Archaeology and Israelite origins – the good news about the Book of Joshua

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by Neil Godfrey

Joshua and the Israelites crossing the Jordan
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The good news is that there was no military invasion of Canaan and no mass genocide of Canaanites by the Israelites under Joshua. God is off the hook on this one.

Israel Finkelstein, Professor of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, writes in The Quest for the Historical Israel (2007):

The progress in archaeological and anthropological research between the 1960s and 1980s brought about the total demise of the military conquest theory. (p.53)

He sums up 5 strands of archaeological evidence against the biblical conquest story.

  1. Key sites in the Book of Joshua’s conquest account — such as Jericho, Ai, Gibeon, Heshbon, Arad — were either uninhabited or insignificant small villages during the time of the Late Bronze Age.
  2. The collapse of the Canaanite Late Bronze Age city system was a gradual process over several decades — according to new finds at Lachish and Aphek, and reevaluations of the evidence from the older studies at Megiddo and Hazor.
  3. The collapse of the Late Bronze Age Canaan was part of a wider phenomenon that embraced the entire eastern Mediterranean.
  4. Egypt’s control of Canaan through the Late Bronze and early Iron Ages was strong enough to have prevented the sort of invasion depicted in the Book of Joshua.
  5. The rise of villages in the central hill country of Palestine has been found to have been “just one phase in a long-term, repeated, and cyclic process” of an alternating nomad-settlement pattern of Palestine’s inhabitants. It was not a unique event signalling the influx of a new ethnic group.
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6 thoughts on “Archaeology and Israelite origins – the good news about the Book of Joshua”

  1. Actually the book I used for those points contains paired chapters by Finkelstein and A. Mazar. So Mazar is something of a “response” to F. Mazar suggests that there was an influx of some new ethnic group over time but that the occasional conflict was over time exaggerated to the story of the full scale invasion we read in the book of Joshua. This sort of “argument” strikes me as special pleading.

    I don’t think those 5 lines of archaeological evidence are controversial anymore, except maybe among fundamentalists. They represent the work of many archaeologists over last few decades.

    I’d like to eventually put up more thorough notes from studies since the 1990’s here or on my vridar.info page. Still need to complete the P. Davies notes there. But I used Finkelstein here because he’s less controversial than Davies et al.

  2. Oh, my bad. I misread and thought it was the Bible Unearthed. I’m about half way through that one and was looking for the one you’ve brought up here.

    I’m still actually curious as to what the fundamentalists would say. Think I did some searches a few weeks ago and didn’t find anything to go on.

    I really wish the material in these books was presented as a college course or something, because I have a hard time digesting it without being able to ask questions as it goes along. :S


    1. That review is pretty close to what I thought of the book when I read it a little while back now. The authors remind me of Dever in his book, “Did God Have a Wife?”. They begin by stressing the necessity of relying first and foremost on the archaeological evidence, as opposed to the biblical narrative, but conclude by paraphrasing the biblical narrative without any, or very scant appeal to archaeological evidence. As a layman I don’t quite know what to make of this two-faced style. I’m more persuaded by the so-called “minimalist” case that sees more reason to relate stories of early conquests to the Maccabean period. Will do my own review of Bible Unearthed one day when time etc permits.

  3. It is interesting how humanity has changed. Back then they made up stories about murdering, raping, committing genocide to make their tribe look cool. Now, when people do do these things they make up stories claiming the opposite and depicting themselves as benevolent. My how times have changed.

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