Archaeological research in the Holy Land began in the mid-late 19th century, oriented by a keen interest in the land and history of the Bible. Evidence related to the Conquest of Canaan by Joshua soon became an important area of focus for archaeologists interested in the relationship between archaeology and the Bible. However, two significant developments eventually led to a widespread rejection of an historical Conquest.
One of the first cities excavated in Israel was Jericho. German scholars Sellin and Watzinger dug at Jericho in the early 1900’s. In the 1930’s, British archaeologist John Garstang excavated at Jericho for several seasons. Garstang found local Canaanite pottery from the time of Joshua and evidence for a massive destruction of the city by a fierce fire which left ash deposits up to 3 feet thick. In addition to this, he discovered Egyptian scarabs in pit tombs outside of Jericho that also indicated the city was occupied down into the Late Bronze I period. This included a rare scarab of the much maligned Hatshepsut (ca. 1506/4-1488 B.C.), and a rare seal from the reign of Thutmosis III (1506-1452 BC). Garstang concluded that the evidence was consistent with an Israelite attack on the city around 1400 BC, the biblical date for the Conquest.
In the 1950’s, Garstang’s colleague Kathleen Kenyon continued excavations at Jericho. Kenyon concluded that Jericho was not destroyed at the time of Joshua, but 150 years earlier, around 1550 BC. Kenyon’s date for the destruction of Jericho was not based on hard evidence that she uncovered in the destruction layer on the southwest slope or from her excavation trenches; rather, her date was primarily derived from the absence of a particular kind of imported pottery from the island of Cyprus in the Mediteranean Sea. This pottery is known as Cypriote bi-chrome ware, a key dating indicator from the Late Bronze I period. She concluded that the absence of these Late Bronze pottery forms showed the city must have been destroyed at the end of the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1550 BC), 150 years earlier than the biblical date. In other words, Kenyon’s analysis was based on what was not found at Jericho rather than what was found. Hence, she asserted that there was simply no city for the Israelites to conquer. Kenyon’s conclusions quickly became scholarly dogma. Her conclusions concerning Jericho are still tenaciously held today by a majority of archaeologists and OT scholars.
Prior to Kenyon’s pronouncements about Jericho, archaeologists had been having difficulty finding archaeological evidence in Israel that was consistent with a large population influx and widespread destruction throughout Canaan around 1400 BC. They expected to find evidence of the Israelite Conquest and establishment of their unique material culture all throughout the land.
Since there did not seem to be evidence for such an influx, a new idea was developed, placing the Conquest in the 13th century BC instead. The promoter of this idea was William F. Albright, making it popular among scholars.1 In due course, archaeologists were unable to find enough archaeological evidence to correlate with an Israelite invasion in the 13th century BC, either. Cities such as Jericho and Ai (thought to be et-Tell) showed no evidence of destruction or even occupation in the 13th century BC. As a result, a majority of archaeologists and OT scholars jettisoned any notion of a historical Conquest at all, and began formulating esoteric and unbiblical theories for the origin of Israel.2 So, what are serious minded Christians to do about this “problem”?
First, we must carefully turn our attention to the text of Scripture to properly ascertain when the Conquest took place. Predictably, present day liberal-critical scholars largely ignore the chronological data in the Bible that clearly indicates the time of the Conquest. Compounding the problem further, a number of prominent evangelical scholars have adopted a 13th century BC date for the Conquest, trying to correlate the archaeological evidence with a ca. 1230 BC invasion.3
Proponents of the 13th century theory argue that the figure of 480 years represents non-literal, idealized (“full”) generations of 40 years. So, 480 should be divided by 40 to yield 12 “idealized” generations. Then, these 12 idealized “generations” are multiplied by 25 years, which is the length of a “real” generation. This calculation yields a total of 300 years. Thus, 300 years is the length of time from the Exodus to the beginning of the Temple’s construction, placing the Exodus at ca. 1267 BC and the Conquest at 1227 BC.
This convoluted maneuver is fraught with serious exegetical and biblical difficulties. First, not one shred of evidence can be marshaled from anywhere else in the Bible to show that the OT reckons time in this manner. Second, other Biblical texts indicate there are 19 generations during this time span, not twelve (I Chr 6:33-37). Third, 1 Kings 6:1 literally reads in Hebrew, “in the eightieth year and four hundredth year,” not “480 years.” The time frame, with the inclusive year, is technically 479 years, and is not divisible by an “idealized” generation of 40 years. Based on these and many other considerations, a 13th century BC Conquest date must be rejected.
