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Where did the Israelites come from? That is a question scholars have investigated and debated for decades. According to the biblical story, Israel’s ancestors are Abraham and Sarah, a couple who travel from Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan. Their grandson, Jacob, and great-grandchildren go to Egypt to escape famine in Canaan and remain there for centuries, becoming enslaved to Pharaoh. Eventually, God raises up the leader Moses to deliver the people and bring them to Canaan where they conquer the land through violence. But, what does archaeology tell us about Israel’s origins, and how does it relate to these biblical narratives?
Archaeological Clues to Israelite origins
Currently the earliest evidence we have for Israel outside the Bible is the Merneptah Stele, a black granite monument that stands ten feet tall. It recounts Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah’s war victories, including an attack on a people called Israel around 1207 BCE. The inscription reads: “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.” This language is common ancient Near Eastern hyperbole for victory. Obviously, Israel was not actually annihilated. The hieroglyphics suggest Israel was a people group living in Canaan, but not yet a State. This means by the end of the 13th century BCE, a group sizable enough to get Egypt’s attention was living in Canaan, possibly as a loose confederation of tribes. How long they had been there, we don’t know.
But how did these people end up in Canaan?
The biblical account reports an escape from Egyptian slavery, wilderness wandering, and a violent conquest for which we do not have any archaeological data. However, around the period of Merneptah’s encounter with the people called Israel (Iron Age I), there was a population explosion in the central highlands of Canaan. Between 1200-1000 BCE, no less than 250 new settlements appeared. The settlements can generally be divided into two sections: the northern Samarian highlands between Jerusalem and the Jezreel Valley and the southern Judean highlands from Jerusalem down to Beersheba. The north was much more densely populated while the Judean hills were sparsely inhabited until Iron Age II (well after 1000 BCE). If all the settlements were inhabited simultaneously that would be about 60,000 people.
The settlements were characterized by large courtyards and a lack of pig bones, indications of a pastoral culture. The courtyards kept the flocks safe. Pigs were avoided because they could not be herded long distances (and possibly because of religious taboos). Pottery in the settlements was the same as the Canaanites’ of the lowlands, but less varied and without painted decorations. Most significantly, these settlements continued to be occupied into Iron Age II, when the Israelite State can be documented definitively. That means the dwellers were almost certainly Israelite or “proto-Israelite” people incorporated into the State.
The question that has puzzled scholars is: why did this rapid settlement develop in the highlands at this time?
Significantly, the appearance of the Israelites in Canaan coincides with the collapse of the Late Bronze Age. The ancient Near East suffered a blow on par with the fall of the Roman Empire. Many factors generated this catastrophe. The largest contributor was drought that led to famine and mass starvation. Natural disasters, including earthquakes, as well as war and disruption in trade occurred. The Sea Peoples, yet unidentified maritime groups, also came into the picture, arriving on the coast of Canaan and attacking Egypt. Dr. Eric Cline states this traumatic period unfolded from about 1250-1130 BCE, but reached its pinnacle in 1177 BCE. Two major powers in Canaan, the Egyptians and Hittites, withdrew, leaving a power vacuum. Apparently, the Israelites and other smaller groups benefited from the new autonomy. Without foreign overlords the “little guys” developed into stronger entities, including the eventual State of Israel.
But did the Late Bronze Age collapse cause new settlements in the highlands? Or were there other factors?
Scholars have proposed various theories for the Israelites’ appearance in the highlands. It is beyond the scope of this post to capture all of them with their nuances. But a few overall perspectives can be highlighted. Essentially, the theories make claims that either:
1) the Israelites were outsiders who came into Canaan or
2) the Israelites were native Canaanites who eventually formed a distinct identity.
The theories also make claims that the appearance was either:
1) sudden or
2) gradual over time.
Possible theories include:
1. Migrants from Transjordan (external & gradual)
- The Israelites were nomadic pastoralists who gradually moved in from the Transjordan region (some would consider this external, others acknowledge Transjordan populations to be Canaanite and, therefore, internal).
- Overpopulation of nomadic tribes led to expansion into the highlands of Canaan.
- Possibly the Israelites were “Shasu” (nomadic pastoralists) or habiru (nomads or Stateless rebels) mentioned in Egyptian records.
- The Shasu groups showed up at Egypt’s Nile Delta for sustenance, just as many West-Semitic peoples did. Thus, a possible route could include Egypt → Transjordan → Highlands of Canaan.
- Weakness in theory: Overpopulation leading to expansion does not seem likely. Also, a theory of gradual emergence does not account for the unique influx of the highland settlements, not only in Canaan but in Transjordan where the Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites eventually appeared.
2. Invaders from Sinai (external & sudden)
- The Israelites were outsiders who invaded Canaan after fleeing Egypt (per biblical story).
- A couple cities can possibly be identified as destroyed by Israel, such as Hazor.
- Weakness in theory: Overwhelmingly, the majority of cities the biblical record says Israel conquered show no archaeological evidence to support the claim, including Jericho and Ai. Also, key geographical areas on the biblical exodus route have been excavated by archaeologists with no relevant results (e.g. Kadesh-barnea; Num 20:1; 27:14; 33:36; Deut 32:51). Moreover, the settlement influx similarly affected the Transjordan, which suggests that whatever the cause, it was not unique to the Israelites. The biblical descriptions themselves contain contradictory impressions—sudden vs. gradual dominance, complete victory vs. inability to conquer the inhabitants (e.g. see Joshua 10:40 and 11:23 vs. 13:1; see also the account of Hazor in Joshua 11:10-11 vs. Judges 4:1).
3. Canaanites responding to socio-economic shifts (internal & gradual)
- The Israelites were native Canaanites.
