From  the  book  by  the  same  name

The Conquest

Did Joshua Really Conquer Jericho?

The conquest provides another example of the search for connections between biblical and historical-archaeological material. This concerns an event for which there is a considerable amount of archaeological evidence, a great amount of detailed description in the biblical sources, and volumes of diverse opinions and hypotheses produced by modern scholars.l

—Paul W. Lapp

According to the Bible, after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness of Sinai, Moses brought the Israelites to the Jordan River. At that boundary separating the chosen people from their chosen place, Moses ascended and remained on Mount Nebo, while Joshua, as his successor, led the people across the Jordan into the country of Canaan. In the scriptural story, this entrance into the Promised Land is accomplished by a series of military conquests in which the Israelites captured Canaanite fortifications. The best known of these conquests is the first city that fell-—-Jericho-—-whose walls, as every Sunday School teacher has taught, "came tumbling down." Only a generation or so ago, this account of conquest was accepted as historical by almost everyone. In those days the report of Jericho's excavation by the British archaeologists John and J.B.E. Garstang seemed to have confirmed beyond doubt the biblical destruction of what was known as the "Fourth City" at Jericho. Included in this report was what was reported to be photographs of the very walls that had collapsed when the Israelites blasted their trumpets. These photos were accompanied by Garstang's declaration that "there is no difficulty now in understanding the note of confident faith which breathes in every line of the Bible narrative (Joshua vi)."2

From Confidence to Controversy

In the 1950s, however, Kathleen Kenyon excavated at Jericho and concluded that Garstang was wrong. In fact, she announced that her findings revealed that the city had been destroyed around 1550 B.C., and therefore had long been uninhabited when Joshua arrived on the scene. In addition, a generation of Israeli archaeologists digging at strategic sites mentioned in the Conquest narrative have likewise found no trace of destruction from Joshua's time. A dominant school of thought in archaeological circles today believes that the events recorded about the Conquest were written many hundreds of years after the events they described took place. For this reason, some scholars claim that these accounts do not contain accurate historical information, but only remembrances of traditions. As Naday Na' aman, professor of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University explains, "This enormous hiatus explains the many discrepancies between the conquest stories and the archeological evidence."3

In modern academic circles, the question of a historical conquest ("did Jericho's walls really fall down?") is no longer a question at all. Israel Finkelstein, who serves as director of Tel Aviv University's Institute of Archaeology and has excavated some of the conquest sites, says, "It's not a possibility, it's over!" Finkelstein comes to this conclusion through an analysis of settlement patterns in the highlands of Israel. These, he says, indicate that the "real Israel," not the Israel of the biblical stories, emerged on the historical scene in the eighth or ninth century B.C. (300-400 years after the Bible places these events). Such modern conclusions alert us to the fact that many problems still remain for those whose quest is to confirm the Conquest.

The Problems for the Conquest

If we allow only the Sunday School story of Joshua and Jericho to form our notions of the Conquest, then the matter seems straightforward and simple. But beyond this, matters grow quite complicated. Amihai Mazar, director of the Hebrew University's Institute of Archaeology, explains the problem as scholars and archaeologists view it:

The entire question of the Exodus and Conquest of the country by the Israelites remains very much enigmatic from the archaeological point of view, in spite of the fact that tons of papers and thousand of words were written on this subject by both historians and archaeologists who tried for dozens of years to illustrate this relationship. The period of the Judges, the settlement, is also a very difficult issue. Archaeological surveys in the country looking just on top soil, [that is just] looking for sites, found that during the time of the Judges (the twelfth-eleventh century B.C.) about 250 sites were founded in the hill country north and south of Jerusalem. This phenomenon of a new wave of settlements in the hill country can be related only to the appearance of Israel in this country. Now of course, we can ask ourselves, Where did they come from? Did they come from Egypt as the Bible tells us or were they local people who settled as many scholars believe? Or did they come from clans in Jordan? We have a debate concerning the interpretation of the finds. But the finds themselves remain a very important contribution to the phenomenon to the emergence of Israel during that period.4

The debate over the interpretation of the finds is between those who accept the biblical account and those who rely on a strictly archaeological model. This dispute is about when (an early or late date) and how (the method of conquest) Israel entered Canaan.

