Dr. Thomas McCall, the Senior Theologian of our ministry, has written many articles for the Levitt Letter. He holds a Th.M. in Old Testament studies and a Th.D. in Semitic languages and Old Testament. He has served as Zola’s co-author, mentor, pastor, and friend for nearly 30 years.
This article appeared originally in the September 1996 Levitt Letter.
Recent discoveries at Hazor in northern Israel may go a long way toward proving to the world the accuracy of the biblical account of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan.
Most evangelical Christians are amazed to learn how the majority of modern archaeologist/historians approach the history of ancient Israel. They do not accept the record of events in the Bible as factual. From their point of view, there was no Davidic dynasty. In fact, there was no King David, no Joshua, and no Moses. They tell us there was no exodus from Egypt under Moses, no conquest of the land under Joshua, and all of the events described in the Pentateuch and the book of Joshua were imaginative stories that were written after the Babylonian captivity. For these historians, David and his exploits were also just further inventions by Jewish mythologists who felt a need to create national heroes apart from accurate history. They think that Moses, Joshua and David in Israel’s ancient writings are not true historical persons, but are rather the equivalent of Hercules in Greek mythology.
In effect, most modern historians assume from the start that the Bible is not historically accurate. They will only accept as authentic history what may be seen in the excavations of archaeology. As far as they are concerned, if they cannot find evidence of a historic event or person in the mounds of the ancient civilizations that they have uncovered, then that person or event never existed. They think it is unscientific to conduct archaeology otherwise, and that it is beneath the dignity of science to try to “prove the Bible” through archaeological discoveries.
Thus, these scholars have developed a “history” of Israel and the Bible lands that bears little resemblance to the history written in the Scriptures. One critical discrepancy is that they do not believe that there ever was a massive Jewish army under Joshua that crossed the Jordan and conquered the land of Canaan in a great sweep during a few years’ time. Instead, the modern historians have constructed a scenario in which the Jews never had such an army, but rather slipped into Canaan in nomadic fashion and gradually took over the country through population growth during a period of centuries. A recent Jerusalem Post article concerning the ancient site of Hazor illustrates these two competing views of the early history of Israel:
An archive would shed light on the highly developed Canaanite civilization which the primitive Israelites overwhelmed — whether by the sword, as the Bible tells us, or by slow infiltration, which has become the scholarly consensus in recent years.
Not all archaeologists agree with the scholarly consensus. During the hundred or so years of the development of archaeological science, there have been several Christians and Jews who have approached their work from a biblical perspective. They accept the basic historical framework of the Bible and endeavor to place whatever discoveries are made within that general structure, rather than try to impose some new framework upon the evidence.
This has resulted in two approaches to archaeology in Bible lands: the majority minimalist view, which accepts only the minimal amount of biblical material as authentic history; and the minority maximalist view, which accepts most, if not all, of the Bible as accurate in its historical references.
Gradually over the years, the minimalists have grudgingly had to accept more and more of the Bible as accurate, since every new archaeological find has tended to substantiate the biblical account. The great discoveries of the Herodian structures in Jerusalem and Caesarea, for instance, and the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, have demonstrated even to the greatest skeptic the authenticity of many of the New Testament descriptions of the Second Temple era.
In more recent times, excavations in Jerusalem and Megiddo (to name just a couple) have uncovered strong evidence concerning the First Temple period, and discoveries in Syria and Egypt have confirmed many of the conditions described in the patriarchal era of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In the last few years, stunning evidence has come to light that establishes the historicity of King David and his royal dynasty. The “House of David” stone that was discovered in Dan (and which was featured in our TV series of the same name), proves to all but a few diehard minimalists that there really was a King David who founded a long-lasting dynasty in Jerusalem.
The remaining historical battleground is the crucial period spanning the Exodus from Egypt, the Joshua conquest, and the time of the Judges. The maximalists accept all of the above as history but have not been able to produce much evidence to support this view. The minimalists do think that the book of Judges is somewhat historical. They actually believe that it is an alternative, and more correct, description of how the Jewish people came to possess the land of Canaan, rather than the account presented in the book of Joshua. One problem with this theory is that the Scriptures indicate that the period of the Judges was about 400 years (1400–1000 B.C.), while the minimalists try to compress this entire period into about 250 years (1250–1000 B.C).
At any rate, very little evidence has come to light in Israel regarding this segment of time. I think the main reason for this is that under Joshua, Israel destroyed most of the Canaanite cities and did not occupy them. The Israelis were agricultural people and for the most part spread out into the countryside. They did not try to rebuild the old Canaanite cities until after the monarchies of Judah and Israel were established. Thus, there is a gap in time between the evidence for the Canaanite occupation of some of these cities and the later Israeli occupation.
This brings us to Hazor, one of the main Canaanite cities in the far north of the land that Joshua conquered. It is located by the fertile, well-watered area of the Huleh Valley, about nine miles north of the Sea of Galilee and fifteen miles south of Dan. Jabin was the King of the city-state of Hazor at the time of Joshua, and he dominated the entire area of northern Canaan. King Jabin organized a huge resistance to the army of Joshua:
“And it came to pass, when Jabin, king of Hazor, had heard those things, that he sent to … the kings that were on the north … and they went out, they and all their hosts with them, many people, even as the sand that is upon the seashore in multitude, with horses and chariots very many. And when all these kings were met together, they came and pitched together at the waters of Merom, to fight against Israel.” (Josh. 11:1–5)
This organized resistance was not successful, however, and Joshua’s army, empowered by the Lord, was able to defeat King Jabin: “and he burned Hazor with fire” (Josh. 11:11). Archaeologists have been excavating the tel (archaeological site) of Hazor for several decades, but only recently have they located the palace of the king. The building is marked by its great size (about 90 feet x 120 feet), and a layer of charred wood suggests that there was a parquet-type floor in the palace that was burned, probably when Joshua destroyed the city.
The Israeli archaeologist in charge, Amnon Ben-Tor, has discovered several clay-tablet inscriptions in Hazor. He is on the verge of excavating the royal palace, where he hopes to find archives, as indicated in a recent AP story:
Hebrew University professor Amnon Ben-Tor, head of the excavation, said Monday that the tablets and other evidence point to the existence of two royal archives at the site in as-yet unexcavated palace rooms.
The discovery of such archives would be unprecedented in the Holy Land and would provide a wealth of information about life in the Canaanite period.
They have not yet found or penetrated the archives, but hope to do so in the next season. What gives the workers optimism is the fact that archives have been discovered in the palaces of similar ancient cities in the Middle East that have been excavated. In a Jerusalem Post article, Ben-Tor explains this correlation between the palace at Hazor and the palaces found in other ancient cities:
The map Amnon Ben-Tor held in one hand was that of the royal palace of Hatzor being excavated around him. His other hand gripped the map of a palace excavated elsewhere in the Middle East.
“The buildings are identical,” he said, pointing out the similarity of room layout to a visiting colleague and a journalist last week. One of the rooms of the other palace was marked with a star. “That’s where they found their archive,” he said. The equivalent room in the Hatzor palace lay just a few meters from him, still unexcavated.
The clay inscriptions already discovered in Hazor prove that the city being excavated is, indeed, Hazor. They also show the political and economic commerce that existed between Hazor and the other major cities of Canaan and Mesopotamia, such as Mari.
Up to this point, the discovery of archives and inscriptions has been rare in Israel, so if the archaeologists do find a trove of inscriptions in Hazor, it will truly be a breakthrough. The more of this kind of discovery that comes to light, the harder it will be for the world to deny the historicity of the Joshua invasion of Canaan in particular, and the truthfulness of the Bible in general.