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Pearce’s Potshots #43: Joshua’s Conquest & Archaeology

Pearce’s Potshots #43: Joshua’s Conquest & Archaeology August 3, 2021

Including a Plausible Theory as to Why Late Bronze Age Jericho (after 1550 BC) Has Virtually Completely Eroded

Atheist anti-theist Jonathan M. S. Pearce is the main writer on the blog, A Tippling Philosopher. His “About” page states: “Pearce is a philosopher, author, blogger, public speaker and teacher from Hampshire in the UK. He specialises in philosophy of religion, but likes to turn his hand to science, psychology, politics and anything involved in investigating reality.” His words will be in blue.

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Previously, I wrote the article: Pearce’s Potshots #32: No Evidence for Joshua’s Conquest? [5-28-21]. See also the related: Archaeology & Joshua’s Altar on Mt. Ebal [7-22-14]. Jonathan has made a number of dubious statements along these lines:

[T]here is no evidence at all of the Conquest of Canaan after coming out of Egypt. Indeed, the archaeological evidence disconfirms the account, which is also replete with supernatural claims. (4-5-18)

Simply put, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the fact that none of these claims [regarding Joshua’s Conquest] is attested outside of the Bible is a real problem. It’s not that the evidence is poor, it’s that it doesn’t exist. Or, if you take the Bible as evidence of the Bible, then the evidence is terribly, terribly poor at absolute best. . . .

[T]he movement away from biblical maximalism is not only borne out by the archaeology itself, it is also methodologically far more sound. Archaeology supports neither the Exodus account nor those in the Bible following it. (3-19-18)

Kenneth A. Kitchen, eminent Egyptologist and archaeologist, provides a helpful overview of the question of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, as described in the Bible, in relation to archaeological research:

First . . ., the text of Joshua does not imply huge and massive fiery destructions of every site visited (only Jericho, Ai, and Hazor were burned). . . . the Hebrews under Joshua sought basically to kill off the Canaanite leadership and manpower, to facilitate later occupation. . . . Second, even when a Late Bronze II settlement is found to have been damaged or destroyed, there is no absolute certainty as to who was responsible . . . Fifth, with 95 percent of the site undug (as is common), the evidence may still be under the ground. So any survey of city mounds in Canaan is provisional at the best of times. (On the Reliability of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids and Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003, 183)

Archaeologist James K. Hoffmeier concurs:

[T]he rationale for dismissing the Israelite conquest of Canaan rest upon fallacies and unverifiable assumptions. . . .

[A] close look at the terms dealing with warfare in Joshua 10 reveals that they do not support the interpretation that the land of Canaan and its principal cities were demolished and devastated by the Israelites. . . .

Consequently, the cities enumerated in Joshua 10 probably were not destroyed or leveled, thus leaving no detectable evidence in the archaeological record. (Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus TraditionNew York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, 34-35)

Joshua does not describe a widespread destruction of the land. Rather, as Joshua admits (13:1), there was still much land not in Israelite hands, and it proceeds to outline those areas (Josh. 13:2-8). . . . Contrary to a blitzkrieg and “whirlwind annihilation” conquest  . . . quite the opposite is reported. (Ibid., 36)

When Joshua is viewed as a piece of Near Eastern military writing, and its literary character is properly understood, the idea of a group of tribes coming to Canaan, using some military force, partially taking a number of cities and areas over a period of some years, destroying (burning) just three cities, and coexisting alongside the Canaanites and other ethnic groups for a period of time before the beginnings of monarchy, does not require blind faith. . . . Israel is said to have occupied  “a land on which you had not labored, and cities which you had not built, and you dwell therein; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards which you did not plant” (Josh. 24:13). This suggests that the arrival of the Israelites did not significantly affect the cultural continuity of the Late Bronze Age and may explain why there is no evidence of an intrusion into the land from outsiders, for they became heirs of the material culture of the Canaanites. (Ibid., 43-44)

Returning to Dr. Kitchen’s analysis: his third and fourth factors were sometimes questionable identification of mounds / sites, and erosion “by natural causes or human destruction”. In any event, we won’t find a bumper sticker anywhere in Israel (former Canaan) saying, “Joshua came and saw and conquered in 1199 BC!” We can only make a judgment as to whether the facts regarding any given site are consistent with the biblical account; do not directly contradict it. Kitchen continues his summary:

(1) Usually less than about 5 or 10 percent of any given mound is ever dug down to Late Bronze (or any other) levels; hence between 85 and 95 percent of our potential source of evidence is never seen. (2) The principal Hebrew policy under Joshua was to kill leaders and inhabitants, not to destroy the cities, but eventually to occupy them (cf. Deut. 6:10-11), destroying only the alien cult places (Deut. 12:2-3). . . . at the end of the day, we should speak of an Israelite entry into Canaan, and settlement: neither only a conquest (although raids and attacks were made), nor simply an infiltration (although some tribes moved in alongside Canaanites), nor just re-formation of local Canaanites into a new society “Israel” (although others, as at Shechem, may have joined the Hebrew nucleus; cf. Gibeon). But elements of several processes can be seen in the biblical narratives. (Ibid., 189-190)

