When Did the Israelites Arrive in the Promised Land?

The debate about the date of the Exodus, conquest of Canaan, and establishment of Israel as a nation: What does Bible chronology say? And does the material on the ground offer any evidence?
The Israelites cross the Jordan River on their way into the Promised Land. (Gustave Doré, 1866)
Public Domain

When did the Exodus and Israelites’ entry into Canaan take place? That’s a contentious question—not to mention whether or not it did happen.

The general scholarly consensus puts an “Exodus” and Israelite establishment in Canaan during the 13th century (the 1200s) b.c.e., as the following examples show:

  • “Exodus, the liberation of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt in the 13th century b.c.e.” (Encyclopedia Britannica, “Exodus”).
  • “C. 13th century, Exodus from Egypt” (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, “Facts About Israel”).
  • “Moses (c. 1350-1250 b.c.), Hebrew prophet and lawgiver. Transformed a wandering people into a nation” (U.S. Capitol Relief portrait summary).
  • “Most scholars … date this possible exodus group to the 13th century b.c.e. at the time of Ramses ii” (Wikipedia, “The Exodus”).
  • “Semitic immigrant workers in Egypt … may have drifted back to Syria-Canaan in the 13th century for a variety of reasons” (National Geographic, “We May Now Know Which Egyptian Pharaoh Challenged Moses”).
  • “This event, had it been true, is generally held to have taken place toward the end of the 13th century b.c.e.” (Psychology Today, “Why the Exodus Story Has Value Despite Being Complete Myth”).

In looking for evidence on the ground in Canaan from this 13th century, however, archaeologists generally cite a dearth of evidence. As such, while the “general scholarly consensus” puts the biblical Exodus and entry in the 13th century, the general consensus is also that it did not happen.

  • “[With] a lack of evidence for Joshua’s conquests in the 13th century b.c. and the indistinguishable nature of pottery, architecture, literary conventions and other cultural details between the Canaanites and the new settlers … the case for a literal reading of Exodus all but collapses” (Los Angeles Times, “Doubting the Story of Exodus”).
  • “It’s just an autochthonous group at the end of the 13th century sitting there somewhere in the highlands [of Canaan]” (Haaretz, “For You Were (Not) Slaves In Egypt”).
  • “The consensus of modern scholars is that the Bible does not give an accurate account of the origins of the Israelites” (Wikipedia, “The Exodus”).
  • “The Exodus did not happen as written in the Bible during the 13th century” (Prof. Israel Finkelstein).

As archaeologists Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman write in their book The Bible Unearthed, “The conclusion—that Exodus did not happen at the time and in the manner described in the Bible—seems irrefutable … repeated excavations and surveys throughout the entire area have not provided even the slightest evidence.”

But did you know that the Bible does not state that the Exodus occurred in the 13th century b.c.e.? In fact, biblical chronology shows that the Exodus in no way could have happened during the 13th century. So should it be any surprise that the 13th-century finds on the ground do not match the biblical Exodus? (Such a lack of finds for this period, then, only serves to corroborate the biblical account.) How can the Bible be condemned for something antithetical to what it says?

Let’s examine what the Bible says about when the Israelite Exodus and arrival in Canaan happened, how the 13th century date came into vogue, and where any corroborative evidence lies.

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What Bible Chronology Says

The period of the Israelite kings has been well established, pairing the detailed biblical chronological information with datable archaeological discoveries. Numerous foreign inscriptions mention contemporaneous kings. King Ahab, for example, is mentioned on the Kurkh Monolith in the context of the Battle of Qarqar (853 b.c.e.), linking his reign to several other regional rulers and chronologies. There is also the Black Obelisk, mentioning the tribute of King Jehu (841 b.c.e.).

