A friend recently raised an interesting matter, and I was hoping you could provide some clarification. He pointed out that Joshua 17:18 indicates the Israelites would be able to defeat iron chariots, yet in Judges 1:19 it turns out they weren't able to do so. Although I'd never heard the issue raised before, in a brief web search I found this popped up rather frequently by critics as an example of either: a biblical inconsistency / contradiction or God's rather limited power.
I notice that Joshua 17 refers to the tribes of Joseph, while Judges 1 refers of the tribe of Judah. I think that eliminates the question of consistency, unless I'm missing something. As to this being an illustration of God's limited power, I note that the larger narrative arc of Judges is generally about Israel's wandering and rebellion -- which point towards the people's need for a king (and ultimately a perfect one). While God does give the people some successes throughout the book, he also allows them to fail not infrequently. The fact that Judah was unable to defeat iron chariots, it would seem, is attributable to their failings rather than God's (see Judges 2:1-3 for an example). Have you heard this criticism before? Am I approaching the text properly? -- Ted Jensen
Honestly, I never noticed the problem -- until now. Some great thoughts, Ted -- nice analysis. I can think of one more explanation, perhaps too simple, but read on and maybe it will make sense.
Joshua 17:18 doesn't actually say they drove the Canaanites out, only that they were able. Judges 1:19 (also 4:3,13) explains that because of the iron-clad chariots the men of Judah failed. Why do we fail?
Perhaps this is best understood experientially. There are many things God asks us to do and which he has equipped us to do but which we fail to do. For instance, he tells us to share the good news, and all of us can do our part, but how often we talk ourselves out of a simple act of obedience! He urges us to come clean and confess sin, but sometimes we're in such a twist of guilt or shame that we do fail to see his commands as freeing; again, the task seems impossibly daunting -- or dauntingly impossible.
When we drift spiritually, or get into an excuse-making mode, or give in to fear, challenges may seem insurmountable. I think of the spies in Canaan (Num 13-14). Some brought back a good report, while others were so intimidated they saw the mission as impossible. And considering their lack of faith, perhaps it was impossible!
Regardless of which solution we embrace, the tension between Joshua 17 and Judges 1 is hardly qualifies as a contradiction, let alone an iron-clad one.