Finding Early Israel, Part 1

Dan.ht12A nomadic people settle in a great empire and become a slave class for centuries until a deliverer leads them out through a wilderness and a generation later into a land they can conquer and call their own.

This is the Biblical story. Not much of it is evident from archaeology. How do you trace the movement of a small people and find their leavings in history?

You might object to my saying Israel was a small people. After all, the famous numbers in Exodus suggest a people two million strong (six hundred thousand men of fighting age). Yet many other texts suggest they were a small people, afraid of Egyptians and Canaanite towns.

I don’t have room here to do the notion justice, but it is widely thought that the numbers in Exodus must be a scribal mistake. The word for thousand also can mean clan or military troop. Perhaps the original text indicated Israel had six hundred squads of fighting men, about three thousand such men. If Israel had six hundred thousand men, they’d have no reason to fear villages of Canaanites which measured only a dozen acres themselves. They would have outnumbered any Canaanite village at least a hundred to one in fighting men. With three thousand fighting men, Israel as a people of ten thousand would fit the descriptions in Exodus and Numbers quite well.

No Easy Journey
Did this group ten thousand strong enter Canaan, a network of city-states ruled by Egypt, and simply topple one town after another until all the land was Israel’s?

We should disabuse ourselves of such romantic notions and not least because the Biblical story shows us otherwise.

There are texts which, if read incautiously, could support the shock-and-awe theory of Israel’s conquest and settling the land. Consider Joshua 21:43, “Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land which he swore to give to their fathers; and having taken possession of it, they settled there.”

Yet there are also numerous texts, which I will demonstrate with two examples, indicating that the conquest was gradual and very incomplete at first:

Yet the sons of Manasseh could not take possession of those cities; but the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land (Joshua 17:12).

And the Lord was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain, because they had chariots of iron (Judges 1:19).

So the conquest of Canaan by Israel is shown in the Bible in two ways:

(1) God promised the land to them and that the days of the Canaanites were coming to an end. Joshua shows that God brought this small people into the land and gave them miraculous victories establishing themselves in the land. Many texts indicate that they conquered and settled giving glory to God.

(2) In a few places in Joshua and more so in Judges we see that the conquest was very partial, mostly a matter of conquering some highlands and failing to conquer the more settled areas and the city-states. Some initial victories were seen to be temporary. The Canaanites (some with Egyptian help) rallied and kept Israel at bay. Some of these failures were due to the shortness of time as the conquest would be a long task and some were due to incomplete obedience. The people wavered when their strong leadership was gone.

As in numerous other cases, in the cultural world of the Bible, seemingly contradictory ideas are both affirmed. God faithfully gave Israel the land and at the same time, Israel’s struggle was only beginning since they took a tenuous hold on a land that would require generations to conquer.

Looking for Signs of Israel
Every now and then someone comes to me with news, “They’ve found Pharaoh’s chariot wheels in the Red Sea!”

You can find sensationalistic claims like that not only in National Enquirer, but also on the internet.

To some people, the idea that Israel might not have left large tracks, easy to find, in the Sinai or in the Arabian desert, is hard to swallow. If Israel in the wilderness was 2 million people strong dwelling there for forty years, then we might find some major evidence of their passing through.

But with a more realistic view of Israel, mentioned above and backed by mountains of evidence of populations of towns at the time, you can see how a group of ten thousand, maybe twenty at most, might not leave such a visible trace, especially if they lived in tents.

So, how can we find signs on Israel’s beginning? How can we complement the Biblical record with archaeology? We have learned many things about Israel from later periods through archaeology. What about early Israel, before the kings of Israel?

In some books (Israel Finkelstein’s books are classic examples) you will read that evidence for early Israel is not only missing but that the Biblical story is certainly a myth. David was at best a village chieftain or bandit lord with a few dozen men. Solomon ruled an anthill sized kingdom and his wealth and power are legend.

But Avraham Faust has recently published a new and interesting perspective. So far I have only read his article in the new issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. But his 2007 book is going on my amazon wish list today, Israel’s Ethnogenesis: Settlement, Interaction, Expansion, and Resistance (Approaches to Anthropological Archaeology) (Equinox Publishing, 2007). See it here.

The book won the 2009 Biblical Archaeology Society award for Best Scholarly Book on Archaeology.

Next time: a summary of Faust’s article and his intriguing approach to finding early Israel.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Archaeology, Bible, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Finding Early Israel, Part 1

  1. I commend you for having the courage to mention a subject that few Messianic teachers (regardless of which slice of our broad faith community you cut it) are willing to discuss. I have for the longest time felt it quite difficult to affirm that 2-3 million were in the Exodus. I do not think it likely at all that the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex (the largest place I have lived) transversed the wilderness.

