Changes in Canaan (Judges 7)

During the course of the period of the judges (ca. 1400-1050 B.C.), major political, social and economic changes impacting the Israelite tribes took place throughout the Mediterranean region. When the Israelites entered Canaan they encountered fortified city-states. On the eve of their entry Moses warned them that they were going in to face great cities fortified “to the sky” (Deuteronomy 9:1). Israel managed to subdue the highlands, leaving that area near deviod of any urban population. Urban centres, however, remained intact in the lowlands.

In the late thirteenth century B.C., for reasons not totally understood, urban cultures throughout the Mediterranean began to collapse. Beginning in the twelfth century B.C. a new culture appeared in Canaan – small, unwalled, agricultural villages dispersed across the landscape. Archaeologists refer to this as the Iron Age I period.

These agricultural centres provide the first tangible archaeologic evidence for Israel’s presence in Canaan. Prior to the twelfth century B.C., evidence for Israel’s existence in the land is virtually impossible to find. Also, we have no records in the Bible or elsewhere of God’s people encountering the Egyptian forces that sometimes swept through Canaan during the Late Bronze Age. The first documented encounter, in fact, does not occur until the time of Merneptah at the end of the thirteenth century.

A group of scholars, therefore, believes that Israel did not exist in the land until about 1200 B.C. Some maintain that the Israelite nation emerged from the indigenous Canaanite population at the this time. This theory totally dismisses as nonhistorical the Biblical record of the patriarchs, Egyptian sojourn, wilderness wanderings, conquests and the period of the early judges.

While it is true that there is sparse evidence for the Israelites in the land of Canaan during the Late Bronze Age, several identifiable factors may reasonably account for this:

  • For the first 200 years of their existence in Canaan, the Israelites had no material culture of their own. The generation that had departed from Egypt equipped with knowledge of building techniques, crafts, etc, had died out during the 40 years of wilderness wandering. Those who entered Canaan, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, had been born and raised as shepherds in the Sinai wilderness. Thus, during the early period of the judges (fourteenth and thirteenth century B.C.) the Israelites, although present, were archaeologically “invisible”.
  • The rural, pastoral existence of the early Israelites is not likely to have left much behind in the way of material evidence.
  • The number of Israelites who entered Canaan may have been relatively small. The issue here is how we are to understand the census figures given in Numbers 1. It is possible that the total number of Israelites departing Egypt was only around 20,000; if so, their archaeological impact upon entering Canaan would have been minimal.
  • Some of the language of the book of Joshua is misleading to the modern reader, and this problem is compounded by the picture of “Israel During the Period of the Judges” typically shown on Bible maps. We get the impression that the Israelites ruled all the territory that had been allotted to them by Joshua and that they were a unified nation with fixed borders. This perception is entirely erroneous. Joshua’s allotment represented the ultimate, ideal situation, but many areas were never conquered. The tribe of Dan, for example, was totally unable to secure its prearranged territory.
  • Because the Israelites tended to be rural and pastoral in their lifestyle, and because they settled in the highlands, they tended to be bypassed by major military forces sweeping throughout the area, such as the army of the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II (ca. 1279-1213 B.C.). These frequently nomadic shepherds and herdsmen were much more likely to be troubled by local enemies like the Amalekites (Judges 6-7) and the Ammonites (Judges 10-11).

There are limits to what archaeology can tell us about early Israel. However, what information this discipline does provide corresponds well with a careful reading of the Biblical account.


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