Kitchen undertook a survey of many of the biblical / archaeological sites mentioned in Joshua, to see if they verify / are consistent with (as opposed to “proving”) the biblical accounts. I will incorporate archaeologists’ summaries from two other books as well, and include the relevant Bible passages. Joshua’s “conquest” is generally dated during the last half of the 13th century BC; perhaps extending some years into the 12th as well (1250-1200 BC and a bit later): in other words, on the borderline between the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age. The periods we are dealing with are classified by archaeologists and historians as follows:

Late Bronze I 1550-1400 BC

Late Bronze IIA 1400-1300 BC

Late Bronze IIB 1300-1200 BC

Iron Age IA 1200-1150 BC

Iron Age IB 1150 1000 BC

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Joshua 10:10 (RSV) And the LORD threw them into a panic before Israel, who slew them with a great slaughter at Gibeon, and chased them by the way of the ascent of Beth-hor’on, and smote them as far as Aze’kah and Makke’dah. (cf. 10:11; 15:35)

Azekah was occupied right through the early, Middle, and Late Bronze periods, as well as through the Iron Age to Hellenistic times. (Kitchen, 183; my bolding, as throughout)

Joshua 10:29-30 Then Joshua . . . fought against Libnah; [30] and the LORD gave it also and its king into the hand of Israel; and he smote it with the edge of the sword, and every person in it; he left none remaining in it; . . .

Libnah . . . can be plausibly identified with Tell Bornat (Tel Burna), which was inhabited in the Late Bronze Age, in agreement with the probable date of Joshua’s raids. (Kitchen, 183)

. . . settled in the Early Bronze Age and Iron Age I-II (Avraham Negev and Shimon Gibson, Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land, New York: Continuum, revised edition of 2001, 299)

Joshua 10:34-35 And Joshua passed on with all Israel from Lachish to Eglon; and they laid siege to it, and assaulted it; [35] and they took it on that day, and smote it with the edge of the sword; and every person in it he utterly destroyed that day, . . .

Eglon . . . is in all likelihood to be sited at present-day Tell ‘Aitun (Tell ‘Eton), occupied in the Late Bronze II period . . . (Kitchen, 184)

Joshua 10:38-39 Then Joshua, with all Israel, turned back to Debir and assaulted it, [39] and he took it with its king and all its towns; and they smote them with the edge of the sword, and utterly destroyed every person in it; he left none remaining; . . .

Debir . . . is more securely located at Khirbet Rabud . . . this site was inhabited in the fourteenth/thirteenth centuries, in the Late Bronze II period, and was reoccupied directly in Early Iron I (twelfth century). (Kitchen, 184)

Joshua 11:10-11 And Joshua turned back at that time, and took Hazor, and smote its king with the sword; for Hazor formerly was the head of all those kingdoms. [11] And they put to the sword all who were in it, utterly destroying them; there was none left that breathed, and he burned Hazor with fire.

Hazor . . . [was] destroyed along with a massive conflagration in the thirteenth century, probably toward its end . . . Insofar as the results of Yadin’s work are confirmed by the new excavations under Ben-Tor, then it will seem very probable (as it did to Yadin, long ago) that the massive destruction of greater Hazor was wrought by Joshua. (Kitchen, 185)

In 1996 Amnon Ben Tor’s team uncovered the sensational, charred remains of the late Bronze Age palace. The deliberate decapitation and mutilation of statues of deities, in keeping with the charge of Moses to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 7:5, is one factor that has led Ben Tor to provisionally suggest that this destruction is the work of the Israelites. . . . the study of these remains are at a preliminary stage, and the excavations ongoing, . . . The emerging picture, however, is consistent with the description of the sack of Hazor in Joshua 11. (Hoffmeier, 35)

In stratum XIII, the last of the Bronze Age strata, the building [“probably a palace”] was destroyed by fire. (Negev and Gibson, 78)

Read more about the archaeological evidence regarding Hazor in my previous paper on this topic. Archaeologists Amnon Ben-Tor and Rafael Frankel did indeed concur with Yadin‘s conclusions. The evidence concerning Lachish is also discussed in that article of mine.

Joshua 12:16 . . . the king of Bethel . . .

Bethel . . . On the balance of evidence (as long recognized), to be located at Beitin; there Late Bronze remains were found of the Canaanite-culture town of the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries, succeeded in the twelfth by very different, poorer remains, that developed into probably the early Israelite settlement. (Kitchen, 186)

The Late Bronze Age layers have yielded many well-built private houses containing much local and imported pottery. The last Late Bronze Age stratum is covered by a very thick layer of ashes and charred and fallen bricks. (Negev and Gibson, 221)

See more about Bethel in my previous article.

