Let the Stones Speak: Part 3

The Conquest


The discussion of Joshua’s conquest, as well as other models for the origin of ancient Israel, will be the last section of this essay for now. While there are many more topics that could be explored, the one that comes chronologically next – the existence and extent of the united monarchy of David and Solomon – is currently a hotly debated topic among biblical scholars, and for the time being I will defer to them. If and when the dust finally settles and a consensus is reached, a new section may be added discussing the findings.

The Book of Joshua is troublesome for another reason having nothing to do with its historical accuracy. The story of the Israelites’ conquest is a story of divinely approved war and genocide, with the invaders given a command from God, not to just to conquer the native people and make the land their own, but to slaughter them to the last man, woman and child. And if the book is to be believed, they obeyed this command to the letter, with great success.

One need not be an atheist to find this morally repugnant. The few groups in recent history who have done anything similar have become synonymous with evil. That any book would record such events with approval should give us very serious reason to doubt claims of its divine inspiration, questions of historical accuracy entirely beside. However, moral evaluations of Joshua and similar books are recorded in “A Book of Blood“; this essay’s purpose is to examine the empirical evidence, and so it shall.

What the Bible Says

Now under the leadership of Joshua, the Israelite tribes arm for war, prepared to invade Canaan and conquer it for their own. Joshua begins by sending out two spies to survey the land, and the first settlement they encounter is the great walled city of Jericho, just on the west side of the Jordan River. The spies lodge with a prostitute named Rahab, who tells them that terror of the Israelites’ coming is spread throughout the land (Joshua 2:9-11). When the king of Jericho hears rumors of the spies and sends out search parties to find and kill them, Rahab hides them on condition that they spare her and her family when Jericho falls. The spies agree to this, escape the city after dark and return to Joshua bearing this news.

In Transjordan, Joshua instructs the people to sanctify themselves: “for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you” (Joshua 3:5). The next morning, they arise and prepare for the momentous crossing of the Jordan: after their forty years of wandering, after their centuries-long sojourn in Egypt, the children of Israel are at last about to enter the land promised to their ancestors so long ago.

The priestly tribe of the Levites leads the procession, bearing the Ark of the Covenant, and in a minor version of the miracle of the parting of the Sea of Reeds, the Jordan River parts before them, and the Israelites pass into Canaan. On the horizon stands the city of Jericho.

God gives Joshua instructions on how to take the city, and for six days all the men of war march around Jericho’s walls, in total silence. On the seventh day, they are accompanied by priests bearing trumpets; after circling the city seven times, the priests blow their trumpets and the Israelites give a great shout, and the walls of Jericho miraculously collapse. The Israelites charge into the suddenly defenseless city and slaughter every single person living there, save only for Rahab and her family; they then loot Jericho of its treasure and burn it to the ground, and Joshua pronounces a curse on the ruins (Joshua 6:26).

The next city the Israelites encounter is Ai, and Joshua comes up with a strategem to conquer it. He divides his army into two parts; one lies in wait behind Ai, while the other attacks from the front, pretends to be defeated, and flees. When the men of Ai pursue what they believe to be a beaten enemy, Joshua’s other force enters the now defenseless city and sets it on fire. The defendants of Ai are caught between the two armies and slaughtered (Joshua 8:22).

The terror of the Israelites is now spread far and wide, and the people of the nearby land of Gibeon, who are next on Joshua’s list for extermination, come up with a ploy to save their lives. Dressed in rags, they come to the Israelites pretending to be people of a nation very far away, and form an alliance with them. Joshua soon finds out he has been tricked, but he has already sworn peace with the Gibeonites in God’s name and cannot go back on his word. Instead, he condemns them to perpetual slavery (Joshua 9:23).

The next chapter of the conquest narrative comes when the more powerful Amorite kings of the south form an alliance for their own protection. The kings of five cities – Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish, and Eglon – pool their forces and march to Gibeon, attacking the Israelite army and the traitorous Gibeonites. Joshua counterattacks, and utterly destroys the Amorite army; he “slew them with a great slaughter” (Joshua 10:10). As the defeated remnants flee, God pummels them with hailstones from heaven, killing even more (Joshua 10:11). The day is fading, but to complete his massacre, Joshua asks God to stop the sun in its course so that he has more daylight by which to kill his enemies. God agrees, and “the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day” (Joshua 10:13), until Joshua’s enemies are completely annihilated. Finally, the Israelites march into the south and conquer all the walled cities of that region – Makkedah, Libnah, Lachish, Gezer, Eglon, Hebron, Debir – and kill their inhabitants, claiming the land for Israel. “So Joshua smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded” (Joshua 10:40).

The final battle occurs when the kings of the north, led by Jabin of Hazor, form a vast coalition “even as the sand that is upon the sea shore in multitude” (Joshua 11:4), and battle is joined at the waters of Merom. Predictably, God is with Joshua and the Israelites carry the day, routing their enemies and slaughtering them to the last man, and burning the city of Hazor to the ground (Joshua 11:11). With this victory, the Canaanites are annihilated and the divine promise is at last fulfilled; from the Jezreel valley in the north to the Negev desert in the south, the Israelites take possession of the promised land. Joshua divides the land up and parcels it out to each of the twelve tribes, “and the land rested from war” (Joshua 11:23).

The Gates of the Promised Land

Site Focus: Jericho

Nowhere is the battle for the historicity of the Old Testament waged more fiercely than at Jericho. Although, as this article will show, the evidence from other sites is sufficiently clear that it matters little what happened at this particular place, the events of the Late Bronze Age in this ancient town have become the focal point for a heated debate between most archaeologists and a few fundamentalist holdouts who will not abandon the conclusions their beliefs have led them to. Perhaps this is because, as the starting point of Joshua’s conquest, this city is important in a symbolic way to those who would defend the literal occurrence of such an event. However, in the end the facts must trump faith, and in this section I will strive to show that, however complex the web that must be untangled, the facts unambiguously support only one side.

In any case, Jericho had a long and complex history before ever it entered the pages of the Bible. It has been called, not without justification, the oldest city in the world; at a very early period it was the location of a settlement with a degree of social planning and civil engineering without parallel for its time. Ancient Jericho is located at the site of Tell es-Sultan, near the cliffs at the west end of the Jordan Valley 6 miles northwest of the Dead Sea. The mound itself is 10 acres in area and rises about 80 feet above the surrounding countryside (although the land itself in this area is 820 feet below sea level, making Jericho the lowest city on the surface of the Earth (Kenyon 1993, p. 674)). There is almost no annual rainfall, but the site is watered by the spring named Elisha’s Well (Ein es-Sultan), making the surrounding valley a fertile region for almost every kind of agriculture, including both tropical and temperate crops. This no doubt explains why Jericho has been a major Near East settlement in almost every period known to archaeology.

Jericho has been the site of four campaigns. The first was a sounding made by Charles Warren in 1868, who sunk several shafts into the mound, missed all of the interesting features of the lower levels, and concluded there was little to be found at the site. The first genuinely scientific exploration, however, occurred from 1907 to 1909 under the direction of Ernst Sellin and Carl Watzinger; a second was carried out from 1930 to 1936 by John Garstang, although it was hampered by the relatively primitive state of stratigraphic knowledge available at the time, and a third was conducted from 1952 to 1958 under the direction of Kathleen Kenyon, employing the then new Wheeler-Kenyon stratigraphic method discussed earlier (Holland and Netzer 1992, p. 725). Kenyon’s excavations, which reached down to bedrock, showed that the entire height of the tell (55 feet on average) was built up by human activity.

The earliest remains, found at the north end of the mound, date to the Epipaleolithic period with carbon-14 dates ranging from 9687 BCE +/- 107 to 7770 BCE +/- 210. Evidence of flint and bone tool production, including a harpoon and an awl, parallels similar evidence from other sites at this time. A natural clay platform set with sockets for placing upright poles may have been a sanctuary for hunters camping near the spring (Kenyon 1993, p. 675; Holland and Netzer 1992, p. 725).

In the earliest stages of the following Neolithic period, there were several alternating layers of rounded clay “humps” overlain by silty deposits. These very simple efforts probably represent elementary bricks that formed the base of temporary shelters of branches and skins, and if so, they would represent some of the earliest efforts toward structure-building known. Post holes similar to the Epipaleolithic ones are also known from this period in several places.

