Archaeology and the Book of Joshua—The Conquest

The Bible records the story of ancient Israel's conquest of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. Did it really happen as the Scriptures record? We continue our look at archaeological finds that shed light on the Bible.

In earlier issues The Good News examined archaeological finds that illuminate portions of the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. In this issue we continue that series, focusing on the book of Joshua, which chronicles Israel's entrance into the Promised Land.

After wandering in the desert for 40 years, the Israelites were finally permitted to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land. Moses was about to die, and God instructed him: "Behold, the days approach when you must die; call Joshua, and present yourselves in the tabernacle of meeting, that I may inaugurate him" (Deuteronomy 31:14). Shortly afterwards, Joshua was named as the new leader, and Moses died on top of Mount Nebo (Deuteronomy 34:1, 5). Thus begins the story of the Israelite conquest of Canaan.

Debated dates at Jericho

"Now Jericho was securely shut up because of the children of Israel; none went out, and none came in" (Joshua 6:1).

The first city the Israelites faced was Jericho. According to the archaeological evidence, it is one of the oldest settlements in the world. How accurate is the biblical description of Jericho's destruction?

The question spurred a lively debate throughout this century after several major excavations of the city took place.

The first extensive dig employing modern techniques was conducted by British archaeologist John Garstang in the 1930s. After six years of excavations he reported:

"In a word, in all material details and in date the fall of Jericho took place as described in the Biblical narrative. Our demonstration is limited, however, to material observations: the walls fell, shaken apparently by earthquake, and the city was destroyed by fire, about 1400 B.C." ("Jericho and the Biblical Story," Wonders of the Past , Wise, New York, 1937, p. 1222).

In the 1950s Garstang's conclusion was rejected by another British archaeologist, Kathleen Kenyon. She placed the destruction of this stage of the city 150 years earlier than Joshua's time and believed that no 15th-century city existed for him to conquer. This argument lent support to many scholars who dismissed the biblical story as a myth. Archaeologist and pottery expert Bryant Wood observed: "Scholars by and large [had] written off the Biblical record as so much folklore and religious rhetoric. And this is where the matter has stood for the past 25 years" ( Biblical Archaeology Review , March-April 1990, p. 49).

Evidence examined and evaluated

Unfortunately, Kathleen Kenyon died before her work could be published, making careful evaluation of her reports difficult. Fifteen years later her findings were published, and the task fell to Bryant Wood to methodically review them.

After studying her work and taking into account new discoveries, his startling conclusion was that Kenyon had been completely wrong on her date of the fall of Jericho. He found a direct correlation between the archaeological evidence and the biblical account.

What led to such a turnabout?

First was the use of a tool not available in Kenyon's days-radioactive dating. When a piece of charcoal from the burned city was examined by carbon-14 testing-generally reliable for materials up to 4,000 years old-it yielded the date of 1410 B.C., almost precisely the time of the conquest and burning of Jericho as determined from biblical chronology. (According to 1 Kings 6:1, Solomon's temple was inaugurated 480 years after the Exodus, which would place this event at approximately 1443 B.C. After 40 years in the wilderness, the Israelites would have entered the Promised Land around 1403 B.C.)

Concerning the evidence that the city was incinerated, Kenyon found a layer of ash and burnt debris a yard thick in this level of the city. "The destruction was complete," she reported. "Walls and floors were blackened or reddened by fire . . . In most rooms the fallen debris was heavily burnt . . ." ("Excavations at Jericho," Palestinian Exploration Quarterly , 1955, p. 370).

This description of the devastation fits the biblical account of the fate of the city: Israel "burned the city and all that was in it with fire" (Joshua 6:24).

Moreover, evidence included three Egyptian scarabs-beetle-shaped amulets- discovered in a cemetery inside the city. These bore the names of three pharaohs who ruled from 1500 to the 1380s B.C. Such dates clearly contradict Kenyon's belief that the city had been abandoned around 1550 B.C.

Biblical details confirmed

A third type of evidence was the unusual amount of stored grain found in the ruins of Jericho. "The most abundant item found in the destruction apart from pottery," says Wood, "was grain . . . In her limited excavation area, Kenyon recovered six bushels of grain in one season! This is unique in the annals of Palestinian archaeology. The presence of these grain stores in the city is entirely consistent with the Biblical account. The city did not fall as a result of a starvation siege, as was so common in ancient times. Instead, the Bible tells us, Jericho was destroyed after but seven days (Joshua 6:15, 20).

