the-rise-of-ancient-israelWe’re going to hear today from three world-class scholars on what may be the hottest topic in biblical studies–the rise of ancient Israel–or, as the scholars like to call it, the emergence of ancient Israel–a little fancier term.

Where did the people who became the nation of Israel come from? And when? By what process did they become a nation? What were their religious roots? How did they find their God Yahweh?

Scores of scholars are struggling with these issues. Some of the disagreements are intense. Our speakers today are among the leaders in the debate. We may hear from them whether any kind of consensus is emerging.

My job is simply to provide the mise-en-scène, to set the stage, so that the scholars who follow me will be able to leap into their subject with an assuredly knowledgeable audience. For many of you, what I say will be elementary; for some of you, it won’t, and I want [2] to bring everybody up to speed.

By the time I finish, you will be able to distinguish very easily between the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age I (laughter), you will know what the Merneptah Stele is, you will be able to talk about a four-room house and a collared-rim jar and the three models of the Israelite emergence in Canaan.

I’m also going to try to provide a little context for you, so that you’ll have in mind the larger picture, the basic framework within which the more focused discussion of the next three speakers will take place.

In doing that, I will weave back and forth between the biblical text and the archaeological materials. Because, as some of you know, I shun controversy (laughter), I will present to you only what is unequivocally true and acceptable to everyone. So, what I say, therefore, you can accept. When the next speakers get up, you will hear the more controversial and iffy research. (Laughter.)

Let’s begin with the Bible.

The Bible begins with the creation of the world and proceeds in the first ten chapters of Genesis to give us a world history–until everyone but Noah and his family are destroyed in a flood. God’s first experiment in creating a world of worthy people fails. So he destroys it and starts all over again. These early chapters of Genesis culminating in the Flood have nothing to do with Israel. In fact, this story provides a contrast with the second attempt to create worthy people. This time God chooses a single family.1 He concentrates on this family–the family of Abraham, the first Hebrew. The rest of the Book of Genesis is the story of this family–first Abraham and his wife Sarah, their son Isaac and his wife Rebecca, their son Jacob and his wives Rachel and Leah and, finally, Jacob’s 12 sons, who become the 12 tribes of Israel. They go down to Egypt and settle in the Delta when a famine grips Canaan. Fortunately for the family, one of the sons, who had preceded the others under difficult circumstances, has risen to a position of authority second only to the pharaoh himself.

It is in Egypt that Israel becomes a people–or at least numerous enough to be a people. There they multiply and in the end are enslaved by a pharaoh who “knew not Joseph.” Finally, they escape [3] under the leadership of a man named Moses. They then begin their 40-year trek to the Promised Land. On the way, they experience a theophany at a place called Sinai–or sometimes Horeb. There God gives them a set of laws by which to live. The people enter into a covenant with God in which they agree to obey his laws and in return they become his people, the recipient of his benefices. After their 40-year sojourn in the desert, they arrive, finally, at the Promised Land.

Now at this point the Bible gives us two somewhat different accounts of how they took possession of the Promised Land. The first is in the last part of the Book of Numbers and the Book of Joshua. The second and somewhat different account is in the Book of Judges.2

The account in Joshua portrays a lightning military campaign–lasting less than five years. In this campaign, the various peoples of Canaan are defeated; “Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes and all their kings” (Joshua 10-40). After these victories, the land west of the Jordan is allotted among the Israelite tribes.

The account in Judges is quite different. First of all, the order is reversed. In Judges, the allotment comes first, and after the allotment they attempt to take possession of the land by conquest. In Judges there is no unified effort by “all Israel” to conquer the land, as seems to be the case in Joshua. In Judges the effort to possess the land seems to be the work of individual tribes or groups of related tribes.

And most important, Judges makes it clear that by no means was the entire land subdued. In Judges 1 as a matter of fact is a list of 20 cities whose people were not driven out by the newcomers. These cities included Jerusalem, Gezer, Megiddo, Taanach, Beth-Shean and Beth Shemesh (Judges 1-21, 27-33). These are some of the most important cities in the country. So we have quite a difference here between the Book of Joshua and me Book of Judges.

