The Exodus and the Conquest of the Negeb

Harold M. Wiener, London, England


In approaching this subject it is necessary once more to lay stress on two outstanding points. No nation would invent to its own disadvantage a story, that, on attempting an invasion, it had been defeated so crushingly, and with such heavy casualties, as to be compelled to wander in a wilderness for thirty-eight years before embarking on any further undertaking. Once this is realized we are compelled, on any critical view, to accept the defeat recorded in Deut. 1:43 ff., 2:14, as absolutely historical. It must be realized as the dominating and all-important fact in the early military history of the people, and it fully explains the retirement from the Negeb after the earlier victory (Num. 21:1–3).

Secondly, emphasis must be placed on the close parallelism between the Hebrew and Egyptian accounts. According to the Pentateuch, Israel built Pithom and Raamses as store cities for the Pharaoh in one reign of long duration. In the opening years of the next they were decisively defeated with heavy casualties in the south of Canaan by vassals of Egypt. As a result the country enjoyed a lasting peace from the Israelite menace. According to Egyptology, Pithom and Raamses were built as store cities for the Pharaoh in the reign of Rameses II., which lasted for 66 or 67 years. In the opening years of his successor, Merneptah, the people of Israel was decisively defeated with heavy casualties in or near Canaan, and a triumphal hymn celebrates the lasting peace that this and other events have given the country under Egyptian suzerainty. These two records are much more alike than the accounts given of the same event by warring nations nowadays, and we need have no hesitation in recognizing their correspondence. There cannot have been two peoples of Israel trapesing about, both defeated in Canaan with heavy casualties in Merneptah’s opening years in such a way as to give the country durable peace. The details have been worked out in “The Date of the Exodus.” 1 Here it is sufficient to recall these salient points.2

When we pass to the narratives of the conquest, we find ourselves confronted with three questions which are closely related. What happened? How was it narrated? How did that narrative reach its present form? Generally the answer to any one of these questions helps us to find the replies to the others.

Even a cursory glance at the conquest narratives shows that they have passed through the same sort of vicissitudes as has the Pentateuch. Once more we have evidence of a library of short writings surviving in a fragmentary condition and placed in erroneous order. For instance, in Josh. 5:13–15 we read of an interview with the captain of the host of the Lord, but his message is missing. The beginning of the Bochim narrative (Judges 2:1–5) is wanting. Careful examination shows that verses 2 ff. postulate an account of some episode which called for the rebuke and consequent weeping. Other instances might be cited. It is as easy to show that the order of the narrative is faulty in Joshua as in the Pentateuch. How, for example, did Joshua get from Gilgal, where we find him in chapter 10, to a spot so near the waters of Merom that he could fight there “to-morrow “? (11:6). Or from Shiloh, where the preceding chapters leave him, to Shechem in chapter 24? These narratives all require the same kind of critical examination and piecing together as those of the Pentateuch. The editorial methods, too, appear to have been similar. Thus in Judges 2:1 it is generally allowed that “Bochim” of M. T. is a substitution for an earlier reading “Bethel “(still preserved in a conflate Greek rendering), and that it is due to the treatment of verse 5 as a canon of emendation. Another curious instance of editing occurs in Josh. 15:63. The difficulty here is part of a larger question raised by the various notices of Jerusalem, and historical and textual considerations are closely interwoven. Did the Israelites capture Jerusalem or not? Did the tradition assign it unanimously to Benjamin, or was there a second version, giving it to Judah? In Josh. 15:63 the R. V. has: “And as for the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the children of Judah could not drive them out: but the Jebusites dwelt with the children of Judah at Jerusalem, unto this day “; but Armenian codices read “children of Israel,” for “children of Judah,” in the first part of the verse. “Israel” is to be preferred, for we should regard the alterations as due to a reader who thought of the period of the divided kingdom, and made the substitution because Jerusalem was in Judah, not in Israel. Further, the words “with the children of Judah” were unknown to the original LXX, and added by Origen under an asterisk. With these corrections the trouble disappears. In the corresponding verse in Judges 1:21 the words “in Jerusalem” are not in A glnqw Arm-codd, Eth. “The Jebusite dwelt with the children of Benjamin till this day,” but not in Jerusalem; for it is obvious, from Josh. 15:63 and Judges 19:11 f., that the Israelites had not effected a settlement there.3 In Judges 1:8 we read: “And the children of Judah fought against Jerusalem, and took it,” etc. As the statement is plainly unhistorical, it is generally assumed that the verse is due to an editor. A more probable suggestion, however, lies at hand. There is abundant evidence that the text of this chapter has depended on a damaged MS. Now a2 omits the name Jerusalem. It is likely that originally some other name stood there, but was lost, owing to injury to the archetype, which will then have read, “fought against and took it.” To repair the injury, Jerusalem was erroneously added in most copies, on the basis of the preceding verse. The original text probably named some city that was captured before Hebron (cp. Josh. 10:29 ff.).