The Problem of When

The Conquest date of 1400 B.C., based on the Bible's own internal chronology, was once assumed by most archaeologists. It was largely abandoned in favor of a later date following the archaeological patriarch W.F. Albright's own shift in thinking during his excavation of Beitin. Albright had identified Beitin as biblical Bethel, and when he discovered a destruction level datable to 1250 B.C., he felt compelled to revise the date of the Conquest. His evidence joined that from other archeological sites said to have been occupied by the invading Israelites. These all showed similar signs of massive destruction from 1250-1150 B.C. Who else could the destruction have been attributed to but the Israelites?

However, before we revise the biblical chronology in light of archaeology, we must examine the assumptions that have been made concerning this evidence. First, there were many other invaders coming into Israel during this time who could have been responsible for this destruction. In 1230 B.C. the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah conducted some raids (mentioned specifically in his own record-—the Stele of Merneptah), as well as the newly arrived Philistines,5 who were aggressively seeking to expand their territory. There were also inter-tribal conflicts taking place in Canaan, and the biblical book of Judges records cycles of upheavals at some sites by oppressive Midianites and Canaanites.

Another important consideration that affects the question of "when" is how to interpret the biblical accounts concerning the extent of the destruction to be sought. The Bible does not

28. The Stele of Memeptah, on which is found the first mention of Israel in an Egyptian text, indicating Israel was already in the Land by the thirteenth century B.C.

support the assumption some archaeologists make about a massive destruction occurring at all the occupied sites. According to the biblical text, only two southern sites and one northern site were destroyed in such a way as to leave any evidence of destruction. Incidentally, Bethel (which forced Albright's revision of the Conquest chronology) was not one of these. According to the Bible, many sites were never conquered by the Israelites at all, but by the end of Joshua's life "very much of the Land remained to be possessed" (Joshua 13:1). This is a fact confirmed by the archaeological evidence. Bob Muffins, an area supervisor of the excavations at the biblical period (Iron Age) strata at Beth-Shean, makes this point when he says:

In the terms of our own excavations at Beth-Shean we see the continuation of Egyptian presence from somewhere around 1450 B.C. all the way to around 1150 B.C. So this would lend weight to what the Bible says about - [the cities of] Beth-Shean and even Megiddo not having been taken by Israel. What we see in terms of the archaeological evidence is that a shift in the population from Egyptian and Canaanite to Israelite exists at Beth-Shean and Megiddo [only] from the beginning of the time of Solomon. No biblical text clearly says who put an end to the cities of that time; we assume perhaps David. However, there is circumstantial evidence that would seem to indicate that Israel did in fact occupy parts of the hill country. We do know that in Judges 1:27 the Israelites did not conquer these valley regions which included such important cities as Megiddo and Beth-Shean.6

Consequently, the signs of widespread destruction at certain sites should not be considered as archaeological evidence against the biblical chronology and for a late date for the Conquest. These destructions better fit the period of the Judges, during which ongoing warfare was commonplace.

The Problem of How

Kenyon's excavations at Jericho convinced her that no one had occupied the city after 1550 B.C., thus making impossible a Conquest at either the early or late dates. This led many scholars to conclude that no Conquest had taken place at all! How, then, did the Israelites get into Canaan and occupy so much of the country? This question has been most intensively investigated by those who maintain a minimalist view of the Bible. The scholars have proposed revised models of Israelite "emergence" drawn from archaeological data or settlement patterns alone. Because the theories developed by these revisionist scholars have gained popularity and are undermining the historicity of the Bible among their readers, let's briefly survey their views.

One theory is known as the "Peaceful Infiltration" theory.7 Based largely on Egyptian records, it argues that the Israelites gradually immigrated into Canaan, infiltrated the resident Canaanite population, and eventually overran and replaced (thus according to the biblical term "destroying") the Canaanite culture.

