Judges, 1200-1000 BCE


Just as the period in Egypt and the Exodus is not fully known to historians, the emergence of the Israelites in Canaan, too, is a mix of historically verified data and uncertain details. There may not even be a single Biblical account of the Israelite Conquest of Canaan. The Book of Joshua describes a swift, victorious military campaign after which the Israelite tribes received their allotments in the Promised Land. The Book of Judges, however, describes a slower and less decisive campaign. The tribes act more independently of each other than in Joshua, and their conquest of Canaan is by no means complete. The Book of Judges acknowledges that several key cities—Dor, Gezer, Megiddo, Taanach, even Jerusalem, which would later become the capital—were not initially captured by the Israelites. In contrast, the Book of Joshua expressly names those cities as having been conquered.

In addition to the question of just how much of Canaan the Israelites may have conquered and how swiftly, we have the perennial question of just when a particular Biblical account may have been written down. In the story of the capture of Ai, the second city (after Jericho) in Canaan to have been conquered, Joshua 8-28 declares, “Joshua burned Ai and made it a heap of ruins, as it is to this day.” Excavators have uncovered signs of habitation at Ai between 1200 and 1050 B.C.E. but not after, so the passage in Joshua must date to after 1050—several centuries after the Conquest.

As with so many issues relating to the Bible, historians are divided over the reliability of the Conquest account. Following the general views of Albright, Yigael Yadin—the most famous archaeologist in Israel in his day—argued that the evidence bore out the Biblical account remarkably well. Such a view is not shared by all historians, though.

It is true that the Biblical account conveys a strong familiarity with the landscape of Canaan and with the political realities of the region when the Israelites came on the scene. It describes the Israelites conquering, in order- Jericho, which seems to be an independent city located in a deep valley; Ai, a high hilltop site apparently allied with Bethel; Shechem, a large city-state whose influence extended to Megiddo in the north and Shiloh to the south; Gibeon, which was part of a Hivite alliance; Jerusalem; the head of an Amorite alliance involving major cities in the southern hill country; and Hazor, the head of a major Canaanite alliance in the northern and southern Galilee. The Biblical account, in other words, does not provide a caricature of a single enemy but contains a nuanced awareness of political alliances.

The Biblical account is also very aware of the military strategies the Israelites had to employ in order to overcome well-trained Canaanite forces that had the advantage of defending well-fortified cities. It describes ambushes and pre-emptive strikes, the use of reconnaissance and even the recruitment of people in the enemy cities, such as Rahab in Joshua 2. Even the timing of the Israelite crossing of the Jordan, in early spring, was done to coincide with the ripening of the harvest in the Jordan Valley so that Israelites could gather provisions for themselves once in Canaan.

The Israelite military strategies employed during the Conquest also bear the signs of authenticity. At Jericho, for example, the Israelites marched around the city for seven days; we know of a similar tactic from the Roman world, in which a general had his troops march around a well-defended city before returning to their camp. Soon, the city’s defenders dropped their guard and the Romans stormed the city.

In describing the conquest of Ai, the Biblical account is attuned to military considerations. The city sits high on a hilltop and Joshua 8 describes the Israelites as sending a small force to draw the defenders out into the valley below, where a larger Israelite force is waiting in ambush to pounce on them.

But there are significant problems with both accounts. Kathleen Kenyon, excavating at Jericho in the 1950s, found that Middle Bronze Age Jericho was burned in 1560 B.C.E. There seems to have been no city at Jericho between 1400 and 1200 B.C.E.—when the Israelites would have attacked it. In the case of the Ai account, the ravines leading up to the city are so narrow that the 30,000 Israelite warriors that the Book of Joshua says lay in ambush there would have had to stretch themselves out in thin lines for miles—not a situation conducive to a surprise attack. Excavations at other sites, such as Lachish and Hazor, have yielded destruction layers that are either too early or too late to be the work of the Israelites entering Canaan.

As a result of such problems in aligning the Biblical text with the archaeological evidence, scholars in recent decades have offered alternative scenarios to explain the emergence of Israel. Some have suggested that the emergence took place gradually and was begun by a peaceful infiltration into the Canaanite highlands from east of the Jordan. They note that at the end of the Bronze Age, Egyptian dominance in Canaan had withered and that Shechem was the only significant city-state in the region. In this view, nomadic tribes who would bring their flocks from east to west in search of pasturage eventually settled down in the sparsely populated highlands. Gradually these tribes formed alliances that would become the pre-Monarchic 12 Tribes of Israel. From about 1200 to 1000 B.C.E., about two or three hundred small villages were established in the highlands.

