The biblical description of the conquest of Canaan has been shrouded in a cloud of doubt for many years. How and when this monumental event occurred are questions that continue to seize scholastic attention and create controversy. If we accept as factual the biblical description of the conquest, these questions are not difficult to answer. In some instances, the conquest was not complete (Judges 1:27-36), which led to an uneasy cohabitation with the indigenous population. However, the Bible is clear that an impressive military campaign achieved forceful penetration into Canaan (Joshua 11:15-23).
Additionally, the Bible offers some chronological insights into when the conquest occurred. According to 1 Kings 6:1, 480 years transpired between the Exodus and the fourth year of Solomon’s reign—the year in which he began to build the temple. We can date Solomon’s reign with reasonable confidence at 971-931 B.C., which places his fourth regnal year at 967 B.C. These figures, therefore, suggest that the Exodus occurred about 1447 B.C. Allowing for the 40-year wandering prior to the Israelites’ invasion of Canaan, the initial stages of the conquest occurred around 1407 B.C. Also, Judges 11:26 provides another chronological marker. This text indicates that the Israelites had occupied Canaan for 300 years before the time of Jephthah, who is commonly dated at 1100 B.C. Once again, using these figures, the conquest would have occurred around 1400 B.C. (see Bimson and Livingston, 1987, 13:42).
CHALLENGES TO THE BIBLICAL RECORD
It would seem, given the above information, that the question of the conquest is a simple matter, with little room for controversy. Not so! There are primarily two areas of disagreement between the biblical text and mainstream scholastic models of the conquest.
Time of the Conquest
At the turn of the century, the biblically consistent date of 1400 B.C. was the generally accepted date for the conquest. As a rule, scholars considered the Bible as the standard for historical truth, though the historical-critical school, which questioned the integrity of the Scriptures, was making its scholastic mark (see Brantley, 1994). This began to change in the 1930s when John Garstang and William F. Albright excavated at Jericho and Beitin, respectively.
Initially, both Garstang and Albright held to the earlier date of the conquest (1400 B.C.). However, during excavations at Beitin, which he assumed was biblical Bethel, Albright faltered and finally moved to a later date for the conquest (c. 1250 B.C.; Albright, 1957, p. 13). He made this reversal because he attributed a thick destruction level at Beitin, which he dated at about 1250 B.C., to the invading Israelites (though the Bible does not mention Bethel among the cities Israel destroyed; see Livingston, 1988, 1:14). Due to this evidence and similar finds at other sites, coupled with Albright’s pervasive influence, the date of 1220-1230 B.C. for the conquest has prevailed since the 1950s (cf. Hester, 1962, p. 139; Stiebing, 1985, 11:58-69).
Kathleen Kenyon’s meticulous and prolonged excavations at Jericho (1952-1958) further blurred these once-clear chronological lines. John Garstang found biblically consistent evidence in the ruins of Jericho that there was a violent conflagration at that location around 1400 B.C., which he attributed to the Israelites. Kenyon’s conclusions, however, sharply contradicted Garstang’s interpretations. She dated this destruction level at 1550 B.C., and contended that there was no city with protective walls for the Israelites to destroy in 1400 B.C. (Kenyon, 1957, p. 259). Additionally, and in agreement with Garstang, she found no evidence of occupational activity on that site in the 13th centuryB.C.—the period in which most current scholars believe the conquest actually occurred. Hence, Kenyon’s conclusions supported neither the early (1400 B.C.) nor the late date of a military conquest (1230-1220 B.C.).
The Method of the Conquest
These chronological disagreements about the conquest spawned methodological disputes concerning this event. Exactly how did Israel emerge in Canaan? As noted, the Bible indicates that there was a large-scale military incursion into Palestine. This biblical scenario, however, has been discarded by a growing number of archaeologists who contend that such an Israelite invasion of Canaan is inconsistent with the archaeological record (see Silberman, 1992). In fact, some scholars argue that there is no factuality at all to the biblically described conquest. To them, the stories of conquered cities (like Jericho) were embellishments of pre-Israelite traditions, which provided a mythological explanation of Israel’s origin in, and right to, the land (Cross, 1992, 8:24).
