Joshua 12:1-24

Download audio

The military strength of the Canaanite states, both north and south, had been broken in a long series of battles. Chapter 12 contains a summary of the many defeats that Israel had visited upon her enemies. This chapter completes the second section of the book, that section which began at 5:13 and whose key word was the Hebrew verb “to take.” Section 2 related Israel’s taking of the Promised Land. The next section will describe how the land was divided or allotted to the twelve tribes of Israel.

Text Comment


The valley of the Arnon descends to the Dead Sea about halfway down its eastern shore. Mount Hermon lay some 130 miles to the north, so the point is that the Transjordan from north to south now lay safely in Israel’s hands.


The account of Israel’s conquests begins with the defeat of the two kingdoms east of the Jordan where two and a half of Israel’s tribes had been allowed to settle. Given that this land as well was to be part of Israel, it was important to include Sihon and Og among the defeated kings. The account of their defeat is not found in Joshua, but in Numbers 21. Moses led the people in those two campaigns; under Joshua they took the rest of the land.  It was important to remind everyone that Israel was a single kingdom and that those who lived east of the Jordan were as much a part of it as those who inhabited the Promised Land per se. Trans-Jordan and Cis-Jordan — the land this side of the were equally Israel. The geographical description almost exactly follows the description of the same territory found in Deuteronomy 2-3.

The point of all of this geographical detail, much more of which we will encounter later in Joshua, is to serve as the demonstration that the Lord had been faithful to his promise, “right down to every last village or town and every last border, passing atop this hill over here and descending through that valley over there.” [Howard, 278]


The defeated kings to be listed are not mentioned by name as some of them had been previously. Big men in their time, no doubt, but, for Israel, it is the conquest of the land,  not the defeat of individual enemies that mattered in the long run.

Comparing verse 7 with verse 6 emphasis falls on Joshua as a second Moses. What Moses did for Israel east of the Jordan, Joshua now has done for Israel to its west.


Canaan was populated by an array of different peoples. But here and in the rest of Joshua the emphasis falls on the unity of Israel. Many peoples are being replaced by one people, the eventual story of the world. [Hawk, 176]


The last four southern kings listed — Geder, Hormath, Arad, Adullam — were not mentioned in the account of the southern campaign in chapter 10.


This is the first mention of Megiddo in the Bible, an important city in the ancient world, guarding as it did an important pass through which a major highway passed. This is the same Megiddo that would give its name to the famous Armageddon, the place of the figurative last battle in the book of Revelation.


Of the northern kings mentioned as having been defeated there are seven who were not mentioned in the account of the battle against the northern coalition of Canaanite cities in chapter 11. Indeed, of the thirty-one cities listed as having been conquered, only sixteen were previously mentioned in the account of the conquest. As in 11:18 we are in this way reminded that there were more battles than those of which we have been given a record. Perhaps more battles than are mentioned even here in this concluding summary.

Many of these city names would figure in the later history of Israel. Tirzah, for example, would serve as the first capital of the Northern Kingdom after the division of Israel following the death of Solomon.

In any case, making such a list of conquered kings and kingdoms was typical of ancient near eastern monarchs and states. Archaeologists have found similar lists in Egypt, Assyria, and so on. What is interesting about those lists, however, is that the king himself is listed as the conqueror. “I captured and destroyed such and such a king or city…” Pharaoh Thutmose III would say in the inscription found in the temple of Aton at Karnak. Here it is Joshua and the people of Israel who conquered these thirty-one kings and cities and, as the narrative has made clear to this point, only because the Lord gave them into Israel’s hand. There is none of the typical boasting in this list that you find in the others. [cf. Hubbard, 359]

We have come to the first of several chapters in Joshua concerning which faithful readers of the Bible have long scratched their heads, wondering what this chapter is doing in the Bible and what this passage can teach them of any importance for the life of faith. Lists like these strike us as tedious, far removed from the sort of biblical text that will teach us how to live as Christians at work or in our various relationships, how to worship God, or how to bear effective witness to the unsaved. But we pass by too quickly. I can assure you of this: what is reported here was not tedium either to the Canaanites or to the Israelites. Far from it. Employ your imagination.

