|Hess, Richard S. "Early Israel in Canaan, A Survey of Recent Evidence and Interpretations." In Israel's Past in Present Research, Essays on Ancient Israelite Historiograhy, V. Philips Long, ed., Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1999. 492-518. Originally published in Palestinian Exploration Quarterly 125 (1993): 125-42.|
Early Israel in Canaan
A Survey of Recent Evidence
RICHARD S. HESS
|[] The purpose of this essay is to consider the
present interpretations of the early period of Israel and to assess their
likelihood in relation to the extrabiblical and biblical evidence. That
a change has taken place concerning the evidence and its application is
suggested by the opinions of two historians. The first reflects a view
more than ten years old. The second represents a recent view.
Our knowledge of the fortunes of Israel during the initial phase of her life in Palestine comes almost entirely from the book of Judges. Since this book presents us with a series of self-contained episodes, most of which cannot be related to external events with any precision, to write a continuous history of the period is impossible. Nevertheless, the impression one gains—of continual if intermittent fighting, with peaceful interludes alternating with times of crisis both external and internal—is a thoroughly authentic one. It tallies perfectly with the archaeological evidence, which shows that the twelfth and eleventh centuries were as disturbed as any in the history of Palestine. (Bright 1981: 176)
or even as valuable, as a schematic, generic picture of early Israel based on archaeology and analogy. . . . The agenda, I believe, for using such new evidence must pay close attention to these three issues: the Bible is to be critically discounted, Israel is to be defined politically, and the analytical standard for early Israel is to be a generic political history articulated in comparative terms. (Coote 1991: 43-44)Is this change in the evaluation of the historical worth of the Biblical evidence legitimate? Does it reflect the development of theory or of evidence or the intrusion of other factors? Is it right that the Bible should now be discounted as a source for early Israel?
This essay will restrict itself to sketching some of the major trajectories which scholarship has taken and to highlighting some of the most significant historical sources which have had an impact on the interpretation and reconstruction of the period represented in the Bible especially in the books of Joshua and Judges. An interim assessment will conclude the study.
Israel’s Formation as a Nation:
Archaeological and other social science disciplines have attempted to identify the origin of the Israelites once they settled in Canaan.1 This has resulted in a number of theories, which can be broadly grouped into two categories, according to whether or not the Israelites originally came from outside Canaan or from within Canaan. According to [[the Conquest and Peaceful Infiltration theories]], they came from outside Canaan. According to [[the Peasant Revolt and Pastoral Canaanites theories]], they came from within Canaan.
The first twelve chapters of the book of Joshua present the primary interpretation of Israel’s appearance in Canaan as one involving the defeat and conquest of the Canaanite cities. Some of the archaeological evidence from major sites, such as the thirteenth century B.C. destruction layer at Hazor, does seem to point to such an interpretation (Yadin 1985). Nevertheless, there [] are problems with this view. Many sites mentioned in Joshua have shown no archaeological evidence of having been destroyed
1. Lemche (1991a) has recently challenged the application of the terms "Canaan" and "Canaanite" to their traditional regions and peoples in the second millennium B.C. However one regards his interpretation of the biblical evidence, his conclusions require a particular interpretation of the references to Canaan in Egyptian sources and especially in the Amarna correspondence. Cf. my forthcoming review in Themelios [[(Jan., 1993) 24]].
|during this period. Dever (1992: 548) notes 19 sites
with possible identifications in Joshua. Of these, he finds only 2, Hazor
and Bethel, to have evidence of destruction layers in the thirteenth century
B.C. However, it may be that the accounts in Joshua describe the defeat
of coalitions of kings but not necessarily the destruction of the cities
they represent (11:13 and 12:7-24).
What about Jericho? This city has posed a problem for the Biblical account since Dame Kathleen Kenyon overturned the dates of John Garstang and established that there is virtually no evidence for habitation on the site during the time of Israel’s entrance into Canaan, whether one accepts a fifteenth—fourteenth century B.C. date or a thirteenth—twelfth century B.C. date. Recent studies of the evidence from the excavations have not changed this opinion (Bienkowski 1986). Instead, they have confirmed the existence of a dwelling site and a few tombs.
The absence of walls in the Jericho of the time of Joshua is one example of the problems encountered in correlating the biblical and archaeological data. However, it should be noted that the absence of Late Bronze Age walls at major Canaanite sites is not limited to Jericho. For example, Gonen (1984: 69-70) has observed that, while both Megiddo and Hazor possessed monumental gates during this period, in neither case was the gate found to be attached to a wall. She suggests there may have been a fortified palace or the gate may have been ceremonial. Thus the lack of discovery of Late Bronze Age walls at Jericho does not in itself say anything about the occupation of the site at that time, a fact which is noted by A. Mazar (1990: 331), "The archaeological data cannot serve as decisive evidence to deny a historical nucleus in the Book of Joshua concerning the conquest of this city."
The one other site to which a great deal of attention is given in Joshua is Ai. The absence of Middle or Late Bronze Age occupation has long been used to criticize the reliability of the conquest model of interpretation. Long ago Albright concluded that the account describing the destruction of Ai was originally based on a description of a military engagement with Bethel and later transferred to Ai, as an etiology to explain the meaning of the name, ‘ruin’. Studies have challenged the traditional equation of an etiology with lack of historicity and called into question assumptions about the symbolic nature of etiologies in which the name must always precede the event (Childs 1974 and his review of research; van Dyk 1990). This provides opportunity to examine in a fresh light the suggestion that the ruin "Ai" might have been a ruin in the thirteenth century and the Early Bronze Age wall, still present, could have functioned as "a stronghold for villagers in the region if attackers came up from the Jordan Valley" (Millard 1985: 99).
|This may be related to a problem which Dever (1991: 83)
has noted for the Conquest Model. It has to do with the lack of fortifications
in the small villages which appear in the hill country of Palestine in
the twelfth century and which have been identified with early Israel (see
below). Those that have been excavated reveal a lack of fortifications.