Now the events in Judges do purport to occur after the death of Joshua, so the two accounts can be harmonized somewhat by assuming that the picture in Joshua is exaggerated and that the military victories recorded there were not quite so extensive or complete as they are described.

[4] In any event, it’s clear that the account in Judges does preserve a tradition that the land of Canaan was possessed over a long period of time. And, if we look carefully, there are hints of this even in the Book of Joshua.

During this period, the Israelites are threatened by various Canaanite peoples, but charismatic military leaders called Judges always arise and save them. Eventually, however, this loose Israelite tribal confederacy proves inadequate to defend itself against the Philistine threat. Some more organized structure is needed, so the people ask for a king. And they get a king. Saul is appointed, but his reign is ultimately a failure. He is replaced by Israel’s most glorious king, David, and with his reign, Israel truly becomes a nation.

This, in brief, is the biblical account.

Until the 20th century, the emergence of Israel in Canaan was almost always referred to as the “conquest of Canaan,” for the Bible dearly portrays it this way. And indeed until after the Second World War, it was generally thought that archaeology supported this view. For a time, archaeology was the darling of the nursery among those who regarded the Bible as literally true.

[5] To explain this, I’ve got to give a little of the history of biblical scholarship. In the 19th century, we have a burgeoning of historical, critical biblical scholarship. The impetus is often associated with a strange genius by the name of Julius Wellhausen. He shattered the calm of biblical literalists by breaking down the Pentateuch into four different authorial strands. These different strands of authorship are often designated by the familiar letters J, E, P and D. J stands for the Yahwist (Jahwist in German), E for the Elohist, P for the priestly code and D for the Deuteronomist. These were all put together by a fellow designated R, for the redactor–a fancy name for editor.

All this was very disturbing to biblical literalists. And at this point–in the first half of the 20th century–archaeology seemed to come to the rescue. The short of it is that in tell after tell, archaeologists found a destruction level that they thought they could identify with the Israelite conquest of Canaan.

Well, archaeology is no longer a crutch in this classic sense of the conquest model. We simply can no longer posit a series of destructions in Canaan that can rationally be identified as the result of the Israelite conquest. Recently, our archaeological methodology has improved, we can date levels much more securely and more sites have now been excavated. As a result, we can no longer say that archaeology supports what we may call the conquest model of Israel’s emergence in Canaan.

Some sites like Jericho and Ai appear to have been uninhabited at the time Joshua was supposed to have conquered them. Other sites, like Gibeon, that the Bible says the Israelites conquered, do not have appropriate destruction levels. But most important is that if you start jiggling around dates of the various sites where there are destruction levels, you can’t fit them together. The time and space paths of destruction levels don’t fit. The fact is that destructions occur not only because Israelites were there, but for various other reasons as well. As a result of all this, the conquest model has fallen into disfavor.

Many modern scholars, wanting to be in the forefront of things, have simply written off the idea of an Israelite conquest. But my advice is don’t be so quick to write it off completely. I’ll come back to this later.

When the failings of the conquest model were exposed, it was [6] replaced in the minds of many scholars by the second model, the so-called peaceful infiltration model. This model is often associated with the name of the great German biblical scholar Albrecht Alt. According to this theory, the central hill country of Canaan, where the Bible says the Israelites settled, was almost empty at the time the Israelites entered Canaan. So the Israelites could readily infiltrate quite peaceably–and this, in the view of those who support this theory, was precisely what they did. The scholars who rely on this theory naturally looked for support in the Book of Judges, although part of this theory was that as the Israelites extended farther into the land of Canaan, they bumped up against the Canaanites. That is, the better locations of the fertile valleys and in the plains were already occupied by the Canaanites. Then there were some military clashes. But basically that was later and the initial settlement was a peaceful one.

Archaeology has provided considerable support for this view–most importantly in the settlement pattern in the central hill country.

