Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Conquest of the Canaanite Nations

Parshat Shelach

In this week's parsha we hear about the spying out of the land of Canaan, and the description of the inhabitants of the land before the Israelite conquest.  First we'll give a brief description of the nations listed in the Torah and who they were.  Then we'll give a brief discussions of the historical problems of the conquest account which takes up the majority of the book of Yehushua.  It turns out that this post is pretty long.  Probably should have saved half for a later week.  Oh well.

The Seven or so Nations

The seven nations are described in Deut 7:1 as:
When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and shall cast out many nations before thee, the Hittite, and the Girgashite, and the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite, seven nations greater and mightier than thou;
 Another list later in Devarim states (Deut 20:17)
but thou shalt utterly destroy them: the Hittite, and the Amorite, the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee;
This list doesn't include the Girgashites.  Similarly with another list in Exodus 3:8
and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Amorite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite.
The same list is repeated in Exod. 3:17.  A late list in Shmot (Exodus) doesn't include the Perizzites either (Exod 13:5)
And it shall be when the LORD shall bring thee into the land of the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Amorite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite, which He swore unto thy fathers to give thee, a land flowing with milk and honey, that thou shalt keep this service in this month.
In addition the Table of Nations in Bereishit (Genesis) 10, lists the following as the descendents of Canaan (Gen 10:15-17)
15 And Canaan begot Zidon his firstborn, and Heth; 16 and the Jebusite, and the Amorite, and the Girgashite; 17 and the Hivite, and the Arkite, and the Sinite; 18 and the Arvadite, and the Zemarite, and the Hamathite; and afterward were the families of the Canaanite spread abroad.
This list has the Girgashite, and a bunch of other nations not included in the seven nations of Canaan.  Interestingly, it also is missing the Perizzites.
So it's clear that biblically there's some confusion as to which nations exactly were in the land.  But who were they?

Some of these nations are notably obscure.  These include the Girgashites.  The best lead we have for them is the city Gergasa near the Sea of Galilee.  The Perizzites are also a problem.  Yehoshua (Joshua) describes them as living between Judah and Ephraim.  We do not know them extra-biblically.  The Hivite is another nation not known except biblically, and said to live around Shechem.  Lastly there is the Jebusites, who biblically live in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) but are also only known in the Tanach.

There are two nations that are known extra-biblically, but are somewhat problematic.  The first one are the Hittites.  If the reference is to the Hittite nation we know, then this represents a historical problem.  The Hittite empire, which collapsed around 1200 BCE never extended south of the Syrian border, and certainly never covered any of the land that was occupied by the Israelite nations.  There are two possible explanations.  The first is that the author of this section consulted Babylonian sources were the entire land west of the Euphrates was named Hatti.  People read this source and assumed that the Hittites extended south into Canaan and were wrong.  This is the approach taken by Liverani.  A branch of the first hypothesis is that the Hittites were remnants of the Hittite empire who fled south and settled in the Syrian region.  These settlements were retrojected into the distant past as having always lived there.  The second hypothesis, is that this is a different nation altogether which just happens to have a similar name, and was associated with the Hittite empire due to the lack of knowledge of later biblical commentators [1].

The problem of the Amorites is similar.  The term Amurru tends to include Canaan along with several of the Mesopotamian nations. There was an Amorite ethnic group.  They were destroyed by the Hittites (the empire) around 1700 BCE and it's possible that the remnant group became the Arameans, who lived northeast of the Biblical land.  Either way, it's hard to imagine an Amorite group that matches any of the biblical descriptions in either the Torah, where the king Sichon is conquered by Moshe (Moses) or in Yehushua.

Finally there are the Canaanites.  The name Canaan itself is an old Egyptian name for the region.  The inclusion of Canaanite as a separate tribe is confusing.  There does not appear to be any historical nation of this name, and the Tanach seems to be confused about whether this is a separate nation or an appellation for all the nations together.

The Conquest - A Timeline

We'll look at the conquest of Israel story in two parts.  The first represents a broad view, giving a history of the time period and then specifically what evidence archaeologists looked for that matched or didn't match the Biblical conquest story.  Then we'll look at a few issues with specific stories of the conquest, including the conquests of Moshe, Yericho (Jericho) and Ai.

