Exodus and Conquest -- Myth or Reality? Can Archaeology Provide the Answer?
Journal of the
Ancient Chronology Forum 2, 1988, 27-40.
the 1930s, the majority view has dated the Israelite Exodus and Conquest to
the 13th century BC, at the end of the Late Bronze Age. A re-examination of
the evidence suggests that the archaeology of this period is incompatible
with the biblical narrative, and the campaign of conquest related in the Book
of Joshua. Dr. Bimson 's own research concludes that a date for these events
in the late 15th century would bring the narrative into accord with the
archaeology of the Middle Bronze Age and the traditional biblical date for
the Exodus of c.1450 BC.
By John J.
To begin by
grasping the nettle offered by the second half of our title, it has to be said
that archaeology cannot usually tell us
whether biblical traditions are historical or mythological. Archaeology is
not, strictly speaking, a science (although it employs scientific tools). One
can rarely set up controlled experiments to test whether particular events
(biblical or otherwise) actually happened. Rather, the archaeologist is at the mercy of the surviving evidence, and
this imposes quite severe limits on what can be deduced with certainty. In the
case of the cities of the Ancient Near East, limited time and resources mean
that the archaeologist can only excavate a relatively small proportion of a
tell (the Arabic term for a ruin-mound, in Hebrew spelt tel). For
example, Yigael Yadin estimated that to excavate every level of the tell of
Hazor (in northern Galilee) in its entirety would take eight hundred years!
This emphasizes the small proportion which can be uncovered in a few seasons.
Furthermore, only a limited amount of buried material survives the centuries
for the archaeologist to discover it. Archaeology therefore has serious
limitations when it comes to answering the kind of question posed in our title.
One cannot guarantee that the appropriate evidence has survived, or (if it has)
that the archaeologist will find it.
On the positive side, however, archaeology can significantly affect the balance of
probabilities. I hope to show that it suggests the basic historicity of those
biblical traditions which deal with the origins of Israel in Canaan.
traditions, contained in the books Exodus-Joshua (and referred to many times in
the Prophets and the Psalms) relate that the Hebrews suffered slavery in Egypt
and were led to freedom by Moses at a time of dramatic natural catastrophes;
after forty years spent in the area south of Canaan, they migrated northwards
through Transjordan, crossed the Jordan under the leadership of Joshua and
conquered several key fortified cities.
Today most biblical scholars and archaeologists doubt the historicity of
even this basic outline of events. The biblical traditions as we have them are
seen as the result of a long and complex process of development, only taking
their final shape during or after the Babylonian exile (6th century BC) and
reflecting the political and theological concerns of that late period. Most
scholars are therefore pessimistic about the possibility that these traditions
preserve historical facts from a much earlier time. The majority view today is
that the nation Israel arose within Canaan as an indigenous development. N. K.
Gottwald is typical of many in affirming that the traditions concerning
Israel's origins outside the land of Canaan are of questionable historical
credibility [1985:35]; N. P. Lemche is confident that in its present form the
account of Israel's pre-Palestinian existence...can hardly be described as
other than a fiction [Lemche:409]; G. W. Ahlstrsm states that the story of the
Exodus from Egypt is concerned with mythology rather than with a detailed
reporting of historical facts [Ahlstrsm:46]. The term "mythology,"
when used in this context, is not intended to denigrate the biblical
traditions, but simply to say that they
embody religious convictions rather than true history. Nevertheless, in
view of the way in which the traditions of Israel's origins pervade the Hebrew
Bible, it is worth challenging such a view.
of these scholars is based in part on the view that the traditions took shape
at such a late period that they cannot possibly contain historical reminiscences
from almost a thousand years before [Lemche:377-78, 384]. This view cannot be
challenged here; suffice it to say that many scholars reject it, believing that
at least some of the traditions concerning Israel's early history, especially
those preserved in poetic form, do go back to the time before the monarchy
[Cross; Freedman; Halpern]. However, another source of such skepticism is
undoubtedly the perceived clash between the biblical traditions and
archaeological evidence. Searching for evidence that Israel's conquest of
Canaan occurred at the close of the Late Bronze Age (end of 13th century BC),
scholars have failed to find any convincing correlations. Hence, Lemche
concludes: "...It is no longer possible to offer even a reasonable defense
of the Conquest narratives" [Lemche:413].
It is my
contention that the failure to find appropriate evidence of Israel's conquest
of Canaan is actually the result of looking for it in the wrong archaeological
period. I have therefore tried in recent years to reopen the question of the
date of the Exodus and Conquest. The first part of this paper is devoted to challenging the conventionally accepted
date in the 13th century BC and defending an alternative date some two
centuries earlier -- a date suggested
by the Bible itself.
PART ONE: EVIDENCE FOR A 13th CENTURY DATE EXAMINED
Between the 1930s
and 1950s evidence accumulated in favor of dating the Exodus and Conquest to
the 13th century BC. That date has remained the majority view. Even some of
those scholars who reject the historicity of the Exodus and Conquest traditions
still look to the decades around 1200 BC as the time when Israel emerged as a
recognizable entity in Canaan. I will argue here that retention of the
13th-century date is an example of scholarly inertia, and that the evidence in
its favor has long since been eroded away.
The evidence of
Exodus 1:11 tells
us that the enslaved Hebrews "built for Pharaoh store-cities, Pithom and
Raamses." It has been recognized by the majority of scholars that the name
Raamses is an appropriate rendering in Hebrew of the Egyptian Pi-Ramesse (= abode,
or estate, of Ramesses), the name of the Delta-residence developed by and named
after Ramesses II [Kitchen 1987]. The occurrence of this name in Exodus 1:11
has therefore been taken as an indicator that the enslaved Hebrews actually
labored for Ramesses II (1279-1213 BC).  If this reasoning is sound, the Exodus cannot have happened before
the 13th century BC.
