This is the fifteenth post in a series on Victor Stenger's book God: The failed hypothesis. In his sixth chapter, The failures of revelation, Professor Stenger made a brief mention of Biblical archaeology, making the (rather common) claim that not only is there is no evidence for most of the Old Testament, but some parts of the Old Testament are directly contradicted by the archaeological evidence. My intention is to answer this criticism, or at least give hints as to how it might be answered.
The first post in this mini-series gave a general introduction to the topic of Old Testament archaeology as a whole. The subsequent posts discuss individual periods and topics. This post will discuss the Conquest. My goal is not to prove the Biblical account from archaeology, but to ask if Professor Stenger is successful in saying that there are contradictions between the Biblical account and the archaeological record. In particular, we need to bear in mind that archaeological evidence is still very fragmentary and incomplete. There are periods of history and places about which we know a lot, but other periods and places where we still know very little, and people try to construct elaborate theories on the basis of insufficient evidence.
Scepticism regarding the conquest of Canaan is in many respects central to the minimalist view of the Old Testament. It is where it all started. In the twentieth century, people began archaeological investigation of the Holy Land in earnest. They were clear about their goal: they wanted to go back to investigate the times of their Biblical heroes. And there were some early successes, but at some-point in the middle of the twentieth century the mood of the archaeologists shifted from devotion to scepticism. Perhaps it was Kenyon's dig at Jericho which triggered this; perhaps a combination of factors. Since then, the majority of archaeologists of Israel and the neighbouring territories have not treated the Old Testament as a valid historical source. This consensus has been weakening in recent years as more evidence has come in and existing evidence has been reevaluated, but the sceptics are still in the majority.
Joshua's account focuses on three cities. While Joshua defeated many Kings, only these cities were described as being burnt and destroyed by fire by the Israelites: Jericho, Ai and Hazor. As far as the other cities are concerned, you would expect them to be occupied at the time, but you wouldn't necessarily see evidence of a conquest. The Israelites would have just killed or driven out the existing population, and either moved in themselves, using most of the same pottery and other artefacts, or the Canaanites would have come back and reoccupied the city. But a fire-layer would and does appear in the stratigraphy. So at Jericho, Ai and Hazor, you would expect to see evidence of a city destruction at the time of the Exodus. It is possible that other cities were also burnt by Joshua, but this isn't recorded, so we don't know from the text whether this happened or not.
I have been comparing two different chronologies: a 18th dynasty or fifteenth century exodus, and a 19th dynasty or thirteenth century exodus. So far they both have points in their favour and against them. In archaeological periods, according to the conventional dating scheme, the 18th dynasty exodus would place the conquest in the last phase of the LBI archaeological period or very early LBII. The 19th dynasty exodus would place the conquest at the end of LBII, and around the transition to the Iron Age. The twentieth century sceptics usually only considered the 19th dynasty exodus. I also have noted that there is some dispute over the dates ascribed to archaeological periods, and on the most extreme schemes 1400BC would be early rather than late LB1. In my previous post I discussed the evidence from the Negev and the wanderings, and suggested that a redating of the Middle Bronze Age/Late Bronze Age transition to a time a few decades before the Exodus was required to have the evidence line up with an early exodus date. So for the early exodus, we should search for evidence throughout the LB1 period, but demand consistency (it would all have to be either early LB1 or all late LB1 but not a mixture).
I'll discuss the sites in detail below, but in summary: Hazor actually fits the Joshua narrative reasonably well, and I don't think that this is disputed. There are several burn lines throughout the Late Bronze Age, and in particular the final destruction of the city was due to a violent conflagration in the thirteenth century, at the right time for the late conquest theory. The city was then abandoned until deep in the Iron Age, at the time of David or Solomon. There are also LB1 destruction layers consistent with the early date proposal.
According to Kenyon's investigations in the 1950s, Jericho was destroyed at the very end of the Middle Bronze Age. The city was rebuilt deep into Iron Age II -- which is in agreement with the account in the book of Kings, which states that it was rebuilt by King Ahab. Between these two periods, there was a small LB2 occupation and building, but not the great walled city portrayed in the book of Joshua. This seems to be inconsistent with the Biblical text, whether we adopt the early or late date.
Ai is even worse. The site was identified with et-Tell in the initial surveys of the country, on the basis that no other suitable site East of Bethel was found. There was an extensive Early Bronze Age city at the site, but then it lay abandoned until a small village was established in the Iron Age. So not only were Jericho and Ai not destroyed in the thirteenth centuries, there was not even any walled city there at the time.
Furthermore, Canaan was still very much under Egyptian control until the time of Ramesses III, and there are no signs of a cultural break between the Late Bronze and Iron Ages. The bulk of the conquest was meant to have taken place in seven years, but what destructions there were in the Late Bronze Age were scattered over centuries. Thus the account of the conquest is dismissed. There is still the question about the emergence of Israel, but people generally debate between a peaceful infiltration, or peasant's revolt, or a continuation of the previous Canaanite culture.
At least that is the story as it is frequently told. But is it really the case?
The first thing we have to do is to actually read the Biblical account. You would have thought that it was an obvious first step, but it is surprising how many commentators on the Conquest don't seem to have done it. The account of the conquest stretches from Numbers chapter 21 through to Judges chapter 2. Within that time-frame, there were actually a number of separate campaigns.
- Firstly, the conquest of Transjordan (Heshbon and Bashan) under Moses. This seems to have been complete: the Israelites killed or drove out the inhabitants, and settled in the cities.
- Moses then dies, and Joshua takes charge.
- There is then a campaign in the South. This is initially against Jericho and Ai, and those cities are destroyed. The reason to target Jericho is clear: it was at the entry point into Canaan, and represented a threat to the Israelite camp at Gilgal. Ai guarded one of the main routes from Jericho into the highlands.
- After destroying Ai, the Israelites first of all go to Schechem (in the valley between Mounts Ebal and Gerizim) to renew the covenant (as commanded by Moses), and then establish their camp at Gilgal, which is close to Jericho. At this point, Joshua's tactics change. Instead of destroying and occupying cities, he decides to focus on removing the military strength of Canaan. He keeps his whole army together, and first of all battles coalitions of Kings and armies. He attacks various cities, and breaches them, but does not destroy or occupy them, but instead moves on with his army to the next city. He is trying to remove organised opposition rather than occupy the land.
- Joshua allies himself with Gibeon, one of the major Canaanite cities.
- He next takes on a coalition of Kings led by Jerusalem, and defeats them, and then turns to mop up a number of other cities and their people. Then all the Israelites return to Gilgal; they don't take over the cities at that time. If you just read the last part of Joshua chapter 10 in isolation you would think that all the Southern Canaanites were destroyed. But it is usual in ancient documents for rulers to use hyperbole to exaggerate their successes, and the book of Joshua is in the genre of an ancient campaign record. It is clear from later chapters that there were still plenty of Canaanites around in the South.
- After a short rest, the Israelites turn their attention to the North. They first of all defeat a coalition of Kings led by Hazor in a pitched battle. They destroyed Hazor, burning it to the ground, mopped up various other cities without burning them, and took plunder. Then they again withdrew to Gilgal without occupying the country. Reading chapter 11 without the wider context would lead one to believe that all the Northern Canaanites were subdued; but we see in later passages that plenty of Canaanites remained.
- Now Joshua believes that he has broken the back of the Canaanites. He has defeated their armies, captured or killed their Kings. The land is open for his forces to move in, and occupy at their leisure. So he divides his forces. He moves the Israelite camp from Gilgal to Shiloh, and sets up the tabernacle at Shiloh. He had started the process of dividing the land at Gilgal, and finished it at Shiloh. He split up the land between the twelve tribes, with the intention that they should each finish the job of defeating the remaining Canaanites in their individual zones, and then to settle down and occupy the land. Finally, towards the end of his life, Joshua gathered the tribes together at Schechem for another covenant renewal.
- The final part of the conquest was the work of the individual tribes to defeat the remaining Canaanites. But it looks like the Canaanites had been able to rebuild faster than Joshua had expected. There was still notable resistance. This conquest and occupation by the tribes was only a partial success. Some tribes seem to have done well: Judah and Simeon, for example. Others, such as Dan, were a complete failure. Most were somewhere in the middle: they established a foothold in the country, but the Canaanites continued to live alongside them, until (much later) the Israelites grew stronger. In particular, most of the major cities were either reoccupied by the Canaanites, or Joshua never took them in the first place. For the most part, the Israelites lived on the margins of society, and the situation would remain like that, possibly for another few centuries. Gradually Israel would grow stronger and the Canaanites weaker; but the conquest would not be complete until the time of Saul and David.
So what we see is that within Israel itself, we should only expect to see destruction layers and perhaps a break in occupation at three cities: Jericho, Ai and Hazor. In general, the Israelites were looking to occupy the cities, not destroy them. They would have done some damage to the masonry, broken the tops of the city walls, and killed a lot of people, but none of that would necessarily show up in the archaeological record. Equally, the Israelites failed in their attempt to occupy the land; at least it was only a partial success. They destroyed some cities, occupied others, and established themselves in the highlands. But the main cities remained in Canaanite control (Joshua 13, Judges 1). Often critics of the conquest ask why did the Egyptians of the 19th and 20th dynasties (or late 18th dynasty if using the early date) not encounter the Israelite tribes in their campaigns in the Levant, but instead Canaanites? Partly, of course, the Egyptians wouldn't have distinguished between Canaanites and Hebrews. But mainly because the Canaanites were still there, in control of the main roads that connected Egypt and the North. The Israelites lived in trans-Jordan and the highlands, where the Egyptians only went on a few occasions. There is no reason why we should expect a major conflict between the Israelites and the Egyptians.
So, once again, I will turn to Professor Stenger and his sources, to see what they say on the subject. First of all Professor Stenger notes that the cities in the region were poor an unfortified, with no signs of destruction. Jericho was not settled, having been destroyed around 2400 BC. The story is a myth.
So not many details, and one blatant error concerning the date of Jericho's destruction. Jericho was indeed destroyed in the Early Bronze Age, but the city was resettled in the Middle Bronze Age. That Middle Bronze Age city was (according to the conventional view) destroyed at the end of the Middle Bronze Age, which is conventionally dated to around 1530-1550BC (although see below for alternative interpretations). There was settlement of Jericho during the Late Bronze Age, although until recently (including at the time when Finklestein was writing) this was assumed to be relatively small, and not the large fortified city described in the book of Joshua.
Professor's Finklestein and Silberman devote a chapter to the conquest of Canaan. They first of all summarise the Biblical narrative, while failing to note that large parts of the land were either unconquered or only partially conquered. They do note that the book of Joshua is geographically accurate. They also note that destruction layers were found at Tell Beit Mirsim, Beitin (Bethel) Lachish, and Hazor which initially seemed to line up with the 13th century Exodus date. Then they present their evidence that it didn't happen.
- There are abundant Egyptian texts concerning Late Bronze Age Canaan, which show that the province was under Egyptian control. There is no mention of the Egyptians in the Joshua account, or the book of judges, and the Egyptians would hardly be likely to sit idly by as the Israelites take over their territory. In particular, they focus on the Amarna letters of the time of Amenhotep III and Akhenaten, the campaigns of Seti, Ramesses II, and Ramesses III, and evidence for Ramesses VI having influence at Megiddo.
- The cities of the LBII period were generally unfortified.
- There was no trace of a settlement in Jericho in the 13th century BC, only a small unfortified villa in the 14th century BC.
- Ai is identified with et-Tell, which showed no occupation between the Early Bronze Age and Iron Age.
- Gibeon at el-Jib again shows settlement from the Middle Bronze Age and Iron Age, but not the intervening period when the conquest was meant to have happened.
- Similar pictures emerge for other towns, such as Heshbon.
- The destruction layers which were found can be attributed to the sea people invaders, who arrived from the Mediterranean around the time of Ramesses III, and included the Philistines who tormented Israel from the times of the Judges. They led to the fall of the Hittite Empire, and pushed the Egyptians back into Egypt. This invasion caused a general confusion and chaos, which lasted for some time. The Late Bronze Age destruction layers were not all simultaneous with each other. For example, the destruction at Lachish contained an inscription containing the name of Ramesses III, indicating that it happened during his time or later. Another inscription shows that Megiddo was destroyed at the time of Ramesses VI. The pottery at Hazor's destruction layer imply a date earlier than the late thirteenth century, and Aphek's destruction later includes a cuneiform letter which has the names of Egyptian officials from Ramesess II's later years. Thus Hazor, Megiddo, Aphek and Lachish, all said to be destroyed by Joshua, were in fact destroyed over a period of several centuries.
