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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Revision of Biblical History: Conquest or Settlement?

Until recently, discussion of the Israelite ‘conquest’ and ‘settlement’ has been based more on literary-historical analysis than on archaeological evidence. Recently, however, archaeological concerns and techniques have changed. The development of surveys alongside excavations, the use of radio-carbon dating, geological, botanical, and faunal analysis, chemical study of the provenance of pottery and other items, all assisted by new computer technology, have allowed archaeologists to study ancient technologies, survival strategies, agricultural production, nomadic pastoralism, population growth, settlement patterns, road systems, regional and urban economies, the development of trade, religious behaviour, and indeed the internal development of societies (for a survey see Levy 1995), and recently ‘ethnoarchaeology’ (see NEA 63 (2000): 1–2). These approaches now affect scholarly understanding of the origins of Israel.

In 1925 and 1939 A. Alt developed his thesis of a gradual ‘peaceful infiltration’ or sedentarization of Canaan by individual tribes, in a way analogous to semi-nomadic transhumance. He was supported by A. Aharoni, who saw examples of this in Iron Age I settlements in Upper Galilee (the tribes of Naphtali and Asher) and in the Beersheba valley (the tribe of Simeon). In 1962 G. Mendenhall developed a new approach; there was no immigration by any external group, but rather the energizing and unifying of the country people against the Canaanite city-states as the Late Bronze Age collapsed; in this the adoption of Yahwism played an important part. In 1979 N. Gottwald developed this thesis, arguing that Israel's tribes developed from socially disadvantaged rural Canaanites, reacting under socioeconomic pressures against wealthy landowners, and seeking a new egalitarianism in the hill country. Settlement there was made possible by new technical developments: the use of iron tools, the excavation and plastering of cisterns to collect water, and the terracing of the hillsides to grow vines and olives. W. G. Dever, though dismissing the importance of Yahwism in this process, supported the idea of the indigenous development of early Israel by pointing to the new development of some 300 Early Iron I sites in the hill country (Dever 1997). He saw these as ‘proto-Israelite’, representing the first settlements of the ancestors of biblical Israel. Dever argued on the basis of the ‘Isbet Sartah abecedary that their script derived from the Canaanite tradition (1997: 34, 45). These settlers were ‘displaced Canaanites’ (cf. Ezek. 16: 2–3); their pottery was ‘standard, domestic Canaanite-style pottery, long at home everywhere in western Palestine’. ‘This pottery displays no “foreign element”, no Egyptian reminiscences, and it is certainly not anything that one could connect with a “nomadic lifestyle”’ (Dever 1997: 29). Here Dever challenged Finkelstein, who, noting that the layout of the earlier sites—an oval of connected rooms enclosing a courtyard—suggested the traditional tent encampment of pastoral nomads, and argued that the people of these unfortified hilltop villages were originally pastoralists from the desert fringe, settling in the hills in order to survive when grain production in the lowlands declined at the collapse of the Late Bronze Age cities—for pastoral nomads needed grain and traded it for their meat and milk (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001: 105–18; cf. Finkelstein 1988). Formerly, archaeologists identified these hilltop village people as Israelites by their use of four-room houses and collared-rim storage jars, and the absence of pigbones, but such features are no longer accepted as certain proofs of ethnicity (cf. Finkelstein and Silberman 2001: 118–20; Hesse and Wapnish 1997); these village people Dever has now identified as ‘proto-Israelites’, apparent ancestors of the later Israelite occupants of the land.

Thus the traditional picture of Israel's ‘conquest’ of Canaan has been dramatically revised as a result of archaeological excavation and survey in the hill country. The evidence from Canaanite cities, formerly used to support the conquest theory, no longer works; certain cities named in the conquest narratives—Jericho, Ai, Heshbon, and Arad—were not Late Bronze Age cities. The kingdom of Edom, mentioned as an obstacle to Israel's migration in Num. 20: 14–21, did not yet exist, as was shown by the excavations of Bennett at Umm el-Biyarah, Tafileh, and Busayra and the surveys of B. McDonald (Bartlett 1989: 67–82). The destruction of Bethel and Tell Beit Mirsim (no longer identified with Debir of Josh. 10: 18 f.) at the end of the thirteenth century and of Lachish in the mid-twelfth century can no longer be confidently assigned on archaeological grounds to the Israelites, according to the Merneptah Stele virtually destroyed by the Egyptians. The picture drawn from the book of Joshua of Israel's organized military conquest of Canaan has been abandoned (Dever 2003: 23–74).

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