This block is broken or missing. You may be missing content or you might need to enable the original module.

In the beginnings: Israel Comes to Canaan – 5

Original Date
May 8, 2009

Developing a Synthesis Model

New Archaeological Evidences – We have seen above how mainstream archaeologists have, over the past two, three or four decades, gradually given up on attempts to match up the stratigraphy of the major tells in Palestine—particularly those representing the “conquest cities”—with the Joshua account of the Israelite conquest of Canaan. Actually this has not been entirely a matter of failed effort but also of significant changes that have occurred over these same decades in the field of archaeology. Archaeologists have begun to concentrate less exclusively on the major tells, for example, while doing more open-country survey work. This reveals the settlement patterns and lifestyles of the smaller villages and hamlets that once surrounded the cities. Also archaeologists are now less focused on historical questions (such as the historicity of the Israelite conquest) and more interested in anthropological and sociological questions: How did people live—in terms of sociological structures as well as in terms of sustenance?

Extensive archaeological surveys of the central hill country reveal that this area was sparsely settled during the Late Bronze Age. [1] There were some towns in the hill country during this period, and perhaps two or three (Shechem, Jerusalem, Hebron) were large enough to be considered small cities. But these were spaced rather far apart, and there seem to have been few settlements in between. During the first centuries of the Iron Age, numerous small villages began to emerge in the hill country. These were very small settlements whose inhabitants engaged in agriculture; by the end of Iron I (in about 1000 BCE), some two or three hundred of these small settlements had cropped up. While the picture is not yet fully in focus, it is clear that all of the hill country was not settled simultaneously. Settlement of the southern hill country, the tribal area of Judah south of Jerusalem, for example, seems to have lagged behind that of the Ephraimite area north of Jerusalem.
Naturally, we wish to know where these early Iron Age hill-country villagers came from and why they settled here. Unfortunately, this is not yet clear either. Lawrence Stager of Harvard University has observed that the villagers were primarily farmers and secondarily herders of sheep and goats who brought with them fixed cultural patterns of village life. [2]  The implication of this is that the settlers expanded into the hill country from the lowland regions of Palestine, where there was a long-standing agricultural tradition. In Stager’s view, followed by Joseph Callaway[3]  and more recently by William Dever, [4]  two new subsistence technologies—rock-hewn cisterns and hillside terraces—would have enabled them to establish villages in marginal and even inhospitable areas of the semi-arid hill country where villages had not been located before. Houses on hilltop sites in the Bethel-Ai region had their own bell-shaped cisterns hewn out of solid rock with metal chisels to provide water for the home. Tell en-Nasbeh, southwest of Bethel, has been characterized as “truly a place of cisterns” because  were excavated there. [5]  Likewise, agricultural terraces for the cultivation of wheat, barley and vegetables were constructed on the contours of steep hillsides never before planted with crops. For instance, the Iron Age I village houses at Ai (et-Tell) were founded on terraces that provided a relatively level foundation on the steep east slope of the acropolis area; one terrace system discovered in the cultivated area just below the village extended more than 325 feet. [6]

Israel Finkelstein, who surveyed in the Ephraimite area and also excavated two important Iron Age sites in that area (‘Izbet Sartah and Shiloh), claims, however, that the new settlers were in the hill country all along, but previously followed a nomadic lifestyle. [7] The appearance of villages does not signal the arrival of a new population group from Transjordan or the Palestinian lowlands, therefore, but rather a change in lifestyle . Neither terraces nor cisterns were new technologies, he observes. Instead, the resettlement of the hill country during Iron I should be seen as part of a cyclic process of “alternative demographic expansion and decay.” The cyclic process can be observed unfolding over two millennia and involved “three waves of settlement (in the Early Bronze I, Middle Bronze IIB–C and Iron I), with two periods of severe settlement crisis between them (Intermediate Bronze Age and Late Bronze Age).” [8]

A third position has been advanced by Adam Zertal, who argues that the settlers must have come from the direction of the Transjordan because, in his view, the settlements fan out from the northeast toward the southwest.  [9]Yohanan Aharoni gave a similar interpretation to the earliest Iron Age settlements in the vicinity of Beersheba and Tel Masos. Aharoni concluded that settlements were established in the Beersheba region at the very beginning of the Iron Age and then, over the next 200 years, spread northward into the hill country and southward across the southern Negev. This penetration and settlement of the region from the south “occurred mainly in unoccupied or sparsely settled areas,” Aharoni noted, “a picture that corresponds to the description in the Book of Judges, contrasting to the picture of unified conquest reflected in the Book of Joshua.” [10]

Archaeological evidence thus indicates a complex process of settlement during the opening centuries of the Iron Age, a process that may have involved to some degree all of the explanations summarized above.