I will respond to most of these objections in depth when I discuss the positive evidence for the conquest below. For now, I will just recapitulate what I said above. The only cities that the book of Joshua states were destroyed by fire were Jericho, Ai and Hazor. (Although Judges 1:8 suggests that Jerusalem was also burnt a short time after the conquest.) He attacked other cities as well, but he didn't destroy them by fire, or if he did it was not recorded. The goal of the Israelites was to occupy the houses built by other people, which doesn't tend to work very well if those houses have been burnt to the ground. A fire shows up in the archaeological excavation, if it was severe enough. You breach the city walls, kill a number of people and drive out others, then clean up the mess so that you can live in the city later, and it wouldn't leave an archaeological trace baring some smashed pottery (which happens even when you don't have an invasion). Hazor was recorded as being burnt by the Israelites; we should expect to see a destruction layer there at about the right time -- and we do, whether we adopt the LB1 or LB2 conquest model. Lachish's King was part of the coalition led by Jerusalem, and the city itself was recorded as being besieged by Joshua and its population killed. There is no mention of the city being burnt or there being widespread destruction under Joshua. Aphek is usually associated with Tell Ras el-Ain, in central Wes Israel, close to Tel Aviv. It is mentioned in Thutmose III's campaign list, and was a significant city. The King of Aphek is listed as being defeated by Joshua, but there is no mention that the Israelites even attacked the city. Of course they might have done, without it being recorded, but neither a destruction nor lack or it is relevant to the question of whether the conquest account is consistent with the evidence on the ground. Both possibilities are consistent with the Biblical record. All we need is that the city was occupied at the time Judges 1:31 records that the tribe of Asher failed to drive out the city's inhabitants, but this might reference a second, more Northerly, city with the same name. The King of Megiddo was defeated by Joshua in pitched battle (Joshua 12:21), but the city was not conquered by the Israelites (Judges 1:27), and continued to be inhabited by the Canaanites for some time. Of the four cities mentioned by Professor Finkelstein, only in one -- Hazor -- should we expect to find evidence for a destruction at the time of the conquest. Lachish might have a decrease in population. Aside from that they needed to be occupied at the time of the conquest, Lachish, Megiddo and Aphek are an irrelevance.
The LB1 conquest theory
As I have been discussing throughout this series of posts, the Biblical Chronology is disputed. The two most popular proposals are an 18th dynasty Exodus under either Thutmose III or (more frequently proposed) Amenhotep II; or a 19th dynasty Exodus under Ramesses II. The first of these leads to a conquest in the LB1 period. The second to a conquest in the LB2 period. Almost all sceptical scholars (including Finkelstein and Silberman) assume an LB2 date of the exodus, and I will discuss the evidence for this below. First, I will discuss the evidence for a LB1 conquest.
I ought to begin by discussing pottery and chronology. As noted in my discussion of Arad in the previous post, there is some dispute over the transition between the Middle Bronze Age and the Late Bronze Age, which means the transition between the emergence of different pottery types. The transition would likely have taken several decades, and occurred at different times in different places, whichever of the two options you go for. The standard date corresponds to the start of the eighteenth dynasty in Egypt, about 1550-1530BC. This is backed up by various radiocarbon dates, and also that Hyksos scarabs are found starting from the last phases of the Middle Bronze Age, suggesting that those periods were contemporary with the Hyksos period in Egypt. The second possibility is that the transition occurred around 1470BC, around the time of Thutmose III. This comes from the excavations at Tell el-Daba in Egypt, where imported Middle Bronze Age pottery is found in layers associated with early 18th dynasty Pharaohs, and Late Bronze Age pottery found in contexts associated with the later 18th dynasty Pharaohs. So the Hyksos period would then be pushed back a little bit earlier into the MBA, which remains consistent with Hyksos scarabs appearing in MB3 and LB1 contexts (since they were preserved as heirlooms, and often appear decades or longer after the rulers they depict). Also from Tell el-Daba is evidence that the calibration of radiocarbon dates is incorrect during this time period, by about 100 years or a little more. This discussion is still (as far as I know) being heavily debated. If we select the early (start of the 18th dynasty) date for the transition, then a conquest after an Amenhotep II exodus would have happened right at the end of LB1. If the Late Bronze Age started during the time of Thutmose III, then the early conquest would have occurred at the start of the LB1 period.
The Middle Bronze Age and Late Bronze Age are distinguished by pottery types -- subtle differences in the sizes, types, shapes and decorations of pottery which to the uninitiated mean nothing but to the expert mean everything. The native Canaanite pottery is very similar between the end of the Middle Bronze Age and the LB1 period. There is a gradual transformation of the pottery forms, but it is very subtle and even experts can disagree. What distinguishes between the LB1 period and the MB3 period is primarily the presence of Bi-chrome ware. This is an imported pottery from the Mediterranean, noted for its easily recognisable two-colour designs. There is also a less well made native imitation of Bi-chrome ware. So deciding whether an archaeological strata belongs to the end of the MBA or the start of the LBA is largely determined by the presence or absence of Bi-chrome ware. It should be observed that this is a slightly dangerous situation. Does this mean that a layer with no Bi-chrome ware was from the MBA, or from early LBA in a city whose inhabitants for whatever reason didn't make much use of this pottery type?
MBA Canaan was prosperous. There was a reasonably large population. They dwelt in large well-fortified cities. LBA Canaan was different. The urbanised population dropped dramatically. Large numbers of settlements in the hill country were abandoned. The impressive MBA fortifications generally fell into disrepair. Those people who remained showed a continuity in culture -- they used similar artefacts, and lived in a similar way to their MBA predecessors. I haven't found that much discussion of this transition, but it is generally assumed to be at the MBA/LBA transition. But there is uncertainty. Unless there is inscriptional evidence, Archaeology is rarely as precise as we would perhaps like. It is possible that it occurred early in the LB1 period. It could have happened over a few decades, or relatively quickly.
In my previous post, I discussed the destruction of Arad under Moses. This battle happened near the start of the wilderness wanderings. The only option that looked consistent with an 18th dynasty Exodus and LB1 conquest was Tell Malhata, whose destruction and abandonment is conventionally dated to the end of the Middle Bronze Age. I suggested that if we adopted Bietak's date for the MBA/LBA transition, and that the destruction of Tell Malhata was actually early LB1 (before the LB pottery types reached this isolated desert outpost) rather than Late MB3 then this was just about feasible.
We should also note the report of the spies that Moses sent into Canaan in Numbers 13:28:
We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there.
Some might argue that the spies weren't being entirely honest here: they were trying to discourage an attack. But I would not be so quick in dismissing the reports -- something had to discourage the spies. There could be exaggeration, but there has to be some basic truth to exaggerate. It should also be noted that this report was four decades before the conquest. Large fortified cities fit the general picture of Middle Bronze Age Canaan. They do not fit the situation in the Late Bronze Age. Again, one can question whether the change in settlement patterns corresponded precisely with the emergence of Bi-chrome ware and the subtler shifts in pottery types. Maybe (advocates of the early exodus date would and need to maintain) the transition in the settlement patterns occurred in the first few decades of the LB1 period. Pottery dating is a) not perfectly precise; and b) a relative dating, so it tells you that two strata were simultaneous but not the absolute date of them. Without inscriptional evidence -- which is in short supply in early LBA Canaan -- and with questions over radiocarbon dating, there is ambiguity in the absolute dates of the strata. Not much uncertainty, but perhaps enough to span the few decades needed to build up this picture.
So this is (I think) how an advocate of an Amenhotep II Exodus ought to argue:
- The transition between the MBA and LBA should be dated to the Thutmoside period in Egypt rather than the start of the 18th dynasty.
- Bietak is correct that there is an error in the radiocarbon calibration curve in the early LBA. Until this is resolved, radiocarbon dating can be used for relative dating between sites (are two strata at different sites from the same time period?) but not absolute dating (is this sample from 1550BC?)
- The large well-fortified MBA cities in Canaan actually continued into the early part of the LB1 period. The destruction of those fortifications and reduction of the population in (it is now supposed) early LB1 was due to the campaigns of Joshua.
- The Israelites were, however, largely unsuccessful in driving the Canaanites out of what remained of the cities. In some places Joshua never drove them out (as implied in Joshua 13); in other places the Canaanites quickly returned and were able to resist the individual Israelite tribes (as implied by Judges 1 and later passages in Judges). The Canaanites maintained loyal to Egypt -- indeed, they would have been desperate for Egyptian help to oppose the waves of Hebrews. The Egyptians of the late 18th and 19th dynasties interacted with the Canaanites in the plains and valleys, but largely (not entirely) ignored the Israelites in the hill country. The Israelites, despite the command to occupy houses they didn't built, primarily settled for a nomadic lifestyle outside the boundaries of the main civilisation. There would be exceptions to this -- particularly in parts of Judah and trans-Jordan -- but this will be the general pattern.
- Cultural continuity is to be expected because the Canaanites continued to live in the land, and Israelites were either nomadic, or moved into Canaanite homes and lands and looted and re-used their possessions (not having any industry of their own at that time).
- The Israelites gradually expanded and overcame the remaining Canaanites over the next few centuries. Gradually the Canaanites were either wiped out, driven away, or were merged into Israelite culture.
Obviously there are some immediate questions over this construction. Most importantly, it requires accepting Bietak's controversial redating of the MBA/LBA transition, and even then needs to redate the fall of the fortifications and drop in the population into early LB1. I can imagine that many archaeologists would be uncomfortable with this. It also relies on the (only slightly less) controversial questioning of the radiocarbon calibration curve. We also require the conquest -- and Joshua's active campaigning -- to have happened at a time when the Egyptians were relatively quiet and neglected their Canaanite vassals. This is not unreasonable, since Joshua would have rampaged across Canaan early in the reign of Amenhotep III, who wasn't very active militarily, with just one known campaign to the South into Nubia.
Analysis of Individual sites
Heshbon is usually associated with Tell Hishban, which was not occupied until the Iron Age. It is, of course, possible that the Heshbon encountered by Moses was elsewhere. Tall Jalul contains some remains from LB2, but the city mainly seems to have been occupied in the Iron Age. Tall Madaba seems to have been similar, with early Bronze and Iron Age occupation but little in-between. Tall Umayri had extensive remains from the late MB period, including fortifications. The city traded with the Egyptians and Hittites. There was also a jar handle impressed with the caratouche of Thutmose III. There also seems to have been a Late Bronze Age settlement at the site, dated by the excavators to around 1400BC, which seems to have been at least partially destroyed in a fire. The site does, however, seem to be relatively small.
Thus there doesn't seem to have been a large sedentary population in the territory of Sihon King of Heshbon. Although this is with the caveat that there are still a lot of unexcavated sites in the region. It is possible that Sihon ruled over a largely nomadic or tent-dwelling people. The Numbers 21 account focuses only on one city, Heshbon. The recap of the destruction in Deuteronomy 2 implies that there was more than one city captured by the Israelites, and the assignment of the land to the tribe of Reuben in Judges 13, which corresponded to Sihon's kingdom, mentions a total of fifteen cities.
Tell Umayri seems to be a viable candidate for the Heshbon of Moses and Joshua's day in the early conquest model. While excavations on the seem to be sparse, they make it clear that it was inhabited at the right time, and it does seem to have been strongly fortified. The remaining cities of Sihon's Kingdom are more problematic, and there is little evidence of Late Bronze Age occupation elsewhere in the region. However, Sihon ruled over a large area, few sites have been excavated, and some sites lie under existing cities and are difficult to excavate. (It doesn't help that I haven't been able to find much information about this region; my knowledge here is very incomplete.)
So more work needs to be done to clarify the situation concerning a possible Sihon King of Heshbon in the LB1, but there are some hints and it is not the disaster for the Biblical account that the sceptics demand. There is a viable candidate for the city of Heshbon. Sihon's other cities (which need not have been large settlements) still need to be found; but the vast majority of archaeological sites in the region have not been excavated, so there is no evidence one way or the other.
After Heshbon, Moses moved North to Og King of Bashan. Og ruled over some sixty cities from Ashtaroth and Edrei (Deuteronomy 1:4,3:1). Ashtaroth is generally associated with Tell Ashtarah, which has not yet (to my knowledge) been excavated. However, it is mentioned in the campaign lists of Thutmose III and in the Amarna letters (contemporary with Amenhotep III and Akhenaten), as well as in 19th dynasty texts, so it was certainly inhabited at the time of the proposed LB1 conquest. An Edrei (possibly a different site to the city of King Og) was also mentioned in the campaign lists of Thutmose III and also in inscriptions dating to the time of Amenhotep III and Ramesses II. In general, however, Northern Jordan has not been well excavated, so there is little we can say one way or another.
The Israelites were instructed not to enter the territory of Ammon (Deuteronomy 2:19). The main city of Ammon, Rabbah, was located under the modern city of Amman, so excavations have been very limited. However various tombs discovered nearby have indicated that the region was settled at the end of the Middle Bronze Age, and remains of an LB2 temple have also been discovered. It is therefore likely that the city was inhabited at the time of either an early LB1 or LB2 conquest.
