A 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.