The first thing to
note is that the Hebrew Bible does not use the name Raamses with chronological
rigor. It uses it in Genesis 47:11 (actually in the form Rameses; the variation
is not significant) to indicate the area where the ancestors of the Hebrew
tribes first settled in the time of Jacob. By anyone's reckoning this must have
been before any king called Ramesses ruled Egypt,  so the name is clearly being used retrospectively here (just as a
modern historian might speak to Julius Caesar crossing the English Channel, or
the Romans building York, neither name having been in use at the time referred
to). We have a very clear biblical example of such retrospective usage in
Genesis 14:14, where the city of Dan is mentioned in a narrative concerning
Abraham; the city was actually called Laish in Abraham's day, and was not
called Dan until much later, when the tribe of Dan conquered it and gave its
own name to it, as narrated in Judges 18. Now, if the toponym Rameses/Raamses
is being used restrospectively in Genesis 47:11, why not also in Exodus 1:11?
In short, the name itself does not provide the date of the building activity in
which the Hebrews were engaged, only the date when the narrative was last
worked over by an editorial hand.
Against the use of
Exodus 1:11 as dating evidence we must balance two other biblical references. l
Kings 6:1 places the Exodus 480 years before the 4th year of Solomon, which
points to a date (in round figures) of about 1450 BC. Judges 11:26 indicates a similar
date, since it refers to Israelites settling in Transjordan 300 years before
the time of Jephthah; as Jephthah seems to have been active around 1100 BC,
this phase of Israelite settlement (at the end of their forty years of
wandering in the wilderness) would have happened (again, in round numbers)
roughly 1400 BC, which pushes the Exodus back to the mid-15th century BC. Both
these verses have been either interpreted as symbolic or otherwise explained
away on the strength of evidence favoring a later date [e.g. Wright:84; Kitchen
1966:72-75]. But as that evidence has now evaporated, the 15th-century date
should be reconsidered. In connection with Exodus 1:11 we must ask whether an
Exodus in the middle of the 15th century BC is compatible with archaeological
evidence from Pithom and Raamses.
first: is there evidence of building activity at the site as early as the 15th
century BC? The site of Pi-Ramesse already had a long history of occupation
before Ramesses II built the Delta-residence bearing his name. This history
goes back to the 19th century BC, but is not unbroken. The site shows little
evidence of occupation between the end of the Hyksos period (c. 1530 BC) and
the late 18th Dynasty (c. 1310 BC) [Bietak 1986:236, 268].
This apparent gap
in occupation would seem to seriously damage the case for a 15th-century
Exodus. However, it would be unwise to assume the abandonment of the site on
the basis of present evidence. We need to recall the limitations of
archaeology, as outlined in our Introduction. In the present case those
limitations are well summed up in the dictum that absence of evidence is not
necessarily evidence of absence. It is a salutary fact that at another
Eastern Delta site, Tell el-Maskhouta (the site of ancient Tjeku = Succoth in
Exodus 12:37), no trace has yet been found of a military base from the reign of
Thutmose IV, nor of forts and other buildings from the 19th Dynasty, although
the existence of such is attested in Egyptian texts. This is an important
reminder that archaeological evidence can be extremely elusive at sites in the
Eastern Delta. This is widely acknowledged, but is sometimes conveniently
forgotten when the lack of evidence can be used to bolster a favorite theory.
The site of
Pi-Ramesse, in today's Khata'na-Qantir district, covered an area of perhaps 4-5
square kilometres [Bietak 1986:269], and only a very small proportion of this
has so far been explored. Furthermore, in many places ancient occupation-levels
have been destroyed during the last hundred years through peasants digging forsebakh (soil
used as fertilizer and for brick-making). The area has been greatly despoiled
since it was explored and described by F. Lloyd Griffith and E. Naville in the
1880s [Bietak 1986:226, 228].
as W. H. Shea has pointed out, logic would suggest that some part of the site
was occupied in the 15th century BC; Thutmose III, Amenophis II and Thutmose IV
between them conducted well over twenty campaigns into Asia, and one would expect
that they had a base of operations somewhere in this vicinity [Shea:237]. The
site lay at a strategic point on the eastern side of the Nile's easternmost
arm, where there was an important route junction (the name of the place in the
Middle Kingdom was R3w3ty, "Mouth of the Two Roads"). It is therefore
highly probable that an energetic pharaoh such as Thutmose III would have
maintained a supply-base there for his many campaigns into Syria-Palestine.
Indeed, the statement in Exodus 1:11 that the Israelites built
"store-cities" (Hebrew 'are miskenot, literally "cities of
store-places") for the pharaoh, could well refer to the building of such
It should also be
noted that what evidence we already have is against a complete gap in
occupation for most of the 18th Dynasty. M. Bietak, the excavator of Tell
ed-Dab'a (in the south of the Pi-Ramesse area), has unearthed what he calls
"a massive filling wall" which he dates tentively to the "early
18th Dynasty" [Bietak 1986:236, 268]; and recently he has referred to
evidence of occupation in the time of Amenophis III, which takes us back to the
early 14th century BC [Bietak 1988:54]. So evidence of 15th-century activity
may await discovery somewhere in the area if the occupation-levels have not
been destroyed by sebakh-digging.
Turning to the
site of Pithom, two candidates have traditionally been considered for this
identification: Tell el-Maskhouta and Tell er-Retabah, sites about eight miles
apart in the Wadi Tumilat. K. A. Kitchen, in the most recent and detailed study
of this question , argues convincingly for Tell er-Retabah. H. Goedicke
has conducted excavations there and he reports finding remains of mud-brick
buildings which he dates to the first half of the 18th Dynasty [Goedicke 1987].