Probably no site has contributed more to Biblical scepticism than Jericho. The Biblical narrative is clear. At the time of Joshua, it was a well fortified city. Joshua conquered it after a collapse of at least some of its walls, and burnt it to the ground. The site was then abandoned until the Judges period, when it was briefly used as a base by Eglon of Moab (Judges 3). The chronology of the book of Judges isn't clear, but this was at least 50 and probably more like 70 to 90 years after the conquest, and the occupation lasted for at least 20 years. So for a conquest in LB1, this would put Eglon in LB2. A late LB2 conquest would place Eglon in IA1. The Biblical text does not require any more than an administrative building, but it could also have been a more extensive occupation. The city is mentioned in passing in the story of King David, but without necessarily indicating that it was inhabited at the time. Then it was rebuilt in full under King Ahab in Iron Age 2b.
There have been extensive excavations at Tell es-Sultan, which is universally acknowledged as the site of ancient Jericho. After some nineteenth century probes, there was an excavation in the early twentieth century by a German team; then two British excavations, one lead by Garstang in the 1930s and the other by Kenyon in the 1950s. An Italian team has been excavating at the site since the late 1990. The sceptical picture is mainly based on Kenyon's excavations, so I will summarise that first before discussing some newer findings from the Italians.
Firstly, some aspects of the Biblical picture are in good agreement with the data. There was an IA2 city at Jericho, which was destroyed at the time of the Babylonian invasion in IA2c. Findings from IA2b are a bit more sparse, but there is enough there to indicate that the city was built at this time. Before this city, there was a period of several centuries when nobody lived there. All that is in agreement with the Biblical record.
So when was Jericho occupied? Jericho was first settled in pre-history. There is a pattern of the city being occupied for a time, and then abandoned, then reoccupied. In particular, there were major cities there in the Early Bronze Age and Middle Bronze Age. The Middle Bronze Age city (labelled as city 4 by the excavators) in particular was destroyed in a violent fire. Garstang dated this destruction to about 1400BC, but Keynon redated it to the very end of the Middle Bronze age, at about 1550BC. This is backed up by a radiocarbon dating. There were some early LB2 remains, which Kenyon dated to around 1330BC. Only a small villa or administrative building was found at this time, and it was not occupied for long. There were some hints of a destruction layer here, but not very much. Jericho is also not mentioned in the Amarna letters dating to the early fourteenth century.
So whether you date the conquest to about 1400BC or about 1220BC, Jericho was unoccupied at this time. The LB2 occupation, between these dates, was not the massive fortified city described in the Joshua accounts. In other words, it appears that Joshua destroyed a city that wasn't there.
The recent Italian excavations have changed this picture a bit. They claim that the Iron Age city was fortified in IA2A, perhaps a bit too early for Ahab though there is still some uncertainty there. They also suggest that the occupation in the Late Bronze Age was far more substantial than Kenyon and Garstang had suggested. They claim that the city was still occupied in the Late Bronze Age, although on a significantly reduced scale. The Middle Bronze Age defensive walls were restored by adding a simple mudbrick wall. I don't see any mention in the paper of when that wall was destroyed, but the paper claims that the city still remained occupied into LB2b (the period of the late date for the Exodus). There are still no IA1 finds. The remains of the Late Bronze Age city were disturbed by erosion and damage from Iron Age and later building work, meaning that there is less evidence available than on a well-preserved site.
Those who advocate a LB1 Exodus usually identify city 4 (the Middle Bronze Age city) as the city destroyed by Joshua, and the LB2 settlement as Eglon's administrative complex and palace. If this identification can be justified, then the archaeological picture fits the Old Testament reasonably well. The Biblical text does, after all, say that Jericho was left uninhabited much of the time from Joshua until Ahab, with the only exception being Eglon's brief residence.
Furthermore, city 4 has a number of significant correlations with the Biblical narrative:
- It was a large, well fortified city. The fortification system was extensive. At the base of the mound was a revetment wall, raising the base of the city above the level of the valley. On top of this was an initial mudbrick wall. A steep slope or glacis then was presented between that lower wall and the main wall further up the mound. There was then the main city wall made up of very large stone blocks.
- Sometime after these defences were constructed, a number of houses were built on the glacis, including up against the lower mudbrick wall. A few of these are preserved on the Northern section of the site, where the remains (including the outer mudbrick wall) were preserved. It is possible that they had windows overlooking the outer wall, and Rahab's house could have been located here.
- The city was destroyed by a massive fire.
- Some sections of the city walls collapsed. Rubble from the collapsed walls was found at the bottom of the revetment wall. In particular, there is no sign of any fire damage on the bricks of the wall. The wall collapsed before the city was burnt.
- The burnt city contained numerous full jars of (burnt) grain. This suggests a number of things. Firstly, the city was destroyed shortly after harvest, in the spring. The inhabitants of the city didn't have time to eat the grain. This is implied in various sections of the Biblical account (Joshua 3:15, 5:10). Furthermore, the city was not destroyed after a long siege. Nor was it plundered (Joshua 6:24). You would usually expect an invading army to take the grain.
It might be argued that all of this is circumstantial evidence. And it is. However, if these correspondences were not there -- for example if there were no collapsed walls at Jericho -- then it would clearly speak against the Biblical account.
The obvious problem with this analysis is the date. An Exodus either early in the reign of Amenhotep II or late in the reign of Thutmose III (which is the preferred model of those who favour the LB1 conquest) would place the conquest early in the reign of Amenhotep III, i.e. about 1380BC on the most widely accepted Egyptian chronology. The destruction of city 4 was first dated to about 1400 BC by Garstang. This is close enough. However, the later excavators - Kenyon, and Nogri both instead date the destruction to the end of the Middle Bronze Age, conventionally 1550BC. This is backed up by radio-carbon dating of the charred grain. They assumed that the city (as well as other Middle Bronze Age destructions across Canaan) were caused by the Egyptians of the early 18th dynasty as they sought to eradicate the Hyksos. There is, however, no Egyptian evidence that they got anywhere near Jericho. The Egyptians concentrated their campaigns on the coastal plain, Jezreel valley, and road North, and ignored the Southern highlands and lower Jordan valley. So this association with the end of the Middle Bronze Age and the end of the Hyksos period is somewhat questionable. Hyksos scarabs found in various contexts in Canaan suggest that the last MB period overlapped with the Hyksos period in Egypt, but it could have extended into the early 18th dynasty. However, few archaeologists would see pushing the end of the MB age (and destruction of Jericho) as far as Amenhotep III's reign as remotely viable.
So the preferred approach of the LB1 conquest advocates is to redate the destruction of Jericho city 4 well into LB1. The leading figure advocating this redating is Bryant Wood. He presented four lines of evidence supporting this conclusion. The fourth was based on an early radiocarbon date. However, the date he used was subsequently found to be in error, and (as stated above) the current accepted radiocarbon date is in the sixteenth century. LB1 Exodus advocates respond to this dating by questioning whether the calibration of the radiocarbon is correct, citing other examples where the published dates are a century or so too early (as outlined in my introduction).
The other lines of argumentation are:
- Keynon's dating of the destruction of city 4 was (apparently) solely based on the absence of a particular type of pottery, imported (from the Mediteranean) Bi-chrome ware. The presence of this pottery type is seen as a key indicator of the late bronze age, since the differences in native pottery types are quite subtle. However this is poor methodology, because the absence of something can't be used as a clear evidence that it wasn't there. The areas excavated in the city were poorer areas, whose inhabitants might not be able to afford an expensive imported pottery -- not when their own home-made pottery will do the job. Jericho was far from the coast, and the more prosperous parts of Canaan, so the imported pottery might not have made it that far in large quantities. And there were some examples of Bi-chrome ware found at Jericho by Garstang, suggesting a LB1 occupation.
- While differences between the native MB3 and LB1 pottery are slight, they are still present. Wood claimed to have found several examples that clearly indicate that they are from LB1.
- There were 20 different archaeological layers in city IV from the start of the Middle Bronze Age, at 1650BC, until its destruction. It takes time to lay down a layer of dirt. There were houses and towers repaired numerous times in this period; the city went through several clear periods of remodelling. 100 years is simply too short a period of time for all this activity. 250 years is more reasonable.
- Garstang found numerous Egyptian scarabs in tombs around Jericho. Each scarab is inscribed with the name of an Egyptian ruler, and there is a continuous sequence of them from the 14th to 18th dynasties. The general rule of thumb is that if there is a cemetery, then there must be a city nearby to supply the dead bodies. The 18th dynasty scarabs carried the inscriptions of Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, and Amenhotep III. The series of scarabs end with Amenhotep III, who was the Pharaoh ruling at the time of Joshua according to this narrative. These date from precisely the period that Keynon claimed that Jericho was uninhabited. Scarabs of famous rulers were often used as heirlooms or souvenirs, and manufactured after their time. So it is possible that the Thutmose III and Amenhotep III scarabs were buried alongside inhabitants of the LB2 settlement. (But if that was the case why are there no scarabs from the late 18th dynasty or early dynasty 19?) But Hatshepsut fell into disgrace after her rule. Her scarabs were not venerated later. Thus her scarabs are only used during or slightly after her reign; they were not kept for generations. So this strongly suggests that the city was inhabited during the first half of the eighteenth dynasty, at the time when Kenyon claimed that it was abandoned.
- However, Jericho is not mentioned in the Amarna letters, diplomatic correspondence sent to Egypt primarily late in the reign of Amenhotep III and his successor Akhenaten. To go from this to saying that the city was abandoned by the time of Akhenaten is a bit of a jump. It is an argument from silence, and there are usually several competing explanations of why it was not there. One of these is that the city was destroyed by the time of Akhenaten, and not yet resettled. The alternative view is that Jericho was destroyed at the end of the MBA, and then resettled sometime in the early 18th dynasty, eventually growing to become the LB2 settlement found by all the excavators. The Egyptian scarabs come from and attest to this settlement. However, this city was too small and out of the way to be in the Egyptian sphere of influence and kept out of mainstream Canaanite politics. Since it wasn't an Egyptian vassal, its ruler didn't see the need to write to Pharaoh, and there is no Amarna letter. So this isn't proof that Jericho didn't exist at the time of Akhenaten, but it is consistent with the idea of a conquest shortly before the Amarna period.
I should say that Bryant Wood's hypothesis that city 4 was destroyed towards the end of the LB1 period is rejected by pretty much everyone except his colleagues, including the current excavators of the site. The only published response to his claims that I am aware of is by Bienkowski, which Wood has responded to. It is obviously not a debate which I am qualified to comment on one way or another. I also haven't seen the LB1 advocates respond to the latest discoveries at Jericho by the Italian team. It should also be emphasised that Jericho is not a pristine archaeological site. There has been a lot of erosion (destroying possible data), and landslips causing the archaeological strata and layers to become mixed together. Even if Wood is correct in saying that he found LB1 pottery, did that pottery come from city 4 or a later resettlement? The current excavators seem to think that Jericho was (sparsely) resettled shortly after the destruction of city 4, in the LB1 period.
But the LB1 exodus theory does have certain appeals. Firstly, the sequence of events matches up with the Biblical picture. We have a large city; destruction by fire of that city (Joshua), a period of abandonment, a smaller resettlement (Eglon), destruction of that settlement (not mentioned in the Old Testament, but implied), a long period of abandonment, and finally restoration in the IA2 period. The walls of Jericho did come tumbling down. In either model (either Wood's model of a LB1 destruction, or Nigro's model of a MBIII destruction and LB1 settlement) the city was inhabited around the time of an early-date Joshua. The scarab evidence and presence of Bi-chrome ware and other LB1 pottery forms seems to indicate this. The only question concerns whether Jericho was destroyed too early for Joshua.
After Jericho, the Israelites came up to attack the city of Ai. There is again a detailed description of this battle in the book of Joshua, which contains quite a few clues about Ai and its location.
- Ai should be a natural first target after Jericho, i.e. the first city encountered on a road from Jericho into the highlands.
- Ai is located close to and East of Bethel, with a hill between Ai and Bethel (Gen 12:8).
- The Ai of Joshua's day was only a very small city, and not that strong (Joshua 7:3).
- The Ai of Joshua's day was destroyed by fire, and not resettled soon afterwards (Joshua 8:28).
- There is a hill to the North of Ai, with a shallow valley between it and the city (Joshua 8:11), visible from the city.
- The Hebrew of Joshua 8:11 possibly implies that Ai's gate was to the North of the city.
- There is a suitable place to hide 25000 men in an ambush to the West of Ai, between Ai and Bethel (Joshua 8:9). This should not be visible from either Ai, or by the men of Bethel as they came to support the King of Ai.
- Ai was also settled during the time of Abraham, and later on in the time of the monarchy.