Think first of how this summary would have sounded to the original inhabitants of Canaan of whom we read here. They would have thought, as one city was named after another: “And so ended our former life.” So ended the Canaanite states that had ruled Palestine for centuries. In a matter of months, a few years at the most, they had fallen one by one to the invading Israelites until nothing was left. They had won one small engagement early on; the rest, however, was the record of one military disaster after another. Lest we forget, their defeat and the destruction of their kingdoms was divine judgment executed on a wicked people. Theirs was a cruel society, oppressive to the poor, sexually licentious, idolatrous, and violently competitive. The Lord had given them a very long time to repent — Israel waited for centuries to receive her inheritance because “the iniquity of the Amorite was not yet full” — but finally Yahweh’s patience was exhausted. The perspective of Joshua as a book focuses our attention on Israel’s gaining possession of the Promised Land, but her gain was the Canaanites’ loss. This too is the reality of things. Salvation and judgment, heaven and hell lie very close to one another in the outworking of human life, just as the Valley of Hinnom and the City of God lay right next to one another. So take one last look at the Canaanites as they disappear from history and see in them the future of the unbelieving world with all of its great men and all of its impressive cities. Did those who remained in the land realize how different was the life of the people who had conquered them? Did they realize how utterly different Yahweh was from the gods of Canaan? Whether they did or not, their sun had set and the Amorites and Hivites and Jebusites and Perizzites left the world’s stage to be remembered for nothing but the role they played in the life of Israel.

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: — Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandius, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

So seemingly great at the time; so soon and so long forgotten. People today may object that God’s people took a land from others who had inhabited it. But God took that land from them as punishment for their sins and the same will eventually happen to all those who live as the Canaanites, who refuse to repent and turn to God. That is what happens in this world, like it or not; always has, always will. The kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ! That will mean, that must mean, the conquest and the subjection of all those peoples who will not submit to the Lord, will not believe in and will not follow the King of Kings. We must never forget this. We must never be sentimental about the world we live in. Still less should we be beguiled by it or intimidated by it or overly impressed by it. It is given over to death. Whether sooner or later, everything this world does, everything that it gives itself to in worship, everything it accomplishes, will be destroyed and every citizen of this world will face the exacting judgment of the Lord.

That is the first message of Joshua 12. Our calling is not to make this world a happier place. We may do so, as it were, by happenstance, but it is not our calling. Nor is our calling to make people comfortable in this world. Our calling is to call men and women, boys and girls, out of this world before it is destroyed, before it is too late. That is the Bible’s perspective from beginning to end and when we embrace that perspective and take it seriously it changes us; it must change us. It solemnizes us and galvanizes us. If this world is hurtling toward doom, then obviously, as John put it, if anyone loves this world, the love of the Father is not in him.

But the primary focus of the chapter is not on the defeated Canaanites — they aren’t even named after Sihon and Og — but on Israel’s gaining of the land. The way the chapter is written lays stress on the totality of Israel’s victory. All of these kings from the far south to the far north, one after another: the list of them makes a cumulative impression. The number “one” that follows the name of each town from verse 9 to verse 24, seems tedious to us, perhaps, but the verses read “as if the audience were counting” the cities one by one as they heard their names read out. [Hubbard, 362]

Remember, as soon as Joshua was written, and for many centuries thereafter, God’s people heard the Bible, they didn’t read it for themselves. They did not have a copy of the Bible on their bedside table or the coffee table in their living room or resting open on their laps at church. They heard it read at the synagogue, at the temple, on the Sabbath and on the feast days. And they would have heard this listing of the conquered cities of Canaan. What is more, they knew where all of these cities were. In their mind’s eye, as the list was read, they would have moved up and down the geography of the Promised Land. The names, one after another, would have made a powerful impression. One part of the Promised Land, then another, still another, had fallen to Israel. Now we understand how it is that we are living in these very same places, that they are ours!

Suppose, for example, we put ourselves in their place. Suppose I read to you an account of a great victory of the kingdom of God, a victory in which the population of our largest and most impressive and fabled American cities had fallen powerfully under the sway of the gospel and one city after another became, by the Holy Spirit’s powerful working, joyfully subject to the Lord Jesus and to his Word. Suppose you heard this:

“It began in Boston, where the story of America’s Christian experience began. Then New York City fell to the Spirit of God. Then Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Charlotte, and Atlanta. From there the Spirit moved to Nashville, up to Indianapolis, Chicago, and Minneapolis; down to St. Louis, west to Kansas City, south to Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, northwest to Denver…”

Every Christian with a modicum of knowledge of American geography (and I realize that isn’t every Christian any longer!) would be visualizing the map, noting the movement from north to south, northeast, eventually to southwest. (After I had given out that list of cities in the first service this morning, someone came up to me afterward and asked why I had left Florida out. They were following me down the eastern seaboard and I stopped at Atlanta. She was just like an earlier Israelite reader. She was waiting for her town to be named.) He or she would be waiting to hear the name of any city he or she was familiar with, where he had lived, or friends or relatives still lived, or where she went to school. The excitement would build with each new section of the country falling to the kingdom of God. Well it was something like that for an Israelite who heard “the king of Jericho, one; the king of Ai, one; Bethel, one; the king of Jerusalem, one; the king of Hebron, one: and so on. This would have been for them no “dull archive,” but a thrilling summary of Israel’s total victory.

