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The emergence of Israel in Canaan, according to archaeology

This map is part of a series of 12 animated maps showing the history of The Bible and History.

The Bible story covering the conquest of Canaan in the Book of Joshua does not correspond to information discovered by archaeologists, which we will explore with this map.

This conquest is supposed to have taken place in the second half of the 13th century BCE. A stele celebrating a victory by Pharaoh Merenptah in 1207 BCE mentions the existence of a human group named Israel in Canaan at that time, but it also confirms the permanent presence of Canaanite cities such as Gezer even though, according to the Book of Joshua, it would have been conquered by the Israelites.

In addition, the text on the stele states that Israel was wiped out. This is of course a rhetorical exaggeration, but it does reinforce the idea that Israel was a small group of people among others living in Canaan, and not the dominant people described in the Book of Joshua.

Excavations carried out at Jericho and Ai also undermine the historical validity of the Bible story. In the second half of the 13th century BCE, Jericho was inhabited but did not have an outer wall – the Biblical story about the fall of the walls of Jericho thus has no foundation. Ai, an important city during the Early Bronze Age, about 2400 BCE, later experienced a period of total decline and was completely depopulated by the end of the 13th century BCE when it was supposedly captured by the Israelites.

If the story of the conquest of Canaan is not reliable, historically speaking, what was the origin of Israel? How did this human community arrive in Canaan?

According to the archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, Israel was, at least in part, an indigenous people. Excavations carried out since 1967 have identified several periods of settlement in the Central Hill Country and these have shed light on the issue of the emergence of Ancient Israel.

Finkelstein has identified three phases: a first settlement of populations in the Early Bronze Age, between 3500 and 2200 BCE.

These villages and hamlets were then abandoned and resettled in the Middle Bronze Age, between 2000 and 1500 BCE. In this second phase, the network of villages became much denser.

Following another abandonment, a third wave of settlement took place in the early Iron Age in the 12th and 11th centuries BCE.

From then on, the villages and hamlets remained inhabited until the period of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah and this last wave of settlement can thus be described as ‘proto-Israelite’.

The interplay of periods of settlement and of abandonment on the same sites suggests that these inhabitants were probably from the same groups of nomadic pastoralists which settled periodically in the Central Hill Country. These periodic settlements were probably linked to climatic or political events.

However, the third wave of settlements was quite different from earlier waves, as well as from other groups in Canaan in the early Iron Age, because of the total absence of pork bones in the archaeological sites.

All in all, Israel might have originally been an indigenous people from Canaan or nearby which settled permanently in the Central Hill Country in the early Iron Age without recourse to violence and later coalesced into a kingdom.