Following these crude efforts, there was an obvious occupational gap, because when the next layer of settlement appears at prehistoric Jericho it consists of simple but fully developed houses. Built of mud bricks and usually single-roomed, with inward-curving walls that suggest a domed shape, these houses mark a fully sedentary settlement that covers more ground than the succeeding Bronze Age town. However, by far the most extraordinary find at Jericho during this period is a massive defensive wall and tower. Almost 20 feet high in places, the wall runs along the western side of the mound and was constructed of huge stones; just outside it, a broad trench or moat was dug into the rock. Inside the wall was a huge tower, over 25 feet in height, with a stone core and an internal stairway leading up to the top (Mazar 1990, p. 42). The function of these structures remains unexplained. Kathleen Kenyon hypothesized that they were used for defense (though against whom is unknown), while Ofer Bar-Yosef proposed that the wall and the trench were used to divert flash floods, although this does not explain the purpose of the tower. Whatever their builders’ motivation, though, the wall and the tower are exceptional in that they reflect the existence, for the first time in human history, of a system of social organization with a high level of centralized authority, the only way that the manpower for such an enormous project could be recruited. The degree of social planning and technical skill required for this work is all the more astounding when one realizes that the building of these structures preceded even the invention of pottery.

Slightly later, another interesting find from Neolithic Jericho was a number of human skulls that had been molded with plaster in such a way as to recreate facial features. Hair and beards were depicted with paint or bitumen, while inlaid seashells served as eyes. This practice can only indicate belief in an afterlife, and may be related to a form of ancestor worship in which the spirits of the departed were believed to reside within the skull. Similar cults are known today in Pacific tribes (Mazar 1990, p. 47). Intriguingly, several large (around half life-size) painted clay sculptures of human beings were also found at Jericho during the Neolithic, and only during this period. It is tempting to speculate that this “may suggest a belief that man was created by being molded in clay” (ibid., p. 47-48).

Following the Neolithic period, Jericho was abandoned for several centuries, as is attested by evidence of erosion and a break in occupation. The next settlers arrived toward the end of the fourth millennium, around the beginning of the Early Bronze Age. Entirely new pottery styles suggest immigrant groups arriving and intermingling, and from this amalgamation of cultures emerged a walled city. By this stage, Jericho had become a steep-sided mound near the spring, around the summit of which can be traced the Early Bronze mud-brick defensive walls. Built of mud brick, they have a complex history of partial destruction, rebuilding, and expansion encompassing at least seventeen stages. However, it is not possible to derive a time scale from this, since some parts of the wall might have fallen while others remained intact (Kenyon 1993, p. 678), and since natural decay and earthquake damage, not invasion, likely account for much of the rebuilding. (At one point the wall was built with vertical gaps in between sections to limit the damage done by earthquakes (Bartlett 1982, p. 72)). These destructions also do not correlate with the sequence of building periods within the town itself; EB Jericho certainly was not built and rebuilt seventeen times, although a variety of “solidly built and spacious structures” (Kenyon 1993, p. 678) confirm that this was a prosperous period of urban development. The ultimate end of EB Jericho was sudden and ended with a violent destruction, following which the tell was abandoned for several hundred years (Holland and Netzer 1992, p. 734).

The next building stage at Jericho falls within the Middle Bronze. The earliest stratum, called either MBI or Intermediate Early Bronze-Middle Bronze, seems to consist of nomads and pastoralists still living in tents within the town; at first, there are no permanent structures, only pottery. Even when these people did begin to build houses, they were built in a disorganized, unplanned fashion, trailing down the slopes of the mound; there is no evidence of a town wall from this period. Following this stage, there is an abrupt cultural break, followed by the establishment of a new town. However, severe erosion removed much of the evidence from this period, the MBII, except in a limited area (Kenyon 1993, p. 679). Associated with this level were three successive large, plastered ramparts that surrounded the town (Holland and Netzer 1992, p. 734).

The final Middle Bronze stage at Jericho can be somewhat more clearly distinguished, and ended in a violent conflagration. In one section, the walls were heavily tilted, possibly indicating earthquake activity as the cause of the destruction (ibid., p. 736). Following this, the site was abandoned, and rain-washed debris gradually covered the ruins.

After some time, Jericho was resettled on a small scale during the Late Bronze Age. Unfortunately, erosion has removed most of the evidence from this stratum; the scanty surviving remains include two buildings and a house foundation where a mud-brick oven and ceramic jug were found in situ (ibid., p. 736). Most significantly, although the LB was the period when an Israelite conquest would have happened, there was no trace of any fortifications during this period (Kenyon 1993, p. 680). Therefore, although the Book of Joshua depicts Jericho as a mighty walled city when the Israelites encountered it, during this period it was in fact a meager, unfortified village. There were no walls to come tumbling down.

As previously stated, apologists have disputed much of the above data. One common argument is that, although there was no Late Bronze wall, the inhabitants of the town could have reused the earlier Middle Bronze wall, which might still have existed at the time. However, this argument cannot be sustained. If the MB walls had still existed, the debris from the LB occupation of the tell, which has been eroded away by wind and rain, would have been found in the wash piled against them. However, although MB debris was found in the erosion debris heaped against the MB walls, no LB remains were found there (Bartlett 1982, p. 97).

Conservative archaeologist Dr. Bryant Wood, one of the few remaining defenders of a literal conquest, has put forward his own argument with regard to Jericho (Wood 1990). Wood’s rather audacious claim is that the chronology of the site is substantially mistaken, and that the destruction of the city currently assigned to the Middle Bronze actually happened in the Late Bronze as a result of Joshua’s conquest.

Less clear is how Wood’s hypothesis accommodates the fact that there was a Late Bronze settlement, though a small one, at Jericho. According to the Bible, following Joshua’s destruction Jericho was not rebuilt until the time of Hiel the Bethelite (1 Kings 16:34), a contemporary of King Ahab, whom we know to have reigned during the Iron Age and more specifically around 850 BCE. But as already stated, a LB resettlement does exist, although sparse; the one ceramic juglet found in situ is of “14th century BC type” (Bartlett 1982, p. 97). LB remains are also known from tombs associated with the site (Holland and Netzer 1992, p. 736). If MBII Jericho was destroyed by Joshua, who rebuilt and occupied it in the Late Bronze? Wood’s hypothesis does not answer these questions.

Additionally, Wood’s argument falters on an important point having to do with updated data that has become available since he first proposed it. One of Wood’s arguments for dating the final MB city (which he calls City IV) to the Late Bronze has to do with carbon-14 dating; a sample of charcoal, labeled BM-1790, taken from the destruction layer of City IV was radiocarbon dated to 1410 BCE plus or minus 40 years (Wood 1990, p. 53). This would indeed fall within the Late Bronze Age. However, unfortunately for Wood’s argument, this date is now known to be in error. The British Museum has issued a correction for radiocarbon dates published between 1980 and 1984 (Bowman et al. 1990, p. 59) – an error in equipment calibration made these dates, one of which is BM-1790, too young. The revised date falls within the range 1740 to 1440 BCE, which, while not ruling out Wood’s dating, is also fully consistent with a Middle Bronze destruction.

Worse for Wood’s argument, however, is the fact that additional radiocarbon dates have been published for Jericho City IV. If a tree is cut down and later burned for charcoal, the C-14 date will reflect the date the wood was cut rather than the date it was burned. However, this is not a problem with short-lived cereal grains, of which six samples were found in City IV. High-precision radiocarbon dates of these cereal samples yielded a date range from 1601 to 1524 BCE (Bruins and van der Plicht 1995, p. 218) – solidly contradicting Wood’s chronology, which requires City IV to have been destroyed circa 1400 BCE.

Site Focus: Ai

In contrast to the ongoing debates over Jericho, the case of Ai is straightforward. Biblical Ai is the modern site of et-Tell, a 27.5-acre mound north and east of Jerusalem. This conclusion is arrived at through several means. Firstly, the geographical location fits: et-Tell is very near the village of Beitin, which is the biblical Bethel, and in the OT Bethel and Ai are mentioned in close proximity (Joshua 7:2, 12:9). Secondly, Ai is Hebrew for “the ruin”, which is also the Arabic meaning of “et-Tell” (Callaway 1992, p. 125; Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 82). Thirdly, et-Tell contains the remains of a large Canaanite city violently destroyed by fire, just as the Bible describes. This feature of the site led William Albright to identify et-Tell with biblical Ai in 1924, and this conclusion has not been seriously challenged since (Callaway 1992, p. 126; Callaway 1993, p. 39).

