Archaeology: Friend or Foe of Biblical History? Major Cities Conquered by Joshua

In our last article, we entered into one of the more prominent phases of biblical history for the archaeologist: the period of Israel’s settlement of the Promised Land. As we examined the Merneptah stela, the debate among conservative scholars over the date of the exodus and settlement, and finally the site of Izbet Sartah, we sought to understand how the archaeology of this period assisted our reading of the Old Testament in the following ways: (1) providing a context for Old Testament passages, (2) complementing the text by providing information not addressed in the Old Testament, (3) responding to challenges by those who believe the Old Testament to be in error, and (4) providing materials that confirm the text in several instances. In the case of the major cities conquered by Joshua— Jericho, Ai, and Hazor—a flurry of activity has taken place regarding the third and fourth items just listed. In the wake of alternative settlement theories like the “peaceful infiltration” or “peasant revolt” models (which do not treat the Old Testament as historically reliable), many conservative writers have tried to demonstrate that the Old Testament is indeed accurate, and have focused on Jericho, Ai, and Hazor as places that are especially likely to prove the historicity of the book of Joshua. Unfortunately, since so much is riding on these questions, overstatements have been made that have not helped the believing cause. And so, in this article, we will survey the sites of biblical Jericho, Ai, and Hazor, and articulate a responsible way to discuss the array of evidence yielded via archaeological excavation. We will see that yet again, archaeology yields material remains that synchronize well with the Bible’s description of Israel’s entry into the land.

Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho . . .

There is hardly a more well-known story in the whole of Scripture than that of the spies, Rahab, and Joshua in and around the city of Jericho (Josh. 2; 6). Because of various details of Jericho found in the story (e.g., fortification walls, a gate, housing built into the city wall), finding and excavating Jericho has long been viewed as a way to correlate the text of Scripture with artifacts in the ground. Having said this, most critical scholars view Jericho as a hallmark example of how archaeology disproves the Bible. How might we respond to such an assertion?

Jericho has traditionally been located at the site of Tell es-Sultan, and apart from a few alternative proposals, scholars of both conservative and liberal persuasion have accepted this traditional location. Though initial excavations were done in 1869 and from 1907 to 1913, the excavations of John Garstang from 1930 to 1936 inform modern debates about Joshua most directly. Garstang found a collapsed double wall on the summit of the tell and dated it to the late fifteenth century BC. He believed that these were the fallen walls of Joshua 6. In an effort to clarify Garstang’s work at the site, Dame Kathleen Kenyon excavated from 1952 to 1958, using what is called the Wheeler-Kenyon method, an excavation technique that carefully controls the analysis of the different layers of a site so that remains from different historical periods are not confused with one another. She concluded that Garstang’s double wall dated from the Early Bronze Age and that the city fell some one hundred years before Joshua could have even arrived. Indeed, all that was in existence when Joshua arrived (if anything) was more of a squatter camp, certainly not a walled fortress with a king. Kenyon’s work is considered the definitive treatment of Jericho’s history by nearly everyone who denies the historicity of Joshua 6.

Believing scholars have responded to this in a number of ways. Scholars who hold to a fifteenth- century settlement have generally challenged Kenyon’s dating of the site. Bryant Wood, a specialist in pottery dating, drew attention to the fact that Kenyon died before completing a final report of her excavations. When her final reports were posthumously published, they lacked Kenyon’s own explanations of how she interpreted the pottery she uncovered. By piecing together “scattered statements in various writings,” Wood was able to see that Kenyon’s disagreement with Garstang’s dating of the site was based on the absence of imported Cypriote pottery.1 Though the absence of Cypriote wares can be an important indicator of the date of a given archaeological stratum, one must always be careful about drawing conclusions based on what was not found. In fact, once Wood sorted through the local pottery types, he found that Kenyon not only had failed to appreciate the importance of the pottery she did uncover but also had excavated an unusually impoverished area of the site, one unlikely to contain imported pottery anyway. And though she rightly rejected Garstang’s interpretation of the double wall, she did unearth a stone revetment wall and mudbrick parapet wall that would have surrounded the city before its fifteenth-century destruction.