A Time of Upheaval in Levant

Throughout the eastern Mediterranean area, this was a time of political upheaval caused by the demise of Egyptian authority; the fragmentation of the Hittite Empire in north Syria and Asia Minor into small warring city-states; and the Dorian invasion of the Greek mainland, which caused uprooted Sea Peoples from the Aegean area to migrate eastward to the Syrian coast, southeastward to the Palestinian coastal area, and across the sea to North Africa and Egypt. The Sea Peoples in turn pushed the less militant “Canaanites” inland toward the mountains of Lebanon and the central hill country of Palestine, where they found “a refuge and redoubt” in inaccessible hilltop villages such as Khirbet Raddana and Ai (et-Tell) north of Jerusalem. Hittites and Hivites also settled in the region of Gibeon, possibly in Jerusalem (where they may have been known as the Jebusites) and north to the slopes of Mt. Hermon. People of Aramean background moved southward into northern Transjordan and perhaps also into the hills of Canaan. And on we could go. When one adds to this mix whatever number of Hebrew refugees from slavery in Egypt may have been involved in an Exodus (or more than one), we have a “melting pot composed of diverse elements living under various ‘ad hoc’ political and religious circumstances” [11] out of which biblical Israel emerged.


[1] Most of this recent survey work has been conducted by Israeli archaeologists and overseen by Moshe Kochavi of Tel Aviv University. Raphael Frankel and Zvi Gal surveyed the Upper and Lower Galilee respectively. Adam Zertal covered the central hill country from Shechem northward, and Israel Finkelstein from the Shechem vicinity south to approximately Jerusalem. Avi Ofer has surveyed the hill country south of Jerusalem. For an early report on this work, see Kochavi, “Israelite Settlement in Canaan in the Light of Archaeological Surveys,” in Biblical Archaeology Today (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1985), pp. 54–56. For a more recent and complete account of the survey work by the individual archaeologists, each reporting on the area that he surveyed, see From Nomadism to Monarchy: Archaeological & Historical Aspects of Early Israel, ed. Israel Finkelstein and Nadav Na’aman (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1994).
[2] Lawrence E. Stager, “Highland Village Life in Palestine Some Three Thousand Years Ago,” Oriental Notes and News 69 (1981), p. 1.
[3] For example, see the original 1988 version of this chapter by Joseph Callaway.
[4]William G. Dever, “How to Tell a Canaanite from an Israelite”, pp. 27–60.
[5]Joseph C. Wampler, “Some Cisterns and Silos,” in Tell en-Nasbeh I, ed. C. C. McCown (Berkeley, CA: Palestine Institute of the Pacific School of Religion, 1947), p. 127.
[6]  Callaway, The Early Bronze Age Citadel and Lower City at Ai (et-Tell) (Cambridge, MA: ASOR, 1980). See fig. 2 for the location of contour 840 and fig. 145 for a plan of the Iron Age I terrace.
[7]  Finkelstein, The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1998); “The Emergence of Israel: A Phase in the Cyclic History of Canaan in the Third and Second Millennia BCE,” in From Nomadism to Monarchy, pp. 150–178.
[8]  Finkelstein, “Response to William Dever,” following “How to Tell a Canaanite from an Israelite,” in The Rise of Ancient Israel, p. 68.
[9]  Adam Zertal, “Israel Enters Canaan—Following the Pottery Trail,” BAR 17:05, September/October 1991, pp. 28–47.
[10]  Yohanan Aharoni, “The Israelite Occupation of Canaan,” BAR 08:03, May/June 1982, p. 18.
[11]  Miller and John H. Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), p. 78.


BCE Articles from Theophyle's English Blog - The Patriarchal Stories

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type='1 A I'> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id='jump-*'> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.