The Nature of the Conquest Itself
1. Archaeological Footprint: We should not assume that the Israelite influx must have created an archaeological footprint that would necessarily be found by archaeologists. This is an argument from silence, for only a small percentage of the ancient world has been meaningfully excavated. This argument also assumes that the Israelites took over the entire land and immediately began building their own cities and establishing their own distinct, material culture.
The Bible presents something to us that is quite different Quite the contrary. We read in Scripture that Yahweh revealed a wise strategy to Israel, commanding them to take over the existing infrastructure in Canaan instead of obliterating it: “When the LORD your God cuts off the nations whose land the LORD your God is giving you, and you dispossess them and dwell in their cities and in their houses...” (Dt 19:1). And, “I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant.’ (Jos 24:13). When they defeated various Canaanite kings in battle (Jos 12:7-24), the Israelites simply took over the pre-existing infrastructure. There was no need to build new cities, because God delivered existing cities into their hands.
2. Gradual Conquest: The Israelites did not take over the entire land all at once. In fact, the Conquest was not truly complete until the days of David and Solomon. This is clearly spelled out in the book of Judges, where the Canaanites remained a deeply negative influence through multiple cycles of idolatry and oppression over several centuries. Joshua has several lists of places that the Israelites could not conquer (11:22; 13:1–5; 15:63; 16:10; 17:11–12, 16). The Israelites primarily conquered the highlands of Canaan, called the central hill country. Important areas were left unconquered, especially the coastal plain. Pottery production facilities and social infrastructure used by the indigenous population would have remained intact throughout the Judges era. The Israelites were not required to start a new material culture from scratch. Thus, we should not expect to find large scale archaeological evidence of immediate Israelite takeover around 1400 BC, because the Bible explicitly tells us it took several centuries for such a takeover to happen.
Further, after 40 years of wandering in the desert, and the death of the adult generation who had departed from Egypt (Nm 13-14), it makes perfect sense that the Israelites would not have left a footprint in the archaeological record during this important era of formation. They had been living in tents as sojourners in the desert for 40 years. They would have had little or no pottery making expertise and none of them had ever built a city. When they first settled into Canaan, those who did not settle into formerly Canaanite cities would have lived in nomadic settlements (i.e. tents) as they had done for the previous 40 years. As they slowly took over the land of promise and the Canaanite culture disappeared, they eventually would have to develop their own material culture. And this is what we find in the archaeological record as we move down into later periods. Ironically, the lack of a widespread Israelite archaeological footprint is perfectly consistent with the biblical accounts.
3. Three Conflagrations: The Bible indicates the Joshua destroyed and burned 3 cities: Jericho, Ai and Hazor. At these 3 cities, archaeologists have found compelling evidence consistent with the Bible.
Jericho. As stated previously, Kenyon based her 1550 BC destruction date of Jericho primarily on the absence of an expensive imported pottery from Cyprus, a feeble argument from silence. Imported Cypriote pottery would have been much more readily available near trade routes, such the Great Trunk Road, which ran through the coastal plain of Israel. As Wood has thoroughly documented, extensive amounts of local Canaanite pottery from the time of Joshua were discovered by both Garstang and Kenyon in the destruction layer at Jericho.6 When a serious analysis of all the evidence is undertaken, the correlations between the biblical account of the destruction of Jericho and the archaeological record are remarkable:
- The city was strongly fortified (Jos 2:5, 7, 15; 6:5, 20).
- The siege was short (Jos 6:15).
- The attack occurred just after harvest time in the spring (Jos 2:6; 3:15; 5:10).
- The inhabitants had no opportunity to flee with their food supplies (Jos 6:1).
- The walls collapsed and were destroyed (Jos 6:20).
- The city was not plundered (Jos 6:17-18).
- The city was burned (Jos 6:20).
Instead of being an indictment on the Bible, the archaeology from Jericho is a powerful extra-biblical witness to the accuracy of the Conquest narratives.
Ai. The large site of et-Tell, commonly identified as Ai, was excavated in the 1960’s. There is no evidence of occupation or destruction at the time of the Conquest. This has led many scholars to reject the basic historicity of the account in Joshua 7-8.