It is possible to narrow down the time that the conquest must have occurred between two historical checkpoints.  On the early end, we have the Amarna period.  I've talked about the Amarna letters several times [2], so I'll be brief here.  In short, they provide enough information about the layout of the land of Canaan that any arrival or formation of the Israelite people must have occurred after the period in which the letters were written.  They also describe a period in which the cities and kingdoms were extremely small.  I'll make special mention of the Merneptah Stele, which is a description of conquest of the Egyptian Pharoah Merneptah at the very end of this period.  It has a line in which Merneptah claims to have destroyed a people named Israel.  Unfortunately, we don't know where this people was specifically located, but it's clear that this predates the Israelite nation as a whole.  The Merneptah stele dates to around 1200 BCE.

On the other end we have the period of the Biblical monarchies.  There is significant disagreement to where this period begins, but the Torah and the "conventional chronology" puts it a bit after 1000 BCE for the reign of David.  The "low chronology" claims that no united kingdom ever existed, and that you only started getting a true Israelite kingdom at the reign of Omri a little after 900 BCE.  I don't really care to get into the details between these two models, and the 100 years won't matter too much for the conclusions anyway.

In between these two periods we had the Bronze Age Collapse, which occurred between 1200 and 1150 BCE.  During this time Egypt lost its holdings over Canaan, the Hittite empire was destroyed, their capital sacked, and the Assyrians retracted into their land.  Also, during this time, the Philistines settled along the coast, and there are clear archaeological markers for their arrival.  These markers are in the form of new Aegean type pottery, not previously found in the region, and new city layouts.  During this time period, the entire region went into something of a Dark Age.  There are few written records, and major cities appear to have shrunk dramatically in size.  It is during this time that the nation of Israel appears to come on the scene in full, growing from some small tribe at the time of Merneptah to the kingdom at the center of the region.  I'll also note that the book of Shoftim (Judges) gives a reasonable description of what this period may have looked like in reality [3].

The Conquest - Archaeological Markers

Now that we know when the conquest must have taken place, it is worthwhile to discuss what markers we might expect if the biblical narrative was accurate.  First, taking a page from the Philistines, we might expect that the Israelite major cities, Shechem, Yerushalayim, Hevron would undergo some kind of change in style as they transitioned from the previous Canaanite owners to the Israelite ones.

Second, given the description of the conquest in Yehoshua and the commandments to utterly destroy the nations that lived there, we would expect to find destruction layers in the cities around this period.  It is worth a moment to discuss what I mean by this.  Destruction layers are one of the key archaeological markers that can be used to separate strata.  It turns out that in the ancient world cities were often conquered and destroyed.  In many cases they were burned, in whole or in part.  In others they were just depopulated.  At the very least, large scale structures like walls and the like were destroyed and new ones would have been built over the old foundations.  Through archaeological methods and carbon dating it is possible to determine when the cities were destroyed.  I'll gloss over a lot of technical detail which I've read far too much about and just state that these methods tend to have an error range of about 100 years, which is why there's the disagreements between the low and conventional chronologies mentioned above.

Finally, if the Israelites were a fully fledged nation of significant size, you would expect to see a population increase over the low levels in the land after the Bronze Age Collapse.  I've previously discussed the population problems, but I'll repeat the basic argument here.  If the Israelite nation came in with 100,000 people, or the 1.5M the Torah claims, we would require that there be sufficient infrastructure to support a population of this size.  Cities would have to be large enough to coordinate trade, and the land would require advanced agricultural techniques, like terrace farming, to properly cultivate the hilly countryside.  So we can look at the types of settlements that we've unearthed from this time period and see if they are consistent with a population of 1 million, 100,000, or less.