Let’s look at the archaeology a bit. Archaeologists have divided time into various periods, supposedly based on cultural discontinuities. They see a difference, a sharp break, in the cultural, material record. It’s really not the case, but we have to divide time into periods. The two big periods for our purposes are the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. They got their names because it [7] was supposed that bronze was the predominant metal in the Bronze Age and iron in the Iron Age. That’s not really true, but it’s too late to rename the periods. (Laughter.) For some reason, the Bronze Age was divided into Early, Middle and Late and the Iron Age was divided into Iron I and II; why the difference I don’t know.

What we’re going to be talking about is the Late Bronze Age and Iron I. That’s the transition from Bronze to Iron. When I use those terms I’m talking about dates, not metals. Archaeologists are pretty much agreed on the absolute dates of the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age I. The Late Bronze Age extended from about 1550 to about 1200 b.c.e. Iron I extended from about 1200 to–there’s some difference here, but I like to use the date of 1000 b.c.e. because that’s approximately when David’s reign begins and the Israelite monarchy is firmly established. So the transition between Late Bronze and Iron I is 1200 b.c.e. And that’s about the beginning of Israel’s emergence in Canaan. And it goes through Iron I to the monarchy–that’s the end of Iron I.

One of the more recent developments in archaeological methodology is the archaeological survey. You all know what a tell is–the remains of a buried city on different levels, called strata. In an archaeological survey, instead of excavating the tell of a buried city, the archaeologists survey a wide area, looking on the surface for every bit of evidence they can find of ancient occupation, occasionally excavating a small site, but usually it does not include the excavation of major tells. The results of these archaeological surveys have often been quite remarkable.

What these surveys have shown is that the central hill country of Canaan was very sparsely settled in the Late Bronze Age, which would have provided the open area for Alt’s peaceful Israelite infiltration. And in fact in Iron I over 200 new sites sprang up in this previously relatively empty central hill country. Obviously, there was a new population here. I’m going to illustrate this in the territory of Manasseh, which was surveyed by an Israeli archaeologist, Adam Zertal.* The Late Bronze settlements are few and primarily in the valleys and the better locations. The Iron I settlements are very numerous. There is the presence of an entirely new population in [8] the central hill country.

Moreover, the new settlers brought with them a new style of architecture and a peculiarly decorated storage jar. The new architecture is called the four-room house. But that, again, is a misnomer. Anybody who can find four rooms in this plan of this four-room house will be making a mistake (laughter) because they will misidentify the four rooms. It’s not really a four-room house, but let’s not confuse things now. (Laughter.) A four-room house consists of a long narrow room; sticking out from that are three long rooms. So that the four rooms are the long narrow room at the [9] bottom and the three long ones sticking from it. The reason it’s an obvious misnomer is that the four rooms are often subdivided, and other rooms may be added on the periphery. But the basic structure is a four-room plan. Another reason why it’s a misnomer is that the middle room of the three is a courtyard that isn’t roofed–it had no roof on it. It probably had an oven in it. And there was probably a second floor where the family actually lived and slept. On the first floor they kept the animals. But this at least gives an idea of what is meant by a four-room house. [Harvard professor] Larry Stager, who [10] is excavating Ashkelon, prefers to call these houses pillared houses. That’s probably more accurate, but the four-room moniker has stuck. And that’s the common name for them.

At one time, the four-room house was considered a peculiarly Israelite style of architecture, but we will soon see that this is not necessarily true.

The settlers in the hill country also had a new kind of storage jar that is called a collared-rim jar. The collar is right around the shoulder, just below the neck of the vessel. It’s a little decorative element. It doesn’t have a function. And at one time this was thought to be a style of Israelite pottery. If you found the collared-rim jars in an excavation this was an indication that it was an Israelite context, but this too is not necessarily true.

But you can see the picture that is emerging–new inhabitants occupying the sparsely settled hill country–just the area that the [12] Bible says the Israelites settled in when they crossed the Jordan–and a special kind of architecture and a special style of pottery. It is very tempting to say that here we have the incoming Israelites.