Three campaigns have investigated et-Tell: a sounding consisting of eight vertical trenches dug by John Garstang in 1928, a three-year excavation conducted by Judith Marquet-Krause from 1933 to 1935, and a joint expedition sponsored by the American Schools of Oriental Research and conducted by Joseph Callaway from 1964 to 1972. The latter expedition also investigated two smaller sites in the vicinity of et-Tell, Khirbet Khaiyan and Khirbet Kudriya, both of which had earlier been suggested to be the site of biblical Ai. However, both of these were found to be settlements dating to the Byzantine period, with the earliest evidence found at both from the first century CE (Callaway 1993, p. 40).

Et-Tell was the site of a large, impressive Canaanite walled city which was destroyed and rebuilt several times during the Early Bronze Age, destroyed more thoroughly around 2400 BCE, and then abandoned for 1,200 years, at the end of which period it briefly became the site of a small, unfortified Iron Age village. Following this period of reoccupation, which seems to have lasted no more than 200 years, the site was peacefully abandoned for good.

The turbulent history of Ai serves as an example of the social unrest and frequent battle and invasion that characterized Palestine during this period. The earliest stratum at the site is an unfortified village dating to the Early Bronze I, probably around 3100 BCE, that was about 650 feet on a side – very large indeed for the Early Bronze, and as large as many cities of the Iron Age II, which was a time of “prosperity and expansion” (Callaway 1993, p. 41). Pottery that reflects a combination of foreign and indigenous cultural elements may suggest that this large size was due to Ai receiving migration from other sites.

Around 3000 BCE, the first walled city, 27.5 acres in size, was constructed. Buildings known from this stratum include a large, impressive acropolis complex that was probably a temple. This level was violently destroyed sometime around 2860; scorched stones in the temple and a thick ash layer attest to the catastrophe. Following this, Ai was rebuilt in the Early Bronze II, with buildings repaired and the fortifications modified and strengthened, but to no avail. The EBII city was also destroyed, around 2720 BCE based on carbon-14 dates, in a “disaster of massive proportions…. At every excavated site the buildings and walls were in ruins, and there was generally evidence of fire” (ibid., p. 42). As much as three feet of brick debris from collapsing ceilings and walls covers the remains in some places, and smoldering fire trapped beneath the fallen rubble burned hot enough to alter the chemical composition of the stone, a process called calcination. A rift in the bedrock that cuts through and displaces walls suggests this destruction was caused by an earthquake.

Following the destruction of the EBII city, Ai was rebuilt one final time. This time, the process took considerably longer; based on erosion channels in the floors of houses, as much as 20 years may have passed between the rebuilding of the wall and of the houses within. There are signs of Egyptian influence, including the use of copper saws to chip stone, the construction of walls without a rubble core, and the use of typically Egyptian plastering techniques. Sometime around 2550 BCE, the city was captured – the city wall is broken in one place, and the fortifications show signs of burning – and around 2400 BCE, it was completely destroyed for the third and final time. It is possible that the EBIII city was rebuilt under Egyptian auspices, captured away from them, and then leveled as the result of an Egyptian campaign to retake their land. Whatever the cause, after 2400 BCE, Ai fell into ruins and was not reoccupied for a thousand years. The Iron Age village later established there occupied about 2.5 acres of the original 27.5 acre site and was primarily agricultural; it was abandoned without destruction around 1050 BCE (ibid., p. 45).

The key fact to keep in mind is that Ai lacks any Middle or Late Bronze remains of any kind, and thus did not exist (or, rather, existed as a deserted ruin) at the supposed time of the conquest. In light of this, considerations of etiology should be seen as significant. Upon becoming settled, the early Israelites would doubtless have seen the still impressive burned-out ruins of the massive Early Bronze city, and would have wondered what force could have destroyed such an imposing place. Their solution was to explain its destruction through invented stories of a mighty, warlike ancestor. This proposal is bolstered by the name of the site; as already noted, “Ai” means “the ruin” – clearly a still-existent city would not have been named this. Instead, Ai was the name given to the site after its destruction, when its original name had been long forgotten, probably at the same time the story told in Joshua was conceived of.

Site Focus: Gibeon

Regrettably, archaeological studies do not always furnish the evidence needed to decisively confirm or disprove some aspect of a text, and such is the situation at Gibeon, whose wily residents escaped a divine mandate for their death by tricking Joshua into enslaving them forever instead. While the evidence does not support the OT account, it does not strongly contradict it either. More excavation is needed to expose a greater portion of the site before anything can be said with reasonable certainty, but given the slow pace required for painstaking archaeology, this may not be forthcoming for years or decades. The best that this section can provide, therefore, is a report on the current state of progress.

The location of ancient Gibeon, at least, is not difficult to identify. The village of el-Jib, 6 miles north of Jerusalem, has been suggested as the site since the 1600s, and this proposal was confirmed by an extraordinary discovery made when excavations started under Dr. James Pritchard in 1956: no fewer than 36 broken ceramic winejar handles, each one inscribed with the words “Gibeon” or “vineyard of Gibeon” in Hebrew script dating to the 7th century BCE (Pritchard 1993, p. 511; Magnusson 1977, p. 129). There can be no doubt that this is the correct site.

The earliest known occupation of Gibeon is in the Middle Bronze Age I and II, during which time there was a settlement on top of the hill and tombs cut into its west side. In the Iron Age, a massive city wall was built and buildings spread over most of the mound. During this time, Gibeon was apparently a prosperous wine-making center: sixty-three wine cellars were cut into the bedrock, six-foot-deep shafts that could maintain a constant cool temperature year-round, with a total capacity greater than 25,000 gallons. Wine presses, settling basins, and large ceramic jars for storing the finished product were also found. However, the most impressive civic work constructed during this period was the “pool of Gibeon”, an enormous and elaborate system constructed to bring water to the walled city, apparently for times of siege. Some 3000 tons of limestone were quarried out and removed to form a massive cylindrical shaft 40 feet in diameter and 30 feet deep, with a spiral staircase cut into its sides. At the base of the shaft is a yet deeper spiral tunnel that descends to a freshwater spring far below surface level (Pritchard 1993, p. 512). For the Iron Age, the sheer scale of this effort was incredible, and must have required a highly organized social system to enlist labor for its construction.

However, the period of concern with regard to the conquest is the Late Bronze Age. Here the evidence is more ambiguous. Though archaeological evidence from earlier periods, namely the MB settlement, was found, there was no evidence found of any settlement during the LB. However, eight of the tombs cut into the west side of the mound do contain LB pottery, evidently having been reused during this period (ibid., p. 513). Whether this is in accord with the events of Joshua cannot be said conclusively at this time. There may have been an LB settlement hitherto undiscovered, or this may have been a period of no permanent occupation, conflicting with the OT account. Future investigation will hopefully shed light on the subject.

Site Focus: Beeroth

Beeroth, another of the Hivite cities, yields a somewhat clearer picture than Gibeon itself. There is still some dispute over the modern site, but the most likely candidate is the village of el-Bireh, a town east of Ramallah dominating the road from Jerusalem to Nablus. In addition to toponymic support, this site is at approximately the right location given by the third-century church historian Eusebius for ancient Beeroth. Surveys so far have turned up pottery from the Early Bronze, Middle Bronze, and Iron Age I and II, but no evidence from from the Late Bronze is known (Dorsey 1992, p. 646).

The Southern Campaign

Who Conquered Jerusalem?

The modern city of Jerusalem, built atop the ancient site, makes excavation impossible in all but a few limited areas. Therefore, at the moment we cannot say with certainty whether the archaeological record is in accord with the biblical text. However, the biblical text is not even in accord with itself on this matter, as it is inconsistent regarding who conquered Jerusalem and when.

