.
Josh 17:12 The Manassites could not dispossess [the inhabitants of] these towns (i.e., Beth-shean, Ibleam, En-dor, Taanach, Megiddo [v. 11]); and the Canaanites stubbornly remained in this region. 17:13 When the Israelites became stronger, they imposed tribute on the Canaanites, but they did not dispossess them.

Israel Is Too Weak

The notes about Ephraim and Manasseh are accompanied by a brief story concerning the lack of sufficient land for settlement of the populous House of Joseph (Josh 17:14–18). They tell Joshua that they need more land, but they are powerless to face the Canaanites כִּי רֶכֶב בַּרְזֶל לוֹ כִּי חָזָק הוּא “for they have iron chariots, and they are strong” (Josh 17:18).

Joshua accepts this evaluation and accordingly advises them to cut down trees in the forest land given to them and settle there until they become powerful enough to fight the Canaanites at some future point in time.

Canaanite Enclaves in Judges

In the opening chapter of the book of Judges, those unconquered Canaanite enclaves mentioned in Joshua are repeated[13]and then augmented with “conquest lacunae”[14] in other tribal territories:

Zebulun fails to drive out the inhabitants of Kitron and Nahalol (Judg 1:30); Asher leaves seven Canaanite-Phoenician cities behind (Judg 1:31–32); Naphtali acts similarly in respect to two cities (Judg 1:33). The Danites are pressed back by the Amorites who inhabit their inheritance, and they never make another attempt to take these lands; the area does fall to elements of the Joseph tribes sometime later (Judg 1:34–36).

What emerges from all these notations is that a considerable portion of the Land of Canaan remains out of the hands of the Israelites because of Israel’s inability to engage with superior Canaanite armies (cf. vv. 28 and 35). The continued Canaanite presence in a goodly portion of the land is nowhere denied, but it had to be confronted and explained.

Revising the Complete Conquest View

The continued existence of Canaanite enclaves in the land centuries after the purported conquest led biblical authors to reevaluate the terms and manner of YHWH’s land grant. Most of the reappraisals bear the marks of the Deuteronomistic circle which promulgated the complete conquest view. This is clearest in the introduction to the period of the Judges.

Canaanites Remain as a Punishment

According to the introduction to Judges, the constant return of Israel to sin after YHWH saves them prompts a change in the divine plan:

שׁפטים ב:כ ...יַעַן אֲשֶׁר עָבְרוּ הַגּוֹי הַזֶּה אֶת בְּרִיתִי אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִי אֶת אֲבוֹתָם וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ לְקוֹלִי. ב:כא גַּם אֲנִי לֹא אוֹסִיף לְהוֹרִישׁ אִישׁ מִפְּנֵיהֶם מִן הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר עָזַב יְהוֹשֻׁעַ וַיָּמֹת.
Judg 2:20 “…Since that nation has transgressed the covenant that I enjoined upon their fathers and has not obeyed Me, 2:21 I for My part will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died.”

The text goes on to explain the reasoning behind this change:

שופטים ב:כב לְמַעַן נַסּוֹת בָּם אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל הֲשֹׁמְרִים הֵם אֶת דֶּרֶךְ יְ־הוָה לָלֶכֶת בָּם כַּאֲשֶׁר שָׁמְרוּ אֲבוֹתָם אִם לֹא. ב:כג וַיַּנַּח יְ־הוָה אֶת הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה לְבִלְתִּי הוֹרִישָׁם מַהֵר וְלֹא נְתָנָם בְּיַד יְהוֹשֻׁעַ.
Judg 2:22 For it was in order to test Israel by them—[to see] whether or not they would faithfully walk in the ways of YHWH, as their fathers had done—2:23 that YHWH had left those nations, instead of driving them out at once, and had not delivered them into the hands of Joshua.”

It is not Joshua’s old age that explains the continued presence of Canaanites in the Land; rather, in this revised view, the Canaanites are seen as supporting actors in a preconceived divine plan to test Israel’s faithfulness. In order to implement this plan, Joshua is not granted complete victory. And as prefigured, the Israelites prove to be inveterate sinners, aping the behavior of the remaining Canaanites to their undoing. By its disloyalty, Israel brings upon itself punishment and the continued delay in taking the Land.