But is this enough to call these people Israelites? Many scholars don’t think it is. For example, some of these four-room houses have been found outside the areas supposedly settled by the Israelites, including sites east of the Jordan, Moreover, antecedents of this architecture can be found among the earlier Canaanites.

As for the collared-rim jars, the use of these particular vessels may simply reflect needs of anyone living in the hill country to transport water. The collared-rim jar does not necessarily reflect ethnicity. It may simply reflect the peculiar needs of anyone–Israelite or Canaanite–living in the hill country. .

I confess that I don’t find either of these arguments very convincing, but that’s beside the point.*

In any event, doubts about the peaceful infiltration model of Israelite settlement led to the development of a third model, generally known as the peasant revolt model–again not a very happy moniker, for reasons we will soon see. This third–and last–model was pioneered by a University of Michigan scholar named George Mendenhall in the mid-1960s. According to this model, the Israelites emerged not from outside Canaan, but from inside. In short, the Exodus from Egypt, if there was one, was minuscule. According to this theory, the people who became known as Israelites were really peasants who revoked against their urban overlords in the Late Bronze Age cities of Canaan. These peasants then fled to the hills, where under the ideological guidance of a deity called Yahweh they developed and expanded into a people called Israel.

This theory has been considerably developed and expanded by a New York Theological Seminary professor named Norman Gottwald.** Professor Gottwald agrees with Mendenhall that the Israelites developed from within Canaanite society, but, consistent with his Marxist orientation, Gottwald contends that the reason for the split from the Late Bronze Age urban centers was economic, not [13] theological.* In short, the emergence of Israel can be found in a social revolution at the end of the Late Bronze Age.

The peasant revolt model has proved to be a very pregnant one for many scholars. For one thing, it is based on anthropological and sociological analogies from other societies in which new cultures have emerged.

It also appeals to some scholars who find the biblical account of Israel’s emergence in Canaan historically worthless. According to these scholars, there is simply no history to be gleaned from the biblical accounts which purport to relate what happened regarding Israel before the monarchy. At best, these scholars say, this is simply a national history created to give Israel a pedigreed past. Some scholars go further and contend that there is no reliable history in the Bible until the Exile to Babylon.

Scholars who accept the peasant revolt model also rely on archaeological evidence. For example, they point to Canaanite antecedents of the four-room house and the collared-rim jar. And it is undoubtedly true that there are cultural continuities between Late Bronze and Iron I Canaan, although there are often differences too. The proponents of the peasant revolt model also point to a settlement like the one at a site called ‘Izbet Sartah.** It is in the far west, at the edge of the hill country, overlooking the coastal plain. It is one of the earliest of the new Iron I settlements. Yet if the Israelites came from outside and from the east (the other side of the Jordan), ‘Izbet Sartah should be one of the last places to be settled.

Whatever the validity of the peasant revolt model, it has starkly raised the issue–much debated among scholars–as to whether the emergence of Israel was an inside or an outside job, whether Israel came from outside Canaan or from inside Canaan. It used to be that scholars almost always accounted for major cultural changes by the introduction of a new ethnic element coming in from the outside. No longer is this the fact. So the scholars of Israelite history are asking themselves, did Israel emerge from within Canaanite society or did Israel come into the land from outside? We are likely to hear more about this from Bill Dever later in this program.

[14] These then are the three models of Israel’s emergence in Canaan–the conquest model, the peaceful infiltration model and the peasant revolt model (or perhaps, more accurately, the social revolution model). But in the last few years scholars have moved beyond these models. It is no longer a matter of plumping for one or the other model. We have entered a period of synthesis and variation. The models have become kind of “ideal types” in the Weberian sense. In reality, they don’t exist in these pure forms.

No clear consensus among scholars has evolved. A lot of new ideas are swirling around. There is much debate. What the outcome will be, I, for one, cannot even predict.

