Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Archaeology and Joshua's Conquest

Jericho, Tell es-Sultan Revetment Wall on Southern End

One of the most intriguing topics in biblical archaeology is the Conquest of Canaan by Joshua and the Israelite forces.  Here is some basic information I share with my students when I have the opportunity to talk about the topic:

Is there archaeological evidence for the destruction of Jericho?

Yes.  Non-Christian archaeologists usually will say that there is no evidence of destruction at Jericho from the time of Joshua.  However, a closer look at the evidence provides amazing corroboration between the archaeological record and the biblical account.  It is true that there are no fortifications that were constructed during the Late Bronze period (the time of Joshua), but there are strong indications that the Middle Bronze fortifications were still in use at the time of the Israelite conquest:
  • Rahab’s house was built into the city wall: this was a common feature of the Middle Bronze city wall.
  • The walls of the city “fell down flat”: the fortifications surrounding the city were comprised of stone retaining walls with mudbrick walls built on top.  The retaining walls still stand today, but the mudbrick walls fell down in antiquity.  When they fell, they tumbled down in front of the retaining walls and formed a ramp for the Israelite soldiers to enter the city, “every man straight before him.”
  • The city was destroyed at harvest time (Josh. 2:6): large jars full of burned grain were found by archaeologists in the destruction layer.  This shows that the harvest had just been completed (otherwise the jars would not have been full).
  • The city was destroyed by fire, and all of it was devoted to destruction: there is a significant burn layer from this period, and the fact that the jars of grain were not taken by the invading army but instead were burned is highly unusual.

What should we expect to see in the archaeological record for the Conquest at the time of Joshua?

When people think about the Conquest, they tend to think of it as a intensely violent event where the Israelite army swept through the land destroying everything in sight.  And the lack of destruction layers in the archaeological record at the end of the 15th century BC has helped to persuade some people to reinterpret biblical passages such as 1 Kings 6:1 that indicate that the Exodus and Conquest took place during that century. Instead they turn to the 13th century where the archaeological record shows more destruction.

However, a careful reading of the text reveals a surprising insight ... For the most part, the Israelite Conquest was focused on destroying the Canaanite population, not Canaanite property.

  • In Deuteronomy 6:10-11, Moses predicts that after the conquest the Israelites will live in “great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant ...”
  • In Joshua 24:13, Joshua confirms that God kept His promise to the Israelites: “I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant.” Since the Israelites intended to live in the cities and houses of the Canaanites, why would they destroy them?
  • Joshua 10:28-43  describes the annihilation of populations of certain cities, but says nothing of the destruction of property.  For example, Joshua 10:28 states, “As for Makkedah, Joshua captured it on that day and struck it, and its king, with the edge of the sword. He devoted to destruction every person in it; he left none remaining.”
  • Joshua 10:40 sums up the southern campaign by saying: “So Joshua struck the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings. He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the Lord God of Israel commanded.” Again, this verse talks about destroying the inhabitants ("all that breathed") but not the property.
  • Joshua 11:13 states that during the northern campaign, “none of the cities that stood on mounds did Israel burn, except Hazor alone; that Joshua burned.”

The only exceptions to this practice of leaving the property of the Canaanites intact were the burnings of Jericho, Ai, and Hazor.  Therefore, we should not expect to find consistent massive burn layers or destruction levels in Palestine at the end of the fifteenth century.  As some evangelical scholars have pointed out, if we did then it would be contrary to the biblical record and would be an embarrassment to the traditional view.

Did Joshua defeat the entire land of Canaan?

Yes and no.  On the one hand, the book of Joshua makes clear that God fulfilled His promise of giving the land of Canaan to the Israelites (Josh. 21:43-45; 23:14).  On the other hand, Joshua and Judges make it clear that not all of the land was conquered.  There were still some cities and areas where Canaanites still dwelt (Josh. 13:1-6; 17:12-13, 16-18; 23:4-5, 12-13; Judg. 1:19, 21, 27-36; 2:3).  In fact, God foretold this to the Israelites while they were at Sinai:

“I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you. Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land.” (Exodus 23:29-30; see also Deut. 7:22.)

The best understanding of the Israelite Conquest was that the combined force of the Israelite army broke the backbone of the nations that dwelt in the land and established a large foothold in the hill country.  The Canaanite forces were significantly weakened by the battles that they lost against the Israelites.  However, pockets of resistance still remained and it was the responsibility of each tribe to drive them out.