The Exodus from Egypt, followed by the invasion and conquest of Palestine, lies at the heart of the Biblical account of Israel’s origins. A number of modern scholars, however, reject the entire story. It is, in their view, little more than a pious fabrication written hundreds of years after the events described. “The Scriptures,” as Robert B. Coote puts it succinctly, “do not contain an [accurate] historical account of Israel’s origin and early history.”1 In the words of another exponent of this school of thought, Thomas L. Thompson, “Israel’s own origin tradition is radically irrelevant to writing … a history [of Israel’s origins].”2
We will examine here three sites described in three different Biblical passages, as well as some of the evidence that supposedly undermines the historical accuracy of the Biblical account.
The first is Dibon, east of the Jordan, mentioned in Numbers 33, where the invading Israelites are said to have encamped. The excavation of Tell Dhiban, ancient Dibon, has revealed no city there in the Late Bronze Age II (c. 1400–1200 B.C.E.), when the Exodus supposedly occurred. Indeed, nothing was found there earlier than the ninth century B.C.E. How could the Israelites encamp at (and presumably conquer) a city that didn’t exist?
The second site is Hebron. According to the Bible, Moses sent spies to reconnoiter Hebron in preparation for the Israelite invasion- “And they went up into the Negeb and came to Hebron” (Numbers 13-22). When the invasion came, Hebron was a principal target (Joshua 10-36–37, 11-12; Judges 1-10). Again the skeptics call on the archaeologists to support their case- There was no city at Hebron in the Late Bronze Age.
The third site we will look at is Qishon, which figures in the accounts of Deborah’s war against a Canaanite alliance led by Jabin, king of Hazor (Judges 4–5). Here we find a significant agreement between the Bible and “real” history.
Numbers 33 is a dry, matter-of-fact listing of the sites on the Exodus route. The latter part of the chapter describes the Israelite invasion of Transjordan that was prelude to the conquest of all Palestine. The account sounds credible enough, even authoritative, as if based on real and reliable sources. It certainly creates in the mind of even the most critical reader the impression of historical fact. After all, the historian is absolute and specific- He describes the Transjordanian route the invaders took in quite remarkable detail, station by station, from the Arabah (the desolate region south of the Dead Sea [the Salt Sea]) to the Plains of Moab (the Lower Jordan Valley)- (1) Iyyim, (2) Dibon, (3) Almon-diblathaim, (4) Nebo, (5) Abel-shittim and, finally, (6) the Jordan River (Numbers 33-45b–50).
On the face of it, this passage is an impressive and credible piece of ancient historical writing. Traditional Bible scholars always regarded it as such. For them, the account’s extraordinary specificity and precision of detail strongly indicate that the ancient historian who wrote it had sources that accurately preserved the memory of a road used in very early times, not inconceivably in Late Bronze Age IIB.
Present-day detractors of these traditional scholars often portray them as unsophisticated, naive or simply ideological “paraphrasers of the Bible.” In fact, they were anything but. They were just given to the intellectual conviction that a nation’s own historical literature is, in the words of the eminent contemporary classical historian and historiographer Arnaldo Momigliano, “by all principles of historical research and criteria of common sense” the most important source of knowledge for the history of that nation.3
Thompson, on the other hand, essentially ignores the early history of the Israelite people written by the Israelites themselves, in his massive volume on the subject, entitled Early History of the Israelite People- From the Written and Archaeological Sources (Leiden- Brill, 1992).
According to Gösta Ahlström, who was (until his recent death) also a member of the rejectionist school, “It is quite clear that the Biblical writers knew nothing about events in Palestine before the tenth century B.C.E.”4 This is indicated, Ahlström said, by the plain fact that non-Israelite inscriptional material from the Late Bronze Age contains not a shred of evidence confirming any event or the existence of any person mentioned in the Biblical account of Israel’s origins. Indeed, the Biblical story does not even reflect any real knowledge of the geography of Palestine in the Late Bronze Age. To support this thesis, Ahlström cites the invasion route of the Israelites in Numbers 33-45b–50. The very specificity of detail in the narrative that an earlier generation perceived as evidence of its historicity is, for Ahlström, irrefutable evidence of the opposite. He was not the first to make this argument, but he strongly concurred, as did others of like conviction.