On the one hand, there are those scholars who say that the Bible is absolutely worthless as a source for the history of premonarchical Israel. They look to sociology and anthropology and, to some extent, archaeology, to develop an accurate historical scenario. They often begin with the undoubted archaeological fact that almost the entire then-known world was in turmoil and upheaval at the end of the Late Bronze Age. Egyptian authority was slipping; the Sea Peoples, including the Philistines, were fleeing from the Aegean area, attacking Egypt and other areas, finally settling in Cyprus and coastal Canaan; the Hittite empire in Asia Minor and north Syria was fragmenting and turning to a bunch of small warring city-states; this was the time of the Trojan War, a time when the great coastal city of Syria, Ugarit, was destroyed, never to be rebuilt.

What caused all this turmoil? Climatic changes? Drought? War? Economic dislocations? The Dorian invasion of Greece? No one seems to know, for sure. But according to the peasant revolt, or social revolution, theory, the coastal cities of Canaan also suffered and declined, their feudal social structures collapsed and the urban underclass took to the hills where they eventually emerged as Israel.

At the other end of the scholarly spectrum are those who contend that there were surely military aspects to Israel’s emergence in Canaan and that this must be part of any synthesis. Among those who take this position is eminent biblical scholar Frank Cross of Harvard.

Abraham Malamat of Hebrew University has emphasized the extraordinarily realistic and clever military strategies that the Bible says the Israelites employed in their successful defeat of major walled [15] Canaanite cities.* In not a single case was there a frontal attack in daylight. Instead, because they were essentially outclassed militarily, the Israelites employed stratagems. They used decoys and ambushes, night attacks and surprise attacks, spies and infiltrators. They took advantage of the topography in a remarkably realistic way. This suggests to many that there must be a core of historical reality to these accounts even though the details and numbers are exaggerated and the whole thing is recounted as seen through a theological lens.

As we have seen, the Bible often preserves more than one tradition of an event, as in the Book of Joshua and the Book of Judges with respect to Israel’s subjugation of the Promised Land. But, as Yigael Yadin has pointed out, only a single tradition of Israel’s origin has been preserved–that they came from outside Canaan, from Egypt, where they were slaves. Who would invent such an ignominious past?**

Bryant Wood has recently reexamined the archaeological evidence relating to the destruction of Jericho.† There was a destruction at Jericho. All archaeologists agree on this. But when did it occur? The most recent and most famous excavator of Jericho, the British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon, dated this destruction to the Middle Bronze Age–after which the site was abandoned. Thus, she said, there was no city here for Joshua to conquer at the end of the Late Bronze Age. This view has been widely accepted and has posed a major problem for the conquest model. In his careful reexamination of the archaeological data, not only from Kenyon’s excavations but also from earlier excavations, Wood has shown that this destruction at Jericho occurred in uncanny detail just as the Bible describes it. There was a strong wall there, just as the Bible says. And the wall even came tumbling down, according to the archaeological evidence. Actually there were two walls around the city–the main city wall at the top of the tell and a revetment wall lower down. Outside this revetment wall, Kenyon found piles of red mudbricks that had fallen from the city wall at the top of the tell and then tumbled down the [16] slope, piling up at the base of the revetment wall. (Or the bricks could have been on top of the revetment wall and tumbled down from there; the difference is insignificant. The fact is they came together in a heap outside the revetment wall). The amount of bricks piled up there was enough for a wall 6.5 feet wide and 12 feet high.

These collapsed bricks then formed a kind of ramp that an invading army could have used to go up into the city. And sure enough, the Bible tells us that the Israelites who encircled the city “went up into the city, every man straight before him” (Joshua 6-20).

Moreover, the wall could have tumbled as a result of an earthquake. Earthquake activity is well known in this area- Jericho sits right in the Great Rift on the edge of a tectonic plate.

Kenyon found that the city was destroyed in a fiery conflagration- the walls and floors were blackened or reddened by fire. But, she adds, “the collapse of the walls of the eastern rooms seems to have taken place before they were affected by the fire.” This was the sequence of events in the biblical account of Jericho’s conquest- The walls fell down and then the Israelites put the city to the torch.