The narrative of Joshua 7-8 provides numerous topographical and geographical details which narrow any potential candidate for Ai. In total, there are about 12 criteria found in the relevant biblical texts which must be satisfied for a site to be identified as the Ai of Joshua. ABR has conducted archaeological excavations at Khirbet el-Maqatir since 1995, uncovering significant evidence to establish the site as Ai. This includes pottery evidence from the late 15th century BC, evidence for a fire, a city gate facing north, a hill and shallow valley north of Ai, a viable location for Joshua’s ambush forces, and additional criteria in accord with the Bible.7
In 2013, ABR discovered a rare Egyptian scarab that can be dated to the 15th century BC. It was found in an undisturbed layer with pottery from the time of Joshua. This amazing discovery validates ABR’s dating of the fortress at Khirbet el-Maqatir to the time of Joshua.
Hazor. Hazor is the largest archaeological site in northern Israel, over 200 acres in size. Joshua 11:10 properly refers to it as “the head of all these kingdoms.” Two significant destructions of Hazor have been discovered. The first fiery destruction has been dated to the 15th century B.C. The second has been dated to the mid-late 13th century B.C. These two destructions have often been a source of confusion. Some scholars try to correlate the 13th century BC destruction with the attack recorded in Joshua. We have already surveyed how dating the Conquest in the 13th century BC is untenable.
Further confusion is created by overly simplistic misinterpretations of Joshua and Judges. Generally speaking, Joshua focuses on the war-time successes in the early years of the Conquest, while Judges generally reports how the Israelites were settling down into their tribal allotments alongside the indigenous Canaanite population. Many scholars believe these representations are at irreconcilable odds with one another. But Joshua also informs us that many places in Canaan were not conquered by the Israelites, and that Yahweh Himself would drive out segments of the population in due course, not the Israelites (Jos 13:6b; Ex 23:30; Dt 7:2). Most scholars will even go as far to say that the account of Joshua’s attack on Hazor (ca. 1400 BC) is the same event as the attack on Jabin, king of Hazor, in Judges chapters 4-5 (ca. 1230 BC).8 They will often claim how the biblical “redactors” were confused and made a hopeless and contradictory mess of the pertinent texts. Such proclamations are governed by a myriad of erroneous presuppositions that cannot be examined here. But a fair reading of these accounts, and the biblical framework generally, shows how these are two entirely distinct events, separated by about 170 years or so.
In remarkable accord with Joshua-Judges, a significant occupational gap has been discovered at Hazor between the end of LBI (1400 BC) and LBII (after 1290 BC). This gap demonstrates that Hazor sat deserted for a considerable time after its demise and conflagration at the close of Late Bronze I. The Israelites took control of the region around Hazor during Joshua’s battle (Jos 11:12). Then, sometime in the LB II period, Hazor was rebuilt. Evidently, the Canaanites regained control of Hazor and the surrounding area, and rebuilt the city. The Israelites slid into idolatry during this period, so it is no surprise they lost Hazor, since they had generally fallen out of favor with Yahweh.
In Judges 4:23-4, we read: “And the hand of the people of Israel pressed harder and harder against Jabin the king of Canaan, until they destroyed Jabin king of Canaan.” While the defeat of the king does not necessitate the destruction of his city, it is difficult to envision the Israelites “destroying” Jabin without at least doing some significant measure of damage to his city and armies. After all, to defeat a king is not to just defeat him personally, but to defeat the mechanisms and means which empower him. Thus, finding archaeological evidence for the destruction of Hazor during the Judges 4-5 era would be consistent with Scripture, but is not directly demanded by Scripture.
Abundant evidence of a fiery destruction from the 13th century BC has been found at Hazor. Ben-Tor and Rubiato summarize thus:
A fierce conflagration marked the end of Canaanite Hazor [LB III]. Across the site, a thick layer of ashes and charred wood—in places 3 feet deep—attests to the intensity of the blaze in the northern Galilee city... Whoever burnt the city also deliberately destroyed statuary in the palace…The head and hands of this (very large human) statue, and of several others, were missing, apparently cut off by the city’s conquerors...three of (the Egyptian statues) bear chisel marks, indicating that someone deliberately chopped off their arms and perhaps their heads.”9
The Judges period is a time of continued disobedience to Yahweh’s commands, except when He raised up deliverers for the children of Israel. Evidently, Deborah and Barak’s army not only defeated the king, but they attacked his city, set it ablaze, and in act of rare obedience during a time of rampant idolatry, they destroyed the pagan statues and implements of cultic worship. The desecration and destruction of these symbols is consistent with the command given by Yahweh in Deuteronomy 12:2-3.