Full publication is still awaited, so the details cannot yet be assessed, but
in this case building activity in the right period seems fairly certain.
requirement for a 15th-century Exodus is an explanation of how Moses was able
to communicate so easily with the pharaoh. We have no evidence of a pharaonic
residence-city in the Eastern Delta at this time, and this has long been seen
as a stumbling-block for the early dating of the Exodus. However, in a
forthcoming paper H. Goedicke will publish inscriptional evidence for the
existence in the Eastern Delta, during the 18th Dynasty, of what he calls
"a royal domicile [used] during the recurrent tours of inspection the
Egyptian king was supposed to do".  This is all we would need to satisfy the requirements of Exodus 1-12,
not an extensive residence-city on the scale of the later Per-Ramesse.
archaeological evidence from the Eastern Delta, although not so clear-cut as we
would like, does not rule out a 15th-century Exodus, as has so often been
According to the
biblical traditions in Numbers 20-25, after spending forty years in the area
south of Canaan, the Hebrews moved north through Transjordan in order to enter
Canaan from the east. Those traditions relate that the migrating Hebrews
encountered various peoples during their northward trek; Edomites, Moabites,
Amorites and the inhabitants of Bashan. With the latter two groups they even
fought battles in which they conquered certain cities.
(i.e. studies of surface pottery finds, rather than excavations) of
Transjordan, carried out by N. Glueck from the 1930s onwards, led Glueck to the
conclusion that most of the region was without a settled population between the
19th and 13th centuries BC [Glueck 1940:125-140]. Pottery from the middle and
Late Bronze Ages appeared to be absent or very scarce over much of the region.
Glueck was followed by many other scholars in concluding that Israel's clashes
with kingdoms east of the Jordan could not have happened before the 13th
century BC [e.g. Wright:73; Kitchen 1966:61-62].
However, as a
result of further surveys and full-scale excavations conducted during the last
thirty years, Glueck's theory of an occupational gap has died the death of a
thousand qualifications. A great many Middle and Late Bronze Age sites have
come to light, requiring Glueck's theory to be modified beyond recognition
[Mattingly; Bimson & Livingston:44; Boling:11-35]. There appears to have
been some reduction in the population during the periods in question, but certainly
not an absence of settlement. In fact Glueck himself revised his views shortly
before he died [1970:141]. Unfortunately some scholars have lagged so far
behind that as recently as 1985 the imaginary gap in occupation was cited
against the 15th-century date for the Exodus [Stiebing:66]. The truth is that
the evidence from Transjordan is quite neutral as far as dating the Exodus is
concerned; it cannot prove a 15th-century date but it no longer constitutes
evidence against it.
The argument from
13th-century destructions in Canaan
Between 1930 and
1960 excavations in Palestine uncovered evidence that a number of cities were
destroyed at or near the end of the LBA (Late Bronze Age), i.e. in the decades
around 1200 BC. These included cities which the Bible says were taken by the
incoming Israelites: Debir (if identified with Tell Beit Mirsim), Lachish,
Bethel (conveniently identified with Beitin) and Hazor. The fall of all these
cities was dated to around 1220 BC, and seemed to provide evidence for a wave
of destruction at that time. Therefore there seemed to be good grounds for
viewing these destructions as the work of the Israelites under Joshua.
Furthermore, with Conquest dated to c.1220 BC, this implied an Exodus some
forty years earlier, i.e. c. 1260 BC, in the reign of Ramesses II, which fitted
nicely with the conventional understanding of Exodus 1:11 [e.g. Wright:60,
This neat scenario
has now been eroded utterly. The LBA destructions can no longer all be dated
to the same time. Indeed, a recent study by B. G. Wood [1985; 1987a],
analysing the pottery from a great many sites, shows that there were three waves of destruction spanning roughly a
The first wave occurred at the end of the subdivision of the LBA known as Late Bronze
IIB1, and should be dated c.1210 BC. Of the places mentioned in the Bible as
taken by Israel, it included only one: Hazor.
The second wave occurred c. 1170-1160 BC, at the end of Late Bronze IIB2. This included
Tell Beit Mirsim (once identified as Debir) and Beitin (generally accepted as
the site of Bethel). However, it is now almost universally agreed that the true
site of Debir is Khirbet Rabud, which was not destroyed in any of these three
waves of destruction. The number of biblical sites involved in this second wave
is therefore no more than one (Bethel), and even this should probably be
excluded; as we will see below, the location of Bethel at Beitin has recently
been strongly challenged.
The third wave of destruction actually fell within the early Iron Age, at the end of
Iron IA1, c. 1125 BC. Of the places Israel is said to have taken, this also
included only one: Lachish.
It is clear that
either Israel's conquest of Canaan was a long, drawn-out affair, spanning about
a century [Ussishkin:3 839], or the
destructions of Hazor, Tell Beit Mirsim, Beitin and Lachish have nothing to do
with Israel's arrival and we should find alternative explanations for them.
Wood argues the latter view forcefully in a paragraph which is worth quoting at
length, because it puts all three waves of destruction in a broader context:
it is apparent that the archaeological data do not support a conquest of
Palestine by the Israelites at the end of the 13th century. The destructions
that occurred in the Late Bronze/Iron Age transitional period can now be seen
as part of a larger process that was taking place all around the Eastern
Mediterranean basin. The underlying causes are not yet understood, but the end
results are clear. The city-states.became progressively weaker until they
reached a stage where they could no longer maintain themselves. Since Egypt
depended upon the city-states to support her forces in Palestine, as the
city-states became weaker, so did Egypt's hold on her northern province. One-by-one
the city-states fell; some were destroyed, others were not. In a weakened
condition, they may have succumbed to attack by outsiders, revolts from within,
or simply been abandoned when the citizens could no longer eke out a
When the various
Late Bronze/Iron Age destructions are seen from the perspective of the
widespread economic and political collapse which affected the Eastern
Mediterranean at that time, there is simply no reason to introduce invading
Israelites in order to explain them.