Among the Transjordanian cities where the invading Israelites encamped (and which they presumably besieged and attacked) was Dibon. But this cannot be, according to the rejectionists, for in actual fact, “no Late Bronze Age strata were found at the tell of Dhiban (Dibon). Some remains from c. 1200–1100 were found on the summit of the tell, but a city did not exist before the ninth century B.C.E.”5 It is true that excavations at Dhiban (ancient Dibon), mainly in the 1950s, uncovered no Late Bronze Age remains. Israelite historical tradition is, therefore, according to the rejectionists, wrong.
But does the failure of a team of archaeologists to find a Late Bronze Age stratum at the ruins of ancient Dibon lead to the conclusion that no city existed at the site between 1300 and 1200 B.C.E.? If one holds to the Biblical tradition, the archaeology of Dibon reveals only that the Late Bronze Age city, the city of Joshua, has not yet been found.
The lack of any Late Bronze remains at Dibon is one of the linchpins, however, in the distinguished Palestinian archaeologist William Dever’s conclusion that there was no Israelite conquest of Canaan.6
Did Dibon exist in the Late Bronze Age? Does the road through the Transjordan described in Numbers 33-45b–50 reflect historical reality? In Biblical studies truth is often only a matter of personal opinion, or a test of scholarly perceptions, or a momentary consensus. However, in the case of the claim of the Biblical tradition that at the time of Joshua there was a Transjordanian route of Iyyim-Dibon-Almon-diblathaim-Nebo-Abel-Jordan (River), there is a witness who has not been called to testify, a witness who knows the truth- Egypt.
In the Late Bronze Age, Egypt ruled Palestine and, in the course of its 300-year jurisdiction (Dynasties XVIII and XIX, c. 1560–1200 B.C.E.), Egypt mapped the region thoroughly. Included in these maps were all the main roads of Palestine, among them an important fixed route through Transjordan that linked the Arabah and the Plains of Moab. This road was in continuous use throughout the Late Bronze Age. During this entire period its course remained constant. It was scrupulously maintained by Egypt, not merely for access to its Transjordanian principalities but also for access to Palestine (Cisjordan) from the east. (Don’t confuse this road with the so-called “King’s Highway” through Transjordan that is also mentioned in the Bible. The King’s Highway was the great north-south road from Syria to northern Arabia; the Arabah to the Plains of Moab road, on the other hand, was a relatively short route serving a specific function—to get the traveller from the region immediately south of the Dead Sea to the Jordan River across from Jericho.)
These ancient Egyptian maps have survived in list form. Each list contains the names of the cities along the road, transcribed from the original map in precise sequence. These were then combined with numerous similar “maps” into longer “topographical lists” inscribed on the walls of ancient Egyptian temples.
Three such maps of the road from the Arabah to the Plains of Moab Road have come down to us. None is complete; that is, none contains all the stations along the road, but the individual maps complement one another. When the stations they list are collated, we get a fairly complete picture of the road all the way from the southern end of the Dead Sea to the Jordan River.
The earliest of the three maps comes from the reign of Thutmosis III (c. 1504–1450 B.C.E.), inscribed in the temple of Amon at Karnak as part of the so-called “Palestine List.”7 This is the greatest of the Egyptian topographical lists, containing 119 place-names associated with numerous routes in Palestine, Transjordan, Lebanon and Syria. The route of the Arabah to the Plains of Moab names, in order from south to north, four stations- Iyyin-Dibon-Abel-Jordan. It is not difficult to recognize this route in Numbers 33-45b–50.
Arabah to the Jordan
Thutmosis III List Numbers 33
Two other Late Bronze Age Egyptian maps neatly complement the Thutmosis III map- The Thutmosis map dates to Late Bronze Age I (c. 1550–1400 B.C.E.), the other two date to Late Bronze Age IIA (c. 1400–1300 B.C.E.) and Late Bronze IIB (c. 1300–1200 B.C.E.). Thus, this road is documented throughout the Late Bronze Age.
The older of the other two maps dates to the reign of Amenophis III (c. 1387–1350 B.C.E.) and is inscribed in his mortuary temple at Soleb.8 It contains three stations listed in north-south direction- Aqrabat-Hareseth-Melach (the latter means Salt and refers to the Salt Sea, or the Dead Sea).
The youngest of the three extant maps of this road dates to the reign of Ramesses II (c. 1279–1212 B.C.E.). It is part of a 49-name topographical list inscribed on the west side of the entrance to the great hall of the temple of Amon at Karnak.9 It lists four stations in a south-north direction- Heres-Qarho-Iktanu-Abel.
Arabah to the Jordan
Ramesses II List Numbers 33
Qarho (Dibon) Dibon
Qarho is another name of Dibon. In the famous Mesha Stele (or Moabite stone),a the ninth-century Moabite king Mesha regularly calls Dibon “Qarho”; in this inscription, Mesha uses the name Dibon exclusively for his political state. But Dibon and Qarho seem to have been used interchangeably as names for the city. Although Ramesses II here calls the city Qarho, he calls it Dibon in a historical inscription to which I will return presently.
Thus in two of the three inscriptions we have irrefutable primary historical evidence for the existence of the city of Dibon in the Late Bronze Age.
In addition, a number of the ancient site names have survived in their modern names. Biblical Iyyim, Egyptian Iyyin, survives in the modern village of Ay, Biblical and Egyptian Dibon survives as Dhiban. Iktanu is the present-day ruin called Tell Iktanu.
When the three Egyptian lists are combined, we acquire a nearly complete road map-
Arabah-Plains of Moab Road
Late Bronze Age Egyptian Name Biblical Name Modern Name
(Yamm) ha-Melach Melah (“Salt”) Yam ha-Melach
Iyyin Iyyim Ay
Heres/Hareseth Heres/Hareseth Kerak
Dibon/Qarho Dibon Dhiban
Iktanu Tell Iktanu
Abel Abel-shittim Tell Hammam
Jordan Jordan Jordan River
In short, the Biblical story of the invasion of Transjordan that set the stage for the conquest of all Palestine is told against a background that is historically accurate. The Israelite invasion route described in Numbers 33-45b–50 was in fact an official, heavily trafficked Egyptian road through the Transjordan in the Late Bronze Age. And the city of Dibon was in fact a station on that road in the Late Bronze Age.
Nor was Dibon a silent ruin. Ramesses II tells us that he sacked the city in the course of a military campaign in Moab, leaving us with no doubt that Dibon was there at the time, was occupied and was worth sacking.10 To date, archaeologists may not have found its ruins, but it surely existed.
Finally, a note on Abel. When Joseph took his embalmed father Jacob from Egypt to Hebron in order to bury him in the cave of Machpelah, the funeral procession stopped at a Transjordanian site identified as Abel-Mitzraim, “Abel-of-the-Egyptians” (Genesis 50-11). At that time, as we now know from our Egyptian sources, the city was still under Egyptian administration, or its Egyptian past was still warm in the memory of the Biblical historian or those he consulted. This was most likely the Late Bronze Age.
Hebron was a major target in the Israelite conquest of Canaan. As we are told in the book of Joshua- “Joshua and all Israel with him went up … against Hebron and fought against it and seized it” (Joshua 10-36–37). And again- “Judah went against the Canaanites who dwelt in Hebron” (Judges 1-10). The Biblical account is emphatic- In the time of Moses and Joshua, Hebron was a city of considerable importance in the mountains of southern Canaan and for this reason inevitably came under Israelite attack.
