I hate when people say, "I take the Bible literally". What does that even mean? Whenever someone says that all I can think of is Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride saying, "You keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means." We are to interpret the Bible in light of the genre for each context NOT always in a super-literal fashion. For example, is God literally a rock (2nd Sam 22:2)? NO!
The Bible is full of different genres; history, poetry, pithy statements (Proverbs), apocalyptic, parables, etc... In this literature we have all types of literary devices such as similes, metaphors, imagery, rhyme, idioms, hyperboles, colloquial language, sarcasm, puns, didactic, etc... Therefore, not everything can be read "literally". So how should Joshua 11:23 be read?
If you were to only read Joshua I can understand why you would interpret it literally. The genre is history, which is typically literal. The statements seem to be very clear cut; that Joshua utterly defeated the Canaanites and took over the whole land. But there are two reasons why this would be a wrong approach
- They wrote differently than the way we record history. Even though Joshua is history it is Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) History and not 21st Century Western History. Listen to what one scholar says about ANE historical records, "The type of rhetoric in question was a regular feature of military reports in the second and first millennia, as others have made very clear…In the later fifteenth century Tuthmosis III could boast “the numerous army of Mitanni, was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally, like those (now) non-existent”—whereas, in fact, the forces of Mitanni lived to fight many another day, in the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries. Some centuries later, about 840/830, Mesha king of Moab could boast that “Israel has utterly perished for always”—a rather premature judgment at that date, by over a century! And so on, ad libitum. It is in this frame of reference that the Joshua rhetoric must also be understood.” (Kitchen, Reliability of the Old Testament, pg. 174)
- Joshua isn't an isolated document, it is to be read within the context of Deuteronomy through 2nd Kings. If we stopped after reading Joshua it could be granted for us to believe the Israelites conquered the whole land. But if we continue to read the Biblical narrative we see that "literally" wasn't the case.
There is a surface level tension between Joshua and Judges. Looks at a few examples
- Joshua 11:23 states they took the whole land. Judges 1:1-4 opens up with Judah and Simeon attacking the Canaanites and Perizzites. But I thought that Joshua already gave them the land?
- Joshua 10:36-40 says there were "no survivors" when Joshua attacked the cities from Eglon to Hebron. But when Judges 1:9-11 speak of these same cities we see survivors.
- Joshua 11:23 states that Joshua did "all that the Lord commanded" in taking the whole land. But Judges 2:1-3, 21-23 says that there were nations which Joshua left when he died.
These are only a few examples but what do they show us? Biblical contradictions? Absolutely not!!! The Bible is its best interpreter. Thus, when we read Judges in company with Joshua we can conclude that there are hyperbolic statements in Joshua about his military campaigns. This is nothing to run from. The Bible uses hyperbole in many places (I.e. 2nd Chron 36:16-17, 20; Judges 1:8, 21; Jer 9:11, 15:6, 25:9 (compare with 2nd Kings 25:10-12); Deut 28:20-21, 24, 25, 45, 64-66).
What are some conclusions we can draw?
- Joshua is written in the same literary style as other ANE conquest documents
- Joshua needs to be read in light of the narrative from Deuteronomy to 2nd Kings
- Hyperbolic language is used in order to instill fear in their enemies and magnify the victories of God
- Hyperbolic language is used all throughout Scripture including other historical genres
- When read in comparison with Judges we see that Joshua practical but not literally destroyed the Canaanites and took their cities.