This argues against a warlike conquest. It should be noted, though, that
Khirbet ed-Dawwara and possibly Giloh do have fortifications, although,
in the case of the former, they are not dated by Finkelstein (1990b: 197)
before the mid-eleventh century. Finkelstein suggests a similar function
for Khirbet ed-Dawwara as Millard does for Ai, a fort protecting the inhabitants
of neighboring non-fortified sites in times of emergency. Future excavations
may reveal the existence of additional fortifications of this sort.
Earlier in this century Alt (1989) proposed a new interpretation of the evidence. He suggested that Israel’s origin is to be found in wandering semi-nomadic clans who peacefully entered the [] land and settled in the hilly country which was unoccupied. Brought together into a loosely knit association by a group of Yahweh worshippers from the desert, and perhaps ultimately from Egypt, this group populated the hill country and eventually grew strong enough to band together and to gain dominance in the rest of the land, during the period of the Monarchy.
This theory has certain advantages, given the existence of semi-nomadic groups attested in this area of the world throughout history and the fact that the earliest settlements of Israel probably were in the hill country. Nor is it without Biblical testimony. The Biblical text describes a "mixed multitude" which left Egypt (Exod 12:38). The possibility of foreign groups joining in with Israel on its journeys and after its entrance into the land might be remembered in the references to the Midianites (Numbers 22-25), the Kenites (Judg 4:11; 1 Sam 15:6), the Gibeonites (Joshua 9), and others. Further, there are records of areas of the hill country, such as the region around Shechem, which Israel is portrayed as occupying in the book of Joshua (8:30-35; 24:1, 32), but for which there is no account of conquest. This may attest to a peaceful settlement in such an area. Advocates of the peaceful infiltration hypothesis have recently emphasized the continuous presence of nomadic groups living in symbiotic relationship with the settled inhabitants throughout the Fertile Crescent. These groups could easily move into the hill country of Palestine and occupy it during the period in question.
There is increasing evidence to suggest that groups of settlers in the hill country came from the north, as well as from the east and south. At this time the Sea Peoples (including Philistines) and the Arameans were
|migrating. The collapse of the Hittites and the destruction
of sites such as Ugarit may have stimulated northerners to migrate to the
south, especially in the Jordan Valley, where archaeological and onomastic
evidence suggests the presence of Northern influence (Hittite, Hurrian,
and Indo-Aryan) for the fourteenth century (Hess 1989). The Bible preserves
evidence of such "northerners" in Hivite Shechem (Judg 9:28), Luz/Bethel
(Judg 1:22-26) in ethnic names ending in -zzi (e.g., Perizzites), and in
the name of Araunah in Jerusalem (B. Mazar 1981). Burials in storage jars,
reflecting customs from the last period of the Hittite empire, have, been
found on and near the coast (Tell Nami, Tel Zeror, Azor), in the Jezreel
Valley (Kfar Yehoshua), at Tell el Farca
(North) in the hill country, and at Tell es-Sacidiyeh
in the Jordan Valley (Gonen 1992: 22, 30, 142-44). It is possible that
the bull figurine found in a cult site on a hilltop east of Dothan in the
territory of Manasseh has origins to the north of Canaan (cf. Ahlström
1990b). All the evidence points to a presence in the hill country of other
non-indigenous peoples, whether or not they were among those who subsequently
The migration of other groups at approximately the same time as Israel’s appearance in Canaan has long been observed. Specifically these are the Philistines and the Arameans. This additional evidence for the presence of northern groups in the hill country suggests that Israel could have been one among many wandering peoples in the thirteenth Century B.C. The argument that none of the hill country settlers could have migrated from the east or southeast because they were unaware of technology for settlement in the hill country (i.e., storage pits and terracing, cf. Lemche 1992: 538-39) must answer the objections that (1) the knowledge of such techniques extended beyond the borders of Canaan and (2) such settlers did not live in isolation from native elements in the hill country (Finkelstein 1990a: 683-84).
There are problems with particular aspects of the peaceful infiltration theory, especially the view of a religious association of tribes, based on the number 12 and on a common sanctuary. This model, called an amphictyony, was imported from descriptions of tribal leagues of Classical Greece. It has been shown to be anachronistic and incompatible with the evidence from the Bible and from archaeology (see the critique of Gottwald 1979). However, this does not deny the presence of a federation of tribes and a common worship center, such as may be found [] in Joshua 8 and 24 and in 1 Samuel. The theory of Alt continues to enjoy influence (cf., e.g., Fritz 1987 and Rainey 1991).
Data. The impetus for this approach comes from the changing archaeological interpretation during the past two decades. Traditionally,
|when any new cultural element appeared in a land, the
archaeological assumption was that this signaled the presence of a new
people. For a long time, archaeologists identified the coming of Israel
with the appearance of particular types of private houses, particular types
of storage jars, and a particular means of storing water at the archaeological
sites in the land of Canaan (Albright 1961). The house was the "four-roomed
house," the jars was the collared-rim pithos, and the water storage method
was the plaster-lined cistern. However, evidence for these types of cultural
features has now been found in earlier strata of archaeological sites as
well (Mazar 1990: 338-48).
For example, Schaar’s survey (1991) of the evidence for the origins of the "four-room house" which appears Ca. 1200 B.C. suggests that it has cultural antecedents in earlier Canaanite dwellings and in nomadic structures (cf. Dever 1991: 82). He argues it can no longer be considered a determinative means by which the appearance of Israel can be defined. However, this is not the view of Finkelstein (1988: 258-59) who would date all such houses after 1150 B.C. and assign this distinctive style of architecture to "the influx of settlers into the hilly regions of the Land of Israel at that time."