We will look at these three broad categories in turn.  First we focus on whether there was an actual material change.  The way to check this is to look at archaeological realia, pottery, cultic buildings, city layouts and such and determine similarities and differences between people and time period.  What we find is that across Israel we get a gradual change.  Furthermore, while it's fairly easy to distinguish Philistine and Egyptian cities from each other and surrounding cultures, it's impossible to determine any differences between Israelite cities and Canaanite cities.  For example:
villages we assume to be Israelite (such as Gibeah, associated with Saul) have many things in common (for example, collared-rim store jars) with neighboring 'Jebusite' Jerusalem and 'Hivite' Gibeon [4].
Now we turn to the cities.  It turns out that some of the cities mentioned as being conquered do actually have destruction layers.  These destruction layers align fairly close to the Bronze Age Collapse though, in which cities all across the region were destroyed, including the Hittite capital far to the north, and the city of Ugarit in modern day Syria.  The latter two cities were not part of the biblical conquest. So are these evidence of a biblical conquest, or are they just part of the damage of the Bronze Age Collapse?  First, the cities that were destroyed, Hazor, Aphek, Lachsih and Megiddo were all destroyed over 100 years apart, so outside the carbon dating error range.  They can't all fit into the blitz campaign of Yehoshua [5].  Even more broadly, of the 31 sites explicitly mentioned in Joshua, only two Bethel and Hazor have destruction layers [6].  Also, it's worthwhile to look at some of the cities that have significant narratives around them and we'll do that in the next section.  Before we move on to the third section, this week's parsha specifically says " the cities are fortified, and very great" (Num 13:27).  There were fortified cities in the Middle Bronze Age, around 1500 BCE, but in the Amarna period and after, cities were much smaller and no fortifications have been found in archaeological surveys.

The last point regarding the size of the population can be obtained from extensive surveys across the countryside.  Finkelstein sums up the conclusions of this survey.
There was no sign of violent invasion or even the infiltration of a clearly defined ethnic group.  Instead, it seemd to be a revolution in lifestyle.  In the formerly sparsely populated highlands from the Judean hills in the south to the hills of Samaria in the north, far from the Canaanite cities that were in the process of collapse and disintegration, about two-hundred fifty hilltop communities suddenly sprang up.  Here were the first Israelites [7].
Finkelstein then describes the specific results of the forms these communities took.  These will not be included in detail here.  The results are conclusive, the population at the beginning of this time was well below 100,000, and couldn't possibly reach that amount until 1000 BCE at the formation of the monarchies.

Jericho and Ai

The first city to look at is Yericho, which has the famous story of the trumpet blasts bringing the walls down. Finkelstein sums up the problems here:
In the case of Jericho, there was no trace of a settlement of any kind in the thirteenth century BCE, and the earlier Late Bronze settlement, dating to the fourteenth centry BCE, was small and poor, almost insignificant, and unfortified.  There was also no sign of destruction [8].
The problem of Jericho has been a major thorn in the side of people who support a conquest narrative.  The issue was first brought to light all the way back in the 50s with the original excavation of Jericho by Kathleen Kenyon.   She dated the destruction of Jericho's walls to around 1500 BCE, prior to any possible biblical conquest.  This result has been verified multiple times, most recently by extensive radio-carbon dating.  There have been alternate datings offered by theologically driven historians, particularly Bryant Wood, but these have been thoroughly refuted by now.

Ai represents a similar problem.  The name of the city is interesting, in Hebrew it basically means "ruins," which means biblically it was already destroyed when Avraham wandered through and settled between Ai and Bethel.  The city was a massive city, but in the early bronze age, it collapsed long before the late Bronze Age, and was completely empty by that time [9].

Both Jericho and Ai probably had ruins that were still visible in the monarchial periods.  What likely happened is that the authors of Yehushua attributed these ruins to the conquests of their valiant ancestors.  And while it's possible that their ancestors were actually the perpetrators of that event, it was so far in the past that there was no continuity in culture or religion to the Israelites who wrote the stories.


I've used this quote by Dever before, and it's so apropos I'll use it again for my conclusion.
Indeed, the overwhelming archaeological evidence today of largely indigenous origins for early Israel leaves no room for an exodus from Egypt or a 40-year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness.  A Moses-like figure may have existed somewhere in southern Transjordan in the mid-late 14th century B.C., where many scholars think the biblical traditions concerning the god Yahweh arose.  But archaeology can do nothing to confirm such a figure as a historical personage, much less prove that he was the founder of later Israelite religion [10].
The conquest of Israel is one of the key stories in the Tanach where there is near universal agreement for the ahistoricity of the narrative.  While other stores, like those of the patriarchs have anachronisms and internal contradictions here and there, in general they're stories that are plausible.  Even the Exodus, could have occurred on a small scale.  But the idea of Israelites conquering Canaan is contradicted strongly by the archaeological evidence.

