Joshua was successful – probably just partially – in conquering some Canaanite kingdoms in the south. While apparently wanting to do so anyway, he was forced to take the initiative because these kingdoms joined together to attack his forces. Seeing Joshua’s successes and, like the southern cities, fearing an Israelite attack, some northern kingdoms joined together to destroy the Israelite army. As he did in his other battles, Joshua used the element of surprise and routed the enemy.
Does the Book of Joshua Contradict Itself?
Joshua 11:23 seems to differ with Joshua 13 and later chapters. In chapter 11, the Bible states that the entire land of Canaan was conquered, the land was divided among the twelve tribes, and there was peace for the rest of Joshua’s life. Yet, chapter 13 and the other chapters recognize that all of the land was not conquered and record battles that had to be fought later on.
1. How can we reconcile the seemingly conflicting passages?
2. Is this apparent conflict a unique situation or does it occur frequently in the Bible?
Joshua 11:23 states: “So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the Lord had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to the division of the tribes. And the land had rest from war.”
Three statements are made and none of them, it would seem, is exactly true.
1. Joshua never conquered the entire land of Canaan, as indicated in the book of Joshua itself in 13:13, 15:63, 16:10, and 17:12. Verse 13:13, for example, states, “Nevertheless the children of Israel did not expel the Geshurites or the Machathites; and the Geshurites and Machathites dwell among the Israelites to this day.”
2. Verse 13:1 states that the distribution of the territory of Canaan was not performed as indicated in 11:23, but was long delayed and incomplete because the entire land was not conquered as had been planned.
3. Joshua had to fight additional battles and the Israelites were engaged in battles long after his death.
Did the Writer of Chapter 11 Not Know the Later Israelite History?
It would be absurd to think that the writer of chapter 11 was ignorant of what is recorded in later chapters of his book or that he made a mistake or was trying to conceal the true facts or mislead his readers.
How Should the Reader Approach Such Apparent Contradictions?
The Bible frequently makes simplified, seemingly imprecise, and even inflated statements. We saw an example of overstatements in the prior chapters, such as when Joshua described his victory occurring while the sun stood still.
Rabbi Ishmael informed us in the second century C.E. that “the Bible speaks in human language.” He explained that biblical language is similar to the language of the people whom it addresses. For example, the Bible repeats itself, elaborates to enhance the beauty of an expression, and tells a story from one perspective in one place and from another perspective in another section. It also uses hyperbole just as humans do, exaggerating for effect. It also frequently makes a general statement for dramatic effect, and only later, sometimes much later, offers details of the event or message. So, too, as here, the Bible frequently simplifies. It expects its readers to realize that just as they make simple exaggerated assertions leaving out essential but obvious details which will be mentioned later, so, too, does the Bible.
Thus, Joshua 11:23 is a simplified overstated account. It was written in this form to praise Joshua: the entire land was not conquered and could not be divided as planned and there was not complete peace, but – and this is the purpose of the passage – Joshua accomplished a lot, and much of what he planned was accomplished.
Some biblical verses seem to contradict what is said in other verses. An example is Joshua 11:23, which states that the entire land of Canaan was conquered and divided among the Israelites and that there was peace. The same unwarranted assertion seems to be implied in chapter 24. Yet any reader of the Bible knows that none of these claims is true. Many statements in the book of Joshua itself negate these three claims.
The truth is that the statements are not contradictory. This is both a human and biblical style of writing. Statements are frequently made in a simplified and exaggerated form in order to highlight a message and call the attention of the reader to what is being said. The reader, taking into account that the Bible speaks at times in simplified language, can come to a reasonable understanding of the passage without needing to get upset by what seems to be a contradiction or to develop unnecessary, misleading, and inaccurate explanations of seemingly conflicting passages.