Returning to the
biblical account of the Conquest, it is also worth stressing that some cities
which Israel is said to have conquered were definitely not destroyed in the
decades around 1200 BC; indeed, some did not even exist at that time. Jericho
(Joschua 6) was abandoned from c. 1275 BC until the early Iron Age; Gibeon
(Joshua 9) was either abandoned or only sparsely settled in the LBA; Hebron
(Joshua 10:37) shows no trace of LB occupation; Zephath (Judges 1:17) and Arad
(Numbers 21:1-3) have similarly troublesome gaps (and this is true of Arad
whether it is located at Tel Arad or Tel Malhata . The city of Ai (Joshua 7-8) also comes into this category if its
location at Et-Tell is maintained, but this will be discussed below.
If it were not
obvious already from Wood's analysis, this negative evidence shows clearly that
there can be no neat "fit" between the biblical accounts of the
Conquest and the archaeology of the Late Bronze/Iron Age transition. The
negative evidence is often paraded as proof that the Conquest narratives are
unhistorical [Weippert 1971:46-55; Miller; Lemche:386-406, 413], but this is
largely the consequence of a tunnel-vision
which prevents the consideration of other periods as alternative settings for
Israel's arrival in Canaan.
settlements of Iron Age I
At the beginning
of the Iron Age a great many new settlements appeared in the hill-country of
Palestine. Almost a hundred new settlements have been traced in the center of
the country alone, with others in Upper Galilee in the north and on the edge of
the Negev in the south. These are mostly small, open, agricultural villages,
though a few have protecting walls.
The rise of such
settlements in the hills has been linked in a variety of ways with Israel's
emergence. With their initial spread dated to roughly 1200 BC, and Israel's
arrival dated only a couple of decades earlier on the strength of the
destructions at the end of the LBA, it once seemed logical to view the settlements
as the archaeological evidence for the Israelites beginning to settle down in
their Promised Land. However, recent studies have shown that any connection
which these settlements may have with the arrival of the Israelites is more
complex than was previously envisaged.
It has been
pointed out by a number of scholars that the agricultural villages show
considerable cultural continuity (i.e. in terms of pottery styles etc.) with
the preceding LBA. There is therefore no reason whatever to view them as evidence
for the arrival of a new group from outside. While it is tempting to take them
as an indicator of population increase, and hence to see them as indirectly
attesting an influx of newcomers, there is still no reason to connect this with
newly-arrived Israelites. Wood's aforementioned study redates the beginnings of
highland village life to around 1160 BC, the time of the Philistine invasion of
the coastal plain. This lends plausibility to a suggestion that the Philistine
invasion displaced the populations of the coastal cities into the interior, and
thus provided the impetus for colonisation of the hill-country [Callaway].
However, while this is possible explanation for the rise of Iron Age villages
in the hills, we actually have no way of knowing whether or not the Philistine
incursion significantly increased or displaced the local population.
Some scholars have
suggested that the hill-country settlements are evidence for the withdrawal of
a disgruntled peasant population from the city-states -- a withdrawal which
contributed to the collapse of the city-state system [Gottwald 1978:50;
Chaney:60]. Another explanation for the new settlements reverses this cause and
effect connection: a drift of part of the population into the hills occurred in
response to the economic collapse of the city-states, as people sought new
socio-economic structures in which to survive [e.g. Coote &
Whitelam:117-138]. Neither of these explanations requires any link between the
new settlements and the arrival of the Israelites, though proponents of both
have suggested that the settlements mark the emergence of Israel as an
indigenous development within Canaan. Such a view of Israel's origins naturally
ignores the main thrust of the biblical traditions, which state that Israel was
Another view is
that the hill-country settlements are the work of semi-nomadic groups settling
down [e.g. Finkelstein 1985:81-82;1988]. However, as we noted above, the
continuity which the settlements display with the preceding LBA culture rules
out the possibility that these groups were newly-arrived in the land at the
time of their sedentarization. V. Fritz concludes: "...This continuity is best explained by
intensive, prolonged contact with Canaanite culture. This contact must have
already occurred in the Late Bronze Age before the beginnings of sedentary
life" [1987:97]. As a consequence of this conclusion Fritz has argued that
the settlements mark the sedentarization of semi-nomads who had entered the
land long before 1200 BC: "Their 'migration' into the land must therefore
have occurred in the 14th century or already in the 15th" [1981:71].
In short, the new
settlements which appear in the highlands of Canaan at the beginning of the
Iron Age cannot be linked with the Israelites unless it is assumed that
Israelite beginnings in Canaan go back a long way before 1200 BC. In other
words, they do not provide evidence for an Israelite entry into Canaan in the late
13th century BC. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that Fritz's theory is
compatible with an Israelite entry in the late 15th century BC, in line with
the biblical chronology outlined earlier.
reference to Israel
Merenptah, successor to Ramesses II, left a victory-hymn celebrating a defeat
of the Libyans in his fifth year (1208 BC). In the final strophe of the hymn,
Merenptah mentions various entities in Palestine which he also claims to have
subdued. Among these is Israel, written with the determinative for a people;
Merenptah's other erstwhile foes are characterised by the determinative for a
city or land. Some scholars have viewed the distinctive determinative as
evidence that Israel had not yet become a well-settled group at the time of
Merenptah, and therefore as evidence that the Israelites had only just entered
Canaan in the late 13th century BC [e.g. Garner: 32-33].
The argument is
weak for two reasons. Firstly it overlooks the fact that in the biblical period
the name "Israel" was first and foremost the name of a people and not
of a state or territory. Hence an Egyptian scribe would have used the
"people" determinative even for a sedentary Israel. Secondly, it is
completely illogical to argue that if the Israelites were semi-nomadic in the
time of Merenptah they must have been newly-arrived. Having adapted to a
semi-nomadic lifestyle during their wilderness wanderings, there is no obvious
reason why they should have reverted to a sedentary existence on entering Canaan.