The Kurkh Monolith
Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum

Taking such information and extrapolating the biblical chronologies back gives us a good fix for the united monarchy of Israel under kings David and Solomon, universally recognized as relating to the 10th century b.c.e. More specifically, with Solomon’s reign beginning in 971 b.c.e. and his temple building commencing in 967 b.c.e. (2 Chronicles 3:2). This date of 967 b.c.e. is the widely-recognized date for the construction of the temple, and has been refined right down to the nearest year, not only by ancient artifacts and biblical chronologies, but also independently of both—using the remarkably agreeing data preserved by historians of classical antiquity (based variously on how the temple date relates to their records of the establishment of Rome, Carthage, Tyre, and the fall of Troy). This fascinating subject will be covered in a future article.

And that date of 967 b.c.e. is critical to this discussion. 1 Kings 6:1 reads: “And it came to pass in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel were come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month Ziv, which is the second month, that he began to build the house of the Lord.” From here, it is simple math: 480 years earlier than 967 b.c.e. brings us to an Exodus date of circa 1447–1446 b.c.e. Subtract the 40 years of sojourn in the wilderness (i.e., Joshua 5:6), and that brings us to an entry into Canaan around 1407–1406 b.c.e.

That’s nowhere near the 13th century. That’s two centuries earlier, the 15th century b.c.e.

1 Kings 6:1 is pretty black-and-white. And so some, naturally, have wondered if the author of this passage was simply mistaken, or if this scripture was merely a symbolic, generational number. Besides the peculiarity of this suggestion: Is there any other internal biblical evidence, for or against?

One of the later biblical “judges” on the scene, before the monarchical period, was Jephthah (Judges 11-12). Based on the internal dates in the book of Judges, he would have been on the scene about a century before David, around 1100 b.c.e. During his time as judge, a territorial dispute with the Ammonites arose over land that Israel had conquered just before Moses’s death. Jephthah questioned the timing of the Ammonite king’s desire to reclaim the land: “While Israel dwelt in [this area] by the side of the Arnon, three hundred years; wherefore did ye not recover [it] within that time?” (Judges 11:26). Israel, to that point, had already been in the land roughly 300 years.

Again, the math is simple: 300 years before 1100 b.c.e. gives an entry-into-the-Promised-Land date of about 1400 b.c.e. Forty years of sojourning earlier brings us to the Exodus. Solomon and Jephthah are in precise agreement: The biblical exodus took place in the middle-15th century b.c.e., with the entry into the Promised Land at the end of that century.

Additional Internal Evidence

There are numerous other biblical details that point to the same chronological outcome.

Adding up the internal dates in Judges for the periods of oppression followed by periods of peace equals, at face value, roughly 400 years (Judges 3:8, 11, 14, 30; 4:3; 5:31; 6:1; 8:28; 9:22; 10:2-3, 8; 12:7, 9, 11, 14; 13:1; 16:31). The math isn’t that simple—there would have been some degree of overlap of certain circumstances and events. Still, the general span of events points to a likewise long period of between 300 and 400 years before the monarchical period.

This same refrain is mentioned in the New Testament by Saul (later called Paul)—a man originally educated as a devout Pharisee (Philippians 3:4-6). In one of his first speeches, he summarizes the history of ancient Israel: “And after that he gave unto them judges about the space of four hundred and fifty years …” (Acts 13:20). There is some debate surrounding the translation of this passage; nevertheless, the rounded timeframe is a good fit, when including the first “judge” of Israel, Moses (i.e. Exodus 18:13). The first-century c.e. Jewish historian Josephus, a contemporary of Paul, also allots a similarly long judges period.

Evidence is also in the form of genealogies. 1 Chronicles 6, for example, details 19 generations from the time of the Exodus to the time of David (verses 18-22). If the Exodus really was in the 13th century, that would mean each new generation (in the case of 1 Chronicles 6, each sanctified Levitical generation) was conceived at the average age of 12 years old. The genealogies work out perfectly, however, for a 15th century Exodus—around 25 years old for the father of each successive generation.

In summary, then, the Bible clearly reveals that the Exodus could in no way have happened in the 13th century b.c.e. So where did this date come from? Why is it touted as the period of the biblical Exodus (and at the same time used as evidence against the Bible)?