Canaanites Remain to Teach Israel War

Another Deuteronomist sees it differently. YHWH leaves the Canaanites in the Land so that later generations may undergo the inspiring experience of wars of conquest:

שׁפטים ג:ב רַק לְמַעַן דַּעַת דֹּרוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְלַמְּדָם מִלְחָמָה רַק אֲשֶׁר לְפָנִים לֹא יְדָעוּם.
Judg 3:2 That successive generations of Israelites might know war, to teach those who had no experience of it before.”

YHWH will then fight for them and reveal his awesome might, thus unifying Israel and strengthening its faith.

Useful as a Workforce

A different explanation on why some Canaanites were not conquered is offered by the Deuteronomistic author of the book of Kings. In his report concerning the fortresses and store cities constructed by King Solomon, he notes that corvée was imposed on the descendants of the nations:

מלכים א ט:כ כָּל הָעָם הַנּוֹתָר מִן הָאֱמֹרִי הַחִתִּי הַפְּרִזִּי הַחִוִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵמָּה. ט:כא בְּנֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר נֹתְרוּ אַחֲרֵיהֶם בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָכְלוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהַחֲרִימָם וַיַּעֲלֵם שְׁלֹמֹה לְמַס עֹבֵד עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
1 Kgs 9:20 All the people that were left of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites who were not of the Israelite stock—9:21 those of their descendants who were still left in the land, whom the Israelites were unable to destroy completely—of these Solomon made a slave force, as is still the case.

Now it is not surprising that Solomon needs laborers, given the picture of him as the foremost builder in Israel’s history; it is reported that Solomon even mobilizes Israelites for such service, particularly for the Temple project (1 Kgs 5:29–32).

What is surprising, however, is that as a Deuteronomist, the author of Kings does not express disapproval of Solomon’s violation of Deuteronomic law that designates the Canaanites as a doomed people (Deut 20:17). Depicted as a mighty ruler, one might expect that Solomon would have cleared Canaan of these idolators; yet he does not, and this is not counted among his sins. Solomon’s only explicit sin against YHWH is his abetting the idolatry of his many wives (1 Kgs 11:1–10).

The Historical Implications of the Unfulfilled Conquest

How to envision the conquest of Canaan was the subject of controversy in ancient Israel over the generations. Samuel R. Driver (1846–1914) remarks on the conflicting images of conquest present in different biblical passages:

The representation [in Exod 23:29–30] is in striking contrast to the idealized picture of rapid conquests drawn in the Deuteronomic sections of the book of Joshua, from which the popular conception of the “extermination of the Canaanites” is derived…, but it agrees with the accounts given in the older strata of Joshua and Judges, according to which there were many districts from which the Israelites were unable to expel the Canaanites, and the country as a whole was only occupied by them gradually…[15]

The story of Joshua’s complete conquest, often spoken of as a Blitzkrieg, may have been attractive and heartening to some, but it was a fantasy about a past that never existed.[16] Evidently, at one point after settling the land, perhaps as early as the reign of Solomon, the goal of completing the conquest was abandoned.

The need to rationalize the continuing presence of Canaanites and other assorted peoples as Israel’s neighbors, down to the end of the Monarchic Period, generated a proliferation of explanations. Israel sinned and was punished; fighting the Canaanites would be heartening for the people; Canaanites test the faith of Israel; Canaanites were too strong to conquer; Canaanite labor was useful for Israel’s early monarchs.

Thus, the ecological justification that the small population of the invading Israelites would be unable to settle the entire land, leaving much of it for wild animals (Exod 23:29–30), is only one of many justifications for the lack of a swift and complete conquest of the land.


January 25, 2022


Last Updated

June 18, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Mordechai Cogan is Professor (emeritus) in the Department of Jewish History at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, and has written widely on the political and cultural connections between ancient Israel and the empires of the ancient Near East. Cogan is the author of many studies and books, among them: Imperialism and Religion; The Raging Torrent: Historical Inscriptions from Assyria and Babylonia Relating to Ancient Israel; Bound for Exile: Israelites and Judeans Under Imperial Yoke, Documents from Assyria and Babylonia; commentaries in the Anchor Bible series on 1 Kings; 2 Kings (with Prof. Hayim Tadmor); commentaries in Hebrew in the Mikra Leyisrael (Bible for Israel) series on Obadiah, Joel, Nahum and Kings, and the just published Under the Yoke Ashur: The Assyrian Century in the Land of Israel.