Another theory is called the "Peasant Revolt" theory.8 Since proponents of this view see no evidence of Israel in the archaeological record, they radically revise Israelite history by identifying the Israelites as members of the lowest level of the Canaanite population. In a localized social phenomenon, these peasants revolted and overthrew their urban overlords.

Yet another theory, known as the "Transition Theory," has used the archaeological data from the transition between the end of the Late Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age to argue that social and technological changes forced the emergence of the Israelites as a distinctive culture.9

Then there is the "Imagination Theory," which argues that climatic changes in the transition between archaeological periods provoked hill-country people (Israelites and Philistines!) to emerge in an attempt to form communities.10

Despite their dependence on the same archaeological evidence, each theory interprets the evidence differently, showing that the evidence itself is ambiguous. In the final analysis, none of these theories adequately answers how Canaanite culture ended and Israel managed to gain possession of so much of the land of Canaan. Finally, each view has to dismiss or reinterpret the biblical narratives in order to have it fit their revision of history.

Evidence for the Conquest

Is there any archaeological evidence that might support the traditional Conquest model? If such archaeological evidence can be found, it must be sought at the three sites said to have been burned by the Israelites: Hazor in the north, and Jericho and Ai in the south.

The Evidence from Hazor

The Bible notes that Joshua "utterly destroyed" all the cities of the kings of northern Israel, but it singles out Hazor as the one city which he burnt with fire (Joshua 11:11-13). The famous Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin began the excavations at the 175-acre site of Hazor in 1955, and his successor Amnon Ben-Tor is today continuing this work. Interpreting Israel's history primarily on the basis of the archaeological evidence, he nevertheless affirms the accuracy of the description in Joshua concerning Hazor's destruction:

There is evidence of a massive destruction. I once called it the mother of all destruction. In Hazor, wherever you come down to the end of the Canaanite strata, you come upon this destruction. It is an unbelievable destruction... it left behind a thick debris of ashes. There was a terrible fire in the [Canaanite] palace. So much so, that the bricks vitrified and some of the clay vessels melted [and] some stones exploded because of the fire. We can clearly say that the temperature was more than 1200 degrees centigrade. A normal fire is half, about 600 or 700 degrees, [but in the afternoon] the wind is unbelievable, put these... together and you'll get this kind of fire [with] very intense heat. So this fire destroyed a lot. If you go back to the book of Joshua, you may remember that in the story of the destruction of Hazor, it says that after killing all the people, the Israelites set Hazor on fire and it was only Hazor that was destroyed by fire. And in the case of Hazor, they were interested to tell how intensive the destruction of Hazor was ... because Hazor was once the head of all those kingdoms; the most important of the Canaanite city-states (Joshua 11:10)."

Perhaps in the next few years Ben-Tor's excavation will confirm even more of the Joshua account. Recently his team unearthed ten palm-sized Akkadian cuneiform tablets that suggest that a Canaanite archive may have been at the site (one of the texts mentions a school for scribes that met at Hazor). These tablets also had multiplication tables and a list of items sent from Hazor to Mari. This later discovery was important because the name Hazor appeared in the text, confirming the biblical identification. Just this year (1997), the excavators revealed a Canaanite palace that Ben-Tor believes was destroyed by Joshua. Among the artifacts found within the palace were an altar and sacrificial remains, two unique figurines of deities, and what is thought to be a libation vessel the size of a bathtub with a now headless god sitting on one end holding a cup. Ben-Tor also believes that another, even earlier, palace exists below the present strata of excavation that may also contain archives. Ben-Tor has stated he thinks there is sufficient evidence (in addition to the tablets) to warrant the existence of these two Canaanite archives and will be working in the next few seasons to uncover them. If so, Hazor may soon make headlines with a monumental discovery rivalling that of the Dead Sea Scrolls!

The Evidence from Jericho

Because Jericho is the most famous of the Conquest sites it has been most often the subject of archaeological investigation. The latest excavation of the tell was by British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon in the 1950s. She concluded that the ancient site had been destroyed and abandoned 150 years before the time the Bible says the Conquest occurred. Her evidence has been challenged by Bryant Wood.