Did Hebron even exist in Late Bronze Age? Ahlström and historians of his school doubt the Biblical writers knew what they were talking about, because “there were almost no inhabitants during the L[ate] B[ronze] period in the geographical territory called Judah.”11 Ahlström relies on archaeologists like Israeli archaeologist Amihai Mazar, who concluded, based on the archaeological record, that “the Late Bronze occupation [of Judah] was very poor or completely nonexistent.”12 Another Israeli archaeologist, Israel Finkelstein, states- “No Israelite Settlement sites are known in the southern Hebron hills … [at the beginning of Iron I, c. 1200 B.C.E.]; and in the Beersheba Valley, Israelite Settlement did not begin until the 11th century B.C.E.–and even then, only on a limited scale … That leaves the problem of the Biblical tradition of the penetration into Judah from the south … The surprising dearth of sites in the Beersheba Valley and in the southern Hebron Hills seems to preclude any large-scale influx of elements from that direction. If there were connections with southern groups, their archaeological expression was negligible … Only at the beginning of the 10th century B.C.E., as settlement in Judah burgeoned, did the southern centers rise in importance- Hebron and David’s selection of Jerusalem as his capital.”13
Thus, nothing in the archaeological record would lead one to believe that in Joshua’s time (Late Bronze Age IIB) Hebron was an important city. Relying on the archaeological evidence alone, as Ahlström thinks early Israelite history should and must be written, is it any wonder that one scholar (William Stiebing) concludes- “As at other sites, the absence of Late Bronze Age remains at Hebron indicates either that the Exodus and the Conquest did not take place during the Late Bronze Age or that the Biblical accounts of those events are not historically accurate.”14
But the Egyptian maps tell another story. Before looking at these maps, however, we need to look at the topographical list in Joshua 15-48–60, which lists the cities of Judah (southern Palestine). In this region were five districts, each with its own capital. Hebron was the capital of the second district (Joshua 15-52–54), which boasted “nine cities and their villages” clustered around Hebron.
Now we can return to the topographical list of Ramesses II mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, some of the names on the list have been almost completely effaced; other names include only the initial letter. Fortunately, however, about a century after this list was carved on the walls of the Amon temple, Ramesses III (c. 1182–1151 B.C.E.) ordered the list to be copied as part of a great topographical list on a wall of his mortuary temple at Medinet Habu.15 There we can read some of the effaced names on the Ramesses II list (cities 77–80 on the Ramesses II list)- Hebron-Janum-Drbn-Apheqah.
Here we have a map of the Hebron district in the time of Ramesses II. The resemblance to the list in Joshua 15-52–54 is quite remarkable-
Ramses II List Joshua 15
Not only was Hebron in existence, it was in a populated area, surrounded by precisely those cities given in Joshua 15.
We also have an Egyptian map that confirms the existence of a major road at this time from Hebron to North Central Sinai, again confirming the existence of Hebron at this time. The Egyptian road is described in a north-south direction in a brief topographical list of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu- Hebron—Athar—Rehob—Yahu.16
Not only is Hebron mentioned as an existing city at the time of Ramesses III, but other cities in the list are also referred to in the Bible. Thus, Athar is mentioned in Numbers 21-1 in connection with an abortive effort to invade Canaan from the south- “When the Canaanite (the king of Arad) who dwelt in the Negeb heard that the Israelites were coming on the Road to Atharim, he fought against the Israelites and took captives from among them.” Atharim, we may assume, was the gateway to the settled and populous region of southern Canaan; it probably lay in the Beersheba region. Athar, in the Egyptian typographical list, is readily recognizable as Biblical Atharim; it is even earlier attested in the map of Ramesses II, already mentioned, again due south of Hebron.
Rehob, another city in the Egyptian topographical list, is the oasis of Ruhayba (south of Beersheba), which preserves the ancient name.
While Egyptian maps of Late Bronze Age Palestine confirm the existence of roads, regions and cities mentioned in the Biblical history of Joshua’s time, they do not, of course, confirm the existence of specific persons or events. For Biblical scholars of the rejectionist school, this is the most significant argument against the historical worth of the Biblical history. “First of all,” observes Niels Lemche, a Danish scholar belonging to this school, “it is important to note the simple fact that the A[ncient] N[ear] E[astern] sources from the 3d and 2d millennia B.C. do not contain a single direct reference to any of the features [specific persons and events] mentioned in the O[ld] T[estament] narrative. There is not a single reference to Abraham the patriarch, or to Joseph and his brothers in Egypt, or to Moses and the Exodus, or to the conquest of Canaan, or even to a single one of the Judges … In other words, the use of A[ncient] N[ear] E[astern] evidence to illuminate the biblical historical account is always a matter of indirect references and information, never of direct mention.”17