Joshua 10, which tells the story of the Israelites’ battle with the five kings of the south, mentions that Joshua captured and killed Adonizedec, the king of Canaanite Jerusalem (10:23-26). It does not mention the fate of the city itself specifically, but does make the following blanket claim:

“So Joshua smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded…. And all these kings and their land did Joshua take at one time, because the Lord God of Israel fought for Israel.” –Joshua 10:40-42 (KJV)

Jerusalem, being one of these cities, should logically be included in the list of places where Joshua “utterly destroyed all that breathed” and then took that land. However, this is contradicted by Judges chapter 1, which picks up the story after Joshua’s death:

“Now the children of Judah had fought against Jerusalem, and had taken it, and smitten it with the edge of the sword, and set the city on fire.” –Judges 1:8 (KJV)

Clearly, if Joshua had already conquered the city and killed all its inhabitants, as Joshua 10 strongly implies, it would not have been necessary for the tribe of Judah to re-conquer it and burn it to the ground at a later time. But this second destruction would seem, once and for all, to mark the end of the Canaanite occupation of Jerusalem – however, this is not so. In the time of King David, according to the garbled tradition contained in the book of 2 Samuel, Jerusalem was still possessed by the heathen Jebusites:

“And the king and his men went to Jerusalem unto the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land: which spake unto David, saying, Except thou take away the blind and the lame, thou shalt not come in hither: thinking, David cannot come in hither. Nevertheless David took the strong hold of Zion: the same is the city of David. And David said on that day, Whosoever getteth up to the gutter, and smiteth the Jebusites, and the lame and the blind that are hated of David’s soul, he shall be chief and captain. Wherefore they said, The blind and the lame shall not come into the house. So David dwelt in the fort, and called it the city of David.” –2 Samuel 5:6-9 (KJV)

How the Jebusites still occupied the city, despite it having been twice conquered and once burnt to the ground, is not clear – in fact, the Jebusites should not even have existed by the time of the judges, much less by the time of David. All the way back in Deuteronomy 7, God gave Moses a stern command:

“When the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; and when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them.” –Deuteronomy 7:1-2 (KJV, emphasis added)

and later on, we are told:

“As the Lord commanded Moses his servant, so did Moses command Joshua, and so did Joshua; he left nothing undone of all that the Lord commanded Moses.” –Joshua 11:15 (KJV)

If Joshua had “left nothing undone” of what Moses was told to do, then the Jebusites must have been “utterly destroyed”, as Deuteronomy 7 commands. This squares with the verse that implies he destroyed Jerusalem. And yet just a short time later, it still existed and needed to be re-conquered and burned down by the Judahites, and not long after that it existed again, and was again inhabited by the taunting Jebusites who were supposedly eradicated long ago. In this matter, as in others, the Bible contains conflicting threads of tradition, not always compatible.

Site Focus: Lachish

The king of Lachish was one member of the five-city coalition which Joshua’s army defeated in southern Palestine, subsequently conquering the city and slaughtering everyone who lived in it (Joshua 10:31-32), and giving the land to the tribe of Judah (Joshua 15:39). The archaeological picture, however, is more complex.

Ancient Lachish, identified with the 30-acre mound of Tell ed-Duweir in the Shephelah, was a major city in the biblical world and went through many different periods of occupation. During the Middle Bronze, it was the site of a formidable city; excavations have uncovered a fortified wall as well as a massive brick palace. This level was destroyed by fire around 1550 BCE, at the end of the Middle Bronze (Ussishkin 1992, p. 117).

Lachish was resettled during the Late Bronze, but on a much smaller scale, and it did not regain its former size or importance for some time. Most significantly, in contrast to the biblical account which depicts it as a walled city during the conquest (Joshua 10:5-20), Late Bronze Lachish was not fortified. Buildings were constructed on top of the former line of the Middle Bronze fortifications, and one entire side of the mound was an open field (Ussishkin 1992, p. 118). This settlement, which dates to the 13th century BCE and is known as Level VII, was likewise destroyed by fire.

Following the 13th century destruction, Lachish was rebuilt, but again as a Canaanite city, so this destruction layer cannot represent an Israelite invasion. A large, elaborate temple complex from this level contained, among other finds, a golden plaque depicting a nude Canaanite goddess standing on a horse, and a main hall supported by two massive pillars similar to the biblical description of the Philistine temple of Dagon in Gaza which Samson pulled down (Judges 16:23-30). Level VI Lachish also shows cultural relationships with Egypt: the layout of the temple and some of its architectural motifs, including octagonal columns and painted plaster, originate in Egyptian temples from this time period. Bowl fragments were also found from this level inscribed with hieratic script, an Egyptian alphabet, that document the paying of a harvest tax to an Egyptian religious establishment. Finally, a bronze object bearing a cartouche of Ramesses III was found on this level (ibid., p. 119). It is very possible that Level VI Lachish was largely or entirely under Egyptian control.

Level VI, like its predecessor, was completely destroyed by fire sometime around 1150 BCE. Human remains were found beneath the destruction debris of a ruined public building, including the bones of an adult, two children, and an infant (ibid., p. 120). Following this, the site was abandoned for about 200 years and not rebuilt until the Iron Age, the period of the Israelite monarchy.

Although the Bible never explicitly says that Lachish was destroyed, if any of the destruction layers represent Joshua’s conquest, it must have been the one that ends the Level VI city. Some archaeologists in the early part of the 20th century, such as William Albright, did indeed suggest this. Since there is nothing in the tell itself to indicate who was responsible for the Level VI destruction, it seems nothing would contradict this hypothesis. However, discussion of this issue will be deferred until later in this article.

Site Focus: Gezer

The next city on Joshua’s list for destruction was Gezer, but it did not suffer the same fate as Lachish. Although Joshua killed its king, Horam, and all his army (10:33), the city itself apparently was not conquered or destroyed, and its Canaanite residents remained (16:10). Gezer was not finally conquered until Solomon’s time, when an Egyptian pharaoh burned it and slaughtered its citizens to give it as a wedding present to Solomon, who was marrying the pharaoh’s daughter (1 Kings 9:16).

Biblical Gezer has been located at Tell Jezer, a 33-acre mound sitting at an important crossroads north of the Shephelah, where the road leading to Jerusalem branches off from the coastal route called the Via Maris. Excavated for 10 years beginning in 1964 under the supervision first of G.E. Wright and later of William Dever, Gezer was the site where many of the stratigraphic and interdisciplinary methods of study still in use today were pioneered (Dever 1992, p. 998).

Like Lachish and many other cities in the region during this period, Middle Bronze Gezer was a prosperous fortified city, with well-constructed houses and an extremely well built, partly subterranean granary with stone foundations, a superstructure of mud brick, and waterproof walls sealed with plaster. Later in this same period, an enormous cyclopean stone wall was built around the city, at least 15 feet in height and 12 to 14 feet in width, with as many as 25 defensive towers. On the west side, it is flanked by a citadel that is the “largest single-phase MB defense work known in Syria-Palestine” (ibid., p. 999). Another impressive find, labeled the “High Place”, consists of a row of ten massive stone monoliths, some over 10 feet high, erected just within the line of the northern wall. Rich tombs within the city dating to this period, containing alabaster carvings and gold jewelry among other lavish finds, attest to Gezer’s prosperity during the Middle Bronze.

The MB city was destroyed by a fire so violent it “left three feet or more of burned bricks in every field investigated” (ibid., p. 999). Along the inner face of the city wall, a row of storerooms crushed under burned beams and fallen brick and stone contained jars still filled with stored grain. The pottery from this period suggests a date around the beginning of the Late Bronze for this destruction, and this is correlated by an inscription on the walls of the Temple of Amon at Karnak, where the powerful Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III (reigned 1479 to 1425 BCE) claims to have destroyed the city of Gezer.

A partial desertion of the site seems to have followed this destruction, since the early 15th century BCE is scarcely represented in the pottery styles of the succeeding stratum. However, by the Late Bronze II, Gezer was rebuilt and had become prosperous again. This was the so-called Amarna period, corresponding to the Egyptian New Kingdom, when Palestine was under the domination of the powerful Egyptian pharaohs (ibid., p. 1000). The impressive material culture of the city during this period is attested by remains such as palace walls as much as 6 feet thick, outdoor courtyards with thick plastered surfaces, and stone-capped drains. Numerous Egyptian artifacts were found, including glass beads, scarabs, lavish faience pottery, and fragments of gold foil. The ruined MB city wall was supplanted by a new wall built around the city, unique in that it is the only known defensive system in Palestine constructed originally in the Late Bronze and not reused from an earlier period (ibid., p. 1001).

