The Emergence of the Israelites in Canaan: Part II

In Part I of this two part series, I discussed a few of the hypotheses that exist to explain the emergence of the Israelites in the Canaan highlands (there are others, but I mentioned three of the more prevalent ones); I also discussed, briefly, the Hyksos, which comes up from time to time in looking at the Israelite question as it relates to Egypt.

Another frequent topic when ancient Egypt is discussed regarding the Israelites is the Merneptah Stela. Read below the fold to continue the second part…


At around 1207 BCE, a stela was inscribed by Merneptah at Thebes, which mentions Israel.

The Princes are Prostate, saying ‘Peace!’ Not one raises his head among the Nine Bows. Lying broken is Tehenu; Hatti is pacified; plundered is Canaan of 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 because of Egypt!

The stela, inscribed in Egyptian hieroglyphs, represents the first known historical mention of Israel as an entity. The sign for ysrir, or Israel, has a determinative that includes a throwing stick and a seated man and woman over three strokes, which signify foreign people. The determinatives for the other entities mentioned include the throwing stick and the sign for city/state/land, giving Israel in this stela its own, separate determinative and indicating that Israel was not a state, city or land, but, rather, a socio-ethic group living in Canaan at around 1207 BCE.

But at what point did this group, assuming it is the same group of people, dominate the highlands of Canaan and become known as the Israelites of the nation of Israel?

Looking back at the Biblical account of the Israelite conquest, Joshua’s campaign began with the city of Jericho, whose walls were felled after the Israelite army blew trumpets and shouted them down with the assistance of the Ark of the Covenant, carried into battle as a weapon employed against the Canaanites who were occupying the land promised to the Israelites by God. Once Jericho was conquered, the Israelites then moved on to other targets: Ai, Gibeon, Lachish, Hebron, Debir, Hazor, and others.

Even if the supernatural components are selected out of the story, it’s easy to see how scholars would be tempted to accept the Biblical stories of conquest as metaphorical and embellished accounts of actual events. But the archaeological evidence doesn’t appear to support the Biblical account. Most of the cities mentioned in the Biblical account were already abandoned settlements by the time Joshua’s campaign was supposed to have occurred. Jericho, Ai, Gibeon and others were apparently unoccupied by the Late Bronze Age. They each showed signs of occupation in the Middle Bronze Age as well as the Iron Age I (2200-1550 BCE and 1150-900 BCE, respectively), but were each unoccupied during the Late Bronze Age (1550-1150 BCE) when Joshua was supposed to have mounted his campaign. Economic collapse of urban settlements had already taken place in the Canaanite Highlands just as it had in other parts of the Mediterranean world.

There is also a lack of discontinuity in the archaeological record at the sites mentioned in the Biblical account. In other periods and other places, clear discontinuities are present when one culture invades and occupies another which include drastic changes in pottery styles, architecture, and destruction levels. The one discontinuity that is consistently noted, however, is the clear lack of pig bones in early Israelite settlements of the Iron Age I. Pig bones are recovered in the Highlands in previous periods as well as those sites East of the Jordan river and of the Philistines along the Mediterranean coast contemporaneous to Early Israelite settlements. This is indicative of a clear socio-ethnic identity for Israelites in the Iron I, but the question remains, where did they come from.

Finkelstein and Silberman (2001) describe the settlement patterns in the highlands of Canaan as being cyclic. The first wave of settlement occurred in the Early Bronze Age and consisted of about 100 sites which were abandoned in a settlement crisis more than a thousand years later during the end of the EBA. The crisis only lasted about 200 years or so and the new settlements at the beginning of the Middle Bronze age were double in number of the previous wave. A new settlement crisis occurred in the 16th century in the Late Bronze Age, leaving only a couple dozen settlements until the Iron Age I, when around 250 settlements emerged first with small rural communities that later developed into more complex cities with market centers and small, peripheral villages. The complexity in the highlands at this time coincided with the development of agricultural practices which made better use of the land, cultivating olives and grapes.

In the few settlements that remained during the crisis cycles, cattle bone numbers drop and the numbers of ovicaprids like sheep and goats increases, suggesting a switch to a more pastoralist lifestyle. Indeed, the early Israelite settlements resemble nomadic encampments of the 19th century where Bedouins created an oval encampment of tents with an open, central courtyard that contained their livestock. The Iron Age I phase at Izbet Sartah presents a plan of buildings in an oval formation with the same open, central courtyard. The number of rooms in the settlement is similar to the number of tents that were present in 19th century Bedouin encampments and similar oval settlements have been found in Iron I sites in the central highlands as well as the Negev and these oval settlements predate the pillar houses of later, more well-to-do Israelites. Even the earliest Israelite settlements were situated in near the desert fringe, affording opportunities to conduct both pastoralist as well as agriculturalist subsistence strategies, consistent with the finds of silos, sickle blades and grinding stones within the large oval courtyards.

It seems clear that the Israelites conquered their Canaanite ancestors not through miraculous, sun-stopping military campaigns and wide-scale genocide, but by overcoming the limitations that their Bronze Age ancestors had as Canaanite agriculturalists. In reestablishing settlements in a region abandoned for more flexible subsistence strategies of pastoralism, the Israelites created a new dawn of civilization in the highlands of Canaan. They created an ethnic identity by establishing a taboo on pork, which may have simply resulted from a taboo on raising pigs since they compete with humans for food. This simple taboo is the oldest archaeologically attested cultural practice in the region and may have led to the establishment of cultural boundaries which still affect the region today.


Finkelstein, I. (1996). Ethnicity and Origin of the Iron Age I Settlers in the Highlands of Canaan: Can the Real Israel Stand Up? Biblical Archaeologist, 59(4), 198-212.

Finkelstein, I., & Silberman, N. A. (2001). The Bible Unearthed, Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. New York: Free.

Hasel, M. G. (1998). Israel in the Merneptah Stela. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 296, 45-61.

About Carl Feagans 398 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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