Ramesses-es and Destructions

Given this internal textual evidence, the foundation for a 13th-century Exodus has to be that the Bible is an inherently flawed, contradicting and unreliable text—hence the necessary dismissal of the above chronological material.

From this starting point, then, 13th-century proponents point in particular to the store cities that the Israelites built while slaves in Egypt, “Pithom and Raamses” (Exodus 1:11). “Rameses” is also used in several other Exodus verses as a geographical marker (i.e. Exodus 12:37; Numbers 33:3-5).

Colossal statue of Ramesses II at his Great Temple of Ramesses
© Ad Meskens | Wikimedia Commons

Pharaohs named Ramesses came on the scene beginning the 13th century b.c.e. (i and ii), on into the 12th (iii). As such, the great Ramesses ii (1279–1213 b.c.e.), one of the greatest pharaohs of Egyptian history, is often identified as the pharaoh of the Exodus. His new capital, “Pi-Ramesses,” is typically identified as the one built by these Israelites. (The even later 12th-century Ramesses iii is also sometimes offered as an alternative pharaoh for the Exodus.) Thus, the biblical account is often regarded as a somewhat hazy, late “remembrance” of enslavement under the rule of this great “builder”-pharaoh.

To go along with that, certain 13th-century b.c.e. destruction layers have been found around Canaan, thus presented as a link to an “Israelite” conquest (keep in mind that more typically in scholarship, the Israelites are simply regarded as another Canaanite faction rising up and overthrowing their fellow Canaanites). We also start to see somewhat of a material change in the archaeological remains from this 13th century onward, in the lead-up to the later monarchical period.

Hence, what is presented as limited “evidence” of a 13th-century “Exodus”/conquest, yet certainly not in terms of the grandeur of the biblical account.

Is there any logical biblical answer to these allegations? Is the Bible in conflict with the external evidence?

Anachronisms

First, let’s take a look at a key point, the place name “Rameses.”

An anachronism is a later, typically better-known name given to something from an earlier, lesser-known time period. It is used quite frequently in history books, ancient and modern. For example, Julius Caesar conquering France; Gaul was its name then, but the anachronism “France” conveys more meaning to a modern audience.

Dan (top), Beersheba (bottom)
AnonMoos

The Bible contains many anachronisms, based on when the various books were compiled and also edited. For example, Abraham and his men are described chasing the Mesopotamian armies northward to “Dan” (Genesis 14:14). This territory was named after Abraham’s great-grandson, some 400 years later during the time of the judges (Judges 18:29). The reason for the anachronistic use is clear in the Bible: “Dan” is one of the most frequently-used border terms, used to describe the northernmost bounds of Israel (with Beersheba on the opposing, southernmost end; e.g. Judges 20:1; 1 Samuel 3:20; 2 Samuel 24:15; 1 Kings 5:5; 2 Chronicles 30:5). Thus, for the later Israelite population to understand just how far north the patriarch Abraham went, the anachronistic term “Dan” was used.

What about Rameses? Based simply on the above dating evidence, the case can easily be made that this geographical name was also anachronistic.

But beyond that: Bible precedent reveals that the place-name Rameses clearly was being used as an anachronistic term. That’s because the same name was also used in the story of Jacob. As far back as Genesis 47:11—several centuries before the Exodus and long before the Israelite slavery began, let alone the building of Rameses itself—we find the geographical term “Rameses” used. Does this mean, then, that the patriarchs Jacob and Joseph must likewise be squeezed into the 13th (or even 12th) century b.c.e.? Of course not. The biblical use of “Rameses” is anachronistic.

Destructions and Assumptions

Are 13th-century city destructions in the Holy Land, and an apparent lack thereof during the earlier 15th century, evidence of a 13th-century invasion of Canaan?

