The initial answer to the question above is that the Israelites came from Egypt. A group of descendants of Abraham escaped from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses. They wandered for forty years through the wilderness; they crossed the Jordan River in the land of Canaan. After a series of wars against the natives of Canaan, they conquered all the Canaanite cities under the leadership of Joshua. The first half of the Book of Joshua recounts the total defeat of Canaan; the second half of the book describes the division of the land among the tribes of Israelites. The book ends with the whole of Israel coming together at Shechem for a covenant renewal ceremony.
As we, however, open the pages of the Book of Judges, we get a very different picture. It begins with listing of places not yet conquered by Israelites, even territories mentioned earlier by Joshua as already occupied (compare Joshua 11:16-17 and Judges 1:9). Judges as a whole gives the impression of along, continuing battle between the newly arrived Israelites and Canaanites, who continually to hold on to much of the territory; and it is not until the beginning of the monarchy, in the Second Book of Samuel, that King David takes the city of Jerusalem from the Canaanites.
Besides the contradictions between the Books of Joshua and Judges, there are problems reconciling archaeological data with the stories in the Pentateuch, Joshua and Judges. For instance, the Book of Exodus describes a series of catastrophic events in Egypt (the plagues) ending with the death of the firstborn of the Egyptians. If all of these events did take place in the magnitude in which Exodus describes them and all within a short period of time, one would expect it to be recorded in some source other than the Bible. However, no Egyptian records, archeological or otherwise, mention the events of Exodus.
Concerning the wars and victories in of the Israelites in the Book of Joshua, archeological evidence does not support “lighting” or suddend and massive conquest of Canaan. Several cities mentioned as conquered, destroyed and burned by the Israelites show no evidence of destruction. Examples are the cities of Jericho and Ai. The popular story about walls of Jericho crumbling down (Joshua 6:20) could be anything but historical.
Theological rather than Historical
Scholars acknowledge that the biblical story of the beginnings of Israel has a theological rather than historical purpose. It expresses the fulfillment of promises that God made to the chosen people—Abraham, Sarah and his descendants. The center of the promise was that God would give them a land of their own. If the biblical account of the origins of ancient Israel is not history in the modern sense of the term, what is the historical origin of these people? In order to understand better the world of the author, scholars are also interested to know where the Israelites came from. With the recent archeological discoveries in Palestine and in Egypt, scholars today have a wider view of the issue and have developed three models to explain Israelite beginnings.
The Conquest Model – William Foxwell Albright
The Conquest model is based primarily on the Book of Joshua. W.F. Albright, an American archeologist in the first half of the twentieth century was mainly responsible for articulating this model and finding archeological support for it. According to this theory, the story in the Pentateuch to Joshua is based on underlying history; the Israelites came out of slavery in Egypt and, after some years of migration through the desert, invaded Canaan from the east. Albright cited archeological evidence to support the historicity of the conquest. He pointed to excavations of several large Canaanite cities that showed evidence of destruction like Debir, Bethel, Lachish, and especially Hazor (see Joshua 11:11).
Albright’s views had been influential for many years. Even today, many Fundamentalists and conservative Catholics have cited him as proof that the Bible is historically accurate. There has, of course, been much archeological research since Albright’s time, and much of the evidence he used is no longer considered valid. The weakness of this model, as pointed above, is its inability to explain why some major Canaanite cities like Jericho show no archeological evidence of destruction and the and also the different account of the conquest in the Book of Joshua.
Peaceful Infiltration Model—Albrecht Alt
This theory maintains that the early Israelites were nomads from the surrounding regions who gradually and peacefully began to settle in the highlands of Canaan. As these settlements increased, there were occasional battles between the new Israelites and the Canaanite cities, and as the cities declined and Egypt lost control of Canaan, the new Israelite settlers became the dominant force in the land of Canaan.
Albrecht Alt, a German biblical scholar, developed this model based on the stories in Genesis about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who were first nomads before they became Israelites. The early Israelites were also formerly nomads or semi nomads who had migrated into and out of Canaan on a seasonal basis long before they settled in permanent villages. With the decline of the Canaanite city-state system, they were able to occupy the lowlands as well.
The advantage of this Peaceful Infiltration model is solution to the problem of too bloody and violent beginnings of Ancient Israel. Moreover, this gradual process of migration parallels the modern experience of the many migrants all over the world. The problem, however, of this model is that it cannot explain why are the material culture and religion of the Canaanites and migrant Israelites similar if the two came from different cultural backgrounds. The theory also has to explain why the Bible tells a different story of Israelite origins.
Social Revolution Model—George Mendenhall and Norman Gottwald
The theory maintains that most of the early Israelites were not people who came into Canaan from elsewhere but were indigenous Canaanites. The lower-class Canaanites were heavily taxed by the Canaanite kings and had little control over their own lives, so they finally rose up in a violent revolt. The revolt was successful, and these people then established a new decentralized, egalitarian society in the highlands.
It was G. Mendenhall, in a 1962 article, who began to discuss the phenomenon of people politically separating themselves from the dominant rule in Canaan. In subsequent years, Norman Gottwald developed his model in much more detail. His 1979 book, The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250-1050 B.C.E., combined extensive analyses of texts and archaeological data with a sociological study of changing societies.
The beginning of the Israelites can be traced back to lower-class Canaanites like peasant farmers, sheep and goat herders, itinerant metalworkers, priests renegade from the official urban-based cults, and mercenaries, and other nomads who were living in an oppressive Egyptian feudal system of the Canaanite city-states in the thirteenth century. These marginalized people wanted more freedom, economic and political independence from the city-states. They had withdrawn or fled from the oppressive economic and social conditions of the coastal plain and fertile valleys and settled in the rugged, rocky hill countries where sought to recreate new way of living characterized by equality, freedom, sharing goods, stronger family ties, respect for everyone, and belief in one God called El.
This newly formed egalitarian community is strengthened further with the arrival of a small group of refugees from Egypt under the leadership of a man named Moses. These refugees brought with them their stories and memories of a god called Yahweh, who had liberated from slavery and forced labor under the pharaoh. The Canaanites who had experienced similar situations of domination or virtual slavery adopted the Egyptian refugee’s story as their own. They also began to worship Yahweh as their patron deity who stands by the poor and frees the oppressed.
The Social Revolution model has been criticized for going too far beyond the evidence and for imposing modern ideology, particularly Marxist ideology, on the process. But it has been influential in leading biblical scholars to make more use of the social sciences and to focus attention on the Canaanites themselves as the possible people from which Israel emerged. Moreover, this model is relevant to the so-called “third world” countries characterized by massive poverty, economic injustice, and inequality; the many political, economic or religious refugees and displaced people around the world; indigenous and tribal minorities who had been forced in the past to go up in the mountains to avoid the oppressive system of the lowlanders; and the many urban squatters who are forced to be relocated far away from their places of work in the name of development.
A. Ceresko follows the the model proposed by G. Mendenhall and N. Gottwald. It is for this reason that he suggests to read the Old Testament, in particular, the Pentateuch as a literature that records Israel’s struggle for liberation. Israel’s God has acted in history to liberate his people, to be free to worship him. The Pentateuch, therefore, is a protest literature to challenge an oppressive situation of the past, yet it is also testimony of Ancient Israel’s struggle for justice, peace, and integrity of life and creation.
John J. McDermott, What Are They Saying About the Formation of Israel? (New York/Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1998).
Anthony R. Ceresko, Introduction to the Old Testament: A Liberation Perspective (revised and expanded Edition;
Quezon City: Claretians, 2001).
Randolf C. Flores, “Theories on Israelite Origins” (unpublished paper, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1996).