Recent studies of the data by Esse (1991; 1992) have confirmed that the collared-rim pithoi are determinative for the early Iron Age Canaanite/Israelite/other culture(s) of the Palestinian hill country and of the Transjordan hills. This may be compared with the distinctive ceramic culture usually attributed to the Philistines (and other Sea Peoples) which appears along the coastal plain and in the Western Jezreel Valley (though Raban  notes that collared-rim pithoi are found here as well). The important point is that the material culture is distinctive to a particular region (i.e., the hill country), not necessarily to a particular ethnic group (e.g., Israelite rather than Canaanite).
Both terracing and cisterns of some sort were in use as early as the MB IIC, as evidenced by settlements in the western slopes of the hill country where both were needed (Finkelstein 1988-89: 144). Albright (1961:341) had formerly attributed cisterns to the period of the coming of the Israelites. Instead, it is now necessary to look for evidence of a different sort.
Theory. Various theories of the social sciences have attempted to come to terms with the archaeological, biblical, and historical data. A significant representative of these theories is that which posits a peasant revolt which took place against the oppressive Canaanite aristocracy which maintained its cities at the cost of sizeable expenditures for defense in the forms of city walls, large buildings, and weapons, and for paying tribute to Pharaoh, who was maintaining an empire in this land. Such expenditures would come from the labor of the lower classes who may have been gradually dispossessed and turned into serfs and then into virtual slaves.
|Whether the revolt was a more dramatic assault on the
upper classes (Gottwald 1979), or whether it simply involved the gradual
movement of individuals and groups of dissatisfied people into the hills
(Mendenhall 1983, who emphatically denies the peasant revolt hypothesis),
there was a change and it brought about a change in living. In the hill
country, where the chariots and other weapons of the city-state armies
could not reach (Josh 17:14-18), it was possible to have simpler defenses
and to live in smaller communities without costly walls, palaces, and other
large buildings. The impression created in the excavation of these villages
is one of an egalitarian society, certainly more so than one finds in the
socially stratified larger towns located in the lowlands. []
Evaluation. This new approach has caused the re-evaluation of much archaeological and Biblical evidence. The Biblical texts also identify the appearance of groups such as the Gibeonites who ally themselves with Israel although they are already in the land. In addition, we may suppose that, as with the narratives concerning David who was joined by many drifters and other dispossessed peoples when he fled from Saul, so early Israel was joined by many who found here a more desirable community in which to live. Finally, we should note that, as with the evidence from archaeological surveys, so the Bible records some of the earliest settlement activities of the Israelites in Canaan as taking place in the central hill country north of Jerusalem and south of the Jezreel Valley. However, the reasons for the evidence of the society as egalitarian may be due as much to the scarcity of food and natural resources as to any ideology. Indeed, the application of Marxist models to explain a phenomenon about which we know little may be anachronistic. It is this aspect of Gottwald’s theory which has come under the heaviest attack.
From an anthropological standpoint, Lemche (1985) has severely criticized Gottwald. He argues that nomads do not need to have an egalitarian system of rulership, that sedentarization is not necessarily an advance on nomadism, and that farmers and urban dwellers are not necessarily opposed to one another. The use of a "heuristic model" to explain a society is illegitimate because it implies that societies will behave in predictable patterns, given the presence of certain phenomena (1992: 532-33). It is not possible to rule out immigration or conquest models on the basis of the little we know of early Israelite tribes. Although Lemche (1988: 110- 17; 1991b: 14-16) would deny value to any of the early Biblical traditions, others would not agree. For example, Mayerson (1990: 271 n. 14) has suggested that early Biblical narratives "provide a fairly accurate tableau of ancient nomadic and semi-nomadic lifestyles and attitudes."
From an archaeological perspective, the assumption that every ethnic group must have a distinct, archaeologically observable culture is not well
|founded. First, consider the example of the Philistines
which is sometimes cited to demonstrate a distinct culture. The traditional
evidence used to identify the Philistines, for example pottery, anthropoid
coffins, and cultic assemblages, has been shown to not be distinctive to
the Philistines. They are part of the coastal culture of all the peoples
of lowland Palestine in Iron Age I (Bunimovitz 1990). Their use by the
Egyptians in residence in Palestine (Bergoffen 1991) may explain their
appearance in Jordan Valley sites of the twelfth and eleventh centuries,
rather than the hypothesis of the presence of Sea Peoples in these places
(Negbi 1991). Although some evidence exists for a distinct Philistine culture
with origins in the Aegean, the exercise suggests it is premature to require
that one be able to identify unique archaeological evidence for every ethnic
group. In a wider context, Isserlin’s (1983) comparison of early Iron Age
Palestinian culture with a variety of other archaeological evidence from
invading groups of different times and places leads him to conclude that
the appearance of external groups does not require distinctive ceramic
or other archaeological evidence.
Second, comparative studies of pottery and architecture in modern Cypriote village life have demonstrated that diversity in these features implies nothing about ethnicity. It only demonstrates that different lifestyles have requirements distinct to each community (London 1989, but cf. the critique of Finkelstein 1991 on some specific points).
Finally, in Israel’s case, there are several factors which suggest that there would be little in the way of a distinctive archaeological assemblage. The Bible and archaeology attest to Israel’s West Semitic origins, similar to all Canaanites in the land. Add to this the point of Rainey that a nomadic people would naturally adapt to the settled culture as they spent time in the same region. Thus the conclusion of Esse (1991; 1992: 103) that there is not a clear ceramic (pottery) [] distinction between Canaanites and Israelites is not surprising. Additionally, Israel’s tradition of an anti-iconic cult would leave little in the way of distinctive material evidence for religious identification.