Ai has been associated with et-Tell since the time of Albright, on the basis that it was the only archaeological site he found East of Bethel and on the road up from Jericho. Archaeological remains at Et-Tell have been found from the Early Bronze period and Iron Age, and it is suggested by the advocates of the LB1 Conquest that this was indeed the Ai of Abraham's day, and of the united Monarchy. However, it is not a good candidate for Joshua's Ai for several reasons. Firstly, it was a large settlement; much larger than Gibeon. There is no large hill to the North of the city. There is no suitable ambush place to the West close to the city -- only a hill that would have been visible to the men of Bethel as they came to attack Joshua's diversionary force. The valley North of et-Tell is deep with steep sides; it wouldn't be visible from the city, and it is not easy to go down from the city into the valley to pursue Joshua. There are no remains from the Late Bronze Age at et-Tell. Et-Tell does not match Ai, either geographically or archaeologically.
A little further down the valley from Et-Tell towards Beitin is the site of Khirbet el-Maqatir. This is a much smaller site than Et-Tell, and was overlooked by the early surveys. The site is shallow, with the main archaeological remains close to the surface. It does match all the geographical indicators for Ai. The site was excavated by Bryant Wood and Scott Stripling, who found a small fortress there, established towards the very end of the MBA and mainly occupied during LB1. But it was a walled settlement, with a gate to the North facing the shallow valley. A deep valley behind the hill behind the city would serve as a suitable ambush place. It was destroyed by fire and subsequently abandoned, and not resettled for some time. There is a little evidence of an Iron-Age re-occupation, and of occupation during the Hasmonean and Byzantine periods. This site thus provides a perfect match for Joshua's Ai on the LB1 conquest theory.
I have seen a few questions regarding this identification. The first criticism is that the destruction layer is at the wrong time. This is made by those who state that the emergence of Israel was at 1200 BC. The criticism is based on this assumption, and thus invalid when discussing a 1400BC conquest. Secondly, I have seen these excavations criticised because the team who performed the excavators are biased. This is certainly true. The Associates for Biblical Research are an unashamedly evangelical organisation, and committed to the 1406 date for the start of Joshua's conquest (even I am willing to be flexible on that point). But that doesn't mean that they falsified their data. They were perfectly willing to abandon a site which didn't match the criteria. After all, Khirbet el-Maqatir was only the second site they excavated in search of Ai. They abandoned the first one because their findings did not match what was expected for Joshua's Ai, and they were honest enough to admit it. If Khirbet el-Maqatir didn't work out, they would have admitted that and moved on to somewhere else, and would probably still be digging site after site East of Bethel today in a increasingly desperate search for Ai. Their bias should not be used to question what they found. It can be used to question their interpretation of that data. Their date of about 1400BC for the destruction (right at the end of LB1) is very likely influenced by their preconceived ideas, and I have also seen the suggestion (albeit without any justification) that their pottery findings should be dated to early LB1 or even the end of the MBA. However, a 18th dynasty Egyptian scarab found at the site shows that the site was occupied in the years leading up to a proposed conquest early in Amenhotep III's reign.
So there is a plausible candidate for Ai which is compatible with a LB1 conquest. Was the destruction at the same time as that of Jericho? The excavators of Jericho place that destruction at the end of the Middle Bronze Age, and the excavators of Khirbet el-Maqatir in late LB1 (but they also date Jericho's destruction to late LB1). But I have seen their dating of Khirbet el-Maqatir challenged and proposed that it should be earlier. There is, in short, too much ambiguity to be sure.
The city of Hazor is described as head of all the Kingdoms in the North of Canaan, and the archaeology bears that out. It was a massive site, and although it has been excavated as much as any other, the archaeologists have only just scratched the surface of it. Unlike Jericho, it is also a very clean site, with little erosion or damage to the strata.
In the Old Testament, Hazor is mentioned in the book of Joshua, where it was the third of the three cities that Joshua burnt, and then again in the book of Judges, where it is once more defeated by the Israelites, this time under Deborah and Barak. This was about two hundred years after the campaign of Joshua (albeit with considerable uncertainty), if the internal Judges chronology is to be believed. Then the city is not mentioned again until it is fortified under Solomon and later captured by the Assyrians.
There is no dispute that ancient Hazor was located at Tell Hazor. The site is in two parts, a lower and upper city. There was an Early Bronze Age occupation at the upper city, before the city was rebuilt extending over both sites from the MBII period. This rapidly grew into a vast city which dominated Northern Canaan. The occupation continued through the Late Bronze Age, although the city was destroyed (with a burn layer) on several occasions. The first of these was a massive destruction at the end of the Middle Bronze Age. Then there were further destructions in LB1, early LB2, and towards the end of LB2. This last destruction was associated by the excavators with Joshua's conquest. In particular, there was a general desecration of the statues of the Canaanite Gods and the temples of the city, which is difficult to explain unless the destruction was carried out by the strictly monotheistic Israelites. None of the other potential candidates for the destruction would have done this. The city lay abandoned for a time following its late LB2 destruction, with only a scant occupation during Iron Age 1, with some pottery but no evidence of permanent buildings. The upper city was reestablished and refortified in Iron Age 2 (11th century BC), and there is wide consensus, with only Israel Finklestein with his revised Iron Age Chronology disagreeing, that this dates to the time of Solomon.
One further point of interest is that both Canaanite rulers of Hazor, from the book of Joshua and the book of Judges, where called Jabin. This name is attested as King of Hazor in tablets found at both Mari and Hazor itself. These tablets date from the MBA2 period (and most likely refer to different individuals), so they don't refer to either Joshua or Barak's rival, but they do suggest that Jabin might have been a dynastic name adopted by numerous rulers of the city. This would be similar to how most of the rulers of 20th dynasty Egypt called themselves Ramesses, or several rulers of early 18th dynasty Egypt called themselves Thutmose.
Fitting Hazor into the Joshua narrative is straight-forward, because the city was destroyed on several occasions. For an early date of the exodus, we are looking for a destruction at about the same time as the destruction of Jericho city IV and Khirbet el-Maqatir. If these are dated (following Bryant Wood's proposal) to the end of the LB1 period, then there was a destruction layer of the city at that time. If they are dated (following the conventional view), to the end of the MB3 or very start of LB1, then there was also a significant destruction layer at that time. The account in Judges would also make sense. The city was resettled by Canaanites, and the Jabin who fought against Barak ruled have ruled over the last stages of the LB2 city, shortly before the destruction of Canaanite Hazor. While the Biblical text does not explicitly say that Canaanite Hazor was sacked after Barak's victory over Jabin's army, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the Israelites would have pressed on to do so.
There are, of course, numerous other cities mentioned in the conquest accounts. These are recorded as fighting against Joshua, but without the cities being destroyed. The cities might have been destroyed by fire without it being recorded (although Joshua 11:13 implies that no cities were burnt in the Northern campaign except Hazor), but we cannot assume this. That leaves a number of options.
- Joshua merely defeated the Kings and their armies in the field of battle, but left the cities themselves untouched.
- Joshua breached the city walls, killed or drove out the inhabitants, and the city lay abandoned.
- Joshua breached the city walls, killed or drove out the inhabitants, and the city was resettled by Israelites.
- Joshua breached the city walls, killed or drove out the inhabitants, and then when he moved on the Canaanites moved back in. For example, Jerusalem is described as conquered in Joshua 1:8 and unconquered in Joshua 1:21. Gezer is described as conquered in Joshua 10:33, and unconquered in Judges 1:29. These can only be reconciled if they were resettled by Canaanites after the initial campaign.
It should be noted that the Hebrew word that is often translated as "destroyed" is somewhat more ambiguous in the original text. Firstly, it could involve hyperbole. In ancient texts it was common to write that you destroyed or annihilated your opponents even if all you did was win a small skirmish. Secondly, the Hebrew word carries a range of meanings, and could just mean driving out the city's inhabitants.
The only archaeological mark these could leave on the cities is a decrease in population, although even this is not guaranteed unless the city was abandoned. Any incoming Israelites would have taken over the Canaanite houses and their artefacts. There would be no visible change in culture because the 1) Israelites would at first have used Canaanite pottery and manufacturing techniques; and 2) as outlined in Judges chapter 1, following the death of Joshua the Israelites did not stay faithful to the laws of Moses, and many of them started worshipping the Canaanite gods and (presumably) also failed to strictly follow the dietary laws. Any damage to the city during the conquest would be repaired. Any rubble would be re-used for future building work. And archaeologists generally only find the lower levels and foundations of buildings.
So we don't really expect to see much evidence of the Joshua's conquest outside those cities which Joshua is recorded as having burnt, a general drop in population (and even this is uncertain, since the Israelites would be replacing the Canaanites), and the cities mentioned in the text should have been occupied at the time of the conquest.
The following table lists the cities mentioned in the conquest accounts of Joshua, and their status at the end of the Middle Bronze Age, the LB1 period, and the LB2 period. There are numerous other cities mentioned in the division of the land (Joshua 14-21), but to prevent this list from becoming even larger than it is, I will omit them. Not every site has been identified with certainty, and of these not every site has been excavated (and probably not excavation is mentioned in my sources, which are a little out of date). Even for those sites which have been excavated, that no evidence of occupation has been found doesn't mean that there was no occupation then: it could have been missed or (in an early excavation) misinterpreted by the excavators, or destroyed by erosion or subsequent activity on the site. A '?' means that either the identification of the site is uncertain, the site has not been excavated or sufficiently well excavated, or my sources are insufficiently specific (e.g. they say Late Bronze Age occupation without specifying when in the Late Bronze Age).
|Biblical City||Modern name||End MB3||End LB1||End LB2|
|Bethel||Beitan||Fortified, Destroyed early LB1||Limited occupation||Fortified, Destruction levels|
|Jerusalem||Jerusalem||Fortified city||Limited Remains||Limited Remains|
|Hebron||Jebel er-Rumeide||Fortified city||Occupied||Occupied|
|Jarmuth||Tel Yarmut?||No remains||No remains?||Occupied|
|Lachish||Tell el-Duweir||Major fortified city||Occupied||Occupied|
|Eglon||Tel ‘Eton||Abandoned?||Occupied||Large city|
|Achshaph||?||?||Mentioned in 18th dynasty texts||Mentioned in 19th dynasty texts|
|Adullam||Khirbet esh-Sheikh Madhkur?||?||?||?|
|Tappuah||Tell Skeikh Abu Zarad?||?||?||?|
|Aphek||Tell Kurdaneh?||?||Mentioned in 18th dynasty texts||Mentioned in 19th dynasty texts|
|Taanach||Tell Ti'inik||Fortified city||Occupied||Occupied|
|Megiddo||Tell el-Muteslim||Fortified city||Fortified city||Fortified city|
|Jokneam||Tel Yoqneam||Occupied||Occupied||Small settlement|
|Dor||Tel Dor||?||?||Mentioned in Egyptian text|
|Goiim in Galilee||?||?||?||?|
|Tirzah||Tell el-Farah (North)||Fortified city||Fortified city||Abandoned|
|Ashdod||Tel Ashdod||Occupied||Occupied||Occupied; burn layer|
|Gath||Tell es-Safi||Small fortress||Occupied?||Large city|
|Ekron||Tel Miqne||Fortified city||Unfortified town||Unfortified Town|
|Shiloh||Khirbet Seilen||Fortified city||Shrine||Cultic city|
|Shechem||Schechem||Fortified city (destroyed end MB3)||Occupied||Occupied|
I should make some observations about a few of these sites. Archaeological investigations at Jerusalem are difficult, because the city is still occupied. The current City of David excavation, covering the Canaanite city, has helped a little, but there is still incomplete data. Thus to say that there are scant remains does not mean that there was no city there; it is just a reflection of the difficulties of excavating the site. We know that Jerusalem was an important Late Bronze Age city despite the limited Late Bronze Age remains because we have letters from its King to the King of Egypt during the Amarna period.
Hebron is somewhat controversial. The original excavation report made no mention of Late Bronze Age remains, and a later excavator has also stated that there was no city there. For this reason, it is commonly reported that Hebron was abandoned during the Late Bronze Age. However, the journals of the American expedition have recently been published, and these make it clear that there was a thriving settlement in Hebron throughout the Late Bronze Age. The report states that the most significant findings were in the LB2 period (including scarabs of Ramesses II). The LB1 city has fewer remains, so the city might have been smaller at this time, but scarabs of Thutmose III and Amenhotep III as well as pottery remains indicate that the site was still occupied. It is likely that the Middle Bronze Age walls remained in use until the Iron Age. There seems to have been some destruction of the city fortifications and some evidence of fire at the end of LB2, but evidence for this is still rather limited.
An alternative site for Libnah is Tel Goded. This was excavated early in the twentieth century (before modern methods were established), but the report from the excavation is rather confused and it is difficult to draw any conclusions from it.
