Category: Israelite Origins

Israelite Origins: The Merneptah Stele

If there’s one archaeological discovery that always comes up in discussions about early Israel it’s the Merneptah Stele. In this post we’re going to take a look at what it is, and what it tells us (and doesn’t tell us) about Israelite origins.

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Israelite Origins: Population decline and explosion

In the preceding posts in this series we’ve seen how the scriptures do not speak in one voice when it comes to figuring out exactly where the Israelites came from.

  • Instead of there being a single “biblical” date for the conquest we’ve seen that several can be derived from the text.
  • Instead of the Israelites running the show in Canaan as we’d expect from the first half of the book of Joshua, we’ve seen that Egypt, for 250-300 years starting from around 1450 BCE, completely dominated the area (and that precisely nothing is said about this in the books of Joshua or Judges).
  • And, instead of finding archaeological evidence of sweeping destruction throughout Canaan at a time that lines up with either the Early or Late Date Exodus and Conquest, we find little evidence of systematic destruction, or of cultural change. In some cases we even find that cities said to have been defeated by Joshua didn’t even exist at the time.

It’s felt like a whole load of deconstruction – the rosy picture painted in Sunday School has all but shattered.

From now on in the series we’re going to see what can be salvaged. What can we know about Israelite origins? In this post we’re going to look at the data for the archaeological phenomenon known as the “Israelite Settlement”, but but we’re going to start one stage before that – the Late Bronze Age population decline.

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Israelite Origins: the Late Bronze Age collapse

At around 1200 BCE, during what is now seen as the transition from the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age, the eastern Mediterranean world suffered mass societal collapse. In his excellent 1177 B.C. The Year Civilization Collapsed Eric Cline sums up just how serious the chaos was:

The magnitude of the catastrophe was enormous; it was a loss such as the world would not see again until the Roman Empire collapsed more than fifteen hundred years later.1

Far from being a few squabbles between some knuckle-dragging savages on the edge of some desert somewhere, the Late Bronze Age collapse resulted in the disintegration of international trade, the end of dynasties, and an entirely new world order prompted by mass migration.

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Israelite Origins: Egyptian Domination of Canaan

“…the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large; and besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites live in the land of the Negeb; the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live by the sea, and along the Jordan.”

Nu 13:28–29 (NRSV)

Such was the report of the 12 tribal representatives sent by Moses to spy out the promised land. Based on this passage we may imagine that Canaan was a land of strong, well defended city states.

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Israelite Origins: Working backwards

Up to now in this series we’ve been slaughtering some sacred cows: claims of biblical dates for the Exodus and subsequent conquest of Canaan, claims that the scriptural narrative of the Israelite conquest matches the archaeological record, and claims that the bible gives us a coherent narrative on where the Israelite people came from.

Scripturally speaking, we’re left with practically nothing. So, we’re going to look at the archaeological record (well, at least what scholars tell us about it) and see what we can work out from there. Continue reading

Israelite Origins: Late Date Exodus

Just before we get into the historical background of the relevant time period for investigating Israelite origins in Canaan we have one side issue to deal with – the “Late Date” Exodus. The date of the Exodus is intimately connected to the emergence of the Israelites in Canaan when looking at the topic as a Christian because the Israelites, according to a selective and face-value reading of the narratives, arrived in Canaan forty years after they left Egypt. If that’s what happened then we’ve got our Israelite origins sorted, and we can stop this series right now. Continue reading

Israelite Origins: Biblical Counter-narratives

As we saw in the last post, the narrative found in Joshua that explains how the Israelites came to be in Canaan does not stack up with the archaeological evidence; in fact, it’s completely contradicted by it. The glorious conquest of Canaan and complete annihilation of its indigenous people described in Joshua 10-11 quite plainly did not happen – this is a bit difficult for those who work on the assumption that a plain reading of the biblical text provides reliable historical information. However, if your faith requires scripture to be “true” (read, “historically accurate”) then this discrepancy between the conquest narratives and the archaeological evidence pales into insignificance when it’s pointed out that scripture lacks internally consistency in its narratives of Israelite origins. Continue reading

Israelite Origins: putting away childish things

We concluded the previous post by stating that almost everything of the Sunday School narrative on Israelite Origins is contradicted by the archaeological evidence. In this post we’re going to see why that is, taking a look at what the relevant scholarly experts, in their own words, have to say about just how well their discoveries match the main biblical narrative. We’re going to quote mainly from Amihai Mazar’s widely-used textbook, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10,000-586 B.C.E.1 though we’ll also dip into other resources as we go along.

We pick up the story toward the end of the wilderness wanderings… Continue reading

Israelite Origins: the Sunday School version

Let’s remind ourselves of the story of Israelite Origins we learned in Sunday School. If your experience was anything like mine, it goes a little something like this:

The descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob multiplied in Egypt. Forced to work as slave labour on Pharaoh’s supply cities the Israelites, now a people, were led on a daring bid for freedom by Moses. Step by step through the waste howling wilderness they found their way to Mt Sinai where they met their God and received his law.

After a few decades Continue reading

Israelite Origins: An Introduction

Before we get started on this series on Israelite Origins I want to get one thing absolutely straight:

The origins of the Israelites and the crystallization of their national entity are among the most controversial topics of biblical history.1

Most of us Christians appear to be blissfully unaware that this is a complicated area. Some are willingly ignorant. Others try to come up with cheap apologetics to explain the problems away. Others still try to defy the relevant experts, claiming that they’re looking for evidence of the Israelite conquest in the wrong place, in the wrong time period, or with “atheist assumptions”. These are all hopeless approaches that leave you ignorant, misinformed, or needing to defend the indefensible – none of which are the sort of stance we ought to have. Continue reading

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