- Natural shifts occurred between sedentary lifestyle (lowlands) and nomadic pastoral lifestyle (highlands) depending on the ebb and flow of socio-economic conditions.
- The settlements in the highlands represent a cyclical shift toward a nomadic pastoral lifestyle.
- Material remains in the highlands are Canaanite and show no foreign influence, bolstering the theory that the Israelites were local people and not outsiders.
- Weakness in theory: The suggestion that the highland settlements were part of a natural cycle of sedentary and nomadic lifestyles does not attend enough to the unique effects of the Late Bronze Age collapse. And it does not account for why the Israelites had a non-Canaanite god. Where did Yahweh come from?
4. Canaanites responding to crises (internal & sudden)
- The Israelites were Canaanite peasants who fled crisis situations in the lowlands.
- Possible internal fighting among various Canaanite city-States.
- Possible uprisings against Canaanite overlords.
- Intrusion of the Sea Peoples or other marauding groups following the withdrawal of Egyptian control.
- Weakness in theory: The population of the lowlands may not have been sufficient to supply the numbers seen in the highlands.
So, what does this mean for the biblical story? Is it possible the Israelites came out of Egypt?
Archaeology shows that many different West Semitic peoples went to the Nile Delta during times of famine or need. In fact, so many of them populated the area that a West Semitic dynasty developed (Hyksos) before being expelled by the Egyptians. The Hyksos dynasty could be the origin of the Joseph story. Also, West Semitic peoples who remained after the expulsion may have been oppressed. Egyptian pictorials show various foreign slaves assigned to brick-making and other tasks, making it feasible that some ancestors of the Israelites experienced slavery. If Exodus 1:11 provides clues, oppression may have occurred during new building projects under Ramesses II. Finally, the West Semitic peoples who spent time in the Nile Delta region likely retained their own customs; this could explain why there are no Egyptian influences in the highland settlements.
On the other hand, if Moses was raised as an Egyptian and the Israelites spent hundreds of years in slavery employing the skills of Egyptian construction and agriculture for Egyptian projects, the lack of any Egyptian influence at the settlements is curious. Also, a dramatic escape of biblical proportions is unlikely because Canaan itself was under Egyptian control at the time. While a handful of slaves might escape unnoticed, a large group of thousands trying to settle in Egyptian occupied territory would not. In fact, Ramesses II made a treaty with the Hittites (the other dominate power bordering Canaan) that required returning any escaped slaves (c. 1275 BCE; Treaty of Kadesh).
Surprisingly, the biblical authors never mention Egypt’s 300-year domination of Canaan. The Egyptians did not withdraw until around 1150 BCE well after the Israelites were already in the land. Thus, any proto-Israelites in Egypt likely participated in the same cyclical patterns as other West Semitic peoples who traveled to and from the Nile Delta, some who may have been caught in forced labor for a season. Egypt was also known to transport prisoners of war from Canaan to work as slaves. It’s plausible that West Semitic peoples intentionally made their way out of Egypt when conditions in the Nile Delta region were no longer favorable. Those conditions may have been caused by oppressive measures of a pharaoh. But the Israelites would not have been alone in leaving Egypt and returning to the Levant region. Different groups came and went. Eventually, as they settled in Canaan, clashes with other peoples may have occurred, but not to the extent embellished in the biblical conquest accounts.
In essence, the people who became Israel may have languished in Egypt before traveling to Canaan. But, Egypt was also an oppressive force against the Israelites within Canaan, as evident from the Merneptah Stele. So, whether outsiders or native Canaanites, the Israelites did contend with pharaoh and eventually got their freedom, thanks in large part to the Late Bronze Age collapse.
Want to Learn More? Check out these video lectures by established scholars on Israelite origins:
Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar both presented papers that led to the publication of the book The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel, an excellent resource.
UCSD Conference on the Exodus included numerous top scholars in the field and all the video lectures are available online.
Sources for this essay:
Bill T. Arnold and Richard S. Hess, ed., Ancient Israel’s History: An Introduction to Issues and Sources (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014).
William Dever, “The Exodus and the Bible: What Was Known, What Was Remembered, What Was Forgotten?” Paper delivered at Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination Conference. University of California, San Diego. May 31-June 3, 2013.
Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar, The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel, ed. Brian B. Schmidt (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007).
Victor H. Matthews, A Brief History of Ancient Israel (Louisville: WJK Press, 2002).
James Weiner, “What Caused the Bronze Age Collapse?” Ancient History et cetera, May 2015.
 Overwhelmingly, scholars place Israel’s emergence in Canaan in the 13th century BCE. However, there is a very small minority of scholars who argue for a 15th century appearance. For an evangelical response to the 15th century argument, see Hoffmeier, “What is a Biblical Date for the Exodus? A Response to Bryant Wood.”
 One of these groups can be identified as the Philistines who may have come from Greece. Their customs were distinctive and much easier to discern in archaeological data. This is in contrast with Canaanite remains, where distinguishing different Canaanite groups from each other in Iron Age I, including the Israelites, is very difficult.
 The biblical authors say the Israelites left Egypt with “a mixed multitude” (Exod 12:38), reflecting the reality that different West Semitic people were in the Nile Delta area. Possibly, a departure from Egypt happened gradually over time in various groups.
 Possibly, the exodus story retains a kernel memory of Egypt’s expulsion of the Hyksos from the Nile Delta around 1550 BCE. The Hyksos was a West Semitic dynasty that had gained power in the Nile region—perhaps the origins of the Joseph story and his authority. But this was an expulsion, not an escape. And the people were in power, not slaves. Moreover, the 16th century is too early for an Israelite emergence in Canaan.