Khirbet Rabud is widely identified with Debir, but there have only been limited excavations here due to a modern village on the site. Those excavations found evidence of a settlement that existed throughout LB2 and into the Iron Age. I can't find that there was evidence of an LB1 or MB3 city, although this might have been missed by the excavators.
Schechem was destroyed at around the end of the Middle Bronze Age. There then seems to have been a long period while the site was abandoned, before being re-occupied in the second half of LB1. The case of Schechem for the Biblical text is a bit more interesting. It is not mentioned as a King conquered by Joshua. The covenant renewal in Joshua chapter 8, immediately after the destruction of Ai, takes place on the mountains on either side of Schechem. Then, later, in chapter 24 Joshua gathers the tribes at Schechem to renew the covenant. There is no mention of Joshua having any opposition from or having any alliance with the King of Schechem. Schechem is not mentioned in the list of defeated Kings in Joshua 12. This suggests that either the city was unoccupied at the time of Joshua, or its Canaanite ruler offered no opposition to the Israelites. So the occupation gap at Schechem between the destruction of the MB city and establishment of the LB1 city is consistent with the account from Joshua. We have to consider the evidence from the Amarna letters (see below), which mention Schechem in the early LB2 period. In the book of Judges it is clearly one of the main Israelite cities.
The overall picture is generally good for all three of these time periods, at least as far as those sites which have been positively excavated and identified. Recall that there was a significant decrease in urbanisation in the Late Bronze Age in Canaan. Almost all of the great Middle Bronze Age sites were abandoned, or severely reduced, only being re-established in the Iron Age. So that there is such an agreement does say a great deal for the LB1 and LB2 conquest theories. It is not as though every town and city from the Iron Age existed in the Late Bronze Age. So, on any scenario, if the book of Joshua was an Iron Age fabrication, the author did a very good job at guessing which of the towns of his day had a past that stretched back into the time of Joshua.
There are still anomalies. Gibeon is problematic for all three dates for the Exodus, and especially so for the LB2 theory. The account in Joshua states that Gibeon was a large city, so you would expect to find significant remains. However, it is possible that Gibeon should be identified with a different site, or that the Late Bronze Age remains on el-Jib were cleared away when the ground was levelled to build the Iron Age City. The other problem for the LB2 conquest (from this comparison) is Tirzah.
The end of MB3 and end of LB1 dates have a few more discrepancies: Jarmuth, Libnah, and Debir have inconsistencies for both dates, while Eglon and Hormah also have no remains from the end of the Middle Bronze Age. This isn't conclusive -- it is possible that the Late Bronze Age cities were elsewhere, or that the remains were cleared away by later settlements, missed by the excavators, or just not mentioned in my sources (which are very detailed for some sites, and very sketchy for others). So these sites are black marks against the MB3 and LB1 dates for the Exodus.
Occasionally, archaeologists just get lucky. One of those occasions was the discovery of a number of clay tablets at the Egyptian city of Amarna. These were diplomatic correspondence between various rulers outside Egypt. The authors of these letters came from as far away as Babylon, the Hittites and Syria, but of most interest to Biblical scholars are those written by various Canaanite rulers. The sequence of rulers at the end of the 18th dynasty was Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, Smenkhkare/Neferneferuaten (who only lasted a year), Tutankhamen, Ay, and Horemheb. The favoured Exodus Pharaoh of those who propose an 18th dynasty Exodus was Amenhotep II, which would place the conquest early in the reign of Amenhotep III. The city of Amarna was established by Akhenaten as his new capital, and abandoned early in the reign of Tutankhamen. A few of the letters address Amenhotep III, so were received late in his reign, but the bulk of them date to the time of Akhenaten. We thus have a (comparatively) very detailed view of the world for about a twenty or thirty year period in the 14th century BC. We just have the letters to Egypt; we don't have Pharoah's replies.
With regards to the Biblical timeline, if we accept an early date of the Exodus and Conquest then these would have been written after the Israelites entered the land -- around the time of Judges 1 and 2 if Amenhotep II was the Exodus Pharaoh, and just a few decades after Joshua. For the 19th dynasty Exodus theory, these would describe Canaan during the latter part of the Israelite oppression, and so one would expect them to roughly correspond to the situation that Joshua encountered before his conquest.
There are a number of letters written to Pharaoh from the rulers of Canaanite city states. These rulers are clearly Egyptian vassals. They send tribute to Egypt, and ask for military assistance in return. The letters mainly comprise them saying (I paraphrase):
- You (Pharoah) are the greatest guy ever, and I am forever your servant.
- My rival in the city next door is a complete scumbag, and plotting against both me and you.
- Aren't the gold, silver, and slaves I am sending you with this letter fantastic.
- Please send me military aid -- even a small garrison will help.
- I am doing what you have commanded of me. In particular, I am guarding my city.
- We are under severe pressure from the Habiru, who are taking over the whole land.
The political situation of the letters very closely matches that of the Canaanites. We have semi-independent cities, each with their own ruler, sometimes bickering between themselves, and at other times forming loose alliances. Egyptian presence in Canaan seems to have been limited to a few small garrisons, mainly responsible for receiving tribute, and a few officials. The Canaanites still ruled their cities, and were primarily responsible for putting down incursions from the Habiru. The towns and cities mentioned in the Amarna letters are also mentioned in the book of Joshua. What isn't mentioned in the book of Joshua is that these cities were Egyptian vassals. They had control over their cities, but were subservient to Pharaoh. However, the actual Egyptian presence in Canaan seems to have been reasonably small; at most just a few garrisons scattered here and there. Neither Amenhotep III nor Akhenaten conducted many military campaigns (or at least, if they did they left no records behind), and those were towards the South. The letters are jumbled together, and as such we have no idea of their chronological order, beyond the various hints inside them. The numbering is purely conventional.
The Amarna letters are used as both evidence against and evidence for a LB1 conquest. The evidence against is that there were clearly Canaanite rulers still in power and corresponding with Egypt. If the whole land had been conquered by Joshua, then we would not expect this to be the case. It is also claimed that there are is mention of the Israelites.
The response to this is that although the plan was for Joshua to drive out all the Canaanites, the books of Joshua and Judges make it clear that he didn't succeed. Many cities remained in Canaanite hands. Either the Israelites never defeated them, or they won a battle against the King, but the city was then immediately afterwards re-inhabited when the Israelites withdrew back to their encampment at Gilgal or Shiloh. Secondly, the claim is that the Israelites are mentioned in the texts; just not named as Israelites.
The Habiru are an interesting group of people. The name itself is equivalent to Hebrew -- ancient scripts did not record the vowels, so when we transliterate the Akkadian
The Habiru are first known in records from Sumeria during the Ur III dynasty, where they are described as "Unclothed people, who travel in dead silence, who destroy everything, whose menfolk go where they will — they establish their tents and their camps — they spend their time in the countryside without observing the decrees of any king". There are continual references to them until about the 12th century BC. The bulk of the early records subsequent to the Ur III texts mentioning the Habiru are from Northern Syria, suggesting that early on the Habiru population split in two, with some down around Ur and others living in Syria. Later on some of the Habiru seem to have travelled out of their homeland and moved South. References to Habiru are found in many places, even as far as Egypt. And they were also found in the wild in Syria throughout the Middle and Late Bronze Age, from their first mentions through to the early Iron Age. In the Amarna letters they are active and causing problems in both Canaan and Syria. Some rulers are allied to them; others are fighting against them.
The Habiru is not usually thought of as an ethnic group by most scholars today. Instead it refers to a particular lifestyle: people who lived outside the bounds of civilised society, were brigands and outlaws, with their own culture and their own laws. They were probably nomadic, but were differentiated from the Shasu, who were more peaceful and civilised nomads. I am not completely convinced that there is no ethnic connotation to the term. For example, we see references to Habiru slaves and workmen in Egypt and Mitanni. One can not be both an outlaw and a wine-maker in Egypt. So I think there must be some ethnic, linguistic or cultural commonality which the Habiru held on to even after being removed from Habiru society.
Clearly we cannot equate the Habiru with Joshua's Israelites. They continued to be active in Syria while the Israelites were meant to be in Egypt. Even in the Amarna letters, the area of Habiru activity stretched much further to the North than we have any right to expect the Israelites to be. But that isn't the claim of those who advocate the early Exodus. Abraham and his descendants were not the only Hebrews. Most Israelites were Hebrews (some foreigners joined the group when they left Egypt), but only a small proportion of Hebrews were Israelites. Many of the Hebrews remained around Abraham's home town of Haran, and this is where we find most of the references to the Habiru. Only those Habiru who were slaves in Egypt or fighting in Southern Canaan would be identified with the Israelites, and perhaps not even all of those.
And the Israelites do match the standard picture of the Habiru. If you try to visualise what the events of Joshua -- or even Genesis -- would have looked like to the Israel's enemies, then they would have appeared to be murderous outlaws, brigands, with their own laws and outside the bounds of civilisation. In short, the various Kings whom Joshua defeated would have referred to the invaders as Habiru.
So I ought to give a few example letters, and I will choose those from the city of Gezer. There were several rulers from Gezer who corresponded with Pharoah, and I will cite a few letters from Milkili, Baʿlu-ṯipṭi and Yapaʾu. The full catalogue is available (or will be, once they finish preparing it) here. The letters from Canaan start at number 227 and run until 380.
Some letters, such as EA267, are rather dull and boring. Letters like this are very typical of the archive. They likely report that the King of Egypt ordered tribute, and the Canaanite ruler is replying to say that he is gathering it together.
Speak to the king, my lord, my god, my Sun god, a message from Milki-ʾili, your servant, the dust of your feet. I fall at the feet of the king, my lord, my god, my Sun god, seven times and seven times. As for the command that the king, my lord, my god, my Sun god, sent to me, now, I am preparing it for the king, my lord, the Sun god from the heavens. May the king, my lord, my deity, my Sun god, know that the place of the king, my lord, that is by me is intact.
There is a slightly ominous note there at the end. Why emphasise that Gezer is intact? EA 269:
Speak to the king, my lord, my god, my Sun god, a message from Milki-ʾili, your servant, the dust of your feet. I fall at the feet of the king, my lord, my god, my Sun god, seven times and seven times. I have obeyed the message of the king, my lord, to me. So may the king, my lord, dispatch regular troops to his servants, and may the king, my lord, dispatch myrrh.
So he needs troops. EA 271:
Speak to the king, my lord, my god, my Sun god, a message from Milki-ʾili, your servant, the dust of your feet. I fall at the feet of the king, my lord, my god, my Sun god, seven times and seven times. The king, my lord, should know that the hostility against me and against Suwardata [ruler of Gath] is severe, so may the king, my lord, rescue his land from the might of the habiru men. If not, send chariots, O king, my lord, in order to take us away lest our servants attack us. Something else: The king, my lord, should ask Yanhamu, his servant, about what is being done in his land.
The issue concerning Yanhamu is explained in another letter; Milki believed that Yanhamu was conspiring against him. The next correspondence is from another governor of the city. EA 298:
To the king, my lord, my god, my Sun god, the Sun god who is from the heavens, a message from Yapaʾu, the ruler of Gezer, your servant, the dust of your two feet, the groom of your horse. Indeed, I prostrate myself at the two feet of the king, my lord, the Sun god who is from the heavens, seven times and seven times, forward and backward. I have obeyed very carefully whatever the king, my lord, has commanded to me. I am a servant of the king and the dust of your two feet. The king, my lord, should be informed that my young brother is estranged from me. He entered Muhhazu and joined up with habiru men so that here now, hostility is against me. So show concern for your land! My lord should send a message to his commissioner regarding this deed.
By EA 299, the situation with the Habiru is getting more serious:
To the king, my lord, my god, my Sun god, the Sun god who is from the heavens, a message from Yapaʾu, the ruler of Gezer, your servant, the dust of your foot, the groom of your horses. Indeed, I fall at the two feet of the king, my lord, my god, my Sun god, the Sun god who is from the heavens, seven times and seven times, forward and backward. I have obeyed the commands of the messenger of the king, my lord, very carefully. May the king, my lord, the Sun god from the heavens, show concern for his land. Now, the habiru men are stronger than us, so may the king, my lord, help me. May the king, my lord, lead me away from the power of the habiru men lest the habiru destroy us.
EA 272 is from another ruler of Gezer, and shows the extent of the Habiru successes:
Speak to the king, my lord, my god, my Sun god, a message from Baʿlu-tipti, your servant, the dust at your feet. I fall at the feet of the king, my lord, my god, my Sun god, seven times and seven times. I am a loyal servant of the king, my lord. The king, my lord, should know that the city rulers who were in the major cities are no more, and the entire land of the king, my lord, has gone away among the habiru men. The king, my lord, should ask his commissioner about what is being done in the land of the king, my lord, and the king, my lord, should hasten the regular troops to me.