Another view put forward by some scholars is the peasants’ revolt theory, They argue that there is a lack of evidence for a swift military conquest by the Israelites as described by the Book of Joshua because there was none; instead, they argue, the Israelites emerged as a people from within Canaanite society as a group of peasants who shook themselves free of their Canaanite overlords. They suggest the revolt was led by a group from east of the Jordan that worshiped Yahweh and had fled from servitude in Egypt. The problem with the theory, though, is that it is difficult to test in the field because it describes revolutionary changes in ideology within the early Israelites—changes that do not show up in the physical record.

While scholars still debate the relative merits of the three main models regarding the emergence of Israel—military conquest, peaceful infiltration and peasants’ revolt—some things are clear. By the year 1000 B.C.E. two to three hundred new settlements sprung up in Canaan, centered in the highlands. These settlements were new—they were not built atop older Canaanite towns. They seem to have been established first in northeastern Canaan and then spread southwest. The earliest and largest settlements were in the area belonging to Ephraim, in the central hills; at first, the areas to the south, around Jerusalem and belonging to the tribe of Judah, were comparatively less populated and apparently less important.

The settlements contained a characteristic type of domestic building- the four-room house. These two-story structures consisted of three long rooms side by side, with a room in the back going across. The first floor provided shelter for domestic animals and contained a fire pit for cooking and room for food storage; the second story held the sleeping quarters for the family.

As these settlements grew across Canaan, a population explosion occurred in the region. From a central-hill country population of only about 12,000 in the 13th century B.C.E., the region grew to 55,000 in the 12th century and to 75,000 in the 11th century. This increase cannot be due solely to natural increase—large number of people had come from elsewhere and had settled in the marginal areas of Canaan.

We have no evidence of a central political authority, a situation that meshes with the description in Judges- “In those days there was no king in Israel, and every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17-6). As for religion, we have practically no evidence of temples or even of shrines. Yet it seems clear that a new people was emerging in the Canaanite highlands; not only do we see the growth in population, but we have a strong hint of an emerging new identity- At these central highland sites, archaeologists have found almost no pig remains. Pigs were common in the preceding era in this area, but they simply were not part of the food chain in these new villages. The Biblical ban on pork seems to have been observed by these new inhabitants.

We also know that the people Israel were already noted by Pharaoh Merneptah in his stela of 1207 B.C.E. It was a people composed of a confederation of tribes centered on villages; within these villages were groups of clans (the Biblical term mishpacha coincides with our sense of clan) that were composed of numerous extended families. These extended families lived in group households (called the beit ab, or “father’s house” in the Bible) consisting of the family patriarch, his wife, his sons and their daughters, and his unmarried daughters.

In this the Israelite tribal confederation likely did not differ much from its neighbors. But in about 1000 B.C.E. this group would evolve into something more noteworthy and begin to occupy a portion of the world stage. That process of emergence into history began, according to the Bible, when a barren woman named Hannah wept at the sanctuary at Shiloh and implored God for a son. When that wish was granted, she entrusted that son, named Samuel, to the priest of Shiloh, Eli. Samuel must have been a dominant figure among the Israelites because when they were no longer happy with their tribal arrangement, they turned to Samuel and demanded that he appoint a king over them. Samuel (and, according to the Bible, God as well) was not pleased with the idea of a monarch, but he eventually acceded to the people’s demands. The first king of Israel, Saul, was a hapless and in many ways a tragic figure, but he was succeeded by two powerful personalities who would make a deep mark on their people, on their region and indeed on human history. With David and Solomon, Israel enters history.

The Israelite entrance onto the world stage did not begin auspiciously. Israel’s first king, Saul, seems not have been a charismatic leader; rather, he seems to have been chosen by default and despite Samuel’s deep misgivings. But Israel needed a king—the tribal leaders (the “Judges”) that had led Israel until then were simply not enough to face to new political realties in their part of the world. The most significant change was the arrival of the Sea Peoples, groups of sailing tribes from the Aegean who arrived on the coast of ancient Israel in about 1175 B.C.E. The best known of these tribes is the Philistines; almost immediately after their arrival, the Philistines began pressuring the Israelite tribes militarily.

The Philistine threat from the west, combined with a threat from the east from the Ammonites, seems to have been the impetus for the Israelites to unite under a single leader. At first, however, things went badly for the Israelites. The Philistines, despite the connotation of the word philistine today of boorishness and lack of culture, were more advanced technologically than the Israelites. Especially important was that the Philistines possessed iron-making technology. When the Israelites needed to sharpen their plowshares and other farm implements, they had to pay the Philistines to have the work done.