Ecological/Economic Factors. Whether or not other theorists would classify their view as a variant on the peasant revolt model, some are similar insofar as they ascribe an economic motive to the appearance of Israel. Some views would find that political factors, such as the decline of the Egyptian empire in Palestine, are decisive, but all insist that the elements essential to early Israel’s constitution are non-religious and unrelated to anything found in the biblical account. Coote and Whitelam (1986; cf. also Strange 1987) advocate this perspective. It is also found with Stiebing (1989: 186-87) who summarizes:
It was the growing frequency of drought—and the crop failures and hunger it brought with it—that set in motion the internal strife, warfare, plague, piracy, destruction of cities, decline in population, inflation, and population movements. . . . The widespread drought might very well have been largely responsible not only for the destruction of most of the Canaanite cities, but also for the creation in Canaan of detached groups of seminomads, refugee peasant farmers, and occasional bands of brigands who, together with a small contingent of escaped slaves from Egypt, would join to form the Israelite tribes.The application of economic, ecological, and international political forces to understanding the history of population shifts in Palestine is important in understanding the changes in the political life of the societies there (Thompson 1992a; [[1992b]]). Thompson (1992a: 13) argues that the complexities of these forces renders doubtful the simple equation that drought produces nomadism while plentiful rain results in sedentarization.
A dramatic change took place during the thirteenth and twelfth centuries B.C., the time when most scholars understand Israel to have appeared in the land of Canaan. This change is marked by the pattern of settlement throughout the land. In the period before Israel appeared in the land, Canaan was characterized by a few larger cities or city-states. In the period after Israel’s appearance, the hill country of Canaan became occupied by many small villages. For example, in the area of the hill country allotted to the tribe of Ephraim, surveys have located 5 sites occupied in the Late Bronze Age, but 115 in Iron Age I (cf. Finkelstein 1988-89: 167). This change is the most distinctive alteration in what happened in the land. The evidence examined is quite dramatic. Such a change does not, require the entrance of external peoples, for there is no new cultural form which must be traced from outside the land. Instead, this change may be simply a shift in the living patterns of inhabitants already in Canaan.
This view, now promulgated by Finkelstein, understands the Israelites as originally Canaanites. However, they did not come from the urban environment of the Canaanite city-states. Rather, they were the same peoples who lived in settlements in the hill country in the Middle Bronze Age. Internal factors caused them to abandon their settlements in the Late Bronze Age. They wandered about with flocks and herds from summer to winter pasturage and back again. Both regions of pasturage were located in the hill country west of the Jordan River. The presence of the nomads is attested by burials (esp. the large family tomb at Dothan) and cult centers (e.g., Shiloh), but they did not leave behind permanent settlements. At the end of the Late Bronze Age various circumstances, especially the
|droughts already mentioned as well as the disruption
of Egyptian hegemony in Canaan, led to the loss of the grain surplus which
the (fewer) sedentary communities had been able to produce throughout the
Late Bronze Age (Finkelstein 1990a: 685). This required the settlement
of the pastoralists in villages throughout the hill country.
[] The settlement process, as observed by Finkelstein in the southern hill country (i.e., that occupied by the tribe of Ephraim), was one in which people settled in the eastern areas first. The eastern areas are the best suited for cereals and pasturing, such as we would expect for a pastoral people. The western areas, which would sustain horticulture, were settled later. Thompson (1992a: 12 n. 48) has challenged this interpretation as based on circular reasoning, although he does not provide details as to the specific problems in Finkelstein’s chronology. More significant is his conclusion that the highland settlers were not re-sedentarized nomads but lowland inhabitants who were dispersed eastward (1992a: 10-11). This does not explain the evidence of the burial sites and cult centers noted above, but it does suggest an additional source for the sudden increase in population in the hill country (though insufficient as the sole source, cf. Stager 1985a: 83,).
The settlement patterns may identify the presence of a group known as Israel but they may also identify the presence of other newly settled groups in the thirteenth and twelfth centuries B.C. Whether or not Zertal (1991[[a]]) has found a pottery distinct to early Israel, both those who hold to the Conquest model and those who affirm the peasant revolt approach will agree that Israel could be expected to have a culture similar to that of hill country Canaan. This is true whether or not the Israelites were direct descendants of wandering groups in the hill country. Even if they entered the land from outside, they came as a group ethnically related to the West Semitic presence which dominated Palestine and the eastern Mediterranean throughout the second millennium B.C. (or at least before 1200 B.C.).
Aspects of each of the models may be attested in the biblical accounts of early Israel (cf. Halpern 1983 on the first three models). Aspects of each of them may well have been true in some measure.
1. Recent research has demonstrated that Joshua 9-12, in its form, structure, and themes, is identical to other historical/ideological conquest accounts found among the Hittites, Egyptians, and Assyrians (Younger 1990: 197-237). Thus it is not necessary to understand these chapters as a theological interpretation of a class revolt (Brueggemann 1986), or as modeled only on Neo-Assyrian accounts (and therefore necessarily late, so
|Van Seters 1990). Instead, they could reflect the sorts
of skirmishes which peoples who were beginning to settle in various areas
2. Other elements, both from outside and from within Canaan, became attached to any people who might be designated as Israel. In Joshua this is reflected in accounts concerning Rahab and concerning the Gibeonites. As already noted, the archaeological evidence in the hill country also attests to peoples from the north and from elsewhere.