They may well have retained a semi-nomadic lifestyle until external factors
(such as the socio-economic changes which took place at the end of the LBA)
forced change upon them. Furthermore, some recent studies of the final strophe
of Merenptah's inscription actually point to the conclusion that Israel
(whether semi-nomadic or settled) was a well-established force in Canaan by
Merenptah's reign, and had therefore been in the land for a considerable length
The final strophe
are prostrate, saying 'Peace!' Not one raises his head among the Nine Bows
Desolation is for Tehenu, Hatti is pacified, Plundered is Canaan with every
evil. Carried off is Ashkelon, Seized upon is Gezer, Yanoam is made
non-existent. Israel is laid waste, His seed
is no more, Hurru is become a widow because of Egypt. All lands together
are pacified, Everyone who was restless has been bound."
regarded the four names in the middle of this strophe as a list of minor
entities arranged in order from north to south: Ashkelon, Gezer, Yanoam, Israel
[e.g. Yeivin 1971; 30]. This implied that Israel was a fairly small group which
Merenptah had clashed with somewhere in the Galilee area. Recent analyses of
the structure of the coda lead to a different conclusion [Ahlstrsm &
Edelman; Stager; Wood 1987a]. The results of these analyses are reflected in
the way the lines are arranged in the rendering given above.  The coda has a chiastic or envelope structure which hinges on the
section marked C. Thus A1 mirrors A in referring to Egypt's traditional enemies
in very general terms; B1 mirrors B in referring to specific major entities; C
focuses on specific minor entities. Thus Israel features among the major
entities, keeping company with Tehenu (Libya), Hatti (Syria-Palestine), Canaan
(Western Palestine) and Hurru (another general term for Syria-Palestine or its
inhabitants). This is confirmed by the parallelism within section B1; Israel is
depicted as a bereaved father, in parallel with Hurru, a bereaved wife [Stager:
note 30]. In short, by Merenptah's day Israel was a well-established and
significant political force in the area, and cannot have been there for only a
short time. The inscription is therefore more in keeping with a 15th-century
date for the Exodus and Conquest than with a date in the 13th century.
This brings us to
the end of our investigation of the usual arguments for dating Israel's origins
in Canaan to the 13th century BC. To sum up: some of the old arguments for the
13th-century date have been eroded by more recent evidence, while some were
never very secure anyway; some evidence commonly employed in favour of the
13th-century date (the Iron Age settlements in the highlands and Merenptah's
reference to Israel) are actually more readily compatible with the 15th-century
date. This, of course, raises an important question: if Israel was in Canaan for two centuries before Merenptah's time,
why do we have no evidence for its existence during that period?
This is really two questions in one: why do we have no archaeological
evidence for Israel's existence in the land, and why do we
have no inscriptional references to Israel until the one left by Merenptah?
Both are readily answered. If the Israelites were semi-nomadic for the first two centuries of their existence in
Canaan, we would not necessarily expect
their presence to be attested archaeologically. In Palestine under the
British Mandate (i.e. during the first half of the present century) between
55,000 and 65,000 Bedouin lived in the Negev. I. Finkelstein comments:
"This population left almost no material remains, however; without
contemporary, documentary evidence, we would not know of its existence"
[1986:51]. We should not expect semi-nomadic Israelites to have been any
different in this respect. As for inscriptional references, the absence of such
before Merenptah's reign needs to be put in context. After Merenptah's
inscription of 1208 BC we do not encounter the name Israel again outside the
Bible until 853 BC, when the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III refers to "Ahab
the Israelite" [Pritchard 1969:278-79]. Israel certainly continued to
exist during the intervening three and a half centuries, and yet its name is
absent from the extant texts. Returning to the centuries before Merenptah, it
is possible that during that period the Israelite tribes were classed with such
wider non-sedentary groups as the shasu/sutu and 'apiru/habiru [Weippert
1979:33-34; Coote & Whitelam:106-109; Lemche:152-163]. In any case the
absence of specific references to an entity called Israel in that period cannot
be taken as proof that no such entity existed, as the later silence of three
and a half centuries makes clear.
PART TWO: THE SEARCH FOR A 15th CENTURY CONQUEST
When we look at
the archaeological history of Palestine as conventionally understood, we find
no evidence of a wave of destruction at the end of the 15th century BC which
could be interpreted as Israel's conquest of Canaan. However, about a century
earlier in the archaeological record we do find such a wave of destruction. This falls at the transition from the MBA
(Middle Bronze Age) to the LBA -- more precisely, at the transition from MBIIC
to LBI. At that time a great many of the fortress-cities of Canaan were
violently destroyed. Insofar as biblical cities have been confidently
identified and adequately excavated, almost all those which the Bible says were
taken by Israel were included in this wave of destruction. (The outstanding
exception is Ai, which will be discussed separately below.) I have argued in
detail elsewhere that these destructions are the missing evidence for Israel's
arrival in Canaan, and that they should be redated accordingly [Bimson
1981:119-223; Bimson & Livingston:51-52]. Some of the evidence for that
redating will be summarised briefly below. First we will see how well the
destruction of one particular MBIIC city correlates with the biblical
A test case: the
destruction of MBIIC Jericho.
account of the destruction of Jericho is particularly rich in detail, while the
site of Old Testament Jericho has been confidently identified and extensively
excavated. We therefore have an opportunity to compare the biblical account
with archaeological discoveries in a way which is not often possible. We find
no less than five points of correspondence:
1) Like most
cities constructed in the MBII period, Jericho was very strongly fortified
[Kenyon 1957:218-220]. It therefore satisfies the biblical picture of a secure,
walled city (Joshua 2:5,15; 6:1).
