At the time of the Israelite conquest, most of the Canaanites lived in valleys and along the coastal plain. There were a few important cities such as Hebron, Jebus, Bethel, and Shechem. These cities were strongly fortified and defended by well-equipped Canaanite warriors. The Canaanite culture in the 14th Century A. D. was remarkably advanced. There were skilled craftsmen, experienced merchants, and knowledgeable farmers. In fact, the Canaanites were more advanced culturally than the Israelites, who had spent their previous forty years in the wilderness.
The Canaanite religion was essentially a fertility cult that was founded on the belief that the blessings of progeny and abundant harvest were a direct result of the sexual relations of the gods. To encourage such activities, the worshipers engaged in sacred prostitution. The rituals would be performed at a high place – either a temple or a grove of trees. El was the supreme god of the Canaanite pantheon and Baal, his son and successor, the central figure in Canaanite worship. Fertility goddesses included Anath, Asherah, and Ashtaroth. The religious culture of Canaan was ripe for judgment. God commanded the complete destruction of the Canaanites by Joshua to punish the wicked inhabitants and protect the Israelites from involvement in such pagan worship.
The Entrance into Canaan
After the death of Moses, the mantle of leadership passed to Joshua. It was he who was to lead God’s people into Canaan. The Israelites approached the land from the east, apparently with plans to divide the hill country and conquer the north and south separately. Before crossing the Jordan, Joshua sent spies out to survey the city of Jericho. Since news of the Israelite victories over Sihon and Og had reached the ears of the Canaanites, the spies were able to report that the citizens of Jericho were overcome with terror. After the miraculous crossing of the Jordan River at flood stage, the Israelites set up camp at Gilgal and celebrated the Passover. The crossing of the Jordan at flood stage was an event that was about as big as the Red Sea their fathers had crossed 40 years ago. The day after they had eaten some of the produce of Canaan, the manna ceased forever for them. Now they had to claim the land that God had promised them years ago.
The Central Campaign
Joshua’s central campaign began at Jericho, which was the oldest fortified city in the world at that time. The capture of Jericho was strategically important, for it gave access to valleys ascending into the hill country. According to the Bible, the destruction of Jericho was accomplished by the Lord, totally apart from the efforts of the people. This was to show the people that this was God’s war and that he would lead them to victory.
They experienced a serious setback at Ai, though, because of sin in the camp. They then marched north to Shechem, where they observed ceremonies designed to reaffirm their commitment to the law.
The Southern Campaign
Joshua’s southern campaign was precipitated by his unwise alliance with the Gibeonites. They had deceived him into believing that they were wanderers from far off. He did not realize at the time that he was ignoring God’s command not to covenant with the people of Canaan. After it was too late, he discovered that they lived at el-Jib, which was just six miles north of Jerusalem. When the news of the Gibeonites’ surrender reached the king of Jerusalem, he organized the five kings of the Amorites into attacking Gibeon, thereby forcing Joshua to defend the Gibeonites. Joshua led his troops on a 24 miles night march from Gilgal to Gibeon and took the attackers by surprise. The enemy fled west down the ascent of Beth-horon, and the Israelites captured and put to death the five kings who had attacked the city. This victory sealed the fate of southern Palestine. Joshua’s warriors continued south, conquering cities in the southern hill country and the Negev.
The Northern Campaign
The news of Joshua’s overwhelming victory in southern Canaan soon reached the ears of Jabin, king of Hazor. This was a strategic fortress city north of the Sea of Galilee. Fearing attack, he organized a coalition of cities to protect the northern territory. The gathering point for Jabin’s confederacy was the waters of Merom, which was a spring about 7 miles northwest of Hazor. Joshua did not wait for the enemy to come to him, but led the Israelite warriors to the battlefield for a surprise attack. The Lord gave his people a great victory over Jabin’s forces and the mighty fortress of Hazor, the only city in northern Canaan that Joshua burned. He completed the conquest of the north, capturing many cities and taking plunder. Thus he took the whole land, as God had promised — and the Israelites had rest from war.
Dividing the Inheritance
It took about six years to conquer all the land that God had given to the Israelites. The military strength of the Canaanites was broken, but the land still had to be completely settled by the individual tribes according to their territorial allotments. The land was divided by casting lots and according to the size of the different tribes. The general vicinity of each tribe’s inheritance was determined by lot, but the actual boundary was determined by need. The larger tribes received more territory. Many of the tribes failed to fulfill their responsibility to completely and totally drive out all the Canaanites, and they never did actually live in all the land that had been promised to them.