However, there is no substantial evidence for an egalitarian origin to these texts (as argued by Gottwald 1979 and Brueggemann 1986). Indeed, Younger’s careful comparison with other ancient Near Eastern sources leads him to conclude (1990: 255):
The historical narrative in which Joshua 9-12 is cast utilizes a common transmission code observable in numerous ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts, employing the same ideology. Since the ideology which lies behind the text of Joshua is one like that underlying other ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts—namely, imperialistic—then "egalitarian, peasant" Israel is employing a transmission code (a "communicative mode") which is self-contradictory.3. Thus to accept all the models to at least some degree is not simply to opt for a "middle of the road" position but to affirm the diversity of human motivations and social action involved in the [] process of becoming a people. Israel’s (re)appearance in the thirteenth century or earlier may have led to the establishment of a religious faith which brought together other "tribal" groups and so led to the formation of the people of Israel in Canaan.
4. Such an interpretation preserves an understanding of the Conquest. As already observed this has a strong tradition in the variety of literatures preserved in the Old Testament. This in itself raises a fundamental question as to the interpretation of biblical historical accounts. This question has been addressed by the Assyriologist W. W. Hallo in his 1989 presidential address to the American Oriental Society. He argues (1990: 193-94; cf. also the comments of A. Malamat ):
The Biblical record must be, for this purpose, scrutinized like other historiographical traditions of the ancient Near East, neither exempted from the standards demanded of those other traditions, nor subjected to severer ones than they are. . . . Unless one rearranges the Biblical evidence, like Sean Warner, or utilizes it eclectically as Norman K. Gottwald has essentially done with his reinterpretation, one can hardly deny the reality of a conquest from abroad, implying a previous period of wanderings, a dramatic escape from the prior place of residence and an oppression there that prompted the escape.
|The conclusions which the evidence suggests is that the
biblical evidence does not perfectly coincide with any of the models proposed.
In itself this neither "proves" nor "disproves" these accounts. The biblical
material serves purposes other than those which the modern historian may
seek. Therefore, it is not surprising that coincidence is not perfect.
An example of this difficulty in matching contemporary records and archaeological
data may be found in R. Jacoby’s comparison (1991) of the cities which
Assyrians conquered and their depiction on reliefs. Although it is not
a written source, what is distinctive and what is conventional is not obvious
to the casual viewer of a relief with no training in Assyrian styles of
representation. The same is true of the written records.
In addition to the site excavations and the survey data, there are several other pieces of evidence which need to be considered, as they may critically affect our understanding of early Israel.
Evidence from Egypt
The Merneptah Stele
The earliest mention of the name of Israel occurs on a victory stele erected by pharaoh Merneptah ca. 1207 B.C. It has been translated as follows (Wilson, in ANET, 378):
The princes are prostrate, saying: "Mercy!" Not one raises his head among the Nine Bows. Desolation is for Tehenu; Hatti is pacified; plundered is the Canaan with every evil; carried off is Ashkelon; seized upon is Gezer; Yanoam is made as that which does not exist; Israel is laid waste, his seed is not; Hurru is become a widow for Egypt!There are three groups of proper names which are divided by the determinatives associated with each name. There are the city-states Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yanoam. There are the lands or territories of Tehenu, Canaan, Hatti, and Hurru. A third type of determinative identifies a people or ethnic group. Only one name is associated with it, Israel.
In studying this passage, some have suggested that Israel is in parallel with one of the other place names in the inscription. This would be important for the interpretation of the text. Some have seen it in parallel with Canaan, arguing that it is another word for a place rather than a designation of a people (Ahlström and Edelman 1985). Others have related it to Tehenu and Hatti, as equivalent to these "superpowers" in terms of its military might (Bimson 1991). On the basis of its proximity in the text, Stiebing (1989: 51-52) has suggested that Hurru is a more [] likely parallel. All of these proposals are inconclusive owing to the variety of
|possible ways to analyze the few lines of this poem,
itself an addendum to a longer text.
However, no one has proved that “Israel” in the Merneptah stele should be regarded as a place name rather than an ethnic term. It is not enough to argue that patriarchal names were often place names or that the determinative for an ethnic group, which accompanies Israel on the stele, can sometimes be interpreted as a place name (Ahlström 1991: 27-31). One must explain why Israel is given a determinative distinct from that assigned to place names for lands and from that assigned to place names for towns or city-states. Kitchen (1966: 59 n. 12) refuted attempts to identify this name in Merneptah’s stele with any population group other than Israel. More recently, Rainey (1991; 1992) has replied to the specific claims of Ahlström and Edelmn.
The Karnak Battle Reliefs
Related items regarding early Israel are some battle reliefs at Karnak. Formerly, these were assigned to Ramses II. However, Yurco (1990; cf. Stager 1985b) has re-analyzed them and concluded that they should be ascribed to the reign of Merneptah.
The reliefs contain four scenes. The lower right scene is clearly a scene of a battle with Ashkelon. The name of the city is provided. Two of the remaining scenes portray battles with cities. Their names are no longer visible. The upper right is mostly destroyed but it appears to be a battle scene in the open country. Yurco relates these reliefs to Merneptah’s stele. If Ashkelon is one of the cities portrayed, he argues that the other two cities should be Gezer and Yanoam. The scene in open country would then be Israel. If so, the portrayal suggests that it possessed chariots and infantry to enable it to fight on the lowlands. It was not confined to the hill country.
Rainey (1991; 1992) has rejected this interpretation on the basis that a tribal Israel of this period would not have chariots and that the clothing of the people in the scene is that of Canaanites. As observed above, Rainey does not understand the Israelites as Canaanites, but as pastoralists from outside the country. He prefers to identify Shasu groups from adjacent scenes as Israelites, arguing that the Israelites were Shasu, i.e., pastoralists, with a distinctive type of clothing. Yurco (1991) has replied that the people in these scenes are explicitly called Shasu, never Israel (in the preserved fragmentary texts). Yurco does not believe that the Israelites came only from Canaan, but allows for elements external to the land. Whichever identification of the panels is correct, Israel does appear in the Merneptah stele as a foe whom Merneptah takes pride in claiming to have defeated.