But it would also have been the impressive demonstration that the Lord had been faithful to the promise he had made to Abraham long before and had repeated many times over the centuries since: “Unto your seed I will give this land.”

Now, as we have throughout our study of Joshua to this point, we must apply this history to our own lives. We are taught to do that in the Bible, in which again and again the history of the conquest is treated as providing us an illustration or a pattern of the way of salvation. As the great church father, Origen, said in his sermons on Joshua, Joshua was well aware of the anagogical sense of his accomplishments. “Anagogical,” literally “leading upward,” refers to the way in which this history points to heaven and the ultimate consummation of the kingdom of God in heaven. [ACCS, Old Testament, vol. iv, 70]

Every Christian is Israel taking the Promised Land. Every Christian life repeats the story of the conquest. The Promised Land is a type or embodied prophesy of heaven and heaven must be taken by faithful men and women who trust in the Lord and fight his battles. As with Israel, so with us, the Promised Land will not suddenly drop into our laps. It takes time. We too must wait and we too must fight many battles before the land will be safely ours. But we learn in Joshua that Israel took Canaan and that we will take heaven in due course. God will enable us to do so and will fulfill in our lives the promises he has made. That is the supreme lesson of this book.

The question Joshua chapter 12 poses to us is this: do we think of our lives in these terms? Do we see the progress that is being made day by day, month by month, year by year, toward our final possession of the Promised Land? Can you identify, as it were, the Hebrons, the Eglons, the Debirs, and the Adullams of your life? Do you see the Lord taking you, step by step, through the hill country of this world and then the coastal plain; safely through battle after battle; can you see in your mind’s eye the approaching end, when the Promised Land will be yours?

Life can seem so ordinary so much of the time, can’t it? Nothing terribly significant seems to be happening. We are wrapped up in the details of our lives, important as they no doubt are. The days pass, the months, and then the years, but we are not conscious, or are hardly conscious, of the fact that we are, day by day, taking the Promised Land; that we are drawing closer and closer to the day when it shall be completely ours. We fail to see that this thing that happened, that thing the Lord did for us, this person he brought into our lives, this encounter we had with him or with her, the way we were able to serve him in this way or that, that piece of obedience, that act of repentance, that sacrifice of Christian love, those words of witness, were, as it were, the taking of Debir or of Adullam. Just as the unbelieving world is unaware that their kingdom is being taken from them and that they are inexorably moving ever closer to their final and complete defeat, so we can be all too often unaware that our lives, that every Christian life, is a reproduction of Israel’s conquest of Canaan.

Where lies our failure? What is missing? Well, one thing that is missing, one thing that keeps us from a living sense of what we are doing and where we are going is a lack of such a list as we find here in chapter 12. What we far too often lack, you and I, is a detailed itemization of the Lord’s goodness to us, of the victories that have already been won, of the cities already taken, of the extent to which the Promised Land lies already under our feet.

You remember, perhaps, those of you who are older, the song we used to sing in Sunday School? It was written by Johnson Oatman Jr, a Methodist minister, who also wrote some other popular gospel songs of the late 19th and early 20th century, such as “Higher Ground,” and “No, not One.” I remember singing them all. The opening line of the most famous of Oatman’s songs was “When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed…” But it was usually known by the words of the refrain, which, if you remember the song at all, you remember still today:

“Count your blessings — name them one by one,
Count your blessings — see what God has done;
Count your blessings — name them one by one;
Count your many blessings — see what God has done.”

Well that was what the narrator here, the author of Joshua was doing. He was counting the Lord’s blessings, literally, one by one. The king of Jericho, one; the king of Ai, one; the king of Tirzah, one. Joshua 12 is a specimen of counting the blessings of the Lord one by one. And in so doing it is certainly recommending the same practice to us.

There is so much of this in the Bible, the specific acknowledgement of what God has done for us and given to us. The Psalms are full of it. When Professor Allen Ross was speaking here some months ago, he made a point of saying that. When you read a psalmist saying that he will fulfill his vows to God in the sanctuary, the sort of statement that is repeated a number of times in the Psalms, he meant he having asked God for some blessing, if God heard and answered his prayer, he would surely go to the temple and make public his thanksgiving for what God had done for him. You find the same thing in the biblical narratives, in the OT and the NT. You have this one by one acknowledgement of the blessings of Jesus Christ in the Gospels. Taking the Bible as a whole we learn that the more godly a man is in the portrait we have of him in the Word of God, the more grateful that man invariably is and the more given to expressing his thanksgiving to God and to others. Have you noticed that? It is true; and the Apostle Paul is a perfect example. He was always remembering every kindness that others had shown him, thanking those individuals themselves and God for them and for what they had done. We find the Apostle Paul giving thanks throughout his letters. He was a thanksgiving machine!