Critics have responded to Wood mostly by ignoring his work. On the one hand, some are reticent to give credence to a view that supports the biblical text, especially when it argues for a fifteenth-century date. On the other hand, some are skeptical of whether Wood’s work was sufficiently rigorous since he published his study in a popular magazine, Biblical Archaeology Review, rather than in a peer- reviewed journal. Nevertheless, several scholars, including some who disagree with Wood’s fifteenth- century dating scheme, have recognized that Wood has reopened the discussion and that he cannot be ignored.2

A different approach has been taken by those who hold to a thirteenth- century exodus and settlement. Kenneth Kitchen and Ralph Hawkins have drawn attention to one of Kenyon’s highly significant though oft overlooked admissions: the possibility that a small town may have been built on the ruins of the Middle Bronze Age site but had since been destroyed by erosion. Since Kenyon herself stressed the extensive damage caused to the site by erosion, critics should be much more cautious about denying the presence of a thirteenth-century city. Kitchen concludes:

If 200 years of erosion sufficed to remove most of the later Middle Bronze Jericho, it is almost a miracle that anything on the mound has survived at all from the 400 years of erosion between 1275 and the time of Ahab (875–853), when we hear report of Jericho’s rebuilding (1 Kings 16:34). . . . It is for this reason, and not mere harmonization, that this factor must be given its due weight. . . . There may well have been a Jericho during 1275–1220, but [it was located] above the tiny remains of [the earlier ruins of] 1400–1275 . . . and all of this has long, long since gone. We will never find “Joshua’s Jericho” for that very simple reason.3

Citing erosion is not special pleading by conservatives trying to rescue the Joshua story from the critics. It is an honest reckoning with all the thirteenth-century evidence found at Tell es-Sultan. Indeed, to ignore the erosion factor is special pleading.

In the end, honest critical scholars will admit that Tell es-Sultan does not disprove the stories of Joshua 2–6. Even Amihai Mazar, writing in the standard archaeology textbook used by critical scholars, concludes: “[I]n the case of Jericho, the archaeological data cannot serve as decisive evidence to deny a historical nucleus in the Book of Joshua concerning the conquest of the city.”4 Though we have not sought to settle the debate between the fifteenth- and thirteenth-century date for the exodus and settlement, we have shown that in either schema, archaeological evidence does not undermine the historicity of the text. Indeed, the existence of this debate makes the task of critical scholars that much more daunting. For them to argue that they have disproved the Bible, first they must settle the dating issue, and only then can they attempt to muster data in support of their position.

Destroying . . . a Ruin? The Battle of Ai

In our last article, we mentioned briefly the issue of the site identification of biblical Ai. Since Ai has traditionally been located at et-Tell, and since et-Tell shows no evidence of burning from either the fifteenth or the thirteenth century BC, a number of scholars have sought an alternative location. When Edward Robinson began looking at sites near et-Tell, he was told about a site ca. 1 mile southeast of et-Tell called Khirbet el-Maqatir. Though locals claimed it was biblical Ai, his initial survey let him to think that was just popular lore. In 1981, however, this new site was explored during a survey of the Benjamanite hill country and yielded some pottery from the Middle Bronze Age. In the early 1990s Bryant Wood explored the site and found some ancient walls, prompting him to begin excavations in 1995. Khirbet el-Maqatir was well fortified until it was destroyed and burned in the fifteenth century; thus Wood and others believe that biblical Ai should be sought here and not at et-Tell. Though Ralph Hawkins holds to a thirteenth-century date for the Israelite settlement and thus would seem to have little interest in a site that claims to exhibit fifteenth-century destruction, he nonetheless admits that Khirbet el- Maqatir is an “intriguing possibility” whose pottery does indeed “cohere well with an early-date exodus- conquest.”5 Scholars, including Hawkins, have been slow to relinquish et-Tell. After all, making the shift to Khirbet el-Maqatir also requires one to shift the location of biblical Bethel from the site of Beitin to el-Bireh, a move that has not garnered much support.6 But even if unequivocal proof were to emerge locating Ai at et-Tell, a close reading of Joshua 7–8 still correlates well with the archaeological data.



