Israel's Origins

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Excerpt For some time now many archaeologists, based on certain interpretations of the available evidence, have become convinced that there was no violent military assault on the land by Israel. They believe the entire account is myth... Continue reading

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This is based on the absence of archaeological evidence for a Conquest like that described in the Bible. In earlier days, Albright, and others following his lead, found burn and destruction levels in many sites all over the land dating to ca. 1290-1200. These, they believed, were the evidence for an Israelite invasion and destruction of the Canaanite cities at that time.

However, that is much too late for the Conquest. Furthermore, the Bible clearly states we should expect burn levels at only three sites: Jericho, Ai, and Hazor (Joshua 6:4; 8:28; 11:13). At Jericho, Kenyon misread local wares from LB I and thus dated the Israelite destruction there too early, with respect to the "late date" held by many.

However, Garstang's ceramic finds (now in several museums) and recently reevaluated (Wood 1990, 1999), prove that Garstang had indeed excavated considerable bichrome ware from the destruction of City IV (whether locally made or not, it is still bichrome ware) considered by archaeologists to be the sign of an LB I presence. Why do critics of the story ignore this conclusive information?

Hazor had a major discontinuity at the end of Late Bronze I at ca. 1400 BC. This evidence, concerning stratum 2 and 1b, is scattered through the Hazor site publications, in Hazor: The Schweich Lectures (Yadin 1972: 64, 124-25, 127), in "The Role of Hazor in the Late Bronze Age" (Bienkowski 1987: 51-52, 58-59), and in the NEAEHL (Stern: 1993: 594-605).

Two Theories to Account for the Presence of Israel in the Land

One theory is that Israel resulted from a long string of Semitic migrations from other areas into the land, these groups finally federating late in the second millennium. Then, to legitimatize their union they produced books by unnamed priests and others, during the kingdom period, that were attributed to Moses and others, eventually becoming the Tanach. Thus, the Tanach, for them, is unreliable fiction.

A second theory of the "origin of Israel" is that Canaanite peasants revolted against their overlords who controlled the towns and cities. After successfully destroying the power of the oppressors, the peasants opted to adopt YHWH as their god. Likewise they changed their ethnic identity by calling themselves "Israelites" and composed documents (mentioned above) to legitimatize their existence. (An expansion of these viewpoints is found in Finkelstein 1988b: 295-314.)

Why Not Accept the Historical/Biblical Explanation?

What is being overlooked or ignored in these theories are several essential considerations. For instance, there is the unintentional preparation for Israel¹s entry in to Canaan by the Egyptians. Thutmosis III and Amenhotep II rampaged through the land on one campaign after another. Scribes wrote long lists of lowland cities these pharaohs conquered or destroyed only a short time before Israel entered the land. Israel then only needed to go into the highlands, for the most part, to overcome cities up there. They only burned three cities: Jericho, Ai, and Hazor (Joshua 6:4, 8:28, 11:13). The latter was in the lowlands, but it was huge and not likely to have been reduced by the Egyptians. Jericho was too far inland for the Egyptians and Ai was an insignificant highland town. All three were burned ca. 1400 BC.

Where did the Israelites live during LB II and IA I? Most of them lived in tents. They had been nomads for 40 years in the wilderness and were used to living that way. As late as the time of Samuel and David many Israelites were still living in tents (1 Samuel 4:10; 13:2; 2 Samuel 18:17; 20:1; 20:22). Therefore, we need not expect evidence of them to show up in excavations of towns and cities. Most of them were living in the countryside. This apparently was the situation throughout the time of the Judges and even to the late kingdom period.

Why is this important? With the host of Israel living in tents all over the land, one can hardly expect to find an Israelite "presence," especially since the newcomers left the towns and cities largely to the former inhabitants. Thus, digging in the cities, one should not always expect to discover artifacts peculiar to Israel. Most digs, in fact, seem to indicate that the Canaanites continued as before the invasion. This was the substance of YHWH's complaint against Israel (Judges 1:21, 27-35; 3:1-7).

