I recent spoke at a small event, organised for and by laypeople, on the topic of Divine Violence. Given my main area of interest, I approached the topic through the lens of the Conquest of Canaan.
This topic is a favourite among Christian Apologists, often coming at it from the angle of Divine Command Theory. Putting it politely, I find that approach abhorrent. It’s a stain on Christianity. Instead of going down that road I though it would be more useful to use the Conquest of Canaan as an example of how taking a historical-critical reading of the relevant texts usually demonstrates that we’re trying to defend something that doesn’t need defending.
Summary of the talk: The conquest described in the book of Joshua didn’t happen, and the command in Deuteronomy 20 to annihilate the Canaanites wasn’t given by God. That shouldn’t be a surprise given that Jesus isn’t a genocidal maniac, and he’s a better revelation of God’s character than much of what we read in scripture.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“…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.
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
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
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
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.