I read an intriguing short article by Nadav Na’aman called “Discovering the Lost North Israelite Conquest Story”. (See here). It was part of a festschrift (honorary collection of articles) Rethinking Israel dedicated to Israel Finkelstein.
Na’amen has worked with Finkelstein on a number of projects. But he often disagrees with particular theories. This article is appropriate for the Finkelstein collection because it builds on the idea that the Hebrew Bible as we have it distorts history by seeing everything from the point of view of Judah and thus nearly eliminating the actual history of the northern tribes. This is the theme of Finkelstein’s little book, The Forgotten Kingdom: the Archaeology and History of Northern Israel.
I am among those who think Finkelstein was too inventive. He dismisses the existence of a united kingdom under David and Solomon and makes hard-to-defend changes in the standard chronology.
However, he was right about the southern viewpoint of the Bible as we have it. This exaltation of Judah probably does skew some of the northern history.
So Na’aman goes looking for bits of the northern history that may have survived underneath the pro-Judah spin.
He finds the following:
First, in Genesis 48:22 Jacob’s words speak of a military conquest of Shechem (see the footnotes in the NRSV) from the Amorites. This conquest story is unmentioned elsewhere in the Bible.
Second, Judges 1:4 says Judah won a victory at Bezek. Since the only Bezek we know of is in the north, on the way from the Jordan to Shechem, Na’aman thinks this may originally have been a northern conquest story that got transferred to Judah.
Also in Judges 1 is the story of the Joseph tribes taking Bethel (Judges 1:22-26). This story has parallels with the Jericho story in Joshua: the sending of spies and a local person helping the Israelites. So, Na’aman implies, this might be the original and more nearly historical story.
Third, there is Joshua 11:1-15 with its story of the battle at the waters of Merom and the fall of Hazor. This is the only story in Joshua that seems familiar with the conditions and geography in the north. The burning of Hazor corresponds with the results of archeological excavations there. So the author of Joshua 11 may have used a source that actually knew something. The kernel of the story must have been an old northern tradition.
Fourth, there is an isolated literary fragment in Joshua 17:14-18. The tribes of Joseph complain to Joshua that they deserve more land since they have more people. So first, they are encouraged to expand further in the hill country. This still isn’t enough. So they get permission to expand northward into the territory of Manasseh. This might correspond to the burst of village settlement in the 12th century in the central hill country and the subsequent settlement of Manasseh.)
So the Judahite author of Joshua would have had some more or less historical traditions from the north. He altered them by making Joshua’s conquest mostly southern. In Joshua the initial line of advance is not toward Shechem, but along the northern border of Kingdom of Judah.
I would point out some chronological considerations for those who would like to think about how this lost northern history might fit with other events.
We can date the village expansion in the Ephraimite hill country largely to the 12th century.
But the burning of Hazor belongs to the mid 13th century.
So a historical Joshua would feature in one or the other, but probably not in both.
Royal scarabs and a possible cult site found on Mt Ebal near Shechem might put the Israelite presence there in the 13th century (see here).
So it looks to me like the lost conquest story of Na’aman’s title is actually several fragments of separate northern conquest stories.