Kenyon based her dating on what she did not find-—-that is, imported Cypriote pottery. Wood, on the other hand, has analyzed the local Canaanite pottery excavated by the various expeditions to Jericho.12 His analysis indicates that Jericho was destroyed around 1400 B.C. (the end of the Late Bronze I period), rather than 1550 B.C. as claimed by Kenyon. What is more, Wood has shown that once the destruction is correctly dated, the archaeological evidence harmonizes perfectly with the biblical record:13

l.The city was strongly fortified in the Late Bronze I period, the time of the Conquest according to biblical chronology (Joshua 2:5,7,15; 6:5,20).

2. The city was massively destroyed by fire (Joshua 6:24). 

3. The fortification walls collapsed at the time the city was destroyed, possibly by earthquake activity (Joshua 6:20). 

4. The destruction occurred at harvest time in the spring, as indicated by the large quantities of grain stored in the city (Joshua 2:6; 3:15; 5:10).

5. The siege of Jericho was short, since the grain stored in the city was not consumed (Joshua 6:15,20).

6. The grain was not plundered, as was usually the case in antiquity, in accordance with the Divine injunction (Joshua 6:17-18). 

7. The inhabitants had no opportunity to flee with their foodstuffs (Joshua 6:1). 

8. Jericho lay abandoned for a period of time following the destruction, in accordance with Joshua's curse (Joshua 6:26). 

Wood also offered as positive support: 1) Egyptian scarabs found in graves at the site form a continuous series from the eighteenth to the fourteenth centuries, showing that the cemetery was in use during the Late Bronze Age I period. 2) The stratigraphy of City IV (the site excavated by Garstang and Kenyon) further revealed 20 different architectural phases lasting for long periods of time and following 12 minor destructions. If, as Kenyon states, the city met its end at 1550 B.C. in Middle Bronze II, then all of these phases would have to be fitted into the previous Middle Bronze III period (1650-1550 B.C.), an impossibly short time for so much activity. 3) A radiocarbon sample taken from a piece of charcoal in the final destruction debris layer yielded a date of 1410 B.C. (plus or minus 40 years). Wood's analysis adds new archaeological support that City IV at Jericho should be dated with Garstang and the biblical chronology to 1400 B.C.

Evidence from Ai?

Ai was the second city conquered upon entrance to the Land and the last in our list of three burned with fire. According to the Bible, the site of Ai is "beside Bethel" (Joshua 12:9; cf. Genesis 12:8). Albright's identification of Beitin as Bethel led to the identification of the nearby site of et-Tell as Ai. However, excavations at the site by Joseph Callaway have produced no evidence of occupation between the Early Bronze Age (about 2400 B.C.) and the Iron Age (about 1200 B.C.). This meant that in a gap of more than 1,000 years, there were no Canaanites at the site to be conquered. Whether we accept the early or late date for the Conquest, Callaway's excavations leave us with the conclusion that either the biblical account is wrong or that the site has been misidentified. Thus two archaeologists who maintain a biblical priority are searching to see if the true sites of Ai and Bethel are actually elsewhere. Both believe that the proper site for Bethel is the modern-day village of el-Birah, and they have located nearby tels that offer some promise of meeting the biblical descriptions of these sites.

Archaeologist David Livingston believes that the site of Khirbet Nisya best fits the requirements of biblical Ai. His site well fits the topography and geography of the Bible, being in front of el-Birah (Bethel) and situated south of a broad valley with a wadi bearing the Arabic name of Gai, which seemingly has preserved the Hebrew equivalent of Ai The Hebrew term Ai literally means "ruins," but if it has in mind the specific ruins known in the Bible as the fortified site Joshua conquered, Livingston may have a match. Although no Late Bronze walls or gates have yet been discovered, plenty of Late Bronze pottery has shown up, indicating that, like in similar sites,14 later occupants had simply destroyed all earlier architectural structures.15