Even more significant was the fact that the Philistines had iron weapons while the Israelites did not. When the two peoples met on the battlefield, it was no contest. The Philistines were victorious over Israel in a two-part battle at Aphek and Ebenezer, even capturing the Ark of the Covenant, which the Israelites had brought with them in the hope that it would lead them to victory.

At first, Saul brought some successes to the Israelites. His victories, though, were limited to skirmishes in the hill country, and he led just a small group of soldiers—only about 600 strong. Saul was therefore only the head of a guerilla band, not a major military and political leader. The land he ruled over was modest in size and in sophistication. There were about 50,000 Israelites west of the Jordan. Excavations from the late 11th century B.C.E. have revealed in small farms and villages. There were no temples but only open-air sanctuaries. Saul himself lacked a capital city or even a palace; he lived and ruled from a tent outside Gibeah.

According to the Bible, Saul infuriated the prophet Samuel—and the Lord—when he failed to kill every last one of the Amalekites and their cattle. 1 Samuel 15-35 states that the Lord regretted having made Saul king. While Saul was declining in stature, a young man was rising. David had distinguished himself in battle and had received in reward the hand of Saul’s younger daughter, Michal. Saul could not fail to note that David was perceived as a far greater hero than he and even went so far as to try to have David killed. The younger man, though, was able to escape and went into the service of, ironically, the Philistine king.

When Saul’s reign came to a tragic end after a misguided battle with the Philistines on Mount Gilboa, it was to David that Israel turned in its attempt to shake off Philistine rule.

Biblical History: From Joshua to Samuel, c. 1200-1000 BCE, Steven Feldman, COJS.


