Judges 1:28ff—Were the Canaanites destroyed or merely subjugated?
Problem: Joshua 10:40 declares that “Joshua conquered all the land ... he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel had commanded.” But only a short time later, when the people occupied the land they had conquered, Judges 1:28 says Israel “did not completely drive them out,” but “put the Canaanites under tribute.” But if they had been utterly destroyed, then how could they still be there a few years later?
Solution: It seems evident that Joshua at first only conquered the land as a whole, but did not literally destroy every part of it. He first swept through and gained the major victories, leaving the minor battles for the later settlers to fight. So, “utterly destroying all that breathed” is either a figure of speech for his general victory or a hyperbole for his complete success. However, even if it is understood more literally, it is qualified by the phrase “left none remaining” (Josh. 10:40). This says nothing about those who fled only to return after Joshua’s armies turned northward to fight other battles. No doubt, in this interim, many of the Canaanites returned to occupy their homes and to be a continual thorn in Israel’s flesh.
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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.