Signs of Israel in the Land Early in Late Bronze II

1. Cultural changes favor an early (1400 BC) Conquest.

Frederic Brandfon, one of the staff at the Beer-Sheba excavation, summed up the general picture of excavations at Iron Age sites:

...most of the [Iron Age] villages were established prior to the destruction of the urban centers on the nearby tells....Villages so characteristic of the Israelite settlement period began at a time when the Late Bronze Age cities had not yet been destroyed. The resulting archaeological picture is one of cultural overlapping, with urban and rural settlements existing side by side....Sites typical of the Late Bronze Age - the Canaanite cities - and sites characteristic of the Iron Age - the Early Iron Age villages are now known to have been contemporary. In relative terms, the Iron Age appears to have begun earlier than previously suspected. The excavations of the village sites has raised the date for the beginning of the Iron Age, while the Lachish and Tel Sera inscriptions have lowered the date for the end of the Late Bronze Age. The result is a broad range of overlap between what is commonly known as the "Late Bronze Age" and the "Early Iron Age" lasting almost 100 years, from about 1230 to 1150 B.C.E. (Herzog 1984: 67).

This admirably addresses the situation of Israel living in the countryside in tents while the towns and cities remained Canaanite, but were gradually taken over by Israelites.

Kempinski, in a summary from Eretz-Israel said the same:

There is no actual break between the end of one period and the beginning of the next. Rather, there were quite lengthy periods of overlap. Proof for an overlap between the Canaanite and the "Israelite" culture during the 13th century BCE is found through examination of four pottery types which emphasizes the borrowing process of the "Israelite" potters from the Canaanites. The pottery forms utilized to illustrate this process are (1) the collared-rim storage jar; (2) the multi-handled bowl; (3) the cooking pot; and (4) the storage-jar (Kempinski 1985: 79*).

Volkmar Fritz, although calling "naive" those who believe in a literal military Conquest, published an article which largely supports that view (it is doubtful that he meant to do so). He is confident that the 'Habiru' (see below) "may have contributed to the disappearance of the city-states" (1987: 91). Continuing, "The establishment of new settlements in the early Iron Age took place mainly in areas removed from the sites of the Canaanite cities in Galilee, in the central mountains and in the Negeb" (1987: 92).

Considering objects found in Iron Age settlements, Fritz said, "The objects of the early Iron Age indicate complete dependence on the culture of the Late Bronze Age" (our emphasis, 1987: 97). This is what we would expect in an early conquest followed by Israel slowly taking over the land, which included syncretism in religion.

Yehezkil Kauffman writes:

...the character of Joshua¹s wars...they are wars of destruction and extermination, not of occupation by immediate settlement. Joshua does not leave garrisons in the cities which he has captured, but he returns with all the people to the camp at Gilgal (1953: 86).

By this we are reminded that Israel did not take over the cities, but continued to live for some time in tents on the countryside outside the cities according to studies in the Iron Age Pottery. "All evidence taken together, then, points to the Canaanite character of Taanach until Period II" [1125 BC] (Rast 1978: 15), consistent with Joshua 17:11. Taanach was one of those cities belonging to Manasseh which, although defeated once earlier, continued to be Canaanite (ibid, 12-13).

Concerning all this, minimalist Israel Finkelstein raised some interesting questions. "Where did over half of the country's people vanish to at the end of the Middle Bronze Age? And from where did the people who settled the hundreds of sites in Iron I materialize?" He continues, "The reasons for the disintegration of permanent settlements at the end of MB II are not entirely clear....We might be inclined to blame it on Egyptian military conquests at the beginning of the New Kingdom" (1988a: 40).

We suggest that the answer to the first question is that half the Canaanites were killed in the Israelite onslaught. The answer to the second question is that Israel slowly moved out of their tents in the countryside and into settlements. The disintegration of MB II cities was initiated by the earlier Egyptian campaigns and finished by the Israelite invasion.

Finally, Finkelstein reports:

More recently, points of contact and continuity have been highlighted, especially with respect to pottery....No total cultural break should be expected even if new groups of people entered the area. The material culture of the new group would soon be influenced by the material culture prevailing in that area... (Finkelstein 1988a: 37).

2. Indications of an early Israelite presence in the land.

Danite migration: The tribe of Dan had lived unsuccessfully in its prescribed area for some time (through Judges 18) when they decided to move up to Laish in the north. Avraham Biran says of his excavation of Dan:

The collared-rim jars probably were bought to the site by the tribe of Dan when they moved north from their original location near the coast. The archaeological evidence points to a date at the end of the 13th or beginning of the 12th centuries BC (Gitin and Dever 1989: 71 abstract).

To that date, 100 years or so must be added to the period of the Judges to learn the initial date of the settlement of the Danites near the coast, which puts them there about 1400-1350 BC.

Merneptah Stela: In the fifth year of his reign (ca. 1230 BC) this pharaoh took a large black stela of Amenhotep III and carved his own victory inscription. At the end of 28 lines of writing he mentions Ashkelon, Gezer, Yano'am, and "Israel." Merneptah would have gained little credit if he only subjected some insignificant people. We can be confident that Israel was well-established in the Land by his time.