Diachronic. The text of the Merneptah stele portrays Israel as strong and associated with other powers and with major city-states of Canaan. The events described by the book of Joshua suggest, as we have seen, a stronger unified people, involved in successful battles. However, in the Judges period, Israel is confined to the hill country with little military might. For example, Judges 5 describes Deborah’s, forces as a tribal confederation of pastoralists and farmers. In Judg 1:19 we read:
The Lord was with Judah. He drove out the inhabitants of the mountains. But he could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley because they had chariots of iron.Is the earlier, stronger Israel a reflection of the period of Joshua and the weaker Israel a reflection of its later weakness?
Zertal’s survey work in the eastern hill country of the tribal territory of Manasseh has led him to conclude that a new culture with new settlements appeared in the thirteenth century. He [] identifies this as the earliest Israelite settlement in Palestine. Further, he relates Josh 17:14-18 to this and concludes that originally the Josephite tribes (= Ephraim and Manasseh) as well as other tribes appeared here in Palestine and settled. This region became overpopulated and so Manasseh moved south and the other tribes began to move into their tribal allotments. The earlier more unified phase (with the religious center at Shechem) may have been the period of greater strength as suggested in Joshua and in the Merneptah stele. The later dispersal of the tribes may have led to a period of some weakness and vulnerability which led to oppression such as is suggested in the book of Judges. Indeed as Israel spread across Palestine and Transjordan they would begin to encounter more of the groups mentioned in Judges.
Synchronic. An alternative way of viewing the Biblical accounts in Joshua and (especially the first chapter of Judges) is to see them as reflecting two perspectives on similar events. Liverani (1990: 13-29) has analyzed Ancient Near Eastern documents of the contemporary period (1600-1100 B.C.) and has argued that they can be divided into two groups according to the ideological purpose which they serve. There are those whose purpose is to demonstrate how great the nation’s leader, gods, and people are. These view all international events in terms of prestige. They emphasize the strengths of the particular nation concerned and serve to promote its policies through convincing its citizens of its inherent value. The second group of texts are those which are prepared for purposes of international diplomacy and correspondence. These are concerned to
|elicit the interest of other nations in supporting the
particular nation concerned in trade, in peaceful relations, or in disputes
with a third party. Liverani refers to these as serving purposes of interest
rather than prestige. A nation can describe the same event from two different
perspectives according to the purpose which the documents are to serve.
Perhaps Joshua and Judges can be viewed in a similar manner. So understood, Joshua reflects traditions of prestige in which there is a desire and concern to demonstrate the superiority of God’s chosen leader and people against all enemies. Such a document could arise and find use in contexts concerned with persuading the nation to fight and with assuring them of divine support in their struggle against the enemy. On the other hand, Judges 1ff. may represent a view of the same and subsequent events from a tradition which was concerned with peaceful cohabitation (or, more accurately, mixing together) with a variety of groups, for example those northerners who shared the highlands with Israel. Its accounts are thus nuanced with both military failures and successes. This interpretation requires further development in its application to the books of Joshua and Judges. It may be suggested here as one means of relating these books and the events behind their records to the extrabiblical data and to the models which have been proposed to explain it.
Another item of extrabiblical evidence is a site which Zertal (1986-87) discovered on Mount Ebal. The identification of the purpose and use of this site could have some relation to early Israel. Mount Ebal contains three peaks. On the lowest peak, a site was found, which Zertal dated to the thirteenth and twelfth centuries B.C.
The site is on a stony hilltop which is crossed by a stone wall. No building was found in the outer court. There is an inner enclosure wall, encompassing the higher northern part. There are three steps at the entrance to this area. Although sites from the Persian, Roman, and later periods have been found at Mount Ebal, the mountain contains no other sites from the Late Bronze or Iron Ages. Two levels were found at the site. They are dated on the basis of Egyptianized scarabs, a small decorated limestone “seal,” and the pottery which was found in [] the excavations. The earlier level ends ca. 1200 B.C. and the later level terminates ca. 1150, when the site was abandoned and never resettled. The adjacent hill makes it possible for many people to gather and view what is happening.
Excavations revealed a central complex, a western wall with an entrance, and an outer enclosure wall. In the central complex were found two layers of ash with some 2,862 bones (Horwitz 1986-87). Ninety-six percent of the bones were those of sheep, goats, cattle, and fallow deer. West of what seems to be an altar were two courtyards. The major concentration of animal bones was found at the altar. One hundred and twenty-eight bones were burnt and 25 had cut marks. A large percentage of bones of fallow deer were found. Horwitz (1986-87: 187) concludes that we have here “a pastoral economy based primarily on caprovine herding and to a lesser extent cattle. In addition, the high proportion of hunted animals (fallow deer) supports the hypothesis of a nomadic or semi-nomadic society.” The area was not a food producing place. No sickle blades were found, unlike all other contemporary sites.
There has been an attempt to interpret these remains in the context of the dietary regulations of early Israel. The sheep, goat and cattle bones found reflect animals whose consumption was in accord with the biblical dietary laws as found in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. It is not clear whether the bones of the fallow deer should be associated with the species of “deer” mentioned in Deut 14:5, which are permitted for consumption. However, such evidence does not automatically identify a site as Israelite. The example of the Late Bronze Age Fosse temple at Lachish, should be kept in mind. Although no one suggests that this temple has anything to do with what becomes Israelite cult, a similarity with biblical dietary legislation is attested by the presence of sheep and goat bones only (Tufnell 1967: 301).
