The emergence of Israel as a nation in Canaan has been a matter of debate among biblical scholars and archaeologists. Scholars differ on their views on the historicity of Israel’s exodus from Egypt as well as the interpretation of the narrative in the book of Joshua about Israel’s settlement in Canaan.
While evangelicals tend to accept the events narrated in the Bible as historical and trustworthy, some scholars refuse to accept the biblical account as historical and accurate. Many of these negative views about the biblical account are based on the evaluation of the archaeological work carried out on many of the sites mentioned in the book of Joshua.
In his book, How Israel Became a People (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013), my friend Ralph K. Hawkins deals with most of the issues that have divided scholars. In their attempt to understand how Israel became a people, scholars have developed different theories to explain the biblical text and to relate them to the data that have been produced by archaeologists.
Hawkins begins by defining the two main positions taken by scholars in this controversy. One group has been classified as “maximalists.” This group is composed mostly of evangelical scholars who take a high view of Scripture and believe that the accounts of the conquest narrated in the book of Joshua are trustworthy.
A second group is classified as “minimalists” or “revisionists.” These scholars believe that Israel’s exodus from Egypt never took place and that the conquest of Canaan as narrated in the book of Joshua does not agree with the archaeological evidence available to scholars.
Hawkins believes that these classifications are unsatisfactory because there are many scholars who cannot be classified among one group or the other. He wrote: “There are those who accept the biblical account of these events as literally and completely true, those who believe they never happened, and a whole range of ‘in between’ views.” The problem, as Hawkins sees, is that most people who seek to interpret the biblical text come to this process with their own presuppositions and fail to give attention to views that differ from their own.
Hawkins’ book is divided into ten chapters, each dealing with an area of controversy that has divided scholars.
Chapter 1: “Why Must We Reconstruct the History of the Israelite Settlement” (pages 1-28).
In this chapter Hawkins studies the concept of history and concludes that the biblical account of the conquest is historiography, that is, a religious interpretation of historical events. The book of Joshua contains history, but a history that “is kerygmatic in nature” (p. 27).
Chapter 2: “Classical and Recent Models of the Israelite Settlement” (pages 29-48).
In this chapter, Hawkins discussed several models that seek to explain Israel’s settlement in Canaan: the Conquest Model was advocated by William F. Albright; The Peaceful Infiltration Model was developed by Albrecht Alt. My archaeology professor, Joseph Callaway, “concluded that the theories of Alt provided the best starting point for understanding the early Israelites” (p. 39). The Social Revolution Model was developed by George E. Mendenhall and modified by another one of my professors, Norman K. Gottwald. Hawkins also discusses several other recent models, which he says, are combinations of these three models.
Chapter 3: “The Date of the Exodus-Conquest Part I: Biblical Evidence” (pages 49-66).
In this chapter Hawkins discusses the date of the Exodus. The early date of the Exodus is based on 1 Kings 6:1, while the late date is based on Exodus 1:11. Hawkins concludes that the mention of Rameses in Exodus places the exodus and the conquest in the thirteenth century rather than in the fifteenth century B.C.E.
Chapter 4: “The Date of the Exodus-Conquest Part II: Extrabiblical Evidence” (pages 67-90).
Hawkins concludes that the mention of Israel in the Merneptah stele suggests that Israel was in Canaan by 1210 B.C.E., the date of Egypt’s incursion into Canaan.
Chapter 5: “Major Cities of the Conquest” (pages 91-120).
Hawkins discusses many of the cities mentioned in the book of Joshua said to have been conquered by Israel: Jericho (Tell es-Sultan), Ai (el-Tell), Hazor, and Dan (Laish).
In his study of these four cities, Hawkins concludes: “While the evidence from these four sites is mixed, it seems to cohere with the claim of the Hebrew Bible that the emergence of Israel in Canaan involved some efforts on the part of the Hebrews to overtake at least segments of the indigenous population militarily” (p. 120). However, since these are the only places the Bible says were burned by Israel, Hawkins says that “instead of focusing on tell archaeology and the search for more conflagration layers, we should consider looking to the rural countryside, where the vast majority of the newcomers to Canaan lived in the Iron Age I” (p. 120).
Chapter 6: “Reconstructing the Israelite Settlement Archaeologically” (pages 121-136).
This chapter deals with Israelite settlement in Galilee, in the Jezreel and Beth-Shean Valleys, in the central hill-country, in the Negev desert, and in the territory allotted to Manasseh. Hawkins concludes that the archaeological evidence shows that “these highland settlements were Israelites” (p. 135).
Chapter 7: “The Material Culture and Ethnicity of the Highland Settlers” (pages 137-158).
In this chapter Hawkins seeks to identify the ethnicity of the highland settlers by studying settlement patterns, the four-room house, pottery, and the food system of the settlers. The result seems to indicate that the Israelites saw themselves as a distinct people from the original inhabitants of the land.
Chapter 8: “‘Izbert Sartah: A Prototypical Israelite Settlement Site” (pages 159-174).
‘Izbert Sartah was a small village located on the western side of the central hill-country. Hawkins chose to focus on ‘Izbert Sartah because the village serves as a prototype of the many villages where the people of Israel lived during the Iron Age I period. After studying the site, Hawkins concludes that “the village of ‘Izbert Sartah is dissimilar to those of its neighbors in the coastal plain in a number of respect, and similar to those of the earliest Israelites” (p. 171).
Chapter 9: “Early Israelite Sanctuaries and the Birth of a Nation” (pages 175-188).
Hawkins studies several of the cultic sites in early Israel giving attention at the enclosure located on Mount Ebal because the site played an important part on the formation of Israel as a nation united under the worship of Yahweh.
Chapter 10: “A Culture-Scale Model of the Early Israelite Settlement” (pages 189-206).
In his final chapter, Hawkins brings together the biblical and archaeological data studied in the previous nine chapters to “articulate a theory of Israelite emergence in Canaan” (p. 189).
In his synthesis of the evidence, Hawkins wrote:
In this discussion we have seen that the Israelites migrated into Canaan from the east, and because of the Canaanite presence in the lowlands, they concentrated their settlement in the hill-country. But despite the fact that Israel’s process of settlement was such that they confined themselves to the hill-country for some time, this turned out to be propitious, for it was there, in relative isolation, that they were able to focus on the sapienization process, which led to the development of Israelite culture. It was in the highlands that the specific traits of the culture developed (four-room house, austere pottery, and so forth), by which the Israelites defined themselves in contrast to other people groups around them (p. 204).
One strong point of this book is that the author presents the various arguments of the people involved in this debate. He gives the views of evangelical scholars who believe in the trustworthiness of the biblical text, the views of those who present a minimalist or revisionist view of the text, and the views of those who are in between. In the end, he presents his own views and conclusions in light of the biblical and archaeological evidence. Hawkins recognizes the merits of the biblical text without rejecting the evidence provided by the archaeological data.
Because of the limitation of time and space, it is difficult to present a detailed summary of the book. I have mentioned this book several times in my class because it deals with issues that scholars, pastors, and seminary students are concerned with. However, anyone who wants to learn more about how Israel became a nation will benefit from reading this book.
The book contains many black and white pictures, a list of the archaeological periods, the names of all the pharaohs of the Eighteenth and the Nineteenth Dynasties, several charts, and a Glossary that explains many of the terms used in the book. For example, the word “sapienization,” mentioned above, is defined as “the process of humanization, or the development of people” (p. 213).
How Israel Became a People is a book worth reading. Those who do so will gain a wealth of information about early Israel.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary