Archaeology: Friend or Foe of Biblical History? Israel’s Settlement in the Land under Joshua

In Numbers 22, the Israelites had finally arrived at the plains of Moab, beyond the Jordan at Jericho. Their journey through the wilderness had drawn to a close because the purpose of this forty-year time period—the deaths of those who rebelled in Numbers 14—had finally been achieved. (For the account, see Numbers 14:20–23, 28–35.) Following the well-known story of Balak’s attempt to curse Israel through Balaam, a new generation of Israelites (see Num. 26:1–65) was camped just over the Jordan River, now under the command of the newly appointed Joshua (Num. 27:12–23). Following Moses’s final instructions to the Israelites, Israel entered the land of promise and began to settle it as God said they would.

While this period of history is exciting and well-known due to the dramatic events of Joshua and Judges, it is also one in which archaeologists and historians have more extant material remains to study which help to illustrate, provide context for, complement, or confirm the biblical text. In this article, we move forward in history and consider some of the archaeological finds relevant to this period.



Early Extrabiblical References to Israel

In a previous article, we mentioned the relationship between the biblical term “Hebrew” (in Hebrew spelled ‘ibri) and a term found in the Mari Letters, ‘ibrum. But from a few centuries later, we encounter another term in extra-biblical texts uncovered by archaeologists that is also relevant to the people of Israel. The Amarna Letters, a cache of nearly four hundred clay tablets written in cuneiform to the Egyptian pharaoh in the fourteenth century B.C., contain repeated references to a group called the habiru (sometimes spelled hapiru or ‘apiru). Initially these references excited scholars; it was believed that the habiru, described as a group of rabble-rousers who posed a threat to the Canaanite cities, might be a reference to Hebrews preparing to conquer the land of Canaan (or perhaps already in the process of doing so). This equation was short lived as “it soon became apparent that ‘apiru were widely attested in ancient Near Eastern texts besides the Amarna Letters. Indeed, the ‘apiru . . . seem to have been more or less ubiquitous in the Fertile Crescent throughout much of the second millennium.” Thus, while there is some conceptual overlap with the habiru and the Israelites as fellow invaders in the eyes of the Canaanites, the Amarna Letters do not provide an unequivocal identification of the Israelites by name in extrabiblical texts. But there is, however, a reference to the Israelites in one Egyptian text that is of special importance.

In 1896, Sir Flinders Petrie discovered a stela in the Valley of the Kings in Thebes that was commissioned by Pharaoh Merneptah, who reigned in the late thirteenth century B.C. Most of the stela celebrated Merneptah’s victory over the Libyans, but it also included his boasts of having conquered a range of other cities and peoples. The most noteworthy section of the text reads as follows:

The princes are prostrate, saying: “Mercy!” Not one raises his head among the Nine Bows. Desolation is for Tehenu; Hatti is pacified; Plundered is the Canaan with every evil; Carried off is Ashkelon; Seized upon in Gezer; Yanoam is made as that which does not exist; Israel is laid waste, his seed is not.

Here Merneptah describes his victory over a number of cities and regions (e.g., Hatti, Canaan, Ashkelon, Gezer) but then uses a special “determinative marker” in Egyptian to indicate a people group named Israel. Thus, while Merneptah has exaggerated his accomplishments, claiming to have utterly wiped out this people, Israel, this reference has convinced even critical scholars that “the conclusion that this inscription ‘has been considered correctly as concrete proof of an Israel in Palestine around 1200 [B.C.]’ . . . remains the most reasonable one.”

That Israel was a substantial enough force to be identified as a people and then boasted about on an Egyptian stele is in perfect harmony with the biblical record. For some time, critics had claimed that the Israelites were simply a disenfranchised group of Canaanites who came together after the collapse of the Late Bronze Age and invented a fictitious history of having escaped from Egypt and settled in Canaan. But the Merneptah Stele has made this critical story much harder to believe. And though critics still deny the historicity of the exodus and before, they are now forced to reckon with an Israel that was united as a people and established as a fighting force much earlier than their critical theories would prefer.

The Date of the Exodus: An In-House Debate

Though conservative, evangelical scholars are in full agreement concerning the historicity of the exodus and settlement of Canaan, they are not in agreement about when it happened. And knowing when it happened would seem to be an important part of evaluating the relevance of archaeological data dated to specific periods via chronological studies or radiocarbon (Carbon-14) dating. In order to settle this debate, what is needed is a benchmark. Where can such a benchmark be found?

Some point to 1 Kings 6:1: “In the four hundred and eightieth year after the people of Israel came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, which is the second month, he began to build the house of the Lord.” Thus if the fourth year of Solomon’s reign was 966 B.C (a well-attested and accepted date by both parties in the debate), 480 years prior to this would be 1446 b.c., a date in the fifteenth century. Archaeologists call this “the early date.”

Others point to Exodus 1:11, which says that the Israelites “built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses.” (Note: Spelling of the later term varies in Bible translations and other writings.) As Rameses II reigned in Egypt from ca. 1279–1213 b.c., this would suggest that Rameses II was the pharaoh of the exodus, yielding a date for the event in the thirteenth century b.c. Archaeologists call this “the late date.”