Here is a letter from the ruler of Jerusalem, EA 288, which also records the extent of the Habiru conquests:
Speak to the king, my lord, my Sun god, a message from Ir-Hebat, your servant. I fall at the two feet of the king, my lord, seven times and seven times. Look, the king, my lord, has established his reputation from east to west. It is a base act that they did to me! Look, I am not a city ruler, but a soldier of the king, my lord. Look, I am a friend of the king, and I am a bearer of the king's tribute. It was not my father; it was not my mother; the strong arm of the king placed me in my father's house. ??? reached me; I handed over ten slaves into his authority. Suta, the king's commissioner, reached me; I handed over 21 female servants and 80 male servants into Suta's authority as a gift for the king, my lord. The king should show concern for his land. The king's land is out of his control. Its entirety has been seized from me. Hostility is upon me. From the mountains of Seru to Gintu-Kirmil, there is peace for all of the city rulers, but there is hostility upon me! I am treated like an habiru man. I do not visit the king, my lord, because hostility is upon me. I am placed like a ship in the middle of the sea! The strong hand of the king captured the land of Mittani and the land of Cush, but now the habiru men are capturing the king's cities. There is not a single city ruler belonging to the king, my lord. All are out of his control! Look, as for Turbazu, he was killed inside the gate of Shiloh; the king was silent. Look, as for Zimri-Haddu of Lachish, servants allied with habiru men attacked him. As for Yaptih-Haddu, he was killed inside the gate of Shiloh; the king was silent. Why did the king not ask about them? The king should show concern for his land. He should turn his attention to it so that the regular troops campaign to his land. If there is not a regular army this year, the entirety of the lands of the king, my lord, will be out of his control. They are not saying to the king, my lord, that the land of the king, my lord, is out of his control, and all of the city rulers are out of his control. If there is not a regular army this year, the king should dispatch a commissioner so that he will take me to you along with the brothers. We will die with the king, our lord. To the scribe of the king, my lord, a message from Ir-Hebat, the servant: I fall at the two feet. Bring loyal words to the king: "I am your servant and your son!"
That gives a taste of the letters. We see the Kings conspiring against each other, all themselves declaring loyalty to the Pharoah. Sometimes the rulers are accused of conspiring with the Habiru. For example, the King of Jerusalem accuses Milki of deserting to the Habiru, although whether this accusation is true is more debatable. But the Habiru are presented as a constant threat in all the letters. The above is only a sample. They destroy cities granaries and rulers, attack merchants and small groups of Egyptians, and are gradually taking over the land. (This was also being done by the Habiru in Syria, and the Hittites were also encroaching in the far North.) The rulers of Canaan are afraid of them, and constantly request military support without much evidence that they receive it, or receive enough. It seems that much of the hill country has either fallen or is in the process of falling to the Habiru, although they had less success on the plains.
One of the rulers accused of being in league with the Habiru was Labaya. He is frequently assumed to be the ruler of Schechem (since he is accused of giving that city to the Habiru in EA289), but the Amarna letters don't mention directly where he ruled. Labaya wrote a few letters to the King, where he tried to defend his actions and proclaim his loyalty. He is mentioned in many other texts. He was certainly less polite than the other rulers, but whether his pleas for innocence were true or not is harder to judge. He is accused by Jerusalem with allying with the Habiru, and by Biridiya of Megiddo of attacking his city in alliance with the Habiru. Labaya was eventually killed by a coalition of more faithful rulers. He was succeeded by his sons, who seem to have continued his aggressive policies.
Is this consistent with the picture we observe from Joshua and the early chapters of Judges? For the most part, yes. The Canaanite rulers would have viewed the Israelites in similar terms to how the Habiru are described in the letters. There are a few points of difference. In the Old Testament, only Gibeon (and possibly Schechem) allied themselves with the Israelites. The Amarna letters frequently accuse their rivals of supporting the Habiru, although their only main ally was Labaya (where-ever he ruled). Equally, the account of Joshua only speaks of alliances between the Canaanite city-states, while the Amarna letters are full of accusations of treachery and hostility. These aren't inconsistencies as such: the text in Joshua is selective, and written for a theological purpose. It is not surprising that it paints a rather cleaner conquest than the confusion that is observed from Amarna correspondence. Perhaps more troubling are those letters which suggest conflict between the Canaanite cities without mention of the Habiru, or would suggest a more peaceful time. These would better fit a time shortly before rather than shortly after the conquest. But the picture of panic we see in the letters is what we would expect from the Canaanites in the face of the Israelite invasion. While it is likely to contain elements of exaggeration, several rulers report how the Habiru have taken over the whole land except a few isolated cities who are still fighting.
If the Amarna letters are set shortly after Joshua's conquest, during the period where the individual tribes were trying to eliminate the last opposition, then we should expect the letters to be sent from the cities listed as unconquered in the accounts in Joshua and Judges. So it is worth making the comparison.
This is a list of the cities mentioned in the Amarna letters, together with what happens to them according to the books of Joshua and Judges. I can't claim that the list is complete (if anyone has any more names, I would be grateful to add them), but I have all the major sites listed here (e.g. those writing to Pharaoh), and a few of the minor ones (those mentioned in passing). Some of my identifications are a bit tentative; others are pretty certain. Where the Bible first says that the city was conquered by Joshua, and then unconquered in Judges, I list it as unconquered.
|City Name (Amarna)||City name (OT)||Amarna status||Joshua/Judges status|
|Akšapa||Achshaph||Canaanite city||King defeated/city status unknown|
|Ašqaluna||Ashkelon||Canaanite city/attacked by Habiru||Captured by Judah (Judges 1)|
|Aštartu||Ashtaroth||Canaanite city/attacked by Hazor||Conquered by Moses|
|Ayyaluna||Aijalon||Attacked by Habiru||Subjugated|
|Burquna||?||Conquered by Labayu||Not mentioned|
|Gazru||Gezer||Canaanite city, attacked by Habiru||King defeated, city unconquered|
|Gina||En-gannim||Canaanite town||Mention only|
|Ginti-Kirmil||Carmel||Canaanite town||Mention only|
|Gitirimuni||Gath-Rimmon||Conquered by Labayu||Mention only|
|Harabu||Kiriath-Arba/Hebron||Conquered by Labayu||Captured by Judah|
|Hasura||Hazor||Canaanite city||Destroyed, then re-occupied by Canaanites|
|Hazzatu||Gaza||Mention only||Captured by Judah (Judges 1)|
|Jerusalem||Jerusalem||Canaanite city, attacked by Habiru||Attacked but reoccupied by Jebusites|
|Magidda||Megiddo||Canaanite city, attacked by Habiru||Unconquered|
|Pihilu||Pella||Controlled by Labayu's son||Not mentioned|
|Qiltu||?||Disputed between Gath and Jerusalem||?|
|Rubbutu||Rabbah||Attacked by Gezer and Gath||Mentioned only|
|Sabuma||Zeboim?||Conquered by Habiru||Not mentioned?|
|Šakmu||Shechem||Given to Habiru by Labayu||Controlled by Israelites|
|Sarha||Zorah||Conquered by Habiru||Mention only|
|Siduna||Sidon||Canaanite city; neighbours captured by Habiru||Unconquered|
|Silu||Shiloh||Controlled by Habiru||Controlled by Israelites|
|Sunamu||Shunem||Conquered by Labayu||Mention only|
|Tyre||Tyre||Canaanite city||Mention only|
|Yapu||Joppa||Mention only||Mention only|
What we find is a good match between the Amarna letters and the Biblical text. The cities that wrote to Pharoah, and thus presumably still under Canaanite control, are mostly listed as unconquered in the Biblical account. There are a few exceptions, which I will discuss below. Several cities mentioned as being under Habiru control were important Israelite centres. Other cities captured or destroyed by Joshua, such as Ai and Jericho, are not mentioned in the Amarna letters. The rulers are very concerned about the Habiru, who seem to be taking over much of the countryside and smaller towns, just as the Israelites did. In other words, with only a few anomalies, the Amarna letters accurately describe the political geography of Canaan in the period shortly following Joshua's campaigns.
Most of the letters from Ashkelon to Pharaoh are trivial, just reporting the payment of tribute and the city's obedience to Pharaoh. Three of them mention that he is under assault from the Habiru. EA 313 reports an uprising of Habiru which killed some Egyptian merchants. EA 305 states that he is guarding the city, but the Habiru are stronger than him. EA306 states that he is struggling to hold the city, and the hostility against him is severe. The Habiru have burnt his towns and granaries. That is where the correspondence stops. In the book of Judges, Ashkelon is captured by the men of Judah some time after the death of Joshua, so around the time of the Amarna letters in the early chronology. The letters from Ashkelon could be consistent to the lead-up to that campaign by the Israelites.
Lachish is mentioned as being conquered by Joshua in Joshua 15, and its population is driven out though there is no mention that the city is occupied. Given that several other cities captured in Joshua's original thrust are later recorded as being re-occupied by Canaanites soon afterwards, it is not too unreasonable to suppose that the same thing happened to Lachish.
Hazor is recorded as being destroyed and burnt to the ground by Joshua, but is an important Canaanite city in the Amarna letters. However, later in the book of Judges it is again a Canaanite city oppressing the Israelites. We know that Hazor was destroyed by fire several times through the Late Bronze Age, and rebounded quickly each time. The few decades between Joshua's campaign and the Amarna period is a bit tight for that rebuilding, but not impossible.
Labayu is frequently thought to be King of Schechem. This is due to a reference in EA 289 from the King of Jerusalem, where he is accused of handing over the Land of Schechem to the Habiru. But it is not directly stated where he ruled. One surprising thing, if Judges 1 is to be placed in the Amarna period, is the absence in the correspondence of Gibeon, the powerful city that allied with the Israelites. It is therefore tempting, on the assumption that this picture is correct, to associate Labayu with the ruler of Gibeon. The match is not perfect. In the Biblical account, the Gibeonites are relatively passive: all the conquering is done by the Israelites. In the Amarna letters, Labayu and his sons are active aggressors, taking land for themselves away from the more faithful rulers alongside the Habiru.
If the identification of Harabu with (Kiriath-)Arba is correct (and it is a little speculative), then there is a difference in that, according to the King of Rahubu, the sons of Labaya boast that their father took Harabu, while in the book of Judges it is the tribe of Judah which takes Hebron. Joshua defeats the King of Hebron (who was part of the alliance which attacked Gibeon), and assigns the city to Caleb, but it is not mentioned that he took the city. Since Labayu was allied with the Habiru, this is not so much of a contradiction if the defeat of the city was a joint campaign.
We also see in the Amarna letters that the Canaanites are subject to the Egyptians, although their requests for the Egyptians to send the full army to help them seem to be rejected. The Canaanites sometimes ally with each other, and sometimes betray each other, and sometimes even ally themselves with the Habiru. None of this is implied in the Old Testament account.
But these differences are not so unreasonable. Joshua is focused on the Israelite campaign. The story is to explain how God gave the land to the Israelites, how the land was divided among the tribes, and how great God is in winning all those battles (as long as the Israelites remain faithful). The author of the Joshua and Judges account was not required to give all the details, or any details that went against his main narrative, and he would be unique amongst ancient writers if he did. A Biblical inerrantist requires that the Bible tells the truth, and nothing but the truth, but not that it tells the whole truth.
One frequent criticism of the conquest narrative is the observation that Canaan was part of the Egyptian empire during the 18th and 19th dynasties. The Amarna letters certainly show that the Canaanite Kings were, or wanted to give the impression that they were, subjugated to Egypt. Why would the Egyptians then just stand by and let Joshua take over the land? But we see the answer to that in the Amarna letters. If the Habiru troubling the Canaanite cities (the Habiru in Syria would have been a different group) were not the Israelites, then they nonetheless closely resembled the Israelites and did much the same things. The Egyptians didn't respond, or at least not in anything like the numbers needed to make a difference. The letters span a thirty year period, and there is no sign that the Habiru threat was dissipated. Thutmose III would no doubt have responded. Ramesses II would have done so. But Akhenaten and Amenhotep III were obviously very different rulers. They let the Habiru proceed unmolested. Why? Maybe they were just wrapped up in their own affairs and didn't want to spill Egyptian blood to protect foreign barbarians. Maybe they were afraid that without the army to protect them, there would be a popular uprising against their religious reforms. Maybe they underestimated the Habiru threat, and thought that the Canaanites would be able to deal with it. Maybe they remembered what Moses did to Egypt a generation earlier and were afraid to oppose the Israelite God again. We don't know. But we do know that the Habiru took over at least some of the lands of the King, and the Egyptians sat back and let them do it.