2) It was
nevertheless destroyed, and its destruction involved a violent conflagration
[Kenyon 1957:259-60]. This corresponds to the fate of Jericho in Joshua 6:24.
3) Some of its
buildings collapsed just before they were burned [Kenyon 1981:370]. This
suggests earthquake activity [Wood 1987b], as does the collapse of the walls in
Joshua 6:20. 
4) Storage jars
well-stocked with grain were found in the excavated buildings [Kenyon
1957:230], showing that the harvest was either underway or recently completed.
The Israelites took Jericho at the time of harvest according to Joshua 3:15.
Incidentally, Egyptian tactics would typically have been very different from
those of Joshua, namely to lay siege to a city shortly before harvest, when the
previous year's supplies were depleted (thus forcing an early surrender of the
city), and when the standing grain could be used to feed the Egyptian troops if
the siege was protracted. The timing of Jericho's destruction therefore goes
against the usual view that it fell in an Egyptian campaign [Wood 1987b].
5) The latest
tombs of the MBA city contained multiple burials indicating that some
catastrophe had caused a high death-toll shortly before the city was destroyed.
Kathleen Kenyon, the excavator of these tombs, ruled out warfare (because there
were no signs of wounds on the skeletons) and famine (because of various signs
that the city was well-supplied with food, e.g. the jars of grain mentioned
above) and concluded that some kind of plague had affected the city's
population shortly before it fell to enemy (in her view Egyptian) attack
[Kenyon 1957:254-55]. It is striking that the Israelites were affected by a
plague shortly before launching their attack on Jericho, while they were
encamped on the opposite side of the Jordan at Shittim (Numbers 25:9). The Israelite
spies who penetrated the city in preparation for the attack (Joshua 2:1) may
have carried the infection from Shittim to Jericho (or vice versa, since the
order of events is not explicit in the biblical account). In any case, two
cases of plague in a limited area is of significance for a theory which would
make them synchronous events [Bimson 1981:121-22].
In the case of Jericho there are therefore very good grounds for
identifying the destruction of the MBA
city with the Israelite capture of Jericho recorded
in the book of Joshua. However, standing in the way of the identification is the conventional
dating of the fall of MBA Jericho at least a century before the biblical date
for the Conquest. We therefore need to ask: How secure is the dating of the
destructions which occurred at Jericho and many other sites at the MB/LB
accepted dating of the MB/LB transition depends largely on the assumption that
the destructions which occurred at that time mark the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt and a subsequent Egyptian
campaign of retaliation throughout Palestine [e.g. Dever:174-175]. This
scenario has resulted in the destructions being given a round date of 1550 BC,
though the new and lower dates for the 18th Dynasty now preferred by many Egyptologists
would place them nearer to 1500 BC [Bietak 1988:54]. In fact there is no
evidence at all to link the destructions with Egyptian campaigns against the
Hyksos [Bimson 1981:132-40;1987], and so a major plank for dating the MB/LB
transition is actually a piece of fiction.
I will not repeat
in detail here the arguments in favor of redating the MB/LB transition to
shortly before 1400 BC. Briefly, two lines of recent research converge in
support of such a revision. One is the chronological research of M. Bietak, the
excavator of Tell ed-Dab'a in Egypt's Eastern Delta. At this site a Middle
Bronze culture closely related to that of Palestine is represented in
archaeological contexts datable by Egyptian finds. On the basis of his
excavations Bietak would lower the dates for the period known as MBIIB by
roughly a century [Bietak 1984]. In Palestine MBIIB is followed by MBIIC, the
final phase of the MBA. In Egypt the equivalent of MBIIC is a very short
period, ending with the expulsion of the Hyksos (now to be dated between 1530
and 1515 BC [Bietak 1988:54], but in Palestine, as is well-attested at sites
such as Shechem, it must have lasted at least a century and probably more. As
far as Palestine is concerned, Bietak's radically low dates for MBIIB therefore
push down the end of MBIIC as well.
would lower the MB/LB transition in central Palestine to 1459 BC.  This is because he attributes the destructions which marked the
transition to Thutmose III, whose campaigns began in that year according to the
low chronology. However, Egyptologist J. Hoffmeier has shown that, contrary to
popular opinion, the campaigns of Thutmose III did not cause widespread
destruction in Canaan [Hoffmeier, forthcoming]. Other destroyers of the MBIIC cities must therefore be found, and a
date a few decades later than Bietak's would allow us to identify their
destroyers as the incoming Israelites. 
A later date than
Bietak's becomes increasingly likely in the light of the second piece of
research to be mentioned here. In a recent re-examination of the pottery from
the MBA city at Jericho, B. G. Wood
has shown that the city actually continued to thrive somewhat into the LBI
period before it was destroyed [Wood 1987b]. This conclusion is radical enough
by itself, but it opens up an even more radical possibility. Wood's conclusion
is based on a careful study of local Palestinian pottery from the site, whereas
previous work on Palestine's ceramic chronology has given more weight to
imported wares. It may be that other cities supposedly destroyed at the end of
MBIIC should also have their lives extended into LBI. This possibility needs to
be tested by means of a detailed comparative study of pottery from a whole
range of sites, applying Wood's dating criteria.
conclusions of Bietak and Wood put the dating of the MB/LB destructions back
into the melting-pot. Both studies imply a later date for those destructions
than has conventionally been entertained. Bietak's work places the MB/LB
transition later than has previously been suspected, while Wood's findings may
require us to place the major wave of destructions some way into LBI instead of
at the MBIIC/LBI transition. While it is too early to be dogmatic, it does seem
likely that either Bietak's evidence, or Wood's evidence, or some combination
of the two, will allow (or even require) us to date those destructions late in
the 15th century BC. With the Israelite Conquest assigned to shortly before
1400 BC, and with the wave of MB/LB (or in Wood's view LBI) destructions
redated to correlate with it, the biblical tradition is archaeologically
attested at every site where a city said to have been destroyed by the
Israelites has been confidently identified and adequately excavated. This
statement would not win universal assent, however; many biblical scholars and
archaeologists would object that it is not true of the city of Ai, the city
which Israel took immediately after Jericho according to Joshua 7:2-8:29. This
city deserves a separate discussion.
of Bethel and Ai.