The earlier, thirteenth-century, level included a round installation with ashes and animal bones, which was found at the center of the twelfth-century structure. About 1200 B.C., with no indication of a violent disruption or break, the larger structure was built. Zertal compares the first phase with what has been identified as a sacrificial altar in a contemporary installation at Tel Qasile. The second level of occupation lasted for about fifty years and then it was abandoned without any indication of what happened. No figurine was found, but jars, bowls, jugs, and cooking pots were found nearby in small installations. Zertal compares these with votive offerings known from other Syro-Palestinian sites about this time and with the biblical practice of bringing such offerings to a sacred site (1 Sam 1:24; 10:3). North of the courtyard Zertal identified a “ramp” going up to the structure. He also found a “veranda” around the top of the altar. He
|suggests that it could be used for cultic functions,
such as sprinkling blood on the four corners of the altar.
The dominant type of pottery changes between the two occupation levels. There is three times as much pottery in the later phase. However, the material culture does not otherwise appear different. Twenty percent of the pottery found is peculiar to the area occupied by the Israelite tribe of Manasseh. It appears at the beginning of the thirteenth century B.C. and disappears at the end of the twelfth century B.C. Its presence throughout this region is such that a movement from east to west has been detected. The abandonment could be related to the beginning of the Israelite settlement at Shiloh, where the Bible records the establishment of a sanctuary by Israel after entering the land.
Is This the Altar of Joshua?
[] This interpretation has not gone unchallenged. A. Kempinski (1986) has sought to identify the site as a watchtower. The excavator, A. Zertal, disputes this interpretation, however. The rough stones for the “altar,” the context of an area capable of handling a large public gathering, the type of animal bones found in the area, the lack of any sizeable wall which could be used for defense, the lack of sickle blades, and the position for the structure away from the peak, where it would be if it were a watchtower, may suggest something else. Indeed, both pattern of settlement and the lack of evidence of warfare at the Mount Ebal site attest to the absence of need for such a military structure. Of course, that is not the same thing as saying it is the altar of Joshua.
Thus the identification of the purpose for this site remains a matter of dispute. On the one hand, we can ask what would one expect to find at the site of an altar as it is described in Josh 8:30-35. On the other hand, we can ask why there is not more evidence for the presence of cultic activity at this site. A. Mazar (1990: 350) observes, “Zertal may be wrong in the details of his interpretation, but it is tempting to accept his view concerning the basic cultic nature of the site and its possible relationship to the biblical tradition?” Such a site needs to be understood both in terms of a Palestinian context (e.g., the animal bones from the Fosse Temple at Lachish) and in terms of the biblical recollections.
Pre-Israelite Cult Center
The site identified with Shiloh has been excavated by I. Finkelstein (1985). A Middle Bronze Age shrine and a Late Bronze Age occupation with a pastoral population have been found. During the Late Bronze Age, Shiloh was a cult center without links to any permanent settlement. The animal bones found with the offering vessels are mainly those of sheep and goats, with a few cattle bones (the ratio of sheep/goats to cattle is 94 to 6). This is more suggestive of a nomadic pastoral economy than of a settled economy. As for the Shiloh of Iron Age I, Finkelstein (pp. 13 1-38, 169-70) did not find the cult center, but he did unearth stone-built pillared buildings containing storage vessels with an “exact north—south, east—west orientation.” From this he concluded that the buildings formed part of a larger public building complex which may have included the sanctuary of 1 Samuel 1.
Local or Intertribal?
Noth suggested that Shiloh was an intertribal cult center during the period of the Judges. Orlinsky, de Geus, Mayes, and de Vaux have argued that it was local. The archaeological/settlement evidence suggests that in the first half of the eleventh century B.C., when occupation at Shiloh peaked, Israelite settlement was underway in Galilee (especially the tribal areas of Zebulun, Naphtali, and Ramat Issachar; Gal 1992: 84-92), but only beginning in the Beersheba Valley, and, to a certain extent, in the Judean hills (Finkelstein 1988: 37-52). Insofar as the Galilee settlements included Israelites, Shiloh could have been a center for such groups as well as those groups in the older settlements of the central hill country. Finkelstein (1985: 170) observes that “the high level of planning and construction at Shiloh” suggests a sphere of influence beyond Ephraim to Benjamin and Manasseh. On the basis of Gal’s survey, parts of Galilee may also be included. Insofar as Israelite groups may be identified as tribal, Shiloh may have served as an intertribal sanctuary site.
The region around Shiloh represented a dense Israelite settlement area with a sparse Canaanite population. Shiloh flourished from the second half of the twelfth century B.C. to the first half of [] the eleventh century B.C., when it was destroyed, probably by the Philistines. Its size was comparable to larger villages such as Ai. Note that the cult site has not been found for the Middle Bronze, Late, Bronze, and Iron I occupations. It was probably on the summit and destroyed in subsequent occupations.