When modern readers hear the word city (Hebrew ir), we tend to think of a large metropolitan center. But the Hebrew word ir does not always mean that. It certainly can refer to a fortified city, but it can also refer to a small village like Bethlehem (1 Sam. 20:6), or even to something as small as a tent encampment (Judg. 10:4; note that havvoth-jair means “tent camp”). Thus though Joshua 8 regularly refers to Ai as an ir, we must not immediately assume that it refers to a fortress, especially as the Bible says nothing about Ai having any walls. Though Joshua 7:5 and 8:29 make reference to the gate of Ai, we must not forget that gates were not only for defense; they had several functions in ancient communal life:

• A receiving place for officials (1 Sam. 20:25)

• A general gathering area (Ruth 4:1; Ps. 69:12)

• A forum for public discussions (2 Chron. 32:6)

• A place for juridical actions (Deut. 17:5; Amos 5:10–15)

• A marketplace (Job 31:21–22; Prov. 22:22; 31:23; Gen. 23:17–18; Ruth 4:1–12)

• A place for cultic activities (2 Kings 23:8)

Even the title “king” (Hebrew melek) should not automatically make us think of a royal acropolis since the title is attributed to military commanders and administrators in other ancient Near Eastern contexts. But there are a few more textual clues that speak to the size of Ai.

The name Ai in Hebrew literally means “the ruin.” Throughout Joshua 7–8 it is even written with the definite article (ha‘ai) instead of without (ai); thus the text would seem to be making explicit that Ai was a ruin, albeit one that was being utilized by a military detachment. It is noteworthy that Ai alone is given a “locating phrase” in Joshua; it is described as being “near Bethel” (Josh. 12:9), presumably to prevent readers from identifying Ai with any of the other ancient ruins that dotted the Levantine landscape. Nevertheless, Ai’s importance lay not in its size but in its strategic location. Anyone wishing to invade the hill country or the Central Benjamin Plateau must capture Bethel, and capturing “the ruin” guarding the road up to Bethel was an absolute prerequisite for capturing Bethel.7 Ai’s close ties to Bethel are made explicit in Joshua 8:17: “Not a man was left in Ai or Bethel who did not go out after Israel.” That is to say, to attack Ai is to attack Bethel.

The text leads us to view Ai as a well-defended guard post of sorts, though one that was modestly staffed. The spies even told Joshua this in Joshua 7:3, “Do not make the whole people [i.e., the army] toil up there for they are few.” And though most English translations say that Israel sent three thousand soldiers up to fight at Ai, the Hebrew word elef is often used in military contexts to refer to a fighting unit of perhaps fifteen to twenty soldiers.8 This helps to explain why the death of thirty-six Israelite soldiers in Joshua 7:5 was such a devastating defeat. They did not lose a mere .01 percent of their fighting force in the first campaign against Ai. Instead, a moderate estimate would be that thirty-six deaths from three elefs of soldiers would be closer to 60 percent.

And so in sum we see that when we read the Bible carefully and avoid romantic overstatements often presented in Sunday school materials, we find nothing at et-Tell that conflicts with the text of Joshua 7–8. Of course it may still be that Ai was located at Khirbet el-Maqatir and thus could accommodate an interpretation of Joshua 7–8 that envisioned a bigger battle, but the key is that the text of Joshua 7–8 does not demand such a reading. Once again, the critics are put on the defensive here. Not only must they settle the dating debate, they must also settle the debate over the location of Ai. And once they have done that, they must settle the debate over the size and scope of the confrontation at Ai. At every turn we have solid, defensible alternatives, all of which continue to affirm the historically reliable nature of the Old Testament.