Space does not allow us to untangle all the knots of this debate. There are criticisms to be leveled at the each position’s appeal to Scripture, and rejoinders to those criticisms to be offered. Thus I will make a few observations, then point readers elsewhere should they wish to delve deeper.

First, though both positions use a scriptural benchmark, neither position avoids the challenges of harmonizing the chronology of Judges with their dating scheme. Though determining the length of the time of the judges would seem to be as easy as adding up the numbers given in the biblical book, this has not yielded acceptable results. Many scholars have tried, and their results have run the gamut from 515 to 633 years. This is not because they are bad at mathematics but because the numbers given in Judges are not presented in as simple of a fashion as one might like. Difficult interpretive decisions are made by every interpreter. Even if 515 years (the lowest estimate) was the correct way to add the numbers, this would s till yield a date for the exodus in the seventeenth century B.C., far too early for anyone’s standards. Both positions thereby recognize that establishing the biblical chronology is not as basic as citing a single verse and counting backwards; all interpreters are required to posit a number of overlaps between the reigns of individual judges. But deciding which judgeships to overlap depends largely upon which passage of Scripture an interpreter determines to use as a benchmark and thus whether to treat the other passage as containing a round or symbolic number (as one does of 1 Kings 6:1 by selecting Exodus 1:11 as the benchmark) or whether to treat the name of the store city Rameses as an anachronism (as one must do of Exodus 1:11 by selecting 1 Kings 6:1 as the benchmark).

Second, archaeological data can be cited to support both positions in several cases. Major destructions are evidenced at key cites as having occurred in both the fifteenth and the thirteenth centuries (e.g., Hazor). It should be noted that most of the thirteenth-century destructions were followed by new city plans, easily attributed to new settlers (e.g., Israelites). However, Deuteronomy 6:10–11 indicates that the Israelites did not build new city plans from scratch after conquering them. This would seem to support identifying fifteenth-century destructions with the Israelite settlement. We will say more about Deuteronomy 6:10–11 below.

Third, archaeological data are inconclusive since site identification is not always certain. A noteworthy case is the location of Ai. Though this has traditionally assigned to the site of et-Tell, others have proposed nearby Khirbet el-Maqatir as an alternative location. Et-Tell lacks destruction from either the fifteenth or thirteenth centuries b.c. (Note that this does not challenge the biblical account because the Hebrew name “Ai” literally means “the ruin” and might indicate a well-defended encampment among the ruins of the Middle Bronze Age city.) Khirbet el-Maqatir contains ruins from the fifteenth century B.C. (early date support), although its location requires also reassigning the location of Bethel from Beitin to el-Bireh, a hotly contested decision all its own/ This is not to suggest that site identification is a haphazard process that should be questioned, only that it is a complicated endeavor requiring one to juggle a number of factors. In sum, one cannot too quickly cite Ai as evidence for or against either dating scheme.

The truth is out there. The Israelites either entered the land in the fifteenth century or the thirteenth century. Both dates cannot be correct. We are currently at a scholarly stalemate. Biblical chronology continues to be refined and archaeological finds continue to be uncovered. Perhaps new data will help to arbitrate the debate, but until then, we must content ourselves with a degree of uncertainty. Interested readers should consult the following:

• Defending the fifteenth-century date: Eugene H. Merrill, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008). See especially pages 83–92, 136–37.

• Defending the thirteenth-century date: Ralph K. Hawkins, How Israel Became a People (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2013). See especially pages 49–90.

How Should We Expect Archaeology to Illustrate the Israelite Settlement?

In our first article in this series, we alluded to the way archaeology has served as the occasion to restudy the details of Scripture. Older scholarship, both conservative and liberal, viewed the events of Joshua as a blitzkrieg, scorched-earth campaign throughout the land of Canaan. Coupled with this was an attempt to associate destruction layers at nearly every site throughout the land with the Israelite conquest. Thus William Albright tried to attribute the thirteenth-century destructions of cities like Bethel, Debir, Eglon, and Lachish to the Israelites. While early date scholars disagreed with the relevance of this data, others noted that there are several cities mentioned in Joshua whose archaeological remains do not show evidence of a fiery conflagration.

Scholars accounted for this in a number of ways. Some continued to attribute burn layers to the Israelites even when other data mitigated against doing so. Others turned to different settlement models altogether, most of which involved denial of the historicity of the biblical record. Examples of such models include viewing Israel’s entry into the land as a “peaceful infiltration” wherein groups of Semitic peoples entered into the land over a long period, happily joined the Canaanites, and only later wrote dramatic stories about having a shared ancestry and conquering the land. Others saw the emergence of Israel as due to a “peasant revolt,” whereby an oppressed class of Canaanite citizens cast off their yokes, staged a few damaging riots, and settled into some new cities. (The Marxist underpinnings of this theory have been widely recognized.) Others, however, took a better tack: they returned to the Scriptures to see if they had been taking anything for granted. As it turns out, they had.