The archaeologists also found heaps of burnt grain in the houses–more grain than has ever been found in any excavation in what was ancient Israel. This indicates two things- First, the victory of the invaders must have been a swift one, rather than the customary siege that would attempt to starve out the inhabitants (the biblical victory was of course swift). Second, the presence of so much grain indicates that the city must have been destroyed in the spring, shortly after the harvest. That is when the Bible says the attack occurred. There is another strange thing about the presence of so much grain. A successful invading army could be expected to plunder the grain before setting the city on fire. But the army that conquered Jericho inexplicably did not do this. The Bible tells us that the Lord commanded that everything from Jericho was to be destroyed; they were to take no plunder.

One last item, the Bible tells us that the attacking Israelites were able to ford the Jordan easily because the river stopped flowing for them; the water above Jericho stood up in a heap (Joshua 3-16). This has actually happened on several occasions in modern times. At this point the Jordan is not a mighty stream. It has been stopped up by mud slides and by material that fell into it in connection with [17] earthquakes. The water actually ceased flowing for between 16 hours and two days, as recorded in 1927, 1906, 1834 and on three even earlier occasions.

So what do we make of all this?

One way to deal with it is to say that the Israelites somehow had a memory of this early destruction of Jericho and incorporated it into their own theologically oriented history, even though it was not actually the Israelites that did the conquering.

Another way is to attribute the destruction of Jericho to the Israelites. This requires either that you move the Israelite conquest back to the Middle Bronze Age or that you reinterpret the archaeological evidence so that you attribute the destruction to the Late Bronze Age instead of to the Middle Bronze Age. Both of these things have been attempted, although most scholars reject these efforts to attribute Jericho’s destruction to the Israelites.

This brings me to the question of dating, about which I will say only a few words. Most archaeologists are agreed that if there is archaeological evidence for the emergence of Israel in Canaan, it must be at the beginning of the Iron Age, about 1200 b.c.e.

Yet there is also evidence that there was an important people called Israel living in Canaan as early as the late 13th century b.c.e. I’m referring to the famous Merneptah Stele found in Thebes at the end of the last century. The Merneptah Stele is a black granite slab over 7.5 feet high, covered with hieroglyphic writing. Mainly it recounts the exploits of Pharaoh Merneptah during his Libyan campaign, but at the end he also recalls his earlier victories in a military campaign in Canaan.

Now there are two universally agreed facts about this stele. One is that it dates to 1207 b.c.e. Second, it mentions Israel in connection with this earlier campaign in Canaan. There in hieroglyphic writing is the earliest extra-biblical mention of Israel. This is what it says-

“Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe;

Ashkelon has been overcome;

Gezer has been captured.

Yanoam was made nonexistent;

Israel is laid waste, his seed is not.”

[19] Now there are a couple of things I want to say about this mention of Israel.

This is not just a mention in a deed or a contract that may have reference to a small village or even less. This reference to Israel shows that the most powerful man in the world, the pharaoh of Egypt, was aware of Israel. Not only was he aware of Israel–he boasts that one of the most important achievements of his reign was to defeat Israel. Of course he exaggerates when he says that Israel’s seed is not. We know that even today, 3,200 years later, that seed is still growing and thriving. But that is beside the point. The fact is that in 1212 b.c.e. (the campaign was five years before the inscription), Israel must already have been a military force to be reckoned with. And this is right in that transition period between the Late Bronze Age and Iron I.

The next point I want to make about the Merneptah Stele, which is sometimes also called the Israel Stele, requires us to talk a little about hieroglyphics. In hieroglyphic writing there are some signs that are not pronounced; they indicate the kind of word to which they are attached. The unpronounced signs are called determinatives. So, in the quotation I read to you from the Merneptah Stele, where the pharaoh was victorious over four entities in Canaan, each entity, in addition tο the signs indicating how the word is pronounced, also has attached to it a determinative that tells us what kind of word it is. Attached to three of the four entities–Ashkelon, Gezer and Yanoam–is a determinative that tells us that they are cities. The determinative attached to Canaan, which introduces the set of four, is the determinative for a foreign land. The determinative attached to Israel, however, is for a people. In other words, in 1207 b.c.e. Israel was a people in Canaan important enough not only to be known to pharaoh, but important enough for him to boast that he defeated them militarily.