But there may be an exception even to this, however. Judges 4 in prose and Judges 5 in poetry record an ancient war waged by the Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali at Mount Tabor in the Jezreel Valley against a Canaanite king, Jabin (Yabin in Hebrew). The story is so reminiscent of Biblical accounts of the “Conquest” wars against the cities of Palestine that the great scholar George Foot Moore long ago insightfully observed, “It is a not improbable conjecture that in its original connexion this story formed a chapter in the account of the conquest of Northern Canaan, corresponding to the taking of Hebron by Caleb and of Bethel by Joseph, the positive complement of Jud[ges] I 30.33.”18
In the topographical list of Ramesses II at Karnak that we have already mentioned, a route through the Jezreel Valley is described as follows- Qerumin-Qishon of Jabin (Ybn)-Shimshon-Hadasht.19
Ramesses apparently thought it important to record the name of the king of Qishon, Jabin. This is certainly the same king whom the final editor of Judges 4 mistakenly associated with the city of Hazor.20
Judges 4 thus preserves the name of a king whose historical existence is confirmed by a contemporary, non-Biblical source. A reference to Jabin has also apparently been found at Hazor, where excavators very recently discovered a fragment of a royal letter addressed “To Ibni,” a name similar in derivation to Jabin. Dating to the 18th–17th centuries B.C., the cuneiform inscription is written in Old Babylonian.21
Moreover, the Egyptian topographical list fits perfectly the geographical context of the Biblical stories. The first name in the Egyptian route, Qerumin, is actually the River Qishon. The Biblical text itself (Judges 5-21) tells us that “The River Qishon is the River Qedumim.” Qedumim is the same as Qerumin; the Hebrew Qedumim has d for the original r, a very common spelling error; the final n in Egyptian commonly corresponds to m in Hebrew.
From the River Qishon, the route proceeds to the city of Qishon, today Tell Qaysun, a mile south of Mount Tabor, where Deborah and Barak assembled their troops (Judges 4-6, 12).
Hadasht in the Egyptian list is the correct form of the distorted Biblical name Harosheth (the Hebrew is Hrsht); the r in the Hebrew form is an error for the d in Egyptian, the same common spelling error mentioned above. Ancient Hadasht is today Ayn al-Hadatha, which preserves the original name, located about five miles northeast of Qishon (Tell Qaysun). When Baraq prevailed against the Canaanites, he pursued them unto “Harosheth (of the Gentiles)” (Judges 4-16).22
The accounts in Judges 4 and 5 thus contain specific historical and geographical information about the Late Bronze Age whose accuracy is dramatically validated by an Egyptian document of that time. There indeed was a king named Jabin. The places mentioned in the Biblical accounts did in fact exist at the time. None of these pieces of information was fabricated.
If the Biblical writers in these stories knew so well what they were talking about, did the writers of other Biblical accounts of the Conquest also know what they were talking about?
a. See André Lemaire, “‘House of David’ Restored in Moabite Inscription,” BAR 20-03; Siegfried Horn, “Why the Moabite Stone Was Blown to Pieces,” BAR 12-03.
1. Robert B. Coote, Early Israel- A New Horizon (Minneapolis- Augsburg Fortress Press, 1990), p. 141.
2. Thomas L. Thompson, The Origin Tradition of Ancient Israel (Sheffield, UK- Sheffield Press, 1987), p. 41.
3. Arnaldo Momigliano, “Biblical Studies and Classical Studies- Simple Reflections about Historical Method,” Biblical Archaeologist 45 (1982), p. 224.
4. Gösta Ahlström, The History of Ancient Palestine (Sheffield, UK- Sheffield Press, 1993), p. 45.
5. Ahlström, Ancient Palestine, p. 416.
6. William G. Dever, “Israel, History (of Archaeology and the ‘Conquest’)” in Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York- Doubleday, 1992), III, pp. 547–548.
7. J. Simons, Handbook for the Study of Egyptian Topographical Lists Relating to Western Asia (Leiden- 1937), pp. 111–115, List I, numbers 95, pp. 98–100. An interpretation of this part of the list that is very different from my own is offered by the Canadian Egyptologist Donald B. Redford, in his study “A Bronze Age Itinerary in Transjordan (Nos. 89–101 of Thutmose III’s List of Asiatic Toponyms),” Journal of the Society of Egyptian Archaeology (1982), pp. 55–74. Redford believes the list runs in north-south direction; his results are therefore understandably radically different from my own. In one point I concur with him completely- Dibon is mentioned in the list.