The 15th century destruction should be attributed to the Israelites under Joshua. The mid-late 13th century BC destruction of Hazor should be attributed to the campaign of Deborah and Barak against Jabin, King of Hazor in Judges.10 Both destructions, and the occupational gap, provide confirmation of the biblical accounts (Jos 11:11; Jgs 4-5).
Biblical scholars began excavating in Israel to find evidence for the Conquest of Canaan during the time of Joshua. When they did not seem to find evidence that was consistent with the Bible, they began to manipulate the chronology of the Bible. When that manipulation fell short of expectations, they then began to reject the basic historicity of the Conquest and developed unbiblical models to explain the origins of Israel. A rejection of the Conquest also served to support already rampant skepticism concerning the historicity of the Exodus.
The Israelites did not take over all of Canaan immediately, nor did they obliterate its cities and infrastructure. The Bible explicitly tells us that God gave the cities and houses in Canaan to the people of Israel for their own use. In addition, Joshua mentions the destruction of 3 cities in Canaan. At each city, evidence has been found that correlates precisely with the biblical text and the biblical date of the Conquest.
The lessons concerning the archaeological record and the Conquest narratives in Joshua are manifold: Closely examine all the relevant biblical texts to get an accurate picture of events, beware of arguments from silence, and examine the archaeological evidence very carefully. Most of all, never exalt the interpretations of fallible, sinful scholars and archaeologists over the inerrant and infallible testimony of Yahweh.
“The law of Yahweh is perfect, reviving the soul;
the testimony of Yahweh is sure,
making wise the simple...” Psalm 19:7b
1 Bryant G. Wood, "The Rise and Fall of the 13th Century Exodus-Conquest Theory." Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 48, no. 3 (September 2005): 475-489.
2 For a survey of these theories, see: Eugene H. Merrill, Kingdom of Priests. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2008, p. 138-147.
3 This includes well-known evangelical scholars James Hoffmeier and Kenneth Kitchen. While much of their work is to be commended, their error on this vital subject requires our respectful critique.
4 For an in-depth defense, see: Rodger C. Young, "When Did Solomon Die?" Journal of The Evangelical Theological Society 46, no. 4 (December 2003): 589-603. Young, “The Parian Marble and Other Surprises from Chronologist V. Coucke.” Andrews University Seminary Studies, 48, No. 2 (2010): 225-249. Young and Andrew Steinmann, “Correlation of Select Classical Sources Related to the Trojan War with Assyrian and Biblical Chronologies.” Journal for the Evangelical Study of the Old Testament 1, no. 2 (2012): 223-248.
5 For a defense of the 15th century Exodus/Conquest, see: Rodger C. Young, "The Talmud's Two Jubilees and Their Relevance to the Date of the Exodus." Westminster Theological Journal 68, no.rn 68, no. 1 (March 2006): 71-83. Young, "Evidence for Inerrancy from Second Unexpected Source: The Jubilee and Sabbatical Cycles." Bible and Spade 21, no. 4 (Fall 2008): 109-122. Steinmann, Andrew Steinmann, From Abraham to Paul: A Biblical Chronology. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011.
6 Bryant G. Wood "Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence" Biblical Archaeology Review 16, no. 2 (March-April 1990): 44-58.
7 Henry B. Smith Jr. “Getting Archaeology Right at Ai,” Answers Magazine 8, no. 3 (July-Sept. 2013): 36-38.
8 Dates are from: Steinmann, 2011.
9 Amnon Ben-Tor and Maria Teresa Rubiato. “Did the Israelites Destroy the Canaanite City?” Biblical Archaeology Review 25:3 (May/June 1999): 22-39.
10 Douglas Petrovich. "The Dating of Hazor's Destruction in Joshua 11 by Way of Biblical, Archaeological, and Epigraphical Evidence." Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 51, no. 3 (September 2008): 489-512.