The end of Late Bronze Gezer is something of a mystery. No site-wide destruction was found, but in one region, domestic occupation was interrupted by a partial destruction consisting of smashed pottery and other objects lying scattered around a heavily burned courtyard (ibid., p. 1001), and following this the site seems to have been deserted for a time; the next stratum is marked by a hiatus in occupation. It is possible that this destruction was related to the campaign of Pharaoh Merneptah, attested by the Merneptah Stele discussed in the last section, which specifically mentions Gezer; or perhaps there was a local uprising against Egyptian control. (Again, the Bible explicitly states that Joshua did not destroy Gezer or drive out its inhabitants, so the Israelite invasion cannot have been the cause.) The next stratum in Gezer dates to the Iron I and is distinctly Philistine, as is attested by the sudden appearance of a characteristic pottery style called “Philistine Bichrome” (ibid., p. 1001). This is, of course, after the period of the conquest.

Site Focus: Hebron

According to the Bible, Hebron was defeated and conquered by Joshua’s army. After the initial campaign in which its king was captured and killed, Joshua returned to Hebron and “destroyed it utterly” (10:37, 11:21); the city was later given to the Calebites as part of their inheritance (14:13).

In this instance, however, the archaeological data clearly contradicts the biblical narrative. The Bible speaks of Hebron as a walled city, like the other Canaanite cities (Joshua 14:12); but excavations have painted a different picture. The site of Tel Hebron, near the modern city of the same name in the Judean Hills south of Jerusalem, seems to have had no permanent occupation of any sort during the Late Bronze Age. What has been uncovered is a thriving Middle Bronze settlement that went through many different occupational phases, including a fortified city in MBII 6 to 7 acres in area, surrounded by a cyclopean wall; based on a cuneiform tablet, the city was likely an administrative center or regional capitol during this period (Ofer 1993, p. 608). However, at some point the city was abandoned; no occupational strata, material remains, or architecture dating to the Late Bronze Age were found, although a substantial settlement was re-established in the following Iron I. The only evidence reported for any LB activity at the site are human burials on the outskirts of the city and in one tomb within the city walls that shows continuous use from the Early through Late Bronze. Therefore, it would seem that Late Bronze Hebron was, at most, occupied by a semi-nomadic or tribal population that only used parts of the site as a necropolis. There was no permanent settlement during this time, and the town was not fortified on the eve of the Israelite arrival. “This detail… is probably etiological, a conjecture on the part of a late writer, who was probably familiar with the ancient cyclopean walls of Hebron and associated them with the tradition telling of war with the Anakites” (ibid., p. 609). The Israelites would have met no resistance settling here, nor would there have been a king or standing army to oppose them.

Site Focus: Jarmuth

The final site explored in this section is another member of the five-city coalition that opposed Joshua. (As previously mentioned, Jerusalem is largely inaccessible to archaeology, and the modern location of Eglon is still a matter of dispute.) Tel Jarmuth is located in the central Shephelah, about 16 miles south of Jerusalem, and is about 40 acres in area. At the southeast end of the city, the highest point of the mound, is an ancient acropolis about 4 acres in size, while most of the rest of the area is taken up by a larger lower city.

Based on archaeological findings, both the acropolis and the city proper were first settled during the Early Bronze Age I, and were continuously occupied until the end of the Early Bronze, when the settlement was peacefully abandoned. The EB settlement was exceptionally large, complex and well-planned, protected by a massive cyclopean stone wall (5.6 m thick) that went through three major phases of expansion and rebuilding and can be traced all around the periphery of the site. Farming on the sloped land of the lower city was accomplished by an extensive artificial system of terraces with strong stone retaining walls. Public buildings, including an industrial installation for processing olive oil, a large public hall nicknamed the White Building, and smaller private residences were also found. The amount of urban planning invested in this site is currently “without parallel” among contemporary sites in the region (De Miroschedji 1993, p. 664).

Following this impressive accomplishment, Early Bronze Jarmuth was inexplicably deserted, and lay abandoned for a millennium, throughout the Middle Bronze. A Late Bronze settlement was discovered on the site, but only at the small upper acropolis; the larger lower city evidently remained deserted. The acropolis was occupied more or less continuously from the LB through the much later Byzantine period, when a small village was constructed on the northeastern slope, and shows only one destruction layer, which dates to the Iron Age I (ibid., p. 665). While this does not strictly contradict the biblical account, it is somewhat difficult to imagine that this small settlement, a mere shadow of Jarmuth’s past glory, could or would have been in a position to raise a standing army to oppose the Israelites, or that it would have been ruled by a leader meriting the title of “king”. In addition, there are no signs of destruction or disturbance dating to the LB, although we are told that Joshua “left none remaining” in the southern hill country, but “utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded” (10:40). It is, however, possible that this is another etiological folktale, and the huge and impressive Early Bronze fortifications, not the comparatively small LB settlement on the hilltop, are what gave rise to the idea of a great battle with a powerful enemy dwelling in cities “fenced up to heaven” (Deuteronomy 9:1) in the biblical writers’ minds.

The Final Chapter

Site Focus: Hazor

The last chapter of the Israelites’ battle to control the Promised Land, as related in the Book of Joshua, comes when Jabin, king of Hazor, leads a vast coalition of northern kings against the newcomers. But as might be expected, earthly might is no match for God’s favor, and the coalition is shattered, its people slaughtered, and Hazor itself taken and destroyed. “And they smote all the souls that were therein with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them: there was not any left to breathe: and he burnt Hazor with fire” (Joshua 11:11). (Amusingly, it should be noted that in Judges 4:2, some time after Joshua’s death, Jabin reappears in the narrative – the text explicitly states that he “reigned in Hazor” – and oppressed the Israelites for 20 years. No explanation is given as to how he returned from the dead to do this, nor how his city had come to be rebuilt or his army reconstituted; as we will see, the city was never rebuilt after the only destruction layer that could be attributed to the Israelites.)

Ancient Hazor has been identified with Tell el-Qedah (also known as Tell Waqqas), an enormous tell in upper Galilee. Almost 200 acres in size, it was eight times larger than other prominent LB sites such as Megiddo and Lachish (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 80), and at its peak might have been home to between 15,000 and 20,000 people, making it one of the largest city-states in Palestine. During the Middle Bronze, it was a formidable city, possessing an expertly engineered fortification system, rock-cut cisterns, a large central palace, and a substantial buildup of domestic structures. Around the end of the MB the city was destroyed, probably in connection with the expulsion of the Hyksos and the Egyptians’ pursuit of them into Palestine (Dever 1992, p. 579).

Hazor was rebuilt during the early Late Bronze, though it never reattained its Middle Bronze peak. Some of the earlier city walls and structures were reused, and new temples and a new palace were built. For a time the city prospered, but by the Late Bronze II Hazor was in decline; new construction efforts were of distinctly poorer quality. At the end of this phase there was a massive destruction, burying the entire city under several feet of debris. After a period of abandonment, there was a small squatter occupation in the early Iron Age, consisting mainly of huts and rubbish pits built among the ruins. According to the excavator, Yigael Yadin, this new settlement was established by the Israelites who had destroyed the city. However, this seems unlikely – bronze sculptures found in the Iron Age stratum lack any distinctive Israelite elements, but instead are typically LB Canaanite in design, and include a figurine of the Canaanite deity Baal (ibid., p. 580).

Summing Up: Palestine in the Late Bronze Age

The following chart presents a summary of the above sections, comparing what the Bible says about each location with what the archaeological data shows. Sites mentioned in connection with Israelite campaigns in Transjordan, discussed in the previous section, are also included; sites whose modern location is not known or in dispute are omitted. Sites where the evidence is in accord with the biblical text are highlighted in blue.

Site Name Biblical Testimony Archaeological Findings
Edom Settled country (Numbers 20:20-21) Little or no population during MB & LB
Arad/Hormah Destroyed (Numbers 21:1) No MB or LB occupation
Heshbon Captured (Numbers 21:25-26) No MB or LB occupation
Dibon Captured (Numbers 21:30) No MB or LB occupation
Jericho Fortified city, destroyed (Joshua 6:20-24) Small-scale LB occupation but no fortification
Ai Destroyed (Joshua 8:28) No occupation in Middle or Late Bronze
Gibeon Not destroyed Evidence inconclusive; possible LB occupation?
Beeroth Not destroyed No LB occupation known
Jerusalem Traditions inconsistent Unknown
Lachish Probably destroyed (Joshua 10:32) Destroyed during Late Bronze
Gezer Not destroyed (Joshua 16:10) Partial LB destruction, followed by hiatus in occupation
Hebron Probably destroyed (Joshua 10:37) No settled occupation during Late Bronze; some LB burials
Jarmuth Probably destroyed (Joshua 10:40) Small LB settlement; no signs of disturbance
Hazor Destroyed (Joshua 11:11) Destroyed during Late Bronze

It is plain to see that, out of all the sites the Bible mentions in connection with the Israelite conquest, only two – Lachish and Hazor – have occupation and destruction layers dating to approximately the right time for Joshua’s invasion to conceivably be the cause. One might be forgiven for saying that this is hardly compelling proof for the invasion model of Israel’s origins; in fact, the biblical narrative conflicts with archaeological data at so many more sites than it accords with them that a reasonable person would surely conclude that the conquest story cannot possibly be accurate.