The other contender for Ai is the site of Tel el-Makater, which is currently being excavated by archaeologist Bryant Wood. He says of this site:

Our organization, the Associates for Biblical Research, has been doing field work to locate what we believe should be the true site of Ai. In 1996 we began work at Khirbet el-Makater, about 10 miles north of Jerusalem and east of el-Bira (Bethel). This new site offers a good possibility of being the site of Ai because it fits the topographical and geographical requirements of the biblical account. Our excavation so far shows promise of it being a fortified city from the time of Joshua. We have discovered... a very large structure... walls which are about 6 feet wide... on the north side of the site... that is about 15 feet square. In conjunction with the structure, we have found two very large... socket stones where the pivot for the door would have rotated. Very thick fortification walls and pottery from the Late Bronze I period (fifteenth century B.C.) have also been found. All of this evidence suggests that we do indeed have a fortress that was from the time of the Conquest. We have even found evidence for fighting in the area of the large structure—a large number of sling stones about the size of baseballs... that were used in antiquity during warfare. We also have some evidence of fire. So we feel that we have with this site a good candidate for the Ai of the Conquest. We are only at the beginning of our work... as we continue we hope we will find additional evidence to support the truth of the biblical account.16

Both sites are still being excavated, and perhaps in the near future we will have more solid evidence that can replace the currently accepted problematic site of et-Tell and provide greater confirmation of the Conquest.

Has Joshua's Altar Been Found?

Israeli archaeologist Adam Zertal is convinced that he found the very altar Joshua erected on Mt. Ebal (described in Joshua 8:30-35). The popular magazine Biblical Archaeology Review first published his article on the find,17 and later, a book highlighting the discovery appeared.18 If this identification is correct, direct verification for the historicity of (or at least this feature of) the Conquest story is possible. However, Zertal's interpretation that the structure was Joshua's altar was not guided by a biblical chronology, nor even a conviction that there was Conquest. Based on the great quantity of pottery shards lying around it, the structure is dated to the early part of the Iron Age (1220-1000 B.C.), too late a date for the biblical Conquest.19 Despite criticism that it is either an Iron Age farmhouse or watchtower,20 Zertal has continued to defend his position that it is an altar. However, in light of its date, it is preferable to see it as part of a cultic installation (high place) from the time of the Judges.21 If so, since sacred structures tend to be built and rebuilt at sites that have a former cultic history, it is possible that this altar could have replaced an earlier one from the time of Joshua.

The Problem of Evidence

Even with the kind of evidence Wood claims for Jericho and the possibility of a new identification for Ai, the archaeological evidence still is very limited and controversial. What it shows is that of the 17 sites listed in the Conquest account in the book of Joshua, 12 had some kind of settlement in the Late Bronze Age.22 Of these, only two had evidence of a destruction during the Late Bronze I 23 and five during the Late Bronze II-Iron I.24 Even though the identity of many of these sites is still disputed, accepting them for the sake of our statistics, they reveal that archaeology does not provide much information about these cities of the Conquest. Even the book of Joshua itself provides very little information. Apart from statements that tell us these cities were "taken," the text gives details only about the three that were burned (Jericho, Ai, Hazor). Unfortunately, some scholars assume this lack of evidence has somehow discredited the biblical account. Archaeologist David Merling explains:

... while archaeology has found nothing to discount any aspect of any story found in the book of Joshua, it is nonevidence that has produced the facade of disagreement between archaeology and the Bible. By not finding something, archaeologists consider that they have proved something. Nonevidence is not the same as evidence. Other conquests, whose histories have never been questioned, have been investigated for evidence of destructions. The lack of evidence among those sites should cause all archaeologists to question the use of nonevidence.25

Such assumptions, says Merling, have caused archaeologists to expect to find, at sites connected with Conquest, huge cities with major fortifications-—-but the Bible makes no such claims about these cities. It even appears that the account of the Conquest generally did not leave the kind of information that could be "proven" by archaeology.

Can the Conquest Be Found?