19th dynasty campaigns
Another objection to a LB1 conquest were subsequent Egyptian campaigns into the Levant. There are a few indications that these restarted towards the end of the eighteenth dynasty (possibly Horemheb led the first of these before he became Pharaoh during the reign of Tutankhamen -- the sources are a little unclear here), and they certainly continued until the early twentieth dynasty. Seti I and Ramesses II of the nineteenth dynasty were by far the most active. These campaigns are not mentioned in the Biblical account. Nor do the Egyptian accounts mention the Israelites, except for a possible mention of the tribe of Asher in Seti's campaign records; the Merneptah Stele and (possibly) the Berlin Pedestal. The main enemies of the Egyptians in this period were the Hittites, who had defeated and annexed Mitanni and were starting to move into Syria, which the Egyptians regarded as their own territory. Whatever difficulties they might have had in the North, the system of vassalage that we see in the Amarna letters still seemed to be in place in Canaan. If it was weakened by Akhenaten's neglect and inactivity (and that's not certain), Horemheb and his successors would have quickly restored it to full strength. How can this be reconciled with the Israelites occupying Canaan?
This is a problem for advocates of the LB1 exodus, but not an insurmountable one. The Israelites didn't occupy Canaan, but only part of Canaan, and the least productive part at that. After the campaigns of Judges 1 and 2 started to peter out, it seems as though the Israelites lost their attacking instinct, settled down, and were partially assimilated into Canaanite culture (Judges 3:5-6). They oscillated between worship of the Canaanite gods and their own religion. It is likely, given the lack of LB1 settlements in the lands they occupied, that (if the LB1 exodus is the right model) they continued to live in tents as pastoralist nomads for the next few centuries. The richer, more important parts of the country: the coastal plain and Jezreel valley remained in Canaanite hands. The Egyptians mainly concentrated on Syria at this time, which meant that their focus in Canaan would have been on the main roads Northwards, still occupied by Canaanites. The Egyptians largely neglected the hill country where the Israelites dwelt. There were exceptions, of course. Seti's early campaigns were focused on reasserting control over the road North. Ramesses II in his year four campaign and year eight campaign put down rebellions in Northern Canaan (not an Israelite stronghold, but with Israelites there). I don't see this as a major issue; there is no particularly reason why Ramesses would single out culturally Canaanite Hebrews living among culturally Canaanite Canaanites for particular attention. To him, they would have all just been Asiatic barbarians.
His year seven campaign is a bit more of an issue for the early Exodus date. In this campaign, the main focus of his attack was Moab. To get to Moab, he split his army. One wing went through the South, passing through territory held by the Amalekites, and possibly the Southern reaches of Judah and Simeon, and then through Edom. The second wing took the road through the Israelite highlands, past Jerusalem and Jericho -- core Israelite territory, and attacked Moab from the North. After that, the combined Egyptian army marched North through Ammonite territory onto further campaigns in Syria. Although the focus was elsewhere, one would expect the Egyptians to come into conflict with Israelites during this campaign. A campaign in Moab is relatively unusual for the Egyptians, primarily because there was nothing of value there and the Moabites were not a threat to Egyptian interests. The Egyptians' only interest in that part of the world was the copper mines to the South in Edom.
The Biblical chronology in early Judges is a little uncertain, but by my reckoning Ramesses II's campaign against Moab would be about the same time as Eglon of Moab's oppression against Israel. In the Egyptian Chronology, there are about 110 years between the start of Amenhotep III's reign, with the conquest starting a few years into his reign. In the Biblical chronology, we have six years of conquest, an unspecified number of decades of consolidation, eight years of oppression under Cushan-rishathaim, forty years of rest, and 18 years of oppression under Eglon, alongside the Ammonites and Amalekites. If the period of consolidation lasted for three or four decades (which seems likely if it coincided with the Amarna period, as suggested above), then we would place the Moabite oppression during the reign of Seti I and early in Ramesses II's reign. If this is the case -- and there are a lot of questionable assumptions going into the analysis, not least that the Chronology of the book of Judges needs to be compressed if it is to be made compatible with the 480 years of 1 Kings 6:1 which the early date of the Exodus is based on -- then we can speculate a context for these two events. It is likely that the Moabite coalition not only oppressed the Israelites, but over-reached and also threatened Egyptian interests in Canaan. And if it did so during the early 19th dynasty, we would expect Egyptian reprisal. The Moabites, like everyone else, needed to be taught that you do not mess with New Kingdom Egypt. This link is, of course, just speculation, and there could be other reasons why Egypt would attack Moab.
There is, however, one additional difficulty with this potential synchronism. The Bible records that the Moabites were defeated by Israel. The Egyptian records suggest that the Moabites were defeated by the Egyptians. Of course, they could both be correct, and describe two different battles; an Egyptian campaign weakening the Moabites, and then the Israelites taking the opportunity to finish them off. There is no reason why either source would give credit to the other's contribution: as an ancient ruler, you don't give other people credit when you can claim it for yourself.
But in general, the Egyptians did not campaign in the hill country. There is no reason for the Egyptians to record victories over the Israelites if the Egyptians didn't specifically fight the Israelites.
The book of Judges, on the other hand, is not a complete account. It contains gaps. For example, following Joshua's death there is oppression from the North, then forty years of peace, then eighteen years of oppression from Moab, then eighty years of peace. That's 150 years with very few details. By the time we have reached Shamgar's battles against the Philistines and Barak's campaign against Hazor, we are into the late nineteenth dynasty, when Egyptian rule was clearly weakening. So when asked why the early part of the book of Judges didn't mention the Egyptians, the answer would be that the early part of the book of Judges, corresponding to period of the Egyptian Empire, didn't say much about anything at all.
So the model we have of the period of the late eighteenth and nineteenth dynasty Egyptian Empire is this. The Canaanites still lived in the land, under Egyptian domination. The Israelites lived in the hill country, in the area that the Egyptians largely neglected. They would not have been oppressed by the Egyptians. The Israelites were probably few in number at this time, still living as nomads, and partially assimilated into Canaanite culture. It was not until the Egyptians left Canaan that we start to see the Israelites in the book of Judges become more assertive and established in the land.
The oppression of Cushan-rishathaim of Aram-Naharaim (sometimes translated as Mesopotamia) is a bit more obscure. In the LB1 conquest model, this would take place sometime around the time of Tutenkhamun, Ay or early in Horemheb's reign in Egypt, and late in the reign of Suppiluliuma I or early in the reign of Mursulli II of the Hittite Empire. The name Naharaim is suggestive of the Egyptian Naharin, which was their name for Mitanni, and the other mention of the Kingdom, in the book of Genesis, places it around the area of Haran, which was in the Mitanni heartland. The Mitanni Empire was a major power during the LB1 period, but it reached its peak around the time of Thutmose III. By the time of the late Amarna period it was much reduced in power, and under pressure from the Hittites to the North and the Assyrians to the East. During and immediately following the Amarna period, Suppiluliuma I started campaigning against Egyptian vassals in Syria, and gained control over Northern Syria. His son Mursulli consolidated this Hittite control, which was maintained until the time of Ramesses II. There is some indication that the Egyptians, probably under Horemheb, sent a token force to oppose this, but it wasn't very effective. Suppiluliuma had already conquered some outlying regions of Mitanni during the reign of Akhenaten; at some point, probably during Tutankhamen's reign and after a long series of campaigns and attacks, he overcame the Kingdom entirely and it became a Hittite vassal. The last independent Mitanni King, Tushratta, fled and was murdered. Even before its annexation Mitanni was confined within its own borders. There were several competing claimants to the Mitanni throne, some backed by the Hittites and others by the Egyptians. On the Southern border of this Hittite incursion, someone called Aziru was carving out a little Empire for himself, switching his allegiance between the Egyptians and Hittites depending on who seemed to be on top. To the South of that, there is little documentation, but it is generally assumed that the Egyptians remained in control. However, given the general chaos that was happening in Syria at the time, with the obvious implications of Egyptian weakness, it is difficult to be sure. This is all happening at about the time of Cushan-Rishathaim's oppression, according to the book of Judges. The Mitanni Kingdom continued as a Hittite vassal until it was annexed by the Assyrians in the thirteenth century; we have few records of this period.
Placing Cushan-rishathaim during the Amarna period seems problematic, since there is no indication in the letters of a Syrian power seizing control of Northern Canaan. Mitanni began its struggles with the Hittites towards the end of this period. Placing him after the Amarna period also seems problematic, because of the wars between the Mitanni and the Hittites leading to Mitanni's annexation. It doesn't seem that Mitanni was strong enough to launch a campaign into Northern Canaan. The one advantage we have is that this was a short window when Egyptian control over its Empire was weakened, and there are few records regarding Northern Canaan to contradict the Biblical account.
The options seem to be:
- Cushan-Rishathaim was Tushratta, the last King of Mitanni, who is proposed to have advanced into Northern Canaan during Tutenkhamun's reign in the gap between the Amarna period and the breakdown of Egyptian-Hittite relations. Obviously if this were to be the case, the Hebrew record of his name would be pretty garbled.
- Cushan-Rishathaim was a successor to Tushratta, and acted as a Hittite vassal.
- Cushan-Rishathaim was a refugee from the fall of Mitanni, who escaped the Hittites and opposed their appointed King, and tried to set up a power base in exile.
- Aram-Naharaim refers not to Mitanni, but a successor state in Syria dominated by Hurrians.
- Aram-Naharaim refers not to Mitanni, but a minor Syrian power such as Amurru (under Aziru's successor) or Damascus, or even the Hittites (extending further than suggested by the surviving Hittite records).
None of these options are particularly palatable. Tushratta was too weak, there is no evidence of a powerful Hurrian remnant moving into Syria, the other powers in the region had no link to the name Aram-Naharaim, and the Egyptians, though weakened, still had a presence in Canaan during this period. But there is a general lack of evidence in this period, so it is difficult to be sure about very much at all, and this prevents a direct contradiction with the Biblical account. But we do have records for the period immediately preceding this, and the Hittite accounts of their conquest of Northern Syria. It is, however, notable that the Biblical record maintains a cultural memory of the Mitanni Kingdom, which was a superpower during the early eighteenth dynasty, but had long since disappeared by the time that sceptics claim the accounts were invented during the Israelite monarchy.
It is observed that there was a collapse of settlements in the Canaanite cities during the Late Bronze Age. We have seen that many of the major cities continued to be occupied. But when we come There were numerous such settlements in the Middle Bronze Age. There were also numerous settlements, attributed to the Israelites, in the Iron Age. But at some point during the early Late Bronze Age these villages were abandoned. The explanation for this for proponents of a LB1 exodus was that this abandonment was the result of the Israelite campaigns. They couldn't drive the Canaanites out of many of the major cities; but they could defeat the unwalled villages. The question then is what became of the Israelites, who were meant to occupy the Canaanite houses? The supposition is that they continued to dwell in their tents, leaving no archaeological trace, until the time of Gideon -- the first time a permanent Israelite settlement is mentioned in the Bible. Of course, this is just speculation, and there are numerous possible reasons for the abandonment of these villages. It would also go against the command by Moses for the Israelites to occupy Canaanite houses; but this wouldn't be the first nor last time that the Israelites disobeyed Moses' law. But it is speculation consistent with both the Biblical record and these particular facts on the ground.
Finally, I will mention the altar on mount Ebal, constructed by Joshua in Joshua chapter 8. A large rectangular raised platform was discovered on mount Ebal in the 1980s. This was dated by the pottery to the end of LB2, consistent with a 19th dynasty Exodus. However, further investigations suggested that the LB2 altar was built on top of a smaller round altar, which was built somewhat earlier (and before the date of the LB1 exodus). The dating of this smaller altar is disputed, but a Thutmose III scarab and some LB1 pottery possibly suggest that the altar was constructed during the LB1 period, which matches the early exodus account. There is little reason why a LB2 Joshua would build the larger structure over a small Canaanite shrine. At least, that's what proponents of the LB1 exodus claim. The evidence is still rather sparse and unpublished.
It is clearly false to say that there is no evidence for an LB1 Israelite conquest, or that the evidence is clearly against it. It is equally false to say that the case for a LB1 conquest is watertight.
The most important problem with the LB1 conquest theory is an inconsistency in the dates. Some of the evidence, such as at Arad and in trans-Jordan, is usually dated to the end of the Middle Bronze Age. The destruction layer at Jericho is also commonly dated to this time, although this is disputed by a small minority of scholars. Those same scholars have a decent candidate for Ai, whose destruction they date to the end of the Late Bronze Age (although these scholars are biased, and their dating is disputed). There is thus an apparent inconsistency with the dating of their evidence; especially if the conventional dating of the end of the Middle Bronze Age of 1550BC is accepted. The only way around this that I can see is to redate the MBA/LBA transition to the mid fifteenth century, and then reassign the various bits of evidence to early LB1 rather than late MB3 or late LB1. Given the close similarity in pottery types between late MB3 and LB1, and lack of hard evidence for when the MBA/LBA transition occurred, this is not impossible. And it should not be forgotten that the conquest occurred over a period of several decades (if we start it from the destruction of Arad to the end of the consolidation period recorded in the book of Judges), so it might well have spanned several archaeological sub-divisions. But without dramatic new evidence, I think that it will be difficult to convince most scholars to abandon the conventional dating.