However, it gets worse for Joshua and his beleaguered crew. This is because there are many ways cities can be destroyed other than an organized foreign invasion: the people could have risen in civil war or internal rebellion; a lightning strike, an earthquake, or someone accidentally knocking over an oil lamp could have started a conflagration that burned out of control. And there are other powers that could have invaded the region and put cities to the torch – as already mentioned, Egypt was ascendant during this period and regularly raided cities in Palestine, as the Merneptah Stele among other evidence attests. It simply will not do to uncritically identify an Israelite invasion as the cause whenever any site is found that suffered destruction at any time during the Late Bronze Age. Instead, to meet their burden of proof, defenders of the biblical account must not only show that a site was conquered at the right time but must also give good reasons why we should identify the Israelites, as opposed to any other potential cause, as the ones responsible. After all, it is quite possible that what agreements exist between the biblical text and the archaeological record exist not because the Israelites conquered a city and then recorded their victory, but because later scribes patriotically sought to link their country’s origins to the once-impressive cities whose ruins could still be seen at the time of their writing – the etiological explanation, as given previously.

This is not an unfair request. Many conceivable kinds of evidence could conclusively show that the Israelites were the cause of a given destruction: a victory stele in Hebrew erected atop the ruins of a city, letters or inscriptions from contemporary rulers who observed the newcomers’ invasion of the land, or Israelite settlements on top of the ruins of Canaanite cities immediately following their destruction, rather than occupational gaps of hundreds or thousands of years. This is the same standard to which archaeologists would hold any theory that proposed to explain the destruction of an ancient site as the result of an influx of foreign invaders. If apologists cry foul at this requirement, it is only because they cannot produce such evidence, and they know it. One can hardly doubt that they would enthusiastically point out such evidence at every opportunity if it did exist.

Regardless, at present our conclusion must be that the evidence weighs heavily against an invasion theory of Israel’s origins. But in fact, there are other considerations yet to be introduced that make the case even more decisive. Two of these consist of further inconsistencies between the empirical evidence and the text, and the third is an explanation of another event, one which goes completely unmentioned by the Bible, that provides an alternative cause for the destructions we do know of.

The Amarna Period: Egypt on the Sidelines?

This article has already alluded to the fact that the Late Bronze Age, which in Canaan is held to be the time of Joshua’s conquest, was in Egypt the period of the New Kingdom. During this time, powerful pharaohs such as Ramesses II routinely marched troops into Palestine along the Ways of Horus to crush those who would oppose their will, and several important cities, including Lachish and Gezer, were rebuilt showing signs of heavy Egyptian influence and were almost certainly under partial or total Egyptian control.

This was the so-called Amarna period, named after a celebrated cache of letters found at the Egyptian site of Tell el-Amarna in 1887. These letters represent correspondence between local rulers and the pharaohs Amenhotep III and his son Akhenaten, both of whom ruled in the fourteenth century BCE. All told, almost 400 tablets were found, most of which were sent by vassal rulers of small city-states in Syria-Palestine (Laughlin 2000, p. 85). The el-Amarna letters illuminate a world of shifting rivalries and alliances, where petty local rulers of cities whose names are familiar to us – Jerusalem, Shechem, Megiddo, Hazor, Lachish – were constantly maneuvering for political advantage, fighting both with each other and with bandits and raiders called the Apiru, discussed earlier, who lived on the fringes of society. However, the actual battles seem to have been minuscule – in one letter, the king of Jerusalem asks the pharaoh to send fifty soldiers to “protect the land”, while in another, the king of Megiddo asks for a hundred soldiers to fend off an attack by a neighboring city-state (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 78).

The Amarna letters confirm the view suggested by the archaeological evidence: during the Late Bronze period, Canaan was an Egyptian province. The provincial capitol was at Gaza, but fortified Egyptian garrisons were stationed throughout the region, and although local rulers were granted some degree of autonomy, Palestine was solidly under Egyptian control. Although the Amarna letters only cover the fourteenth century, this state of affairs lasted throughout the New Kingdom. The Merneptah Stele discloses continuing Egyptian campaigns in the area up through 1200 BCE, an Egyptian stronghold at Beth-shean south of the Sea of Galilee had statues and inscriptions dating to the reign of Ramesses III, who ruled from 1184 to 1153, and Canaanite Megiddo shows Egyptian influence as late as the days of Ramesses VI, toward the end of the twelfth century – long after the time of the conquest according to any dating scheme (ibid., p. 79).

The problem this poses for the biblical account is obvious. If the Canaanite cities were Egyptian vassals at this time, Joshua could not possibly have conquered and settled them without consequences. Even if the Egyptian New Kingdom forces in the region had for some reason decided to stand by and not interfere, or had been defeated in battle, news of the invasion would have brought swift retribution from some of the most potent forces the kingdom of the Nile ever wielded. But the presence of Egyptian forces, much less any potential conflict with them, is never mentioned in the Bible. There is no hint given in the text that this was in any way an issue. And yet, writing a story of battle and conquest in Palestine during this period, without mentioning the Egyptians, would be like writing a story set in the 1920s about a group of invaders who come from the sea and attack cities in India, without once mentioning Great Britain. (It goes without saying that there are also no known Egyptian inscriptions that record attacks on their vassal cities by a group of former slaves.)

When Was Joshua’s Conquest?

Suppose for the moment that all the above difficulties were set aside. Then there is still another problem remaining for the invasion theory. The Bible tells us that Joshua’s invasion was lightning-fast – within five years of the Israelites’ entrance into Canaan, all the major battles were over and the land was being divided up among the tribes. (In Joshua 14:7-10, we learn that Caleb was 40 years old when Moses dispatched him from Kadesh-barnea to scout out the land; we further learn that at this point, which follows Joshua’s victories over the five-city coalition in the south and Hazor’s coalition in the north, he is 85. The Israelite wandering, of course, lasted 40 years.)

However, the archaeological evidence shows something rather different. Recall that at Lachish Level VI, the prosperous Late Bronze city and one of the few sites with a destruction layer at even approximately the time of the conquest, a cartouche bearing the name of Ramesses III was found sealed under the destruction debris. This pharaoh took the throne in 1184 BCE, and so if Lachish was conquered by Joshua, it must have happened sometime after this date.

Other findings push the date of the conquest, if there was a conquest, ahead even further. As mentioned in the last section, a Late Bronze stratum from Canaanite Megiddo – listed as one of the cities defeated by the Israelites (Joshua 12:21) – contained a piece of statuary bearing the name of Ramesses VI under a layer of destruction debris. This pharaoh only ascended to the throne in 1143. In and of itself, this is not necessarily a problem; as stated, the name of Ramesses III in the ruins of Lachish only implies that that city was destroyed sometime after that pharaoh’s reign, which could have been during the time of Ramesses VI – though this does push the date of the conquest farther ahead than most dating schemes would comfortably accommodate, within 150 years of the establishment of the Davidic monarchy.

But now consider two other cities whose kings were reported to have been defeated by Joshua – Hazor and Aphek (Joshua 12:18-19). At Hazor, pottery styles found in the ruins of the LB city date, at the latest, to the late thirteenth century BCE (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 90). At Aphek, a cuneiform tablet found in a Late Bronze destruction layer bears the names of officials from Egypt and the coastal city of Ugarit who are known, from other sources, to have lived around 1230 BCE (ibid.)

However these Canaanite cities fell, it was not in a single whirlwind invasion. There was a disturbance in ancient Near Eastern society during this period, but it did not happen all at once – in fact, it happened over an interval of more than a hundred years. Nor was this upheaval confined to a few petty city-states in Palestine. As it turns out, by the end of the same period, one of the age’s mighty empires lay in ruins, and another was reduced to a tattered vestige of its former glory. The formerly lucrative trade networks spanning the Mediterranean were shattered, and in Canaan, many coastal cities were reduced to ashes.