Why have attempts thus far to excavate indisputable evidence of the Conquest been largely without success? Keith Schoville, Professor Emeritus in the department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies at the University of Wisconsin (Madison), offers one explanation:

These are matters that are very difficult to ascertain or to corroborate in terms of archaeological research. You just don't have... a tablet saying that the Israelites conquered such and such a place on such and such a date. That sort of thing doesn't exist.26

Another reason for this difficulty has been implied in our discussion about the nature of the Conquest itself. The facts, as the Bible presents them, indicate that there is relatively no evidence of conquest to find. Massive physical destruction of the whole of Canaan was neither the goal nor the outcome of the Conquest. The "ban" (sentence of destruction) under which Canaan was placed by God applied to the Canaanite populations within their cities, not the cities themselves (see Joshua 6:17,21), except for Jericho, Ai, and Hazor. In David Merling's estimation, the Conquest, as described in the Bible, was not likely to have left sufficient evidence of itself. In light of this understanding, if we did find evidence of a massive destruction along the Conquest route at the time that the Bible gives for the Conquest (1400 B.C.), it would actually cause a greater problem for the Bible!

Should we, then, be looking for such evidence at all? Eugene Merrill, Professor of Old Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, is of the opinion that such efforts are pointless:

... archaeological verifiability of the conquest is shown to be an exercise in irrelevance. All one could hope for is some indication that decimated occupants of the land were replaced by ethnically and culturally different settlers, a quest that is notoriously unfruitful.27

A reason such a quest was once deemed unfruitful was because while attempting to find evidence of occupational replacement the Israelites in their settlement period might simply have adopted the Canaanites' material culture (Deuteronomy 6:10-11). Not yet having developed their own distinctive material culture, the Israelites looked like Canaanites in the archaeological record. The Amarna letters, comprised of correspondence between Canaanite city-states and Egyptian officials at Amarna, indeed reveal that the Israelites were culturally inferior to the Canaanites. However, based on more extensive excavations and surveys, we now know that the Israelites did evidence a unique ceramic culture.28 This repertoire of pottery enables the experts to distinguish the Israelites from their Canaanite neighbors. Although this culture is dated to Israelite immigration and settlement at the end of the thirteenth century B.C. (at least), others have also used it to argue an early date for the Exodus.29 For instance, Manfred Bietaks's excavations at Tell el-Dab'a (Goshen) in Egypt have revealed a Canaanite-style pottery like that which appears in Canaan. This may be possible evidence that the Israelites were once in Goshen, or conversely, that Asiatics had simply entered into this Egyptian Delta region. At any rate, most critical scholars will dismiss this evidence because they presume a late date, and this pottery is dated early (from about 1650-1550 B.C.).

What, then, are we left with? Can evidence of the Conquest be found? Although the evidence is sketchy and certainly controversial, the answer to this is affirmative. However, we must look in the right places. We should not look for a Conquest stratum except in the three cities burned with fire, and even there, with subsequent destructions by other invaders, our expectations must be measured. Even when all of the ambiguous archaeological evidence is set aside we still have the witness of the most significant archaeological and historical document yet discovered by man—the Bible. Even if we decline to accept that Scripture was divinely inspired, as many scholars do, the Bible's realistic account of a partial Conquest clearly has the marks of historicity, not of an etiological embellishment. Extrabiblical data from the Amarna texts and socio-ethno-graphic and ecological-economic research have provided us a compatible outline within which the traditional details of the biblical narrative of the Conquest and settlement can be placed. Bruce K. Waltke tells us:

In every way studied in which the textual tradition regarding the Conquest and the Settlement can be tested by archaeology, the two lines of evidence coincide. Furthermore, all the accredited Palestinian arti-facrual evidence supports the literary account that the Conquest occurred at the time specifically dated by the biblical historians. Therefore, from this data one has no reason to question the trustworthiness of the Bible... .30

So our quest for the Conquest has not been in vain. Whether it be the lack of sufficient evidence or the "irrelevance" of any such evidence, the search has forced a return to the biblical text. There, once our presuppositions about the Bible's historical uniqueness are corrected, we indeed find the historical Conquest after all.