Your Take: Dever on Israel’s Emergence

While I’m traveling, I thought I might provoke readers with a statement written by William G. Dever in his article “Archaeology, Syro-Palestinian and Biblical,” published in 1992 in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, page 366.

Thus the book of Joshua and the works of the Deuteronomistic historians (Joshua-Kings) portray the emergence of Israel in Canaan as the result of a sudden, unified military conquest of the Twelve-Tribe League under the leadership of Joshua—a miraculous gift of Yahweh. Archaeological evidence, however, shows beyond doubt that most Late Bronze Age Canaanite sites in Palestine were not destroyed ca. 1200 B.C., and that nearly all the identifiable early Israelite settlements were established peacefully on virgin soil (Finkelstein AIS). Therefore, from the point of the secular historian, the ascendancy of Israel was part of a gradual, exceedingly complex process of socioeconomic change on the Late Bronze–Iron I horizon, not a “miracle” at all.

How many problems do you see with this statement? How does bad Bible reading lead him to faulty conclusions? What parts of his statement are true?

Bethel excavation, 1954, house from Judges period, mat13006

Excavations at Bethel (Beitin), once believed to support the late date theory of the conquest
Source: The American Colony and Eric Matson Collection, volume 1

5 thoughts on “Your Take: Dever on Israel’s Emergence

  1. Only a few cities were destroyed (Jericho, Hazor, etc.), the rest continued as usual, but with new residents. So we shouldn't be looking for massive destruction as a result of the military conquest.

  2. Actually, as far as I can tell, from the biblical text alone we do not know whether or not to look for widespread destructions or not. In the north, we are told that unlike the other cities, only Hazor was burned. But in the center and south, the Bible does not explicitly state that Jericho and Ai were the only cities that were burned. Perhaps we are only told about the destruction of these two cities, when in fact there many other destructions that are not mentioned. This is where archaeology has provided further information to help us understand what is going on–apparently there were not widespread destructions, though there still could be another one here and another one there that are not mentioned in the Bible.

    The Bible also tells us that Jerusalem was burned and the city of Zephath was destroyed (Judges 1:8, 17). I am not entirely sure when this happened but the setting seems to be sometime during the period of tribal settlement. At some later time, Laish is burned as well (Judges 18:27).

  3. If this same article were written today, it would be even less forgivable (if we can forgive Dever's misreading) given the fact that conservative scholars for a few decades(?) now have been producing much more careful readings of Joshua's "conquest" account.

  4. @ AD – I think that the following passage is what the author of Joshua's Campaigns has in view – “And when the LORD your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—with great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, then take care lest you forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
    (Deuteronomy 6:10–12 ESV)

    The point is that they were going to inherit "live-in-ready" housing – which is likely why the author of Joshua uses "defeated with the edge of the sword" (e.g. Josh. 10:32; 35) in describing many of the other defeated cities – whereas Ai, Jericho and Hazor were explicitly burned. Those other cities like Lachish, Gezer and Makkedah seem to have been set apart for Israelite habitation in the mind of the author. And even though that this actually did not occur in most cases, as Israel primarily took up residence in Judah and Ephraim and Manasseh, that does change the reality of the previous "battle plan" (Deut. 6:10) or the fact that only Hazor, Jericho and Ai were explicitly placed under the "Ban."

    Regardless – Dever's comments reflect a total disregard for the detail of the record by assuming what a conquest "should look like." It's as if he is saying despite what the text explicitly says – here is what the historical kernel really ought to be – since there is no evidence of a widespread conquest then there is no evidence for the historicity of Joshua.

  5. To assume that they would burn a city that they had taken by force is presumptuous.

    The biblical record says specifically that they lived in houses they they had not built and reaped in gardens they had not sown.

    The analysis made by Gever and Finkelstein is careless, at best.

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