Were the Iron Chariots Too Powerful?
[NOTE: During the February 12, 2009 Darwin Day debate with Kyle Butt, Dan Barker listed 14 alleged Bible discrepancies as evidence against God’s existence. He insisted (11 minutes and 24 seconds into his opening speech) that the Bible gives contradictory descriptions of God’s power, because of a statement about the Israelite’s failure to conquer their neighbors who possessed iron chariots. His allegation is refuted in the following article written by Kyle in 2004.]
It has been suggested that the Bible is filled with contradictions. One of the supposed contradictions is between Joshua 17:18 and Judges 1:19. Let us look closely at these verses and their contexts to see if any real contradiction exists.
Joshua 17:18: “But the mountain country shall be yours. Although it is wooded, you shall cut it down, and its farthest extent shall be yours; for you shall drive out the Canaanites, though they have iron chariots and are strong.”
Judges 1:19: “So the Lord was with Judah. And they drove out the mountaineers, but they could not drive out the inhabitants of the lowland, because they had chariots of iron.”
After reading the two verses, it may look like they contradict one another. Did the children of Israel defeat the Canaanites with their chariots of iron as Joshua apparently had said they would, or were the chariots just too powerful for the people of Judah to overcome?
These two passages have several plausible ways of reconciliation. And, please remember that the exact way to reconcile any contradiction need not be pinpointed, as long as a possible way can be provided. The rest of this brief answer will deal with only two of the many possible ways to reconcile the passages.
The first way to reconcile the passages is to show that Joshua was informing his listeners that they had the power to drive out the Canaanites only if they would follow God faithfully and be confident in His promises. Judges chapter 2:1-3 says:
Then the Angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said: “I led you up from Egypt and brought you to the land of which I swore to your fathers; and I said, ‘I will never break My covenant with you. And you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed My voice. Why have you done this? Therefore I also said, ‘I will not drive them out before you; but they shall be thorns in your side, and their gods shall be a snare to you.’ ”
God’s promise through Joshua was not an unconditional guarantee that the children of Israel would possess all of the land they had been promised. It was conditional, based upon the faithfulness of the Israelites and their obedience to God’s commandments. After all, God never would force the Israelites to clear the wooded areas against their will. Neither would He force them to conquer the iron chariots. The two verses under discussion easily could be dealing with land that God chose not to clear of its previous inhabitants because of the disobedience of the people of Judah.
A second possible solution could be that the children of Israel did conquer the mountain country and succeeded in driving out its inhabitants for a brief time, but they were unable to maintain control of the cities. Thus, by the time referred to in Judges 1, the cities already could have been retaken by the chariots of iron.
As a final word, notice that Joshua said that “the mountain country” and “its farthest extents” were the promised possession of the Israelites. In Judges 1:19, the children of Israel did, indeed, drive out “the inhabitants of the mountains.” Unless we force the phrase “its farthest extents” in Joshua 17:18 to read “lowland” as in Judges 1:19, then there is absolutely no hint of a contradiction, and this entire explanation is unnecessary.