If the Bible is historically accurate when it describes the Israelite conquest of Canaan, we should expect to find some archaeological evidence to support this significant event. The question is, “What kind of evidence should we expect to find?”
When reading the book of Joshua, some get the impression that the Israelites launched a swift and massive invasion of Canaan, pillaging and destroying cities wherever they went. The archaeological record in the 15th century BC1 shows no conquest of this kind in Canaan. This has led some to look for signs of a conquest in the 13th century, while others have abandoned the idea of a conquest altogether, opting for other theories to account for the appearance of the Israelites in Canaan, such as the Gradual Settlement Theory or the Internal Process Model.2
A careful reading of both Joshua and Judges, reveals that the Israelites did not immediately take over the entire land, destroy all the cities, re-build their own cities and establish their own distinct, material culture.3 In Joshua 24:13, God tells his people, “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.” Rather than destroying all of the cities, the Israelites lived in most of the Canaanite cities once they had taken them. Moreover, the Israelites did not conquer all of Canaan; there were numerous groups they could not drive out. In Joshua 17:12 we read, “Yet the people of Manasseh could not take possession of those cities, but the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land.” Similar descriptions of places that were not conquered are found in Joshua 11:22, 13:1-5 and 16:10. Since the Bible describes a limited, prolonged conquest of Canaan, with the Israelites living amidst the local population, the distinct archaeological record of their presence would be limited.
So, what kind of evidence should we expect to find of the Conquest? Three cities are specifically described in the book of Joshua as being destroyed and burned: Jericho (6:24), Ai (8:28), and Hazor (11:11). Indeed, we do find archaeological evidence of destruction by fire at Jericho, Ai, and Hazor around 1400 BC, exactly as the Bible describes. In Joshua 6, we read a description of the fall of Jericho, which provides several more clues about its demise. Here are three pieces of archaeological evidence that affirm details in the biblical account.
The Walls Fell Down
One of the most vivid elements of the fall of Jericho, as described in Scripture, is the walls that came “a-tumbling down.” In Joshua 6:20 we read, “So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people shouted a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they captured the city.” The phrase “fell down flat” is translated from two Hebrew words: נָפַל (nâphal – to fall) and תַּחַת (tachath – bottom or below). Thus, a literal understanding would be that the wall fell below itself. Excavations at Jericho have revealed that this is precisely what happened.
Canaanite Jericho was an imposing city, with not one wall, but two: an inner wall and an outer wall. The outer mud brick wall had been built atop a revetment wall, making it twice as high. Between the two walls was a sloped rampart, with an upper wall encircling the inner city.4 When Kathleen Kenyon excavated on the west side of the tell, she discovered, “a heavy fill of fallen red bricks piling nearly to the top of the revetment. These probably came from the wall on the summit of the bank.”5 The current Italian-Palestinian team found the identical destruction at the southern end of the mound as well.6 Archaeologist, Dr. Bryant Wood explains: “Although Kenyon found the revetment wall and the earthen rampart, she did not find the city wall itself on top of the tell. But, astoundingly, a heap of fallen red bricks [colored bright red in the diagram below] lay outside the revetment wall. These red bricks almost certainly came from the city wall on top of the tell or from a mudbrick parapet wall atop the revetment wall, or both, as Kenyon recognized.”7 Amazingly, this pile of red bricks which went almost to the top of the revetment wall would have provided a natural siege ramp that would have allowed the Israelites to go “up into the city” just as the Bible describes.