Joshua 6:20-21, 24 So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city. [21] Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword. . . . [24] And they burned the city with fire, and all within it;

Jericho . . . a great deal of the former Middle Bronze Age township was entirely removed by erosion . . . of the Late Bronze settlement from the mid-fourteenth century onward, almost nothing survives at all. . . . If 200 years of erosion sufficed to remove most of later Middle Bronze Age Jericho, it is almost a miracle that anything on the mound has survived at all from the 400 years of erosion between 1275 and the time of Ahab (875-853), when we hear report of Jericho’s rebuilding (1 Kings 16:34) in Iron I . . . (Kitchen, 187)

I submit a possible and plausible explanation of this high level of erosion in Jericho. The ancient city is only 21 miles (34 kilometers) from the Dead Sea, which is “the deepest hypersaline lake in the world. With a salinity of 342 g/kg, or 34.2% (in 2011), it is one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water [ranked seventh in the world] – 9.6 times as salty as the ocean . . . This salinity makes for a harsh environment in which plants and animals cannot flourish, hence its name” (Wikipedia).

One might suspect that this much salt in the environment might affect man-made structures as well. In fact, this is true of the famous city of Petra in present-day Jordan, which is 123 miles (198 kilometers) from the Dead Sea. Yet a National Geographic article (“Weathering”) discussed a salt-induced erosion process called haloclasty, and its effect on some buildings in Petra:

Salt also works to weather rock in a process called haloclasty. Saltwater sometimes gets into the cracks and pores of rock. If the saltwater evaporates, salt crystals are left behind. As the crystals grow, they put pressure on the rock, slowly breaking it apart.
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Honeycomb weathering is associated with haloclasty. As its name implies, honeycomb weathering describes rock formations with hundreds or even thousands of pits formed by the growth of salt crystals. Honeycomb weathering is common in coastal areas, where sea sprays constantly force rocks to interact with salts.
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Haloclasty is not limited to coastal landscapes. Salt upwelling, the geologic process in which underground salt domes expand, can contribute to weathering of the overlying rock. Structures in the ancient city of Petra, Jordan, were made unstable and often collapsed due to salt upwelling from the ground below.
Wikipedia (“Haloclasty”) states: “It is normally associated with arid climates where strong heating causes strong evaporation and therefore salt crystallization. It is also common along coasts.” The Dead Sea is the lowest elevation on earth: 1,412 ft (431 meters) below sea level. Jericho is the lowest city in the world, at 846 feet (258 meters) feet below sea level. As stated above, it’s 21 miles from the coast of the Dead Sea and has a very arid climate (hot desert climate), with average high temperatures in July and August of over 100 degrees, and over 90 in May, June, September, and October (I was there in October 2014 and yes, it was very hot). In January, the average high is 66 degrees.
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Some archaeologists (e.g., Negev and Gibson, 258-259) speculate that the long rainy season in Jericho (late October to April) may have played a role in washing away Jericho’s ruins. So that provides us with two natural explanations.
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The water level has also greatly fluctuated. According to the Wikipedia article on the Dead Sea: “During the last several thousand years, the lake has fluctuated approximately 400 m (1,300 ft), with some significant drops and rises.” This means that during the time under consideration it likely was in some periods much closer to Jericho than it is now, thus exacerbating the problem of haloclasty and the city’s erosion.
As Dr. Kitchen noted, Jericho sat uninhabited for 400 years, from about 1275-875 BC. Certainly the salt from the nearby Dead Sea had something to do with (if not being a primary cause of) the extraordinary erosion seen at the site. In other words, this is not simply special pleading, to explain why the site offers no evidence as to Joshua’s conquest and the famous biblical text of the walls falling down. There is a perfectly plausible explanation: the arid, hyper-saline environment, possibly also 400 years of winter rains, and the long period without habitation (i.e., no repair of any crumbling buildings or other structures).

Joshua 10:2 . . . Gibeon was a great city . . .

Gibeon. The identification of El-Jib . . . seems assured . . . The limited excavations at he site have yielded first visitors in Middle Bronze I, a proper settlement for Middle Bronze II, eight Late Bronze Age tombs, then a walled township in Iron I-II. Given that 95 percent of the site remains undug, the possibility of a Late Bronze Age occupation (in light of the tombs) remains open for future work to clarify. (Kitchen, 189)

Dr. Kitchen assessed the overall evidence and harmony with the scriptural accounts:

Looking back over these twenty entries, omitting places whose identification on the ground is doubtful or which have not yet been explored archaeologically, we find that eighteen or nineteen of them were in being in Late Bronze (II) and one (Hebron) had tombs used then (of people who lived there?), leaving only Makkedah without direct evidence — and most of that site is not accessible, hence is not decisive. This is a very good score by any standard. (Kitchen, 186)

Of these twenty-four entries, only four can be regarded as deficient in background finds for LB II, and in those cases there are factors that account for the deficiency. The rest sow very clearly that Joshua and his raisers moved among (and against) towns that existed and which in several cases exhibit destructions at this period, . . . This review shows up the far greater deficiencies in some critiques of the Joshua narratives and list that are now already out-of-date and distinctly misleading. (Kitchen, 189)

Related Reading

Bible & Archaeology / Bible & Science web page

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Photo credit: Mboesch (4-14-15). Bronze Age Canaanite temple in Hazor [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license]

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Summary: Overview of archaeological confirmation of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, including a plausible theory as to why Late Bronze Age Jericho (after 1550 BC) has virtually completely eroded.

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