Consistent with this view, William Dever, addressing a prestigious academic gathering, argued that the central events in Israel’s history—the Exodus, wilderness wandering, military conquest, God’s miraculous deliverance of fortified Canaanite cities, and the gift of the land—did not happen that way at all. Dever concluded that the Bible’s account in this regard is simply groundless and wrong (Shanks, 1987, 13:54-55).
Among such scholars who hold a low view of the historical reliability of the Bible, there are two popular theories explaining the emergence of Israel in Canaan. The first is the “peaceful infiltration” model, which is associated with the German scholars Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth. Appealing to ancient Egyptian records (e.g., the Tell el-Amarna letters), they concluded that the Israelite settlement of Canaan was due to a gradual immigration into the land, not a military offensive. Alt and Noth further theorized that the Israelites must have been pastoral nomads who slowly filtered into the settled land from the desert, seeking pastures for their sheep. After a long period of uneasy coexistence with the indigenous population, the Israelites eventually overran, and destroyed, the Canaanite city states (Silberman, 1992, 2:25; see Zertal, 1991). This “peaceful infiltration” theory has gained in popularity and influence through the years, but clearly is at odds with the Joshua record.
Second, the combined efforts of George Mendenhall and Norman Gottwald introduced and popularized the “peasant revolt” theory that actually redefines the ethnic origin of the Israelite nation. This model suggests that there was no external conquest of Canaan; it was an indigenous liberation movement among depressed Canaanite peasants living in the countryside. These peasants, who formed the lowest level of their culture’s highly stratified social order, engaged in an egalitarian rebellion, overthrew their urban overlords, and became “Israelites.” This theory, which repudiates the biblical scenario, has its outspoken defenders who argue that it is most compatible with archaeological data (see Shanks, 1987, 13:55).
Problems With Theories
Though these anti-biblical theories have gained popularity in certain circles, and their advocates speak with an authoritarian voice, they have some significant difficulties. First, these theories must explain the biblical tradition to the contrary. Adherents to these views argue that the archaeological data—not textual information—must be primary. Accordingly, archaeological interpretations take precedence over, and stand in judgment of, the biblical text. However, the fact remains that, even if one rejects its divine inspiration, the Bible is an ancient historical witness. By virtue of that fact, it should be taken as seriously as any other document of antiquity. To brush aside the biblical account as a “pious fraud” simply will not do.
Second, there are reputable archaeologists who feel that these theories are inconsistent with the evidence. Abraham Malamat, for example, argued that the archaeological evidence demonstrates that a number of Canaanite cities were destroyed, and subsequently settled, by the Israelites (1982, 8:24-35). Additionally, Yigael Yadin, the late distinguished archaeologist, suggested that the picture painted by archaeological finds is consistent with the biblical portrait: fortified Canaanite cities were destroyed and replaced by a new culture (1982, 8:19). Though these archaeologists were/are committed to a late date of the conquest, and allowed for some errors in biblical details, their interpretations of the physical evidence support the general outline of the biblical presentation of the conquest. Thus, the archaeological evidence in support of the “peaceful infiltration” or “peasant revolt” theories is not as conclusive as some would suggest. In fact, Max Miller of Emory University opined that the wide variety of views regarding Israelite origins in Palestine, with each view appealing to archaeological support, illustrates that “...the archaeological evidence is ambiguous, or essentially neutral, on the subject” (1987, 50:60). In short, the limited nature of archaeological inquiry forbids a dogmatic rejection of the biblical record of the conquest.
EVIDENCES FOR BIBLICAL HISTORICITY
In light of the foregoing, we must ask: Is there any support that the conquest happened when and how the Bible says it occurred? Keeping in mind the limited nature of archaeological evidence, there is a large body of data that supports the biblical account. Archaeologists generally recognize the heavy importance of ancient inscriptions, as evinced by the excitement over an inscribed stone fragment recently found at Dan (see Shanks, 1994; Wood, 1993). Artifactual data (e.g., potsherds, war implements, architecture, etc.) typically are inconclusive on historical matters, and are subject to a wide variety of interpretations (Miller, 1987). There is, however, an impressive body of ancient literature that lends support to the biblical picture of the conquest, which includes the following.