Longer commentary and rewriting, as well as glossing, have played their part in the formation of the present Hebrew text of Joshua, as anybody who reads the book carefully can see for himself. The LXX often enables us to recover a purer text; and in some of its readings it suggests that our difficulties may be partly due to the collation of two Hebrew MSS., variants from one having been entered in the margin of the other, and then unfortunately incorporated with the text in error and at unsuitable points.4

If, in the light of these observations, we ask, What was the course of events in the conquest of the Negeb? we shall have little difficulty in finding a satisfactory answer. When the Israelites were at Kadesh, they won a considerable victory in the Negeb, and, in accordance with their vow, devoted a place and called it Hormah (Num. 21:1–3). After the subsequent rout compelled their retreat, the place was naturally known once more by its earlier name. Of this process the history of our own time supplies abundant examples. Thirty-eight years later the Israelites invade from the East. Jericho and Ai are taken, and Gibeon makes its peace with the invaders. A coalition takes the field against Joshua and the Israelites, and it is important to note that it includes the king of Hebron (Josh. 10). This shows that the subsequent battle is earlier in time than Caleb’s capture of Hebron. Had the city already fallen, there could have been no king of Hebron. Much unnecessary difficulty has been created by the failure to recognize the character of the tasks that lay before the invaders. They fall into three categories: (1) the defeat of the field armies of the nations; (2) the capture of the walled cities; and (3) the conquest of the level country, where chariots could operate. In the third task they were usually unsuccessful, the battle of the waters of Merom (Josh. 11:1–9) being the only recorded victory during this period over forces with chariots (contrast Josh. 17:16; Judges 1:19). So far as the Negeb was concerned, the battle of Beth-horon was decisive (Josh. 10). In those days most campaigns culminated in a single pitched battle. The forces of the period had neither the discipline nor the reserves to enable them to continue a campaign in the open after a defeat. The survivors of the beaten Canaanites consequently dispersed immediately to their walled cities (Josh. 10:20). That enabled the various tribes to overrun the open hill country, where chariots could not operate, and to win such successes as they could against the fortified towns. It must always be borne in mind that a defeated field army in that epoch promptly ceased to exist as an effective campaigning force; so that after the victory, the work of occupation would be carried out by smaller tribal detachments operating separately, not by the united forces of Israel.

With one exception (Josh. 10:28 ff.) the narratives of the occupation of the South country are then in harmony. After the battle of Beth-horon, Caleb receives a formal title to Hebron from Joshua at Gilgal (Josh. 14:6ff.). Caleb, Judah, Simeon, and the Kenites invade the South country, as narrated in Judges 1 (cp. Josh. 15:13 ff.),5 their expeditions being based on Jericho (Judges 1:16 f.); and when Hormah is recaptured, the Israelite name is naturally reconferred.6

That leaves the problem presented by Josh. 10:28 ff., where Joshua and all Israel take various towns and exterminate all the souls therein. The stereotyped formulae suggest an editor; but, as Dr. G. A. Cooke7 remarks on verse 33a: “The monotony is here broken by what looks like an early piece of detail.” In this respect the section recalls the editorial rewriting practiced in the Pentateuch in cases where the narrative was too fragmentary to be perpetuated in the form in which it had survived.8 I suggest, therefore, that this may have been the origin of the section, and that we owe its present form to an editor who found his materials in tatters, and pieced them together as best he could in his own language. Unfortunately he assumed that Joshua and all Israel were present on occasions when, in reality, only detachments were operating, and butchered all the inhabitants of the country in accordance with his reading of Deut. 7:2. If these two features be eliminated, the basis of the narrative harmonizes with our other information and may well be historical.