One final note about the walls: excavations have revealed that the fortification system from the final Canaanite city of Jericho was constructed in the Middle Bronze Age, not in the Late Bronze Age, when the Bible places the destruction of Jericho.8 This has led some to conclude that the final Canaanite city was destroyed 150 years earlier, in the Middle Bronze Age, and that there was no city of Jericho for Joshua to defeat. However, this seems to stretch the evidence; all we can conclude is that the walls that fell were constructed in the Middle Bronze Age. This fact is explained by archaeologist, Yigal Yadin:
“Evidence of a Late Bronze Age town was also found but Kenyon could not find even a trace of a Late Bronze Age wall. How could the walls of Jericho come tumbling down during the Late Bronze Age if there was no Late Bronze Age wall around the town. There may be an explanation. In many cases the Late Bronze Age people did not actually build new fortifications but, rather, reused Middle Bronze fortifications, strengthening them where necessary. Interpreters often overlook this fact, and it may have an important bearing on the case of Jericho. It may well be that the Late Bronze Age settlement at Jericho reused the city wall from the Middle Bronze Age.”9
As was established in a previous blog, the textual, ceramic, and glyphic evidence indicates that Jericho was occupied when the city was destroyed in the Late Bronze Age. Archaeologist Dr. Titus Kennedy summarizes:
“Since at Jericho no city wall was built at any time in the Late Bronze Age, but finds there demonstrate habitation through Late Bronze I, based on the evidence from other sites it is extremely likely that the Middle Bronze Age III wall at Jericho was also reused until the end of Late Bronze I, when the city was destroyed and abandoned.”10
The Wall Left Standing
Before the Battle of Jericho, the Israelites sent two spies to check out the city. When discovered they hid in the house of Rahab, the prostitute. The Bible describes her house as being located in part of the city wall with a window looking out of the city, through which she let down the spies so they could escape (Joshua 2:15). Moreover, when they had taken the city, Joshua says to the men who had spied on Jericho, “Go into the prostitute’s house and bring her out and all who belong to her, in accordance with your oath to her” (Joshua 6:22). This implies that the portion of the wall in which Rahab’s house was located did not fall with the rest of the city walls.
When the Germans excavated at Jericho in 1907-09, they discovered a portion of the wall on the north side of the city that had not fallen.11 Moreover, there were houses built on the rampart against the outer city wall. The walls of these dwellings were thin – only one brick in width – indicating that this was likely a poor part of the city.12 It is plausible that this was the area of the city in which Rahab’s house was located.
The Jars of Burnt Grain
Both John Garstang, who excavated at Jericho in the 1930’s and Kathleen Kenyon, who excavated there in the 1950’s found storage jars filled with burnt grain. In fact, Kenyon found over six bushels of grain in one season alone.13 This would seem to be a strange discovery, as grain was a primary staple of food for ancient people. If Jericho was under siege for an extended period of time, as was the usual military tactic of the day, the grain would have been eaten by the inhabitants. If the city had fallen after a short siege, it would have been taken as an important source of food for the invading army.
The discovery of numerous jars full of burnt grain in the destroyed homes of the Canaanite city of Jericho affirms several important biblical details:
- The Battle of Jericho occurred in the spring of the year (Joshua 3:15 & 5:10), which would have been shortly after the harvest. The jars of grain indicate that the city was indeed destroyed in the Spring of the year, shortly after harvest.
- The siege of Jericho was only seven days in length (Joshua 6:4). Large quantities of burned grain in the houses excavated by Kenyon and Garstang indicate that there was no prolonged siege prior to Jericho’s destruction.
- The city of Jericho was devoted to the Lord for destruction and the Israelites were not to take the plunder (Joshua 6:17-24). This fact explains why the grain was burned and not taken.
The lack of a widespread Israelite archaeological footprint in the 15th century BC is consistent with the biblical accounts of a prolonged and limited conquest of Canaan.14 This does not mean, however, that there is an absence of evidence for the Conquest of Canaan. The discoveries made by numerous excavation teams at Jericho are consistent with the historical account of the Battle of Jericho as recorded in the Bible.
Title Image: By /u/reddit-wildeastmofo
1 A good summary of the verses that point to an early date for the Exodus (and by implication the conquest 40 years later) in the 15th century B.C. can be found in the following episodes of Digging for Truth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxXXTGD_y40&t=1312s and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-mUoS5RvBU&t=1379s In addition, these episodes of Digging for Truth highlight the archaeological evidence for an early Exodus/Conquest: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPYkoKyRfKw&t=1s and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XpRUe6-tkzQ&t=20s
2 The Gradual Process models proposes that the Israelites gradually and peacefully immigrated into the hill regions of Canaan, only taking the Canaanite cities once their population was large enough. The Internal Process model suggests that, rather than coming from outside, the Israelites originated in Canaan and realigned their identity through a social revolution sometime in the Iron Age. Source: Notes from Dr. Aren Maier’s course, Biblical Archaeology: The Archaeology of Ancient Israel and Judah. This course is available online here: https://www.edx.org/course/biblical-archaeology-the-archaeology-of-ancient-israel-and-judah
3 Henry B. Smith, Jr, “Archaeology’s Lost Conquest,” Answers in Genesis. July 1, 2014. https://answersingenesis.org/archaeology/archaeologys-lost-conquest/ (Accessed May 21, 2019).