Ancient Egyptian Maps
The Bible provides specific information regarding the locations at which the Israelites camped along the final stage of the exodus route just prior to their entering Canaan. Numbers 33 describes in detail the northward, Transjordanian route the Israelites took as they traveled to the location at which they miraculously forded the Jordan river. Several places are mentioned on their journey from the desolate region south of the Dead Sea to the plains of Moab: (1) Iyyim; (2) Dibon Gad; (3) Almon Diblathaim; (4) region of Mt. Nebo; (5) Abel Acacia Grove; and (6) the Jordan River. The extraordinary specificity and precision of this text has made it vulnerable to criticism.
Some critical historians suggest that this list demonstrates the historical inaccuracy of biblical writers, since there is no archaeological indication that these cities existed at that period. For example, excavation efforts at Tell Dhiban (the Dibon Gad mentioned in Numbers 33:45b-46a), indicate that there was no city at that site in the Late Bronze Age II (c. 1400-1200 B.C.). Though some remains dating to around 1200-1100 B.C. were discovered on the summit of the mound, there is no evidence that a city existed there before the ninth century B.C. This has led some to conclude that the “...Biblical writers knew nothing about events in Palestine before the tenth century B.C.E.” [Before Common Era (B.C.E.) is a religiously neutral way of referring to history before Christ (B.C.), currently employed by many scholars—GKB] (Gosta Ahlstrom, as quoted in Krahmalkov, 1993, 20:55-62,79).
Though no physical evidence has yet been found to verify this location, there is an impressive literary witness of its presence in this period. During the Late Bronze Age (c. 1560-1200 B.C.), Egypt ruled Palestine. In the course of its 300-year jurisdiction over this region, Egypt exhaustively mapped the area, including the main roads of Palestine. Among the ancient maps is an important, continuously used route through Transjordan, linking the Arabah and the Plains of Moab. Three partial maps describing this road have been preserved. Though no individual map is complete, each provides supplementary information, which provides a reasonably complete description of this road. Interestingly, these maps mention four stations from south to north: Iyyim-Dibon-Abel-Jordan—the exact order in which these names appear in the Bible (Krahmalkov, 1994, 20:57). These ancient Egyptian documents corroborate the biblical description.
The famed Egyptologist, William F. Petrie, discovered the “Israel” Stela of King Merneptah at Thebes in 1896. This stela (an inscribed stone monument), which dates from c. 1210 B.C., contains the only extant extrabiblical reference to Israel in the pre-Monarchic period. The stela contains a poetic eulogy that praises Merneptah’s military exploits (see Pritchard, 1958, p. 231). Of special interest is the context in which “Israel” is mentioned. The inscription bears two major groupings of locations whose destruction is attributed to Merneptah. The first is a group of four city-states: The Canaan (Egyptian name for Gaza), Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yeno’am. The second group, which appears before and after these isolated city-states, lists the names of national entities such as Tehenu (Libya), Hatti (Hittites), and Kharu (a general designation for Syria-Palestine; Wood, 1989).
It is in this second group that the name Israel appears, suggesting that it was considered a national entity on par with the powerful Hittites. Accordingly, by about 1210 B.C. this Egyptian monument gave Israel a measure of international standing. The importance of this implication cannot be overstated. The generally accepted date for the conquest is about 1230-1220 B.C. Yet, the Merneptah Stela implies that in 1210 B.C. Israel was well established in Canaan and a formidable force with which to reckon. Some objectors point out that the Merneptah Stela’s sole purpose was to aggrandize the military campaign of this king and should not be considered as historically accurate. While this was the purpose of the inscription, it is still the case that Israel was perceived to be a formidable force in Canaan. Surely, Merneptah would have gained little in prestige by boasting about conquering an insignificant, disunited band of pastoral nomads! The Merneptah Stela is a powerful witness that the conquest occurred when the Bible said it did (cf. Archer, 1974, p. 181; Wood, 1991, 4:110).