Aside from that, the evidence lines up reasonably well, with only a few anomalies, all of which correspond to incomplete or poorly attested evidence. There are burn layers at Jericho, Ai (Khirbet el-Maqatir) and Hazor. The destruction at Jericho contains numerous similarities with the Joshua account, including the collapsed wall before the city was burnt. The other major cities mentioned in the Joshua account were occupied at the time of a LB1 conquest, with the possible anomalies of Jarmuth, Gibeon, Libnah, and Debir, all of which have had difficult or incomplete excavations, so evidence could have been missed. The Amarna letters, as I showed, give a good but not perfect match with the situation described early in the book of Judges, with the cities writing to Pharaoh still occupied by Canaanites in the Biblical account, and the main Israelite sites of Schechem and Shiloh specifically mentioned as being occupied by the Habiru. The anomalies are Lachish and Hazor, which would have had to have been reoccupied by Canaanites very soon after Joshua's attack. The first of the oppressors, Cushan-rishathaim, is difficult to explain since Mitanni was on its last legs in this time period, but the time following Akhenaten is poorly documented and did correspond to a period of Egyptian weakness. So there is room for someone to move into Northern Israel.
The LB2 conquest theory
Much of the evidence with regards to the LB2 conquest theory is addressed above. It should be noted that this is the generally assumed model in the field, and conflicts between the Biblical account and the archaeological record are the basis for most sceptical arguments against the Exodus. However, it does have its supporters, and I think the situation has improved for this model in recent times.
The Kingdom of Heshbon suffers a similar problem for the LB2 exodus as it does for the LB1 exodus, with few remains until the Iron Age. Again, the Biblical account does not require that Sihon had more than a few cities, and ruled over a largely nomadic population, so we don't need to find very much to have consistency with the Biblical account. Tall Jalul looks like a possible candidate for Sihon's capital city; and a general lack of excavation means that it is not surprising that we haven't found his other cities.
Once again, lack of excavation hinders evaluating the Kingdom of Bashan.
The burnt cities
Jericho is the classic site where Biblical scepticism was founded. It should be noted that LB2 remains have been found at Jericho. The objection was that this was an unwalled site, and therefore not really suitable for the Jericho of Joshua's day. Recent excavations have, however, suggested that LB2 Jericho was more extensive than previously believed, and could have been a walled city. Jericho is also a very messy site, with a lot of erosion and clearance from the later Iron Age settlement. So while the picture isn't great for an LB2 Joshua's Jericho, it is not as bad as it was even a few years ago, and there are reasons at the site why we might expect evidence to be missing or sparse. An additional problem, however, is that if the sparse LB2 remains are all that's left of Joshua's Jericho, then there is no evidence for Eglon's occupation of Jericho in the judges period.
There is no evidence for LB2 occupation, let alone a destruction layer, at any candidate for Ai. Khirbet el-Maqatir is a small site, and LB2 finds would have been discovered there. Most LB2 advocates pin their hopes on Et-Tell. It is a relatively large site, and not especially clean, and only limited excavations have been carried out there. It is possible that a small LB2 settlement was either missed by the excavators, or evidence for it was cleared away during construction of the Iron Age city.
The city of Hazor was destroyed numerous times during the Late Bronze Age, including at the end of the LB2 period. The burn layer is easily visible, and evidence of descretion of the temples is seen as a clue that it was destroyed at the hands of the Israelites. This site is thus fully in line with a LB2 setting for the book of Joshua. However, after the final LB2 destruction, Hazor was not rebuilt until around the time of Solomon. If this was Joshua's city, then there is no evidence for the Canaanite city opposed by Deborah and Barak in the book of Judges. Hazor is a clean site, and well excavated, so there is little chance of evidence for the city opposed by Barak being missed by the archaeologists.
The minor sites
As shown in the table above, the minor cities of the conquest account were generally occupied during the LB2 period, and the situation is slightly better than for the LB1 exodus. Jokneam and Tirzah are the anomalies, but it is quite possible that remains have been missed by the excavators or the sites misidentified. However, there is the problem of Numbers 13, which records very large, well fortified cities a generation before the conquest. That describes Middle Bronze Age Canaan (or possibly early LB1), not Late Bronze Age Canaan. This is problematic for the LB1 conquest theory, although one can possibly make an argument that the Middle Bronze Age/Late Bronze age transition could be dated later, and that the fortifications continued in use into the early Late Bronze Age. By the LB2 period, this rationalisation starts to strain any credibility.
Clearly identifiable Israelite settlements appear in Canaan from the start of the Iron Age. This fits in well with a late LB2 conquest, and doesn't require a period of several centuries where the Israelites continued to dwell in tents, leaving little archaeological trace.
The Amarna letters
In the LB2 conquest model, the Amarna letters record the situation in Canaan a little over a century before the conquest. Their report of various independent city states who squabbled among themselves and occasionally formed loose alliances fits well with the picture from the book of Joshua. There are a few surprises in a LB2 conquest model -- no references to Ai or Jericho, for example, which one might expect from the book of Joshua to have been thriving cities at that time. The Habiru would not have been the Israelites, but just wandering bands of outlaws. They caused problems during the Amarna period, but these would presumably have been resolved by the time that Joshua and the Israelites arrived on the scene.
The problem of Egyptian influence in Canaan is far less significant for the LB2 conquest model than the LB1 conquest model. Ramesses II's major campaigns to the North were mainly in the first few decades of his reign, before the time of the Exodus. There is the issue of the campaign against Israel mentioned in the Merneptah stele. This would have had to have been very soon after Joshua's conquest, rather than (as in the LB1 model) during a period which the author of the book of Judges glossed over. Egypt's hold over Canaan started to disintegrate towards the end of the 19th dynasty, which fits well with a conquest late in Ramesses II's reign. Well, but not perfectly. You would still expect to see an Egyptian presence in Canaan at this time; Ramesses II was a strong Pharaoh with (unlike Akhenaten of Amenhotep III) a strong interest in foreign affairs, and the Egyptian Empire didn't collapse until after his death. But given that neither the Biblical text nor the Egyptian records report everything, this isn't a major problem for the LB2 Exodus theory.
While there are a number of city destructions in the LB2 which have been attributed to the Israelites, these tend to be scattered over a large period of time. Most scholars believe that the archaeology of LB2 Canaan contradicts the conquest narrative, and this is the main reason why many people are sceptical about the accuracy of the earlier Biblical narratives. In practice, the situation is better than the sceptical accounts would imply. The main problem are the three sites of Jericho, Ai and Hazor -- especially if we require Jericho and Hazor to be resettled soon after Joshua's attack to be consistent with the book of Judges. The situation at Jericho seems to be improving with the new excavations, but the new results are still insufficient to turn around common opinion. The traditional defence of an LB2 conquest is to point out that archaeological evidence is still incomplete, there is much more to be found, and long held opinions do sometimes change with dramatic new discoveries.
But right now, with the evidence we have, there are some serious problems with the LB2 conquest model.
The common sceptical case, and, right now, the position of mainstream scholarship, is that there is no evidence for the Israelite conquest as described in the book of Joshua. In practice, this is an exaggeration. There is evidence, just perhaps not a complete record and there are still some anomalies. These anomalies might be resolved with future excavations -- one should always remember that archaeology proceeds slowly and often paints a very patchy picture, and that erosion and site levelling for future building works or agriculture can destroy evidence.
It is perhaps an important clue that the most well known advocates of the LB1 model tend to be specialists in Israel or Jordan archaeology, while the best known proponents of the LB2 model tend to be Egyptologists. The evidence from Egypt and the language of the Old Testament favoured a 19th dynasty Exodus, while not (quite) ruling out an 18th dynasty Exodus model, with some updating of the text during the Judges period. The evidence from Canaan, in my view, clearly favours the LB1 model. There are problems with both the LB1 and LB2 models of the conquest, but the problems with the LB2 model seem to me to be more severe. The main problem with the LB1 model is that some of the evidence is usually dated to the end of the Middle Bronze Age, some to early LB1, and the destruction of Ai in particular to late LB1. I think the best way to resolve this is to redate the Middle Bronze Age/Late Bronze age transition to the time of Thutmose III -- which has been justified on the basis of excavations at Tell el-Daba, even if not widely accepted, and to redate the finds usually ascribed to the end of the Middle Bronze Age (for example at Jericho) to early LB1 (which has also been suggested, although far from being widely accepted). Against this redating is the opinion of the majority of mainstream scholarship and the radiocarbon dating.
If this is done, then the evidence matches up very well. The end of Jericho city 4 closely matches the Joshua account, including the collapsed walls. The LB2 remains would date from the time of Eglon of Moab. There is a good candidate for Ai, which again closely corresponds to the Biblical account, and the evidence from Hazor matches twin Israelite destructions at the hands of Joshua (in LB1) and then Deborah and Barak (at the end of LB2). The cities mentioned in the book of Joshua were generally occupied at the time. The Amarna letters generally match the post-conquest situation in Israel -- if you actually read the text and realise that most of the major cities remained in Canaanite hands, and you recognise that both the Amarna letters and Biblical account give a biased and incomplete account. Amenhotep III and Akhenaten neglect of their Empire gave Joshua and his successors -- and, indeed the Hittites as well further North -- a window to establish themselves in Egyptian territory. Cushan-rishathaim of (presumably) Mitanni remains a problem, as his occupation would coincide with the collapse of Mitanni power at the hands of the Hittites and Assyrians, but he could have been a ruler of a Hurrian successor state.
However, even though there are hints as to how it might be resolved, the archaeology of the conquest does remain a problem for those such as myself who hold to Biblical inerrancy or something very close to it. Indeed, I hold this to be the most significant challenge to Christianity. However, despite this, I do not think that the situation is as bleak for the Christian (or Jew) as the critics make out. Since the low point in the 1970s, most new discoveries have reduced the problems rather enhance it. There are hints as to how it might be resolved, and, with a scarcity of evidence that the conclusions are drawn from, it only takes one new discovery to make radical changes to the picture.
The moral question
The Old Testament is a very violent text. Now just because something happened in the Old Testament doesn't mean that God approves of it; indeed much of the Old Testament describes things that God condemns. But there are a few places where God commands actions which we have a hard time swallowing today. Chief among these is the destruction of the Canaanites at the hands of Joshua and Moses. One can quibble over whether the plan was to kill them, or merely drive them out, but the text reminds us of various more recent genocides. Obviously the Bible -- the New Testament in particular, but in practice the whole Bible -- reminds us that God is loving to all people. This seems difficult to reconcile with the accounts in Joshua (and the few similar examples) elsewhere.
The first place to turn to is the defence of this action given in the book of Genesis. In Genesis 15, we read,
Then the Lord said to Abram, Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgement on the nation that they serve, and afterwards they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.
The implication is that at the time the Israelites did return, the iniquity of the Amorites was complete. They had passed the point from which there was no return; where the evil they performed surpassed the evil of destroying them and their society. The conquest was meant to be an example of divine justice, similar to the judgement called out on Sodom or at the time of Noah, or even on Israel at the hands of the Assyrians, only this time at the hands of God's people.
And this is where we have to remember that love means the desire for goodness. Evil is the privation or lack of goodness. God's love is for all of creation, not just the Canaanites. Sometimes when an evil is too entrenched, the only thing to do is to cut it out and start again. And that could be the loving thing to do. As New Testament people, we look to Christ and the Church: the hope for repentance, to turn the other cheek, to go the further mile, and to leave all vengeance to God. The New Testament is about God's mercy, and we are expected to live in that pattern. But we should not let that make us forget that divine justice and wrath are also part of God's character. Were the Canaanites evil enough to deserve this judgement? We don't have enough historical data to make that assessment. But, as Christians, we have to trust that God made the morally right decision. And it is a truth that strikes close to home. If God was willing to judge the Canaanites, then he will also judge contemporary European and North American society in the same way when our iniquity is complete.
Neither is it possible to think on reading the passages in the context of the rest of scripture that the Israelite actions are an example for us to follow. The New Testament in particular, but also the Old Testament, makes it clear that justice belongs to God, not us. It would be a complete betrayal of the Christian values. We are as the Canaanites, equally evil by God's standard and deserving of judgement. If we were to resolve to go on a rampage to wipe out all evil people, then the first target would have to be ourselves as the most guilty. Thank God for divine mercy.
The conquest makes us morally uncomfortable. There is no denying it. But we should not forget where the source of moral values lies. If it came to a choice between saying that our moral intuition is wrong or God is wrong, then it has to be our moral intuition that gives way.
But writing that doesn't make it any easier.Reader Comments:
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