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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Conquest Hypothesis

Of the three regnant scholarly hypotheses formulated to account for the emergence of Israel in Canaan, the “conquest” hypothesis conforms most closely to the biblical presentation of DH. W. F. Albright developed a powerful formulation of the conquest hypothesis, which many American and Israeli archaeologists later espoused, G. Ernest Wright and Yigael Yadin being two of its most notable proponents. They were confident that the essential historicity of the conquest narratives could be vindicated by the use of external evidence provided by archaeology. Until relatively recently, many archaeologists believed that excavations at sites thought to be identified with biblical Heshbon, Jericho, Bethel, Ai, Lachish, Eglon, Debir, and Hazor actually supported the notion of a unified conquest of Canaan by outsiders in the latter part of the thirteenth century BCE. This interpretation relies heavily on the conquest narratives in the book of Joshua (chapters 6–12) and, to a lesser extent, in Judges 1 . For this group of scholars the archaeology of widespread and synchronous destruction at many of these key cities as well as the cultural change that followed about 1200 BCE buttress the validity of the biblical accounts preserved in the Deuteronomic History, many of which are based, according to this view, on much older oral and written sources. In this view, Israel swept into Canaan from the eastern desert and swiftly conquered city after city.

Archaeologists agree that dramatic cultural change affected not only parts of Canaan but also much of the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1200 BCE). How much of that change was brought about by the migrations and/or invasions of newcomers to Canaan, and specifically by invading Israelites, is still an open question. To make a persuasive archaeological case for the mass migration of peoples from one homeland to another, certain criteria must be met:

  • 1. The implanted culture must be distinguishable from the indigenous cultures in the new zones of settlement. If the intrusive group launches an invasion (as proponents of the Israelite “conquest” postulate), then there should be synchronous discontinuities, such as destruction layers, separating the previous “Canaanite” cultures from the newly established “Israelite” cultures in the zone of contention.

  • 2. The homeland of the migrating/invading groups should be located, its material culture depicted, and temporal precedence established in its place of origin. In the case of invading Israel, this should be in Transjordan or in Egypt.

  • 3. The route of migration/invasion should be traceable and examined for its archaeological, historical, and geographical plausibility. If the new immigrants took an overland route, the spatial and temporal distribution of the material culture should indicate the path and direction of large-scale migrations.

As the Israelites advanced from Egypt toward Canaan, the conquest narratives have them taking Heshbon (modern Hesban), the city of Sihon, and Medeba in Ammon, as well as Dibon (modern Dhiban) in Moab (Num. 21.21–31 ). At Heshbon and Dibon, extensive excavations have uncovered no Late Bronze Age occupation, and only meager remains from Iron Age I. The situation at Medeba is being investigated. As the settlement map indicates (see above), most of Transjordan was unoccupied when the Israelite invaders are said to have moved through these territories in the late thirteenth century BCE.

After crossing the Jordan River, Joshua and his troops conquered Jericho (Josh. 6 ). They blew the rams' horns and shouted in unison until the walls of Jericho collapsed. This miracle has no archaeological reflex; in fact, there is little or no occupation at Jericho in the thirteenth century. Kathleen Kenyon, the British archaeologist who pioneered stratigraphic excavations at the site, thought that erosion had deprived history of the Late Bronze Age city that Joshua captured. But the absence of tombs and even potsherds from this period makes Kenyon's view highly unlikely.

When Joshua and his troops moved farther west, up the wadi to Ai (Josh. 7.2–8.29 ), they ultimately scored a great victory over the king of Ai and the inhabitants of the city. But here again archaeology demonstrates that a tall tale is being told. Ai, whose name means the “ruin,” had not been occupied during the second millennium. Its “ruins” dated from the latter part of the third millennium, among which an Iron Age I village was planted in the twelfth century. As German scholars have long maintained, Ai is a showcase example of how etiological explanations were used to enhance the conquest narratives by explaining extensive ruins as the result of early Israelite victories. Nearby Bethel was put to the sword (Judg. 1 ), and archaeology has confirmed its destruction in the thirteenth century.

The next major conquest occurs in the north at Hazor, the former “head of all those kingdoms.” All of the dependencies of Hazor were taken, but only Hazor itself was burned to the ground (Josh. 11.10–13 ). This was the largest city of Canaan, its inhabitants numbering twenty thousand or more. The only agents who claim responsibility for destroying this Canaanite city are the Israelites. There is no reason to deny them their claim.

Finally, there is a summary of Joshua's victories west of the Jordan (Josh. 12.9–24 ). Following this list, the identifications of the ancient sites and the archaeological evidence are summed up in table 3.1 (see pp. 98–99 ).

Of the thirty-one cities said to be taken by Joshua and the Israelites, twenty have been plausibly identified with excavation sites. Of these, only Bethel and Hazor meet criterion 1, and even there, it is debated whether the destruction of Hazor XIII was as late as that of Late Bronze Age Bethel. The conquest of Laish/Dan, recounted in Judges 18 , may be reflected in the destruction of Tel Dan, Stratum VIIA (ca. 1175–1150 BCE)—too late to be synchronized with the demise of Late Bronze Age Bethel and Hazor. The Late Bronze Age city of Lachish VII was destroyed in the latter half of the thirteenth century BCE. This destruction could have resulted from the purported Israelite invasion, but recent excavations have shown that the rebuilt city (Lachish VI) was an Egypto-Canaanite settlement, occupied as a buffer against Philistia during the reign of Rameses III, until about 1150. None of the Transjordanian settlements mentioned in the conquest of Sihon's “Amorite” kingdom by the Israelites (Num. 21 ) has Late Bronze Age occupation. The three cities of Philistia—Gaza, Ashkelon, and Ekron—listed as captured by Judah in Judges 1.18 , according to the Masoretic Text, are said not to have been, according to the Greek version.

Thus by the most generous interpretation of the archaeological data, the “unified conquest” hypothesis fails to meet the minimal standards of criterion 1. Nevertheless, the insistence of the Deuteronomic Historian that Israel was an “outside” force, rather lately “conquering” Canaan and wresting control from the autochthonous population, is not so easily explained. This is especially highlighted by later Near Eastern historiography represented by Manetho's Aegyptiaca, Berossus's Babyloniaca, and Josephus's Jewish Antiquities. All three historians go to great length to establish the antiquity and priority of their respective peoples.

Perhaps, then, there is something to be said for a migration, if not an actual invasion, of Israelites into Canaan toward the end of the Bronze Age. For this more general explanation of culture change, variants of criteria 1 through 3 are still valid. They pertain to the other hypotheses concerning the emergence of early Israel as well. But before those are explicated, it is necessary to summarize new data in the archaeology of the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age I, which have come from excavations and, especially, systematic surface surveys of sites on both sides of the Rift Valley. (For a summary, see tables 3.2 and 3.3 and the settlement maps.)

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