The Heat Is Off at Hazor

The final location the Israelites were said to have burned turns out to be the most straightforward in terms of its correlation with the Old Testament text. In this sense, it is a bit relaxing to enjoy learning about Hazor without the heat (or pressure) of the critics. This does not mean that there are no objections to the biblical account. It means that the critics are not as outspoken about Hazor since their own methods make the biblical account the most likely explanation for the destruction of the site. The relatively sparse attention given to Hazor in critical writings (as contrasted with Jericho and Ai) is revealing. When players have a weak hand, they are usually slow to up the ante.

Hazor is a remarkable site, located at Tell el-Qedeh far in the north of the Promised Land. It was a massive Canaanite city, one of the largest mounds in the Levant, and at its peak boasted a population of about forty thousand people. Already in the Late Bronze Age, Hazor (called Hatsura by the local Canaanites) featured in the Amarna letters as letters were sent to the king of Egypt either written by the king of Hazor (EA 227, 228) or written about Hazor’s exploits (EA 148, 364). Though initially excavated by Garstang in 1928, the major archaeological investigation of the site was conducted by Yigael Yadin between 1955 and 1969. The layout consisted of an upper city, perched on a mound, and a lower city stretching to the north.

Though there is considerable debate about the stratigraphy of the site making it easier to muster it in support of a thirteenth- century BC date for the exodus, it is noteworthy that archaeologists have nearly unanimously agreed on the destroyers of Late Bronze Age Hazor: the Israelites. Four candidates are usually presented as possible conquerors.

• The Sea Peoples (i.e., a group like the Philistines). Though the different groups of Sea Peoples could have rallied and sent a considerable fighting force against Hazor, its location far inland makes them an unlikely candidate. Furthermore, the pottery repertoire does not seem to reflect the presence of Sea Peoples.

• A rival Canaanite city. Since Hazor was by far the largest city in the region, one is hard pressed to identify a city that could have posed a threat, let alone succeeded in conquering this massive site. Furthermore, the destruction of Hazor showed intentional mutilation of Canaanite gods found in the city’s sanctuaries, an unlikely move by fellow Canaanite worshippers.

• The Egyptians. As Egyptian gods were also mutilated in the invasion, it would also make Egypt an unlikely candidate.

• The Israelites. Israel had a large enough fighting force, a motive for conquering the city, and a motive for defacing the pagan sanctuaries of Hazor. In fact, choosing anyone over Israel seems to reflect an intentional bias against the biblical account since they are far and away the most likely candidate.

Though Joshua 11 records the battle with Jabin and his coalition, it does not delve into many details about the battle for Hazor itself. Nevertheless, we have destruction at Hazor with evidence of burning, in harmony with Joshua 11:11, 13.

In our next article, we will consider the period of the united monarchy. Especially in recent decades, archaeology has begun to fill out the biblical portrait of David and Solomon all the more.

1. Bryant G. Wood, “Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence,” Biblical Archaeology Review (March/April 1990): 50.

2. James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 7.

3. Kenneth Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 187. See too Ralph K. Hawkins, How Israel Became a People (Nashville: Abingdon, 2013), 94.

4. Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible: 10,000–586 b.c.e. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 331.

5. Hawkins, How Israel Became a People, 109–10.

6. We cannot rehearse the complexities of this debate here. Readers should consult the peer-reviewed article by David Livingston, “Further Considerations of the Location of Bethel at El-Birah,” which was originally published in Palestine Exploration Quarterly 126 (1994): 154–59, but is now reproduced by permission at www.

7. John M. Monson, “Enter Joshua: The ‘Mother of Current Debates’ in Biblical Archaeology,” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 446.

8. This is a well-defensible philological fact and our apologetic arguments against the critics are not helped when English Bible translations grossly inflate numbers by translating elef as one thousand indiscriminately. For an able defense of this, see Richard Hess, “The Jericho and Ai of the Book of Joshua,” in Critical Issues in Early Israelite History (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008), 46; see too Monson, “Enter Joshua,” 446 n. 68.

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