Story 5 of 12: Conquest of Canaan
The Israelites looked forward to the day they could eat meat and fruit instead of manna. Soon they would be able to eat from the yield of the land. What a day it would be when they celebrated their first Passover in Canaan! Moses’ successor Joshua made an impassioned call to all of Israel to choose between the gods of Canaan and the Lord Yahweh, for the time had come to claim their promised land! Because it was inhabited by worshippers of false gods with abominable practices, God had Israel pronounce a curse of destruction on Canaan – the cities were to be completely destroyed, everyone killed, and the loot kept in the sanctuary. Failure to carry out the curse meant punishment for all of the Israelites, whom God intended for himself as a whole people.*
The book of Joshua describes his conquest of Canaan as an epic of three successful military sweeps. In one battle the walls of Jericho were knocked down with mere trumpet blasts, and in another the sun was commanded to stand still long enough for the Israelites to carry out their curse of destruction.
The Book of Judges, however, describes the Canaanites as holding their ground, with the Israelites even settling in with them! Over the next few generations, the Israelites would fall into the following cycle over and over again: First, God would grant them a victory over the Canaanites. Second, the Israelites would get comfortable and begin worshipping the Canaanite gods. Third, God would punish Israel by allowing the Canaanites to defeat them in battle and let the Israelites lose part of their land. And fourth, Israel would repent ("change their mind"), cry to God for help, and God would raise from among them a "judge", someone strong enough to lead them to military victory over the Canaanites and reclaim their land. After that judge would die, Israel would revert to the false gods, and the cycle would begin all over again.
Two of the most famous judges were Gideon and Samson. Gideon had been instructed by God to reduce his army to the point of being so outnumbered, that when they won, it would be obvious that the victory belonged to God.
Then there was the mighty Samson, during whose rule as judge, the specific Canaanites who were giving the Israelites a hard time were the mighty Philistines. Samson was a strong fighter against the Philistines, but disregarded God’s warnings about marrying the foreign women, and he married Delilah, herself a Philistine! After seducing him into revealing the source of his strength (his long hair), she lulled him to sleep, cut his hair, setting him up so that the Philistines could take him prisoner. Once his hair and his strength grew back, he unexpectedly brought down a stadium upon the Philistines, sacrificing his own life in the process. It was a great victory for the Israelites, though Samson never completely got rid of the Philistine threat.
After a civil war nearly tore the 12 tribes of Israelites apart, the book of Judges summed up why the Israelites had such a hard time securing their land in these words: “In those days there was no king in Israel, and everyone did as he saw fit.”
The mighty Samson
* The violent and graphic stories that accompany the curse of destruction and the stories about the Judges remind us that this is a story of God's people during their primitive formation. Writings of later prophets would reveal that God actually preferred non-violence, even to the point of punishing Israel for excessive violence. But to this day these writings are overlooked in favor of the violent passages that are used to justify killing in the name of God.
While other peoples marched images of their false gods into battle, the Israelites would march the ark of the covenant which held the tablets of the ten commandments.
There were male and female heroes during this time. The prophet Deborah wrote a poem exalting another woman's virtue for killing one of Israel's enemies!
What is the main difference between the account of the conquest of Canaan told in Joshua versus the one told in Judges?
How do we know God did not continue his program of killing in his name?