When one reads the battle accounts of Joshua, one finds many cities mentioned (e.g., see Josh. 12:7–24). But though many of the cities were attacked and defeated, only three are said to have been burned with fire: Jericho (Josh. 6:24), Ai (Josh. 8:28), and Hazor (Josh. 11:11). In fact, if this does not deter one from scouring the archaeological record for burn layers to attribute to the Israelites, perhaps Joshua 11:12–13 will: “And all the cities of those kings, and all their kings, Joshua captured, and struck them with the edge of the sword, devoting them to destruction, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded. But none of the cities that stood on mounds did Israel burn, except Hazor alone; that Joshua burned” (italics added).

As it turns out, the archaeological data do align with a military invasion as depicted in the Bible. But what the Bible depicts is, put well by James Hoffmeier, a “limited conquest of key sites in strategic areas.” Indeed, this is exactly what we would expect of a people who intended to conquer a city and then move in shortly thereafter. Rather than burn and destroy a city, only to immediately expend time and resources reconstructing it, God intended for Israel to take over the cities that the Canaanites themselves built. We read in Deuteronomy 6:10– 11 that the Lord was bringing them to live in “the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—with great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant” (italics added).

In the next article, we will look more closely at the cities described as having been burned by fire, for Jericho and Ai in particular have elicited much debate due to various archaeological challenges. (We alluded to some of the challenge of Ai already.) But because people have tended to focus their attention on Jericho, Ai, and Hazor, other smaller sites have often been neglected. And yet these give us a window into everyday life in Israel. As we close this article, we will consider the site of ‘Izbet Sartah.

The Israelite Town Nobody Has Ever Heard Of . . .

‘Izbet Sartah is a small, oval-shaped site is in the foothills of Benjamin, ca. 16km east of the modern city of Tel Aviv, and was occupied on and off from the late thirteenth/early twelfth century to the beginning of the tenth century B.C. Though some have sought to identify it with the biblical village of Ebenezer (1 Sam. 4:1; 5:1; 7:12), this is only a hypothesis (albeit a very reasonable one). What is significant, however, is that ‘Izbet Sartah is a de novo Israelite settlement; it was established by Israelites and occupied by Israelites exclusively during its history. Thus it gives a peek into the life of Israelites living near the border of Philistia. In fact, the periods when ‘Izbet Sartah was abandoned correspond to periods when the Philistines managed to extend their borders into Israel; that is, it was used only when the Philistines were driven back sufficiently to the west.

Archaeologists have identified three distinct strata: layers of debris corresponding to the village plan at a given period. The earliest settlement covered about half an acre and consisted of a central courtyard surrounded by a ring of divided dwellings with bedrock floors. Each of the units opened up directly to the courtyard and may have been connected together to serve as a basic fortification system called a casemate wall. Archaeologists also discovered several collared-rim storage jars: large vessels used for storing grain or other items in the corner of a house, and decorated with a slight ridge where the jar begins to narrow towards the mouth. Though collared-rim jars have been found outside of Israel’s territory, they are a pottery type that is generally associated with Israelite settlements. Six stone-lined silos were excavated in the courtyard, used for communal grain storage.

When the Israelites next returned to ‘Izbet Sartah, several distinctive Israelite houses were built, referred as four-room houses or pillared-courtyard houses. Like the collared-rim jar, these have been found in non- Israelite contexts, but most often they occur in Israel. The distinctly Israelite identity of the site is underlined by the relative absence of pig bones found per the unclean status of the animal in Leviticus 11:7 and Deuteronomy 14:8. (Archaeologists believe these bones are from the Byzantine period when squatters lived nearby.) These too help identify the occupants of this site as Israelite. At this time, 43 stone-lined silos were built in the center of the site, and the outer ring of houses was no longer adjoined leaving the settlement unwalled. The most talked-about find for stratum II is an inscription. Though it is just an abecedary (i.e., a list of ABCs), it does attest to writing (and thus reading) in the village. Though Israelites did return to the site one last time, at the beginning of the tenth century, they stayed for only a decade or two before abandoning the site for good.

While ‘Izbet Sartah does not shed light on any particular biblical episodes, it does reflect daily life in Israel and especially the challenges of settling in border areas. At its peak (stratum II) ca. 150 to 250 people may have lived there. And while the names of its residents seem lost to history, the remains of their life remind us of the many more Israelites who enjoyed ordinary life in the Promised Land without being recorded in the census lists or narratives of Scripture. The land of Israel is full of hundreds and hundreds of small Israelite settlements which are known simply by Arabic site names like Tell Qiri, Khirbet Jemein, Beit Aryeh, Tell el- Oreime, and Khirbet er-Râs. Most of these are unexcavated, but many thousands of God’s people dwelled in them over the years. Archaeology helps us to learn a bit more about their everyday experience.

Rev. R. Andrew Compton is assistant professor of Old Testament at Mid-America Reformed Seminary.