The Emergence of the Israelites: an Archaeological Perspective


In a previous post, I discussed the Exodus myth and the archaeological evidences (and lack thereof) associated with the period. I recall a comment on the post on another blog somewhere that noted my use of the phrase “[t]he same progenitor peoples of the modern day Israelites and Palestinians” with regard to the Canaanites. The commenter remarked how this was becoming more and more accepted and the reason is because of the work of archaeologists like Israel Finkelstein, who are objectively weighing the evidence and letting their conclusions arise after going where the evidence takes them.

Below the fold, I’ve presented a summary of some of their findings, which, as far as I can tell, haven’t been successfully refuted by those that have an agenda rooted in Biblical mythology.

Several hypotheses exist to explain the emergence of the Israelites in Canaan, among them are:

1) The Biblical hypothesis: after their escape from Egypt and having wondered the desert, the Jewish people began a campaign of conquest led by Joshua at around 1230 – 1220 BCE.

2) The Peaceful Immigrant hypothesis: the suggestion that Israel conquered Canaan through gradual immigration into the region rather than abrupt and violent military conquest.

3) Peasant Revolt hypothesis: which provides an explanation that the Israelites emerged as peasants who overthrew their Canaanite masters through a religious revolution in which they developed a monotheistic religion that provided an egalitarian set of laws regarding social conduct, replacing the complex pantheon of Canaanite religious belief.

The Biblical account is very often the one taken at face-value and without question. Indeed, many archaeologists have proceeded in both the past and the present with the assumption that Israel was conquered by force as the Israelites took Canaan from its inhabitants. This conquest is preceded by the story of Exodus, in which the Israelites are chased out of Egypt as by the Pharaoh’s army as they escaped across the Red Sea and into the Sinai Peninsula. It is natural, perhaps, to associate this story with the Egyptian story of the Hyksos, since they, like the Israelites, are of Semitic origin and were “chased” out of Lower Egypt by the Pharaoh. From about 1668 – 1565 BCE, Canaanites occupied the Delta and ruled Lower Egypt. Manethos referred to them as heku-shoswet, and, Hellenized, it became “Hyksos,” which means rulers of a foreign land. This later became a general Egyptian term for Asiatic foreigners.

The Hyksos had a distinctive Canaanite pottery and architecture, which is present in the archaeological record and, according to the Turin Papyrus, they ruled Lower Egypt for 108 years. One of the most prominent of their rulers was Apophis and their capital was Avaris, known today as the archaeological site Tell Daba’a.

Pharaoh Ahmose I (18th Dynasty) sacked Avaris and chased the Hyksos to southern Canaan to their fortress, Sharuhen near modern day Gaza. Ahmose laid siege to the fortress for three years before he stormed it. From that point, the Egyptians maintained tight control of the border between Eastern Egypt and Canaan. The Hyksos story, however, takes place 119 years before Exodus is alleged to have occurred, so it either isn’t the same group of people or the story survived as an echo of its original, degraded through time and embellished to retell the episode as a story of success rather than failure.

This is the first of Two parts (it ended up being too lengthy to toss out all at once) and, in the second/final part, I’ll discuss the Merneptah Stele, the alleged military campaign of Joshua at Jericho, Ai, etc., and the archaeological evidences of settlement patterns in the Levant, particularly the highlands of Canaan.