1. This is the approach taken by Redford who associates this tribe with the Syriac Khatte, mentioned by Assyrians and Babylonians as living between the 9th and 6th centuries BCE. This association is problematic for the biblical timeline, but Redford thinks these stories are from this time anyway. Redford, "Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times," Princeton Uni Press, 1992, p. 407. ^

2. See for example the post on the Historicity of the Exodus or the end of this counter-apologetics post.^

3. The previous overview is not controversial and any history book on the era will give the same story. Liverani's Israel's History and the History of Israel is a fine choice. ^

4. Moore and Kelle, "Biblical History and Israel's Past," W. B. Eerdman's, 2011, p. 132]^

5. Finkelstein and Silberman, "The Bible Unearthed," Simon and Schuster, 2001, p. 90^

6. Moore and Kelle p. 99^

7. Finkelstein p 107 ^

8. Finkelstein p. 81 ^

9. Finkelstein p. 82 ^

10. Dever, "What did the Biblical Writers Know," W. B. Eerdman's, 2001, p. 98^


  1. Keep it up Kefirah and another good post. Deut 7:1 When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and shall cast out many nations before thee, the Hittite, and the Girgashite, and the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite, seven nations greater and mightier than thou;

    What - that implies millions of non Jews inhabit ancient Palestine. To my recollection that was not the population size back then. Moreover, if the Hebrews wiped them out should there not be mass graves or other evidence of major battles ?

    1. Yes, this seems to be one of the glaring errors of the Torah. One the one hand we're told that Israel is promised to be the smallest of nations, and at 70 palm trees were enough to satisfy the hunger of the entire nation as it left Egypt. And we're told that Israel avoided conflict for fear of battle with the inhabitants of Canaan.
      Yet an army of 600,000 soldiers could have handily conquered the entire Mesopotamia without batting an eye. Alexander himself did it with what, 30,000? And at the height of the Roman empire the size of their army was 400,000 soldiers?
      I'm convinved that the original tradition was 600 elef, retaining the ancient Hebrew meaning of elef as organizational unit. A later edit to the text took the elef to mean thousand, and then revised or wrote down the census stories with totals that tallied correctly to 603,550.
      See for example this quote (sorry for the Hebrew):

      בס"א היו יוצאי מצרים אלפים בודדים. בס י" מדובר בקבוצה בת כעשרת אלפים נפש, ובס כ"
      עלה מ ספרם לשני מליון נפש ואולי יותר. כיצד נוצר הבדל זה בין המקורות? אולי יש לתלות את
      ההבדל בנטיית מספרי הסיפורים להגדיל ולהעצים את נתוני הסיפור כדי להגביר את הרושם בקרב
      שומעיהם. ככל שמתרחקים ממקור הסיפור הולכים הנתונים ונעשים מוגזמים. הדוגמה המובהקת
      לתופעה ה זו יא מספר לוחמי 'קואליצי ית 12 המלכים', שהרג שלמנאסר ' הג בקרב קרקר. המספר גדל -מ 14,000 במונוליט מכּוּרְ ח, שנחקק בסמוך לזמן הקרב -ל, 20,500 -ל, 25,000 ולבסוף -ל 29,000
      גם במקרא מוכרת תופעת ההגזמה עם הז .מן למשל , סכום 28 ככל שהתעודה רחוקה מזמן האירוע.
      הכסף ששילם דוד עבור גורן א רַ וְ נה היבוסי. הסיפור המוקדם מדבר 'ב כסף שקלים חמשים (' שמ"ב
      :כד , )24 ואילו בסיפור המאוחר הפך הכסף לזהב, והסכום עלה ל'שקלי זהב משקל שש מאוֹת'
      ( "דה ב כא: ).24