In light of these facts, only a narrowly provincial view would attribute the turmoil in Canaan to invading Israelites. Instead, if we step back and view the larger picture, it is plain that it was merely one symptom of a larger social breakdown, one local example of an upheaval that affected the entire Mediterranean world at the end of the Late Bronze Age. How could this have happened? Who or what was this devouring fire that came out of the west?

Fire in the West

In the mid-thirteenth century BCE, two powerful empires dominated the Mediterranean world. One of these, in the south, was Egypt. During the New Kingdom period, the arm of the pharaohs extended into Canaan, as far south as Nubia and as far west as Libya, and Egyptians traded with seafaring merchants coming from places such as Cyprus and Crete.

The other great power of the time was the Hittite empire. Ruling from their capitol city of Hattusha on the Anatolian plateau, the Hittites’ influence spread into Asia Minor and the important trade routes of northern Syria. They were a warrior culture, with rich iron deposits that they used in the creation of weaponry, and were also noted for their architectural achievements and the Indo-European language they spoke.

With the Egyptian expansion into Canaan during the New Kingdom, it was inevitable that these two great powers would come into conflict, and come into conflict they did, shortly after the crowning of Ramesses II sometime around 1280 BCE. The battle took place at Kadesh, on the Orontes River in western Syria. According to Egyptian records of the battle, a Hittite ambush cut the Egyptian column in half, but the personal prowess and heroism of Ramesses II saved the day and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Of course, such boasting should be taken with a grain of salt; we also have Hittite records of the battle, and they also claim it was an overwhelming victory for them (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 85).

The actual truth seems to be that the Battle of Kadesh was a draw, and the two sides had no choice but to come to the negotiating table. In the end, Ramesses II and the Hittite king Hattusilis III signed a peace treaty, and the two powers settled down into a wary equilibrium. However, this peace was not to last. By the year 1130 BCE, Egypt was badly weakened and had lost most of its foreign holdings. Hatti had vanished altogether, the once-mighty Hittite state toppled. And by the end of this period in Palestine, Lachish, Hazor, Megiddo, and other sites had been annihilated, and a completely new group of people had arrived.

These marauding newcomers are known as the Sea People by modern scholars. Their precise origin is still unclear – some say they were Aegean in origin, others Anatolian – as is the cause that drove them east. Climatic change leading to famine that disrupted agricultural societies, as well as social breakdown in economies that had become too specialized to adapt to change, have both been proposed as causative factors (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 89). Whatever drove them, though, the effects are clear. Dispossessed, rootless and violent, the Sea People swept out of the west, causing havoc throughout the region. The valuable Late Bronze maritime trade routes were irreparably disrupted. Island nations such as Alashiya (Cyprus) and important coastal cities in Canaan such as Ugarit and Ashdod went up in flames. Even the once-powerful Hittite empire collapsed. In place of these, new cities were built on the ruins of the old, on the coast and on the borders of the hill country. Their material culture, called “bichrome ware” because of its usual combination of black and red paints, was radically different from what came before, and contains many unique Aegean-derived patterns and motifs (Laughlin 2000, p. 101).

By 1175 BCE, the breakdown in the north was complete. Hatti and many Canaanite city-states had been overwhelmed, and the new culture was making inroads into Palestine. But one major target remained. The fertile delta of the Nile had always beckoned to inhabitants of the Near East, and the newcomers in search of a homeland were likewise drawn to it. Pharaoh Ramesses III held the Egyptian throne at this time, and the situation in his eyes is recounted on an inscription on the walls of a temple at Medinet Habu:

“In the eighth year of the reign of Ramesses III… the foreign countries made a conspiracy in their islands…. No country could withstand their arms, from Hatti, Kode, Carchemish, Arzawa and Alashiya onwards…. They advanced toward Egypt, while the flame was prepared before them. Their confederation was the Philistines, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen and Weshesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the lands as far as the circuit of the Earth, their hearts confident and trusting: ‘Our plans will succeed!'” (from Magnusson 1977, p. 100 and Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 87).

The battle between this tide of armed migrants, which came by both land and sea, and the Egyptian defenders took place at the Egyptian border. According to Ramesses III, his victory was overwhelming:

“Those who reached my frontier, their seed is not, their heart and their soul are finished forever and ever. Those who came forward together on the sea, the full flame was in front of them at the river-mouths, while a stockade of lances surrounded them on the shore. They were dragged in, enclosed, and prostrated on the beach, killed, and made into heaps from tail to head.” (from Magnusson 1977, p. 101 and Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 88).

However, in spite of this bragging, it seems the Egyptian victory was not as decisive as Ramesses III claimed. Egypt itself was not conquered, but the arrival and settlement of the Sea People marked the beginning of the New Kingdom’s decline and the beginning of the end of Egyptian rule in Canaan (Mazar 1990, p. 305).

Observant readers may have noticed that the Medinet Habu inscription mentions a name familiar from the pages of the Old Testament. Indeed, the same Philistines so reviled by the biblical authors were one of the groups that made up the loose confederation known collectively as the Sea People. And while the Tjeker, the Denyen and the other groups fade from recorded history after this point, the Philistines do not. They landed on the shores of Canaan around 1200 BCE, where they founded a civilization based around a pentapolis – an alliance of five city-states, Ashkelon, Gaza, Gath, Ashdod and Ekron. Each one was ruled by a figure called a seren, a term probably related to the Greek word for “tyrant” (Laughlin 2000, p. 99). This is suggestive of the Philistines’ ethnic origin, and the pottery from the earliest phases of their cities further supports this hypothesis: in its form, in its color and style, and in its decorative motifs such as spirals, birds and fish, it is typically Mycenaean Greek in origin (Mazar 1990, p. 307). The logical conclusion, therefore, is that these newcomers originated in that region. The Bible tells us much about the Israelites’ relentless foes, the Philistines, but it never tells us they were Greeks!

In any case, it is important to recognize that this change from old world to new did not occur all at once. It was a gradual breakdown of the established social order, occurring over a span of more than a century, as the archaeological evidence already mentioned has shown. The downfall of Late Bronze society probably stemmed from a combination of causes, and while the Sea People incursions were no doubt a major component, economic collapse and internecine warfare very likely had parts to play as well. (In fact, some have postulated that one of these other causes was the primary one, and the Sea People’s migration was a secondary result of that; however, the evidence is clear that they were the cause of much violence and disruption in and of themselves.) Many cities in Canaan were indeed destroyed during this period, but “No single military force did it, and certainly not in one campaign” (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 90). Given the recognized fact, supported by both textual and archaeological evidence, that a new group was invading the region at this time and destroying pre-existing cities in order to build their own, the last reason to accept the Bible’s description of Joshua’s conquest falls away: the few cities which were in fact destroyed as the Bible says were much more likely destroyed by the arriving Philistines. As previously mentioned, it cannot be supposed that the Egyptians who occupied Canaan during this period would stand idly by while a group of invading Israelites destroyed their vassal cities, not only putting up no resistance but not even making a record of the fact. However, we do have Egyptian records of the destruction caused by the Sea People’s arrival and their battles with them.

Alternative Models of the Origin of Israel

It is clear, for a variety of reasons, that the traditional Exodus-conquest model derived from a literal reading of the Old Testament will not suffice to explain the origin of the Israelites, and this model is almost universally discounted by archaeologists today (Mazar 1990, p. 334; Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 76; Laughlin 2000, p. 112; Dever 2001, p. 41). However, it is equally clear that there was such a people as ancient Israel. Although the Bible’s earlier sections are heavily mythologized and very likely etiological in nature, textual extra-biblical evidence such as the Merneptah Stele establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that the Hebrew Bible is not entirely fiction. The question, therefore, is where this people calling itself “Israel” came from. Various proposals seek to explain this.