4 Bryant Wood, “The Walls of Jericho,” Associates for Biblical Research. June 9, 2008. https://biblearchaeology.org/research/conquest-of-canaan/3625-the-walls-of-jericho?highlight=WyJ3YWxscyIsIndhbGxzJyIsIid3YWxscyIsIid3YWxscyciLCJvZiIsIidvZiIsIm9mJyIsImplcmljaG8iLCJqZXJpY2hvJ3MiLCInamVyaWNobyIsImplcmljaG8nIiwiJ2plcmljaG8nIiwid2FsbHMgb2YiLCJ3YWxscyBvZiBqZXJpY2hvIiwib2YgamVyaWNobyJd (Accessed May 22, 2019).
5 Bryant Wood, “Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence,” BAR 16:2 (1990): 44-58, 53. Online: https://biblearchaeology.org/research/conquest-of-canaan/2310-did-the-israelites-conquer-jericho-a-new-look-at-the-archaeological-evidence?highlight=WyJjeXByaW90Il0= (Accessed May 22, 2019).
6 Bryant Wood, “The Walls of Jericho,” Associates for Biblical Research. June 9, 2008. https://biblearchaeology.org/research/conquest-of-canaan/3625-the-walls-of-jericho?highlight=WyJ3YWxscyIsIndhbGxzJyIsIid3YWxscyIsIid3YWxscyciLCJvZiIsIidvZiIsIm9mJyIsImplcmljaG8iLCJqZXJpY2hvJ3MiLCInamVyaWNobyIsImplcmljaG8nIiwiJ2plcmljaG8nIiwid2FsbHMgb2YiLCJ3YWxscyBvZiBqZXJpY2hvIiwib2YgamVyaWNobyJd (Accessed May 22, 2019).
8 Lorenzo Nigro, “TELL ES-SULTAN 2015 A Pilot Project for Archaeology in Palestine,” Near Easter Archaeology 79:1 (2016), 15-16. Online: http://www.lasapienzatojericho.it/Biblioteca/Jericho/TELL_ES-SULTAN_Jericho_2015_A_Pilot_Proj.pdf (Accessed May 22, 2019).
9 Yadin, Yigael. 1982. “Israel Comes to Canaan: Is the Biblical Account of the Israelite Conquest of Canaan Historically Reliable?” Biblical Archaeology Review 08:02 (1982): 22.
10 Titus Michael Kennedy, “History or Myth? An Archaeological Evaluation of the Israelite Conquest during the periods of Joshua and the Judges,” p. 88. http://uir.unisa.ac.za/handle/10500/5727, (Accessed May 19, 2019).
11 Bryant Wood, “The Walls of Jericho,” Associates for Biblical Research. June 9, 2008. https://biblearchaeology.org/research/conquest-of-canaan/3625-the-walls-of-jericho?highlight=WyJ3YWxscyIsIndhbGxzJyIsIid3YWxscyIsIid3YWxscyciLCJvZiIsIidvZiIsIm9mJyIsImplcmljaG8iLCJqZXJpY2hvJ3MiLCInamVyaWNobyIsImplcmljaG8nIiwiJ2plcmljaG8nIiwid2FsbHMgb2YiLCJ3YWxscyBvZiBqZXJpY2hvIiwib2YgamVyaWNobyJd (Accessed May 23, 2019).
12 Bryant Wood, “Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence,” BAR 16:2 (1990): 44-58, 53. Online: https://biblearchaeology.org/research/conquest-of-canaan/2310-did-the-israelites-conquer-jericho-a-new-look-at-the-archaeological-evidence?highlight=WyJjeXByaW90Il0= (Accessed May 23, 2019).
13 Dr. David Graves, “Figure 60 – Grain Storage Jars at Jericho,” Biblical Archaeology Online Companion. December 13, 2014. https://biblicalarchaeologygraves.blogspot.com/search?q=Jericho (Accessed May 23, 2019).
14 Henry B. Smith, Jr, “Archaeology’s Lost Conquest,” Answers in Genesis. July 1, 2014. https://answersingenesis.org/archaeology/archaeologys-lost-conquest/ (Accessed May 23, 2019).