Joshua Chapter 12


Chapter 12 is either the end of the first part of the book Joshua that describes the Israelite conquests or an introduction to the second part which deals with the division of these lands; there are scholars who take both views. The problem is that chapter 11 clearly ends the narration of the Israelite conquest. It states hyperbolically that Joshua conquered the entire land and the land rested from war. Chapter 13 begins a discussion of Joshua’s division of Canaan and his assignment of portions to each tribe. Chapter 12 lists overthrown territories and could be an addendum to part one, perhaps an afterthought addition because chapter 11 clearly ends the story of the conquest with its statement that Joshua captured settlements and there was peace. Contrarily, since chapter 11 has a clear closing statement, chapter 12 may belong to part 2, the story of the division of territories. I take the view that it belongs to part 1 because it focuses on Israelite victories. In any event, this chapter is filled with problems.

Joshua’s failures

This first part of the book Joshua, as I wrote, ends by praising Joshua for conquering Canaan for Israelite settlements and producing peace. However, it is generally accepted that Joshua made mistakes and his mission was not altogether successful. One was his treaty with the Gibeonites in chapter 9. A second was that despite the praise in chapter 11, he was unable to capture all of Canaan, which resulted in the Israelites coming into conflicts with Canaanite nations for the next two centuries. He failed to drive out the Jebusites from Jerusalem in 15:63, the Philistines in the coastal area, the inhabitants of the Plains of Esdraelon, and much more.

Two writing styles

Chapter 12 has two parts; the first lists Moses’ conquests and the second those of Joshua. The writing style of the two is different raising the question whether each had a different author. The first is prose, names the defeated kings, describes the lands that were taken, and gives no count of these lands.[1] The second is a song of praise to Joshua, omits the kings’ name and description of their lands, and gives a count.

The Talmud[2] states the song list should be highlighted by being written in columns, as is Moses’ song in Exodus 15. Exodus 15 and Joshua 12 are not the only songs in Scripture. The others are the song of the halting of the sun at Gibeon in Joshua 11:12 and 13, Deborah’s victory song in Judges 5, King David’s lament over the death of King Saul and his son Jonathan in II Samuel 1:17-27 and for General Abner in II Samuel 3:33 and 34, and King Solomon’s song offering praise and thanks at the dedication of the temple in I Kings 8:12 and 13. The consensus is that these songs were composed near the time of the events, perhaps long before the prose narratives of the events were composed. It is believed that these songs were originally transmitted orally.[3] It is possible that a collection of such songs appeared in a book called Sefer Hayashar[4] from which the authors of the prose narratives drew them.

Some scholars add to the list of songs the entire Book of Psalms. Others include the psalms of Hannah in I Samuel 2:1-10, King David in II Samuel 22- 23:7 and I Chronicles 16:8-26, and of King Hezekiah in Isaiah 38:10-20.

Since it is possible that there was a collection of songs, such as Sefer Hayashar, from which biblical writers copied their songs, it is possible that our author, after finishing his tale, simply appended the song in chapter 12 to his narrative.[5]


As we saw previously, the book contains many errors. Kaufman notes that the list of thirty-one defeated cities in the chapter is incomplete; about a dozen captured cities mentioned in chapters 10 and 11 are absent. Also cities such as Bet-el, Jerusalem, and Gezer are listed although they were not subdued by Joshua’s forces, and were not defeated until long after his death. Jerusalem, for example, was captured by King David. Kaufman supposes that it is possible that the author of chapter 12 knew of Joshua battles not recorded in the rest of this biblical book.[6]

Why does this book mention that Joshua captured cities when later biblical books state they were defeated after Joshua’s death? Perhaps Joshua vanquished these cities, but was unable to hold them and they needed to be retaken later. Also, the chapter does not indicate that the Israelites occupied all of these cities.

I pointed out in the past that the Masorites indicated the existence of many errors in the Joshua text on the side of biblical pages. For example, they note one in 11:16. The Masorites identify none in chapter 12; however Ehrlich and others state that the wording melekh l’sharon in verse 18 is inconsistent with verses 22 and 23 where the letter lamed is preceded with the name of a city; thus the scribe accidently omitted the city name.[7] The Greek translation Septuagint resolves the problem by omitting Sharon, and since it also omits Bet-el in 16, it concludes with a total of 29 rather than 31 cities. The commentary Olam Hatanakh’s solution is to delete echad in 18 and read “the king of Aphek which is in Sharon.” Thus it states the total number of kings is thirty and the statement that they were thirty-one is an error.

Scholars are unable to identify Goiim as a city in 23, and some scholars opine that it means “nations.” The Septuagint changes Gilgal in 23 to Galilee, which would make the verse read “the king of nations in the Galilee.”[8]

Yehuda Kil[9] suggests that a scribe accidently omitted a vav in 20 and instead of the reference being to one city Shimron-meron, the text should be two cities “the king of Shimron and Meron, one.”

In short, scholars found apparent transcription errors in this chapter.

More hyperbole

As I wrote in the past, both the Bible and its commentators make exaggerated statements, frequently to exalt people or events. Verses 9-24 lists captured kings and poetically ends each recitation with “(that is) one.” Wanting to add to Joshua’s glory, although not hinted in the passages, Midrash Sifrei[10] states that “one” alludes to the viceroy of each king, bringing the total number of overcome potentates to sixty-two.

The commentator Radak writes that each of the listed thirty-one kings ruled over settlements besides the capital city that is named. Thus Joshua conquered far more than thirty-one settlements.

[1] It parallels Deuteronomy 2 and 3.

[2] Jerusalem Talmud Megilah 3:8.

[3] This could account for the errors that I will discuss shortly.

[4] See the discussion of Sefer Hayashar in chapter 10.

[5] This may explain why chapter 12 includes a description of Moses conquests. Our narrator took the song he found without editing it.

[6] Yehuda Kil lists fourteen cities, in Sefer Yehoshua, Mossad HaRav Kook, that are not mentioned previously in Joshua. He suggests that the cities were not mentioned previously because nothing of great significance happened when they were captured.

[7] The lamed is translated “which is in.”

[8] We should recognize that the chapter does not indicate that the Israelites occupied all of these cities in upper Canaan.

[9] In Sefer Yehoshua, Mossad HaRav Kook.

[10] Ekev, 37, 76.