A few words may be added as to a curious theory that has received wide currency, viz. that Judah, Caleb, and the Kenites effected their settlement in the South as the result of a successful invasion from Kadesh-barnea. This is flatly contradicted by the whole tenor of the Pentateuch, according to which all Israel wandered for forty years, and invaded as a united confederacy from the East. It is incompatible with the sweeping disaster narrated in Deut. 1:43 ff.; with the narrative of Judges 1:16f., which shows that Hormah was finally occupied by an expedition moving from Jericho; with all the narratives of Caleb’s conquests; and with the presence of a king of Hebron among the allied powers defeated by Joshua at Beth-horon.9


1) Bibliotheca Sacra Company. 20 cents, postpaid.

2) See now Holzinger’s reluctant admission in reviewing “The Date of the Exodus”: “Darüber, dass Nu 14:40 nicht den Pharao als Gegner rennt, wird sich reden lassen — warum soil ein solcher sich nicht den Sieg eines Vasallen gut schreiben? “(Theologische Literaturzeitung, 1918, No. 6-7, col. 76).

3) The notice thus appears to have been written before David’s conquest (2 Sam. 5:6 ff.); notice “till this day.”

4) Here are the two forms of Josh. 8:11–13, given by B and M. T., respectively:—




11 And all the people, the men of war with him, went up, and drew nigh, and came before the city on the East.   11 And all the people, [even] the [men of] war that were with him, went up, and drew nigh, and came before the city, and pitched on the north side of Ai: now there was a valley between him and Ai.
12 And the ambush of the city [was] on the west.   12 And he took about five thousand men, and set them in ambush between Bethel and Ai, on the west side of the city.
13 Vacat   13 So they set the people, even all the host that was on the north of the city, and their liers in wait that were on the west of the city; and Joshua went that night into the midst of the vale.
In ver. 13, fifteen Hebrew MSS. read ועלן, ‘and he lodged,’ for ועלד, ‘and he went.’ The last half of this Hebrew verse, then, differs from the last half of ver. 9 by a single letter, Joshua lodging in the midst of the valley העמק, which is distinguished from the Hebrew for ‘the people’ only by its final letter. Similarly the last portion of ver. 12, “between Bethel and between Ai, on the west side of the city” (העיר) is a variant of the corresponding words in ver. 9, where “on the west of Ai “lacks the last letter of the Hebrew word for “city,” but is otherwise absolutely identical. These, then, are different readings, and the codex that preserved them apparently read 5 thousand for the 30 thousand of the Hebrew, and the 3 thousand of dpt in ver. 3, and seems to have located the attack on the north, not on the east, side of the city. Clearly we have to do, not with two accounts of the same occurrence, but with two forms of the same account; and our trouble has arisen through variants having been noted in the margin and subsequently been mistaken for part of the text.


5) Judges 1:20 should, however, perhaps stand between 1:10 and 11.

6) We do not know whether a change of name in such a case involved a religious ceremony; but, in any case, a name conferred by an invading people would be valid only where it remained in control of the place. Compare Isaac’s renaming of Abraham’s wells (Gen. 26:18).

7) The Book of Joshua (1918). This is a clear and up-to-date summary of the views of the documentary theorists, and is the most helpful book they have produced in English on this period, largely because the editor candidly states objections to his own views.

8) See BS, April, 1919, pp. 193 ff. Joshua 11:21–23 is wanting in h, and appears to be the addition of a late commentator.

9) Cp. Cooke, op. cit., pp. xxvi f., xxix, xxxi.