Below is a map of how the land allotments were given out to each tribe, and also where the cities of refuge were located.
The Years that Followed
The Bible records that the people of Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua and the elders who succeeded him, but then there arose a generation “who did not know the Lord”. The new generation forsook the Lord and took up the worship of Baal, the Canaanite fertility deity.
Seduction into false worship was a problem that pursued the Israelites down through the ages. This sin was disciplined by God through the Assyrian destruction of Samaria in 722 B. C., after which time the northern tribes were taken into captivity and never returned to the land. Later, God used the Babylonians as his instrument of judgment on Judah and Jerusalem. In 586 B. C. Jerusalem was captured and the temple burned. The Judeans were then exiled to Babylon, but God graciously restored them under the decree of Cyrus in 538 B. C.
God had given the land of Canaan to the people Israel, but the privilege of living in the land and enjoying its blessings was conditional on their obedience. This was the lesson God was to teach his people throughout their history in the land of promise.
Below is a map of Joshua’s Conquest of Canaan.
Cities of the Hill Country
The cities that we will talk about below represent the ones that have a significant place in Biblical history, though there were many great cities there when Joshua and the Israelites captured the land.
This city was identified with the ancient mound known as Tell Balatah, and was situated between two mountains, Ebal and Gerizim, in central Ephraim. It was strategically located at the junction of the main north-south road through the hill country and the valley leading to the coastal plain and the Via Maris. It was here at Shechem that Jacob had bought a piece of land and dwelt among the Canaanites. There is no record of Joshua’s having engaged Shechem in battle, but there the Israelites affirmed the allegiance to God and his law. It is thought that because of ancient ties, Shechem may have been peacefully absorbed by the invading tribes. Joseph’s mummified body was later buried there according to Josh. 24:32.
During the Maccabean period, Shechem was destroyed by John Hyrcanus (129 B. C.) in a campaign to establish his sovereignty as high priest and hereditary ruler. It was never rebuilt. Nablus was established in 72 B. C. just one mile to the east, and Shechem was virtually forgotten until uncovered by archarologists. It was near Shechem that Jesus met the Samaritan woman at ‘Jacob’s Well’. Her village of Sychar was located about half a mile to the north of Shechem.
It was located just east of the main north-south road, about 12 miles south of Shechem, which was 20 miles north of Jerusalem. It was here that the Israelites assembled after the conquest of Canaan to erect the tabernacle and complete the division of the land. It was here, also, that Eli the priest ministered and Samuel the prophet grew up and first knew the Lord. Shiloh remained the center of Israelite tribal worship until its destruction in 1050 B. C., probably by the Philistines. Excavations at the site indicate that the town was reestablished in the Hellenistic period and prospered during Roman and Byzantine times.
This town was also called Tell el-Ful and was situated on a hill just three miles north of Jerusalem. It lay in the center of Benjamite territory, and became a town of considerable importance. In its very early history, it became a town well-known for tolerating evil, which resulted in its destruction by the other tribes. Later it was rebuilt and became a royal city. This was King Saul’s hometown and became his capital. The site was first excavated in 1922.
Tirzah was about seven miles north of Shechem and was an ancient city that was strategically located at the head of Wadi Fari’a, a deep valley leading east to the Jordan River. It is first identified as a royal city during the reign of Baasha. It was very much noted for its beauty, and served as the capital for the kingdom of Israel until the days of Omri, who established a new capital at Samaria in the seventh year of his reign. Tirzah was destroyed by the Assyrians about 725 B. C. and eventually abandoned in 600 B. C. This site was excavated 1946 – 1960.
The city of Samaria was seven miles west of Shechem. It was founded by Omri about 800 B. C. to serve as a new capital for the northern kingdom, Israel. Omri selected a site on an easily defensible hill that was about 400 feet above the valley. The city commanded a major trade and travel route between the coastal plain and the hill country of Ephraim. Ahab, Omri’s son, is known for commissioning the rich ivory inlays that embellished the walls and furnishings of the royal palace there.
Although the city was unsuccessfully attacked a number of times throughout its history, it was finally captured by Sargon II of Assyria in 722 B. C. Samaria later flourished in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Herod the Great built a theater, stadium, and temple there around 25 B. C. and renamed it “Sebaste” in honor of Emperor Augustus.
Below is a columned street that was excavated in Samaria.