The Merneptah Stele is obviously a very important piece of evidence in connection with the current debate about the rise of Israel.

If Israel was already such a force in Canaan in 1212 b.c.e., then Israel must have been established there for some time. Those who would like to push back the date for Israel’s entry into Canaan, stress this aspect of the Merneptah Stele.

[20] On the other hand, those who say that Israel’s existence only begins with the monarchy have to deal with this troubling bit of evidence. I often wonder what would happen if we didn’t have this fortuitously preserved find. I’m almost certain that those scholars who insist that Israel didn’t exist before the monarchy and who tell us that there is no premonarchical history to be gleaned from the premonarchical accounts in the Bible would carry the day. The biblical tales we would convincingly be told are mere bobbe-mysehs, grandmothers’ tales. How do these scholars deal with the Merneptah Stele, since it indubitably does exist. They say that Israel refers to something else. What that something else is, is not clear. I certainly can understand that the numbers in the Bible are exaggerated. And there is evidence even in the Bible that there were not always 12 tribes in a league together. But the Merneptah Stele does date from the time when the nation and people that became Israel were aborning, were in the early stages of their development.

A final point about the Merneptah Stele and its significance. [22] Very recently, some reliefs on a temple at Karnak have been identified as illustrations of this famous passage from the Merneptah Stele.* One panel of reliefs represents Ashkelon; other panels appear to represent the other Canaanite cities mentioned in the Merneptah Stele. Unfortunately, there is still a dispute as to which panel or panels pictures the Israelites. In one panel that is a contender, the Israelites have long togas or skirts, just like the other Canaanites. So it is argued that this supports the contention that Israel emerged out of Canaanite society. In another panel which supposedly represents the Israelites, they have short skirts, quite unlike the Canaanites, so this supports the argument that the Israelites entered Canaan from outside the land.**

If they did come from outside the land, then this raises the question of where they came from. In short, was there really an Exodus? For the Exodus, we don’t have a Merneptah Stele; we don’t have any evidence that the Israelites as such were in Egypt.

What we do have is evidence of Canaanite pottery in Egypt, and we also have evidence that Canaanite traders would come down to Egypt just like Jacob and his sons. A very famous picture from a tomb at Beni Hasan in Egypt pictures some merchants from Asia coming down to Egypt to do business. This tomb is beautifully preserved in cliffs overlooking the Nile about halfway between Cairo and Luxor.

Finally, there is evidence concerning a strange people known as the Hyksos. That’s the name by which we know them, but that’s not what they called themselves. The Hyksos were a people from Asia–Canaan–who came down to Egypt and ultimately became the rulers of Egypt for two Egyptian dynasties. Ultimately, they were expelled by the Egyptians, who chased them back into Canaan. Obviously, the rise of the Hyksos in Egypt seems to have echoes in the biblical story of Joseph. The expulsion of the Hyksos seems to be some kind of Exodus in reverse. Instead of fleeing, they were kicked out. Whether there is any connection between the Hyksos and the biblical accounts I will leave to my good friend Baruch Halpern. In [23] the meantime, you can ask me a few questions, but not too many because what I have tried to do is simply give you a little background, some of the framework and parameters of the extraordinarily vigorous debates that are going on in the academy. From the other speakers, we are going to go out into the jungle. These are the people who are exploring beyond the point where I have taken you, developing the lines of thought that will dominate the discussion in the years to come.

Questions & Answers

Why do the houses that were found throughout the settlement area have to be early? And why can’t they be people who lived away from the cities? And, how do you prove either statement?