  1. Defining the Problems- Where We Are in the Debate, Hershel Shanks, The Rise of Ancient Israel, Biblical Archaeology Society, Washington, 1992.
  2. “Did The Philistines Destroy The Israelite Sanctuary at Shiloh? The Archaeological Evidence,” BAR Jun 1975, 1-2, p.3-5.
  3. “Oldest Hebrew Letters Found Near Tel Aviv,” BAR 2-4, Dec 1976.
  4. “From These Hills …” Suzanne F. Singer, BAR 4-02, Jun 1978.
  5. An Israelite Village from the Days of the Judges, Moshe Kochavi and Aaron Demsky, BAR 4-03, Sep-Oct 1978.
  6. An Alphabet from the Days of the Judges, Aaron Demsky and Moshe Kochavi, BAR 4-03, Sep-Oct 1978.
  7. The World’s First Museum and the World’s First Archaeologists, Lionel Casson, BAR 5-01, Jan-Feb 1979.
  8. BAR Readers to Restore Israelite Village from the Days of the Judges, BAR 5-01, Jan-Feb 1979.
  9. The Regional Study—A New Approach to Archaeological Investigation, Amnon Ben-Tor, BAR 6-02, Mar-Apr 1980.
  10. Is the Biblical Account of the Israelite Conquest of Canaan Historically Reliable? Yigael Yadin, BAR 8-02, Mar-Apr 1982.
  11. How Inferior Israelite Forces Conquered Fortified Canaanite Cities, Abraham Malamat, BAR 8-02, Mar-Apr 1982.
  12. How Iron Technology Changed the Ancient World and Gave the Philistines a Military Edge, James D. Muhly, BAR 8-06, Nov-Dec 1982.
  13. The Sad Case of Tell Gezer, Hershel Shanks, BAR 9-04, Jul-Aug 1983.
  14. Bronze Bull Found in Israelite “High Place” from the Time of the Judges, Amihai Mazar, BAR 9-05, Sep-Oct 1983.
  15. A Visit with Ahilud, Joseph A. Callaway, BAR 9-05, Sep-Oct 1983.
  16. Exploring Philistine Origins on the Island of Cyprus, Vassos Karageorghis, BAR 10-02, Mar-Apr 1984.
  17. Has Joshua’s Altar Been Found on Mt. Ebal? Adam Zertal, BAR 11-01, Jan-Feb 1985.
  18. The Problem of Ai, Ziony Zevit, BAR 11-02, Mar-Apr 1985.
  19. Shiloh Yields Some, But Not All, of Its Secrets, Israel Finkelstein, BAR 12-01, Jan-Feb 1986.
  20. Arad, Ze’ev Herzog, Miriam Aharoni, and Anson F. Rainey, BAR 13-02, Mar-Apr 1987.
  21. The Well at Arad, Ruth Amiran, Rolf Goethert, and Ornit Ilan, BAR 13-02, Mar-Apr 1987.
  22. Archaeology and the Biblical Text, Fredric R. Brandfon, BAR 14-01, Jan-Feb 1988.
  23. Fixing the Site of the Tabernacle at Shiloh, Asher S. Kaufman, BAR 14-06, Nov-Dec 1988.
  24. Excavating in Samson Country, George L. Kelm and Amihai Mazar, BAR 15-01, Jan-Feb 1989.
  25. The Song of Deborah, Lawrence E. Stager, BAR 15-01, Jan-Feb 1989.
  26. Ekron of the Philistines, Trude Dothan and Seymour Gitin, BAR 16-01, Jan-Feb 1990.
  27. Ekron of the Philistines, Part I, Trude Dothan, BAR 16-01, Jan-Feb 1990.
  28. Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? Bryant G. Wood, BAR 16-02, Mar-Apr 1990.
  29. When Canaanites and Philistines Ruled Ashkelon, Lawrence E. Stager, BAR 17-02, Mar-Apr 1991.
  30. Israel Enters Canaan—Following the Pottery Trail, Adam Zertal, BAR 17-05, Sep-Oct 1991.
  31. The Philistines Enter Canaan, Bryant G. Wood, BAR 17-06, Nov-Dec 1991.
  32. The Sea Peoples and Their Contributions to Civilization, Avner Raban and Robert R. Stieglitz, BAR 17-06, Nov-Dec 1991.
  33. How Did the Philistines Enter Canaan? A Rejoinder, Itamar Singer, BAR 18-06, Nov-Dec 1992.
  34. Buried Philistine Treasures Unearthed at Tel Miqne-Ekron, BAR 19-01, Jan-Feb 1993.
  35. The Many Masters of Dor, Part 1, Ephraim Stern, BAR 19-01, Jan-Feb 1993.
  36. A Death at Dor, Andrew Stewart, BAR 19-02, Mar-Apr 1993.
  37. Books in Brief- People of the Sea, Giving Goliath His Due, Jane C. Waldbaum, BAR 19-03, May-Jun 1993.
  38. The Philistines and the Dothans, Hershel Shanks, BAR 19-05, Sep-Oct 1993.
  39. Back to Megiddo, Israel Finkelstein and David Ussishkin, BAR 20-01, Jan-Feb 1994.
  40. What’s a Bamah? Beth Alpert Nakhai, BAR 20-03, May-Jun 1994.
  41. Archaeological Hot Spots, Hershel Shanks, BAR 22-06, Nov-Dec 1996.
  42. Beth Shemesh, Shlomo Bunimovitz and Zvi Lederman, BAR 23-01, Jan-Feb 1997.
  43. Earthquake! Inspiration for Armageddon, Amos Nur and Hagai Ron, BAR 23-04, Jul-Aug 1997.
  44. Buried Treasure- The Silver Hoard from Dor, Ephraim Stern, BAR 24-04, Jul-Aug 1998.
  45. Excavating Hazor, Part Two, Amnon Ben-Tor and Maria Teresa Rubiato, BAR 25-03, May-Jun 1999.
  46. What’s an Egyptian Temple Doing in Jerusalem? Gabriel Barkay, BAR 26-03, May-Jun 2000.
  47. Excavating the Tribe of Reuben, Larry G. Herr and Douglas R. Clark, BAR 27-02, Mar-Apr 2001.
  48. Philistine Kin Found in Early Israel, Adam Zertal, BAR 28-03, May-Jun 2002.
  49. Ideology in Stone, Shlomo Bunimovitz and Avraham Faust, BAR 28-04, Jul-Aug 2002.
  50. Return to Aphek, Steven Feldman, BAR 28-05, Sep-Oct 2002.
  51. Queries and Comments- Philistine Kin, BAR 28-05, Sep-Oct 2002.
  52. The Shechem Temple, Lawrence E. Stager, BAR 29-04, Jul-Aug 2003.
  53. Philistines Upon the Seas, Tristan Barako, BAR 29-04, Jul-Aug 2003.
  54. Israelites Found in Egypt, Manfred Bietak, BAR 29-05, Sep-Oct 2003.
  55. A Complex Migration, Shelley Wachsmann, BAR 29-06, Nov-Dec 2003.
  56. The Name Game, Richard S. Hess, BAR 30-06, Nov-Dec 2004.


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