There are a lot of assumptions about how the invasion of Canaan took place. Many appear to be false. Did you know that the biblical invasion of Canaan was not a city-by-city destruction? In fact, the Bible specifies just three cities as being reduced to ashes by the Israelites (Jericho, Ai and Hazor—more on this further down). The Bible actually takes pains to mention the preservation of Canaanite city structures, as opposed to destroying them. Joshua 11:13: “But as for the cities that stood on their mounds, Israel burned none of them, save Hazor only” (this, following the destruction of Jericho and Ai). Instead the Bible describes numerous staged land battles with the Canaanites. City destructions are a good fit with the later, bloody Judges time period.

Joshua commands the sun to stand still during the land battle against “five kings of the hill country.” (Gustave Doré, 1866)
WJ

Besides this, what about the general lack of definitive evidence of cultural change to a new population—change in dwellings, pottery, etc—something that did not start to become more noticeable until the 13th century and beyond? The Bible itself preemptively states that this would be the case.

Deuteronomy 6 reveals that the Israelites would simply move into existing Canaanite cities (again, rather than destroying them), and would continue to use their equipment and work their fields: “[T]o give thee—great and goodly cities, which thou didst not build, and houses full of all good things, which thou didst not fill, and cisterns hewn out, which thou didst not hew, vineyards and olive-trees, which thou didst not plant …” (verses 10-11). In one respect, there would be somewhat of a cultural difference—the abstaining from non-kosher foods (something unique from the Canaanites—as long as the Israelites adhered to those commands). And evidence of this—as well as certain other unique sacrificial peculiarities—has been found (see here for more detail).

Further, the Bible reveals that the Israelites failed to drive out a bulk of the Canaanite population, and even turned to Canaanite paganism themselves (Judges 1-3). Judges 5—according to internal biblical chronology—is set around the 13th century b.c.e. It laments the earlier state of poverty that Israel as a nation was in up to that point: “[T]he highways ceased, And the travellers walked through byways. The rulers ceased in Israel, they ceased …. They chose new gods; Then was war in the gates; Was there a shield or spear seen Among forty thousand in Israel?” (verses 6-8). But then note what occurred during that century—the 13th century b.c.e.: “Awake, awake … Awake, awake … Arise … lead thy captivity captive …. Then made He a remnant [other translations read Israelite survivors] to have dominion over the nobles and the people …” (verses 12-13). The passage proceeds to show the rise of Israel as a larger body out of obscurity and Canaanite oppression—during the 13th century b.c.e.!

Additional External Evidence

But can anything more indicative be said for an entrance of the Israelites into the land of Canaan, at the close of the 15th century/on into the 14th?

As mentioned above, three cities are named as being destroyed at the time of the conquest: Jericho, Ai and Hazor. Fifteenth-century evidence of destruction has been found at Hazor. The exact location of Ai is still unknown and debated. And as for Jericho’s walls that famously “came tumbling down,” archaeological evidence at this site has dramatically shown this very event. The city site was excavated during the 1950s, and the collapsed-outer-wall destruction layer was dated by the excavator to roughly 1550 b.c.e. This dating is slightly earlier than the 15th-century biblical chronology. But it is clearly within the earlier, “correct” biblical Exodus chronology—and in the realm of 3,500 years, in a limited excavation using 1950s techniques and a Bronze Age dating based primarily on what was not found—150 years is virtually synonymous. Further, archaeological evidence since presented points to a more accurate date of the destruction layer to—surprise, surprise—around 1400 b.c.e.

Illustration of the wall-destruction profile at Jericho; “And the wall fell down … and they went up [it] into the city.”
WJ

But as stated above, conquest at this time (circa 1400 b.c.e., on into the 14th century) was primarily in the form of land battles and territorial seizures. While a “lack of physical evidence” is often cited as evidence against an Israelite conquest, this is somewhat misleading because there is an abundance of textual evidence.