8. E. Edel, Die Ortsnamentalisten aus dem Totentempels Amenophis III (Bonn- 1966), List Bn, nos. 11–13.
9. Simons, Handbook, pp. 157–159, List XXIII, nos. 16–19.
10. Ramesses II’s expedition against Moab was the subject of an important study by the British Egyptologist Kenneth A. Kitchen entitled “Some New Light on the Asiatic Wars of Ramesses II,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 50 (1964), pp. 47–70. Kitchen’s identification of the name Dibon in the Ramessid text at Luxor has been repeatedly challenged on the grounds (a) that the material reading is not clear, (b) that the geographical context of the name as the Transjordan is uncertain and (c) that the archaeology of the site of ancient Dibon shows no evidence of occupation in the time of Ramesses II. The Ramesses II map of the road from Arabah to the Plains of Moab, however, supports Kitchen completely.
11. Ahlström, Ancient Palestine, p. 356.
12. Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10,000–586 B.C.E. (New York- Doubleday, 1992), p. 239.
13. Israel Finkelstein, The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement (Jerusalem- Israel Exploration Society, 1988), p. 239.
14. William H. Stiebing, Jr., Out of the Desert- Archaeology and the Exodus/Conquest Narratives (Buffalo, N.Y.- Prometheus Books, 1989), p. 92.
15. Simons, Handbook, pp. 164–169, List XXVII. The name Hebron is spelled without final -n in the Egyptian according to a common convention in the transliteration of Semitic place-names in Egyptian. DRBN could be a simple misspelling of Dibon, a city in Judah mentioned with Hebron in Nehemiah 11-25. Spelling errors of this kind (a false r) are common in the Medinet Habu topographical list of Ramesses III.
16. Simons, Handbook, p. 174, List XXIX, nos. 10–13. The name Rehob is misread in Simons; the correct reading is found in K. A. Kitchen, Ramesside Inscriptions (Oxford- Oxford Univ. Press, 1979), II, 260, 15, nos. 10–13.
17. N. P. Lemche, “Israel, History of (Premonarchic Period)” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, III, p. 534.
18. G.F. Moore, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Judges (New York- 1901), p. 109.
19. The name Qishon is written with a final-r; this is a known spelling convention in the transliteration of Semitic names in Egyptian. For example, the name Beth-shan is always written in Egyptian with final -r, as is also the city-name Gitt-ashn(a) in the time of Ramesses II.
20. Judges 4-2 associates Jabin with Hazor, rather than with Kishon- At the beginning of the story, the Israelites have been oppressed by “Jabin, king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor.” This is doubtless a mistaken association introduced by the final editor of the passage, as indicated by the fact that Baraq, Deborah’s general, went to Qedesh (Judges 4-9, 10) rather than to Hazor to meet Jabin’s general Sisera. Qedesh is another name for Qishon, as is clear from the parallel lists of priestly cities in Issachar in 1 Chronicles 6-57–58 = Joshua 21-28–29- the former calls the city Qedesh, the latter calls it Qishion (that is, Qishon). The story in Judges 4 is of an Israelite military campaign against Qedesh/Qishon- “Deborah went with Baraq against Qedesh” (verse 9); “Baraq called out Zebulun and Naphtali against Qedesh” (verse 10). The possible reason why Jabin of Qedesh/Qishon is called “the king of Hazor” in the story may be because he was confused with an earlier (Middle Bronze Age) king of Hazor named Yabni-Hadda; on the latter, see Abraham Malamat, Mari and the Early Israelite Experience, Schweich Lectures (Oxford- British Academy, 1989), p. 58.
21. Wayne Horowitz and Aaron Shaffer, “A Fragment of a Letter from Hazor,” Israel Exploration Journal 42, pp. 165–167.
22. Yohanan Aharoni doubted the existence of Harosheth- “It appears likely that Harosheth-ha-goiim is not a place name at all but refers rather to the forested regions of Galilee … ” See also Aharoni and Michael Avi-Yonah, The Macmillan Bible Atlas, eds. Anson F. Rainey and Z. Safrai. (New York- Macmillan, 3rd ed., 1993), p. 54- “There is no city by the name of Harosheth-hagoiim in any extra-biblical source … Harosheth means ‘cultivated land’ and refers to the rich farm area on the southern side of the Jezreel Valley.”