The British scholar, H.L. Ellison, in his little commentary on Joshua — it is often in the little commentaries by British authors that one finds the most useful insights! — puts the point this way:

“It would be unfair to suggest that the Church is unwilling to thank God for all his many mercies, but on the whole it is unwilling to indulge in detailed and specific thanks. If we were to train ourselves to recognize God’s goodness act by act and detail by detail, many of us would come to think more highly both of God and of the Church. Much of our despondency comes from failing to see how much God has really achieved.” [Cited in Davis, 109]

Ellison is telling us that it isn’t enough to include a general thanksgiving for “all God’s mercies” in our prayers. It is much better to thank him for specific things and if we cannot recollect all of them — which will always be true, so little of the Lord’s total goodness to us do we even recognize — let some specific kindnesses and provisions stand for all the rest. It is the same with the confession of our sins. It is why in morning worship we have the silent confession as well as the public one. It’s not enough to be general. No, let us say it straight out: “I did this, I did that. I failed to do this.” And so with petitions. Ask the Lord for very specific things. Every petition in the Lord’s Prayer is an invitation to invite God to do this, to do that, to do this other thing.

But supremely with thanksgiving. Every day, day after day, you and I are consuming vast quantities of the Lord’s goodness. Are we thanking the Lord for it? Promise after promise is being fulfilled in some way every day we live in this world.

“And lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
“He who began a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.”
“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things — food, shelter,   clothing — will be added to you.”
“If you confess your sins God is faithful and just and will forgive your sins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness.”
“I will be a God to you and to your children after you.”
“He who honors me, I will honor.”
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
“If you ask for anything in my name, it shall be done for you.”
“Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.”

And so many other exceeding great and precious promises like those. If you stopped to think about your life, carefully and with a Bible in your hand, you would realize how many of those promises are fulfilled in your life every single day. But we remain largely unaware because we do not stop to give thanks, because we have not trained ourselves to acknowledge the victories of God in our own lives.

Imagine an Israelite soldier hearing this list read out for the first time. Perhaps he was still recovering from his wounds suffered in one of those battles. Perhaps his father was a soldier in the war of conquest. With what gratitude and pride and happiness he would listen as one city after another is listed as having fallen to the Israelite army, as he was reminded of how the Lord kept his Word and gave his people the land he had promised their ancestor Abraham. He would have been like the World War II veteran who says, “I was there on D-Day, or I fought in the Battle of the Bulge, or I was on Guadalcanal or Okinawa.”

Well so with us. We can so easily see and feel our troubles — the weariness of those many battles — but to hear the roll call of conquered cities should lift our spirits wonderfully. These victories in Canaan foreshadow the daily victories of the ordinary Christian life and the ultimate victory of all Christians and the Christian church when the kingdom of God has vanquished all its opposition in this world.

The grateful man or woman, the Christian man or woman who is always looking to praise the Lord, is the Christian man or woman who is most conscious of the Lord’s presence in his or her life and the happiest man or woman for it. It is in thanksgiving that we most powerfully sense the Lord’s presence with us and the sense of that presence transforms any day, no matter what has happened on that day, happy or sad, easy or difficult. In a paragraph that is pure Alexander Whyte, the great preacher made this point in his own inimitable way.

“The size and the substance and the spirit of a man’s soul is at once seen by the spontaneity and the generosity and the exuberance and the warmth of his praises. Just as the smallness and the stinginess and the sullenness of another man’s soul is all disclosed to us by his despicable ingratitude to all his benefactors. Almighty God himself inhabits the praises of Israel. [Fraser of Brea, 19]

Do you want to step more lightly on your way to the Promised Land? Do you want to revel in the divine victories that are occurring in your life every single day? Do you want to feel yourself part of the victorious host of the Lord even as you live your workaday life in this world? Well, stop with this infernal ingratitude; this unthinking indifference to what God does for you and gives to you every single day of your life.

No, brothers and sisters, let us be grateful; let us aspire to be much more grateful than we are for the innumerable blessings that are lavished on us twenty-four hours a day and every day of the week as we participate in this conquest of the Promised Land. No generalities; no unthinking and unmeaning platitudes. Not for us. For us let it be:

“Count your blessings — name them one by one!”