Amarna Letters housed at the British Museum.
David Holt

The Amarna Letters are a trove of Canaanite documents dating to the early-mid-14th century b.c.e., uncovered in the Egyptian city of Amarna. The cuneiform tablets were sent from leaders (“mayors”) throughout Canaan to the pharaoh (who largely controlled Canaan at the time). Many of the letters are written in a tone of sheer desperation for military aid, describing the entire land being overrun by an invading people named the Habiru. Here are some examples:

  • “May the king [pharaoh] provide for his land! All the lands of the king, my lord, have deserted …. Lost are all the mayors; there is not a mayor remaining to the king, my lord. The king has no lands. The Habiru have plundered all the lands of the king. If there are archers this year, the lands of the king, my lord, will remain” (letter from the king, or “mayor” of Jerusalem).
  • “Since the Habiru are stronger than we, may the king, my lord, give me his help, and may the king, my lord, get me away from the Habiru lest the Habiru destroy us” (letter from the king of Gezer).
  • “Lost are the territories of the king. Do you not hear to me? All the rulers are lost; the king, my lord, does not have a single ruler left …. The Habiru sack the territories of the king … if there are no archers, the territories of the king, my lord, will be lost!” (Jerusalem).

The name Habiru naturally brings to mind the biblical name Hebrew. (At this point in the Bible story, in naming the identity of the populace, Hebrew is used more often than Israelite.) Note the emphasis, again, on widespread conquered territory—“all the lands of the king.” The identity and full account of the Habiru is worthy of a separate article on the subject; needless to say, the Amarna Letters dramatically parallel the biblical chronology and account in numerous respects.

The Berlin Pedestal
Public Domain

The list of evidence for the establishment of Israel in the land at the end of the 15th century/first half of the 14th century could go on. There is the 13th-century Merneptah Stele, which mentions Israel as an already well-established entity in the land by that point. There is the Berlin Pedestal, for which dating is contested, but which appears to reference the presence of Israel in the land perhaps during the 14th century b.c.e., or even as early as the 15th century. Then there is Israel’s early domination by the kingdom of Aram-Naharaim (Mitanni, as described in Judges 3)—a powerful kingdom which was on the scene during the early 14th century b.c.e., synonymous with biblical chronology, but one that had already ceased to exist following the supposedly late-13th-century Exodus and conquest.

Then there is the external evidence for the early date of the Exodus from Egypt itself—as tied to the 16th-century b.c.e. Egyptian oppression and overthrow of its Semitic Hyksos population, and their expulsion east from the land. Josephus directly identifies these as the Israelites, translating their Hyksos title as “shepherd kings.” More about them, and related Egyptian evidence of the Exodus itself, can be found here.

Of Biases and Existential Battles

The Wikipedia page for “The Exodus” (certainly not the most reliable of sources, but inevitably the page which will get the most views) sums up the Exodus, conquest and chronology as follows: “There are two main positions on the historicity of the Exodus in modern scholarship. The majority position is that the biblical Exodus narrative has some historical basis, although there is little of historical worth in the biblical narrative. The other position, which has seen increasing scholarly support, is that the biblical exodus traditions are the invention of the exilic and post-exilic Jewish community, with little to no historical basis.”

Two rather dismal options: The Bible account is slightly true (but of no real worth)—or is entirely untrue. Take your pick.

Is that fair, though? As we have covered, relating to the dating of Israel’s emergence following the Exodus, it most certainly is not. Of course, much still remains to be found relating to the Israelite Exodus and appearance in Canaan. But as the saying goes, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” (After all, the contemporary biblical Hittite kingdom was once scoffed at as entirely fictional—until it was discovered in the early 20th century as one of the most powerful empires in ancient history. Forget wandering Israelite nomads, how do you lose an entire empire?) But what has been found relating to the Israelite Exodus and conquest remarkably attests to the biblical account—one of an Exodus during the mid-15th century b.c.e. and a conquest of Canaan at the end of that century. This despite a widespread bias toward entirely the wrong period.

As for “bias,” none of this should be new, or surprising, to the Jewish people. Israel’s existence has always been a fight; so too, the history of its existence.

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