Well, these people certainly did live away from large urban centers. There’s no question about that. But where did they come from and who were they? They could have been, according to some theories, wandering pastoralists who decided to settle down. They could be Canaanites who were fleeing from the cities. It is possible to interpret much of the evidence in varying ways, and that is part of the problem. No mighty stream of evidence is developing and that’s why I think we’re still far from a consensus.

The Merneptah Stele records an Egyptian campaign in Canaan. I don’t quite see the connection between that and the Israelite campaign to subject the Canaanites.

I’m sorry to have confused you. The Merneptah Stele is simply evidence of the existence of Israel at this time. The Egyptian campaign in Canaan we really don’t know much about, but, in a sense, that is irrelevant to the issue of Israel’s emergence in Canaan. The importance of the Merneptah Stele is that Israel unquestionably existed in Canaan in 1212 b.c.e. Second, Israel’s presence in Canaan was of such importance that the pharoah knew about it. And third, one of the things in his reign that he was proudest of was that he claimed to have defeated Israel in this military campaign. I didn’t intend to use that Egyptian campaign to demonstrate the Israelite conquest–only to demonstrate the existence of an important entity named Israel as a people, unlike the Canaanite cities also identified in the Merneptah Stele.

If the archaeological evidence does not support a conquest model, why would the Bible reflect a conquest model?

The purpose of the biblical account is not what we regard as history. The purpose of the biblical account is to explain God’s acts in relation to man on this earth. It really isn’t concerned about detailed accuracy; that’s not its purpose. Now, there is a certain divide among people who, on the one hand regard the Bible as literally true and, on the other, those who look at it as a document like any other ancient document- It has to be analyzed and compared and looked at for its tendenz, for its biases. My friend Bill Dever, has called the Bible “a curated artifact.” There is a difference among people concerning how they approach the Bible. Those who accept the Bible as literally true are people who accept this on faith. I don’t think we can argue on that ground. Other people say that, unlike those who accept the Bible as literally true, they will argue with you on archaeological or historical grounds. And it is in this area that you can have a debate. Most modern biblical scholars do not accept the Bible as literally true. So what you have to do is to treat it almost like an archaeological tell, and excavate it, as it were, and analyze it to see whether what it says is historically true in the details, whether we would accept it as historically accurate by modern historians’ standards, by modern historiography. That is not to denigrate the richness of the biblical text. I think many people who do not accept the literal reading of the Bible find it a very enriching and inspiring and even Godly document, without the necessity of it being literally true in every detail. This whole discussion proceeds on the basis that we will examine the Bible in this way. What I have tried to do is to summarize some of the problems in the biblical text and to describe some of the ways scholars have dealt with them.

[7] *See Adam Zertal, “Israel Enters Canaan–Following the Pottery Trail,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 1991.

[12] * See Hershel Shanks, “Yigal Shiloh–Last Thoughts,” Biblical Archaeology Review May-June 1988.

** See “Israel’s Emergence in Canaan–BR Interviews Norman Gottwald,” Bible Review, October 1989.

[13] * See Bernhard Anderson, “Mendenhall Disavows Paternity,” Bible Review, Summer 1986.

** See Moshe Kochavi and Aaron Demsky, “An Israelite Village from the Days of the Judges,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 1978.

[15] * See Abraham Malamat, “How Inferior Israelite Forces Conquered Fortified Canaanite Cities,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 1982.

** See Yigael Yadin, “Is the Biblical Account of the Israelite Conquest of Canaan Historically Reliable?” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 1982.

† See Bryant Wood, “Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 1990.

[22] * Frank J. Yurco, “3,200-Year-Old Picture of Israelites Found in Egypt,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 1990.

** See also “Anson F. Rainey’s Challenge,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 1991.


1. See P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., “The Patriarchal Age,” in Ancient Israel- A Short History from Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple, ed. Hershel Shanks (Englewood Cliffs, NJ- Prentice-Hall; Washington, DC- Biblical Archaeology Society, 1988), pp. 1-29.

2. See Joseph A. Callaway, “The Settlement in Canaan,” in Shanks, Ancient Israel, pp. 53-84.

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