Today I begin a short series on The Rise of Ancient Israel, which includes transcripts of lectures from an early ‘90s symposium. The lectures are by William Dever, Baruch Halpern, and Kyle McCarter. The book includes later written responses from other scholars who get a chance to answer critiques of their work in the lectures. At the end there is a transcript of a panel discussion.
There is an introduction by Hershel Shanks about where we are (or were) in the debate. It is a model for popular presentation of the problems involved in bringing together the Bible with the findings of archeology.
Shanks simplifies the problem down to the discrepancy between the impression given by the book of Joshua and that given by the Book of Judges. In Joshua we find Israel sweeping across the Jordan river and conquering Canaan in no more than about 5 years under the singular leadership of Joshua. In Judges (and some passages that seem to have gotten into Joshua too) we get the impression that the movement into Canaan took a lot longer and happened piecemeal under several leaders. The impression given by Judges seems to fit with archeological discoveries better than that given in Joshua.
But there have been several theories to account for this. The traditional conquest was widely supported by archeologists in the early 20th century who thought they had found a series of destruction layers in cities that the Israelites conquered about the same time. This has fallen apart as we now have to separate these destructions by decades or even centuries in the case of Jericho. Yet there are ways of imagining a violent conquest. Shanks mentions Abraham Malamat and Bryant Wood as two archeological scholars who support some kind of invasion theory.
There has been a peaceful infiltration model. Over a long period of time, former nomads from the desert homesteaded in Canaan without too much conflict with the Canaanites. Surveys enhanced this theory when they showed that the central hill country had close to zero settlement in the Late Bronze Age, but that more than 200 villages there sprang up at the beginning of the Iron Age.
There has been the peasant revolt or social revolution model. The Israelites were people whose origin was in Canaanite city states. They revolted against the feudal social structure and moved to the the hill country to set up a new, independent social structure, perhaps supported by a new religious ideology.
The archeological discussion has mostly assumed that we are talking about something that happened at the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age–about -1200–about the time of the Late Bronze Age collapse or decline of the great powers in the eastern Mediterranean..
Merneptah inscription complicates this. This Egyptian king took pride in a military defeat of Israel in the closing years of the 13th century. So Shanks says,
If Israel was already such a force in Canaan in 1212 B.C.E., then Israel must have been established there for some time.
This is inconvenient for the minimalists who want to say Israel only began with the monarchy. It is also inconvenient, I think, for all those who want to make the explosion of villages in the central hill country that took place in the next century the first instance of Israel.
It has been 15 years since this symposium. There is some new data. But, surprisingly, the positions outlined here are the ones we still find scholars entrenched in. This little book still gives a good overview of the opinions and what is at stake (but see my discussion of Avraham Faust’s 2006 work here.)