It is important to realise from the outset that the Book of Joshua is first and foremost a religious document and does not pretend to be a full or complete historical account of Israel's experience in Transjordan and Canaan. But notwithstanding this, it is equally important to state that what historical information has been recorded here has, by and large, been confirmed by archaeology. If there is an idealisation in the account, it is the result more of ommission than of spurrious addition or distortion. With these facts in mind it is possible to critically examine the text and determine to what extent the account has been idealised.
The precise boundaries of the ideal Confederate State of Israel are defined a number of times even though it is acknowledged that this allotted territory was never fully realised in the Books of Joshua and Judges, its importance is, some scholars argue, played down. We find in the texts many examples of hyperbole and in one example we find the tribes engaged in a fierce battle against an enemy and not losing a single soldier. Whilst such an eventuality is not impossible, they argue, it does rather suggest that the writer's purpose was not so much to record cold facts as to write faith-inspiring material for future generations. However, if we accept the veracity of the account of the fall of Jericho then in the viewe of this author it is not at all inconceivable that similar divine protection could have been imparted more than one. The doubt is rather a function of a [liberal] naturalistic rather (where the miraculous is discounted) than a [conservative] supernaturalistic world-view (where the supernatural is acknowledged).
Joshua and Judges give the impression that the tribes under Joshua were the sole Habiru to invade and inherit the hill country of the Promised Land but other evidence suggests that other Habiru may have preceeded them. We discover in the Book of Joshua that the Israelites encountered no opposition in the occupation of cShechem even though this was a very important Canannite city and the centre of Canaanite Baal worship. There are two possible explanations for this:
The first interpretation is unlikely as Joshua made no treaties with the Canaanites; indeed, he was forbidden to do so by Yahweh. The treaty with the Gibeonite confederation was not intended at all and was achieved by stealth on the part of the Gibeonites who extracted a vow from Joshua which the Law forbade him to retract. It is therefore very likely that Canaan possessed elements of Habiru before Joshua crossed the Jordan and they may have beenr esident there for several hundreds of years. If it is true that such Habiru did preceed Joshua's Israelites, and if they were baal worshippers as is almost certain, then we can also understand how Israel succumbed to Baal qorship so quickly and easily. These indiginous Habiru would have adopted Canannite culture which was developed, sophisticated and urban, and given them an advantage over their more rustic, nomadic brethren from Sinai. It is usually the case that a militarily superior though culturally inferior group of people adipt the culture of their militarily weaker though sulturally superior conquered people. Such was the case with Rome and Greece, Akkad and Sumer. Thus it may be that a second Habiru force was at work during the settlement process which is wholly omitted by the writers of Jishua and Judges.
1. That the inhabitants were bona fide Canaanites who, like the Gibeonites, realised that their chances against Israel were minimal and decided instead to secure a treaty and peacefully coexist with the new invaders; or
2. The Shechemites were Habiru like Joshua and who, although Baal worshippers, were willing to "choose this day whom they would serve" and opt for Yahweh.
Archaeology confirms that the cities Joshua claimed to have captured and destroyed did exist and were, for the most part, destroyed at the time claimed (1250-1200 B.C). However, excavations of certain cities throw some doubt on the Joshua accounts. For example, it is known that the city of Ai was already a heap of rubble by the time Joshua took it though this does not mean there were not a few inhabitants who had crudely restored some of the former defences. Another example is Jericho which archaelogy indicates was not the mammouth fortress Joshua depicts it as being, though at an earlier time it seems it likely was. But by and large, the cities Joshua claimed to have destroyed were (e.g. Hazor in the north). In the final analysis we must decide whether to give scholars (whose views frequently change as new evidence is examined) or the Bible the benefit of the doubt where such doubt may legitimately exist, exercising our choice to exercise faith in one or the other.
The accounts in Jpshua and Judges indicate that the twelve tribes were only loosely affiliated as if evidenced by the poor response to the call to arms by many of the judges of the period. The stories in Judges often strike one as being very idealised and since both Joshua and Judges are believed by many scholars to have been written by a common historian (the Deuteronomist) the doubts expressed in Judges will reflect back on Joshua. It is interesting to note that the periods of peace between sccessive judges in Judges occur in multiples of 40, usually 40 or 80 years. There are two ways of looking at this:
It is impossible to know which, if either, interpretation is correct. It could either indicate that the stories were written by the historian who did not have much information at his fingertips and therefroe had to weave a story using part fact and part fiction - or the account could be substantially accurate and the use of multiples opf 40 is simply a literary device whose purpose is not intended to convey exact chronology. We should also bear in mind that eastern writers were not as precise as their western counterparts. Thus we must be careful before we pronounce sentence on the Jishua account as being idealised to the extent of being part fiction.
1. The periods of peace were not known between the judges, or during their reigns, and that therefore these figures are guesses; and
2. The 40 year periods are simply a Hebrew way of denominating a single generation, 80 years thus representing two generations.
Many commentators believe that the Samson stories are idealised fiction simple because of the unlikeliness of a single individual slaying such vast numbers of Philistines with the jaw bone of an ox, based on the 'common experience'. Whilst the accounts of this man do, from a naturalistic viewpoint, seem to be overly coloured it does not mean that the basic account is untrue. There is a fundamental problem with numbers in the Old Testament, a problem highlighted in the Exodus where an impossible number of Israelites are said to have departed from Egypt to Canaan. It is now known that the transmission of numbers in the Old Testament text was subject to common scribal error. So it is impossible to say that Samson's slaying of 1,000 Philistines with an ox's jawbone was to the the fact that the story was fiction; he could equally well have slain 100 or 10. Or the figure may have simply been right after all . And then it may be that Samson was endowed with supernatural power from Yahweh. So we cannot tell whether this account was idealised or not. The matter is, using purely scientific tools, indeterminate.
There are some cases where the conclusion that the text has been idealised by the writer is unavoidable. Joshua is supposed to have exterminated the populations of the cities he conquered and yet we discover laten on that these same people are apparently well and flourishing, eithetr because some escaped the massacres or because some were spared. In conclusion, then, it is clear that there is some case in saying that the Joshua text has been idealised but there is also equally good, if not better, evidence that the material is historically sound. The settlement was never really completed until the time of David when Israel took all the land allocated her by Yahweh. But by then the Canaanite element was already established and too numerous to be moved. Throughout Joshua and Judges these Canaanites continued to pop up and harrass the Israelites even though the reader often gets the impression that these people were permanently subdued or eliminated. Granted the process of settlement was complex and involved factors not recorded in the text, it is my assertion that the basic material in Joshua is essentially accurate. Such stories as the sun and moon stopping still have been explained by scholars as coming from the Book of Jasher, a book of poetry, which the historian mistakenly interpreted literally, and do not affect the overall validity of the Book of Joshua. It is idealised only in the sense that much material is omitted, but since the book was written primarily for a religious purpose we cannot make the same expectations of it as we might a scholarly historical review. Joshua is only what it is, and no more: an account of Yahweh's dealings with His people in the conquest of the Promised land.
 There is a place in Sri lanka (formerly Ceylon) were a single native was able to hold off the entire British Army because of the geography of the area. A similar example could be made using Masada where a single man could hold off the entire Roman army attempting to attack the fortress up the famous 'snake path'.
Updated and expanded on 3 August 2009