A multitude of evidence shows that the Israelites were one of the peoples inhabiting Ancient Palestine, also known as Canaan. However, there is some controversy about how they arrived there. The traditional viewpoint, based on the Bible, is that the Israelites conquered Canaan after coming up out of Egypt.
However, more recent scholars have argued that the Israelites were native Canaanites who gradually developed a unique culture. A similar viewpoint holds that the Twelve Tribes of Israel might have had diverse origins and were simply united, gradually, by a single religion. What does the evidence really show? Did the Israelites really conquer Canaan or not?
The traditional conquest narrative
The traditional narrative of the Israelite conquest of Canaan comes from the Bible Book of Joshua. In the preceding books, the Bible explains that the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt but then left in a grand Exodus around 1500 BCE under the leadership of Moses. After living as nomads in the Sinai wilderness for a few decades, the Israelites began to conquer Canaan under the leadership of Joshua.
The Israelites first laid siege to the powerful city of Jericho, which was near the territory’s border. According to the Bible, the walls of the city miraculously collapsed. Some scholars have understood this as a reference to an earthquake. After this, the Israelites fought wars against various Canaanite city-states, many of which fought in alliance against the Israelites.
The Israelites quickly made considerable progress throughout Canaan. During this initial stage of their occupation of the land, they destroyed and burned Jericho, Hazor, Ai, and Dan. The Bible does not specifically mention the burning of other cities, although many others were defeated and conquered.
For the next few centuries, the Israelites engaged in a long and difficult power struggle against the native Canaanites and other surrounding nations, such as the Edomites and Moabites. Various Canaanite city-states still existed, and sometimes they dominated the Israelites. Eventually, in the eleventh century BCE, the Israelites developed a powerful monarchy.
Why some scholars say that the Israelites did not conquer Canaan
In recent decades, many scholars have objected to the traditional narrative of the Israelites conquering Canaan. The reasoning is that there appears to be little evidence of the conquest and appearance of a new culture in Canaan in the fifteenth century BCE.
On this basis, some scholars believe that the Israelites were simply native Canaanites who gradually formed a unique culture. This would explain the apparent lack of evidence for a major, sudden entry of a new ethnic group in the land. For similar reasons, other scholars have suggested that each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel had separate origins and that the development of a new religion was what brought them together.
One supposed problem is the fact that Jericho was apparently not even an inhabited city in the fifteenth century BCE, when the Israelites allegedly destroyed it. Similarly, Ai had been destroyed and left uninhabited long before that century. Regarding Dan, there is supposedly no evidence of a destruction layer dating to that time.
Scholars also argue that the traditional narrative would leave evidence of new settlements, building and pottery styles, and other traces of the arrival of a large group of people who had a different culture.
What evidence we should not expect to see
One issue that somewhat complicates the debate is that battles themselves often do not leave archaeological traces. For example, the famous Battle of Hastings in England in 1066 is archaeologically invisible. Similarly, Julius Caesar’s two campaigns into Britain in the first century BCE have left virtually no archaeological evidence either.
Therefore, we cannot realistically expect to find evidence for the narrative of the Israelites fighting and defeating Canaanite armies. To be sure, many of the battles described in the Bible concerning this initial phase of occupation involved fighting across an open battlefield.
Likewise, once a Canaanite army from a particular city was defeated in battle, the Israelites would have been able to take that city without much trouble. Therefore, in such cases, there would not be any evidence of violence in the city.
Evidence the Israelites did conquer Canaan
However, the Bible does describe the violent destruction of four cities: Jericho, Hazor, Ai, and Dan. Apart from Hazor, none of these appear to show a correspondence with the Bible in their respective archaeological records.
Nonetheless, things are not so simple. In the case of Ai, for example, the site that has traditionally been identified with it very obviously does not match the Biblical description. For this reason, some scholars have suggested that Ai should actually be identified with a different archaeological site. There is, in fact, a nearby settlement which matches the Biblical description of AI and which displays evidence of destruction by fire in the fifteenth century BCE.
In the case of Dan, recent research has revealed evidence of a destruction layer dating to the right time period. In a publication written in 2021, one researcher wrote:
“As the transition emerged from the MBA to the LBA endogenous structures began to collapse…coupled with exogenous factors such as the Egyptian excursions where an occupation destruction level…was suggested at Dan around the 15th century BCE (Scheepers & Scheffler 2015:24).”
Regarding Jericho, more recent research has revealed that the date assigned to the destruction layer in the twentieth century was based on a misinterpretation of the pottery evidence. A reanalysis has shown that the destruction event actually occurred in the fifteenth century BCE.
Where is the evidence of a new culture?
This evidence is significant. All four settlements that the Israelites allegedly destroyed when they conquered Canaan really were destroyed in the fifteenth century BCE. This provides strong evidence that the traditional narrative is historical. However, if the Israelites really did conquer Canaan, then where is the evidence for the sudden arrival of a large group of people and a new culture?
Discussions of this issue generally miss what the Biblical narrative really says. Just before the Israelites began their conquest, Moses told them that God would give them:
“great and fine cities that you did not build, houses full of all sorts of good things that you did not work for, hewn cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant.”
According to this, the Israelites would take over control of cities that were already there. This statement emphasizes the fact that they would receive cities, houses, goods, and other things without needing to work for these things. Joshua 24:13 confirms that this is exactly what happened. Therefore, the lack of a sudden change in material culture is precisely what we would expect.
Furthermore, the Israelites had allegedly just recently come up out of Egypt. Their own unique culture must have looked very Egyptian (aside from religious elements). Since the Egyptians were already active in Canaan at that time, the Egyptian-style material culture used by the Israelites would be effectively invisible to modern archaeologists.
In conclusion, there is still considerable debate over this issue. Some scholars support the traditional narrative, while others do not believe that the Israelites conquered Canaan. The objections to this narrative include the apparent lack of evidence for the destruction of certain key cities. However, more recent research indicates that all four cities that the Israelites allegedly destroyed really were destroyed in the fifteenth century BCE.
There is also the issue of the lack of evidence for the arrival of a new ethnic group. Yet, the Biblical narrative does not indicate that the Israelites would introduce a whole new material culture. Rather, they would continue using what was already there. Furthermore, the material culture of the Israelites would have been highly Egyptianized. This would have blended in with the material culture of the Egyptians whom we know were active in Canaan in that era.