    I have cringed a great deal when the 603,550 amount from Numbers 2:32 comes up by “Torah teachers,” because few are aware of the difficulties associated with the Semitic term elef. But then, if it does mean “company” or “troop,” how large is this to be? You have tallied the total numbers of the Exodus at somewhere around 10,000. Yet, as Kitchen notes in his On the Reliability of the Old Testament (p 265), others have estimated anywhere between 20,000-140,000.

    I am probably a little more cautious when I have said in the past that an ambiguous “several hundred thousand” were in the Exodus. Mind you, I think that this number is on the lower end of 200K, and is more like a giant stadium full of people, with tailgaiters everywhere, transversing the desert. (Not to mention the continuous stadium line at the restroom facilities!)

    You are bringing to the attention of Messianic people some issues that have remained closed for far too long, even though they have been present in evangelical Bible scholarship for many decades. We cannot avoid them any longer. Hopefully, more will share their thoughts!

  2. davidbenavraham says:

    If you interpret the Hebrew word, elef, in Exodus 12:37, Numbers 1:46, Numbers 2:32, and Numbers 26:51 as troop or company, then how do you interpret the more specific countings by tribe in Numbers 1 and Numbers 26? These countings go into great detail, tribe by tribe, and add up to the grand total of 603,550 (Nu 1:46) and 601,730 (Nu 26:51). Do you interpret the tribal countings the same way? How about the 3,000 who died at the hands of the Levites after committing the sin with the golden calf (Exodus 32:28) or the 14,700 who died after the Korach incident (Numbers 17:14) or the 24,000 who perished in the plague resulting from the sin with Midian (Numbers 25:9)? Were all of these troops as well? This seems more of a stretch to me than having faith that 600,000 men on foot left Egypt.

    • tnnonline says:

      Each one of these numbers has to be considered on a case-by-case basis, but the premise is that the Semitic term elef does not always mean thousand. I would agree that a total number of Israelites at around 10,000 seems a bit too small, but with a number in the range of 100,000-250,000 we still have a whole lot of people with enough to account for the potential loss of several thousand here and several thousand there.

      The above referenced quote is from K.A. Kitchen, who is a very well respected and conservative voice in OT scholarship, frequently referred to by those who want to refute the JEDP hypothesis. Perhaps his words from OROT will better summarize for you what the debate is:

      “In the Biblical texts, the actual words for ‘ten(s)’ and ‘hundred(s)’ are not ambiguous, and present no problem on that score; the only question (usually) is whether they have been correctly recopied down the centuries. With ‘eleph, ‘thousand,’ the matter is very different, as is universally accepted. In Hebrew, as in English (and elsewhere), words that look alike can be confused when found without a clear context. On its own, ‘bark’ in English can mean the skin of a tree, the sound of a dog, and an early ship or an ancient ceremonial boat. Only the content tells us which meaning is intended. The same applies to the word(s) ‘lp in Hebrew. (1) We have ‘eleph, ‘thousand,’ which has clear contexts like Gen. 20:16 (price) or Num. 3:50 (amount). But (2) there is ‘eleph for a group—be it a clan/family, a (military) squad, a rota of Levites or priests, etc….It is plain that in other passages of the Hebrew Bible there are clear examples where ‘eleph makes no sense if translated ‘thousand’ but good sense if rendered otherwise, e.g., as ‘leader’ or the like.” (p 264)

  3. davidbenavraham:

    I know, it is hard to swallow the idea at first. But remember I said there was likely a scribal error. The very specific seeming numbers in various texts, such as the ones you mention from Numbers, are exactly what I mean. It seems that the original text was describing the number of fighting men and describing troop sizes (eleph = troop) and the scribe mistook descriptions of troops for tens and hundreds and so on. Many articles document this.

    Consider: if Israel had 600,000 fighting men, why would they need God’s power to conquer Jericho. I’ve been there. The town is maybe 10 acres. 600,000 men attacking a ten-acre town?

    It is not easy to say: a scribe may have made a mistake in transmitting the text of the Bible. But we know from thousands of examples that such things happened. This thing with the number of Israelites just happens to be a big one.


  4. tnnonline (J.K. McKee):

    200,000 is still too big. Why would 60,000 fighting men need help against little Canaanite towns?

    The largest battles we know of from the Iron Age had 20,000 troops.


  5. tnnonline says:

    Perhaps I should clarify, I think that the total numbers of Israel–everybody–is somewhere in the 100,000-200,000 range. Everyone includes women, children, Levites, laborers, etc. This sits within the spectrum of conservative proposals offered by Kitchen, Harrison, and others.

  6. Pingback: Idealism and Reality in Joshua « Messianic Jewish Musings

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