Tell el-Amarna Letters
In 1887, an Egyptian peasant fortuitously discovered a large cache of clay tablets at Tell el-Amarna. Dating from 1400-1370 B.C., these tablets were written in Akkadian cuneiform (wedge-shaped writing)—the then-accepted language for international correspondence. The tablets were urgent letters sent from Canaanite kings to the Egyptian king, requesting immediate military assistance in dealing with fierce invaders. These letters also reflect an anxious disunity among the various Canaanite kings, and an eager tendency for them to forsake their Egyptian alliance and become politically affiliated with the invading Habiru or ‘Apiru (see Pritchard, 1958, p. 276). Many scholars associate the Habiru with the biblical Hebrews (cf. Archer, 1974, pp. 271-279; Harrison, 1969, 318-322).
Thus, an analysis of these documents suggests that they reflected a Canaanite perspective of the Israelite conquest. There are some significant parallels between the general information in these letters and the biblical narrative. A communication from Megiddo mentioned that several towns located in the region of Arad in the south had already fallen to the invaders. According to Numbers 21:1-3, the Israelites destroyed many cities in this southern region. Also, there were no letters found from the first cities destroyed during the Israelite incursion (e.g., Jericho, Gibeon, et al.).
If the Habiru mentioned in the Tell el-Amarna letters actually were the invading Hebrews (and there are good reasons to believe they were), then these documents provide secular confirmation of the biblical description of conquest, both chronologically and methodologically. Since these letters date from 1400 B.C., they suggest that the initial stages of the conquest occurred in the 15th, not the 13th, century B.C. Additionally, they corroborate the view of a concentrated military penetration into Canaan. In both instances, they support the biblical record of the conquest.
No doubt the interpretations of archaeological data and the biblical text will continue to clash on occasion, primarily because the new generation of biblical archaeologists places more importance on discoveries than on the text. Accordingly, in the estimation of some, archaeology will serve to critique, illuminate, and correct the Bible, but the question of biblical confirmation is no longer a general concern (Davis, 1993). The above evidence, however, demonstrates that archaeology has provided solid evidence supporting the historical reliability of the Bible.
Yet, we must always keep in mind the limitations of archaeological inquiry and the oftentimes inconclusive nature of its evidence. Such data can be ambiguous, and subject to a variety of interpretations. Therefore, we should listen with cautious skepticism when archaeologists’ interpretations disagree with biblical information (see Brantley, 1993). Also, though in many instances the Bible’s historical reliability has been confirmed by the archaeologist’s spade, the lack of such evidence does not prove the Bible wrong. More importantly, we must recognize that, though the Bible offers valuable and historically accurate information, its primary purpose is to proclaim the sovereignty of God, Who is Lord of history. It is a volume affirming divine activity in human history, the truth of which archaeology is inadequate to judge. By faith, we acknowledge that the same God Who brought the Israelites out of Egypt, and gave them the promised land, is still the sovereign Lord of our own history—even in these anxious times.
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Brantley, Garry (1994), “Biblical Miracles: Fact or Fiction?,” Reason and Revelation, 14:33-38, May.
Cross, Frank Moore (1992), “The Development of Israelite Religion,” Bible Review, 8:18-50, October.
Davis, Thomas (1993), “Faith and Archaeology, A Brief History to the Present,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 19:54-59, March/April.
Harrison, R.K. (1969), Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Hester, H.I. (1962), The Heart of Hebrew History: A Study of the Old Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press).
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Malamat, Abraham (1982), “How Inferior Israelite Forces Conquered Fortified Canaanite Cities,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 8:24-35, March/April.
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Pritchard, James (1958), The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (London: Oxford University Press).
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Wood, Bryant G. (1989), “Merneptah and the Israelites,” Archaeology and Biblical Research, 2:82, Summer.
Wood, Bryant G. (1991), “Recent Discoveries and Research on the Conquest,” Archaeology and Biblical Research, 4:104-110, Autumn.
Wood, Bryant G. (1993), “New Inscription Mentions House of David,” Bible and Spade, 6:119-121, Autumn.
Yadin, Yigael (1982), “Is the Biblical Account of the Israelite Conquest of Canaan Historically Reliable?,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 8:16-23, March/April.
Zertal, Adam (1991), “Israel Enters Canaan,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 17:28-47, September/October.