The last time I read through the book of Joshua, something jumped out at me that I had not considered before. That is, even before the first battle in the land, (at Jericho) the Bible says that the people of Canaan knew what was coming. This point is made repeatedly and with specific reference to nearly every group that faced impending destruction. As for the groups where it does not explicitly say that they knew what was coming, there is no reason to think that they were in the dark. Even in a time before the telephone, t.v., radio, and the internet, word had still spread to the far corners of the region. They hadn't just heard that the Israelite army was about to invade. They had good reason to believe that God Himself, the creator of all things, was on the move. They had heard about the miraculous things He did to deliver Israel from Egypt and how He empowered them to defeat other groups on their way to Canaan. They knew that God was coming in judgement to dispel them from the land that He had promised to Israel.
Below is a rundown of the passages that substantiate my point. And just to avoid having to clarify this later--yes, I am taking the biblical account as trustworthy in what it reports. If someone wants to reject what I am saying out of hand by simply denying the reliability of these passages, then I have to question why they take the account of the conquest seriously at all. As far as I can tell, the primary dilemmas posed here are not of God's existence and biblical reliability, but of God's character and biblical consistency. Thus, I am only speaking to the latter.
The people of Jericho: "She [Rahab] went up on the roof and said to them, "I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below" (2:9-11). And we also read that "the gates of Jericho were securely barred because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in" (6:1). Rahab aided the spies, asked to be spared, and God honored her request.
The Kings of 7 different groups: "Now when all the kings west of the Jordan heard about these things [the destruction of Jericho and Ai]—the kings in the hill country, in the western foothills, and along the entire coast of the Mediterranean Sea as far as Lebanon (the kings of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites)—they came together to wage war against Joshua and Israel" (9:1-2).
The Gibeonites: "However, when the people of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and Ai, they resorted to a ruse" (9:3-4). After they had been found out, the people of Gibeon explained why they opted for deception rather than to fight Israel. They said that they "were clearly told how the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you the whole land and to wipe out all its inhabitants from before you. So we feared for our lives because of you, and that is why we did this. We are now in your hands. Do to us whatever seems good and right to you” (9:24-25). The Israelites honored the treaty, even though it was built upon a lie, and spared the Gibeonites.
The 5 Amorite kings and Southern Kingdoms: "Now Adoni-Zedek king of Jerusalem heard that Joshua had taken Ai and totally destroyed it, doing to Ai and its king as he had done to Jericho and its king, and that the people of Gibeon had made a treaty of peace with Israel and had become their allies. He and his people were very much alarmed at this, because Gibeon was an important city, like one of the royal cities; it was larger than Ai, and all its men were good fighters. So Adoni-Zedek king of Jerusalem appealed to Hoham king of Hebron, Piram king of Jarmuth, Japhia king of Lachish and Debir king of Eglon. “Come up and help me attack Gibeon,” he said, “because it has made peace with Joshua and the Israelites” (10:1-4).
The Northern Kingdoms: "When Jabin king of Hazor heard of this, he sent word to Jobab king of Madon, to the kings of Shimron and Akshaph, and to the northern kings who were in the mountains, in the Arabah south of Kinnereth, in the western foothills and in Naphoth Dor on the west; to the Canaanites in the east and west; to the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites and Jebusites in the hill country; and to the Hivites below Hermon in the region of Mizpah. They came out with all their troops and a large number of horses and chariots—a huge army, as numerous as the sand on the seashore. All these kings joined forces and made camp together at the Waters of Merom to fight against Israel" (11:1-5).
While the Bible only explicitly says that the people in Jericho knew about the miracles of the Exodus, I do not think it is a stretch to say that everyone in the region had heard the same thing. On top of that, the later cities to be destroyed had the added evidence of seeing that what had been predicted was happening before their very eyes. City after city had fallen to Israel by the power of God. But that did not phase them. Even though they knew what was coming, every group--except for the Gibeonites who, though they perpetuated a lie, clearly understood what they were up against--decided to stay and fight anyway. They had heard that the God of Israel was the true God, the maker of heaven and earth. Furthermore, they knew that He had demonstrated his power by bringing Egypt to its knees and splitting the Red sea. Even so, the Canaanite kings mustered their armies and called together all of their allies. That is tantamount to spitting in the face of God.
Rahab, a Canaanite woman, recognized the power of God, repented, and was spared (and became part of the Davidic/Messianic line). Even the dishonest Gibeonites were humble enough to recognize they couldn't fight God. They were spared. Now consider that God had been withholding judgement against the Canaanites for 400 years (Gen. 15:16; Deut. 7:22).Taken together, it seems that God was giving the people ample opportunity to repent, right up until the very moment that the conquest took place. Sure, Israel was commanded not to make any treaties with the people in the land (Deut 7:2). But I think it is safe to imagine that an omniscient God knew just how stubborn the Canaanites were--so stubborn that they would rather fight against the God of the universe than repent. What makes us, in our 21st century mindset, think that diplomacy was even an option? These were not innocent foreigners caught off guard by a xenophobic deity with a chip on his shoulder. Archeologists have revealed the abject moral depravity of ancient groups in this region had become. They were a desperately wicked people who refused to repent at all costs. They knew what was coming and faced the perfectly just judgment of God with their chests held high in the air. I think that needs to be taken into consideration when we discuss this admittedly difficult topic.