"Successful attackers normally plundered valuable grain once they captured a city. This of course would be inconsistent with the grain found here. But in the case of Jericho the Israelites were told that 'the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction,' and were commanded, 'Keep yourselves from the things devoted to destruction' (Joshua 9:17-18). So the Israelites were forbidden to take any plunder from Jericho. This could explain why so much grain was left to burn when [the city] met its end" ( Biblical Archaeology Review , March-April 1990, p. 56).

Finally, the type of pottery found confirmed the traditional date of the conquest, since some bore a style that appeared only during the period of 1450-1400 B.C. Wood concludes: "Despite my disagreements with Kenyon's major conclusion, I nevertheless applaud her for her careful and painstaking field work . . . Her thoroughgoing excavation methods and detailed reporting of her findings, however, did not carry over into her analytical work.

"When the evidence is critically examined there is no basis for her contention that City IV [the level corresponding to a violent destruction and burning of the city] was destroyed by the Hyksos or Egyptians in the mid-16th century B.C.E. The pottery, stratigraphic considerations, scarab data and a Carbon-14 date all point to a destruction of the city around the end of Late Bronze I, about 1400 B.C.E. Garstang's original date for this event appears to be the correct one!" (ibid., p. 57).

When Time magazine published an article about these new conclusions on Jericho, the evidence appeared so convincing that Time writers remarked, "Score one for the Bible" (Michael D. Lemonick, Time , March 5, 1990, p. 43).

Unusual remains discovered

"Now Joshua built an altar to the LORD God of Israel in Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses: 'an altar of whole stones over which no man has wielded an iron tool.' And they offered on it burnt offerings to the LORD, and sacrificed peace offerings" (Joshua 8:30-31).

The barren region of Mount Ebal had lain undisturbed for centuries. In 1982 a team of archaeologists began to scratch its surface. This was in the West Bank area and had not been explored until 1967, when Israel occupied the territory.

Adam Zertal, an Israeli archaeologist, supervised the excavation of a strange mound found on top of Mount Ebal. Slowly, after months of work, the site began to yield its secrets.

It was a rectangular structure made of large, uncut stones with a ramp leading to the center. It was quite a massive formation, 28 feet by 24 feet and 9 feet tall. Inside the construction was a fill of ashes, rocks, dirt, potsherds and animal bones. More than 4,000 animal bones were found and sent to a laboratory for analysis.

At first Zertal thought the structure had been a farmhouse, but it had no doors and no floor. All the houses in that period had floors, even if only of compressed earth.

From nearby Jerusalem came the analysis of the animal bones. Almost all of them were from bulls, sheep and goats, precisely the animals prescribed for sacrifice in the book of Leviticus. None of the bones came from typical farm animals that the Bible defines as unclean-horses, donkeys, pigs, dogs and cats. After further examination, this did not look like the remains of a farmhouse at all. What could it be?

Based on four more years of excavations, Zertal finally completed the picture of the structure. The resulting illustration bore a striking resemblance to the biblical specifications of an altar.

As per God's instruction, the stone ramp did not have steps: "And if you make Me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone; for if you use your tool on it, you have profaned it. Nor shall you go up by steps to My altar, that your nakedness may not be exposed on it" (Exodus 20:25-26). This was a precaution so the priest's tunic would not expose his legs as he ascended the altar.

Also, the Bible describes an altar with four surrounding walls and completely filled with earth and rocks. On top of this fill a fire could be lighted for the sacrifice. This is precisely what was found.

Around this altar Zertal discovered a small wall that apparently served to define a perimeter of an area for many people to congregate. He concluded that this area was a prototype of an Israelite worship center with an altar and an open-air meeting place. He thinks this could be the altar built by Joshua at Mount Ebal ( Biblical Archaeological Review , January-February 1986).

On God's instructions Moses had said: "Therefore it shall be, when you have crossed over the Jordan, that on Mount Ebal you shall set up these stones, which I command you today, and you shall whitewash them with lime. And there you shall build an altar to the LORD your God, an altar of stones; you shall not use an iron tool on them. You shall build with whole stones the altar of the LORD your God, and offer burnt offerings on it to the LORD your God. You shall offer peace offerings, and shall eat there, and rejoice before the LORD your God" (Deuteronomy 27:4-7).

Therefore, there is strong evidence that God's orders were solemnly carried out by Joshua. An altar at Mount Ebal was built with the unusual specifications of uncut stones and a ramp instead of steps. At this site only remains of animals biblically approved for sacrifice were found.

Future issues of The Good News will examine other archaeological finds that confirm and illuminate biblical history.

Archaeology and the Book of Judges >< The Red Sea or the Reed Sea?
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