Given the predominance of sheep and goat bones at the sites of Ebal, Shiloh, and ed-Dawwara (northeast of Jerusalem; Finkelstein 1990b; Sa-deh 1990) in the twelfth century B.C., the relationship of this diet to the Bible and its contrast to surrounding cultures is observed in a cogent paragraph by Ashkelon excavator Stager (1991: 31; cf. also Hesse 1986):
Our staff zoo-archaeologists, Dr. Paula Wapnish and Professor Brian Hesse of the University of Alabama in Birmingham, have begun to document a rather dramatic shift in domesticated species at the end of the Late Bronze Age (13th century B.C.) and the beginning of the Iron Age (12th century B.C.). The shift is from sheep and goats to pigs and cattle. This shift occurred at Ashkelon and other coastal sites, but not in the central highland villages of the same period dominated by Israelites—settlements like Ai, Raddana and Ebal. From a strictly ecological perspective, this seems surprising. The oak-pine-and-terebinth woodlands that dominated the central hill country of Canaan, where the earliest Israelite settlements of about 1200 B.C. are to be found, are ideally suited for pig production, especially because of the shade and acorns. One reason why such a hogacorn economy did not thrive in the early Israelite environment must ultimately be rooted in very early religious taboos that forbade the consumption of pork.Stager goes on to point out how this evidence undermines various theories which require a later date for such dietary legislation among the Israelites as well as attempts to explain the prohibition of pork laws on the basis of ecological realities in the highlands. An understanding of these environmental factors further challenges theories that try to explain the absence of pig bones in the hill country as due to the dislike of these animals for “stony hills” (Ahlström 1990a: 92). Not only does this evidence provide a larger context for the animal bones from Zertal’s altar on Mount Ebal, it also enables us to understand better the inhabitants of the hill country Ca. 1200 B.C. and to relate them both to the “Israel” of the Merneptah stele and to the early Israel of the Bible.
Although provisional, a number of summary points can be made:
1. In Canaan a people known as Israel is attested in the Bible and as early as the thirteenth century B.C. in the Merneptah stele. The usage of the ethnic determinative with “Israel” is unique in the proper names detailed for this particular campaign. The name should therefore be identified as an ethnic group. To say that there was no political entity named Israel before the late eleventh century (Finkelstein 1991: 56) is true insofar
|as “political entity” is defined as an organized sedentary
state such as may be found described in the biblical accounts of the kingdom(s)
of Saul, David, and Solomon.
2. The Late Bronze Age and Iron Age I archaeological evidence in Palestine tells us little about the origins of Israel. The continuity of culture does not prove that Israel had its origins in Canaanites of the earlier periods (Gottwald 1979; Finkelstein 1988). Nor do the hints of Northern influence require assumptions about Israel’s origins as being from the north, such as from Bashan (Coote 1990; de Moor 1990). In fact, the cultural remains from this time may or [] may not be associated with Israel. However, the Merneptah stele and the archaeological evidence lead us to expect that at least some of the settlements in the hill country were identified by contemporaries as Israelite.
3. Aspects of the origins of Israel as suggested by the Bible are not disproven. This includes the following points: (a) that a group of slaves could have escaped from Egypt and made their way to Canaan; (b) that a group of nomadic tribal peoples could have entered and settled Canaan from east of the Jordan River; (c) that people in the hill country could have found themselves involved in competition for natural resources, in rivalry with other migrating groups and with existing Canaanite “city-states” and that this could have involved skirmishes and “wars”; and (d) that early Israel could have held to a faith in a deity known as Yahweh (cf. de Moor 1990).
4. Aspects of the origins of Israel as suggested by the interpretative models are not disproven. This includes the following points: (a) that early Israelites could have entered the land and been involved in the destruction of such sites as Hazor (Yadin; Frendo); (b) that nomadic and other peoples forced to flee for economic or political reasons, could have become Israelite at any time during its appearance and growth in Canaan (Alt); (c) that dissatisfied elements from Canaanite city-states could have become Israelites (Mendenhall and Gottwald); (d) that Egyptian “buffer groups” in Northern Palestine (Coote) or hapiru groups in Bashan, east of the Sea of Galilee (de Moor), could have become Israelite; and (e) that Middle Bronze Age hill country settlers who had taken on an “enclosed nomadic” existence during the Late Bronze Age (1550-1200 B.C.) could have “resedentarized” in the subsequent period and have become Israelites (Finkelstein).
5. Evidence for cult centers at Mount Ebal and at Shiloh, as well as details such as the diet of the hill country inhabitants, do correlate in a variety of points with the picture of early Israel’s worship as suggested both by Biblical law codes and by the narratives of Joshua, Judges, and the books of Samuel.
|6. Finally, a word should be said about the use of the
biblical accounts. Because one can demonstrate that an account is ideologically
biased or that it fits some Ancient Near Eastern literary form, one is
not then entitled to argue conclusions about its “historicity.” Again,
if one could date a particular text early or late, this in itself would
say nothing about its historical worth. Late texts may be of greater historical
worth than early accounts, and authors may elect to portray historical
events in literary form otherwise used to express fiction, or vice versa.
The analysis of ideological bias and literary form may be helpful in understanding the texts themselves, but they can say little about the date of the text or about its worth for reconstructing history. These depend more upon the nature of the interpreters themselves and the ideological, philosophical, and psychological dispositions which they bring to the study of the biblical texts and which they use to reconstruct Israelite history. Whether one understands the extrabiblical sources as little more than a commentary on the biblical text, whether one holds to notions of historical traditions embedded in later texts, or whether one discounts any historical value to the biblical account may have more to do with how and why one reads the Bible and with that community of readers where one has found or seeks to find acceptance. This observation is not intended to reduce the discussion of Israelite origins to a psychological or sociological determinism. Instead, it seeks to recognize how little we actually know about the world of ancient Israel (despite all the recent discoveries) and to urge caution concerning all the attempts to “prove” or to “disprove” the biblical accounts on the basis of extrabiblical evidence and of sociological models. []
Ahlström, G. W
Ahlström, G. W., and Edelman, D.
Albright, W. F
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|Richard S. Hess, "Early Israel in Canaan, A Survey of Recent Evidence and Interpretations," in Israel's Past in Present Research, Essays on Ancient Israelite Historiograhy, V. Philips Long, ed., Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1999, pp. 492-518. Originally published in Palestinian Exploration Quarterly 125 (1993) 125-42.|
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