Ai lay in the
central highlands, not far from Bethel and roughly to the east of it (Genesis
12:8). With Bethel confidently identified with the site of Beitin, Ai has been
identified with Khirbet et-Tell, the only site east of Beitin which has clear remains
from the Old Testament period. However, these remains do not indicate
occupation at the time of the Conquest. There is no evidence of any occupation
at Khirbet et-Tell between the end of the Early Bronze Age (around 2300 BC) and
the beginning of the Iron Age (c. 1160 BC) when a small, unwalled village,
typical of the period, was established on the ancient mound. Israel's capture
and destruction of Ai has therefore been a longstanding problem for scholars
who have tried to correlate the biblical traditions with archaeological
evidence. Furthermore, it remains a problem within the revised framework
proposed here, since the gap in occupation at Khirbet et-Tell includes the
whole of the MBA.
In recent years, however, a possible solution has
emerged. This stems from D. Livingston's bold proposal [1970; 1987] that Beitin
is not the site of biblical Bethel. Livingston points out that Beitin's
location does not fit the biblical requirements for Bethel very well. There is
no mountain between Beitin and Khirbet et-Tell, as there should be between
Bethel and Ai (Genesis 12:8), and Beitin is rather too far north to fit neatly
into the line of border towns between Benjamin and Ephraim listed in Joshua
16:1-3 and 18:12-14. Furthermore, Beitin does not fit the location of Bethel
described by the early Christian authors Eusebius and Jerome. Eusebius (AD
269-339) wrote a work known as the Onomasticon which
was subsequently revised and amplified by Jerome (AD 345-419). This gives the
location of various biblical sites in relation to contemporary landmarks,
including Roman milestones. According to the Onomasticon,
Bethel lay at [or near] the twelfth Roman milestone from Aelia [Jerusalem,
renamed Aelia Capitolina by the emperor Hadrian], on the east side of the road
leading north to Neapolis (i.e. Old Testament Shechem, modern Nablus). In the
last hundred years a number of the Roman milestones along this road have been
discovered. Their locations make it quite clear that the Beitin lay near the
fourteenth milestone, not the twelfth. In other words, this evidence agrees
with that of the biblical boundary lists in showing Beitin to be too far north for identification with Bethel.
Ironically, it was
a rather loose application of the Onomasticon which led
to the identification of Beitin with Bethel in the first place. In 1838 the
American biblical scholar and explorer Edward Robinson estimated the distance
between Beitin and Jerusalem by the time it took him to make the journey on
horseback, concluding that it lay the correct distance north of Jerusalem to be
biblical Bethel [Robinson 1856:449-50]. Modern measurements with odometer, and
the discovery of some of the Roman milestones, show that he simply
underestimated the distance. Beitin is too far from Jerusalem to be Bethel if
Eusebius's information is correct.
If Beitin is not
Bethel, what is it? It is certainly a significant site, with archaeological
remains from virtually all of the Old Testament period. It may be the site
of biblical Bethaven. Its name
is a possible reflex of Bethaven (spelt Bethaun in the Onomasticon),
and there is no evidence to stand in the way of the identification. But if
Beitin is Bethaven rather than Bethel, where is Bethel? A site which fits
Eusebius's location of Bethel (i.e.
near the twelfth Roman milestone north of Jerusalem) is present-day el-Bireh. The twelfth Roman milestone
itself has never been found, but the 3rd, 4th and 5th have, along with another
from Khirbet esh-She which unfortunately lacks an inscription. The locations of
the 3rd, 4th and 5th indicate that the one found at Khirbet esh-She must have
been the 11th. This place lies south of el-Bireh, putting el-Bireh near the
twelfth milestone [Livingston 1987].
El-Bireh has never
been excavated and the existence of a thriving modern town makes excavation
unlikely. However, a surface-survey of the highest point in the town produced
pottery from most of the major archaeological periods, suggesting the site was
an important one in Old Testament times. The early Christian pilgrim Egeria,
who visited Palestine in the fourth century, has left an account which confirms
the location of Bethel at el-Bireh rather than Beitin. She says that
twenty-eight miles south of Neapolis lay a village called Bethar, and a mile
south of that "the place where Jacob slept on his way from
Mesopotamia" -- i.e. Bethel (Genesis 35:1-15); twelve miles further south
lay Jerusalem [Wilkinson 1971:155]. This makes sense if Bethel stood at present-day
el-Bireh, for the village she calls Bethar would then be Eusebius's Bethaun and
biblical Bethaven; if Bethel is located at Beitin, there are no ruins north of
it to equate with Egeria's Bethar. 
If we accept
Livingston's arguments and locate Bethel
at el-Bireh (for which the evidence
seems overwhelming), does this help us find an alternative location for Ai?
Livingston himself has combed the area east of el-Bireh very thoroughly and has
suggested identifying Ai with a small site known as Khirbet Nisya. This fits
the requirements of Genesis 12:8 in that a significant mountain lies between it
and el-Bireh. The terrain also makes detailed sense of the accounts of the
Israelite attacks on Ai in Joshua 7 and 8.
conducted a number of short excavation campaigns at Khirbet Nisya since 1979
[Bimson & Livingston 48-51; Livingston 1987]. Detailed publication of the
finds is still forthcoming, but two major facts have emerged, one favouring the
site's identification with Ai and one weighing against it. In favour is the
pottery record from Khirbet Nisya. Pottery has been found from the
Chalcolithic, Early Bronze I, MBII, LBI, Iron Age I and II, Persian,
Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Early Arabic periods. These finds cover all
the periods when Ai is known to have been inhabited according to the Bible and
Eusebius. It is particularly significant that there was a settlement there in
MBII, and that at the transition to LBI (or shortly thereafter) the site was
abandoned. This correlates well with a destruction and abandonment of Ai at
theMBII/LBI transitional period.