Not only were the Hebrews in the land, and already settled by Merneptah's time, but the land was known as "The Land of the Hebrews" as early as Joseph's day (Genesis 40:15). This may not be an editorial update by Moses.

Seti I Stela: The name "Asher" appears on a stela of Seti I ca. 1320 BC found in Beth Shan (Pritchard 1966: 477). Called "Aser" (also "Asuru" elsewhere) in Papyrus Anastasi I, this may be a reference to the tribe of Asher, already settled in the Land by the end of the fourteenth century.

The Kh. Raddana inscription: A jar handle with an inscription 'Ahilud (Cross and Freedman), or 'Ahiram (Aharoni). The two former, and excavator Callaway, believe it is from ca. 1200-1100. Aharoni was convinced it is as early as 1300 BC (Stern 1993: 1254). Although critics say the pottery is later than Aharoni claimed it to be, an earlier date should be considered.

The Isbet Sarta inscription: Moshe Kochavi writes that it is the oldest Proto-Canaanite inscription found so far in the country (Stern 1993: 654). Further, the Amarna Letters were sent back and forth between Canaanite rulers and the pharaohs Amenhotep III and IV (early 14th century). They indicate quite clearly there was an incursion of hostile people called the 'Apiru' or 'Habiru.' Most significant is the situation at Shechem, which was ruled by Lab'ayu. Nearby city-state rulers complained to the pharaohs that this man was cooperating with the intruders and even aiding them. "Now shall we do as Lab'ayu, who gave the land of Shechem to the 'Apiru?" (Wright 1965: 200).

Amihai Mazar sums it up very well:

...the settlers at first utilized the pottery, arts, crafts and some architectural features of the Canaanite culture flourish in various areas of the country....The discoveries appear to depict a settlement by tribal groups who once followed a semi nomadic, pastoral way of life (Mazar 1990: 354-55).

The picture in the eastern Negeb. Y. Aharoni said in 1975, "It is certain today that no settlement of the Late Bronze Age existed in the eastern Negeb" (Aharoni: 1975: 114). Itshak Beit Arieh in personal correspondence confirmed this. However, that does not at all disturb our theory. It only strengthens it in that we know the king of Arad attacked Israel (Numbers 21:1, 33:40, Joshua 12:14). But, since there were no LB settlements in the eastern Negev, the king of Arad must have been a "hangover" from Middle Bronze until Israel came through from the southeast. One of two tells, either Masos or Malhata, both well fortified during MB II, were sites which fill the biblical description.


It seems clear that the evidence for an early Israelite presence (ca. 1400 BC) is as good, if not considerably better, than the evidence cited for a non-invasive, non-destructive, non-occupation of the land sometime following 1250 BC.


Aharoni, Y.

1975 Investigations at Lachish: The Sanctuary and the Residency, Lachish V. Tel Aviv: Institute of Archaeology.

Bienkowski, P.

1987 The Role of Hazor in the Late Bronze Age. PEQ 119: 50-61.

Finkelstein, I.

1988a Searching for Israelite Origins. BAR 14/5: 34-45, 58.

1988b The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement. Jerusalem: IES.

Fritz, V.

1987 Conquest or Settlement: The Early Iron Age in Palestine. BA 50, 84-100.

Gitin, S. and Dever, W. G.

1989 Recent Excavations in Israel: Studies in Iron Age Archaeology. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

Herzog, Z.

1984 Beer-Sheba II: The Early Iron Age Settlements. Tel Aviv University: Institute of Archaeology.

Kempinski, A.

1985 The Overlap of Cultures at the End of the Late Bronze Age and the Beginning of the Iron Age. Eretz Israel 18: 399-407, 79*.

Mazar, A.

1990 Archaeology of the Land of the Bible. New York and London: Doubleday.

Pritchard, J. B.

1966 Ancient Near Eastern Texts Related to the Old Testament. Princeton: Princeton University

Rast, W.E.

1978 Taanach I: Studies in the Iron Age Pottery. Cambridge, MA: ASOR.

Stern, E. (Ed.)

1993 The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. Jerusalem: IES and Carta.

Wood, B. G.

1990 Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? BAR 16/2: 44-58.

1999 The Walls of Jericho. Bible and Spade 12:2.

Wright, G. E.

1965 Shechem: The Biography of a Biblical City. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Yadin, Y., et al.

1972 Hazor: The Schweich Lectures. London: Oxford Press.

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