Peaceful Infiltration

Even while Albright and other early 20th-century archaeologists still espoused a conquest model, one of the first alternative hypotheses seeking to explain the origin of ancient Israel was put forth by the German literary critic Albrecht Alt. Alt, who was not an archaeologist but had extensive first-hand observations of the bedouin way of life in Palestine, posited that the first Israelites were pastoral nomads, probably from Transjordan initially, who wandered with their flocks in the wooded hills and highlands of western Canaan. Over time, these groups gradually began to settle down, clearing the land for agriculture and making the transition from nomadic to sedentary life. This process was peaceful at first, but as the settled Israelite population began to grow, disputes over grazing land and water use arose between the newcomers and the already established native Canaanites. These skirmishes eventually escalated into battles which formed the historical nucleus of stories such as those recorded in the Book of Judges (Alt did not consider Joshua to have historical value). This scenario was supported by the work of the Israeli archaeologist Yohanan Aharoni, a defender of Alt, whose surveys in the 1950s of the wooded hill country in upper Galilee and the arid Beersheba valley revealed a large number of small, isolated settlements first appearing in the early Iron Age, built on virgin soil rather than on the remains of destroyed earlier sites. Aharoni argued with Alt that the first Israelites were peaceful settlers in the isolated frontier country, away from the powerful Canaanite cities of the Late Bronze Age (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 333).

One of the acknowledged strengths of this model is that it realistically envisions the Israelite settlement as a gradual, multifaceted process (Laughlin 2000, p. 112). However, certain aspects of it have lately been disputed. For example, the pottery styles of these isolated highland Iron I villages are now known to derive from local Canaanite traditions; furthermore, the agricultural technology of these sites is quite sophisticated and well adapted to farming in this marginal zone – i.e., not what would be expected from bedouin only just settling down to the agricultural lifestyle, but what would be expected from people who already had a thorough knowledge of the local challenges to agriculture (Dever 1992, p. 553).

Peasants’ Revolt

Despite their very different scenarios for the origin of Israel, the invasion-conquest model and the peaceful infiltration model have one thing in common: they both propose that the first Israelites were foreigners who originated somewhere else and traveled to the country of Canaan. This assumption was overturned by a model postulated by George Mendenhall, a biblical scholar from the University of Michigan, who in the 1970s put forward his “peasants’ revolt” hypothesis of Israelite origins. Under this theory, Late Bronze Canaan was a highly stratified society, with city-dwelling elites dominating the rural population of farmers in the surrounding countryside – similar to the feudal systems that would later exist in medieval times. Increasingly onerous systems of taxation imposed by the urban elite ultimately provoked the peasantry, first to withdraw from this society, then to actively rebel against it and finally overthrow it. Mendenhall further proposed that the one element that united the peasantry and enabled them to succeed in their struggle was a new religious innovation: worship of a single, transcendent god named Yahweh (possibly influenced by Egyptian immigrants bringing monotheistic ideas introduced by the “heretic” pharaoh Akhenaten), in opposition to the elaborate pantheons and state-dictated rituals practiced by the official priesthood of the cities. Mendenhall’s theory was accepted and modified by a later biblical scholar, Norman Gottwald, who proposed in 1979 that the hill country settlements – up until then ignored by Mendenhall’s model – were established by members of this independence movement, who had fled to the fringes of society to set up their own egalitarian way of life.

However, this model suffers from one of the same problems as the conquest model: the evidence points to the Philistine/Sea People invasion, not an internal revolt, as being the most likely cause of the destruction at sites that were destroyed. Furthermore, new archaeological evidence shows that the rural sector of Late Bronze Canaan was too depleted to have supplied the manpower for a wave of highland settlement, and other findings suggest strongly that the highland settlers were pastoral, not sedentary, in origin (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 339).


Although other theories proposed to explain the origin of Israel have difficulties, it is an undisputed fact that a great number of small, isolated highland sites appear in the Iron Age I. Moreover, they are not restricted to the wooded hills of upper Galilee; extensive surveys carried out since 1967 have revealed similar villages appearing throughout the heartland of Palestine, far from the Canaanite cities that were being destroyed (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001, p. 107). Simple and self-sufficient, these villages – which rarely contained more than a few hundred people – practiced both agriculture and animal husbandry. They had no fortifications, nor are weapons or destruction layers known. Far from major trade routes, the people of these villages appear to have led peaceful, uncomplicated lives of subsistence.

What could have caused this wave of highland settlement? Finkelstein and Silberman (p. 118) point out that pastoral nomads cannot subsist entirely on the meat and milk of their herds; they have always been reliant on trade with settled villages to obtain commodities like grain. But with the collapse of Egyptian control over the region and the destruction of many Canaanite cities at the end of the Late Bronze Age, this trade network probably would have been disrupted, and the highland-dwelling nomads and pastoralists would have had to settle down to produce their own crops, and over time the nomadic lifestyle fell by the wayside entirely. The shift would not have been difficult to make: “In the Middle East, people have always had the know-how to rapidly change from village life to animal husbandry – or back from pastoralism to settled agriculture – according to evolving political, economic, or even climatic conditions. Many groups throughout the region have been able to shift their lifestyle according to the best interest of the moment, and the avenue connecting village life and pastoral nomadism has always been a two-way street” (ibid., p. 117).

Who were these new settlers? We have only two clues. One is the Merneptah Stele, which indicates that a people calling itself “Israel” appeared in Palestine for the first time during this very period. The other, which comes from surveys of the highland villages themselves, is very significant: namely, the proportions of animal bones found there. Sheep, goats, and cattle are all attested – but pigs are not. Although pig bones were found both in the Philistine settlements on the coast and Ammonite and Moabite settlements east of the Jordan during this same time period, pigs were neither raised nor eaten in the villages of the central hill country (ibid., p. 119). For whatever reason, these settlers decided to stop eating pork – perhaps for no greater reason than to distinguish themselves from their neighbors, perhaps as the first step toward establishing a shared cultural identity. But whatever the reason, the importance of this evidence cannot be discounted. Both text (Merneptah Stele) and archaeology point towards the conclusion that now, and only now, during the early Iron Age, did the first settlers emerge who would later come to think of themselves as “Israelites” – and not as invaders from outside the country, but its indigenous residents, settling down peacefully and only gradually crystallizing into a distinct group that saw itself as different from its neighbors. Finkelstein and Silberman say it best:

“…the emergence of early Israel was an outcome of the collapse of the Canaanite culture, not its cause. And most of the Israelites did not come from outside Canaan – they emerged from within it. There was no mass Exodus from Egypt. There was no violent conquest of Canaan. Most of the people who formed early Israel were local people – the same people whom we see in the highlands throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages. The early Israelites were – irony of ironies – themselves originally Canaanites!” (p. 118)


In conclusion, when we consider all the evidence, the pattern that emerges is clear and distinct. There is no evidence the Israelites were ever captives in Egypt, nor is there evidence that they escaped in a massive exodus. There is no evidence that a large group of people wandered in the desert of Sinai for forty years, nor is there evidence of a lightning military campaign waged by foreigners against the natives of Canaan. There is a very plausible alternative cause, supported by both archaeological and textual evidence, for the destructions that did occur in Canaan during the Late Bronze Age. And there is an alternative explanation for the origins of Israel, also supported by both archaeology and text, that removes any necessity to postulate any other scenario.

Will these discoveries sway those who are committed to belief in the literal truth of the Bible? That seems unlikely. Religious faith has never been dependent on facts, and fundamentalist believers will no doubt continue to postulate ever more convoluted routes for the Exodus, will continue to invoke pharaonic embarrassment as the reason why no Egyptian records have been found of the Israelite captivity or their subsequent escape, will continue to relocate biblical sites willy-nilly as each new tell is excavated and found to lack destruction layers that can be definitively assigned to Joshua’s conquest. In this way, they are missing the forest for the trees by proposing ways to explain away each individual contrary datum, while ignoring the broader patterns visible in the archaeological record that make the traditional biblical story unlikely in the extreme – and, as already mentioned, this rear-guard action can at best soothe the doubts of other believers, not convince atheists and others to convert.

In the end, we may safely say that, like most human endeavors, the Bible has brought forth both good and evil. Its unifying message helped the Jewish people to survive a string of national catastrophes that otherwise could well have been their end. On the other hand, its zealous political vision and uncompromising territorial claims continue to fuel the fires of hatred on both sides of the Middle Eastern conflict, since there, as in few other places on Earth, stories told thousands of years ago resonate down to present times. Had the ancient Israelites believed all along that they emerged peacefully from the neighboring peoples of Canaan, rather than that they swept into the area on a wave of divinely sanctioned military conquest, there is no telling how the situation with Israel and the Palestinians would be different today. If only the truth had been known from the beginning, we might have avoided the senseless centuries of war, bloodshed and death that opposing faith claims have brought about. Only time will tell whether we will ever emerge from this darkness, but if knowing the truth about the past can do anything to help solve the problems of the present, then in the end, all the labors and dedication of archaeology will have been worthwhile indeed.

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