On the negative
side, no building remains have yet been found from that period, even though Ai
appears from the biblical account of the Conquest to have been a fortified town
(Joshua 7:5; 8:29). Nor has any trace of a destruction level been discovered. A
possible explanation for this may lie in the activities of the Byzantine and
later inhabitants, who converted the entire hill into farming terraces,
re-using building remains to construct the terrace walls and removing ancient
occupation levels to provide the fill behind them. (Indeed, it was in the
fill of one of the terraces that much of the MBII pottery was discovered in the
1985 season.) From the point of view of the ancient farmers this vastly
improved the site's agricultural potential, but from the archaeologist's point
of view it may have been a gross act of vandalism, removing all evidence that
the MB II settlement was a walled town. In more recent centuries wind and rain
have contributed further to the process of denudation. If this is not the explanation
for the lack of building remains and traces of burning, we must conclude that
Ai has not yet been found. On the other hand the possibility always remains
that some traces of buildings and fortifications still await discovery at
Khirbet Nisya during a future season of excavation.
The small size of
Khirbet Nisya may also seem to stand against its identification with Ai, and so
a word needs to be said about this. Livingston has estimated that the area
containing occupational debris (chiefly pottery) is about seven acres
[Livingston 1980:24]. Even if we assume an occupation density of 200 people per
acre (which is rather high for an ancient settlement of the type characteristic
of biblical Palestine), this gives us a population of only 1,400 people. The
Old Testament, on the other hand, speaks of Ai as having 12,000 inhabitants
(Joshua 8:25), implying a truly vast city. However, before Livingston suggested
locating Ai at Khirbet Nisya, J. W. Wenham [1967: 21, 26, 41] had argued that
the original population figure for Ai must have been 1,200, which had been
distorted by a factor of ten through textual corruption. Wenham points to
Joshua 7:3 as support for the smaller figure: the Israelites sent to
reconnoitre the town suggest to Joshua that he should send only two or three
thousand men to capture it, because its inhabitants "are but few".
This certainly does not sound like a description of a town of 12,000, which
would have been relatively huge in the Old Testament period. (For comparison,
Jericho, with an area of no more than 10 acres, would have had a population of
between 1,600 and 2,000 if present estimates of population density are
dependable.) Furthermore, Ai is said to have been smaller than Gibeon (Joshua
10:2); the tell of Gibeon has an area of 15 acres, so Ai must have been smaller
than that. In these respects the site of Khirbet Nisya is actually a good
candidate for Ai.
Khirbet Nisya is undoubtedly a better candidate for identification with Ai than
is Khirbet et-Tell. It has the correct topographical relationship to the true
site of Bethel, is the right size and was occupied at the right periods. But
whether or not Khirbet Nisya is the true site of Ai, it is clear that we are no
longer compelled to look for Ai at Khirbet et-Tell. It followsthat the gap in occupation at Khirbet et-Tell is not
evidence against the historicity of the Conquest, nor does it weigh against our
theory for placing the Conquest at the MBII/LBI transition.
Writing of the
difficulty of establishing, with any degree of confidence, that any given
archaeological evidence pertains to Israel's entry into Canaan, H. D. Lance
remarks: "If the biblical list of cities destroyed by Joshua could be
correlated site by site with massive destructions at the end of the Late Bronze
Age, one could begin to find the probabilities persuasive. But no such
correlation exists" [Lance:64]. His final comment is true of the situation
at the end of the LBA, as we have seen; but it is not true of the situation at
the end of MBA, when enough correlations exist to make the probabilities very
persuasive indeed. It is undoubtedly true that the failure to find such
correlations in the past has contributed to a radical skepticism concerning the
traditions of Israel's origins in Canaan. Perhaps the future recognition of
such correlations will lead eventually to a rehabilitation of those traditions.
1. In this
paper I consistently adopt the "ultra-low" chronology for New Kingdom
Egypt, currently gaining in popularity among Egyptologists. [See Kitchen
1977/78; various papers in Astrsm 1987].
2. The short
(between one and two years) reign of Ramesses I fell only fifteen years before
the reign of Ramesses II. The theory of some scholars [Courville: 118-122;
Merrill:107; Dyer:226-27] that other pharaohs with the name Ramesses ruled in a
much earlier period are not supported by inscriptional evidence and are totally
3. If Tell
el-Maskhouta is preferred as the site of Pithom, lack of 18th Dynasty remains
at that place should not be seen as evidence against a 15th-century Exodus. As
noted above, no remains have yet been found of 18th and 19th Dynasty
installations referred to in Egyptian texts and inscriptions. Lack of remains
from the 15th-13th centuries therefore has more to do with conditions at the
site than with the site's occupational history.
4. Goedicke in
personal correspondence dated 9th September 1987.
5. For details,
with references, see Bimson 1981:188-196 and (brief, but more up to date)
Bimson and Livingston:40-41.
arrangement of the lines is also indebted to a forthcoming study by W. H. Shea.
7. For further
possible evidence of earthquake activity at the end of the MBII city, see
8. Bietak in
personal correspondence dated 17th March 1987.
9. Bietak has
recently resisted my suggestion that the date of the fall of the MBIIC cities
could be dated to the late 15th century BC [Bietak 1988]. My reply to Bietak
will appear in Biblical Archaeology Review 14/6
10. I am
indebted to David Livingston for the information contained in this paragraph.
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