Note Before I Answer: This is not a political response, nor is it a religious one.
Short Answer: According to my readings of the Hebrew Bible, Ancient Near Eastern myths, contemporary archaeological works, Biblical scholarly literature, and the history of the Levant in the Late Bronze/Early Iron Age, I am of the opinion that the story conveyed in Exodus–>Joshua never happened. I also might be wrong.
There’s this thing called the Documentary Hypothesis, founded by Julius Wellhausen, and recently expanded upon by Richard Elliott Friedman. There is no scholarly consensus on the veracity of the Hypothesis, but it makes the most sense to me when placed alongside the archaeological records, the known historical record, and Sumerian (etc) myth cycles. The very short and sweet explanation of the Documentary Hypothesis is that there are four main narrative strands within the Hebrew Bible: the J Source, E source, D Source, and P Source. Plus the Redactor. The J (“Yahwist”) and E (Elohist) sources are the oldest. J represents the oral history, mythos, etc of what would become the southern Kingdom of Judah, and E represents the same for the northern Kingdom of Israel. The two sources were combined by the D Source, the “Deuteronomist” sometimes after the fall of Israel to the Neo-Assyrain Empire in 721 BCE. The P Source is the “Priestly” source and it’s not really relevant to this particular conversation
The D Source’s combining of J and E wasn’t just about creating a compendium of myth, or folk religion, or oral history, it was about asserting the political and spiritual dominance of the Kingdom of Judah over the Kingdom of Israel, and hegemonizing Israelite worship practices from polytheistic to hardcore monotheistic. So, in Genesis we see a lot of cosmological and general mythological archetypes which, if you knew where to look, reflect aspects of God/Goddess cycles from all across Asia Minor, Egypt, and the Ancient Near East. (Check out my posts from 2011 and 2012 to learn more about how Genesis is secretly about a life goddess murdering some guy who kept stealing shit from her garden and banging his granddaughters)(that’s a hyperbolic assessment)
So Genesis happens blah blah blah, and then Joseph heads down to Egypt, his fam follows, time flies, and then came a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph etc the Israelites left Egypt, wandered the desert for 40 years, then blew down the walls of Jericho under Joshua, slaughtered all the Canaanites and took back the Promised Land. A grand, epic ending to a super-long Israelite cosmology.
Except, according to Joshua, the Israelites were supposed to have destroyed a large number of Canaanite cities within a fairly small period of time. But the archaeological record of those cities show destruction layers hundreds of years apart, even within the larger 1100-1300 BCE timeframe typically used to look for a historical Exodus situation. And to make things even more awkward, the Book of Judges is supposed to happen after the Book of Joshua. Except, in the Book of Judges, the various Israelite clans very obviously live alongside Canaanites and Philistines. And they don’t even have hegemony over Canaan, like, most of the Book of Judges is about Israelite groups getting into border skirmishes with Canaanites. Who, according to Joshua, were supposed to be dead.
Awkward, but there’s an explanation.
There’s an archaeological theory called the Israelites as Canaanites theory, and it’s the one that makes the most sense to me. According to this theory, there was no Exodus, and the proto-Israelites never left the Levant; the Israelites WERE Canaanites. During the Bronze Age, the Levant was pretty evenly split between Egypt and the Hittite Empire, possibly leading to a memory of life under Egyptian rule which the D Source used as inspiration for the Exodus. The Bronze Age Collapse left the Levant in a bit of a power vacuum. That power vacuum opened the door for new groups and peoples to form identities, and claim territories, and have border disputes and form like, little backwater kingdoms for the Neo-Assyrians to laugh at.*
According to archaeologist William Dever, sometime around 1200 BCE, evidence starts to show up in the archaeological record of something new happening in the central Judean hill country: semi-permanent circular settlements, removed from other Canaanite sites of the period, with no evidence of pork consumption. The archaeological record does not show evidence of a new group entering Canaan, but it does show evidence of a new material culture growing in the highlands.
If we are to understand Judges as a compendium of oral history, verse, myth, legend, and regional adapted archetypes from the pre-monarchical Israelite past, then that past is one of slow emergence and separation, not of dramatic racial and territorial conquest. And honestly, how do you go from winning a glorious genocidal campaign under one ruler to fighting a vague series of clan and border disputes within a loosely organized tribal society ruled by a warrior/mystic figure? Well, you kind of don’t. At least, not within a year.
So, that’s how Biblical textual analysis, ancient near eastern history and mythology, and the archaeological record come together for me to lead me to view that Exodus, the grand Israelite cosmology as conveyed in the Genesis-Joshua, didn’t happen. At least, not the way it is described, and not the way we think about it.
Now, further reading because you know I don’t pull this out of my ass ok:
Old Testament Parallels (New Revised and Expanded Third Edition): Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East by Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin
From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible by Eric Cline
Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? by William Dever
The End of the Bronze Age by Robert Drews
The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts by Neil Silberman and Israel Finkelstein
Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Eliot Friedman
A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, Second Edition by J. Maxwell Miller and John Haralson Hayes
A Brief History of Ancient Israel by Victor H. Matthews
The Social History of Ancient Israel: An Introduction by Rainer Kessler
The Philistines and Aegean Migration at the End of the Late Bronze Age by Assaf Yasur-Landau
*I’m going to Jew hell for that one.