      ההבדלים במספרם של יוצאי מצרים רומזים אולי על כיוון התפתחותו של הסיפור. תחילתו
      של הסיפור הייתה כנראה בקרב בני יוסף, והם סיפרו על אלפים ספורים של יוצאי ממצרים.
      הסיפור של בני יוסף הגיע לשבט יהודה, ושם כבר סיפרו על שש מאות אלף רגלי כשהכוונה,
      כנראה, לשש מאות בתי אב. במסורת הכוהנית הפכו בתי האב, האלף, למספר ממשי של 'הגברים
      לבד מטף (' שמ :יב' ) 37 המצביעים על ש עם בו למעלה משני מליון נפש .

      the quote is from Dr David Ben-Gad HaCohen, Kadesh in the Pentateuchal Narratives, p.241-242

    2. @Eliyahu - I think Kefirah wrote a little about the aleph issue, an issue I have been aware of for a very long time. It shows the Torah is not divine and has been redacted by men long after the alleged events occurred. It shows the mesorah is wrong, because going back to at least 2000 years ago it was understood as 600,000 people, not 600 something (clan, troop, chiefs etc: etc:)

    3. Eliyahu, there are two issues here. One is whether there exist two stories of the Exodus narrative. One with a small tribe that could be handled by two midwives, and fear an attack by Amalek, and could be satisfied with 70 palm trees. And another where the nation was large enough the Pharaoh was scared of them turning on them, and they counted 600k in the census, and they were wealthy enough to sacrifice multiple animals a day. It seems reasonable to assume there are two different stories here.

      The second question is whether the 600 elef count in Shmot belongs to the "small exodus" version or the "large exodus" version. I don't see any good reason to attach it to the "small exodus" version. It forces a very strange reading.

      I disagree with David Ben-Gad that the origin of the story began with the descendents of Joseph. That's not clear. It seems more likely that it began with Levi. I do agree with the general idea he states about how over time stuff gets exaggerated more and more.

  2. I love your ability to simplify a complex topic, and explain it so thoroughly. Like you, I've read way too much on the ahistoricity of the conquest. My last read was 'Eden to Exile' which summarizes the scholarship, archeological, and historical to reach your conclusions. I'm beginning to wonder if there's anything left for me to discover with regard to this topic.

    As far as the 7 nations, your post made me curious to look back at the 'meforshim' out of curiosity for how we understood the different verses with varying nations. I guess I have something to do during layning this shabbos!

    1. @M Rose please do. My guess is you will find all sorts of apologetics and inventions. Such as two different names refer to the same nation, or one name may refer to two nations, or maybe different regions, .... Let us know.

    2. The meforshim don't really have a good knowledge of the area. By the time they come around all those tribes are long gone. They don't have access to any of the Assyrian, Babylonian or Egyptian inscriptions that might help us ID a tribe. Nor do they have a good feel for what was inhabited when. Really, they're making guesses.

      I'm not sure what use there is in looking at them. But maybe you'll find something.

    3. @ Kocker, I'm expecting apologetics and forced answers, I'm really more curious how I, a pretty logical / critical thinker read these verses for 30 years. Most likely, I didn't pay much attention to them, and just assumed the 7 nations were always reported consistently.

      @ Kefira, probably no use, except giving me something to do in shul. What's deceptive, is that I look to other congregants as though I'm truly engrossed in the layning. I guess I kind-of am.

    4. Ok, so I learned a great lesson from my fruitless search for traditional explanations. Basically, in Genesis the list of 10 nations instead of 7 is explained that the first 3 will be given to the israelites in ''the end of days or world to come'. The list missing the Girgashites in Deuteronomy is explained that the Girgashites fled the country before the Joshua invasion. So I learned nothing, except that Rashi and everyone else weren't so bothered by the differences, and managed to explain some of them away.

      However, the great lesson for me was how, after 30 years of reading and studying and even teaching chumash in depth, I had glossed over these verses, never thinking for a second that there may be a problem with them. Whenever I read them, I just assumed that they listed the same 7 nations every time, and just carried on! This makes me wonder what other subjects and beliefs I carry without questioning and critically looking at them? I don't just mean biblically. What other contradictions stare me straight in the face without me noticing?

    5. M Rose, I remember that Rashi about the Girgashites! Going in I knew that the Girgashites were missing from one of the lists, but I didn't know why I knew. Now I remember. There was a time where I knew all of Rashi's commentaries. That day is long gone.